Tempest in a Teapot (Pt 1)

Do you recognize the following sentiments?

"They will have a hard time finding a new coach now considering they did not even allow him to finish his contract before firing him."

Have you seen this type of comment before?

"This school is a coaching graveyard. They will do well just to raise some interest when they begin looking for a new coach."

Maybe this sounds familiar?

"This situation should serve as the poster-child for all that is wrong with major college football. The coach this school just fired won most of his games, but they wanted him to win them all. The alumni better not expect to find a great coach waiting to take over the program because a man would have to be clinically insane to even consider signing up for this job!"

If you have been a serious football fan for more than 6 months, you have undoubtedly read or heard such thoughts. Every season, coaches get fired and a journalist somewhere decides this is their opportunity to jump astride their high horse that stands taller than the Empire State Building and lecture. Those poor souls are held up as the perfect example of how athletics has gotten out of hand because of the unrealistic expectations of alumni and fans. Then, like some angry spinster, the writer pokes out their proverbial finger and warns that nobody will ever want to coach at that particular university again. They might as well not even try to hire a replacement because nobody would be foolish enough to apply.

You know what this is?

It is quite simply a Tempest in a Teapot.

If I had a dollar for every article written to chastising schools for messy hirings, firings, and resignations over the past decade, I could take a great vacation to Tahiti this summer. Yet despite the forecasts of doom and gloom on how these schools would not be able to get a good coach now, how they were fooling themselves to think they could win more games, how these alumni and administrators should expect less, etc. – exactly the opposite has happened in multiple cases. Take a gander at this partial list of firings and hirings that were considered tactless at the time and then look below to consider their ultimate outcomes…

SCHOOL

Old Coach

New Coach

Alabama

Mike Dubose

Dennis Franchione

Alabama

Dennis Franchione

Mike Price

Auburn

Terry Bowden

Tommy Tubberville

Texas A&M

R. C. Slocum

Dennis Franchione

Notre Dame

Bob Davie

Tyrone Willingham

Michigan State

Bobby Williams

John L. Smith

Baylor

Kevin Steele

Guy Morriss

Texas

John Mackovic

Mack Brown

Virginia

George Welsh

Al Groh

Arizona State

Bruce Snyder

Dirk Koetter

Texas: A program without a compass over the past two decades, the Longhorns let season after season slip away. After Royal stepped down in 1976, the Longhorns hired Fred Akers. Akers was a fine coach, but his primary sin was that he is not named Darrel Royal. To make matters worse, he did not win like Royal either. Royal took over for the ‘Horns in 1956 and won 77% of his games, took his teams to 10 Cotton Bowls, won or shared 11 Southwest Conference Titles, and claimed 3 national titles. For his part, Akers won two conference championships and nearly 74% of his games, but he was let go after the 1986 season. David McWilliams and John Mackovic followed – each meeting a similar fate. Mackovic's axing particularly raised the ire of a few in the journalistic world, and a couple dared to suggest folks take their football too seriously in Texas.

Yet look at what happened. Instead of not being able to attract any solid candidates, they landed Mack Brown (who finished 10-2 and 10-1 in his last two seasons at North Carolina). Instead of falling off the map because of constant coaching moves, the Longhorns have had their best run in over 25 years. Brown has won almost 77% of his games (.766) and has fallen just short of challenging for national titles in both 2001 and 2002.

Alabama: Though Ohio State garnered a reputation as the graveyard for coaches prior to Woody Hayes, since Bear's resignation and death in 1983, the Tide have claimed this dubious title. Alabama has hired 6 football coaches in 20 seasons. That is an average of a new coach every 3 ½ seasons… First there was Perkins who won lots of games but like Akers – was not the legend who preceded him. After three years it was time for him to move on to another job somewhere. Then there was Curry who won 72% of his games but lost to Auburn three years in a row, and the pressure was so intolerable that Curry left town on his own. Gene Stallings was next in line. One of Bear's boys clear back to his first season at Texas A&M and a former Alabama assistant, Stallings was a perfect fit. He claimed a national title, won 71% of his games, and most importantly beat Auburn 5 out of 7 times. Gene left the Tide though legions of fans begged him to stay. Mike DuBose followed Stallings, and the program fell apart under his watch. After only 4 seasons, he was fired and the Tide were under investigation.

Dire predictions abounded. Who in their right mind would come to coach the Tide with the Albert Means scandal? Yet there was Dennis Franchione, signing up to be Johnny on the Spot! He called becoming the head coach for Alabama a dream opportunity. However, after just two seasons deemed successful even by Alabama standards, Dennis skipped town.

