Commentary: College coaches and winning

By RON COLBERT, UPI Sports Managing Editor   |   Oct. 22, 2003 at 11:35 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- The next time I hear an administrator who has just fired a coach refer to the well-being of the student-athlete, I think I might throw up.

When a coach at the college level is fired, invariably it means that person didn't win enough. Football coaches Mike Price at Alabama and Rick Neuheisel at the University of Washington, and basketball coach Larry Eustachy at Iowa State are exceptions this calendar year. All three were involved in well-publicized scandals that were not tolerated.

That does not apply in the cases of football coaches Carl Franks at Duke, Todd Berry at the United States Military Academy and John Mackovic at Arizona, who might have been better off not coming back this fall.

Duke has had a history of having such a bad football program that even the average athletes steer clear, not to mention the blue chips. It has almost no fan support, and has a competitive team about once every 20 years.

But on Sunday, when Franks was canned after a humiliating 42-13 loss to Wake Forest, which has had issues of its own, the powers that be decided the program had come to a grinding halt.

"I said all along that Carl was my coach as long I felt like we were making progress and going in the right direction," said Athletic Director Joe Alleva. "This year, I haven't had that feeling -- even in the games we won. I didn't feel like we were making the kind of progress that we needed to be making."

Franks had a record of 7-45 in four-plus seasons at Durham, and was shown the door after the school's 29th consecutive loss in the football challenged Atlantic Coast Conference.

On this one, a translation is not necessary.

At Army, the mid-season firing of Berry is almost unconscionable.

The juggernaut at West Point has not won a game this season and could go winless. In a press release the day of Berry's firing, the academy's superintendent, Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr., said much the same thing.

"This decision was based on the team's lack of progress," Lennox said. "The Corps of Cadets and the fans of Army football deserve a competitive program that is representative of this great institution."

Berry's record as head coach at 5-35.

Who is he kidding? This is 2003, not 1953. At schools like Army, Navy, Duke, Vanderbilt, Rice, Wake Forest, and to a lesser extent, Notre Dame (whether people want to believe it or not), players who have either a reasonable ability or desire to win don't go to these schools. I wish I could say this had nothing to do with academics or future commitment, but then I would be kidding.

In today's environment, it's all about winning. In most cases, if you win, you can keep your job. That's the reason administrators pay lip service to "progress." Every now and then, we hear about the good of the athletes.

If the stories about Mackovic were true, then that baloney about "the good of the athlete" MAY BE acceptable.

Last November, in a tearful apology amid a likely player revolt, he owned up to verbally abusing some of them. Likely, this was a situation that did not improve with time, and the natives were restless. After all, he was fired less than 24 hours after a 13-10 loss to TCU, keeping the Wildcats winless, and he had a confrontational style to which most of today's athletes don't respond.

The Arizona Citizen reported that the night before the loss to TCU, Mackovic said he turned away nearly 20 players from the team dinner after they failed to meet with him earlier in the day to discuss a "good deed" they had done.

"It is my responsibility to provide the best college experience possible for the 500 athletes at this university, and I've not seen that lately in the football program," said Athletic Director Jim Livengood.

At least Livengood came close, and try as he might, Mackovic, who had other run-ins this season, was not winning people over.

It appears in this case, firing a coach in the middle of a season may have been the only solution, but that's the exception to the general rule. Normally, it is not a good idea to can a coach in the middle of a season. The only thing you can do is elevate a member of the current staff for an interim period until the end of the season, when 99 times of 100, the interim coach is dumped because he was connected to the previous regime.

One of those familiarity breeds contempt things.

In the middle of a bad campaign, Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill, who won a national championship at Pitt, has taken to the offense and decided to retire at season's end.

No doubt he's heard the critics who say that the game has passed him by and he can't win anymore. Penn State's Joe Paterno is facing similar heat.

Let's be honest and upfront. When you don't win, you don't have a prayer of keeping your job. It's all about W's and L's. Coaches know that. Maybe we should make that clear to the athlete in the recruiting process. If so, then maybe the firings, just another of life's realities, would be easier to swallow.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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