Sorting through the Texas coaching speculation; more mail
More Mailbag (cont.)
I could have filled this entire Mailbag with questions about various Texas coaching candidates. Let me address them all at once: Everyone you've asked about is an excellent coach who is worthy of athletic director Steve Patterson's attention. Very few, however, are remotely realistic possibilities.
What's going on with the Texas job? Has a college football coaching job ever elicited this level of speculation, especially regarding so many professional coaches?
-- Adam, Kalamazoo, Mich.
In many ways, Texas is the new Notre Dame. The program has become the object of national curiosity, and that has very little to do with the Longhorns' on-field record. The phenomenon began with those wild two weeks in the summer of 2010, when university president Bill Powers and AD DeLoss Dodds basically staged the Cuban missile crisis of conference realignment. The entire landscape hinged on whether Texas would leave for the Pac-10 (and take five schools with it) or stay and keep the Big 12 together. Then came the Longhorn Network -- and the annual reports showing the extent of the wealth of the Texas athletic department ($163 million in revenue in 2011-12, including $104 million from football).
Given that, and given all the blue-chip recruiting talent in the state, there's a widespread feeling that if Texas were to hire the right coach, the program would immediately become a superpower. That surely fueled all the Nick Saban rumors. There was never one credible report that Saban considered leaving Alabama for Texas (on the contrary, both Saban and his wife made it publicly known they weren't going anywhere), but that didn't stop certain influential bloggers and peripheral media types from continually fueling the non-story. It seemed like some were willing it to happen out of a fantasy of marrying the nation's richest program and most renowned coach. (Saban and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, owe those people a debt of gratitude and perhaps a cut of that new $7 million salary they leveraged.)
Then there's the soap opera element. Plenty of big-time programs go through coaching changes, but few with such public dysfunction. Boosters and regents outwardly undermined Mack Brown, contacting Sexton and leaking their Saban longings. Rick Perry, the governor of the state and a rabid Aggie, tried to oust Powers on the brink of an impending decision on Brown's future. And, of course, all of this had three months to fester because it became obvious by mid-September -- after losses to BYU and Ole Miss -- that this day was coming eventually.
It's been quite the mess to watch from afar. Can Patterson, a college athletics director for less than two years and only a few weeks into his tenure in Austin, pull off a coup such as landing Jim Harbaugh? Or will he bungle the search and end up with the 'Horns' version of Derek Dooley?
Does the Mack Brown saga remind you at all of what happened with Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee? Successful, long-tenured coaches in competitive conferences who found new up-and-comers edging them out of programs they once led to national championships? If so, are there enough similarities that Texas should be worried about not recovering for a long time, which has been the case with the Volunteers?
-- Luke Martinez, Tulare, Calif.
As I wrote over the weekend, Brown's career arc is sadly quite common among successful college coaches. Very few go out on top. Most stay too long. But Fulmer is a pretty good comparison. Both had similar tenures (Fulmer coached 17 seasons, Brown 16), records (Fulmer went 152-52, Brown 158-47) and accomplishments (one national title and two conference titles for both). While Fulmer's descent into mediocrity was more gradual, Tennessee pulled the plug just a year after the Vols played in the SEC title game. However, their last four seasons overall were very comparable, save for the very end. Brown went 5-7, 8-5, 9-4 and 8-4, respectively. Fulmer went 5-6, 9-4, 10-4 and 5-7. In both cases, it was obvious that the programs had lost their way, the fan bases had lost confidence and -- regardless of Brown or Fulmer's greater achievements -- it was time for a change.
Should Texas worry about a similar aftermath? Absolutely. That's why so much is riding on Patterson's hire. Then-Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton surveyed the scene and decided that 33-year-old Lane Kiffin was the man to resurrect the Vols, with the help of his all-star cast of assistants. Kiffin clearly wasn't ready, though Tennessee likely wouldn't have sunk to its current depths had Kiffin hung around for more than one season, and had Hamilton not whiffed on his first several choices to replace Kiffin and settled on the woefully unqualified Dooley. Texas has more of everything to offer than Tennessee did -- money, recruiting talent, its own TV network -- and should attract better candidates. Still, it's a crapshoot. Short of Saban or Urban Meyer (or Harbaugh, I suppose), there are few coaches I'd bet the house will fare as well or better than Brown did.
Now that freshmen can win the Heisman Trophy, can you look back and tell us other freshmen that would have won? For example, Herschel Walker clearly would have won in 1980.
-- Crawford Clay, Stafford, Va.
