College football in ’09: Coaching carousel
Florida opened the college football year by shutting down Oklahoma’s record-setting offense in the BCS national championship game, which gave the SEC its third consecutive national title and the Gators their second in three seasons.
The Gators stumbled in the SEC championship game 11 months later, ending their quest to win back-to-back titles, and another SEC team heads into the BCS title game as the favorite. But that story will have to wait until 2010.
There were more than enough stories to go around in 2009, though, including some doozies dealing with one of the greatest coaches of all time and perhaps the nation’s most storied program.
Here’s a look at the 10 biggest storylines in college football in the past year.
10. Jasper Howard’s death: As Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said, “There’s nothing written in the manual in how to deal with these situations.” Howard, 20, a starting cornerback for the Huskies with NFL potential, died in the early-morning hours of Oct. 18 after he was stabbed at an on-campus dance. Howard was from inner-city Miami and soon was to become a father. Edsall became emotional at a news conference that day. “I was called into the operating room to identify the body, 4, 4:30 [a.m.], somewhere in that range, and then I got on the phone with the doctor, Dr. Marshall, and had to make a phone call to Jasper’s family,” Edsall said. The Huskies played at West Virginia six days later and lost by four in the final two minutes. In their next game, they lost to Rutgers by four on a last-second TD reception by the Scarlet Knights’ Tim Brown, a friend of Howard’s from Miami. Then came a two-point loss to Cincinnati before the Huskies won at Notre Dame in two overtimes. Edsall became emotional on the field after that game when he talked about Howard. UConn followed with two more victories and takes a 7-5 record into the Jan. 2 Papajohns.com Bowl against South Carolina.
9. LeGarrette Blount’s punch: The Sept. 3 Boise State-Oregon game was billed as the biggest home game in Boise State history, and the Broncos responded with a big-time defensive effort in a 19-8 victory over the Ducks. Blount, an Oregon running back who had been outspoken before the game about his desire for revenge after last season’s loss to the Broncos (“We owe that team an ass-whupping”), punched Boise State defensive end Byron Hout after the game, then had to be held back from going into the stands after some taunting fans. He was suspended for the season two days later, but first-year coach Chip Kelly made a point of saying Blount still was welcome to remain a part of the Oregon football family. After Blount met academic and behavioral conditions, Kelly reinstated him on Nov. 9. Blount’s first playing time since the opener came Dec. 3 in the Ducks’ victory over rival Oregon State. The controversy surrounding Blount and the opening loss didn’t hurt Oregon, which went on to earn its first Rose Bowl bid since 1994.
8. Reigning Heisman winner Sam Bradford gets hurt in the first game, part of a string of bad luck for Oklahoma: Bradford surprised many by staying in school after he won the Heisman in 2008. Two other key Sooners – tight end Jermaine Gresham and offensive tackle Trent Williams – also decided to turn down NFL millions and stay in school. While Williams enjoyed a solid season, that wasn’t the case for Bradford or Gresham. Gresham blew out a knee before the season even started and Bradford suffered a separated shoulder in the opener, a one-point loss to BYU. Thus, Bradford’s Heisman hopes and OU’s national title hopes essentially were extinguished on the first weekend of the season. Bradford missed three games, then was lost for the season in Game 6 when his shoulder was injured again. In all, OU lost eight starters or key backups to season-ending injuries, and a team that went into the season with legitimate national-title hopes instead is 7-5 and preparing for an appearance in the Sun Bowl.
7. There are five unbeaten teams entering the postseason: Alabama, Boise State, Cincinnati, Texas and TCU carry undefeated records into their bowl games. This is just the second time in the BCS era, which began in 1998, that there have been five unbeatens headed into the postseason. This season, all five unbeatens are in the BCS. In 2004, Auburn, Oklahoma, USC and Utah played in the BCS, while fellow unbeaten Boise State went to the Liberty Bowl. USC, Auburn and Utah finished unbeaten that season. Oklahoma lost to USC in the national title game and Boise State was beaten by one-loss Louisville in the Liberty Bowl.
