When the Boston Globe confirmed on Thursday that Vanderbilt had made offers to Tyrone Willingham and Gary Barnett, suddenly the protracted search for Vanderbilt's next head football coach came into slightly clearer focus.
An article by Michael Vega in Thursday's Globe read, "Vanderbilt officials are prepared to spend whatever it takes to mold their football program into a winner, making plans to upgrade facilities and to loosen some of their academic requirements. Recently, the school made a staggering seven-year, $10-million offer to Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham and Colorado coach Gary Barnett. Both, coaches, though, declined."
"Staggering," indeed! If those reports are true-- and the Boston Globe is one of the country's most respected newspapers-- it's the first confirmation from the media that Vanderbilt is at long last attempting to belly up to the bar with some of college football's big boys. Coaches the caliber of Willingham and Barnett may have turned down that kind of deal, but surely there aren't too many who would walk away from a bid that generous.
I'm going to act on the assumption that the Boston Globe is correct. Provided it is... there are several important conclusions to be drawn.
First, Todd Turner and Gordon Gee deserve a phenomenal amount of credit for putting together a financial package attractive enough to even put forward to guys like this. When I first heard the message board rumors that Vandy was approaching Willingham and/or Barnett, my initial reaction (and probably yours, too) was "Suuuurrrre.... these guys are going to pack up and leave good situations in order to confront Vanderbilt's mess of a football program? Riiiight."
But the more you thought about it, the more sense it made.
Turner said publicly he wanted experience at the D-1A level... but most of all he wanted someone experienced with a unique athletic/academic environment similar to Vanderbilt's. Stop and think for a moment... are there any two academic schools in the country with better recent football success than Stanford and Northwestern? And who are the men most responsible for bringing Stanford and Northwestern to that position, if not Willingham and Barnett? If you're Todd Turner, why not put these two men No. 1 and 1A on your list?
Barnett, to boot, had a long history with Gordon Gee at Colorado. In 1995 he had taken Northwestern to the Rose Bowl, on of the most amazing coaching stories of modern times. This year he had come under heavy criticism early in the season after the Buffaloes dropped their opener to Fresno State (few knew back then that Fresno would be so good), so his situation there was apparently somewhat tenuous. His compensation was not up with others in the Big XII.
So back around Nov. 9, the week after Woody Widenhofer's resignation, it looked as though Barnett might be easily plucked. Colorado was 7-2 and probably headed to a second-tier bowl.
But-- as anyone who's ever been in a hiring process knows-- timing is everything. As luck would have it, Barnett's Buffs pulled off the biggest upset of the season when they knocked off Nebraska Nov. 23. Suddenly Colorado was in the national championship picture, and NO coach is going to jump ship when his team has a chance to play for a national title. (OK, Jimmy Johnson, maybe, if enough dollars are involved. Gerry Dinardo maybe. But very few.)
Likewise back on Nov. 9, Willingham looked like a good candidate for a job change. Stanford was 5-2, and natives were a little restless after the Cardinal had lost 42-28 to Washington. But who knew? Stanford was on the verge of wining its last 4 straight-- including a win over Notre Dame which would subequently thrust Willingham into consideration for the Irish vacancy.
Hiring Willingham would have drawn national attention, since the SEC has never had an African-American head coach. Last week when Willingham refused to talk with Notre Dame, Vandy fans secretly wondered-- is it because he has a clandestine deal in the works with Vandy? Unfortunately, that was apparently not the case. If reports in the Tennessean and Globe were correct, Turner tried valiantly but ultimately failed to interest Willingham. Still-- who knows how the talks really went down?
And if these two were contacted and we're just now finding out... who knows if other big names have been contacted-- and we may never find out?
All Vandy fans really know is that they've been waiting six weeks now with very little communication. The head start Turner got from Woody's early resignation has now been squandered. The same list of assistant coaches keeps surfacing-- Strong, Teevens, Tenuta, Mazzone, Chow, etc. It may make fans feel a little bit better to learn per the Globe that Turner has recently been on a big-game expedition. But the football program remains coachless-- at least as of the moment this is being written.
How long does one wait before pulling the trigger? Paul Hoolahan's long delay before naming Rod Dowhower late in 1994 resulted in a bust recruiting class in 1995.
There are indications coming from McGugin that a hire may be imminent. Boston College's Tom O'Brien and South Carolina's Charlie Strong sound like the top candidates at this point. Put who really knows? I've hit up all my sources and exhausted all my resources, only to come up empty.
We've been through this kind of search once already with Kevin Stallings. Todd Turner does a very good job of keeping secrets. We'll find out only on his terms.