Sep 212010

I’ve written before about the importance of pedigree in college athletics, specifically in football. Historically low-grade schools can break into the high-end of the pack for a time through great coaching but most will fall back to their customary place. Because of coaching. The hot coach will eventually leave for a program that is considered to have the necessary pedigree to sustain big-time excellence. Part of that pedigree relates to greater financial resources. But it also deals with history and therefore the school’s attractiveness (no, not of the co-eds).

The distinction I’m trying to make is whether a football program is defined by its coach or whether the football program defines its coach. At places like Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas and USC, the institution matters more than the coach. I won’t belabor the point further; you can check out the original article.

We’re now entering a couple test cases at different stages in the road.

Cincinnati and Louisville, which lost very successful head coaches in recent years, will have to prove that the program matters more than the coach. So far, not good. I should hasten to add that even a bad coach can derail a program-first school, as evidenced by the abysmal tenures of Ron Zook and Mike Shula at Florida and Alabama, respectively. No educated college football fan thinks that Michigan can’t get back into the big picture if Rich Rodriguez is fired. But that question legitimately hovers over the Bearcats and Cardinals.

Louisville came within a hair of playing for the national title under Bobby Petrino after weathering the departures of program-builders Howard Schnellenberger and John L. Smith. After Petrino himself left, the hiring of Steve Kragthorpe proved to be a disaster and now the Cardinals are hoping once again to have struck it rich with Charlie Strong. I happen to think that Strong will make an excellent coach. The question is whether they’ll be able to hold onto him if a big-name school comes calling. A program-first school will serve as a destination for hot head coaches, rather than having to continually hire the next up-and-coming assistant coach.

The state of Kentucky has never been a college football hotbed as evidenced by the desultory record of its flagship school, the SEC’s University of Kentucky. The Bluegrass State’s best prep stars probably prefer to go to football-first schools like Tennessee, Alabama or Georgia. But this does present an opportunity for Louisville to become more of the state’s football school, despite its own hoops heritage. Louisville just completed upgrades to its facilities, including an expansion of PapaJohns Cardinals stadium, so it’s showing it has the resources to play the college sports arms race.

Cincinnati is hoping to continue its run with Butch Jones after the departures of successful head coaches Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly. So far, not good for as the Bearcats are 1-2. I’m not trying to write off Butch Jones just yet but the school’s task to become program-first is a tall order.

I have my doubts about whether Cincinnati can become that school. It’s a commuter school, with one of the smallest budgets in the BCS. It plays in a 35,097-capacity stadium which it struggled to sell-out even last year and despite the most successful seasons in school history, it has struggled to raise enough money for facilities’ upgrades as well as an expansion for Nippert Stadium. It faces the same struggles as any other city school to attract fans who have grown up as NFL/Pro-sports fans first. Until last year, Cincinnati had never even been in the discussion for a national title, much less having won multiple championships like the behemoth in whose shadow it lives, The Ohio State University. I used to believe that with the talent that comes out of Ohio, it could afford to field two high-profile college programs. I still believe that but I have my doubts as to whether Cincinnati can overcome its structural deficiencies to join the Buckeyes or even the likes of Pitt and West Virginia in the college football consciousness on more than a 3-4 year basis.

Photo Credits: Unknown, Brett Hansbauer/UC Sports Communications

Sep 092009

One of my main interests in college football is watching the rise and fall of programs that don’t belong to the normal big dawgs’ club. Occasionally one of the top tier programs will fall on hard times but you can’t keep a Texas or an Oklahoma or a PennState or a Southern Cal down for too long. You can see the downturn today at Notre Dame and Michigan but don’t count those programs out for long. (If you’re short-sighted enough to point out that ND hasn’t been factor since the early 90’s, please keep in mind that college football has been played for over a hundred years. A decade is a blip on the radar).

The pursuit of consistent excellence at schools below the high historical threshold is a fascinatingly excruciating exercise. What combination of coaching, recruiting, facilities and plain old luck would it take to engender year-in, year-out contention. Can these schools really dare to dream of being consistent top-10 programs.

