The Coaching Wheel of Fate

By Johnny Ginter on December 31, 2013 at 11:00a
Fare thee well, Mack

The phrase "life is funny sometimes" is a pretty useful one, not because life is actually funny (it rarely is), but moreso because it allows me to bray like a jackass at the misfortune of others. This concept is referred to in German as schadenfreude, and ever since the non-German speaking internet learned about it in 2004, it has become one of the major tools of the trade in sports fandom and writing.

In other words what's painful to you is incredibly hilarious to me, as long as I can stay oblivious to the fact that the wheel of fate crushes all of us underfoot eventually.

Anyway: coaching. If you are an NFL fan, there's a semi-decent chance that the team you root for lost its head coach on Monday. Also, because this is an Ohio State blog with a ton of Ohio readers, I can probably safely assume that many of you are Browns fans. Which means that not only did many of you lose a head coach recently, you lost a head coach who was fired because he couldn't take lemons and make a fine red wine out of them. And the best part is that Browns management has zero idea of what to do next while I, a Bengals fan, can laugh and laugh and laugh.

That's all pretty dumb, but also emblematic of the complete crap shoot that is sports and life in general. Ohio State has twice gotten stupidly lucky in their coaching searches in recent years, but the wheel never stops spinning.

It's weird to think that articles on the internet only have a reliable shelf life going back approximately 10 years or so, but oftentimes it's difficult to find online news about anything in particular from 2002ish and later. Which is why I jealously guard this Sports Illustrated column about Jim Tressel's hiring in 2001 like a precious jewel made out of rubies and diamonds:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio State has a new coach -- Jim Tressel -- and it didn't have to travel far to find him. Tressel, who guided Youngstown State to four I-AA national championships in 15 seasons, will be introduced Thursday as the Buckeyes' new coach.


Ohio State's other finalist was Minnesota's Glen Mason, a former Ohio State player and a member of the same Buckeyes coaching staff as Tressel for two years.


Others who either interviewed or spoke with Ohio State officials about the job included Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, current Buckeyes assistant head coach Fred Pagac, former Ohio State and NFL linebacker Chris Spielman and Stanford head coach Tyrone Willingham.

I want you to take a long, hard look at those names and think about the implications for each. Glen Mason, as much as he wanted the job and is an Ohio State dude through and through, is not half the coach Tressel was and is. Bellotti at Ohio State is actually kind of insane to think about and would have been a complete 180 from Tresselball. Spielman is a great dude but a poor coach, and Ty Willingham is Ty Willingham. And it's somehow a little comforting to know that Jon Gruden was perpetually on college football shortlists even going back to 2001.

Of those names, Bellotti probably looks like the best candidate on this list, but even he went through a five year stretch where he averaged five losses per season and dropped four straight bowl games.

In the end, the guy who ended up being the actual best choice was a relatively unknown quantity from a D-II school in a dying Rust Belt town in Ohio. Yes, people were energized by his obvious love for the university, but Jim Tressel was a perceived longshot by a program on its heels.

YaaaaayyyyIf you gotta go out, not a bad way to go

And it worked. Ohio State has been extremely lucky in head coaching hires since, well, Woody, and sometimes I wonder if that has more to do with the tradition of success that the Buckeyes have enjoyed than any other intangible factor.

Think about it: even though Ohio State head coaches seem to have an innate ability to meet their ends in worse ways than Defense Against the Dark Arts instructors, they've all been incredibly successful in their own fashion. It's what's allowed OSU to fire those same coaches so readily; you've made us amazing, and that's just not good enough for us anymore.

That's a bit of hyperbole; Tressel lied to the NCAA, Cooper couldn't beat Michigan and was losing control of his team, Earle Bruce was really a KGB agent in disguise and the Ohio State football team was just his cover to be able to travel across the US and steal state secrets, and Woody punched a player in the neck.

But the truth is that these were all really, really great coaches who directed the Buckeyes to wins and national prominence on a consistent basis for what, like 60 years now?

Take a look at the rest of the heavy hitters on the college landscape historically, and you'll find that some of the schools that we associate with greatness haven't been so lucky.