The vultures began to circle once again. "No way does Alabama get a top-flight coach now that the NCAA has levied sanctions against the school," they said. Enter Mike Price, the (now former) coach of Washington State who was coming off of an incredible season. Price could have lost every game for the next 4 years and still had a job considering he was the program for the Cougars. Yet he too felt the lure of the siren call, bowed to the legacy of the Bear, and said he would just like to go down as the second best coach by the time he leaves Alabama.

Virginia: The Cavaliers found themselves the beneficiary of the George Welsh's cervices. An excellent coach who surely was offered positions elsewhere, he loyally stayed to build a program. Prior to his arrival, the Cavaliers had an all time winning mark of 51% with 421 victories and 403 losses. What is worse is their best coach had left them for Vanderbilt back in the 1950's, and no coach had left the school with a winning record since his departure in 1952. All Welsh did was guide Virginia to 12 bowl games (no Cavalier team had ever gone to a bowl prior to his arrival) and 16 winning seasons. He was unceremoniously dumped (retired they called it if memory serves) by the university despite a .608 winning percentage.

In the end, Welsh became a victim of the expectations he created, and some did not like how his departure was handled. Whispers abounded, "Who would want to go some place like Virginia where they are not only a non-football power traditionally, but they even have forced out their greatest coach in 50 years?"

Cue Al Groh. Groh did the unthinkable and left a head coaching position in the NFL for the same position at the University of Virginia. So far Groh is winning at a very healthy rate, and he looks to have the program going in the right direction. The shellacking the Cavaliers gave the Mountaineers in the Continental Tire Bowl (48 to 22 and it was not as close as the score says) was an eye-opener to say the least.

Arizona State: Though Frank Kush may not be well known by younger fans, any Sun Devils coach should be aware that those are his shoes that they are required to fill. Kush guided his team to an overall mark of 177-54-1. Toss in Dan Devine, John Cooper, and Darryl Rogers (who all three just stopped by for a cup of coffee) along with Kush, and this is a program that is used to winning.

Bruce Snyder was hired prior to the 1992 season and decided to stay when the offers came his direction. Clearly, he wanted to build a legacy like Kush's and be remembered in that light. He won 56% of his games at a university that has never been counted among the top 3 or 4 places to win in the Pac Ten, let alone nationally. Furthermore, Snyder took the ‘Devils to 3 bowls (including their second Rose Bowl ever) and came within minutes of a national title on January 1, 1997. However, the powers that be did not view Bruce in such a positive light, and they unceremoniously dumped him following several seasons just above and/or below .500.

Who would take this job? Why come to a university that will always be at a disadvantage to USC, UCLA, and Washington just within their own conference? Who would take the position knowing that not only is Arizona not known for its high school football talent, and its shallow pool (puddle is more like it) thins even further when shared with the University of Arizona?

Dirk Koetter, that's who. Remember that name because you will hear it mentioned more and more in future seasons. Koetter is and has been an "up and comer" for several years. He took over for Boise State not too long after their jump to D-IA and turned them from losers into winners. In three seasons his records were 6-5, 10-3, and 10-2, and his teams claimed two bowl wins and two conference championships. Now Dirk is well on his way to creating a winner in Tempe.

Baylor: Perhaps the most surprising (but also most indicative of the current situation) is the firing of Kevin Steele from Baylor. Baylor. This is the same program that despite some spotty success has an all time mark of 502-466-43. Steele was given only three seasons to win, and the university and alumni expect to be able to win in the Big 12.

It was the common opinion that no coach in their right mind would take the job. Why take a job where the expectations are so ludicrous as to belong in the Wizard of Oz? Why go coach in the same division with Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M who each have a top flight coach and a solid (if not spectacular) program? Sure, maybe someone will take the job who is trying to build a name for themselves, but thinking that Baylor could land a coach with a solid situation in their current school was like thinking that the Los Angeles Clippers were going to morph into the Lakers and win it all.

What happened?

Kentucky had their best year in two decades, and was busy showering praise on their head coach. Alums and administrators were probably about to open the coffers and offer the man anything he wanted because for once the university had won in a clean fashion. It was then that Baylor dived in like a falcon for the kill and stole their coach, Guy Morriss, away from them! Unbelievable.

Michigan State: The Spartans want a winner. They have always wanted a winner. A once proud program, from 1950 to 1966 - they finished in the top 10 in either the coaches or AP poll eleven times. Even more impressive is that seven of those eleven occasions – the Spartans were in the top three, winning two national titles and finishing second place three times. However, since the departure of their greatest coach, Duffy Daugherty, the luster has dimmed. With only 3 Big Ten Conference championships since 1966 (and just one outright), the Spartans are a fan base in search of a coach who can get them back into the upper echelon of the conference.

