January 21, 2008

Monday's with Mike: Good hire?

Hawaii promoted defensive coordinator Greg McMackin to coach last week, meaning each of the 18 schools looking for a new coach has filled its position.

Let's take a closer look at the hires. We've grouped them in four categories and listed them alphabetically within those categories


Colorado State: Steve Fairchild played and coached with the Rams and knows what he is getting himself into. He had spent the past seven seasons in the NFL, including the past two as offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. He was offensive coordinator for Colorado State from 1997-2000 under Sonny Lubick, who did great work in rebuilding the program, then saw the Rams tail off significantly in the past two seasons. Fairchild, who re-hired former Rams defensive coordinator Larry Kerr to be his defensive coordinator, can use his NFL ties on the recruiting trail. Though the Mountain West is a better league than most think, he'll have the Rams on the plus side of the ledger in short order.

Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson did a superb job at Navy and will be successful with the Yellow Jackets. Chan Gailey, his predecessor, was a solid coach. However, as an ex-NFL guy, Gailey too often played not to lose rather than play to win. That won't be the case with Johnson. Tech was better defensively than offensively under Gailey, weird considering Gailey is a former NFL offensive coordinator. That won't be the case with Johnson, and Johnson arrives at a good time. The ACC is down and doesn't have a truly dominant program right now. Tech won't become that dominant program, but eight-, nine- and even 10-win seasons should be a regular occurrence.

Michigan: Rich Rodriguez may have trouble in his first season because it will take a while for his new players to adapt to his offense, but eventually he'll be just fine. He built West Virginia into a nationally respected program, and now gets to recruit nationally with one of college football's most powerful brand names. The staid Big Ten is about to undergo an offensive renaissance.

Northern Illinois: Jerry Kill was hired away from I-AA power Southern Illinois to coach the Huskies. He replaces Joe Novak, who was coach for 12 seasons. Novak took over an awful program, then built it into one of the Mid-American Conference's best before it slid a bit the past two seasons. Kill, who has battled cancer, knows how to recruit Illinois and also did a good job in Florida; that should continue. Plus, the MAC is one of those leagues that isn't exactly brimming with top-notch programs, so this rebuilding job shouldn't take that long.

SMU: June Jones will make Mustangs football relevant again. SMU has had one winning season a 6-5 mark in 1997 since it returned from the NCAA "death penalty" in 1989 and has won just 25 games this decade. But Jones' offense should help get things turned around quickly in Conference USA, not exactly a league loaded with powerhouses. Jones' swagger should impress numerous skill-position prospects on the recruiting trail.

UCLA: Rick Neuheisel has had some issues, no question, but the guy knows how to coach offense. He was able to retain top-notch defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, and reports are that he has hired former USC and Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow to fill the same post with the Bruins. Neuheisel and his staff are smack in the middle of prime recruiting territory, and they'll know what to do with prime offensive talent once it gets on campus.


Arkansas: Bobby Petrino is going to win games with the Hogs. Thing is, predecessor Houston Nutt did, too, and a portion of the fan base still ran him off. And let's get serious: What entails success for Arkansas? The SEC West is a tough division, and to expect the Hogs to win a division that has Alabama, Auburn and LSU in it is too much to ask. But Arkansas will contend for division titles and throw the ball around in doing so.

Duke: David Cutcliffe was a solid coach at Ole Miss, which never should've fired him earlier this decade. But Duke is a special case. Being a solid coach at Duke doesn't get you ACC division titles; it gets you six or seven wins. And that may be enough to make Blue Devils fans happy. This is one of the worst jobs in the nation. While Cutcliffe was a good hire by Duke, we wonder if he'll regret taking the job in the long run.

Ole Miss: Nutt is a huge upgrade over Ed Orgeron; Orgeron could recruit, we'll give him that, but the guy was not head-coach material. Ironically, Nutt will face the same thing at Ole Miss as he faced at Arkansas namely that his current school can only occasionally challenge for the SEC West title. Ole Miss fans remember fondly when the school was a national power. Well, those days are gone. You just hope Rebels fans are a little more grounded in reality than Arkansas fans. Yes, the Rebels occasionally can rise up and challenge the SEC West big boys, but they're not going to do that consistently.

