Monday, October 10, 2011

At least Mike Stoops finished strong

Less than 24 hours after I wrote a semi-professional piece about how Arizona had hit rock bottom -- basically implying that Mike Stoops was gone after the season -- Mike Stoops was gone.

The only surprise was the timing; it's kinda unusual for coaches to get fired halfway through the season without punching somebody in the face or whatever. From an on-field-product standpoint, the decision was probably easy. Arizona has lost 10 straight games against FBS teams, has trailed by at least 22 points (!) in all five losses this year, has the second-worst BCS-conference defense in the country (117th overall) and just got dominated by previously winless Oregon State, all this while Stoops was doing his best Brian Kelly impression after seemingly every single play in every single game. It was embarrassing to watch, and I'm not even an Arizona fan. Also embarrassing: Kickers who can barely make half their extra points (is this high school?).

Arizona has gone from mediocre to downright bad in a hurry, and if you're gonna lose, you might as well do it with a respectable-looking coach rather than a heart attack waiting to happen, so Stoops is gone. His legacy: Ummm ... slight improvement and lots of exploded blood vessels? He took over for the super-popular-with-the-players John Mackovic and basically got the program back to Dick Tomey levels, then flamed out similarly to (but less spectacularly than) Mackovic and finished 41-50. It's the circle of mediocrity!

Defensive coordinator Tim Kish will be the interim coach (he obviously earned it) and only the interim coach, according to AD Greg Byrne. Insert standard quote here about a national search blah blah blah.

This is the spot where I should throw out the names of guys who might/could end up getting the job, but first comes a question that's directly related: What's the ceiling at Arizona? I'm asking partially as an honest question for my UA friends and partially to continue the discussion about realistic candidates. When I say "ceiling," what I mean is this: UA will never be consistently better than USC, but can it better than ASU given the fan interest (or lack thereof), history (or lack thereof) and disadvantage of NOT being located in metro Phoenix? What about UCLA? IMO, Arizona is a Texas Tech-level program, one with a limited ceiling that probably consists of a lot of 8-4-ish seasons and decent bowl games and an occasional (like once per decade) run at a division title. This is also known as "the Dick Tomey era." Stoops had come pretty close to reaching that standard the past few years, but losing 10 straight real games -- and looking flat-out terrible in a large majority of them -- changes things in a hurry.

Byrne has built up a lot of street cred by finding, paying and keeping good coaches, first yoinking Dan Mullen away from Florida to rebuild Mississippi State and then getting on his knees with a big pile of money to keep Sean Miller from bolting UA for Maryland when Gary Williams retired. He strikes me as a guy who realizes that having good coaches = winning lots of games = making lots of money = happy times for everybody. And I truly believe that part of the motivation for firing Stoops on October 10 was having the freedom to go out and start looking at/contacting (not officially, of course) candidates right now so an offer can be ready the day after the regular season ends. He's got a massive head start on every AD he'll be competing with for whichever candidate he likes.

That said, the people who seriously think Byrne is going out and getting Chris Petersen are in for a hilariously painful revelation. First of all, Boise State is a better job than Arizona, and it's not even close right now. Secondly, when Michigan was looking for a coach last offseason (those were some terrifying times), the people who know stuff said Petersen won't even listen to interview requests. He shot down Stanford's AD back in January, and if you're a NorCal guy turning down immaculate Palo Alto, a top-10 team and Andrew Luck, you're sure as hell not packing your bags for Tucson a year later.

The slightly more realistic names on the table are Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez, both of whom would probably take the job if offered and almost immediately give UA the best offense in the Pac-12 South, which would have the added benefit of selling some more tickets and bringing in some cash money. Given the stuff I said earlier about Byrne, I wouldn't be shocked if either one of those guys gets an offer; Leach would be a more logical geographical fit (RichRod has never coached east of the Mississippi) but slightly more surprising since everybody seems to be shying away from him until his lawsuit against ESPN finally ends.

BTW, anybody who says "Leach is trouble because of the whole Adam James thing" should be informed that everything that's come out in the legal process has said the same thing: Adam James staged the whole shed thing while screwing around during practice, and it was Craig James who killed five hookers while at SMU got unreasonably pissed that his son was about to get cut from the team and started a PR campaign (literally) against Leach that was very convenient for an administration that wasn't happy with Leach's contract demands and was basically looking for a reason to get rid of the best coach the school had ever seen. Leach is a flaky guy who doesn't always comes across very well, but he's not a lunatic who walks around punching people with concussions. And not hiring him because he's trying to reclaim some of his reputation would be dumb.

Rodriguez would be a great hire provided he comes with WORKING DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR ACTION TM. The guy can flat-out coach a running game, but his choice of defensive coordinators and systems leaves something to be desired and will ultimately determine his level of success wherever he ends up next. The stuff about the West Virginia lawsuit and NCAA violations at Michigan is stupid and irrelevant: Michigan told him the school would pay his buyout at West Virginia and then tried to negotiate it down, which West Virginia wasn't on board with, and the NCAA "violations" boiled down to 15 minutes of gray-area stretching time each day that the school had been logging as non-countable time for several years (even back to when Lloyd Carr was coach). I actually gained a lot of respect for RichRod for all the crap he took at Michigan, some of which was due to his own naivety/openness and some of which was due to other people just being petty* and stupid. Again, help him find and hire a good D-coordinator and you'll be in good shape.

So those are the two obvious candidates, although "obvious" in this case refers more to name recognition than likelihood of getting hired. If we're talking likelihoods, there are a few other guys who might get a call first, even if they're not dead sexy like Mike Leach. The plausible (non-Chris Petersen) short list, in no particular order:
  • Mike Bellotti. He's been openly talking about getting back into coaching and was pretty outstanding at Oregon. He's also about to turn 61.
  • Gus Malzahn. He's probably the best O-coordinator in the country and will be a head coach somewhere next year. Problem: He's already making close to what Stoops was making, so Byrne would need to dig up some serious cash. Also, there might be more desirable jobs out there come December.
  • Brent Venables. He's the defensive version of Malzahn; he'll be a head coach somewhere in the next three years. But isn't he also a 2011 version of 2004 Mike Stoops? Hiring Bob Stoops' D-coordinator would be just a little awkward.
  • Kevin Sumlin. He's been wanted by a lot of schools the last few years and is somehow still at Houston. He probably could be gotten, but a guy whose primary interest is throwing the ball all over the field might not be the most logical hire given the reasons for UA's suckiness of late (everything other than throwing the ball all over the field).
  • Ricky Hunley. I've only seen this name thrown out by Ted Miller at ESPN, but Hunley was an All-American linebacker at UA back in the early '80s and has worked his way up to assistant linebackers coach with the Raiders. He's never even been a college coordinator, though, and it doesn't really seem like Byrne's style to grab a nobody and just hope it works out.
Please note that this is an off-the-cuff and far-from-inclusive list; there'll probably be a lot of other names. But what it'll come down to is whether Arizona (a) is willing to pony up a big chunk of money and (b) has enough pull to interest a guy like Malzahn. We'll find out in roughly two months.

*This story will be told soon (Friday, to be specific).


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