Walker would have won in 1980, no question. The winner that year, South Carolina running back George Rogers, had slightly better statistics (1,781 rushing yards to 1,616), but for an 8-4 team. Walker led Georgia to a national championship season, including a 13-10 win over Rogers' Gamecocks in which Walker ran for 219 yards. But that happened at a time when a sizable segment of the electorate truly believed that a freshman should not win the Heisman. Amazingly, that sentiment took more than a quarter-century to dissipate. All due respect to USC's Matt Leinart, but Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson should have won in 2004. Both the Sooners and Trojans went undefeated and reached the BCS title game, but Peterson ran for 1,843 yards and 15 touchdowns, including 225 against Texas plus two other 200-yard games. However, Leinart was a more established name who had already led USC to one national title, which gave him a considerable advantage over a true freshman.
The really interesting race, were it to take place in the 2013 climate, would have been in 1999. Virginia Tech redshirt freshman Michael Vick would have played the role of Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston. Vick led the Hokies to the national title game and did so with a combination of running and passing ability (he was the No. 1-rated passer) never before seen. Yet, at the time of the Heisman ceremony, I remember being stunned that Vick finished as high as third. That's how large the freshman stigma still loomed.
However, it's hard to find a modern-day comparison to that year's winner, Ron Dayne. Yes, Boston College's Andre Williams was the 2,000-yard rusher in the 2013 race, but Williams was a one-year wonder playing for a 7-5 team. Dayne was a four-year star who broke one of the sport's most prestigious records when he became the NCAA Division I all-time rushing leader, and he led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl. That race would be much closer and more hotly debated today. Vick would finish no lower than second, but I can't say for certain that he'd beat out Dayne.
Marcus Mariota not even in the top 10 of Heisman voting? I knew he wouldn't win after a bad month of November, and the guys on the list are all fine athletes. But not even in the top 10 seems beyond laughable. Has the Heisman, like so many of our other institutions, reached a point of having almost no credibility? Or am I biased beyond the point of help?
-- Gary, La Grande, Ore.
Yeah, that's bizarre. I didn't vote for Mariota (I had Winston, Manziel and Jordan Lynch), and it's not as if he had an indisputably stronger case than any of the six finalists. But I did notice Braxton Miller appeared on enough ballots to finish ninth. Let's compare Mariota and Miller's numbers, shall we?
• Mariota: 63.1 completion percentage, 3,412 yards, 30 touchdowns, 4 interceptions; 81 rushing attempts for 582 yards and nine touchdowns
• Miller: 63.2 completion percentage, 1,860 yards, 22 touchdowns, 5 interceptions; 153 rushing attempts for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns
Mariota accounted for 1,101 more total yards and seven more scores while playing one more game. Miller led Ohio State to a conference championship appearance while Mariota failed to do the same with Oregon, so perhaps that explains the vote. But their order was probably more a byproduct of West Coast candidates falling off the radar once their squads are eliminated from national title contention. See Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy, the nation's sack leader (14) who somehow failed to be named AP first-team All-America this week.
Am I the first to point out that in 1991 the Big 8 champ played in the Orange Bowl? This of course means that Oklahoma would've played against Alabama and not Florida State in your scenario.
-- Terry, Omaha, Neb.
You were the first of many. I bungled that one. But here's where realignment makes this exercise of placing 2013 teams in the bowls they would have gone to in 1991 so difficult. Should Oklahoma or Missouri be considered the Big 8 champion in this scenario? I already reverted to '91 conference lineups once by placing Baylor in the Cotton Bowl as the presumptive Southwest Conference champ. So Mizzou, with the better record and higher ranking than Oklahoma this year, should probably be labeled Big 8 champ.
Let's try this again:
• Rose: Stanford-Michigan State
• Orange: Florida State-Missouri
• Sugar: Auburn-Ohio State
• Cotton: Baylor-Alabama
• Fiesta: Arizona State-Oklahoma
While this is still more appealing than the set of games we currently have, it wouldn't do a whole lot for the national title picture to have the No. 1 team playing the No. 9 team in a bowl game. Remember, this kind of thing happened quite frequently before the hated BCS came along.
Johnny Manziel will most likely enter the NFL draft after his redshirt sophomore season. Melvin Gordon has submitted his name to gauge his NFL stock after his own redshirt sophomore year. Many people assumed Mariota was going to enter the draft. Is college football going the way of college basketball, where the best players leave after a year or two?
-- DJ, Minneapolis
I don't know about a trend across the entire sport. There are still certain positions -- most notably on both sides of the line -- where a guy would need to be awfully special to garner first-round consideration after just two years on the field. (Jadeveon Clowney would have been an exception.) However, I do think you could start seeing it more with quarterbacks. As with Manziel, Winston and Mariota, guys are more capable now than ever before of playing that position at a high level from a young age. Coaches are willing to hand the reins of an offense to a redshirt freshman rather than make him wait behind a less talented but more seasoned upperclassmen. Winston still has to wait another year, but he'd probably be the first quarterback selected if he could enter the 2014 draft. UCLA's Brett Hundley, another third-year sophomore, is widely considered a high pick should he declare, even though he's definitely still raw.
