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On the perils of trying to fire one’s way out of “Glen Mason Territory” October 15, 2018

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Last year, SB Nation’s Bill Connelly wrote about the perils to which average and above-average football programs expose themselves when they fire a coach who has been winning games, except that now he’s not winning enough games.  He dubbed this situation “Glen Mason Territory”.

What happens is that a team (typically, a 2nd-tier Power Five program) is in the doldrums, suffering from a string of losing seasons.  The university’s AD hires a new coach who then comes in and rights the ship.  Instead of losing season after losing season, the program now enjoys winning seasons.  The team starts going to bowl games, say, five over the course of seven years.  The fans are loving it.  They want more.  The boosters want more.  The athletics director wants more.

Except that the head coach cannot deliver more.  It’s usually not his fault.  There’s often a set of structural limitations in place, and despite the community’s clamoring, the coach, despite all he has done, cannot deliver on the expectations that have been unintentionally raised.  In other words, the coach did raise the bar of performance expectations, which was great for a while.  Now the fans and everyone else take this for grant, and want it raised even further, which is an impossible task.  Instead of accepting this frank fact of life, the fans call for the AD to do the feel-good thing, which is to fire the coach and replace him someone who (they think) deliver on these raised (often, unreasonable) expectations.

Let us briefly consider the namesake of “Glen Mason Territory” for a moment as an example.  Glen Mason was a former Ohio State coordinator who did an impressive salvage job at Kansas in the 1990s.  Minnesota hired him in 1997 for a similar turnaround.  Despite the Golden Gophers’ past tradition (having won multiple national titles in the 1930s and 1940s under Bernie Bierman), the program had been absent from the national conscious since most of the 1960s (having won the whole thing, oddly, in 1960).

Mason started to deliver in 1999, winning eight games that year, including a massive upset over then, No. 2 Penn State.  The following year, they sent Ohio State’s national title aspirations into an early death spiral, in the Horseshoe, no less.  As Bill Connelly tells it further:

“The Gophers would bowl again in 2000 and 2002, then surge in 2003. Behind the punishing combination of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney, they beat Penn State and Wisconsin on the way to a 9-3 regular season, then Oregon in a Sun Bowl thriller to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1905.

The problem: he never won 10 again. The Gophers started 2004 5-0 and reached 13th before losing five of six down the stretch and needing a bowl win to salvage 7-5. They went 7-5 again in 2005 and were on the doorstep of a third straight seven-win season in 2006 before blowing an enormous Insight Bowl lead to Texas Tech.

A year after a contract extension, Minnesota used the bowl collapse as impetus for panic. Despite seven bowls in eight years — for a program that had been almost absent from college football’s consciousness for nearly four decades — the school pushed Mason out.

The program had grown stale, you see, and needed young energy. “I believe the program needs a new vision to reignite fan enthusiasm,” said athletic director Joel Maturi.”

The question in the mind of many of the readers by now is, ‘why couldn’t Minnesota “got over the hump”, so to speak?’  One reason, at the time, was facilities.  If a Big Ten recruit went to, say, Michigan, Ohio State, or even Penn State on visits was able to take in the grandeur of their home stadia, they would be most unimpressed by seeing the Metrodome as their potential home stadium if they chose to don the Maroon & Gold.  Having been on the sidelines for a game there once, I personally can vouch for how sterile a place it is.  Despite the university’s best efforts to jazz it up with bunting and national championship banners in the school’s colors all over the place on game day, it remains sterile, even negatively inspiring.  As one of my fellow student managers at the time said so succinctly, “that place just sucks the life force out of you.”

Seeing things along those lines, one can appreciate the difficulties that Mason had to overcome in attaining the success his team enjoyed.  But in the end, it wasn’t good enough.  Why?  Answer: expectations that have been raised beyond reason.

Notice in Connelly’s writing how he cited then-AD Joel Maturi saying the program had “grown stale”.  Such wording is a symptom of the fallacious “this-is-who-we-now-are mentality”, when a program long in the doldrums all of a sudden enjoys a spate of success.  Pretty soon, the fan base starts to take this newfound success for granted, and becomes increasingly restless when the coach fails to deliver even more success, more than the program is structurally built to deliver under modern constraints.

Consider, again, Minnesota.  Sure, the Twin Cities might produce several players talented enough to compete at a high level, but much of the rest of the roster is made up of recruits from Ohio who were passed over by the Buckeyes.  In explicably, you’ll find a few players from Florida and Texas (e.g., Marion Barber III) in there, too.  But the immediate point is, there is not enough local talent from which to draw in order to build up a roster that can consistently vie for the national title.  The only team in such a predicament that has come close to such viability is Oregon (proving that there is always an exception to the rule), with maybe Washington to a lesser extent.

