Friday, January 25, 2008

Agents of Change

Change is not always good and not all changes are equal.

Just because 15 percent of Division I-A teams hired new coaches, it doesn't mean they'll all enjoy success in due time. In fact, some programs are doomed to fail (again) while others are investing in a leap of faith in unfamiliar faces.

Of 120 Division I-A schools, 18 will begin the 2008 season with a different leading man from the ones they started 2007. We'll look these new hires, assess their prospects, and of course, list them according to the grades they received, from the best to worst:

SOUTHERN METHODIST -- June Jones > Phil Bennett: For a moribund program that's not recovered from being the only recipient of the NCAA death penalty, this was quite a coup. Its search process had been futile and rightfully ridiculed, yet SMU's patience paid off at the end. Jones might not re-enact the glory days of Pony Express, but given the school's location and resources, the Mustangs have the potential to be a non-BCS powerhouse. A+

MISSISSIPPI -- Houston Nutt > Ed Orgeron: Firing Coach O wasn't that hard of a decision -- the former USC assistant was a spectacular flop. Getting Nutt, though, makes it all the better for Ole Miss. Here's a very successful coach for various reasons got run out of Arkansas, now he'll have a chance to restore a floundering Rebels program, perhaps at the expense of his alma mater. A

NEBRASKA -- Bo Pelini > Bill Callahan: If there was ever a case of addition by subtraction, this was it. Nebraska earns a good grade by simply getting rid of Callahan, who was ill-suited for the job from Day One. Hiring the defensive coordinator of BCS champion LSU makes it even better. The days of the Black Skirts giving up 70 points per game are probably numbered. A

MICHIGAN -- Rich Rodriguez > Lloyd Carr: This hire would've probably scored better if not for the post-hiring grudge match between West Virginia and Rodriguez's camp. Michigan fumbled the chance to get LSU's Les Miles, yet at the end it ended up with the best young coach in the country. Now if the Wolverines can convince Terrelle Pryor to come to Ann Arbor ... look out! A-

UCLA -- Rick Neuheisel > Karl Dorrell: Make no mistake, this was a great hire. Neuheisel, an alum who cut his coaching teeth under former Bruins head man Terry Donahue, is the only one UCLA could've hired that might put a little scare in the crosstown Trojan Empire. He's already made great choices in coordinators with the retention of DeWayne Walker and addition of Norm Chow. Don't worry about all the NCAA stuff, that's ancient history. A-

GEORGIA TECH -- Paul Johnson > Chan Gailey: There was really nothing left for Johnson to accomplish at Navy, really. Now he'll find out whether a variation of his option attack can work in a BCS conference. Johnson knows the area, having been the head coach at Georgia Southern before joining the Naval Academy. The question is, can he get the right kind of athletes to run his system. B+

NORTHERN ILLINOIS -- Jerry Kill > Joe Novak: Northern Illinois raided its in-state neighbor for this hire. Kill moves up literally (from Southern Illinois) and figuratively (from I-AA) to a program that's a powerhouse in MAC. Before going 2-10 in 2007, Novak had led the Huskies to seven straight winning seasons and two bowl appearances. B+

ARKANSAS -- Bobby Petrino > Houston Nutt: If you can somehow separate Petrino the coach from Petrino the man, this would've been a grade A hire. Unfortunately, Petrino came with so much baggage that it must be considered. How long will it take before he casts a wandering eye elsewhere? At the end of the 2008 season, in the middle of the 2008 season? And can you really take his word for anything? History says no. B

BAYLOR -- Art Briles > Guy Morriss: Baylor was the 12th and last entry into the Big 12, and often times it really doesn't act/play like a BCS conference team. Briles will have to work near-miracles to turn around the fortunes of Baylor, which has had 12 straight losing seasons. The situation is so dire that the school's most illustrious alum, Mike Singletary, turned down the job. B

HOUSTON -- Kevin Sumlin > Art Briles: Of all the off-season new hires, the Cougars are the only one who landed a black coach, the eighth among 120 Division I-A teams. Sumlin earned valuable experience under the tutelage of Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and this past season helped develop freshman quarterback Sam Bradford. Houston, given its location in a recruit-rich area, has the potential to become a non-BCS powerhouse, much like SMU. B

NAVY -- Ken Niumatalolo > Paul Johnson: The Naval Academy was probably pretty well prepared for Johnson's eventual departure -- for the past 2-3 years it was just a matter of when. Niumatalolo is very familiar with the system and is well regarded by his players, and he's aware Johnson set the bar very high. He also becomes the first Division I-A coach of Samoan descent. B

TEXAS A&M -- Mike Sherman > Dennis Franchione: A former pro coach returning to the college ranks, hmmm, we've heard this before. But Sherman has had a long association with A&M, including a two-part, seven-year stint as an assistant for R.C. Slocum. Franchione did most everything wrong in the eyes of the Aggies, but he did manage to beat Texas a few times. Sherman will have to be even better than that. B

WASHINGTON STATE -- Paul Wulff > Bill Doba: WSU toyed around with the idea of luring back former coach Mike Price, but decided on a youth movement, hiring alum Wulff away from Eastern Washington. The Cougars are having an increasingly tough time competing in the Pac-10 as salaries for coaches escalated over the past 10 years. With a base package at around $500,000, Wulff will be the lowest paid head coach in the conference. B-

DUKE -- David Cutcliff > Ted Roof: Coach K almost openly advocated disbanding of the football team. And he had a good point: If Duke isn't trying to be the best, why bother? The administration decided not to scrap the program and hired Cutcliff away from Tennessee. He did well as the head coach at Ole Miss and did not get a fair shake there (the Rebels got what they deserved in Orgeron). But the Duke job has proved a career killer for everyone not named Steve Spurrier. C+

WEST VIRGINIA -- Bill Stewart > Rich Rodriguez: Hiring an interim coach based on a knee-jerk reaction is never a good idea, and this fits the bill to a T. WVU was busy dumping on Rodriguez and sleepwalking through the process of hiring his replacement. Stewart did well in retaining defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, otherwise the situation would've been an unmitigated disaster. Rest assured the Mountaineers' days as a BCS powerhouse are numbered. C+

COLORADO STATE -- Steve Fairchild > Sunny Lubick: After being away from the college game for seven years, the former CSU quarterback returns to coach his alma mater. Lubick had built a respectable program in Fort Collins over the past 15 seasons, though over the last four seasons the Rams have been in decline, culminating in his firing at the end of a 3-9 campaign. Fairchild inherits an unstable situation with not a lot to work with. C

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI -- Larry Fedora > Jeff Bower: Of all the post-season firings/involuntary resignations, this one takes the cake. Just what exactly did Bower do wrong? Was it the 14 consecutive winning seasons? Was it the 10 bowl appearances in the last 11? Well, it must be that the Golden Eagles haven't won a national championship! Talk about not realizing that you have a good thing going. And this takes nothing away from Fedora, who may prove himself to be a fine coach. C-

HAWAI'I -- Greg McMackin > June Jones: No offense to McMackin, because someone has to be named coach, but just how did Hawai'i let Jones get away? This guy left the NFL to come to one of the most decrepit Division I-A programs in all of college football. Before Jones took over, the Rainbows were 0-12. When he left, the Warriors were 12-1 with a BCS bowl berth. But in the meantime, almost nothing has changed with UH's broken down facilities. No wonder AD Herman Frazier got canned the very next day. F

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