6. USC’s streak of Pac-10 championships ends: In hindsight, we should have seen this coming. Not many programs can lose their quarterback and eight defensive starters to the NFL and still be championship-caliber. Quarterback Mark Sanchez’s early entry to the NFL draft was the first of several blows for the Trojans. Several injuries followed, including a near-fatal weightlifting accident that ended running back Stafon Johnson’s season. Still, the end of USC’s seven-season reign wasn’t as alarming as the way it ended – with a road loss to a five-win Washington team, blowout losses to Oregon and Stanford, then a home loss to Arizona. In addition, a team used to playing in high-stakes showdowns ended its season in the third-tier Emerald Bowl. The good news for the Trojans: USC started a true freshman at quarterback, was plagued by injuries and still could finish the season with nine wins. In addition, as many as 15 starters could return, so the Trojans figure to be challenging for championships again next season.
5. Mark Ingram becomes Alabama’s first Heisman winner in the closest vote in history: Alabama has produced some of college football’s biggest names, but never a Heisman Trophy winner. That changed this season, when Ingram became the third consecutive sophomore to win the Heisman. He edged Stanford running back Toby Gerhart in the closest Heisman race ever. Ingram became the frontrunner midway through the season, then struggled in a narrow win over Auburn in Alabama’s 12th game. But he bounced back with a 113-yard, three-touchdown performance against Florida’s vaunted defense in the SEC championship game, a performance that won over enough voters to enable him to claim the trophy.
4. Two non-Big Six teams in the BCS: Bowl Championship Series big-wigs typically view teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences as college football’s riff-raff. But eventually concessions were made allowing one team from outside the Big Six conferences into a BCS bowl, provided they met certain criteria. That the team had to be undefeated was unwritten, but also undeniably true. This season, TCU and Boise State finished the regular season unbeaten, with TCU earning an automatic bid and Boise State an at-large selection. It’s the first time two non-Big Sixers were chosen for the BCS in the same season. TCU and Boise State conveniently wind up as adversaries in the Fiesta Bowl. Not that we necessarily want to believe all the conspiracy theories, but BCS big-shots now don’t have to worry about potentially explaining two more losses to non-Big Six schools.
3. Notre Dame dumps Charlie Weis: After two disappointing seasons, the word was that Notre Dame needed to win at least nine games this season for Charlie Weis to remain the Irish’s coach. Weis’ future looked good after a 4-1 start, but Notre Dame crashed in November, finishing with four consecutive losses to wind up 6-6. That finished Weis’ tenure in South Bend. Notre Dame’s six losses were by a combined 29 points, but coming close isn’t good enough at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly, who had guided Cincinnati to back-to-back BCS bowls, was hired to replace Weis and get the Irish back into the top 10 – though getting them back into the top 20 would be a nice start.
2. Urban Meyer’s changes of heart: Meyer, 45, who has won two national titles in five seasons at Florida, shockingly resigned the day after Christmas for health reasons. Less than 24 hours later, he decided instead to take an indefinite leave of absence. He intends to be back as coach in 2010. During his leave, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will run the show. Meyer will lead the Gators in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati. He tied an SEC record by winning 50 times in his first 59 games as a league coach, and is one of only eight coaches in major-college history to win 80 career games in eight seasons or less. His Gators have proven that a team running a spread offense could contend – and win consistently – in the SEC.
1. Bobby Bowden’s forced retirement: After 388 victories, two national championships, 12 ACC titles and a streak of 14 consecutive top-five finishes from 1987-2000, Bowden, 80, was forced to retire as Florida State’s coach. He’s a genuine legend who transformed a moribund program that had managed four wins in the three seasons before his arrival into a bona-fide national powerhouse. Bowden became a victim of the monster he created. At a place where top-five finishes once were taken for granted, a nine-win season in ’08 was sneered at and six wins this season was just unacceptable. Jimbo Fisher, Bowden’s successor, should take note.