So Mason was already dealing with that structural roadblock to meeting unrealistic expectations, in addition to the stadium, which was a potential turn-off to recruits.  Not until 2009 did they open up TCF Bank Stadium on the school’s main campus.  Had Mason had this shiny new stadium at this disposal then, things might have been a little different (emphasis on ‘might have been’).

Consider weather, too.  Sure, Minnesota is a great school, and the Twin Cities are reasonably happening, but it’s also cold…very cold.  Most recruits might choose to brave the cold winters in Columbus, Ohio, or even State College, Pa., or even Ann Arbor, Mich., but they’ll draw the line at the next-level frigidity of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  Can one blame them?

Of course, asking the reasonable thing, which is for the fan base to take these structural obstacles into consideration to damper their unrealistic expectations is apparently too much to ask these days.  These unrealistic expectations lead to impatience, which leads to rash decisions.  So naturally they fired Mason.  They brought in Tim Brewster as his replacement.  Brewster promised to recruit, to be the ‘shot in the arm’ the program needed, etc., and proceeded to go 15-30.  For comparison, Mason went 64-57.  Will the Gopher faithful give charismatic young coach P.J. Fleck the chance to duplicate Mason’s efforts?  That all depends on if they learned anything from this experience.

Other fan bases seem not to be have learned, and have suffered the consequences as a result.  To wit:

Arizona State fired Todd Graham, despite his 7-5 regular season record in 2017.  The program had not been competitive consistently since the Frank Kush years of the 1970s.  Bruce Snyder did the best job in recent years, leading the Sun Devils to almost win the national title in 1996.  Snyder’s leadership proved that the Sun Devils are capable of high ceilings, but brief ones.  Arizona State has hired former NFL head coach Herm Edwards in his stead.  It remains to be seen if this risky hire will pan out, but at least it is an interesting hire.  One thing that ASU does have going for it is that it’s located in a geographical spot with an endless summer, a campus that sports tons of pretty co-eds, and the Phoenix area is a decent hotbed for good recruits.  Theoretically, the right coach could set the entire Pac-12 on notice, as Bruce Snyder did in the mid-to-late 1990s.

But as Bill Connelly wisely points out, schools without such advantages who nevertheless act on the impatience born of unrealistically raised expectations can suffer major consequences.

  • On the heels of 11- and nine-win seasons, Boston College pushed Jeff Jagodzinski out because he deigned to interview for other jobs. They were 2-10 four years later and haven’t reached nine wins since.

  • Ron Zook took Illinois to nine wins and a Rose Bowl in 2007, and after a two-year reset, got them back to 7-6 in both 2010 and 2011. He was fired. Illinois has averaged 3.7 wins per year since.

  • Dan McCarney won at least seven games five times in a six-year span at Iowa State but was let go after a 4-8 downturn in 2006. ISU has not topped seven wins since, though that could change with an upcoming bowl game.

To be sure, current ISU head coach Matt Campbell has made Jack Trice Stadium a perilous place to play for undefeated teams, as top-ten West Virginia just learned last night the hard way.

  • Ralph Friedgen took Maryland to seven bowls in 10 years, and after a two-win collapse in 2009, rebounded to nine wins in 2010. Maryland has averaged 4.7 wins per year since firing him.

  • NC State pushed Tom O’Brien out in 2012 after 24 wins in three years. Their best three-year win total since: 22.*

Dave Doeren has brought NC State back to respectability (and rankings), but it has taken the program several years to return to this spot.

  • David Cutcliffe won seven or more games for five straight years at Ole Miss, peaking with a 10-win campaign in 2003. But after a 4-7 reset in 2004, he was fired. The Rebels would top four wins twice in the next seven years.

  • Pitt pushed Dave Wannstedt out after after 26 wins in three years. The Panthers have averaged 6.6 wins since.

  • Despite seven ranked finishes in 11 years, Syracuse fired Paul Pasqualoni after he hit a dry spell. He went 4-8 in 2002 then rebounded to only 6-6 in 2003-04. Syracuse went 10-37 under replacement Greg Robinson and has averaged 4.4 wins since Pasqualoni.

Dino Babers has methodically built Syracuse into a better program, but consider that the hiatus between this decent year and Pasqualoni’s last season is 13 years.

