Babb Bits

Charles Babb is back with his latest installment of Babb Bits. Today, Charles revisits the Notre Dame/Big Ten debate, Lou Holtz and South Carolina, and also compares the situation of OSU men's basketball coach Thad Matta to that of Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.

Notre Dame and the Big Ten

Several years ago Notre Dame spurned the invitation of the Big Ten to play within the conference. However, with college presidents recently selling out the academic purpose of players getting a college education by adding a 12th game (on top of a bowl and conference championship), at least one of the objections no longer holds water.

Notre Dame enthusiasts believed joining a conference would limit their ability to play a national schedule. The Fighting Irish have long prided themselves on maintaining a tough slate and playing whomever had the courage to line up on the opposite sidelines. They reasoned that by taking up 8 of their 11 games within the Big Ten, they would have to leave off someone like Stanford, Navy, Southern Cal to continue picking up the Tennessees, Miamis, Florida States, and Washingtons of the world.

This is no longer true for two reasons. First, Notre Dame has publicly admitted they are trying to play an easier schedule. Granted, their schedule of the past few seasons has not exactly been overly tough with Pittsburgh, BYU, Stanford, Navy, Washington, and Boston College all dotting their 2004 slate. Still, they believe they can no longer play this kind of schedule and win any sort of championship; they have thrown in the towel. Considering most experts rate the Big Ten at a lower level than the Domers' current opponents, the Big Ten appears to be a perfect fit. Second, recent changes to allow a 12th game would allow Notre Dame to play three traditional rivals (a couple of west coast teams and a service academy), a full Big Ten schedule, and one more big name from around the nation. If they could somehow manage to get through a Big Ten schedule along with USC on a yearly basis, then they would look much like Ohio State's 2002 run -- a spot in the national championship game would be assured.

Should fans or Big Ten administrators expect Notre Dame to come around and join the conference? Honestly? No. Their alumni and fan base showed several years ago that they run the school. They trumped the pleas of the academics that jumped at the chance to increase their quality of education by joining the Big Ten. Notre Dame backers were more interested in wins and losses. I don't believe Notre Dame's fans would want to face Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin these days. Nor will they want to face Penn State when Joe Paterno retires and is replaced with a solid coach.

Lou Holtz and the NCAA

I find it more than a little interesting Lou Holtz has once again been at the helm when a program made headlines of the wrong kind. If it were the first or even second instance, I might be inclined to look past the misdeeds alleged at South Carolina. This is the third straight program Holtz has led afoul of the NCAA. Not even Jackie Sherrill or Danny Ford managed that sort of dubious achievement.

Is it because Lou Holtz himself is dirty? Is it because he is encouraging cheating behind closed doors? Has one of Woody Hayes' prize disciples broken the old man's trust and desire to run a program clean of violations? I don't believe this is the case; the issue is the wiring of Lou Holtz. Holtz loves a challenge but is a poor maintainer. He has worked for six different universities as a head coach, and the only real consistency has been his ability to build rapidly and then slowly slide down the side of the mountain.

Holtz's best season is almost always year three or four, and then the program struggles to remain among the elite. At William and Mary, his best record came in year three with 5-6 mark, and then he promptly left for NC State. At NC State he topped out at 9-2-1 in his third season and immediately dropped to 7-4-1 in year four (at which point he left for Arkansas). At Arkansas, after an initial 11-1 quick turnaround in his first year, his best mark was 10-2 in 1979 (year three); he went 7-5 in 1980. A slowly declining record reportedly led to a soured relationship with athletic director Frank Broyles, so he fled to Minnesota. 

After two years at Minnesota with the Gophers poised to have a great third season, he left for Notre Dame. At Notre Dame he won a national title in his third season and narrowly missed another in his fourth. In year five, he dropped to 9-3. At South Carolina, a brutal 0-11 year one was followed by consecutive marks of 8-4 and 9-3. Gamecock fans and alumni were giddy and dreamed of SEC titles and even national championships; if Holtz could accomplish nine wins with lesser talent, what would he do with better recruiting classes? The Gamecocks then went 5-7, 5-7, and 6-5 before he stepped aside for Steve Spurrier.

Why does this happen?

Consider NASA. Formed in 1958 with a shoestring budget (at least by space exploration standards), it moved forward at a moderate pace until 1961 when John F. Kennedy empowered and charged the agency to reach the moon by the end of the decade. In only eight years, NASA landed two men on the moon. That was their mission. They understood that mission and bent all of their efforts toward that goal. In reaching the moon – not once but multiple times – they blew by a better established Soviet Space program light years ahead of them when they started. 

