Through the Trifocals

Illinois has only had a new football coach for a month, and already he has lost two of his assistant coaches. There is much talk about loyalty, and questions are raised whether the two coaches behaved properly in leaving Illinois so soon after arriving. Illinisports discusses loyalty within the football coaching profession in this column.

I am a loyal Illini. I was indoctrinated as an Illini from childhood. I attended school here, worked here, and then raised my children to be Illini. If I were hired as an assistant football coach, or any other job at Illinois, out of loyalty I would stay on the job until retirement or until I was fired. Perhaps many of you feel the same.

However, this kind of loyalty is impossible in the coaching fraternity. It is the nature of the job to change locations and jobs frequently. This has become especially true since ever-increasing payoffs are at stake for the universities with the winningest football teams. Those willing to compete for a National Championship must be willing to compete for top players and top coaches. Job security is impossible except for the rare few who have become icons in their field; imperfection is not usually tolerated.

Before the days of television and multimillion dollar bowl game payoffs, coaching staffs enjoyed longevity at their chosen schools. As long as they won enough games to appease the alumni, their jobs were secure. Change occurred mostly when top assistants were hired as head coaches at other schools and older coaches retired. Stability was normal and loyalty common. But now, when people set out to buy a championship, they grow vengeful when their high-salaried coaches fail to produce. They fire and hire quickly, hoping to create the magical combination that will ensure glory and especially profit.

The idyllic days of coaching stability are long gone. In fact, a college football coach cannot afford to be too loyal to any school because it limits his options. He must be willing to give maximum effort to his job, even to the point of exhaustion, and he must be committed completely to his present school. But he must then transfer that commitment and loyalty to a new school every few years. The definition of "loyalty" has changed over the years from a life-time marriage to your favorite school to a "love the one you're with" attitude.

Literally, those who toil in the college coaching profession are wise to not develop emotional attachments to any program. It is simply too hard on them when changes are necessary. And it is doubly difficult for their wives and families. They must be willing to pack up and move on short notice to any part of the country. And their children must be able to adapt to new schools and new friends. They are the football equivalent of gypsies, and the ones who survive are good at adapting on the fly to changing circumstances.

I would have difficulty changing allegiances to another school. I would work my butt off for Illinois, but I might never be able to give my entire heart and soul to another school. My "loyalty" would do me a disservice in the profession. My commitment to a monogamous relationship would be counterproductive, and I would soon find myself looking for alternative work in fields like life insurance or real estate sales (as many have done).

Of course, as fans we want our coaches to show us the same loyalty and commitment we possess. We want them to be outstanding people, teachers and recruiters. We want them to love the university and community. We want them totally committed to making the University of Illinois the top school and athletic program in the country. And once successful, we want them to stay no matter how much money is thrown at them or what other prestigious programs wish to attract them.

Frankly, we need to alter our wishes because we are seeking the impossible. Coaches survive in their chosen profession by putting their ambitions and their families' survival needs ahead of the needs of their present employers. They must always keep an eye out for alternative job opportunites. They must always follow some plan they feel best helps them achieve the goals they seek.

Most assistants wish to become head coaches. Barring that, they want success, fame, fortune and job security. Can they achieve all that at Illinois? Perhaps, but they must always maintain their friends and contacts, just in case problems arise or their goals are not met. Most of all, they all need to know they have a job for the next year.

It must be remembered that coaches are not always hired and fired on merit. Certainly, those who have constant success are presumed to be the best and are highly sought. But there are many outstanding coaches who lose jobs for more petty or greedy reasons. And some mediocre coaches gain outstanding positions more for who they know than what they know.

Ron Zook and Ty Willingham were fired after three full years, from Florida and Notre Dame respectively, simply because their bosses were too impatient to see how they would do when they had 5 full years for their recruited players to be at their best. Most of Florida's top players were freshmen and sophomores this last year, and Willingham was still trying to get a quarterback experienced enough with the West Coast offense to run it properly.

Assistant coaches are frequently hired for reasons other than quality. Many times, the head coach wants loyal friends who he can trust to protect his back. Friendship is often more important than technical ability or recruiting prowess. And some head coaches shy away from ambitious assistants who may just want their job someday. It takes a secure person to hire those who may someday have a brighter star in the coaching field than themselves, but such a person often wins.

The U of I has seen many assistants come and go over the years, and some have done quite well for themselves in later years. People like head coaches Lloyd Carr, Glen Mason, Walt Harris and Bill Callahan come immediately to mind. But most are forced to toil in the background while more charismatic and/or lucky peers get the best jobs.

We have had some truly outstanding people here who have never been recognized for their great ability, better even than the ones who are now head coaches. Unfortunately, we have also had some who were mediocre coaches and indifferent recruiters. Often, the members of this latter group were friends or relatives of the head coach and paled by comparison to their more ambitious and talented competitors at more successful schools. But both groups have one constant in common with each other...they all must change jobs frequently in their constant quest for attainment in their profession.

