Thursday, January 12, 2012

Welcome Back

At most major college football schools, coaching changes and the back-room dealings to hire a new coach are, for better or worse, commonplace. Georgetown and Yale are not major college programs, and such changes are all but unseen at either school.

Nonetheless, the peek behind the curtains at Yale's uncomfortable dismissal of Tom Williams, its attraction  to the job by Kevin Kelly, and Kelly's ultimate decision to stay at Georgetown are worth paying attention to, if not for what happened, but what didn't.

The initial reaction by those fans who heard this (and let's be clear, it got zero coverage in the press in DC) was one of surprise--why would someoine from Georgetown be in the market? It was a reflection of Georgetown has a somewhat unique niche in college coaching--it's not a stepping stone, and people who leave Georgetown tend to leave coaching, period. The last basketball coach to leave Georgetown to become a head coach elsewhere was Elmer 1949. The last football coach to do so was Lou Little, 20 years earlier. So when people are willing to look beyond the gates (and let's be fair, Kelly was interested in going to Yale), people are surprised, as if college provides some sort of academic tenure to coaches. They do not.

The head coach's stay at Georgetown (six years) is the longest of a winding career that has taken Kelly and his family to the Bronx (Fieldston, School, 1982-83), New Haven (Southern Connecticut  State, 1984-85), upstate New York (Syracuse, 1986-88), Boston (Northeastern, 1989-90), Hanover, NH (Dartmouth, 1991), New Orleans (Tulane, 1992-94), Huntington, WV (Marshall, 1996-97), Brunswick, Maine (Bowdoin, 1998), back to Syracuse (1999), back to Marshall (2000-01), to Annapolis (2002-05), and finally, Washington DC...some military families have had fewer stops. That's not unusual for an assistant coach, it's the price of keeping a job. And it's also not unusual for a coach to keep looking for the next door before you're shown it otherwise--no matter whether you're Tom Williams or Ralph Friedgen, there are no sure things from year to year.

Williams' admission that he exaggerated claims of a Rhodes Scholarship interview may have allowed him to survive at Yale, but a tall tale that he was on the San Franscisco 49ers practice squad (he was actually invited to a three day spring tryout camp) convinced Yale officials to cut ties with the up and coming Stanford grad. Williams was already on shaky ground having lost to Harvard three straight times, but schools tolerate defeat a lot more than deception.

So it is with Georgetown, and it tolerated defeat in the Kelly era. Lots of it. You can point to the caliber of recruits, or Jim Miceli's playcalling, or the tougher schedule Bob Benson had been building up for, but in any event, there's not another university in America where Kelly's 5-38 record would have returned him for a fifth season in 2010, period. Had it not been for a confluence of events, chief among them a vacancy in the athletic director's chair, Kelly's fourth year could have been his last, if not sooner.

Kelly was able to turn it around--first, by exceeding expecations with a 4-7 mark in 2010, then, by surprising the rest of the PL that marked a "W" next to Georgetown on the schedule with an 8-3 mark, one game removed from an NCAA playoff bid. He earned the respect of his peers and of his University by making Georgetown football relevant and respected by opponents. Like the welterweight that takes out a couple of light heavyweights, his PL Coach of the Year award was a reflection by the rest of the league that winning eight games at Georgetown is an astounding accomplishment in a league with such financial disparity.

So when Kelly heard about the Yale opening, well, you strike while the iron is hot. Had he applied for Jack Siedlecki's job at Yale in 2008, his 5-27 record would not have returned any phone calls. But the coaching fraternity took note of Kelly's unusual turnaround at a school where the odds are stacked against it, and took his call. With no previous tiles to the Old Blue, Kelly was nonetheless one of the two initial finalists for the job and that says something.

UConn coordinator Don Brown, a favorite of Yale legend Carm Cozza, was first in line and actually turned down the job. Internet chatter says that it was about money and/or presidential interference from Richard Levin, or that Yale had bought out Williams' contract and couldn't afford what Brown was seeking. We don't know (nor should we) if money steered Kelly back to DC, whether the Yale negotiations were unproductive, or whether he had a chance to politely back out before a younger assistant was going to get the job anyway, and it's no matter in any case. Kelly's interest from Yale sends a message to Georgetown going forward.

Georgetown has never publicly said it has signed coach Kelly to a long term deal. The good times of 2011 and presumably 2012 may or may not manifest itself in a long term arrangement, and the scholarship-based storm clouds ahead do not bode well for Georgetown, the square peg among the rounder shapes of the PL. Like Bob Benson's nine win seasons in 1998 and 1999, the changing landscape may well send Kelly's numbers downhill going forward and such phone calls won't be as numerous.

The promises unkept to Benson and his recruits remain unkept to Kelly, who must sign some of the best student-athletes in America every year without a finished game field to show recruits, with no practice field, no game day locker rooms, no dedicated weight room, and without the carrot that up to six other PL teams will soon be dangling in front of high school prospects: scholarships. Benson turned down a chance to leave Georgetown when he was a hot commodity, and now, as an Division II assistant in Colorado, such Div. I opportunities may not come again. Kelly, more than anyone, knows there are no guarantees in coaching.

Ask Jack Siedlecki, who was 9-1 at Yale in 2007. A year later, he resigned under pressure (with a 6-4 record, no less) and was said to remain as an assistant athletic director. Instead, he became quarterbacks coach at Division III Wesleyan. "It’s an ideal coaching job at this stage of my career,' the then 59 year old Siedlecki said. Well, not so much.

Siedlecki won two Ivy titles for Yale, but that's not enough when the Elis are 1-10 against Harvard's Tim Murphy since 2000. No one cared that Tom Williams beat Georgetown three straight times. They cared when he lost to Harvard three straight times.

Yale welcomes Tony Reno, a former Harvard assistant, to turn that record around, but there are no rules against hiring from an opponent. The Dallas Cowboys' first coach was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. Ara Parseghian was neither a ND grad nor Catholic; he was hired away from Northwestern. Bo Schembechler was an assistant under Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Reno will be charged with three goals at Yale: 1) play by the rules, 2), win honorably, and 3) beat Harvard. Two out of three won't cut it.

"My family and I enjoy being a part of the Georgetown community and we love living in Washington, D.C. We really want to finish what we've started here at Georgetown,"  wrote coach Kelly. I think he can do this. The larger question is where Georgetown wants to be when he does finish this, and what is the three, five, or ten year plan for football at Georgetown going forward.