As a result of extremely lofty expectations, George Perles and Nick Saban were two fine coaches but neither received their due in East Lansing. Saban in particular had the Spartans well on their way to being the best team in Michigan (overcoming incredible obstacles) before leaving for LSU.

It was then that the university made the fateful decision to hire Bobby Williams. Williams was a career assistant, a supposedly fine recruiter, and the overwhelming choice of the players to succeed Sir Nick. It was not long however until it became exceedingly obvious that Williams was not the man for the job. In three seasons with him at the helm, the Spartans won just 17 games despite a wealth of talent. Under performing would not even begin to describe the program. Yet because the firing was handled clumsily, some of Williams's supporters rallied to his cause. The university suffered some negative press, but even more damaging was the cloud that hung over the football team with rumors of thugs and drugs all over the Internet.

The problems? Where do you begin? Yes, Michigan State can still win. Yes, Michigan State has a supportive alumni base. Yes, Michigan State is a member of the Big Ten and if Northwestern can claim 2 championships in a decade – certainly the Spartans should have more than 3 in almost 40 years. Still, MSU will likely always play second fiddle to Michigan within their own state and Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State in their own conference. This means that the Spartans mostly only get what is left in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc. after the "Big Three" take the players they want. Less talent = more difficult to win. More difficult to win = less wins. Less wins = upset fan base. Upset fan base = short tenure and a pink slip. Finally, just for good measure – toss in team behavioral issues with arrests, suspensions, etc. which means the new coach must clean out, rebuild, and then hope and pray he can stick around long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Who in their right mind would take this job some wondered?

Lo and behold what happened but that Michigan State landed John L. Smith of Louisville. Maybe Smith is not considered a top echelon coach in the mold of Daugherty, but he is a sight better than Williams and a better hire than many thought that the Spartans would come up with after being turned down by a couple of high profile candidates.

Texas A&M: R. C. Slocum oozed Texas A&M. He quite simply loved the school and was (still is) one of its greatest ambassadors. In 14 seasons, Slocum won 72% of his games and with 123 victories is the all-time victories leader for the school. He won four conference championships (including the 1998 Big 12 title) and took the Aggies to 11 of the 27 bowls in the history of the program. Toss in a stellar recruiting class that was on its way to College Station and a stunning upset of #1 Oklahoma, and Slocum was thought by many to have done enough to survive for at least one more season. Unfortunately for him, his 6-6 record and a 50-20 spanking by Texas were his undoing. He was removed as football coach to the protestations of multiple pundits and even coaches.

Who would come to Texas A&M? Who would they hire? Who would consider signing on with the Aggies in the South division of the Big 12 – knowing that every year their schedule would include OU and Texas? What coach would want to come to a program that just dumped their all time victories leader and had not managed to ever keep a head coach for 15 seasons in close to 120 years of football? Even worse, only 2 coaches besides Slocum have even stayed in College Station for more than 10 years…

Yet once again Texas A&M defied common thought and hired none other than Dennis Franchione who should be considered one of the top 15 coaches in college football.

Notre Dame: There is no better and no worse place to coach than in South Bend. Just an upstart Catholic School in the midst of a Protestant sea, Knute Rockne created a dreadnought in the 1920's. Since then, Notre Dame has won at least one national title in 6 different decades and their all-time winning percentage is quite literally second to none.

Yet there have been hard times in recent years. With the health problems of both he and his wife, Holtz's tenure ended poorly. An ugly scandal tarnished the Golden Dome and for the first time the NCAA leveled sanctions on the school. Bob Davie testified in court that there were questions about Holtz's competence, and a former coach even brought an age discrimination suit against the school.

It gets worse.

After the departure of Holtz, Notre Dame never even came within shouting distance of a national title. Their best season was ruined when Notre Dame was awarded a slot in a BCS bowl in 2000 (over more deserving teams) and was absolutely humiliated 41-9 in one of the worst beatings seen in recent years. NBC was rumored to be unhappy with the team's performance based on the dollars they were shelling out for their exclusive television contract. Coaches and analysts insisted Notre Dame would have to wake up to the reality that with their stringent academic standards they could not compete in the modern football reality…

Again, it gets even worse.

Davie was fired. Considered a fine man who fielded solid student-athletes, he just did not win enough games. After a brief search for his successor, the university hired George O'Leary, and it could not have been a shoddier choice. Overlooking such men as Tom Coughlin (who cost the Domers a national title in 1993 while at Boston College) and Tyrone Willingham, they picked a coach who was decidedly mediocre without the services of his best assistant – Ralph Friedgen. The school was panned and then roasted when it was discovered that Willingham was never really given a chance at the position despite incredible success at Stanford. A few even dared to pen articles questioning the ethics of a midwestern school that had never hired a black head coach in any sport.

Just when you think it cannot get worse?

