Friday, September 14, 2007

For coaches at elite programs, winning isn't always enough

September 14, 2007

Doug Lesmerises
Plain Dealer Reporter

The notes and e-mails still ask why, and truth be told, there's a part of Frank Solich that still can't believe it himself.

Four years after he was fired at Nebraska with a six-year record of 59-19, Solich is 2-0 in his third season at Ohio University, a year removed from a MAC East Division title and aching for every winning college football coach out there who is one loss away from fighting for his job.

"It's a mentality of what have you done for me lately, and that doesn't necessarily mean a whole year," Solich said. "That can mean a portion of a year, it could mean one big game. You know that exists, that this culture is that way, so I've got a lot of empathy for coaches who are put in that position. There are a lot of outstanding, proven coaches out there that at the blink of an eye are in trouble."

Since 2001, 13 coaches from BCS conference schools and Notre Dame have been fired with winning records, from Miami to Alabama, from Florida to UCLA. With coaches' salaries and athletic department budgets escalating, along with the influence of behind-the-scenes boosters, coaches who know they need to win don't know how much winning is enough anymore.

"I think you feel that you know, but you never really do," said Bill Diedrick, who was Tyrone Willingham's offensive coordinator at Notre Dame when that staff was fired after a .583 winning percentage over three years. He now is an assistant with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. "Just because you have a long-term contract, five, six, even seven years ahead of you, I don't think that puts you in a safe area."

In the words of one agent who represents several major college coaches, "no one is safe anymore."

Michigan boss Lloyd Carr, with a .748 winning percentage in 13 years and a national title on his résumé, is fielding questions about his successor after an 0-2 start and earning the admiration of his colleagues for hanging in there.

Ohio State, no stranger to the phenomenon after firing Earle Bruce in 1987 with a .755 winning percentage and John Cooper in 2000 with a .715 winning percentage, is preparing to face Washington and Willingham on Saturday, three years after he was dumped by Notre Dame. Minnesota is 1-1 with a loss to Bowling Green after firing Glen Mason with a winning percentage of .529 after 10 years.

"I remind my clients about Charles Dickens' book, 'Great Expectations.' And the better the job, the greater the expectations," said agent Neil Cornrich of Cleveland's NC Sports, who represents several top coaches including Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Mason. "And it's not only how many games you win, it's who you beat."

There are arguments to be made about slippages in recruiting under Solich, the same ones that can be made with Willingham at Notre Dame, who was fired after a 6-5 regular season in 2004. But neither really had the chance to prove whether that was the case. Now Notre Dame is 0-2 under third-year coach Charlie Weis, who could be looking at a down year after a strong start with the Irish.

"We were basically going through the same growth period Charlie Weis is going through now," Diedrick said. "Were we where we wanted to be? No. But you felt you were really on the upswing. That's why I think it was a surprise move."

It's an upswing that in another time may have been allowed to occur, or fall short. But maybe the chance would have been provided.

"You have people who remember the good old days of Bo [Schembechler] and Woody [Hayes]," Cornrich said the longtime legends of Michigan and Ohio State, "yet Woody and Bo didn't have to compete in this environment today, which is so much more competitive."

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