Saturday, August 06, 2005

Landing on their feet?

There is optimism and anticipation for football season in Athens and Champaign this year not normally behooved for teams that finished the previous campaign 4-7 and 3-8 respectively. The reason for this sanguinity is the presence of two recognizable head coaches, Frank Solich and Ron Zook. Solich and Zook share the common distinction of being the guy who followed The Guy. Solich followed Tom Osborne at Nebraska and Zook followed the ol’ ball coach, Steve Spurrier at Florida. Solich and Zook were both canned at their respective schools despite the fact that they posted solid winning percentages and frequently took their teams to bowl games. What is their prognosis for success at Ohio and Illinois, not just in 2005 but beyond? One possible way of ascertaining the answer to this question is to look to the past. How have other coaches fared who:
1) replaced a legend
2) enjoyed moderate success following the legend
3) were fired for not being the legend
and finally
4) returned to coaching at another school following their dismissal

I found 4 coaches from the past 30 years who fit all 4 of these criteria. They are Fred Akers, Earle Bruce, Ray Perkins, and Ken Hatfield. Before discussing these gentlemen, here are some coaches who were left out because they did not fit the final standard of returning to collegiate head coaching. I also included where they coached and who they succeeded

Jim Lambright, Washington, Don James
Ray Goff
, Georgia, Vince Dooley
Gary Moeller, Michigan, Bo Schembechler
Gary Gibbs, Oklahoma, Barry Switzer

Now lets concentrate on the 4 coaches who fit all the criteria.

Fred Akers replaced Darrell Royal at the University of Texas in 1977. Royal had been with the school since 1957 and had won 3 national championships. Prior to receiving the job at Texas, Akers coached for two seasons at Wyoming going 10-13 overall and appearing in a bowl game his second year with an 8-4 record. Akers lasted 10 years at the school posting 9 winning seasons and an overall record of 86-31-2. He had only one losing season and his teams appeared in 9 bowl games. Twice his Texas teams finished 11-1 with the both losses coming in the Cotton Bowl denying Texas a chance to win the National Championship. After he was fired for finishing 5-6 in 1986, Royal was hired by Purdue University to resurrect their football program. He was unable to do this. In his four years there, he never won more than 4 games and finished with an overall record of 12-31-1.

Earle Bruce replaced Woody Hayes at The Ohio St. University in 1979. Hayes had won over 200 games and 3 titles at the school. Bruce had coached at Iowa St. the previous 6 seasons, turning around the moribund programs fortunes. He had posted 3 consecutive winning seasons and 2 consecutive bowl appearances. Bruce’s tenure at Ohio St. lasted 9 seasons. He never had a losing season, and missed only one bowl game (his final season when his team finished 6-4-1 in 1987). His team fell one point short of winning the National Championship in his first season falling to Southern Cal 17-16 in the Rose Bowl. In 1988, Bruce coached Division 1-AA Northern Iowa to a 5-6 record. He then took over the Colorado St. program in 1989 and guided them for 4 seasons. He had one winning season (1990) when his team also participated and won a bowl game. He finished his term at Colorado St. with a record of 22-24-1.

Ray Perkins replaced arguably the greatest collegiate coach of all time, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant at Alabama in 1983. Bryant was the NCAA leader in coaching victories at the time of his retirement. Perkins coached the New York Giants in the NFL before he got his ‘break’ at Alabama. His record in 4 seasons was 23-34 with one playoff appearance. At Alabama, he lasted only 4 campaigns, three of which were winning seasons. He took Alabama to 3 bowl games and was fired after a 10-3 season. His final record at Alabama was 32-15-1. After his firing, he returned to the NFL to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was fired 13 games into his 4th season. He never won more than 5 games and finished with a mark of 19-41. Then in 1992, he returned to the college coaching ranks. This move can only be described as an unmitigated disaster as he lead Arkansas St., an independent at the time, to a 2-9 mark. His tenure lasted only 1 year.

Ken Hatfield took over for Danny Ford at Clemson in 1990. Ford may be the least likely of the 3 previous coaches to be called a ‘legend’, but he did deliver Clemson its only title in 1981, and was well-liked by the schools fan base. Hatfield had by far the most head coaching experience of any legend successor. He coached for 5 seasons at Air Force compiling a 26-32-1 record highlighted by bowl victories in his final 2 seasons. He then coached at Arkansas (where ironically Danny Ford would end up after his departure from Clemson) for 6 seasons where he finished with a record of 55-17-1. He never had a losing season and appeared in 6 bowl games. At Clemson Hatfield lasted 4 seasons, 3 of which were winning campaigns. His record at the school was 32-13-1 with 3 bowl appearances. He was fired after the 1993 regular season after posting an 8-3 record. Hatfield landed on his feet in 1994 at tiny Rice University. Hatfield is still there, but his tenure has been a mixed bag of successes and failures. His overall record is only 54-68-1, and he has only 3 winning seasons. He has not appeared in any bowl games, primarily because the WAC does not have as many bowl tie-ins as other conferences. However, when put into proper historical perspective he has had some success. In 2001 his team finished 8-4. This represented the most wins by Rice since 1953!

Now lets analyze Solich and Zook.

Frank Solich had no previous head coaching experience when he replaced Tom Osborne in 1998. He lasted 6 seasons at Nebraska finishing with a final record of 58-19. His teams appeared in bowl games in each season. His best year was his second season when Nebraska finished 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl. He was fired after the regular season in 2003 after posting a 9-3 record.

Ron Zook also had no previous head coaching experience when he replaced Steve Spurrier in 2002. His stint at Florida lasted only 3 seasons. His final record was 23-14 and his teams appeared in 3 bowl games and never had a losing season. He was fired prior to the season being complete, but was allowed to finish coaching the regular season.

What then can we expect from Solich and Zook? Zook definitely appears to have the more difficult task. Only one previous guy who replaced The Guy landed at a school in one of the big time (BCS) conferences. This was Fred Akers. Akers ironically landed in the same conference as Zook (Big 10), at Purdue. However, he was not able to turn the program around. As for Zook, he had trouble winning games when he had superior talent, so he will struggle to beat schools such as Michigan and Ohio St. Although he is a gifted recruiter, his talent pool at Illinois will not be as large as it was at Florida. However, with the decline of Penn St., the forthcoming retirement of Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, and the seemingly perpetual mediocrity at Michigan St., Minnesota, and Northwestern, Zook could turn Illinois into a perennial Big 10 bowl contender (as in Sun or Alamo, not Rose or Outback). Solich on the other hand steps into a small-time program. Solich compares better with Hatfield or Bruce than he does with Perkins thanks to his high winning percentage at Nebraska. Additionally, Solich will not face the academic restrictions that Hatfield does at Rice. Therefore, I feel Solich can resuscitate the Ohio football program as Bruce did for Colorado St. Then, depending on his aspirations (whether Ohio is a stepping stone back to major program or not) Solich can turn the program over to a capable successor (as Bruce did with Sonny Lubick) or he can continue to build the program into a perennial MAC contender.

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