Within days of being announced as their new head coach, reporters discovered that O'Leary had lied on his resume. When the smoke cleared, O'Leary was canned and the school found itself in the unenviable position of having to go back to searching for a new coach. All of the candidates who had come in at second place (or lower) were expected to tell the Irish just what they could do with that open job position and where they could go.

What happened?

Lo and behold, the ‘luck of the Irish' took on a whole new meaning when Willingham agreed to sign on as their new football coach. Though it is likely this is merely a pit stop before he jumps to the NFL in a few years, it is truly stunning that Tyrone would accept the job after being so clearly snubbed in the initial process.

Auburn: To understand the drive for a successful football program at this relatively small university in rural Alabama, you need to grasp only two items; the legacy of Shug Jordan and the success of the Crimson Tide. Ralph "Shug" Jordan coached for the War Eagles from 1951 until 1975, winning 176 games and the 1957 national championship. That brings us to part II of the situation - Alabama. While ‘Bama and Auburn fight it out at the end of each season for bragging rights in their rivalry, the Crimson Tide fans have a whole lot more to blather on about with their numerous national titles. Even if they lose to Auburn the fans in Tuscaloosa can come back with stinging retorts of, "Hey, at least we have more than 1 measly national title…" After a while that wears on even the most patient of alumni, and they begin to desire the same sort of success. This creates a very delicate situation for any coach considering Auburn as a career destination.

The net result is that Auburn has been searching for decades for the perfect fit. Pat "tie" Dye, as can be gleaned from his dubious nickname, was successful but not successful enough. He won 4 Southeastern Conference titles and 99 games, but after an ugly scandal, he and his 71% winning percentage were ushered out of town. Terry Bowden was brought in and went undefeated in his inaugural season, and might have played for the national title were not for NCAA sanctions Auburn. However, not long after his brother Tommy left, Terry's program began to go sour however. He ran afoul of some wealthy, influential alumni. The net result was perhaps the ugliest mess in the last 20 years when Terry Bowden opted to leave the university before they could fire him. Bill Oliver coached out the rest of the season, while Terry brought a lawsuit against the powers that forced him out.

Terry and his .731 winning mark (along with one undefeated, untied season) were held up as what is wrong with the sport. The press excoriated Auburn, and the general opinion was that the pressure and expectations at the University far exceeded reality. "No offense to those of War Eagle alliance, but Auburn is not USC, Texas, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan, etc. Historically, they do not even match up with the tradition and winning percentages of Georgia, let alone Alabama. Yet Terry Bowden was canned for his record of 47-17-1? You would be a fool to touch this job with a 100 foot pole," some said…

Apparently the message did not get through to Tommy Tubberville. Tubberville, one of the finest coaches in the Southeast Conference, left a rebuilt Ole Miss team that was on the verge of greatness for Auburn. He forfeited a secure job where he could have retired a beloved legend to enter the hornets' nest at a new school with even higher expectations.

Reality

Why in the world is this constant hiring and firing not making the expected impression? Why in the world did Tommy Tubberville leave Ole Miss after reviving its program to take a job at Auburn? After the departure of Franchione, you would think that the only way Mike Price would end up in Tuscaloosa is if someone hog tied him, threw him in the trunk of a car, and dropped him off still bound in Bear Bryant's office – but the man wanted to be there. Price was genuinely excited about the opportunity to coach the Tide. Who in their right mind would leave the NFL for a Virginia Cavaliers program that had never been a football power and had just fired their only legend? What could motivate a man who had been humiliated by Notre Dame to actually take the position after their first hire ended up a bust of magnificent proportions?

Each of these situations left the rank and file scratching their heads because it does not fit within their paradigm. The common thought is that at some point these programs are going to have trouble filling their head coaching positions. After all, it is difficult to fathom how Alabama can be on its 6th head coach since the retirement of Bear Bryant in 1982 and still have top quality football minds all but hitchhiking to Tuscaloosa with a sign "will coach for food." It makes no sense that Franchione would leave a 7-year contract at Alabama when no head man has even lasted more than 14 years in the history of Aggies football program.

What could explain the inexplicable?

Clearly, the paradigm commonly used to understand the dynamics of the situation is incorrect. First, sportswriters and other so-called experts are not using the data that is available. Howl, scream, and cry foul if you would like, but the coaches in college football seem undeterred by the reputations of universities and the aftermath of messy firings. Second, when writers pen their stories, they are apparently basing their thoughts on whether or not a coach would/should go to a new school on what they themselves would do.

So how can this be understood?

To understand the situation, you must understand the world of college football, and more importantly – the men who run these powerhouse programs.

 

Tomorrow: Part II - Why this is a Tempest in a Teapot.

Contact Charles at buckeye1992@hotmail.com


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