Starting in 1997 and ending in 2006, Alabama was coached by Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula. In those ten seasons, Alabama lost five games or more a total of seven times and ended up under the NCAA's thumb for recruiting violations. Before Mack Brown, Texas was coached by David McWilliams and John Mackovic, who combined to lose 54 times in 128 games. Hell, Florida was coached by RON ZOOK.

Some of it hard work in your hiring process, but in the end some of it is dumb, blind luck. Urban Meyer fell into our lap, but think about who the other candidates might've been. There are strong indications that the fallback plan was beautiful Bo Pelini, and... that's it. Fickell might've been thrown in out of respect, but that's how thin the margin of error is in these situations.

Ohio State has never had an overall unsuccessful long tenured head coach since before Woody Hayes. Let's laugh at the misfortune of the Longhorns, and the Browns, and whoever else is going through a coaching transition. But let's also never forget that sooner or later, we're going to be sweating the same bullets. And next time we might not get so lucky.


Comments Show All Comments

NitroBuck's picture

The old adage says something about one bad coaching hire can be survived, but back to back bad hires are tough to overcome.  In the ultimate schadenfreude, TTUN is in for a tough time.

Ferio.  Tego.

Chief B1G Dump's picture

Came here to post this very thing...+1.
Not only does TSUN have back to back bad hires but they have polar opposite styles from their previous regimes, so both have had to essentially rebuild both offense and defense.  
What is humorous to me is that Hoke is clearly in over his head.  I have said it about a million times here...but the guy is a career (a decade long career at that) 500 coach.  Relative to the two non-AQ conferences he coached in, he was an average coach.  Why on earth would anyone think that when Hoke got to the B1G stage, that he would suddenly succeed beyond his decade long track record and compete with elite coaches.  However, Hoke gets the "Michigan Man" hoopla and says the right things, honors traditions, and recruits well.
The humor part is that RichRod actually had a pretty good record and a tough to defend system prior to his days up north.  He "rebuilt" to his spread offense and was putting up huge numbers with relatively crappy players that he did not recruit.  His problem was he refused to adapt for a year or two to his personnel (hence players like Mallet transferring) and he didnt know and/or accept the TSUN traditions.  His defense was pretty bad but his team was improving.  For RichRod, he was always on borrowed time there as the major brass and influential boosters were split...then bailed as he flubbed his way through the B1G and a wine & cheese history of scUM.
Nearly a decade later and those turds up north still can't get it together.
We are a lucky fan base to have home run hires and a board that "gets it."  They have adapted to the times and have done a good job on staying on the front line of relevance while maintaining tradition, throughout more than a half century.
On this New Year's Eve, lets all raise a glass and toast THE Ohio State University!

D-Day0043's picture

I also think Hoke got too cocky after his first year and started talking a bunch of $hit. He wrote a bunch of checks with his mouth that his a$$ couldn't cash and now it is coming back to bite him. If he would have simply kept his mouth shut and went about his business humbly, then he probably would have a little more patience from his fan base. His actions say that he doesn't know how to handle big time college football. 

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

causeicouldntgo43's picture

That really was a close call when Tress was hired over the others. What would OSU's Bizzaro world have looked like if he weren't hired? Mason wanted it soooooo badly, but there is a lot more style than substance there. Bellotti? If you hate the Buck defense right now, I guarantee you'd a' really hated it under Bellotti once Pagac  and company also left.
And more recently, Ehrmagerd, how close were we to having the Flying Pelini Brothers Circus in Columbus?
People forget the huge bad patches that nearly all premier CFB programs have had to deal with. In addition to what JG mentions above with Bama and Texas, USC faced long stretches of mediocrity pre and post Pete Carroll, Notre Dame's has had constant mis-fires in hiring a head coach, the UCLA suck-fest lasted long and hard, what has Miami done since their loss to OSU in 2003, TTUN is mired in malaise with DickRod and now the Hoke-a, Hoka-a burnin' love, and on and on it goes.
Our "bad patch" was one year. Say that out loud, and then let it sink in for a minute. One Year. When you toast in the new year, say a little prayer of thanks to the Football Gods. It wouldn't hurt to put in a few good words for the Browns while you are at it.

Crimson's picture

suck-fest lasted long and hard

That's a lot of innuendo.

