I have no contention with Brian Cook's insight, via the Sporting News' blog, that Tennessee is doomed to years of suffering as "the new Michigan." That's hard to argue: The combination of coach Lane Kiffin's late-breaking exit from Knoxville in January, the subsequent scramble to find a willing replacement when seemingly no one wanted the job, the sketchy quarterback situation and the spate of key player departures since the start of spring practice has left the Vols teetering on the brink of a potential disaster (i.e. the first eight-loss season in school history).
Where Cook is ready to "confidently proclain [Kiffin] the worst hire of the decade in college football," though, I'm a little slower to pounce. Not because I have any need whatsoever to defend Kiffin or his jump to USC after a single season -- though he did produce a winning record (7-6) with essentially the same players who had just gone 5-7 in 2008 -- but because I can easily think of a dozen other hires over the last 10 years that were just as bad, only two of which are Ron Zook, and most of which are far worse:
• Mike Price, Alabama. Obviously. The first victim of rumor-mongering Internet message boards, Price hadn't even signed his contract with 'Bama when he initiated the immortal phrase, "It's rolling, baby!" into SEC lore forever. The stripper/expense scandal exiled Price to lawsuits, infamy and eventually Texas-El Paso without having coached a single game for the Tide, who were stuck for the next four years with their game but overmatched emergency hire, Mike Shula, the final chapter in a decade of coaching catastrophe between Gene Stallings and Nick Saban.
• John Mackovic, Arizona. Technically, Mackovic survived the much-publicized player mutiny that nearly spelled his doom in 2002, when a group of Wildcat players complained to the administration after Mackovic told a player he was a disgrace to his family. Mackovic quickly apologized and managed to save his job through the beginning of his third season ... which lasted all of five games before he was finally sacked for a 1-4 start that included three straight losses by at least 38 points. Quarterback Nic Costa told the New York Times after Mackovic was fired, "It's just that the guys have lost their love, their passion for the game. They dread going to meetings, they dread going to practice, they dread doing anything that revolved around football, and that showed." The Wildcats have improved every single season under Mackovic's successor, Mike Stoops, but still took another five years to crawl out of the crater and into a bowl game.
The quasi-revolt in Tucson wasn't even the first uprising on Mackovic's record: He had previously been fired by the Kansas City Chiefs when players complained to ownership in 1986. From there he moved on to Illinois and then to Texas, where he was fired after six seasons for presiding over the worst loss in school history, a 66-3 trouncing at the hands of UCLA in 1998 that effectively ushered in the Mack Brown era. He'd been out of coaching for three years, working for ESPN, when 'Zona came calling.
• Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss. Da Coach O attracted talent like the bayou-bred half-man, half-recruiting bear his incomprehensible Cajun growl suggests, but he couldn't get much out of it -- most of the time, Rebel fans will tell you, he couldn't keep the talent eligible long enough to get anything out of it. The attrition from Orgeron's program was staggering, as was the string of futility: From 2005-07, Ole Miss won three SEC games in three years, bottoming out at 0-8 in 2007. Orgeron may have saved his job that year by beating hated Mississippi State in the finale, a win that seemed assured until the Rebels, leading 14-0 and thoroughly dominating the MSU offense, were stopped on fourth-and-short midway through the fourth quarter, sparking a 17-0 Bulldog run over the final eight minutes; da Coach O was all but fired before he made it off the field. His successor, Houston Nutt, has won almost as many games in each of his first two seasons (9) as Orgeron won in all three seasons combined (10).
• Keith Gilbertson, Washington. The Huskies' decade in the desert will always be associated primarily with Tyrone Willingham, whose tenure was twice as long, who was already well-known from stints at Stanford and Notre Dame and who went out on the lowest possible note, an 0-12 catastrophe in 2008 that included a pillow-fight loss to equally hapless Washington State for maximum emphasis. But Willingham merely failed at digging Washington out of the hole he inherited from the mostly forgotten Gilbertson in 2005, off the worst season (to that point) in school history, a 1-10 collapse with zero conference wins in 2004. In two seasons, Gilbertson took a program barely removed from the Rose Bowl (2000), and more than 25 years removed from its last losing season (1976), and guided it straight to the bottom of the Pac-10. It's still only beginning to climb out six years later.
• Larry Coker, Miami. No team in history has proven the ultimate triumph of talent on quite the level of the 2001 'Canes, easily one of the most stacked -- and subsequently dominant -- teams in history with more than two dozen future draft picks on the two-deep alone. Their eventual rise to the national championship was never in doubt, regardless of the first-year, Uncle Fester-like boss on the sideline. With much of that same roster, though, Miami failed to finish the repeat after a 12-0 regular season in 2002, and was never the same as the incredible talent Butch Davis assembled in the late nineties trickled into the pros. The losses grew each year -- from zero in 2001 to one in 2002 to two in 2003 to three in 2004 and 2005 -- until the bottom fell out in 2006, culminating with back-to-back-to-back November losses to Virginia Tech, Maryland and Virginia in which Miami combined for all of 30 points. That losing streak came on the heels of the murder of defensive end Bryan Pata, which itself followed a pair of offseason incidents involving 'Canes with guns that summer. Before he could do anything else, successor Randy Shannon had to de-arm the roster, and is only just getting around to getting one of the most feared outfits in the country at the start of the decade back over .500 in ACC play.
