College football’s annual coaching carousel season rarely exemplifies rationality. This season’s version was particularly absurd, and lends credence to the sport’s detractors that criticize its contradictory nature to amateurism.
Higher dollar values on winning football has raised the stakes for coaches, who are afforded less opportunity to build a program. And sometimes, simply winning isn’t enough.
Mario Cristobal was a glaring example of how thankless coaching in the FBS ranks can be. He captained the Golden Panthers to their only winning seasons in the program’s history, two bowl appearances and a conference championship. But even more egregious was that Cristobal took over a program struggling with off-field image problems and matched his on-field success with the best grade point averages in team history.
How hypocritical it is to fire a coach whose teams excelled in the classroom, then hire a replacement who was ousted amid the tumult of widespread academic malfeasance. But Garcia’s move simply speaks to a problem not exclusive to FIU: just win, baby.
FIU closed down the FBS carousel — for the time being — with its hire of Butch Davis. Davis was dismissed from North Carolina just prior to the start of the 2011 season with details of academic fraud exacerbating the already tenuous situation created with assistant John Blake’s connection to an agent.
Davis was a rumored target of FIU athletic director Pete Garcia upon firing Cristobal, but Davis initially balked at those rumors. Perhaps Davis was waiting on a higher profile offer. His name was rumored in conjunction with openings at Tennessee and Arkansas, after all. But that in and of itself speaks to the unsavory atmosphere in which football decisions are now made.
Davis is a master recruiter. He attracted premiere, NFL-caliber talent to North Carolina. Prior to that, his recruits made Miami the powerhouse it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The 2001 Hurricanes made for arguably the greatest collection of talent on a single college roster ever. Davis returns to the pipeline that built those outstanding Miami teams, which Garcia observed while working in the university’s athletic department.
In the Sun Belt, Davis joins another coach dismissed from a major conference program recently under the cloud of scandal. Bobby Petrino spent all of eight months unemployed for the various missteps that led to his ouster from Arkansas. Western Kentucky snatched him up after Willie Taggart departed for USF.
Petrino is a winning football coach, which is why he landed a job so soon after leaving Arkansas under disgraceful terms; plain and simple. His mea culpa in the fall may not have hurt his case, but it’s hardly a logical leap to suggest had he gone 3-9 in his last stop, a program wouldn’t have been so willing to take on his baggage.
Other universities made hires not nearly as steeped in controversy. Cal and Colorado both landed head coaches who flourished at lower level programs in Sonny Dykes and Mike MacIntyre. But each comes into an inauspicious situation, as their predecessors’ dismissals attest. Jeff Tedford was Cal’s most winning head coach. This season was just the program’s second losing campaign in a decade with Tedford as head coach. He was unable to meet the lofty standards that existed only because he established them.
MacIntyre accomplished the seemingly impossible by turning San Jose State into a winner. He’ll have to conjure up that magic once more, taking over a Colorado program that is currently a train wrecked into a dumpster fire.
That’s hardly the fault of fired Jon Embree. Though he left CU with a 4-21 mark in two seasons, this year’s 1-11 bottoming out was the manifestation of years of failed practices predating Embree’s arrival. Dan Hawkins failed to attract high quality prospects, leaving the Buffaloes smaller and slower than their Big 12 and Pac-12 Conference mates.
MacIntyre has an uphill climb to rectify that situation, and likely needs more time than the two years Embree was afforded to make Colorado respectable in a steadily improving Pac-12. The brevity of modern coaching tenures speaks to the win-now culture, but more disconcerting is that two of the quicker firings in recent years targeted black head coaches.
Embree and Turner Gill at Kansas stepped into rebuilding projects that required more than two seasons of work, but were let go after season two.
There were signs of racial progress in this year’s coaching carousel Darrell Hazell became just the fourth black head coach in Big Ten Conference history. Taggart takes over a USF program capable of becoming a powerhouse. Stanford re-upped David Shaw after leading the Cardinal to its first Pac-12 championship since 1999.
But success is fleeting in this industry. What’s rewarded now may be a distant memory in a few years’ time — or less. Auburn fired Gene Chizik less than two calendar years removed from winning the BCS championship, only to replace him with former Chizik assistant Gus Malzahn.
Now, the Malzahn hire is a good one. His coordination of Auburn’s offense was vital to the Tigers’ 2010 success, and he led Arkansas State to the Sun Belt championship as its head coach this year. But in its 8-5 follow-up to the BCS championship campaign, Auburn did struggle to establish an offensive rhythm.
How much time he’s allotted to reestablish Auburn will be one of the story lines to follow in the upcoming years of this increasingly bizarre college football tradition.