02 Oct 2006
by Russell Levine
Saturday brought to a close the first month of the college football season. Five weekends of play are enough for national championship contenders to emerge, for Heisman-worthy players to distinguish themselves, and for conference races to take shape. But Saturday's results may have determined another thing: the futures of some of the nation's high-profile coaches.
At about 11 p.m. on September 23, Michigan State's John L. Smith looked like a genius. His undefeated Spartans were having their way with Notre Dame, leading by 16 points in the fourth quarter before a joyous home crowd The win would almost assuredly move Smith's team into the national rankings. Five quarters of football later, Smith might want to start double-checking his rÃ©sumÃ©.
Such is the nature of the profession. The national TV cameras documented Michigan State's fourth-quarter collapse against Notre Dame, just as they had the Spartans' wonderful play during the first part of the game. Things went from bad to worse this week as the Spartans lost (on homecoming, no less) to an Illinois team many consider to be America's worst BCS conference team.
Illinois, whose only other win came against Division Iâ€“AA Eastern Illinois in its opener, blew a 10-point lead before marching down the field to kick a game-winning field goal with six seconds remaining as Smith and the Spartan faithful looked on, horrified.
Smith sounded resigned to his fate after the game.
"We didn't get the kids prepared to play the game," he said. "And if you go out unprepared emotionally and mentally, you're going to lose and you deserve to lose."
Smith's honesty is one of his trademarks, and such candor is refreshing, but it's also probably not what the alumni and fans want to hear now.
Nobody would confuse Texas A&M's Dennis Franchione with the folksy Smith. Franchione is still reviled as a traitor in Alabama, where he preached loyalty and promised to endure through an NCAA probation that resulted from infractions under his predecessor. Two years after convincing many of his players to stick it out through the difficult times ahead, he bolted for College Station without so much as a farewell address to his team. The roughly $1.5 million in annual compensation A&M offered -- which has since grown to a reported $2 million -- probably had something to do with it.
Saturday's game against Texas Tech served to further that salary's transformation into an albatross around Franchione's neck, but it was so nearly the opposite. Franchione earned a raise after he turned in a surprising 7â€“5 season in 2004, his second year with the Aggies. But last season brought a 5â€“6 disappointment and whispers that the school might not be getting its money's worth. Worse yet, last season's national championship went to A&M's archrival, the hated Texas Longhorns.
Thanks in large part to a soft early schedule, Texas A&M began this season 4â€“0. Texas Tech, though unranked, still represented the toughest test thus far for the Aggies. With two minutes to play, it appeared that A&M would pass the test, but Tech's Graham Harrell found Robert Johnson for an acrobatic, 37-yard pass with 47 seconds remaining to give the Red Raiders a 31â€“27 win.
The loss dropped Franchione's overall record at A&M to 20â€“20. Of seven remaining games this season, the Aggies play four against ranked teams; the other three are on the road. In other words, it suddenly looks like this team could fall far short of expectations, just as last year's did. If that happens, it's difficult to imagine the boosters -- whose donations to the athletic department help make a $2 million salary possible -- standing for another year of Franchione.
If Smith and Franchione are fired after this season, their overall records will be the reason why (Smith is 21â€“20 at Michigan State). If Miami's Larry Coker joins them on the unemployment line, it won't be because of his career record, which is still a gaudy 55â€“11. But Coker has been under increasing pressure since an embarrassing 40â€“3 Peach Bowl loss to LSU to end last season.
Saturday's game against Houston began with banners over the Orange Bowl calling for Coker's dismissal. A loss to the Cougars would certainly have all but doomed Coker, but it's not clear that Miami's ugly, 14â€“13 win has done anything to improve his chances. Coker's team is unranked and 2â€“2, while a former Miami assistant, Greg Schiano, has once-awful Rutgers at 5â€“0. It's no surprise that Schiano is being mentioned in connection with the Miami job.
Coker's tenuous hold on his job is due in part to the incredibly high standards at Miami. The program has won five national titles since 1983, the last under Coker in 2001. The program currrently has more alumni in the NFL than any other school, leading observers to question why it hasn't been as successful on the field in recent seasons.
Not to be overlooked is the environment in Coral Gables, which is more professional than tradition-laden. The Orange Bowl is an off-campus facility, and Miami is a professional sports town. If the Hurricanes aren't competing for national championships, they have trouble selling tickets.
Like Smith and Franchione, Coker is well-compensated. But those high salaries help the schools justify demanding so much from their coaches. Coaching any sport at this level is stressful, but particularly so in football, with its intricate game-planning and hours of film study. Eighty-plus hour workweeks are not uncommon. The salaries do not create the stress of these jobs, but they serve to increase it when things aren't going well, a fact to which all three men can attest.
This award used to be named for Hal Mumme, the former Kentucky coach who was a tad unconventional. When the NCAA turk took down Mumme, I renamed it for then St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz, a frequent winner. I took pity on Martz last year when heart problems sidelined him and renamed it again, this time for Michigan State's Smith. He even won his own award last week. But the loss to Illinois has left JLS smacking himself silly (I'd just like to point out that I called this a year ago). What is it with Michigan State coaches and hitting themselves, anyway? Hello, Judd Heathcote? If I were Bill Simmons I'd demand an investigation. I fear that JLS is not long for the head-coaching world, but I'm not giving up on him just yet.
As this has become pretty much a college-only column the last two years, I've limited the JLS winners to the college game. And while Rutgers' Schiano was a decent candidate this week, I'd be remiss if I gave him this week. Schiano's sin was going for two with a five point lead early in the fourth quarter against South Florida. The attempt failed, and predictably, Rutgers ended up scoring next, kicking a field goal to go up by eight. When a subsequent field goal try was blocked, the game remained at one possession. South Florida scored in the final seconds, but failed on its own two-point attempt. I will never agree wth going for two, especially with the lead, when there is still time for multiple possessions by both teams. Worse, the attempt by Rutgers was a pass play that was thrown short of the goal line.
But Schiano can thank another coach with Michigan State ties for failing to pick up the award this week. I'm reaching into the NFL ranks to hand this week's JLS Trophy to Nick Saban of the Dolphins, for his team's ridiculous halfback-option play call on the game-deciding two-point attempt against Houston. I agree with giving the ball to Ronnie Brown -- I think the run is an underrated two-point call, even in the NFL -- but why have Brown throw the ball instead of run it? This is a case of the Dolphins out-thinking themselves. As bad as Daunte Culpepper has been this season, who would you rather have throwing the ball in that situation, Culpepper or Brown? For the record, Saban looks like he might start himself after one more game like that one.
Rankings that may require some explanation include:
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
33 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2006, 8:09pm by Andrew