• Greg Robinson, Syracuse. The Orange
men fired Paul Pasqualoni, a consistent winner with 13 winning seasons and at least a share of four Big East titles in 14 years, for falling into a cycle of stagnation (his last two teams at SU, in 2003-04, both finished 6-6, though the '04 team that got Pasqualoni fired was actually one of four teams that tied for the conference championship). Today, 'Cuse would kill for stagnation at .500 after four unrelentingly miserable campaigns under "Gerg," all of them ending in the Big East cellar. The worst losses from 2005-08 included flops against Akron, Miami (Ohio) and Washington and a 1-3 mark against UConn.
• Ron Prince, Kansas State. Based on his record alone (17-20 with one bowl game in three years, highlighted by a pair of upsets over Texas in 2006-07), Prince is just another victim of one of the most unenviable jobs in America. The fact that he managed to secretly put the university on the hook for a $3.2 million severance through 2020 and so thoroughly poison the well that K-State was forced to lure program godfather Bill Snyder out of retirement to avert disaster, however, was the stuff of a master saboteur for the ages.
• Chuck Long, San Diego State. Long's terrible record (9-27 from 2006-08) was understandable enough at a program that was already pretty terrible when he found it. Like Ron Prince, though, the former Heisman finalist's off-field legacy in San Diego is a disaster: It was under Long's tenure that the Aztec faculty mounted a serious campaign to drop the football team, and SDSU eventually had to spend hundreds of thousands to finally rid itself of Long -- retained for $715,900 per year as a "consultant" due to contractual obligations -- even after he'd been fired as head coach.
A former player, Nick Sandford, filed a lawsuit against Long last month, charging the coach with attempting to cover up a locker room scuffle that allegedly left Sandford with a concussion, ruptured eardrum and facial injuries at the hands of starting lineman (and current Chicago Bear) Lance Louis, who eventually faced misdemeanor assault charges -- after he was allowed to play in the Aztecs' final three games. Long was summarily fired a few weeks later. Luckily for the coach, the university agreed to pay Long's legal fees in case of a suit by Sandford as part of the settlement to get him out of its hair.
• Buddy Teevens, Stanford. Dartmouth grad (and Big Green head coach from 19987-91) was possibly the only coach in the last half-century hired by a major program mainly for his record on the academic side: In five years at Tulane, Teevens' teams broke the two-win barrier only once, going 4-8 in 1993 (his successor there, Tommy Bowden, would go 12-0 two years after taking the reins), which makes his three-year, 10-23 run at Stanford look like a career renaissance by comparison. His first team in Palo Alto tied for last place in the Pac-10 a year after making a bowl game under Notre Dame-bound Tyrone Willingham in 2001, the last time the Cardinal would see the postseason until noted jock Jim Harbaugh took them to the Sun Bowl last December. (Teevens, meanwhile, is back at Dartmouth, where they'll tolerate a 9-41 record over five years as long as the team can still do math or whatever.)
• Ron Zook, Illinois. His overall record in Champaign is so bad (21-39 over five years, with three seasons of three wins or less) that even the stunning Rose Bowl run in 2007 is unlikely to save Zook's job with another losing season this fall. In fact, that brief success has made the subsequent failure to capitalize over the last two years all the more damning: The young starts of that team, quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn, seemed to steadily regress from that moment on. Even Illini fans (those that have reconciled themselves with Zook's return for a sixth season after last year's death spiral to 3-9, anyway) don't dare hold out hope for an 11th-hour turnaround.
• Ron Zook, Florida. The Gators don't deserve quite the shaming directed at Illinois, if only because they didn't yet have Zook's wobbly tenure in Gainesville to warn them away. Zook has taken credit for recruiting the vast majority of the Gators' 2006 national championship team, but the bottom line is that Steve Spurrier before him was 122-27-1 with six SEC championships, and Urban Meyer after him is 57-10 with two SEC championships, to say nothing of their three national titles. In between, the greatest moments of Zook's tenure included finishing 24th in the final AP poll in 2003, threatening frat boys and ushering in the Meyer era by losing to Mississippi State.
• Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville. Literally nothing good happened here under Kragthorpe -- he was 0-3 against Kentucky, didn't have a single "signature" win, didn't land any stellar recruiting classes, lost promising players to armed robbery with an uzi and being Willie Williams, etc. -- a record so disastrous that even athletic director Tom Jurich was forced to publicly admit "it just didn't seem like the right fit from Day One" when he fired Krags last November. "Day One" is approximately when many fans began to turn against their new coach: The Cards averaged more than 10,000 empty seats at Papa John's Stadium in 2009 as the team sunk to 1-6 in the Big East for its second straight finish (along with Syracuse) in the conference cellar. The offense, easily one of the best in the nation the year before Krags' arrival, finished dead last in the conference in '09 at 18 points per game, less than half its average under Bobby Petrino three years earlier.
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Honorable Mention: John Bunting (North Carolina), Walt Harris (Stanford), George O'Leary (Notre Dame), John Thompson (East Carolina), Paul Wulff (Washington State).