1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Here’s the problem with desperation in a coaching search: It invariably leads to personal degradation.
Exhibit A: the growing list of openings – or potential openings – in the SEC. Everyone is chasing Alabama and coach Nick Saban, and no one can find an answer.
“No one wants to hear excuses in this league,” says Kentucky coach Mark Stoops.
Even if it means compromising who and what you are for the sole purpose of winning games.
Just last weekend, a social media fire began with the idea that Florida was closing in on hiring former Oregon and NFL coach Chip Kelly. The offensive guru is the hottest unemployed coach on the market, and who in their right mind wouldn’t want the potential of Kelly and his offense riding in and saving the day?
On Monday, Pete Thamel of Yahoo! reported Florida was in the process of “thoroughly vetting” Kelly as the leading candidate to replace fired Jim McElwain.
The idea that Florida – or anyone in the SEC – is vetting Kelly shows you just how desperate it has become in the world of keeping up with Saban.
Florida just fired a surly, insular control freak of a coach because he didn’t play well with others, and because he refused to give information to the university after he complained of death threats to his family, himself and his players.
Here’s your short story version of Kelly’s vetting: surly, insular, doesn’t play well with others and has an NCAA show cause order on his resume. He also won a lot of games at Oregon.
McElwain was a poor recruiter; Kelly didn’t exactly tear it up as a recruiter at Oregon. In fact, that’s where the 18-month show cause order came about – after Kelly was accused by the NCAA of paying a street agent $25,000 to steer players to Oregon.
When first asked about street agent Willie Lyles by a local Portland columnist, Kelly said he didn’t know Lyles. Hours later, after Yahoo! published an investigative report detailing Lyles’ influence on the Oregon program, Kelly was contacted again by The Oregonian columnist John Canzano, and said he did in fact know Lyles, but that, “around here, we call him, Will.”
This is the coach Florida is thoroughly vetting?
This is the coach Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M, UCLA, and every other major Power 5 school with an opening or potential opening, is considering giving full control of the most important revenue-generating source at the university, the front porch of its athletic mission?
This is the “it” coach in this season’s coaching carousel, an elite Xs and Os offensive whiz who scored a lot of points and won a lot of games at Oregon before fleeing Eugene, Ore., for the NFL with the NCAA sheriff hot on his tail?
College basketball is knee deep in a street agent/AAU coach/shoe company scandal of inappropriate influence that already has cost one Hall of Fame coach (Rick Pitino) his job, and threatens to take down numerous big name programs.
Under Kelly, Oregon paid Lyles to steer players – LaMichael James, Lache Seastrunk, among others – to Oregon, just like, according to the FBI, Adidas paid assistant coaches and AAU coaches and other street agents to steer players to specific schools to play college basketball.
The NCAA infractions committee that handed down the show cause order on Kelly in 2013, said that Kelly was “unaware” that his assistant director of football operations Josh Gibson – a key staff member with every day access to the coach, and critical component to day to day operations of the program – knew Lyles was steering players to Oregon. Because of that, Kelly was not directly implicated, even though he was given the harshest penalty any coach can receive.
The man who spoke publicly for that NCAA infractions committee in 2013: none other than SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
We’re supposed to believe an obsessive, control freak of a coach, knew nothing about his football ops man setting up a system where a street agent steered players to Oregon under the guise of a “scouting service.” After the Yahoo! story exposed the scheme, Oregon released recruiting information that Lyles sent to Kelly after the fact, info that contained outdated material of players who already were playing college football.
A day later, Oregon magically released more information it claimed “had been overlooked” — and this information was — tada! — up to date.
And what happened to Josh Gibson, you ask? He merely accepted his one-year show cause order – six months less than the head coach who allegedly was “unaware” that Gibson knew Lyles was steering players – and followed Kelly to the NFL’s Eagles as his assistant chief of staff.
If an assistant football operations coach breaks NCAA rules without your knowledge, which leads to your 18-month show cause order (the worst penalty for a coach), why would you then hire him to work on your staff then leave for the NFL — months before NCAA handed down its ruling? It’s not that hard to connect the dots, people.
I mean, unless you’re the NCAA.
