Coaching Changes for Bowl Games
by Trevor Whenham - 12/01/2006
The end of the regular season in college football means several things. Conferences grab cash with championship games, seniors from losing teams say goodbye to college, top juniors decide whether they are going pro and coaches get fired or bolt for greener pastures. This year the coaching carousel is already spinning as quickly and as unexpectedly as it ever has.
When coaches like Chuck Amato at N.C. State or John L. Smith at Michigan State get fired you can just sit back and watch as the teams hire a replacement for next season. It has no immediate effect on you. Several teams this year, though, are heading into bowl games after having either fired a coach or having a coach quit. Mike Shula at Alabama got his walking papers, though his team still has a bowl, likely the Independence, to play. Dirk Koetter, the man who made a mess of the quarterback position at Arizona State, is gone from the Hawaii Bowl-bound Sun Devils. Larry Coker is no longer the leader of the band of hooligans that are the Boise-bound Miami Hurricanes. Mark Dantinio has abandoned Cincinnati to take the job at Michigan State, where he was previously a coordinator. In each of those cases we have to figure out the impact of the coaching change on the team if we want to properly handicap their bowl games.
Recent history doesn't make the situation clear. For example, Frank Solich was fired after Nebraska went 9-3 in 2003. Bo Pelini, the defensive coordinator (and now in the same position at LSU), took over the head coaching reins for the Alamo Bowl. Nebraska crushed Michigan State 17-3, holding the potent Spartans' offense to just one field goal. On the other hand, Notre Dame's last change wasn't nearly as successful. After Ty Willingham got blamed for all that was wrong with the Irish in 2004, the team almost didn't bother playing in the Insight Bowl. They might as well have stayed home. Under interim coach Kent Baer, who was also the defensive coordinator, Notre Dame put up a pathetic effort in losing to Oregon State 38-21.
Cincinnati's situation is an interesting one. They were only 7-5, but their non-conference schedule was among the toughest out there, with trips to both Virginia Tech and Ohio State. Their second last game under Dantinio was the huge win against undefeated Rutgers that could have really been a building block for the program. Dantinio found the job he couldn't refuse, though, and his players only found out about it by watching ESPN. They are obviously angry. Pat Narduzzi, the Bearcats' defensive coordinator and interim head coach, will have the job of getting the team focused and directing their bitterness towards their old coach onto their opponents. Emotion is very valuable for a team, but negative emotions are deadly. Cincinnati was going to be a very interesting, and potentially very attractive, team in their bowl before Dantinio left. Now it is much less clear.
The players at Alabama go into their bowl facing a different set of emotions. For the most part the team liked playing for Shula, and they were surprised and disappointed when he was let go. So were a lot of outsiders, since the Tide had a very good year just last year. Team officials just couldn't handle losing to Auburn every year, though. Yet another defensive coordinator, Joe Kines, will take over the team for their bowl. Again, the trick here will be to get the team thinking about the game, not what happened to Shula, or who their next coach might be. The Tide does have a bit of an advantage in this situation in an odd way, though. Seniors on the team are used to coaching changes, since Kines will be the fourth head coach of the team since they were being recruited.
Miami and Arizona State present another challenge to try to figure out. Though Coker and Koetter have been fired, they have both been retained to coach their team in their bowl game. The question has to be, then, how much these coaches will have their hearts into preparing for the games. Both coaches are probably good enough to end up coaching somewhere, so they will be looking around for their next gig, potentially at the cost of game preparation. Players probably won't be as keen to work hard and study hard for a coach that has no future. Both these teams have to be considered less attractive now than they would have been if they were coming in with a permanent coach. The trick will be to figure out how much worse they will be because of their situations.
When you're handicapping bowl games this year, you'll want to consider not just these four teams, but also teams that could go through a coaching change between now and their bowl, and even teams that have coaches that are widely rumored to be going elsewhere. Those situations can be the distraction that makes the difference in a bowl game. There are several teams that could find themselves in this situation. South Florida's Jim Leavitt is a current golden boy who has been talked about for virtually every job that has come open. His team plays in the PapaJohns.com Bowl (this year's stupidest name) on Dec. 23. Alabama's job is obviously drawing all sorts of speculation, including big names which coach bowl-eligible teams, like Steve Spurrier, Rich Rodriguez, Jeff Tedford, Greg Schiano, and Jim Grobe of Wake Forest. Miami's another job that will draw all sorts of big time attention, and cause all sorts of distraction.