Building From The Bottom Up

Quietly, the number of black head coaches is rising. I say quietly because none of them is really landing at a program known for being anything resembling a football powerhouse. Maybe that’s as it should be, but it’s also part of circumstances that beyond each individual candidate’s control.

dewaynewalker

UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker is set to be introduced tomorrow as the head coach at New Mexico State, joining former Illinois OC Mike Locksley, who took over at UNM mere weeks ago. In that interim, Turner Gill re-upped at Buffalo after losing out on the Auburn gig,  Notre Dame OC Mike Haywood went to the other Miami in Ohio, and Ron English left Louisville after one season as DC and headed back to Michigan — Eastern Michigan, the lowest of the directional schools in the state. That makes seven when you add Houston’s Kevin Sumlin and Miami’s Randy Shannon (the latter being the only one at a BCS school now.)

Given that 7 out of 119 (9 minority coaches out of 119 total) still sucks, but there appears to be no obvious way to crack the ranks further post-Barkley ranting about what many of us thought int he wake of the Gene Chizik hiring. That kind of frustration is writ large sometimes for observers, if the coaches won’t say it themselves, especially in a case like Walker’s, who watched a guy he recruited get a head coaching gig in a BCS conference before he did:

In the mid-1990s, when Walker was a young assistant at Brigham Young, he recruited [Steve] Sarkisian to play quarterback. In 2001, when Walker was at USC and working as Pete Carroll’s associate head coach, Sarkisian was getting his toes wet as quarterbacks coach for the Trojans. On that USC staff was another lower-level assistant, Lane Kiffin.

Sarkisian and Kiffin are now the first-year head coaches at Washington and Tennessee, respectively, at the ripe old ages of 34 and 33.

Now, Walker is headed to Las Cruces, a place where there’s no real tradition to build on. He would have been much better off starting with the San Diego State job that wound up going to Ball State’s Brady Hoke — he wouldn’t have strayed too far from his SoCal recruiting base, and I’m not sure that Hoke was any less of a risky hire in SD (riding Nate Davis’ arm, maybe?)

But it may be better this way for Walker and the others: they are in situations in non-BCS conferences where they have to build programs of their own. As far as the conference goes, it’s not like there are automatic losses in the WAC outside of Boise any longer.

While it’s tougher in principle for Locksley in the Mountain West (Utah, BYU, and TCU make it harder) and for Haywood in the MAC, the old “Field of Dreams” principle will have to do, as minority coaches will have to jump at any head coaching opportunity they can impress with.  What better test of recruiting expertise than by seeing if those connections will work when you make the top job?

“If you build it, they will come.”

Besides, everyone remembers the man who builds a program into a winner. Rarely are the ones who merely maintain a winner as well thought of.

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Rushing The Field: Poll Anarchy

Well, seven weeks in and we’ve got the same damned problem we had last year with college football (or non-problem, for without these issues, the sport isn’t as half as fun to discuss or opine on.)  The field has leveled out so greatly that you have three of the top five getting knocked off on a Saturday.

Oklahoma and Texas were essentially trading blows for about three quarters, with Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy upping the ante on who would be favored in the Heisman race. Texas turned it in the 4th quarter: prodding Bradford into picks and getting big play from McCoy (who was 28-35 passing, good accuracy) along with a huge 60-yard run from Chris Ogbonnaya, and the Horns took the win 45-35. However, any analysis of this game without a lament about the sorry Big 12 officials in charge is incomplete. I understand the reasons for stringent rules about roughing the passer or personal foul calls; you want to keep people from getting hurt. McCoy flopped twice on ruhses out of bounds that got called for 15-yard flags, he and Bradford both were given the gift of flags on roughing penalties that shouldn’t have been called, an OU interception that should have been in the first half wasn’t, and the OU punter put on an acting job that Cristiano Ronaldo would have been ashamed of.

The Swamp is an entirely different beast of a stadium, particularly for a new starting QB like Jarrett Lee in his first road game as LSU “supplied the butt” for Florida to whip, in Mike Patrick’s parlance.  Florida got out to a 20-0 lead at one point; LSU closed it to 6 points, but the Gators’ defense finally stepped up, turning the multitude of running backs of LSU into an ineffective rotation, and forcing them to try to win on Lee’s arm — never a good prospect for a redshirt freshman.  Urban Meyer’s squad wound up putting half a hundred on ’em in the first complete game where Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin were not the sole playmakers in the Gator spread.