The big dawgs have institutional advantages that continually pull down their lesser cousins. Michigan steals Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia, his own alma mater. Alabama lures Nick Saban from the pro’s after a short trip thru the wilderness of coaching mediocrity. Once upon a time, Johnny Majors left Pitt after winning a National Title in order to go home to Tennessee.

picture - Pitt is it

Other times, it is the lure of extended history that lays waste to a school’s attempts to climb up the ladder. On signing day 2003, Pitt lost the jewels of a top-25 class when its top QB recruit de-committed to sign with Pennstate and its top RB recruit de-committed to sign with Miami instead. That neither player lived up to his reputation is not the point. The recruiting losses so gravely affected Walt Harris’ faith in his own program that his agent publicly downplayed Pitt’s  absolute ability to ever rise to the top. One year later, Harris was pushed out after leading Pitt to the Fiesta Bowl.

You can almost hear the nervous chattering at Cincinnati, a school with less history than Pitt or Cal or Wisconsin. Here you have a program newly arrived on the big stage with a dynamic young coach, Brian Kelly, who could very well give Ohio recruits a second legitimate in-state destination. But like Mark Dantonio before him, most pundits feel it’s only a matter of time before Kelly jumps to a “big” program, leaving the Bearcats to hope they can strike gold with a third coaching hire. Yeah sure. Tell that to Louisville which weathered the departure of John L. Smith by hiring Bobby Petrino but have so far failed with Petrino’s replacement, Steve Kragthorpe.

Sometimes, geographical disadvantages contribute to a program’s uneven performance. Clemson and South Carolina come to mind. Both have had or presently have fine coaches. Neither have really sniffed extended 1st-tier success. The biggest and best of the Palmetto State probably aren’t numerous enough to construct a powerhouse program given that two large programs exist in the state and many of the top prep stars may long to play at Rocky Top or Between the Hedges instead of Death Valley or Williams-Bryce stadium. Is it too much of a coincidence to note that Cal’s rise and Oregon’s steady success has coincided with Washington’s fall from grace?

Steve Spurrier

The upshot of all these considerations is not to excuse Pitt or Louisville or South Carolina from failing to consistently reach the big time. In the end, these programs have only themselves to blame. If a shizzle hole like Norman, OK can become a destination for the best prep stars, the Steel City or even Corvallis shouldn’t be too far behind.

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

May 082009 reports that Rick Pitino may be interested in the Sacramento Kings head coaching job. Having largely failed in two previous stints in the Ligg, Pitino’s outsized ego may push him to give the NBA another shot in order to prove that he has what it takes to succeed on both levels, ala Larry Brown.

With the exception of the aforementioned Brown, few successful college coaches, football or baskeball, seem to prosper in the Pro’s. Tim Floyd, Nick Saban and Mike Montgomery easily come to mind. Pitino’s new nemesis at Kentucky, John Calipari wasn’t successful in the Pro’s.

John CalipariOn the other hand, Bill Callahan failed miserably at Nebraska. Charlie Weis has yet to deliver at Notre Dame. Al Groh chose to go back to UVA rather than coach the New York Jets and although his record in Charlottesville is admirable, it’s not particularly elite.

In college, you have to schmooze alumni and boosters. You have to raise money for the athletic department. You need to court 18-year (oft-spoiled) superstar children who have never heard a bad word about their games. You have to graduate players. You are the face of a program, much moreso than in the Pro’s.

In the Pro’s, you have greater access to your players but have to deal with egos made larger by huge, sometimes unwarranted, contacts. You have to assist a general manager with navigating a salary cap/luxury tax. The season is longer.
Perhaps it takes failing like Steve Spurrier did with the Redskins for a coach to realize that he is better suited to one game or the other. I think Pitino is better suited for the college game. He’s a master at it.

I would posit that coaching in the Pro’s isn’t inherently more difficult; it’s just a different game. It’s not as if the salaries are markedly different. Phil Jackson, for instance, is a master at the Pro game. I don’t think he would be comfortable in college. But for some reason, we in this society equate the Pro’s with the pinnacle in all aspects. Becoming a Pro may be the ultimate goal for an athlete but it shouldn’t necessarily be the case for a coach.