CLINE: Winning the Blame Game

Picking up a win in Lexington this week should be easy for Florida football. Don't believe it? Just ask an FSU fan. He'll tell you there's no way Kentucky's offensive line will be able to block their own shadows with Jimmy Heggins coaching them.

And even if they could protect the passer, it won't matter because Randy Sanders is coaching Kentucky's quarterback. Tennessee fans can extensively detail just how hopeless that situation is. Everyone who watched Sanders run the Volunteer offense knows he doesn't have a clue. Yet Kentucky is actually seventh in the BCS and has a shot at going to the SEC Championship game. How can this be?

Three years ago questions were being raised about the Florida State offense. Why couldn't the Seminoles move the ball the way they used to? Many people suggested a possible connection between the promotion of Bobby Bowden's son Jeff to the offensive coordinator spot and the decline in performance. FSU's head man found someone else to blame, though. Jimmy Heggins, Seminoles offensive line coach since 1992 and a member of Bowden's staff since 1986, was shown the door. Sure, he'd coached eight first team All-American linemen and had 30 make All-ACC, but maybe that had all been beginner's luck.

The official spin was that the offensive line was the problem with the FSU scheme, so a change in coaches would correct it and show the play-calling was just fine. Two years later, with things even worse in Tallahassee, four more FSU offensive coaches were let go, including Heggins replacement Mark McHale. The Seminoles head into this weekend's game with Miami ranked 93rd in total offense, just 76 places back of Kentucky. The Wildcats line with Heggins is in his third year coaching allowed no sacks to the much touted LSU defense in a three overtime game last week. Perhaps Heggins wasn't the issue in Tallahassee after all.

Like Heggins, Randy Sanders had been around Tennessee's program for a lot of successful seasons, beginning his run as a Volunteer coach in 1989. Sanders had nowhere to go but down after his Tennessee offensive coordinator debut, as he called the plays while UT beat FSU (probably Heggins fault) for the 1998 season's national title in the Fiesta Bowl. As Tennessee's success dropped off during the first half of the decade, Sanders became the pinata for fans to bash after Vol losses. When things hit bottom in 2005 with Tennessee failing to reach a bowl game, Sanders was pushed out in Knoxville.

One of the criticisms of Sanders was his supposed failure to develop quarterbacks, but he's done a remarkable job with Andre Woodson at Kentucky. Woodson had thrown eight touchdowns and seven interceptions in 18 games prior to Sanders arrival. In 20 games with Sanders as his coach, those numbers improve to 52 TDs and 11 interceptions. Perhaps the problems with Tennessee had more to do with the quality of quarterback he was working with. His predecessor David Cutcliffe had Peyton Manning and Heath Shuler, Sanders got Casey Clausen and an immature Erik Ainge. Last year, Cutcliffe returned with great fanfare to solve Tennessee's offensive problems. His unit averaged 27.8 points per game - not terrible, but less than Sanders unit did two of his final three seasons. Like Heggins, Sanders appears to have been a convenient person to blame for failures that were much broader than his personal responsibility.

Head coaches making scapegoats out of assistants as a way to buy time for themselves has always been a part of college football. With so many more outlets to discuss their teams, it seems fans are more likely than ever to find a coach to hold a grudge against when their favorite squad struggles. Especially at programs with head coaches who've had success in the past, that tends to wind up being an assistant.

FireRandySanders.com is still operated by Volunteer fans even though he's been gone since 2005! The post-dismissal success of Heggins and Sanders should serve as a caution against that kind of thinking. If you're looking for someone to hold accountable when your program struggles, make it the person in charge.

Listen to The Heath Cline Show daily from 11-1 on Gainesville's Star 99.5 FM


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