Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Sick cycle carousel

Big-time college football programs have become parodies of themselves this year. They can't decide the national championship properly. They can't keep their players out of brawls. And they most certainly can't stop firing head coaches who win but who don't contend for the national title every single year.

This week's casualties include Notre Dame's Tyrone Willingham, who was the National Coach of the Year two years ago and led a Fighting Irish team that was struggling when he arrived to two bowl games in three seasons, and David Cutcliffe of Ole Miss, whose team won 10 games last year but struggled through an inevitable rebuilding year after superstar quarterback Eli Manning graduated. Ron Zook, who also lost his job earlier this season, just led Florida to a 7-4 finish and has recruited one of the most powerful offenses in the country during his tenure.

Zook engaged in a few antics at a fraternity house that could have been the real reason behind his firing, but I see no excuse for Notre Dame and Ole Miss to treat their coaches as they did. I won't even touch the undercurrent of racism in Willingham's dismissal, except to note that Bob Davie and Gerry Faust, two white coaches who after three years had records similar to Willingham's mark, each got five seasons under the Golden Dome. Willingham, the first black head coach in school history, only got three years to try to install a whole new offense and style of play at Notre Dame.

What's behind all of these coaching changes? Big money, of course, and the ultracompetitive environment that big money produces. ESPN.com guest columnist Alan Grant has an excellent analysis of the hypocrisy and win-at-all-costs mentality that resulted in Willingham getting the ax.

Today's college football fans are more impatient for success than ever before. Fans want instant gratification, and lots of it. God forbid that you have a down year in the middle of an extended period of success; you'll be out of work. And sometimes even a long stretch of success isn't enough if it isn't perfection. Just ask Frank Solich, who got canned at Nebraska last year during a season in which his team won 10 games. (The Cornhuskers, you'll be glad to know, were on the wrong side of karma this season and finished 5-6.) That firing sent a clear message to college football head coaches: Forget about graduation rates and playing with class and all that other nonsense that we used to prattle on about endlessly. Go to a BCS bowl every single year or we'll find someone else to put on the cover of the media guide.

We've forgotten that patience is a virtue, and in few places is that clearer than in the sports world. Until we can find a way to remember that success doesn't come overnight, college football's coaching carousel will just keep spinning on and on.

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