D-Day0043's picture

For once I can actually say I am glad to be a Bengals fan.
As far as the Browns are concerned, they aren't as bad of a head coaching destination as one might think. Norv Turner isn't a great head coach, but he is one hell of a good offensive coordinator, and the Browns have a really good young, talented defense. This team has some good players and the right coach could put it all together.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

brylee's picture

The Browns are a train wreck.  I do not understand why they aren't giving Chud a 2nd year.  They have a great defense, and a chance to put together one hell of an offense (assuming of course they draft an offensive line) with the draft this year.

D-Day0043's picture

The front office and ownership is a train wreck. The team has some talented players. Picking high year after year the team is bound to gather talent eventually. I just hope they keep their hands off Mike Zimmer. ;-)

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

Hovenaut's picture

I thought Glen Mason was the guy to replace Cooper, I liked Tressel but was skeptical. Glad he proved me wrong - and quickly at that.
I'll never speak badly of Earle Bruce, but it was clear the cupboards were high and dry at the end of his tenure. It took Cooper about seven years to get things up to snuff, and then he still couldn't beat M...igan and/or find post-season success.
Texas seemed to be in a similar boat - never really finding the guy to replace Darrell Royal. Fred Akers did well, but couldn't sustain the success of his predecessor. McWilliams and Mackovic didn't run the program into the ground, but the Longhorns became an afterthought for much of the 80's and 90's leading up to the BCS era and Mack Brown taking over.
We're fortunate to be Buckeyes, followers of a heavyweight program rich in history and tradition. It's a good recipe for success, but the right coach at the right time(s) is a must.
Late 2010 into spring 2011 (and the season that followed) was tough, but things looked to have worked out okay. Not to mention there looks to be a pretty bright future ahead.

Sean N's picture

I think that is what a lot of us don't fully appreciate around here. There are probably very few people reading this blog that were alive the last time Ohio State hired a bad coach.  Wes Fesler in the 1940's, maybe? Even he won a Rose Bowl. Every head coach Ohio State has hired since the Truman administration will end up in the College Football Hall of Fame (assuming, of course, they don't hold Tressel's misdeeds against him forever).  Every other one of college football's blue blood programs have hired dogs at least once, most multiple times. Very impressive and bound to come to an end at some point.

UFest57's picture

Remember when people thought Tress only won because he had Cooper's players? The man was the perfect fit for the team and school at the time. I, like most, was not 100% sold on him but once you heard him talk, you realize he 'got it'.

Crimson's picture

I'll just leave this here . . .

xrox's picture

The coaching round-about gets nuttier the longer I've been watching. The talent pool just seems so shallow now. USC brings in Steve Sarkisian? Meanwhile, Washington is the BCS school to finally land Chris Petersen...I think UW made out pretty well there.
Who the heck will Texas get? Who do they even WANT? Their coach-in-waiting didn't wait quite long enough and is now at the helm at Florida. Jimbo Fisher worked out succeeding Bowden, but it really looks like Texas dodged a bullet by Muschamp leaving. The problem is...there's not much out there in terms of someone to handle a huge program like Texas. If I was a Texas fan, I might want Ed Orgeron or Rich Rod. Both risky, but there's no one available who wouldn't be a risk. The only surefire hit would be prying away Saban, Meyer, or Fisher...and it doesn't seem like that is even in the "so you're saying there's a chance" probability.
Three HUGE programs look like they'll be replacing coaches this year: USC, Texas, and possibly Penn State. What's weird is that with all of them...whoever they pick will seem like a disappointment upon hire, even if they do well down the line.
We've been REALLY fortunate or blessed or smart or something in our coaching searches. But if Meyer wasn't available...I don't like to think about it. I don't envy any school looking for a coach right now.

buckskin's picture

I remember when OSU hired Tress, my TTUN buddy at work was laughing his off.  He had no idea who this guy was and surely knew that he would be worse than Coop against MU.  I told him the guy gets it and knows football fundamentals, the only difference now would be the speed of the game.  He thought the would kick our ass every year.  Guess not.

AndyVance's picture

And it's somehow a little comforting to know that Jon Gruden was perpetually on college football shortlists even going back to 2001.

This was my first reaction to re-reading that list as well. Gruden even poked fun at himself a little last night during the Iowa-LSU game: "If I ever come back to coaching," he said, " I want to come back as LSU's running backs coach!" And then went on to praise the depth of Les Miles' stable of ballcarriers.