Monday, December 06, 2010

Gophers Hire Jerry Kill; Fans Would Have 'Killed' For Someone More Exciting

Here's the problem when it comes to hiring coaches.

There is no "tried and true" formula.

You can try to hire a guy with loads of experience who may have gotten a raw deal from his previous employer, and it turns into a guy like Tubby Smith. Unwanted in Kentucky, Smith's been great for Minnesota, and he isn't under this never-ending pressure to win national championships. He's making good money and likely enjoying himself while he does it.

Of course, going this route when making a hire might lead you to Rick Neuheisel. Jettisoned in Washington after a rather odd-looking "scandal," Neuheisel was hired by UCLA three years ago to take over his alma mater's floundering football program.

Well, they made the EagleBank Bowl last year (only because Army lost their last game and didn't qualify). Overall, Neuheisel is 15-22, 8-19 in Pac-10 play, and there are a lot of people calling for his head, especially considering that UCLA had a prime opportunity to gain relevance in Los Angeles because of USC's failings the last two years.

(Tyrone Willingham also qualifies here, thanks to the "work" he did at Washington after everyone accused Notre Dame of being racist when they fired him.)

You can hit home runs with guys like Dan Mullen, hired by Mississippi State despite never being a head coach in his life. He's got the Bulldogs playing in a Jan. 1 bowl game in just his second year on the job.

Of course, you can also strike out embarrassingly with the likes of Tim Brewster, hired by Minnesota despite never being a head coach in his life. He got the Gophers to a pair of Insight Bowls, but failed to impress at any point, especially points where he was required to actually coach and not just talk about coaching.

It's not an exact science. So when Minnesota fired Brewster and went about their search for a new coach, athletic director Joel Maturi had an important decision to make.

If he made a mistake, it was in his philosophy, not his execution.

As I wrote back when Brewster got fired, Minnesota needs a significant change to their football culture. Even before Brewster took the job, mediocrity had set in, and it became accepted. Glen Mason was a good coach, but he was never going to get Minnesota further than, say, the Sun Bowl. The Sun Bowl is a nice game that's well-run, but El Paso doesn't resonate among fans and alumni like Pasadena does. It's just a fact of life.

There are many programs that won't ever achieve anything better than the middle-tier bowls -- Peach, Sun, Gator, Holiday, and the like -- outside of an anomalous year or two. It's not a bad way to make a living, really.

But Minnesota wanted to aim higher. They determined Mason wouldn't get them there, and they fell for Brewster's bluster.

It could have worked, had Brewster possessed any real sense of how to run a football team (note: "into the ground" doesn't count).

Burned -- in part -- by Brewster's lack of experience, Maturi set out to fix that failing this time around. He wasn't going to settle for the hot assistant coach who lacked head coaching experience. The otherwise perfect candidate (Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst) was out as a result. No chance.

When fans heard this, names like Mike Leach and Mike Bellotti floated around. Then Miami fired Randy Shannon, bring to light another name. No buyouts would be necessary for any of them.

But were they fits?

This is what I wrote about this search:

Look around the league right now. The most successful coaches -- Jim Tressel, Kirk Ferentz, Bret Bielema, Pat Fitzgerald, and Mark Dantonio -- spent time in the Big Ten as assistant coaches before becoming head coaches in the league. Of them, only Fitzgerald is an actual alum of the school (Northwestern) he is at now, but the point is that all these coaches have worked within the culture of the league.

The Big Ten isn't like witchcraft or anything, but you don't see a lot of successful Big Ten coaches getting jobs at Florida or anything like that (notable exception is Nick Saban, but he left Michigan State for LSU after the 1999 season). It's a different way of doing things, and you have to understand the types of student-athletes who can succeed at these schools.

Just hiring the offensive coordinator from Auburn (Gus Malzahn), for example, isn't going to guarantee you anything.

Same thing if you try to pluck a coach like Gary Patterson from his current job (TCU). Patterson is great at recruiting Texas high-school stars. That state is so rich in talent that it's ridiculous, and Patterson does well getting top players to go to a Mountain West school.

Of course, if he takes the Minnesota job, he can't be guaranteed any kind of similar success in recruiting. Why would the star running back from Southlake Carroll say "No" to Texas so he could go to Minnesota?

Leach would have been a sexy, newsworthy hire. It also would have been a potentially volatile one. In an interview with The Sporting News magazine, Leach details what he's looking for from a school that wants to hire him. Among the items on his list are a rich recruiting base (Minnesota? Nope.), an undervalued program looking to get better (Minnesota is only undervalued because they're so bad), and an administration that is stable and focused (Minnesota is changing presidents, and Maturi is thought to be somewhat on the hot seat. It's not the picture of stability.

Only in the perfect situation would Leach be a good fit. His ego is such that he isn't right for just any opening, and his pedigree is impressive enough to allow him to do whatever he wants while he waits for the right job.

Gophers fans who wanted him over anyone are dreaming. He would have clashed with the administration. He's the anti-Tubby Smith, a gentleman (at least on the outside) who oozes class and dignity. Leach oozes smarts and is an eccentric fellow, but he's also got quite the ego, and he isn't afraid to use it. Just comparing Leach and Smith is unfair, because they're very different people.

As far as finding the right fit goes, Maturi may have done well here. He pigeonholed himself by not considering coaches who lacked FBS head coaching experience, because it left Chryst off his list. He also made it clear he wasn't going to hire another Brewster, so NFL assistants who lacked head coaching experience (Darrell Bevell and Leslie Frazier, for example) weren't going to be considered.

Neither was Marc Trestman, a former Gopher who is a successful CFL coach in Montreal.

In Kill, Maturi found a guy who has a lot of experience building programs, and he's got roots in the Midwest. He doesn't have the Big Ten experience I wrote about and thought was a necessity, but he does have an understanding of how to win football games in the Midwest. If Maturi wasn't going to consider first-time head coaches, he was not likely to get a guy with Big Ten experience that would satisfy his fanbase.

Then again, outside of the wrong guy (Leach), Maturi wasn't going to win with his fanbase. They wanted the sexy name, and Maturi was right not to deliver it to them.

After all, Illinois wanted the sexy name in Ron Zook. Look what that got them.

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