Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Four Horsemen of Forced Resignation

As we wander into uncharted territory at Tennessee, history as always provides lessons and examples on how to replace a legendary head coach who's been at the same traditional football school for more than a decade with great success in the past. Whoever Mike Hamilton tabs as the next head coach in Knoxville faces a tall order and a unique situation. Here are four examples of how similar moves have played out for other schools:

THE TOTAL DISASTER - SYRACUSE

The Old Coach: Paul Pasqualoni
Career Tenure: 1991-2004
Record at Syracuse: 107-59-1 (.644)
Accomplishments: Only one losing season, 4 Big East titles, 6-3 in bowls

Why he's no longer the coach
Donovan McNabb went to the Eagles. Really, the program's decline can be traced from the 1998 season where they won the Big East. After that, the 'Cuse went 7-5, 6-5, 9-3, 4-8, 6-6, 6-6.

The New Coach: Greg Robinson
Previous Position: Defensive Coordinator, Texas
Record at Syracuse: 9-34 (2005-present)

What happened
In Robinson's first season, Syracuse went 1-10. The program still hasn't recovered, their offense has been consistently unwatchable in Robinson's tenure, and a school that sent Qadry Ismail, Marvin Harrison, Olindo Mare, Donovan McNabb, Keith Bulluck, Dwight Freeney, and David Tyree to the NFL under Pasqualoni has become devoid of talent and energy.

What now
You could make a case that Syracuse is the worst football program in the BCS conferences. There are parallels - they play in an area devoid of recruiting talent that necessitates doing a good job on that front. They're a university with a fanbase that is rabid about basketball. Robinson will exit after this season, making the job open again...but for this once proud elite Big East school, their opening will find itself among the least desirable in the nation. Syracuse is a frightening picture of how bad things can get.

Last elite season: Never
Last very good season: 1998


THE FALSE START - MICHIGAN

The Old Coach: Lloyd Carr
Career Tenure: 1995-2007
Record at Michigan: 122-40 (.753)
Accomplishments: 1997 National Championship, 5 Big Ten titles

Why he's no longer the coach
Appalachian State. What the Mountaineers started Oregon finished, as the massive weight of expectation Carr built at Michigan between the 97 championship and the 06 almost all crumbled down in two weeks last September. Michigan also lost four straight bowl games before the decision was made, and is currently four in the hole to Ohio State, meaning the Wolverines lost four straight games between Ohio State, USC, AppState and Oregon that erased all the good vibes from the great 2006 start.

The New Coach: Rich Rodriguez
Previous Position: Head Coach, West Virginia
Record at Michigan: 2-7 (2008)

What happened
RichRod had to deal with a massive exodus of talent from the Chad Henne/Mike Hart/Mario Manningham Michigan offenses of the last few years, and it hasn't gone well. The opening loss to Utah set the tone, and Michigan really should be 1-8 without a comeback win over Wisconsin.

What now
It's still too early to call on RichRod at Michigan, and I'm sure he'll get the standard three years that everyone at big schools gets before they're fired if it's not working. And he needs time with his system and his players. But what's reality is Michigan fans who complained about the declining state of the program under Carr have now had to deal with a 2-7 season in the immediate aftermath.

Last elite season: 2006
Last very good season: none since


THE SAME PROBLEM - TEXAS A&M

The Old Coach: RC Slocum
Career Tenure: 1989-2002
Record at Texas A&M: 123-47-2 (.723)
Accomplishments: 3 SWC Championships, 1 Big 12 Championship, 3 Top 10 finishes

Why he's no longer the coach
The new millennium. The Aggies haven't finished in the Top 25 since 1999, and fell off more each season following. Their bowl destinations went Sugar-Alamo-Independence-Galleryfurniture.com-none from 1998-2002, and the 6-6 finish in '02 sealed Slocum's fate.

The New Coach: Dennis Franchione
Previous Position: Head Coach, Alabama
Record at Texas A&M: 32-28 (2003-2007)

What happened
Farmer Fran was touted as the savior of the A&M program after taking a probation Alabama team to a 10-3 mark in 2002. A bumpy road awaited right away with a 4-8 opening campaign. The Aggies responded the next season with a 7-4 mark, but were thrashed by the Vols 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl. Expectations were still high in 2005 with a preseason ranking, but the Aggies finished 5-6. Fran looked to save his job with a 9-4 campaign in 2006, but last year it was back to 7-5. Texas A&M went 19-21 in Big 12 games under Fran, never finished ranked in the Top 25, went 0-3 in bowls and 4-14 against rivals Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas Tech.

What now
A&M is currently coached by Mike Sherman and is 4-5 in 2008. But the Aggies spent four years and lots of money on Franchione for essentially the same mediocrity that cost Slocum his job. The program hasn't regressed, but it hasn't gone anywhere either.

