Thursday, December 01, 2011

Coachpocalypse: A&M eats a lot of money

Previously in coachpocalypse: No more Zooker, no more hilarious punts, Neuheisel a goner and What happened at Kansas?

Boy, that escalated quickly. Mike Sherman went from "possibly on the hot seat" to "probably staying" to "50-50" to "YA FIRED" in the span of about 12 hours Thursday. Texas A&M threw a trident. There was a man on fire.

So ... Mike Sherman is gone after a four-year tenure that featured a terrible start, two years of steady improvement and one year of groin-punchingly frustrating losses. His record at A&M: a spectacular 25-25. That's not very good considering that Sherman took over when Dennis Franchione was fired following two straight winning seasons that weren't winning-y enough. There are expectations of some level of success A&M, and .500 isn't that level.

That said, the way the whole thing went down was still pretty weird/surprising. A&M went from 4-8 in Sherman's first year to 6-7 in 2010 to 9-4 (with a Cotton Bowl win) last year. This season started with a top-10 ranking in both polls and ended at 6-6, which was undoubtedly infuriating because of the way it played out but wasn't exactly a disaster. I mean, this wasn't a Kansas situation; A&M was actually really close to being really good this year. They led in the fourth quarter of five of their six losses this year and lost to Missouri in overtime, Kansas State in four overtimes and Texas on a field goal as time expired. They also blew a 17-point lead against Oklahoma State in a one-point loss and an 18-point halftime lead against Arkansas in a four-point loss. Clearly, second halves did not go well.

It's not hard to envision a scenario in which a few bounces go differently and A&M is sitting at 11-1 and in the top five. This is cliche but particularly relevant in this case. The Wall Street Journal (?) actually did some research and made two interesting observations:

1. Sherman's teams don't show any historical tendency to lose close games (6-5 before this year).
2. Five of the six teams that beat A&M finished the season ranked (Mizzou was the lone outlier).

Playing a lot of close games against good teams is a sign that you're at least close to being a good team. Then again, losing all those games isn't much of an argument to retain a guy with a .500 record in four years. At some point, actually winning is necessary, even if the losing seems tenuously fluky. There's sort of a fine line there.

And there probably would have been a lot more wins if the defense hadn't been as sucky as it was in three of Sherman's four years. Only in 2010 (the one good year and the first with Tim DeRuyter as D-coordinator) did the defense give up fewer than 28 points per game, although this year's numbers weren't totally awful -- 66th in yardage and 76th in scoring -- and were probably skewed a bit Oklahoma, Okie State, Baylor, etc. Sherman was also thought to be pretty much engulfed in playcalling and therefore not a great game manager.

My guess is that a win over Texas would have salvaged everything and guaranteed him a fifth year. All the irregular stuff surrounding the end of that rivalry might have made the bazillionth heartbreaking loss in a season full of them a little too much for somebody to take. Whether that somebody was R.C. Loftin or Bill Byrne or somebody with a Scrooge McDuck-esque pile of money is irrelevant; it was somebody who had the desire and power to get Sherman fired despite a massive buyout that's either $5.5 million or $8.8 million, depending whom you believe. That's a lot o' cash.

The consensus is that the SEC thing also played a role in the decision. ESPN didn't have a specific quote but indicated as much after talking to Byrne:
The school also wanted to enter SEC play next year with a primary storyline of energy and enthusiasm and not a storyline of Sherman's position on the "hot seat."
I can buy that. There's something to be said for avoiding the guaranteed SEC media poopstorm surrounding anybody who might possibly be considered fodder for Paul Finebaum. Sherman's also 57 and might not have been viewed as an ideal long-term option. It's hard to justify not making a move when you've got less-than-overwhelming support for a guy with a limited number of years left anyway. See Dennis Erickson.

The elephant in the room state: Kevin Sumlin. All things being equal, I'm not totally sure Sherman doesn't still have a job if Sumlin either doesn't exist or has Houston sitting at 5-7. It's interesting that Sherman didn't get fired right after the Texas game and was generally deemed safe until Thursday, which just happened to be the day Arizona State got serious about Sumlin and got him all but locked up. It's entirely possible (and probably likely) that Sumlin's availability just expedited a firing that was gonna happen anyway because of the Texas loss; I guess we'll never know for sure. I do think he was the straw that broke Sherman's back, so to speak.

Sumlin doesn't seem that desirable except for the following things: (a) he's already in southeast Texas and has gobs of in-state recruiting connections and (b) he was a Texas A&M assistant back in 2001-02 before going to Oklahoma. If you're Bill Byrne and you're putting together an ideal resume for an A&M head coach, it probably looks a lot like Sumlin's. A hypothetical choice between a 47-year-old Sumlin and a 57-year-old Sherman would probably be a pretty easy one. That scenario assumes Sumlin wants the A&M job, but that seems like a safe assumption given the job's potential, his current locale and ASU's reported decision to move on to Plan D (I'm pretty sure Sumlin was A, B and C). There's no reason ASU would do that unless Sumlin indicated his preference for another school. Long story short, I'll be surprised if Sumlin isn't sitting at a podium by Tuesday. Rumor has it that Kirby Smart and Charlie Strong are the requisite backup plans.

There was a poll -- I think it was done by ESPN the Magazine or ESPN Insider or whatever -- last offseason that asked college coaches to rank the most underachieving (or something like that) programs in the country. A&M was the runaway winner. There were a whole bunch of anonymous comments about money and the Texas recruiting base and the fan support and blah blah blah. It's clearly a desirable job when other coaches are gazing longingly and saying, "man, that's a school that should be winning a lot." Also, Dennis Franchione left Alabama to take over at A&M, which shows what's happened to those two programs in the last decade.

I don't see the SEC West being beneficial in that regard; finishing any better than third on a regular basis is gonna be pretty tough. Still, expecting to be significantly better than .500 on a regular basis isn't unreasonable (what's the difference between A&M and Arkansas?). Sherman got four years and couldn't quite do it, although I don't think he was far off. Maybe Sumlin the next guy can.


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