Texas A&M: Mike Sherman is a former Aggies assistant, and he has spent the past 11 seasons in the NFL. Six of those seasons were spent as coach of the Green Bay Packers. Sherman can use his NFL background on the recruiting trail, and as a former offensive line coach, you can be sure he'll upgrade the talent on both lines for the Aggies. A minor talent upgrade and a little more cohesion on both sides of the ball, and A&M should be fine. But this is another case of a coach moving into a swanky neighborhood; will Sherman be able to keep up with Oklahoma and Texas? And Texas Tech and Oklahoma State are in the same division, too. Plus, there's at least a small bit of danger in hiring a coach who hasn't been in college football for 11 seasons.


Baylor: Art Briles will upgrade the offense, but you can make the case that the program he left (Houston) is in better shape than the one he now leads. It's a lot harder to win at Baylor than it is at Houston. This is a good hire on Baylor's part; we're just not sure why Briles took this job (well, beyond the money, of course). Going to a bowl is possible. Winning the Big 12 South title? Impossible.

Hawaii: June Jones did a masterful job rebuilding what had become an awful program, and the school should have done everything in its power to keep him. Alas, he's gone, and defensive coordinator Greg McMackin was promoted to replace him. McMackin supporters said it was important for him to get the job for continuity's sake. That may be true. And it also may be true that given the state of Hawaii's athletic facilities, other coaches wanted nothing to do with his job. Still, sometimes it seemed as if Jones' forceful personality was the best thing the program had going for it. With him gone, you wonder if the Warriors will founder again.

Houston: It's tempting to say Kevin Sumlin, who spent the past five seasons as an offensive assistant at Oklahoma, will build on the success Briles had with the Cougars. Houston is in Conference USA, and as we've mentioned, it's not exactly a powerhouse league. Houston has had powerful offenses, and Sumlin's experience is on the offensive side of the ball. But he's a first-time head coach, and putting together a staff often is the most daunting task for a first-timer.

Navy: When Johnson left, assistant head coach/offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo was promoted to replace him. It's tough to win at Navy much less win consistently but Johnson was able to do it. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk felt continuity was important, and thus promoted Niumatalolo. The transition in terms of running the same offense will be seamless, but can the new staff get the same type of players Johnson was able to bring in?

Nebraska: Bo Pelini is a good defensive coordinator. Is he a good head coach? We'll see. Pelini's Huskers will play better defense, that's for sure. Still, Nebraska has fallen a long way in a short time, and this isn't the same Big 12 North as it was even five years ago - which will make the rebuilding job tougher than a lot of folks expect. Pelini was a former Huskers defensive coordinator, and having Nebraska ties was important to athletic director Tom Osborne maybe too important.

Southern Miss: Evidently, school officials felt the program had gone stale under Jeff Bower, who essentially was forced out. Enter Larry Fedora, who has done nice work as offensive coordinator at Florida and most recently Oklahoma State. Fedora takes over a program that's actually in OK shape and also resides in C-USA. If Fedora keeps things humming along, he'll be smart to move on when others come calling. Unlike Bower, who was a Southern Miss alum and never really seemed that interested in leaving, it's hard to see Fedora staying a long time in Hattiesburg if he has initial success.

Washington State: Paul Wulff is a Washington State alum who has spent the past 15 seasons at Division I-AA Eastern Washington, including the past eight as coach. While Wulff did a nice job at Eastern Washington (53-40 record as coach) and his offenses were productive, he never has coached anywhere else. Recruiting for a Division I-A school is difficult enough when you move up from I-AA; when that I-A school is Washington State, which isn't near a major metropolitan area, it's even tougher. Wulff has the X's and O's part down, but any success with the Cougars will be determined by his recruiting acumen.


Florida State, Kentucky and Purdue: None of these teams has a new coach, but each does have a "coach-in-waiting." Ridiculous. If you're tired of your present coach, get rid of him. If you want to make sure a hot coordinator doesn't leave, pay him a huge sack of money. And you better make darn sure the coach-in-waiting really is worthy of the job. Anointing a successor before the predecessor is out the door? Bad move. This isn't England, circa 1280.

West Virginia: No question Bill Stewart did a nice job in calming the waters and leading the Mountaineers to a resounding Fiesta Bowl thumping of Oklahoma. But his promotion to coach in the wake of that victory stemmed from emotion, nothing else. He had spent the past eight seasons on WVU's staff, serving as quarterback coach for seven seasons and as tight ends coach this season. He also was special teams coordinator. Stewart has been a head coach once, at VMI; he was 8-25 in three seasons and resigned in 1996 after using a racial epithet. Yes, he's a West Virginia native, which evidently was a necessity in the school's hunt for a new coach. Indeed, it's hard to believe WVU which has become a perennial top-10 program didn't cast a wider net in its search.

