Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Seven OTs soaked in Gatorade, the Ed Orgeron Story,” sold separately in Baton Rouge):
WHERE HAVE ALL THE FRESH HIRES GONE?
It may have been Cyber Monday in the retail world, but in college football it was Retread Monday. Old names were weirdly popping up all over the place, leading The Dash to wonder whether the art and science of finding up-and-coming coaches is dead.
Really, the Classic Rockization of the sport began earlier this month, when Kansas hired 65-year-old Les Miles (11) to rebuild its dump of a program. He set the stage for another former national champion of retirement age to reportedly return to coaching.
That would be Mack Brown (12), ticketed for North Carolina. He’s a wonderful guy and has been an accomplished coach — including a very successful stint leading the Tar Heels from 1988-97. He’s also 67 years old, hasn’t coached in five years and, some would argue, stopped really coaching after the 2009 season at Texas.
In searching for reasons why Brown would be considered anything more than a comfort hire that warms the hearts of boosters age 50 and older, there is this: the Herm Edwards (13) precedent. He, too, was pulled off an ESPN studio set and dropped back into college football as a 60-something head coach — and it went better than a lot of us expected. Arizona State is 7-5 this season under Edwards and finished second in the Pac-12 South. (Then again, 7-5 got Todd Graham fired at ASU the previous season. Basically, Herm has gotten credit for outperforming extremely low expectations.)
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Beyond that, Brown is at least unlikely to embroil North Carolina in any of the embarrassments the fired Larry Fedora oversaw in the last five months: no declarations that America’s military superiority is directly related to football prowess; no mass suspensions of players for NCAA rules violations; no denial of a ridiculous end-of-game brawl with rival North Carolina State.
“There was no fight,” Fedora said with a straight face, after a massive fight broke out between his players and the Wolfpack. On Monday, the ACC suspended and reprimanded seven players involved in the non-fight, including four from North Carolina.
Out with that clown. In with Brown. But will it work?
Beware the Second Act, UNC. Bill Snyder 2.0 certainly worked well at Kansas State, but he was only gone three years before returning. Louisville’s second dalliance with Bobby Petrino (14) came eight years after the first, and it ended with his firing earlier this month. Connecticut’s Randy Edsall (15) replay, with seven years in between, has been a failure of historic proportion. In the course of going 1-11 in his second year back, Edsall fielded the worst defense in FBS history this season.
But Retread Monday extended beyond Mack Brown. An otherwise sane and competent columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram advocated for Texas Tech to hire Art Briles (16). Yes, really.
Briles is a more current coaching commodity than Brown, but also far more toxic. He built an outlaw program that was a menace to women at Baylor, leaving a stain so deep upon that university that it resulted in just about everyone of consequence in leadership positions being fired or resigning. Including Briles.
If Texas Tech needs one more reason to take a hard pass on Briles, there’s this: Baylor is facing a fresh NCAA allegation that Briles failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance with NCAA rules.
The Briles lunacy paired nicely with the latest populist ravings from Knoxville. Fox Sports provocateur and Tennessee fan Clay Travis is advocating for the Volunteers to hire Hugh Freeze (17) as its offensive coordinator. Plenty of Tennessee fans have joined him on that bandwagon.
This is, of course, hilarious. A year ago, Tennessee fans used the cloak of moral indignation to defeat the attempted hiring of Greg Schiano as head coach — ostensibly because Schiano was on staff at Penn State for awhile alongside the infamous Jerry Sandusky, but really because they didn’t think he was a big winner. This year? Hell yeah, we’ll take Hugh Freeze and his NCAA/escort baggage, if he can dial us up some pretty ball plays.
Don’t expect the Tennessee administration to support any attempted Freeze hiring. It also would be interesting to see the Southeastern Conference office’s reaction, after commissioner Greg Sankey made the stealthiest power move of last offseason by strongly discouraging multiple league schools from hiring Freeze. Sankey instituted an unofficial SEC show-cause penalty on Freeze — does it last more than a year?
Retread Monday leads to one question: Are we really at a point in college football where the next wave of successful coaches is so hard to identify that two men in their mid-to-late 60s have been put in charge of fixer-uppers, and two disgraced former head coaches are being championed for other jobs?
Thirty years ago, North Carolina hired a 37-year-old who had done promising rebuilding work at Tulane and gave him a shot. From there he went on to a Hall of Fame career.
Where is the Mack Brown of the next generation? Who will find him, and what school will give him a chance?
THE (UNHAPPY) VIEW FROM LOS ANGELES
A fan was walking up the aisle from his seat in L.A. Coliseum on Saturday night as The Dash was walking down it, on the way to the field for postgame interviews. The outcome had been decided — Notre Dame would win, USC would lose, and this fan was disgusted but not surprised.
He wore a brown paper bag over what appeared to be a middle-aged head, with holes cut out for eyes, nose and mouth. The bag said, “USC Fan” on it.
“Guessing you’d like to see a coaching change?” he was asked.
“Ya think?” he answered, and kept on walking.
This is the challenge facing Clay Helton (18) now that he has been retained as coach of the Trojans. Athletic director Lynn Swann (19) hasn’t quit on him, but a good many of the fans have. Is it possible to win them back?
USC’s hope is that Helton can take a page from the Brian Kelly (20) playbook — make some major changes and come back much stronger. “The argument for having patience was right there on the [visiting] sideline,” one USC staffer said Saturday night, referring to Notre Dame’s roaring comeback from a 4-8 season in 2016.
The problem with that equation: Kelly already had proved himself capable of leading elite teams before the 2016 pratfall. He went undefeated at Cincinnati and took the Bearcats to the Sugar Bowl in 2009, then went 12-1 at Notre Dame in 2012 and played in the BCS Championship game. His résumé was established, whereas Helton is still in the proving process.
Yes, Helton won a Rose Bowl in 2016 and a Pac-12 title in ’17, with Sam Darnold. He deserves credit for those seasons. But his record without Darnold as his starting quarterback is 11-11, abysmal by USC standards. And the fans have checked out — not once did the Trojans put 60,000 in the cavernous Coliseum for a home game this season.
With the NFL back in town in force, both USC and UCLA are scrambling to put marketable products on the field for fickle fans. The Bruins made a bold hire last year that should eventually pay dividends (though not this year, on the field or at the turnstiles). The Trojans are sitting still, and the fans aren’t pleased.
When USC did its Trojan Walk into the stadium a couple hours prior to kickoff, the reception was tepid at best. Nobody booed, but precious few cheered — and almost none of the cheers were louder than conversational volume. It was a dead crowd, and many of the fans appeared to be there simply because they were stuck in place by ropes that prohibited everyone from moving while the team walked past. Leading the team through the stadium gates, Helton reached out to slap a few hands and kept shouting, “Fight on! We appreciate you!”
After the game, Helton was the epitome of grace in defeat. He congratulated not only Notre Dame coaches but several Fighting Irish players, some of whom he knew personally from recruiting. He embraced several of his own players, kissed his wife, then walked up the tunnel as some fans booed him and shouted insults.
Helton probably knew at that point that his job was safe. But the response from the crowd couldn’t have been reassuring. His 2019 season will be a difficult campaign to win back a fan base that has given up on him.
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