Florida has blown two straight hires. Tennessee has missed on three in a row. Arkansas will pay millions to likely push Bret Bielema out, and Texas A&M will pay much more to do the same with Kevin Sumlin.
Chip Kelly is a helluva coach. He’s also a significant gamble the desperate will overlook.
No matter the degradation.
2. The saga of the desperate, Part II
When Florida fired McElwain, it did so with cause – and initially didn’t want pay McElwain separation money.
Eventually McElwain’s agent Jimmy Sexton and Florida reached a settlement, but the idea of the Florida firing McElwain for cause could come back to publicly bite the university should it hire Kelly.
To be fair, Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin has twice tweeted subtle hints that social media smoke doesn’t necessarily mean fire. Or in this case, Kelly as the next Florida coach.
But a look at McElwain’s contract leaves Florida little wiggle room with its personal moral ideals. Amendment 9A clearly states the Florida coach will comport himself with the “highest standards of professionalism” and “personal and professional conducts, ethics, integrity, and morals, as such highest standards are determined by the President or Chairman in consultation with the Athletic Director.”
Then, the kicker: “The university’s standards are at least equivalent to the highest standards (but may be higher than the standards) of the NCAA, SEC and other institutions of higher education with premier national athletics programs.”
Translation: You can’t say you want to fire McElwain with cause for refusing to give information about death threats, and then go hire a coach who oversaw a program that paid $25,000 to a street agent to steer players to his previous school.
That’s not only an awful public look, it’s disingenuous of all you hold yourself to be and wreaks of a program desperate to win at all cost.
3. The saga of the desperate, The Epilogue
Look, I’m not saying Chip Kelly should never coach again. Everyone deserves a second chance.
Just not at an SEC school, land of the most high-profile jobs in college football.
This very scenario reminds me of the last major decision made by Stricklin when he was athletic director at Mississippi State. His football coach, Dan Mullen, desperately (there’s that desperate sign again) wanted to keep 5-star defensive line recruit Jeffery Simmons on his team despite Simmons being caught on video assaulting a woman.
Days before the deadline for Simmons’ enrollment at MSU, he was cleared by the school to join the university and team. Stricklin was in Destin, Fla., for the league’s annual spring meetings, as were Mullen and university president Mark Keenum. All three men were part of the decision – yet Stricklin was the one who had to face the media.
He was generous with his time, and handled a difficult situation with measured and meaningful answers (whether you agreed with the decision or not). Though Simmons has steered clear of trouble at MSU and by all accounts has been a model student-athlete (and good on him for making the most of his second chance), my initial thought on that decision hasn’t changed:
Simmons deserved a second chance to play, just not at Mississippi State. It’s the same thing I would’ve said to Joe Mixon at Oklahoma or any other first-time offender in a similar situation.
It doesn’t change just because we’re dealing with a coach.
4. Hunker down
One thing we learned from Georgia’s damaging loss to Auburn: one-time starting QB Jacob Eason shouldn’t walk away from Georgia at the end of this season. He can still win the job in 2018.
Last week’s loss to Auburn exposed a significant flaw of freshman Jake Fromm, the backup inserted after Eason sprained his knee in the first quarter of the season opener – and hasn’t given up the job since.
Fromm finally faced adversity in a tough road environment (Notre Dame isn’t the same thing), against an elite defense and forced to play from behind. And it wasn’t pretty.
Last week I wrote that Fromm had just 22 pass attempts in 3rd-and-7-plus situations, and that it wasn’t nearly enough to understand what Auburn will throw at him in those scenarios.
Days later in the biggest test of the season against Auburn, Fromm was 2-of-8 for 58 yards and was sacked twice in 10 3rd-and-7-plus scenarios – situations that are commonplace in crucial SEC games.
It doesn’t mean Fromm can’t get better, but it does mean Eason can win the job again – and might play again this season if Fromm struggles early in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama or Auburn.