The legislative branch

Two bits of legislation emanating from last week's NCAA deserve mention:

First, the NCAA upheld the ban on text messaging. Kerry Kenny, a former basketball player at Lafayette, is the incoming chairman of the NCAA's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and he asked for the ban to be upheld because he said text messaging is intrusive and puts an undue burden on recruits and parents. The SAAC also said the cost to the athlete was another reason to uphold the ban.

Maybe I'm just dumb, but all this back-and-forth the past year about text messaging is mind-boggling. If you're a recruit and you don't want to get text messages, simply tell a coach, "Hey, coach, don't text message me. And if you do, I'll be irked. And I won't be signing with you."

Plus, if you remember the genesis of all this, the Ivy League first proposed the ban in 2006. Instead of text messages, the league suggested, what was wrong with e-mails and faxes? (No, that's not a joke about the faxes.)

Coaches still can send text messages to athletes who have signed letters-of-intent, and they still can send as much e-mail as they want, too.

Plus, on the list of items the organization needs to be worried about, does text messaging really need to make the list? Unbelievable.

Second, the NCAA passed its version of the NFL's "Rooney Rule," which essentially mandates that teams interview at least one minority candidate when filling a head-coaching position or be fined. The NCAA's version doesn't carry any monetary weight, though.

On the face of it, it's a great idea for the NCAA. The lack of black head coaches in Division I-A there are seven among the 120 schools is embarrassing, and there's nothing wrong with trying to make sure schools open up the process a bit.

On the other hand, even the group that came up with the proposal wondered about the legality of the NCAA telling a school who it can interview. And, further, there's nothing worse than a courtesy and cursory interview after a school already has targeted its guy. For instance, let's say "School A" knows it wants to hire "Coach A." Further, "Coach A" wants the job. So why in the world should "School A" interview anybody else? And what person wanting a coaching job would even want to interview anyway, knowing he had no shot at the job?

Grid bits

Twenty-five years ago Saturday, former Alabama coach Bear Bryant died of a heart attack at age 69. His death came 28 days after his final game as coach, a victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. He retired with 323 victories in 38 seasons, a victory record that since has been broken by Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno.

Virginia starting QB Jameel Sewell is not enrolled in school and appears likely to be academically ineligible for the 2008 season. The likely replacement would be Peter Lalich, who's more of a dropback passer than the mobile Sewell.

No surprise here: LSU reported that the sale of licensed football merchandise from Jan. 6-13 was the most in a week in school history.

Hoops talk

Give it up for coach Gary Waters and Cleveland State. The Vikings, who are the surprise team in the Horizon League, got just the second victory in school history over a ranked team last Thursday when it beat Butler. The first win over a ranked team came in the 1986 NCAA Tournament, when Kenny "Mouse" McFadden led the 14th-seeded Vikings to a stunning 83-79 victory over third-seeded Indiana. Cleveland State made it to the Sweet 16 with a 75-69 win over St. Joseph's, then lost to David Robinson and Navy 71-70.

It looks as if ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, 68, will be back on the air Feb. 4. He had surgery before Christmas on his vocal cords and went almost four weeks without speaking. (We'll let you make your own joke about that.)

It's late January, and already two coaching jobs are open. South Carolina's Dave Odom, 65, will retire at the end of this season, his eighth with the Gamecocks. And Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg abruptly stepped down last week in the middle of his second season with the Waves. Odom, whose claim to fame is he coached Tim Duncan at Wake Forest, never quite could get the Gamecocks over the hump in the SEC, though he did lead them to one NCAA appearance (2004) and back-to-back NIT titles. The Gamecocks haven't been the same since the late 1960s/early 1970s under Frank McGuire, when they dropped out of the ACC. South Carolina has been to just four NCAA tourneys since McGuire last took them in 1974, and the Gamecocks lost each of those four first-round games. As for Walberg, he had tremendous success at Fresno CC, but couldn't get the Waves to quickly adjust to his fast-break style. Still, there's no reason Pepperdine can't annually be one of the best teams in the West Coast Conference.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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