The Dominoes of December
December 23, 2013 by Corrie Trouw • Print Story •
When USC fired head coach Lane Kiffin in September, it initiated a series of coaching changes across the country. Here's how and why the dominoes fell from Los Angeles to Jonesboro and everywhere in between.
Home — Steve Sarkisian leaves Washington for USC
For many, Sarkisian's return to Southern California began the September morning USC Athletic Director Pat Haden left the baggage of Kiffin's career at LAX. But in reality, this reunion course was charted much earlier.
Sarkisian and Kiffin were, of course, the star pupils during Pete Carroll's glorious revival at SC. In a time when gimmicky offenses produced too-good-to-be-true stats, the Trojan offenses of the mid-2000s used a pro-style system to generate solid, sustainable returns.
As the offensive masterminds, the two assistants earned a bevy of overtures to become head coaches elsewhere. However, while Kiffin burned through his stock of star-matter with explosive brashness, Sarkisian planned for longevity.
Rather than jump to an NFL organization notorious for dysfunction or a spiraling program a cultural world away as Kiffin did, Sarkisian bid his time before accepting an opportunity in a familiar setting. Like USC in the 1990s, the Washington Sarkisian found was a big-market Pac-10 school mired in losing despite a rich football tradition and a beneficial recruiting position. The match of coach and program seemed wildly congruous.
But, flashing forward to the present, Sarkisian couldn't replicate the dreamy heights he saw with Carroll. While his tenure saw immediate improvement from the disastrous days of Ty Willingham, the troubling signs of stagnation persisted in recent years as Oregon dominated regionally and Stanford rose meteorically on Sarkisian's watch. Seven or eight wins seemed as good as it could get.
Meanwhile, scarred by postseason bans and the tumult of Kiffin's reign, Trojan Nation needed some stability and a connection to its recent-yet-distant excellence. For a proud, front-running fan base, the "good" Carroll pupil held serious appeal. Nothing in sports sells like nostalgia, and with the mid-2000s in mind, Sarkisian returned to SC.
There's a temporal gravity born of success. Our memories smooth over the outlying rough patches of our best days and stoke the desire to recreate them. No matter where our lives take us or how much time separates us, the places where we were happiest always tug on us.
And that is why Sarkisian's replacement is in for a fight.
Courage — Chris Peterson leaves Boise State for Washington
The literature of America is redundant with mismatches. Watch our movies, read our books, or play our video games, and you will be bombarded with underdogs defying their odds.
For the better part of a decade, the Boise State Broncos have been the college football canvas upon which this narrative has been grafted. And during that span, their head coach was the darling of the underdog-makers.
The appeal of the underdog is obvious: They give hope that greatness is still accessible, even when the odds are against it. We celebrate the mom-and-pop businesses that can outmaneuver corporate giants despite deficits in funding and power. But at some point, mom and pop grow and one day, the well-wishing recedes.
Calling Boise State an underdog at this point is insulting. The Broncos have won multiple BCS bowls, picked off an SEC team in its home state, and produced first round NFL draft picks. Their success is no longer novel.
When Peterson took over after Dan Hawkins left Boise for Colorado, the Broncos still had room to grow. They were still the team that scored by the dozens and played on turf the shade of Superman's spandex.
But today, the Broncos are something else. Stalled by the shifting sands of conference realignment, Boise State is a good program a little off the traditional map. Without access to the television exposure and money that comes with major conference membership, the next step in their evolution is difficult to envision.
And this is why Peterson's move seems like a bummer for everyone involved. After years of being mentioned as a candidate for major jobs, shuffling to a good-not-great BCS mid-packer is disappointing. After perhaps his poorest year at Boise State, is this a coach cashing in his professional gains before the bottom drops out of a once-growing program?
Peterson may have great success at Washington. He won plenty of games, competitive ones, in Boise, and he certainly knows the northwestern quadrant of the football country better than Lewis and Clark. Frankly, the Huskies had to be ecstatic to land him.
But behind it all, there have to be deep pools of doubt. Did the Boise lightening escape Peterson's bottle? Is his gaudy record built on the shaky foundation of a soft conference schedule? The games ahead will be tougher and the first hints of failure will draw the vultures' attention.
The future is never really bright. We may expect its positive content to outweigh the negative, but the days to come are always blanketed by the dark fog of uncertainty.
Unless, of course, you can cling to the present.
Brand — Bryan Harsin leaves Arkansas State for Boise State
Business executives detest marketing budgets. High on cost and low on reliable effectiveness, the old adage admits, "Half of any marketing budget is wasted; I just don't know which half."
In college football, the value of image to certain programs is undeniable. Think of Notre Dame's opulently gold helmets, Michigan's gigantic stadium, or Georgia's on-field flora and fauna. Even in down years, those traditional pieces keep major programs fresh in the college football zeitgeist.
But most college football brands have taken several decades to solidify. Their place in the great pageantry of fall Saturdays is as much the result of survival on the coattails of on-field success as any strategic mastery.
This is why a discussion of the brand for a program whose Division IA membership is just slightly older than the BCS seems silly.