You don’t put up those kind of numbers against Auburn – including six three-and-outs for the offense — in that all-important down and distance situation, and not have the staff at least take a longer look at Eason in practice.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Kentucky at Georgia (-22)
- Mississippi State (-11.5) at Arkansas
- Missouri (-7.5) at Vanderbilt
- LSU (-14) at Tennessee
- Texas A&M at Ole Miss (-2.5)
Last week: 3-2
Season: 34-21 (.618)
6. Two more gone
Now that Florida and Tennessee have made early decisions on coaching changes, two more could come as early as this weekend with two key games.
With a loss this weekend at Ole Miss, Kevin Sumlin will officially have no chance to better last year’s eight wins – the key metric athletic director Scott Woodward set at the beginning of the season.
The Aggies have three wins this season over Power 5 teams, two of which have fired (Florida) or likely will fire (Arkansas) their coach. The third (South Carolina) doesn’t exactly moved the meter in College Station.
Meanwhile at Arkansas, the Hogs have one win vs. a Power 5 team, rallying from a 31-7 deficit against Ole Miss in what likely will be Arkansas’ lone SEC win. Two weeks after a horrific late win over FBS newbie Coastal Carolina in front of a half-full stadium, the Razorbacks return to play an emotionally-drained Mississippi State.
It’s a perfect spot for the Hogs to steal a win. Lose here in front of another sparse crowd, and lose the following week at home against suddenly surging Missouri, and Bielema’s first season at Arkansas (3-9 overall, 0-8 SEC) will look eerily similar to his last (4-8, 1-7).
Why wait another week to take care of the inevitable, especially with two or three SEC programs already on the market looking for a coach?
7. Bidding war
With a loss to Mississippi State, Arkansas almost has to fire Bielema to prevent Tennessee to get a two-week (or more) lead on the Hogs in backchannel discussions with potential coaches.
The prime candidate: Memphis coach Mike Norvell.
Norvell played for Central Arkansas, knows the state and its high schools (and has recruited it as the Memphis coach), and would be a perfect fit in Fayetteville. He’s young and charismatic and will bring a spread offense diametrically opposite to crawl ball the Bielema runs.
But Norvell also has turned heads in Tennessee, and a significant number of heavy-hitting Vols boosters live in Memphis and have watched Norvell build on the turnaround from former coach Justin Fuente.
Memphis needs one win over the next two weekends (SMU, ECU) to win the AAC West Division and play UCF or USF in the AAC championship game. Getting to Norvell early through backchannels will be a critical component in landing him.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: No more B.S. If you’re an SEC school, do you take a run at Lane Kiffin?
Cheri Simpson, Atlanta
Cheri: Kiffin can flat out coach. He knows the game, and has proven he can develop quarterbacks.
But it’s so much more than that. If you’re Tennessee or Mississippi State (if Dan Mullen leaves) or Texas A&M or Arkansas, are you really going to hire a guy who, hours after a win at FAU, jumps on Twitter and jokes about a safety and its impact on the betting line?
Kiffin still doesn’t get it.
You can get away with petty crap like that at FAU. It’s funny; it’s part of the shtick. But that doesn’t play well at a Power 5 school. You would think he learned that at Tennessee (taking unwarranted shots at Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier) and USC (deflating footballs), but he clearly still feels as though any publicity is good publicity — even though most university presidents recoil at the idea of that mantra.
If Kiffin can get out of his own way off the field, he’ll one day be a terrific candidate on it.
9. Numbers game
3.6. Before the season began, I spoke to an NFL scout who was convinced Missouri’s Drew Lock would end up being one of the top three quarterbacks taken in the 2018 NFL Draft is he left school early.
Lock currently leads the nation in touchdown passes (35), and is averaging 3.6 touchdowns per game against non-ranked teams. Missouri finishes the season with games at Vanderbilt and against Arkansas – two teams with nothing to play for – and will likely finish the season with more than 40 touchdowns.
The scout told me in August that a big season from Lock would get more NFL eyes on him and his strong arm, and impressive individual workouts in the spring would elevate him past many in a potentially deep crop of quarterbacks in the 2018 draft.
10. Quote of the week
“Everybody has an opinion in the world about what I should and shouldn’t do. People that know me, and friends that have known me for a long time, know I like my own opinion. I’m not really interested in other people’s opinions all that much.” – Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen on coaching search rumors.