  • Phil Fulmer took Tennessee to 15 bowls and five SEC championship games in 16 years. He won the national title in 1998 and won at least eight games 14 times. He fell to 5-6 in 2005 but rebounded back to 10 wins in 2007. After a second five-win reset in 2008, he was fired. The Vols have hit the eight-win mark twice in the nine years since.

But what about Georgia, you ask?  That’s really not an exception to the rule after all.  Mark Richt had been consistently winning at Georgia but failed to bring home a national championship trophy.  Nick Saban and others did have something to do with that, but again, it’s almost too much to expect folks to be reasonable, especially in SEC country, where “it just means…more”.  So, they fired Richt and brought in Alabama assistant coach Kirby Smart.  And he too, won games, even played his former team for the national title.  And lost, because Nick Saban’s Alabama these days is a consistent juggernaut.  Nevertheless, Smart succeeded where Richt failed.  So firing their way out of Glen Mason Territory has panned out for Georgia thus far, but that’s because they have access to tons of NFL-potential talent in Greater Atlanta, their own backyard.  So there.

The conclusion to which Connelly arrived in his article is that a school cannot simply fire-a-coach its way out of “Glen Mason Territory”.  Why?  Let us consider basic reality.  Football, unlike economics, is a zero-sum game.  When one team wins a game, that means that team’s opponent had to lose that game.  Not all teams can be championship-viable teams all the time.  It is simply impossible.  Furthermore, because of this zero-sum fact of life football (and most other sports), not everybody can be good all the time.  Even traditional powers have had down years (just look at Alabama in between the Mike Dubose and Nick Saban years).

Second, not all teams are built to be national-title contenders.  Again, one key factor is, does your state produce enough local talent to compete nationally?  In states like California, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, or Florida, (borderline case:  Arizona) that is a given.  Even Oklahoma does not produce the players it used to (to be sure, even during the glory days of Bud Wilkinson, OU has had to recruit Texas to be successful).  The only state north of the Sunbelt that can remotely compete on that scale is Ohio.  Everyone else has to recruit from those states just to be in a position to win games, period.

Also, unlike in the pros, where teams choose the players, in college, the players choose the programs.  That means that many blue chip recruits who have options are not going to flock to the Arctic climbs of Minnesota, or the isolated, wind-swept plains of Nebraska if they can land a scholarship at Georgia or LSU or even TCU instead.  Ohio State has managed to stay viable despite its cold winters due to the total commitment of the university, plus the community and state at large, to muster every last resource needed to attract the players necessary to compete at that level.

When a coach raises the bar of performance expectations but cannot raise it further, it’s usually not the coach’s fault.  It’s program history for one.  Georgia, for example, only has two national titles, one from 1942 and from 1980; the former being shared with Ohio State.  As discussed at some length, it’s also infrastructure (e.g., facilities and access to NFL-caliber talent), and program support.  But dealing with these issues ranges from difficult to impossible.  Instead of dealing with these realities like responsible people, too often people take the feel-good way out (in reality, a dead end) and kill the messenger by firing the very coach who improved the team’s standing and situation in the first place.

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College Football Awards, Week 8 (2017) October 22, 2017

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(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 8] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES
Wish I were him: James Franklin, Penn State

Glad I’m not him: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Lucky guy: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Poor guy: Tom Herman, Texas

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Matt Campbell, Iowa State

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Clay Helton, USC

Desperately seeking … anything:  Larry Fedora, North Carolina

TEAMS
Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Virginia Tech (defeated North Carolina 59-7)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Miami (defeated Syracuse 27-19)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Tennessee (lost to No. 1 Alabama 45-7)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Baylor (lost to No. 23 West Virginia 38-36)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Missouri (defeated Idaho 68-21)

Dang, they’re good: Alabama

Dang, they’re bad:  Georgia Southern

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  USC

Did the season start?  Michigan

Can the season end?  Tennessee

Can the season never endPenn State

GAMES
Play this again:  No. 9 Oklahoma 42, Kansas State 35

Play this again, too:  No. 10 Oklahoma State 13, Texas 10

Never play this again: Missouri 68, Idaho 21

What? Rutgers 14, Purdue 12

Huh?  Iowa State 31, Texas Tech 13

Are you kidding me??  Boston College 41, Virginia 10

Oh – my – GodNo. 13 Notre Dame 49, No. 11 USC 14

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 8, pre-week 9)
Ticket to die for:  No. 2 Penn State @ No. 6 Ohio State (B1G game of the year?)