T. Boone Pickens’ money is apparently going to good use; it’s enough to buy a defense when there apparently was none.  A 28-23 upset of Missouri at Columbia gives Oklahoma State some of the respect they’ve been seeking, as no other team made Chase Daniel look out of sync as often as the Cowboys did (Mizzou fans may be tempted to blame the fact that Daniel was wearing #25 in honor of a fallen teammate rather than his usual #10 jersey), forcing him into crucial picks late.  Zac Robinson was a revelation for those of us who haven’t taken the time to watch him, pulling touchdown passes out of his ass. One in particular impressed me in the second half: he rolled out left and had NOTHING at the time downfield, he’d just avoided a sack, and to avoid another one, he hurled it to a spot in the end zone where he had two receivers against one cornerback — leap, catch, touchdown.

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Rushing The Field: That Was Supposed To Be Competitive, Right?

Honest question: is 35-3 a bad enough beating for Ohio State that we can no longer consider them candidates for the BCS championship game? After watching USC’s offensive pick apart the secondary and the Trojans’ front seven on defense get after Todd Boeckman early and often, it seems that Jim Tressel’s ethic and mentality in Columbus may need just as much of a change as Lloyd Carr’s did in Michigan. That wound up with Carr leaving and Rich Rodriguez replacing him, but I am not suggesting such a drastic step.  What it may require is Tressel stretching out his recruiting area — because he can get every athlete in the Midwest and many in the Atlantic part of Big 10 territory that he likes, but he isn’t attracting players that can be difference makers in out-of-conference games.  I don’t think Beanie Wells would have made a lick of difference, either, and you know what? I don’t like the Buckeyes much when they have to play Penn State are their spread offense later this year, either.

They may not be able to get by Wisconsin, who grind out wins. For every play that Fresno State made against the Badgers in the San Joaquin Valley, the Badgers had answers and their defense was able to keep Tom Brandstater in check.

The dirty little secret about USC? They have the easiest path to the MNC game because the Pac-10, usually good for 2nd in conference strength behind the SEC these days, is in a down cycle. USC was one of only two Pac-10 teams that won an out-of-conference game convincingly, and I would rather not count Oregon State-Hawai’i as any sort of meaningful OOC game. Oregon lost another QB and snuck by Purdue in OT, to be fair.

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Take The Skinned and Headless Bowling.

For having absolutely nothing — and I mean nothing — in terms of offensive talent available on the field, UCLA looked ready to pull out a squeaker at the last minute, and then the FG offensive line committed the cardinal sin of forgetting to block, hanging its reliable scoring option, kicker Kai Forbath, out to dry with no time left on the clock.   McLeod Bethel-Thompson (I call him the Highlander, but a more amusing nickname is “The Law Firm”) replaced starter Osaar Rashaan at QB early, and actually played somewhat respectably as the game wore on — the fault probably lies more with offensive coordinator Jay Norvell, who never should have been offered a job to come from Nebraska to begin with.  Bronco Mendenhall is a good coach — you can’t win like he does with kids going on missions for two years without being good, but he let UCLA back in with that fumble near the end of the first half. Take a knee, folks, take a knee.  That said — Mendenhall’s goal of positioning next year’s squad for a chance at being the latest Boise State or Hawai’i was accomplished, although probably not in the fashion he’d like.

As for UCLA’s coaching search: I suspect it will be stuck with DeWayne Walker due to its own inaction (eventually Rick Neuheisel will tire of jockeying and begging), and while he is a good, not great, DC, he’s not ready to be a head coach for a BCS conference school yet — it’ll be nice to run him over in the last game of every season.

Cincy’s Brian Kelly won’t get poached by a bigger conference team looking for a coach next season, but let’s just say that he’ll be fielding inquiries after 2008 if he keeps building up. Earning the Bearcats a bowl victory in the Papajohns.com Bowl — it hurts just to type that because it looks so awkward — against a Southern Miss team that has axed coach Jeff Bower for what appears to be no good reason is another stepping stone, and puts that Cats back in the Top 25. If the NCAA smiles upon Ben Mauk and gives him another year of eligibility, a Big East title is not out of Kelly’s reach, particularly with Rich Rodriguez having left the conference, West Virginia won’t automatically be the conference favorite any longer. So, this minor bowl win is just as important to Kelly for next season as it was to finish off this one. Mauk hopes that his 334-yard, four TD performance won’t be his last in a Bearcats uniform.

Nevada’s Chris Ault runs a variation of the shotgun spread he calls “The Pistol.”  Well, his team got pistol whipped by New Mexico, in what was essentially a home game for the Lobos at the New Mexico Bowl.  Nevada couldn’t even sell a quarter of the tickets accounted for its fan base; none of them would have cared to see the Wolf Pack take its first shutout since 1980, snapping a 329-game streak that covered two divisions.   New Mexico won its first bowl game in more than 40 years behind Donovan Porterie’s 354 yards passing and 2 TDs, along with Paul Baker’s 160+ on the ground.

Photo: AP/Sam Morris