Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Unkindest Season

Imagine, if you will, studying to become an attorney, only to find out that every year, just around Christmas, 20 percent of the partner-level workforce nationwide is fired; and with it, the partners fire all their associates. Imagine going to work for a brokerage industry where the bottom 20 percent of firms are flushed every December, and where aspiring managers have one month or so to find a new job, moving families to Oregon or North Dakota or Alabama, because that’s where the job takes you.

And if you’re young and don’t get a new job in a month or two, however underpaid or in the middle of nowhere, you might be out of the business for good.

Welcome to the career prospects of a coach in college football. And welcome to the un-happ-happiest time of the year.

Over the past three weeks, the pink slips fly in college football. Schools are great about preaching loyalty, but few practice it. Twenty-four head coaching positions within Division I-AA have changed hands in the last month, only two by retirement:

Alabama A&M
Central Arkansas
Central Connecticut
The Citadel
Eastern Illinois
Grambling State
Jackson State
James Madison
Mississippi Valley State
Morgan State
North Carolina Central
North Dakota
North Dakota State
Robert Morris
Rhode Island
Southeast Missouri State
Stephen F. Austin State
Weber State

Eternal vigilance – and a willingness to resettle on short notice – is the price to become a successful college football coach.. Kevin Kelly’s resume can attest, and he’s one of the luckier ones.

Here is Coach Kelly’s “change of address” forms in the first 20 or so years since he graduated from college:

Springfield, MA
New York, NY
New Haven, CT
Syracuse, NY
Boston, MA
Hanover, NH
New Orleans, LA
Huntington, WV
Brunswick, ME
Syracuse, NY
Huntington, WV
Annapolis, MD

Kelly’s eight years in the Washington area are probably the longest he’s stayed in one place since grad school, which is great for raising a family. The results, less so. In coaching, as in life, you’re as good as your last job.

When Kelly interviewed for the job at Yale in 2011, it was not because of any ill will for Georgetown or an overarching desire to move back to scenic New Haven. Instead, it’s the business. He was coming off an 8-3 season and Yale was interested. If he was 3-8 that year, Yale would not be.

Head coaches in football, as a rule, don’t get the gold watch and don’t set the rules for their retirement. Bobby Bowden didn’t go out his way, nor did or Woody Hayes or Darrell Royal or a thousand others. Joe Paterno once said that he didn’t want to get forced out like Bear Bryant did and die within a month as Bryant did. He was, of course, and he died a month later as well. Mack Brown, of all people, has a .770 winning percentage at Texas, a national title, and only one season with fewer than eight wins. Not good enough in Austin. That’s business. (That, and failing to recruit each of the last three Heisman Trophy winners, all of which wanted to play for you.)

The 2011 season is history. At the conclusion of the 2013 season, Kevin Kelly has the lowest winning percentage of any Division I-AA head coach with more than four years experience. Of 25 coaches below .500, eight were let go in the last month (in gray):

Division I-AA Coaches At Or Below .500:
Tom GilmoreHoly Cross10565600.500
Frank TavaniLafayette14767700.497
Pete AdrianNorfolk St.9505200.490
Chris MussmanN. Dakota 6313400.477
Watson BrownTennessee Tech10526000.464
Monte ColemanAR-Pine Bluff6313600.463
Donovan RoseHampton5253000.455
J.C. HarperS.F. Austin7374500.451
Mike KramerIdaho St.168310300.446
Marshall SperbeckSacramento St.7354400.443
Donald Hill-EleyMorgan St.12597600.437
Paul GorhamSacred Heart10466200.426
Sparky WoodsVMI11527120.416
Buddy TeevensDartmouth14578120.407
Nigel BurtonPortland St.4182700.400
Ray WoodardLamar4182800.391
Tony SamuelSE Missouri8316000.341
Chris VillarrialSt. Francis4133100.295
Kevin KellyGeorgetown8246300.276
Charlie StubbsNicholls St.4103500.222
Joe TrainerRhode Island5124400.214
Harold NicholsPresbyterian5114400.200
Karl A. MorganMiss. Valley St.483500.186
Dale CarlsonValparaiso434100.068

Coach Kelly is fortunate that few if any I-AA  schools would have the patience to absorb the depth of losses that the Georgetown program has experienced over the past eight years. VMI? Maybe. Dartmouth? Only if your coach is Buddy Teevens, a former star quarterback for the Indians who won a pair of Ivy titles way back when. Even Columbia, that textbook case of a losing program, has had only one coach make it past six seasons since 1968.

Even in the low-wattage Patriot League, ask yourself: would Andy Coen still be at Lehigh with these kind of records? How about Tom Gilmore at Holy Cross? Will Dick Biddle’ successor at Colgate get the time to build a winner?

A lot of schools won’t want to hear about it. “Did you win?”, they ask. They rarely ask why you didn't.

That’s the business. And for those that don’t understand it, or who underestimate it, it’s a difficult realization. It’s the part of coaching that fans, and even some coaches, don’t understand.

Part of the enmity that former basketball coach Craig Esherick still feels for Georgetown firing him in 2004 was that he thought he deserved better. He had been with the program for 40 years as an undergrad, law student, assistant coach, and head coach, and went so far as to brag he’d be around another 30. He didn’t understand that, to quote the son of a Georgetown football All-American, “you are what your record says you are”. In a revenue sport like basketball, it wasn't enough.

Georgetown has been a bit more patient to more of its coaches. Pete Wilk has been the baseball coach for 14 seasons and has never posted a winning record. Arlisa Williams has been the volleyball coach for eight seasons and Georgetown is 77-124.

Of course, no one is writing a column in the Washington Post of the baseball team doesn’t get to the post-season. Students are not planning a march on Healy if volleyball finishes under .500.  Football web sites don’t use the phrase “hot seat” around Georgetown football. If Frank Tavani or Tom Gilmore was 24-63 after eight seasons, chances are pretty good they would have never see a ninth season…much less a sixth, seventh, or eighth.

But this isn't Lafayette or Holy Cross. What coaches like Wilk, Williams, Kelly, and others at McDonough do share is a sport where the expectations on the field take a back seat to the expectations in the classroom, and these are sports where the kids have been admitted, competed, and have graduated. That’s reassuring to coaches, but it’s not a blank check. Pat Knapp was that kind of academics-first coach for 15 years for women’s basketball, but he didn’t retire at Georgetown either. And while Dave Urick did retire in men’s lacrosse, he did not go out the way he deserved.

In the end, Georgetown does right by its coaches, and for those like Kelly who must fight from behind, without the amenities or admission breaks his colleagues enjoy, it’s very much an uphill climb. That the University is able to recruit (and retain) good people who do their jobs honorably despite the disparity of support functions that fans of other schools could hardly imagine, speaks highly of the place. It doesn’t excuse losing but it does place things in perspective, which is all coaches can ask out of the process.

“I thought we made progress while we were here,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson after the Black Knights dropped yet another loss to Navy, with hours to go before his imminent dismissal. “But I wasn’t hired to make progress.”

Every coach can relate.