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five  matchup: (none)

Best non-Power Five matchup: Houston @ No. 16 South Florida

Upset alert: No. 14 NC State @ No. 9 Notre Dame

Also:  Florida State @ Boston College

Must win: No. 3 Georgia @ Florida

Offensive explosion: No. 10 Oklahoma State @ No. 23 West Virginia

Defensive struggle: Vanderbilt @ South Carolina

Great game no one is talking about: California @ Colorado

Also:  Mississippi State @ Texas A&M

Intriguing coaching matchup:  James Franklin of Penn State vs Urban Meyer of Ohio State

Also:  Kirk Ferentz of Iowa vs. P.J. Fleck of Minnesota

Who’s bringing the body bags? No. 8 Miami (FL) @ North Carolina

Why are they playing? Austin Peay @ No. 18 UCF

Plenty of good seats remaining: San Jose State @ BYU

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Texas State @ Coastal Carolina

Week 8 Random Thoughts:

Poor Texas. Try as they might with their strong defense, offensively they cannot score enough points to get over the proverbial hump.  Yesterday in Austin, they held No. 10-ranked Oklahoma State, with the most productive offense in the county, to only 13 points.  However, the Longhorns in turn could only score 10 points.  Texas seems to have a capable quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, but he is only a true freshman, and the offense seems to rely too much on his guts and determination alone.  Part of the problem is that many of the offensive players are still young, and shall have to grow in experience, and presumably in capability as well.  The tentative verdict is that it will simply take time for the Horns to return to Top-10 status.  They are close, but not there yet.

Speaking of taking time, Purdue practically controlled their own destiny.  Current trajectories indicated they had a clear path to start a decent winning streak after getting beat up by a couple of conference heavyweights.  Then they lost by two points on the road to Rutgers.  Yes, Rutgers.  What happened?  Most likely, defensive coordinators around the league have taken notice of the tricks that Jeff Brohm has been left no choice but to use on account of the dearth of talent that his predecessor has left him.  Thus, for Purdue to show marked, consistent improvement, things shall take more time.  Basically, Brohm will need to bring in better recruiting classes so as to beat his opponents on the field with talent instead of trickery.  This of course is not to blame the man for what he is doing right now.  If we were in his proverbial shoes, we would likely find ourselves left to resort to the same things.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is officially a dumpster fire.  Sure, we all knew at this rate that Alabama would blast them into defeat, but what none of us anticipated was the lack of dignity on the Vols’ part.  The obscene gesture to Bama’s fans by one of Tennessee’s defensive backs after a pick-six is a black eye to the program, and could only hasten Butch Jones’ eventual departure as head coach.  But that aside, the Volunteers do have talent on their team.  Jones has sadly failed to harness it properly, to say nothing of orchestrating that talent into a cohesive effort at the top level that the SEC demands.

To put it another way with regard to the Vols and their current dumpster-fire status, they are to play Kentucky next week.  Tennessee is currently 3-4, while the Wildcats, who usually only barely belong in the SEC, are 5-2.  Yes, that means the world is officially upside-down.

Meanwhile, it’s always mildly intriguing when two conference foes who are about to butt heads share the same thing in common.  Think:  Mississippi State vs. Georgia, as both are the Bulldogs.  Think also:  LSU vs. Auburn, or Missouri vs. LSU, or Auburn vs. Missouri.  All three are the Tigers.  In the case of Mississippi State and Texas A&M, though, both have the same school colors of maroon and white, and both play each other next week.  What makes things even more intriguing is that both have quietly amassed a respectable 5-2 record in the course of the season.  After that game, those records shall inevitably diverge.

This week was a statistical anomaly, specifically with a cluster of defensive struggles.  Who would have thought that Indiana at Michigan State would have been such a defensive struggle, with a 17-9 outcome in the Spartans’ favor?  Even more to the point was the aforementioned 13-10 outcome at Texas.  That the Horns held the Cowboys’ high-powered offense to just 13 points (including one overtime) must surely cause Mike Gundy to reach for the Rolaids while watching film today.  If that’s not enough, the Purdue-Rutgers affair ended at 14-12 in favor of the Scarlet Knights.  Northwestern and Iowa kept the score low at 17-10.  UConn triumphing over Tulsa 20-14 does not count in past eras, but might as well in a time where the hurry-up, no-huddle offense is de rigueur. Same thing goes for Western Michigan over Eastern Michigan, 20-17…in overtime, no less.

College Football Awards Week 6 October 13, 2015

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CharlieStrongRRS2015

Texas head coach Charlie Strong celebrates with his team after their incredible upset over rival Oklahoma. Judging by the photo, it seems as though he might have won back the locker room. Photo from the Dallas Morning News.