Last elite season: 1993
Last very good season: 1998


THE UPGRADE - OHIO STATE

The Old Coach: John Cooper
Career Tenure: 1988-2000
Record at Ohio State: 111-43-4 (.720)
Accomplishments: shared 3 Big Ten titles (none outright), 5 straight January 1 bowls (94-98)

Why he's no longer the coach
Michigan. Going 2-10-1 against the program's biggest rival puts the writing on the wall. Even more damaging were the seasons where the Buckeyes ran roughshod over the rest of their schedule, only to trip at the finish line against the Wolverines. Three times in four years between 93-96, the Buckeyes went into the Michigan game with National Championship expectations, only to choke them away. The Buckeyes were 6-6 in 1999, and when they followed up with an 8-4 mark and an Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, Cooper's days were over.

The New Coach: Jim Tressel
Previous Position: Head Coach, Youngstown State
Record at Ohio State: 80-18 (2001-present)

What happened
The Buckeyes made a risky hire in Tressel, who made noise immediately by more or less promising a win over Michigan in his first season. Despite an average 7-5 campaign on the whole, he fulfilled his promise. The very next year, Ohio State won the National Championship. Since then, Ohio State has played in four additional BCS bowls, two of them the BCS National Championship games in the last two seasons, which they lost. He's won the Big Ten four times in seven years, and the Buckeyes have finished in the Top 5 five times.

What now
Though they won't play for the title this year, Ohio State will still secure an at-large BCS selection if they win out. The Buckeyes are one of the two or three best football programs in America, and have continued to produce the talent that was there all along under Cooper, only with more success and a complete reversal of the Michigan rivalry. Tressel took Ohio State to the promised land and has kept them in reach of it ever since.

Last elite season: 2007
Last very good season: 2008 (so far)


A couple things we can point out for Tennessee:

- Fulmer is leaving for a program's decline and a refusal to settle for mediocrity. It's important to note that the new head coach struggled in his first season at all four of these schools. In fact, no one has come into an elite BCS program from the outside and had championship success in their first year. Those are the facts.

- The Vols haven't had an elite season since 2001, and haven't had a very good one since 2004. Last year was good, but the losses to Florida and Alabama also helped get Fulmer gone. It's a disturbing trend that the last three times Tennessee has gone to the SEC Championship Game, we've lost, then won our bowl game, then took high expectations and turned them into 8-5, 5-6, and 3-6.

- Fulmer's situation is also different than Ohio State's - Cooper never got Ohio State over the hump. Fulmer is Lloyd Carr. If our next head coach starts 2-7, how will we react?

- Nonetheless, if RichRod is a portrait of a need for patience and Robinson is a glimpse of how bad things can become...and if there are lots of guys who can simply duplicate four loss seasons over the next three years...Tressel's hire does offer hope. The talent returning and incoming to Knoxville next year helps foster it. We can hire the right guy and go forward. But we all need to understand that there are ZERO guarantees with this process.

We're blowing in the wind now boys. Only the hire and then time will tell if we're blown away, will duck our heads and hold our ground...or if this program can push forward and return to the Promised Land.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"no one has come into an elite BCS program from the outside and had championship success in their first year"

Well, I can think of one instance where someone sort've came in and kicked butt in year 1. In 1993, Terry Bowden took over an Auburn program that had gone 10-11-1 over the prior two seasons, and immediately posted an 11-0 mark. In fact, Bowden put up a 20-1-1 mark over his first two years.

I am still not sure how he did it, except that I guess he was pretty good with the x's and o's offensively, and he breathed new energy into a talented but downtrodden group of players. He was a recruiting nightmare, so within 5 years he had driven the program into the ground, but he started off like he was on fire. Overall -- not a very good coach, but a very good start -- yes.

I list a caviat, though: AU was on a severe probation (no tv, no bowls) during his first two years. I don't know how that affected his ability to do what he did, but it was fairly impressive even if he was only a flash in the pan.

That is the only time I can think of someone racing out the gate so well.

Will Shelton said...

I think Bowden's story is remarkable and also unique - but probation kept them from winning anything, so I think the point remains that no coach has come into a BCS school from outside the program and won a championship in his first season. I've also always wondered why he never landed anywhere else...

IJ Reilly said...

Excellent post, and bingo on the "raising expectations" problem. Fans and alum expect a program to improve, not regress, and they expect highly paid coaches to deliver on promises.

I found this blog by searching Slocum, and you got it right. He sealed his fate with alumni and students in the late 90's by talking unrealistically about national championships, Heismans, and his "dynasty." His ego got the best of him.

When he failed to deliver, he started blaming facilities, potbangers and recent alums (at a school with a large and active alumni base), and recruiting. At some point, bitching about getting out-recruited starts to sound like he's blaming the players, which he sometimes did overtly.

I think you do have to give new coaches a healthy grace period, because no matter how talented the returning team is on paper, they were recruited for different schemes that required different strengths. In the case of Fran, there was a different scheme or two every season. That makes the job especially hard for his successor.

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