Babb Bits - Coaching "Retreads"

December has been a time of coaching shuffles -- out with the old and in with the new at places like Notre Dame, Florida, Washington, and Indiana. In a couple cases -- that of Ron Zook and Tyrone Willingham -- coaches who recently got fired were quickly re-hired to take over at another college. But will that equate to success? Charles Babb takes a look today at what has happened in past similar situations.

With Tyrone Willingham and Ron Zook both fired and later hired in the same season and other names being tossed about by the media as possible replacements for current vacancies, it might be time to ask the question of how hiring a ‘retread' (a man fired at another D-IA college) fares historically.

I have compiled a list of several of the more notable such men over the last 15-20 years.

Coach

Original School

Record*

New School

Record*

Result

Johnny Majors

Tennessee

116-62-8

(.645)

Pittsburgh

12-32

(.273)

Fired/Resigned

Gene Stallings

Texas A&M

27-45-1

(.377)

Alabama

62-25

(.713)

Retired

Bill Curry

Alabama

26-10

(.722)

Kentucky

26-52

(.333)

Fired/Resigned

Lou Holtz

Notre Dame

100-30-2

(.765)

South Carolina

33-37

(.471)

Retired to transition to Spurrier

John Mackovic

Texas

41-28-2

(.592)

Arizona

10-18

(.357)

Fired/Resigned

John Robinson

USC (second tenure only)

37-21-2

(.633)

UNLV

28-42

(.400)

Retiring

Larry Smith

USC

44-25-3

(.632)

Missouri

33-46-1

(.419)

Fired/Resigned

Al Groh

Wake Forest

26-40

(.394)

Virginia

30-20

(.600)

On the way to a Bowl game

Jackie Sherrill

Texas A&M

52-28-1

(.648)

Mississippi State

75-75-2

(.500)

Fired with a cloud of NCAA investigations on its way

Danny Ford

Clemson

96-29-4

(.760)

Arkansas

26-30-1

(.465)

Fired with a cloud of NCAA investigations on its way

Gary Moeller

Illinois

6-24-3

(.227)

Michigan

44-13-3

(.758)

Fired/Resigned

Fred Akers

Texas

86-31-2

(.731)

Purdue

12-31-1

(.284)

Fired/Resigned

Earle Bruce

Ohio State

81-26-1

(.755)

Colorado State

22-24-1

(.479)

Fired/Resigned

Gerry DiNardo

LSU

33-24-1

(.578)

Indiana

8-27

(.229)

Fired/Resigned

*All statistics are taken from College Football Warehouse. http://www.cfbdatawarehouse.com/index.php

Observations on Turning Lead to Gold

Hiring a retread works best when the coach was originally stuck with a historically poor program, is fired, and is later hired in a better situation. Gary Moeller, Gene Stallings, and Al Groh qualify under this heading. They are the only three on this list that had records below .500 in their head coaching tenure before success elsewhere. Each found out what medieval alchemy discovered - it is impossible to turn lead to gold.

Moeller's situation at Illinois speaks for itself given their program; despite seemingly every opportunity to capitalize on the Chicago and St. Louis recruiting hotbeds, the Illini cannot seem to put it together. He later did well coaching the Maize and Blue before being unceremoniously canned after an embarrassing incident involving a waitress, alcohol, and police. Al Groh's ultimate results are not yet in but look promising for the Cavaliers despite his woeful record at Wake Forest. Virginia will be bowling in 2004.

Gene Stallings' situation seems more puzzling on the surface, but a further glance at college football history reveals just how impossible his task at Texas A&M. At the time he accepted the job to be the next head coach, the United States was headed toward war in Vietnam, and Texas A&M was an all male school where every student was enrolled in the ROTC (either with the Army or the Air Force). Talk about a recruiting nightmare. In his book, Another Season, Stallings describes the school, "I guess to some young people A&M had all the attraction of a reformatory in 1964. Located seventy miles northwest of Houston, in east central Texas, there was little to do but study and play football. I've even heard the college referred to as Sing Sing on the Brazos (River)." When later given a chance to coach at a traditional powerhouse, Stallings proved his mettle and led the Crimson Tide to their most recent national title in 1992.

Observations on Turning Gold to Lead

Hiring a coach after he has successfully defied science and turned gold to lead is a dangerous proposition. Of all the coaches who found themselves in the proverbial catbird's seat at powerhouses like Texas, LSU, Notre Dame, Tennessee, etc., only two have actually managed to truly help the next program that hired them – Lou Holtz and Earle Bruce. Given their exits at Notre Dame and Ohio State respectively, one might see why they were given a second chance. Both provided a much-needed boost and a higher profile for South Carolina and Colorado State. The ability to climb the rung on the ladder has allowed the Rams and Gamecocks to raise expectations, play in bowls, and keep/land highly considered coaching talent in Sonny Lubick and Steve Spurrier. Holtz and Bruce showed that a person could win at those schools, and it has paid large dividends on and off the field.

Having noted the two exceptions (Bruce and Holtz), the general rule of thumb is that if a college football coach has been fired from a high profile job – there is a reason. The results speak for themselves. Twice programs (Arkansas and Mississippi State) have hired coaches who left under or just in front of a cloud of NCAA sanctions and twice they have been rewarded for showing faith in a ‘repentant sinner' by ending up with NCAA penalties themselves. Mackovic created such a stink in Arizona that the toxic fumes have all but crippled their program, but for some reason the Wildcats really thought they had a steal when they brought him aboard. DiNardo showed that losing at LSU was no fluke and took a woeful Hoosier team and made it worse – something that defies the imagination. Larry Smith and John Robinson, both ex-USC coaches, at least put up a decent showing for two programs not known for their football prowess. Bill Curry, Johnny Majors, and Fred Akers would have done themselves more good waiting for a better job to open up unless they simply needed a paycheck. Pittsburgh is a shadow of its former glory, Purdue is – well, Purdue, and Kentucky has never won an SEC championship in football without cheating (its only championship under Bear Bryant was stripped for NCAA violations).

Conclusions

The only way hiring a coach who has failed elsewhere works historically is to either give them a better situation with more resources or to view them as a short term fix on a long-term problem. While Ron Zook and Tyrone Willingham might indeed deserve another chance given their short tenures and victimization at the hands of overzealous administrators at Florida and Notre Dame, the odds are against future long-term success for either in a new job. Finally, strictly from the perspective of alumni and fans, imagine trying to excite your base of support if you are the athletic director who just hired a DiNardo, Zook, Willingham, etc. What do you say?

"Hey everyone, we found our new coach and believe he can lead us to championships! Pay no attention to his recent ugly termination and that he did not get the job done at a program much better than this one. Ignore the stark reality that he had a much better recruiting base, better facilities, etc. We believe (against all reason) that this man is the right one for State U! I know that other schools went out and hired the best and brightest young assistants. I know others went after top coaching candidates and big names. However, we just didn't see that as necessary. We have our man!"

What they are really saying is:

"While other universities are willing to pay a top echelon coach a fair wage for his field, that is not our style here. Historically we have maintained a place among the most mediocre of programs (or have fallen to the status of a mediocre program), and we think this will continue our stunning tradition of non-excellence. So – we're now going to ask you to please open up your checkbooks and help us pay him."

Riiiiiiiiiiiiight!

Best of luck to this year's retreads and the schools that hired them – they will both need it.


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