(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 6] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES Wish I were him: Kyle Whittingham, Utah

Glad I’m not him: Steve Sarkesian, USC

Lucky guy: Butch Jones, Tennessee

Poor guy: Mark Richt, Georgia

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Gary Patterson, TCU

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Matt Campbell of Toledo

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Bob Stoops, Oklahoma

Desperately seeking … anything:  Steve Spurrier, South Carolina

TEAMS Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Baylor (defeated Kansas 66-7)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Oklahoma (see below)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Troy (lost to Mississippi State 45-17)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Texas (see below)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Michigan (see below)

Dang, they’re good: Baylor

Dang, they’re bad:  Miami, Ohio

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  USC

Did the season start? Miami, Fla.

Can the season end?  South Carolina

Can the season never endUtah

GAMES

Play this again:  Texas 24, No. 10 Oklahoma 17

Play this again, too:  Tennessee 38, No. 19 Georgia 31

Never play this again: No. 3 Baylor 66, Kansas 7

What? No. 18 Michigan 38, No. 13 Northwestern 0

HuhWashington 17, No. 17 USC 12

Are you kidding me?  Tennessee 38, No. 19 Georgia 31

Oh – my – GodTexas 24, No. 10 Oklahoma 17

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 6, pre-week 7)

Ticket to die for:  No. 7 Michigan State @ No. 12 Michigan

Also:  No. 10 Alabama @ No. 9 Texas A&M

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five matchup: No. 13 Ole Miss @ Memphis

Best non-Power Five matchup: Akron @ Bowling Green

Upset alert: Louisville @ No. 11 Florida State

Must win: USC @ No. 14 Notre Dame

Offensive explosion: West Virginia @ No. 2 Baylor

Defensive struggle: Vanderbilt @ South Carolina

Great game no one is talking about:  No. 17 Iowa @ No. 20 Northwestern

Intriguing coaching matchup:  Jim Mora of UCLA vs David Shaw of Stanford

Who’s bringing the body bags? No. 3 TCU @ Iowa State

Why are they playing? Louisiana Tech @ Mississippi State

Plenty of good seats remaining: Georgia State @ Ball State

They shoot horses, don’t they?  Troy @ Mississippi State

Week 5 Take-aways:

What a weekend of upsets and near-upsets.  One obvious near-miss:  Gary Patterson’s TCU almost got upset on the road to Bill Snyder’s Kansas State.  You just know that the old man was not going to roll over for the vaunted Horned Frogs.  In the end, the near-miss cost the Frogs one spot in the rankings, as they are down to No. 3 from the No. 2 spot.

Similarly, Alabama took a while to get going at home against Arkansas.  Eventually the Tide decided to start playing football, but they were down to the under-performing Hogs for too long of a time in regulation to be taken seriously as a contending team.

Now the upsets:  we all knew that Northwestern was a legitimate team.  Most of us thought that the Wildcats playing the Michigan Wolverines would be the game of the week.  That turned out, in the end, not to be the case.  Jim Harbaugh seems to be building the Wolverrines to become stronger by the week.

Then there was the upset of the USC Trojans, at home, against Chris Petersen’s scrappy Washington Huskies.  We were all hoping for a good game, but certainly did not foresee the the embarrassment at home for the Men of Troy – though the subsequent news of Steve Sarkesian’s major alcohol problem certainly explains USC’s volatile performance this season.  Let us all wish a complete, sober recover for Sark as he embarks on a rehab program.

Or what about Tennessee?  The poor Vols were unable to “close the deal,” blowing leads to both Oklahoma and to Florida, leading to heartbreaking losses in so doing.  This time around, however, they had to play from behind, and upset the heavily-favored Georgia Bulldogs in so doing.  So much for Georgia’s national championship hopes this year.

But let us not fool ourselves.  The biggest upset of the week came in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.  All of us, even the team’s fans, had given the Texas Longhorns up for dead, especially after the devastating loss to TCU the previous week.  Coach Charlie Strong seemed to have lost the locker room, and he was strategically flailing in terms of not having an offensive or defensive identity.

Perhaps the rival Oklahoma Sooners were just naïve enough to take the bait.  The Horns looked like an entirely different team this past Saturday than they did for the entire season leading up to this fateful day.  Texas drew first blood late in the first quarter, and, mirabile dictu, did not relinquish the lead for the rest of the game.  Moreover, Strong somehow regained his identity, effectively playing a run-oriented, ball-control offense that left OU’s defense sucking wind by late in the 4th quarter.  It was just enough to hold on and to upset their heavily-favored rival.  It also likely saved Coach Strong’s bacon for the rest of the year.  Hook ‘em!