Coaching Carousel Spins in '04

It happens seemingly on a two-year cycle in college football – underperforming coaches are fired, and hot assistants or successful coaches at smaller schools find themselves the rave of talk radio and Internet message boards.

A lot of it is timing. This time next year, all the "hot" candidates of the past two years – the Urban Meyers, the Dan Hawkins and the Bobby Petrinos of the world – will probably have settled in at new jobs. A school needed to replace a coach next year may find itself picking from a shallow bowl, as there will be fewer young coaches who will be considered "proven" by then.

Timing is most important if you're a coordinator. Last year, Georgia defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder and LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher were rumored for every job that opened in the region. But with both teams failing to live up to expectations this year, Fisher's name is being mentioned on the perimeter of the Ole Miss search, while Van Gorder's name has been completely absent. Instead, Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik are the top names being mentioned as candidates to move up.

The surge in coaching changes this year has been spurred on by two men, Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer. Meyer is the current head coach at the University of Utah, where he is set to take this Mountain West Conference team into a BCS game and possibly play for a title of some kind, depending on what happens with this weekend's games involving Oklahoma, USC and Auburn. When Ron Zook was fired at Florida a month ago, Meyer's name immediately came up, due in large part to the fact that the same man who hired him at Utah is now at Florida.

But Meyer's contract includes outs for Michigan and Notre Dame, and perhaps Ohio State as well. Ohio State's Jim Tressel is in hot water as the NCAA investigates charges of violations relating to former OSU running back Maurice Clarett. Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr is rumored to be considering retirement. Until Wednesday, Notre Dame had a coach, but that changed when Notre Dame administration, obviously mindful of Meyer's situation, decided making a run at Meyer was preferable to having Tyrone Willingham back for a fourth season in 2005.

The problem with Notre Dame's decision was that not only did it cut Willingham off at least one year too soon, it failed to take into account that what used to be possible at Notre Dame may not be possible anymore.

Notre Dame's demise has been documented well since Lou Holtz called it quits a decade ago, and there are many reasons for the Fighting Irish's falling off their perch at the top of college football. Academic standards are but one facet. The location of South Bend, Ind., in a cold area and not exactly a preferred vacation destination point for teenage males, is another. An administration fighting amongst itself, with the forces of athletics, academics and religion pulling in three separate directions, is a major factor. And last, but not least, is the rarely-mentioned but still relevant factor of a catholic school education and the expectations of certain behavior that come with it. For some, it is a selling point, but for other prospects, the discipline and teaching regimen are more likely to turn off than turn on.

As such, it's unlikely Notre Dame will even get back to where it was under Holtz, to say nothing of where Ara Parseghian and Knute Rockne once took the lucky ones. While Willingham was not setting the house on fire at Notre Dame, it's questionable whether anyone can at a private school, save perhaps for the University of Miami.

Another program with close church ties also dumped its coach Wednesday, as BYU said goodbye to Gary Crowton, who was supposed to return the Cougars to the heights they occupied in the 1980s under Lavell Edwards. Instead, Crowton's group slipped into mediocrity, and now BYU is looking for a coach. Similar to the situation of Notre Dame firing Willingham to make a run at Meyer, BYU may have made this move so it could pursue USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who is at the top of Stanford's wish list.

But the most perplexing of all the moves may have been the firing of David Cutcliffe by Ole Miss, one year after the Rebels were co-SEC West champions and won 10 games. Ole Miss had not seen that type of success since Johnny Vaught patrolled the Rebel sidelines 30-plus years earlier. But the 4-7 season recorded by Ole Miss in 2004 was apparently too much to take.

Ole Miss' problems aren't just limited to sitting home during bowl season, however. The Rebel brass and fans seem to have an unrealistic opinion of what their program is and what it is capable of doing. Ole Miss is a small school in a small town in a poor state, hasn't competed for a conference title since Nixon was president and has the significant specters of the Old South and rebel flags waving whenever prospects come to town. It's not that Cutcliffe was a world-beating coach; it's that Ole Miss probably isn't capable of attracting one. Butch Davis' name has come up in connection with the job, probably for the fact that Davis prefers small-town living and the college game to the fast-paced life of large cities and the NFL. But Davis is also a shrewd businessman, and if he's looking for the right college job in a smaller area again, there are many more openings currently available that stand a much better chance of competing for titles.

That's what college football gets these days as a result of what Bob Stoops accomplished at Oklahoma. What isn't considered is that when Stoops took the Oklahoma job heading into the 1999 season, he got a roster full of talented recruits that had been brought in by his predecessor, the affable-but-inept John Blake. Stoops' first season, a 7-5 campaign, was a getting-to-know-you period. The Sooners, bereft of NCAA sanctions or low talent levels, began competing for championships the very next year.

But a two-year turnaround is now a defense to do stupid things, like fire Tyrone Willingham when less than half his team was made up of his own recruits, or throw the screen door against David Cutcliffe's rear end less than a year after he guided the Rebels to their best season in my lifetime. But that is now the reality of college football – whereas coaches once got four or five years to turn the ship around, a period of three years is now considered enough, and coach, we'd kind of prefer you do it in two.

Every school wants to be an "elite program." The truth is, there are just three of those – Notre Dame, Alabama and Oklahoma. There are a lot of teams in a very strong second group, which includes USC, Nebraska, Michigan, Texas, Penn State, Ohio State, Tennessee, Florida State and Miami, among others. A lot of consistently good teams, such as the Georgias, the Floridas and the LSUs of the world, come next. Teams can move between groups – Army and Navy were once powerhouses, but short of the reinstitution of the military draft, they will never be a powerhouse again – and USC is fast getting back to the elite level after falling out during the 1980s and 1990s. For the most part, though, status is built over many decades, and is fueled in the present as much by facilities, stadium size and alumni giving as it is the nuts-and-bolts factors like coaching and recruiting.

So while Notre Dame's decision was fueled a bit by panic, as elite football there is perilously close to being not much more than a fond memory for 40- and 50-somethings to reminisce about, it might take more than just Urban Meyer to turn things around. It might take the university itself to admit that if winning football is its goal, than it must compromise some of what makes Notre Dame – the school – what it really is.

For schools like Ole Miss, BYU and Indiana, what they need is the backhand slap of reality. The only schools to rise from nothingness to annual prominence in college football over the last 30 years are the Florida schools, who did it by finally learning how to lasso the vast numbers of recruits coming out of the state every year. Ole Miss doesn't have that backyard advantage. Neither does East Carolina, nor Illinois, nor Indiana.

Should those schools just throw their hands up and play losing football forever? Of course not. But they must temper their expectations, and understand that a Bob Stoops-like turnaround can only happen at a school like Oklahoma, which offers the chance not only for a great year, but also staying power.

Until then, the coaching carousel will continue to turn and turn, and many of these coaches who lose their jobs every year will have done nothing to deserve the treatment and ridicule they will surely get from fans with unrealistic expectations.


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