The one thing I'd caution people against is the type of thinking that assumed Mariota would turn pro. There's a segment of the media and the public that views everything through an NFL prism, including viewing players as draft prospects first and college students second. I saw interviews Manziel did with both CBS and ESPN's Pardon the Interruption last weekend, and nearly all the questions he got were about the NFL. Maybe that's fair in his case, but with most guys, the media is often more fixated on the next level than the players are. Eventual top picks Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford could have come out after their sophomore seasons, but both opted to return for another year. Mariota, whose early announcement indicates he was probably planning on coming back all along, could ultimately wind up in the same breath. The college experience is special, and not everyone is in a hurry to get out. That, to me, is the biggest difference in culture between football and basketball, where the race to become a lottery pick begins when many kids are in middle school.
I am watching Navy manhandle Army yet again and am curious as to what has caused the recent dominance in the series. I would think both programs have similar funding and facilities and attract a very similar brand of student-athlete, with neither having a natural recruiting advantage over the other. Yet there are few signs of the gap closing. What has caused this?
-- Bill Lustgarten, Queens, N.Y.
Given that other factors are presumably equal, there may be no better example of just how important a coaching hire can be than the disparity that grew between the two rivals after Navy hired Paul Johnson in 2002. Johnson, whose flexbone offense helped produce back-to-back national championship seasons at Georgia Southern in 1999-2000, proved the perfect fit for Navy. When he left after six years for Georgia Tech, his protégé Ken Niumatalolo kept right on rolling with the same system. Coordinators Ivin Jasper and Buddy Green have been there for 14 and 12 seasons, respectively. So Navy is just a rock-solid program at this point, and the more success it's had, the better athletes it's been able to recruit.
All the while, Army bumbled through the short-lived tenures of Todd Berry (2000-03), Bobby Ross ('04-06) and Stan Brock ('07-08). Rich Ellerson seemed to be making progress -- he took the Black Knights to a bowl game in his second season at the helm in '10 -- but he started building at a point when Army had fallen far behind Navy. After five seasons, he hadn't closed the gap enough.
Now the folks at West Point will turn to their fifth leader since the Johnson/Niumatalolo era began at Navy. For their sake, hopefully this hire is the right one.
Should Arkansas State replace Miami (Ohio) as "The Cradle of Coaches?" Maybe a better nickname is in order, like "Stepping Stone to the Big Bucks." Also, which hot coach will the Red Wolves be able to attract this time?
-- Shaw, North Augusta, S.C.
It's crazy. The past three seasons of Arkansas State coaches -- Hugh Freeze (now at Ole Miss), Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and Bryan Harsin (Boise State) -- will make a combined $7.85 million next season. The school interviewed Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, according to CoachingSearch.com's Pete Roussel, and would be smart to hire him. For one thing, Roper, 41, is a longtime David Cutcliffe assistant who clearly knows how to build a winning program. But beyond that, he's exhibited no signs of being a job-hopper to date. Maybe the Red Wolves could keep him for two (!) years.
Has a conference ever gotten the cold shoulder from the bowls as badly as the Sun Belt did this year? The Sun Belt was really strong in 2013: It went 6-1 against its peer conferences (C-USA, MAC and Mountain West) and ended up with seven of its eight teams being eligible, the highest percentage of any league. However, only the two co-champions (Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette) got invites, and those were to bowls with Sun Belt tie-ins. That has to sting a little bit.
-- Caleb, Birmingham, Ala.
Indeed, there have been some years when the conference was terrible, but it landed more than two bowl invites because other leagues failed to fill all their bowl slots. This season was the opposite. The Big Ten and Big 12 were the only BCS conferences to come up short, and the ACC and Pac-12 each had two extra teams. That left very little room for extra non-AQs. Only two such teams got in, both from the MAC, which has been more aggressive about locking in secondary agreements. Sun Belt teams just aren't particularly desirable outside of the southern bowls.
But never fear. As I keep reminding people, there will be four more bowls next year (in the Bahamas, Miami, Boca Raton and Montgomery, Ala.). With FBS membership swelling to 129 (Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Charlotte and Old Dominion make the jump in 2014) -- up from 120 just three years ago -- there will be no shortage of 6-6 teams to fill them.
Stewart, last January you graded the new coaching hires. It's only been one season, but would you change any of those grades now?
-- Bryan W., Cincinnati
No, it's far too early for that. You need at least two seasons of data before definitively concluding I was woefully wrong on some guys.
A quick programming note: There will be no Mailbag next week, and because New Year's Day falls on a Wednesday, the next edition will run a day early, on Dec. 31. Please note: I'll need fresh questions, and this will be your only chance to ask about the BCS bowls before they're played. So set a calendar reminder for Dec. 30.
Happy holidays. May you get every present you hoped for. You never know what Santa might deliver. Maybe the Texas job.