The film world was saddened this holiday season with news of the passing of Ann Savage – perhaps the original Femme Fatale. 'Femme Fatale' roughly interpreted, stands for 'Fatal Woman.' Get too close and you lose your good judgment, get whacked or at least seriously embarrassed. Using the universal laws of attraction, the standard methodology includes luring unsuspecting folks to listen to seductive language and in the end, cause some really poor decisions. As college football heads into the annual period of depression known as winter, some programs will be hard at work to rebuild or to at least get dog programs to respectability. Coaching candidates offer seductive language, grand visions and in some instances, cause the hiring institutions to make some really poor decisions.
In the end, schools have to try something radical to turn losers into winners. Witness the University of Buffalo. For years a doormat program, the Bulls actually achieved an unbelievable level of success in 2008 with a bowl appearance. Even though the Bulls lost to UConn in the International Bowl, this is a remarkable turn-around for a program that in the not too distant past, was simply the laughingstock of eastern college football. Congrats then to the Bulls and coach Turner Gill. This is what one would refer to as a "good hire."
Which coaching decisions will turn out to be the poor ones? One never knows for sure, but there are some bizarre story lines already forming on the surface of the 2009 season. Iowa State got really lucky in having its 2-10 coach hired away by – of all people – Auburn. This saved the school from itself when the Cyclone brass offered the former coach a contract extension. Racking up 2008 season wins over South Dakota State and Kent State at the beginning of the season, the Cyclones proceeded to lose everything else. Iowa State then replaced its lost head coach with native Iowan Paul Rhoads. Rhoads brings impressive credentials, a commitment to win in the state of Iowa and comes to the Cyclones from -of all places – Auburn. 2009 will see which school got the best end of this deal. Stay tuned on this one!
The Sage of College Football (your humble author) wishes Coach Steve Sarkisian at Washington the best of luck in 2009. Coach Sark probably read the tea leaves in his former position at USC and determined that his upward upward mobility would be better served by looking for another institution to craft into a winner. But Washington? The Huskies ended this past season winless – the first perfectly dreadful season for a Pac-10 school. If the Huskies turn in a few wins in 2009, coach Sark will really have accomplished something significant. Then look out for the purple dogs in 2012.
The opportunity to turn a loser into a winner will frequently override a coaching candidate's better judgment. The Sage hopes that New New Mexico State Coach DeWayne Walker made a good choice. Walker is the 33rd head coach of the Aggies and has his work cut out for him. The Aggies managed a single conference win last season and probably have the Cornhuskers, Michigan and a variety of other schools trying to get 'em on their home schedules. Should Walker get a couple of wins, New Mexico State's biggest challenge will be keeping him.
Going north from Las Cruces, the University of New Mexico also found itself in need of a new head football coach following the resignation of coach and alum Rocky Long. Never a powerhouse in the Mountain West Conference, New Mexico was in need of a recruiting ace to lure decent players to Albuquerque. Interestingly, the Lobos managed to convince Mike Locksley to give up his position as Offensive Coordinator at Illinois to try and push UNM in the right direction. This will take quite a bit of pushing. However, among Locksley's qualifications is a top 25 recruiting rating from Sports Illustrated. Should Locksley attract better players than have previously taken the field for the Lobos and get some wins in old UNM Stadium, other programs are going to want to know exactly how he did it. They are also going to want to hire him. Both football programs in the state of New Mexico need to make generous contract extension offers should either of their new coaches appear to be getting their respective programs turned around.
Brady Hoke, formerly Head Coach at Ball State, now finds himself in the same position at San Diego State. Admittedly, SDSU could offer things that Ball State couldn't – like a beach and decent weather. Hoke traded in his # 12 Ball State Cardinals for one of the worst programs going. If he can turn it around in South California, he will be one of the hottest coaching commodities going. The Aztecs also better have a retention plan in place should Hoke start winning. There isn't a task more daunting than taking over a perennial loser and turning it around – except perhaps for taking over a program that is used to winning and keeping it that way. Witness Lane Kiffen -the new Head Coach of the Tennessee Volunteers and former Head Coach of the NFL's Oakland Raiders. Here is a guy who won't miss church the rest of the year. Getting fired by Al Davis at Oakland is not a disgrace as much as it is a blessing. But then to land in Knoxville? A bowl appearance in 2009 would be the 'hat trick.' There is real pressure in Knoxville, though, and 104,000 fans will be in Neyland Stadium for every home game to apply it.
The annual shuffling of the head coaching ranks has just about ended now for 2009. The motivational speeches are being prepared for the Spring Games heralding a "new way of thinking," "a winning attitude," "putting the past behind us," and "making something special happen." These are all great speeches, and are essentially given to every college level player with the courage to take the field for a losing program. Next September, we will finally see which programs have been lured in with sweet talk of victory and which programs actually deliver. The unfortunate part of hiring coaches is that a good decision is rewarded with having to come up with a big contract extension. A poor decision puts your program right back in the dumper.
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