Former Illini assistant coach Greg McMahon is a loyal Illini. He has always loved the school, his son is on the team, and he and his wife hope to live in the Champaign-Urbana area upon retirement. But Greg was not retained by Ron Zook after Ron Turner was fired. After 13 years on staff, spanning two head coaches, Coach McMahon now works for Skip Holtz with the East Carolina Pirates. I have no doubt he will do an outstanding job there and transfer his loyalties to his new school while simultaneously loving Illinois. But it still must be tough for him.

When interviewed by Loren Tate and Jim Turpin on WDWS radio, Greg described the coaching profession as a comlex game of musical chairs. This is an excellent analogy because everyone is trying mightily to grab a seat for the next year while fearing he might be one of those left without one. Of course, it can be much scarier than the child's game because losing your turn can make you wait a year or more to get back into the game.

Each November, the new game begins. One coach is fired, along with his assistants, setting off a chain reaction that continues until around March, when most schools must have their entire staffs in place to prepare for spring practice. Schools wishing to upgrade their coaching staffs try to steal away top coaches from other schools, which creates new openings at those schools. Barring that, they try to grab the best among those who lost jobs along with their fired bosses. Some schools help themselves greatly, while a few get caught short and must hire inexperienced coaches or those who have failed previously. Most are happy if they can just keep the status quo.

Coach McMahon is one of the lucky ones. He has a job, and like the good trooper he is, he is ready to get started recruiting players to East Carolina and helping them win their conference. He is a teacher, and that is where he must teach.

But when I think of him, trudging off to distant locales while leaving his family behind in Illinois, I am reminded of the Kevin Costner character "Crash" in the movie Bull Durham. Dropped from one team but needing just a few more homers to break the minor league record, Crash latched on with another team late in the season just to get more at bats. He needed to reach his goal, and no amount of loyalty, pride or inconvenience was going to stop him. He was a trooper, and he reached his goal. I truly hope Coach McMahon reaches his goals as well.

In the meantime, Ron Zook is searching for the right mix of coaches to fill out his assistant coaching staff at Illinois. As of this writing, he still has a few left to hire. Losing Larry Fedora and Joe Wickline to Oklahoma State just two days after they moved some of their possessions into their Illini coaching offices was difficult to stomach, but it was not totally surprising.

I don't know their reasons, but Fedora was offered significantly more money at Oklahoma State than at Illinois, and Illinois was opening its checkbook as it was. In addition, Fedora is from Texas and might have felt value in returning closer to his home. Perhaps his wife also wanted to stay in a warmer climate. And Wickline appears to be a brace with Fedora, the two coaching together at three consecutive schools. Perhaps Wickline had even stronger reasons for changing from Illinois to Oklahoma State.

Regardless, they have to do what is best for them. Illinois fans should, in my opinion, be lenient with them for their sudden change of heart. Oklahoma State is not a better school than Illinois, and it has at least as much competition to overcome to win its conference as does Illinois. It may have a few oil-soaked alumni with enough pocket change to outbid Illinois in their quest to alter their destiny, but that is about its only advantage.

Thus, the two coaches changing schools was likely no affront to Illinois. All it really did was slow down our recruiting efforts temporarily for this year, although no one should underestimate Ron Zook's ability to recruit players or top coaches on short notice. If we don't have a great recruiting class this year, it will be due more to the late start than the loss of two assistant coaches.

If anything, the decision by Fedora and Wickline may do more long-term harm to them than to Illinois. They may be super coaches and people, and I hope they have the success they desire. But there will be some athletic directors, possibly like Ron Guenther at Illinois, who will now distrust them and question their ability to be "loyal" to their school.

Would a school willingly offer a head coaching contract to a coach who has already demonstrated a tendency to drop one commitment for another on short notice? Would an athletic director, like a jealous spouse, be constantly looking over his shoulder to see if his partner is flirting with someone else? Fedora and Wickline may have reduced their future options for advancement by jolting from Illinois so soon after being hired. And Ron Zook will no doubt take pride if his Illini have more success than Oklahoma State the next few years. Life is a gamble, and all coaches must take responsibility for their decisions.

Zook has the makings of an excellent assistant coaching staff already lined up, and there is every indication he will not rest until he has the best group, for his needs, that he can obtain. But for every top coach we hire away from another school, someone else will suddenly be scrambling to find someone of equal or better caliber.

Each school steals from each other. Some win and some lose. How will Illinois fare? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can all watch the game from a safe distance, excited about the possibilities but leery of the pitfalls and booby traps. I don't envy those many fine members of the coaching profession for they must play a rigorous and perilous game. For the most part, they handle the numerous problems with grace and dignity. They are to be commended.

I wish the best of luck to all coaches. May you latch onto a rising star that helps you reach the pinnacle of your profession. Especially if you are hired at Illinois.

Go Illini!!!
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