Yet what has NASA accomplished of note since then? While the Soviets (and later Russians) maintained space stations and research facilities there for decades, NASA seemed adrift. Sure, the Space Shuttle was a breakthrough (even though it is much less cost effective than the Saturn rockets) as was the Hubble telescope. However, Skylab crashed, Hubble is being scrapped, and the space shuttle program is sputtering. NASA's eyes, once keen in discerning the smallest details and how they might impact the mission, lost their focus. Their farsightedness morphed into myopia, resulting in safety lapses and even scandals.

Lou Holtz is NASA. Holtz seems to understand his mission and be a man possessed for short spurts of time. He launches a football program to the moon by winning a national title or bowl game, and then everything seems to slowly fall apart. Despite having access to better talent, bigger budgets, and even improved facilities, he never quite reaches those early, heady heights. Instead, the program loses its focus, and quite frankly, that is death when big money, jock-sniffing boosters prowl around looking for a player with which to ingratiate themselves. Inevitably someone with lesser character will take the money and set the school up for scandal and an NCAA smackdown. Inevitably rules are broken and Holtz, a master visionary, ends up under fire because details were overlooked.

Some people are builders, and Holtz was an architect of magnificent proportions. He just wasn't a person to maintain because the challenge – the thrill (if you will) was gone.

Thad Matta = Bob Stoops?

Jump into the way back machine with me to 1998. Bob Stoops, arguably one of the hottest young coaches in all of college football, had opted to take the position as head coach of Oklahoma. The Sooners were a sleeping giant. Their egregious rules violations should have led to the death penalty by the NCAA, but instead they had paid on the field with a decade of mediocrity. The once-proud program had been knocked to its knees and even had its face pressed into the dirt by rivals Texas and Nebraska. Stoops believed that he had been handed the deed to a gold mine; all he needed were a few miners to help him retrieve the ore. 

In his very first season in 1999, he took the Sooners to their first bowl in half a decade and only narrowly lost to Ole Miss. He followed that up with fantastic efforts in off-season recruiting and a national title in 2000. Everyone sang his praises. Everyone wanted to hire him. Even Ohio State, looking for a new head coach after canning John Cooper, asked permission to bring him home to his native state.

Oklahoma, sensing their good fortune, acted proactively. They took a preemptive strike to make sure Stoops remained in Norman for a long, long, long time by upping his contract. The dollars they forked over placed him among the elite in his profession. Every time someone offered a great deal, OU sweetened the pot so that it really was in the best interests of Stoops to remain. Even when others weren't offering, the Sooners have continued to hand out regular raises and incentives.

Fast forward to 2004. Ohio State discovered Jim O'Brien had been involved in making illegal payments to a player, and after firing him they plucked a hot young coach named Thad Matta from Xavier. Taking a team that went 14-16 the previous season, Matta turned the corner, going 20-8 and 16-2 at home. Without hopes of postseason play, he somehow motivated his team to upset top-ranked, undefeated Illinois in the final game of the season. He has parlayed that initial success into the top ranked recruiting class since the famed "Fab Five" at Michigan, and the Buckeyes still have scholarships to give. Matta's accomplishments have delivered exactly what the doctor ordered -- a university under siege for the last two years by every major media outlet has found itself toasted and praised.

Now the question is what will Ohio State do to keep Matta? If he continues to recruit at this level and win basketball games (he has never won less than 20 at any point in his head coaching career and has a career winning percentage of .739), he will be the first name on virtually every list. Indiana might be the first to call. UCLA, Kansas, and North Carolina recently hired new head coaches, but Kentucky natives grow restless with Tubby Smith. The list of possible suitors is virtually endless, and they will be willing to pay a tidy sum to land a ‘can't miss' coach that can both recruit and win games.

Will Ohio State open its coffers and match any offer? Or, will the Buckeye fans be forced to watch Gary Williams Part II play out before their eyes? Will an athletic department with a budget often pushed to its limits by Title IX have the needed resources? Will Ohio State finally up not only the salary of Matta but that of Jim Tressel to that of their contemporaries? Or will they underpay once again and lose a man who might just stay a Buckeye for life if it is worth his while?

Stay tuned; this looks like it could get interesting.

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