Boise State has risen from a junior college in the late '60s to a significant player in major college football in the present tense. The ascent has been well-chronicled elsewhere, but through a combination of embracing off-prime TV slots, high-powered offenses, and blue Astroturf, the Broncos became the go-to football counterculture.
Even Boise State's critics advanced their cause. Throughout several recent seasons, the November agenda included arguments over the Broncos' viability as a national contender given its off-the-radar status. Just by having the discussion, even as many traditionalists took the negative position, was enough to entrench BSU in the national conversation.
Peterson, of course, shepherded the program through much of this rise. So when faced with his exit, Boise State clung to artifacts of his era.
In 2010, the Bronco brand seeped into college football royalty. Faced with a sputtering offense, Texas hired Boise State offensive coordinator Harsin to add a shade of blue to its tired burnt orange. Given the stations of the two programs, this was like the Queen ordering a Big Mac.
Harsin's star continued to rise, as after two years in Austin he became Arkansas State's head coach for the 2013 season (see below), winning a share of the Sun Belt title. With a year of head coaching under his belt, Harsin was primed for his next opportunity.
And yet, Harsin's candidacy to replace his former boss was hardly a slam dunk. Stung by previous coaches using its program as a stepping stone, Arkansas State placed a relatively lofty buyout in Harsin's contract. A seven-figure buyout is simply the cost of doing business for Alabama or Ohio State, but this was a new tactic for Boise State.
The challenge ahead for Harsin and Boise State is one faced by every traditional power. Even the most glamorous programs go through peaks and valleys of fate, having to rebuild their days of glory with well-worn tools. But what makes this period so critical for Boise is that the Broncos haven't done this before. The program has been a gunslingin' outsider for the duration of its national relevance. Faced with the choice of charting a brand new course or preserving the existing ethos, Boise State chose succession over revolution.
The king is dead. Long live the new king.
Ambition — Blake Anderson leaves offensive coordinator position at North Carolina to become Arkansas State head coach
At some point, you have to feel for athletic directors at smaller schools. On one hand, they want to hire great coaches for their programs; even in low stakes games, you want to be a winner.
But on the other hand, do too well in this task and you're simply auditioning coaches for their next jobs.
In each of the past three seasons, Arkansas State has hired a new coach, enjoyed a successful season, and then watched that coach leave Jonesboro for greener paychecks. In 2011, Hugh Freeze used his undefeated Sun Belt season to land in the SEC at Ole Miss. Undeterred, the Red Foxes used the opening as an opportunity to hire home-state spread guru Gus Malzahn. Malzahn posted a second consecutive 10-win season for the program, and once again the SEC raided ASU, as Malzahn leaped to Auburn.
For 2013, now looking for a fourth coach in four years, ASU looked for a longer-term coach. They hired Texas offensive coordinator Harsin, a somewhat lesser star in the college football sky, who couldn't possibly leave ASU looking for yet another coach for 2014, right?
Last week, ASU introduced Anderson, formerly North Carolina's offensive coordinator, as its fifth head coach in five years. He has no previous head coaching experience, though his stops serving under Larry Fedora have been impressive offensively. For a relatively young coach, this feels like the first stop in a career on the rise.
While ASU's rotation of coaches has spun to a comical extreme, it does emphasize the struggle smaller schools face in hiring and keeping good coaches. With shallower pockets and less appealing opportunities than major schools, these programs have to take chances on out-of-favor veterans or unproven prospects. And if a coach from this lesser pool does display top form, those same deep pockets and sexy opportunities will soon cast baited hooks outside his door.
For a group of hyper-competitive men who know that catching one of these chances can change their financial status for life, these chances are almost always too appealing to pass up. This is why so many romanticized Peterson at Boise State or Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few. In spite of plenty of opportunity, each chose small over big, modesty over ambition.
But this is not the system for those leanings. College football coaching is a cruelly Darwinian world. These men literally compete against each other in the most starkly quantifiable way. Every Saturday, half of them exhale the relief of victory while across the battlefield, the other half gasp for the breath that will let them deal with the setbacks of defeat.
For many, the expanse of the coaching carousel represents the worst in college sports. As coaches play high stakes musical chairs, the players left behind are subject to arcane transfer restrictions that bind them to a school suddenly much different than the one they committed to.
But let's be fair: for most, if not all, of the schools I mentioned above, the players themselves are seeking a loftier destination. While often misguided, a large portion of Division I players simply want a path of less resistance to professional football. For others, college football is the price of a free degree. In the discussion of the nickels and dimes of pay-for-play schemes, we often forget that these are the real cash flows that inspire the pool of cheap labor driving college football.
Somewhere this offseason, a young, anonymous graduate assistant will toil away at a new scheme or perfect a new positional technique. For the scantest of compensation, he will reinvent and refresh the game we love. His payoff is still many years away and contingent on recognition, luck, and even more moments of genius. But if successful, he will one day find himself neatly stacked next to another black plastic block, just waiting for the firm push of opportunity to move him along.