Where Are They Now? The Walrus and the Peter Principle

AndyVance's picture
March 12, 2013 at 12:56p
I won this ring at Ohio State...

The curious case of Wally the Walrus Jim Bollman and recent rumors/news regarding defensive guru Jim Heacock got me thinking about Ohio State coaches of olde; specifically, the men who coached at Ohio State during the tenure of Senator James Patrick Tressel.

"Where are they now?" I pondered, noting that of the two former coordinators already mentioned, one is summarily despised by the residents of Columbus while the other is heralded as a genius, or at the very least, the architect of a shut-down defensive unit heretofore known as "The Silver Bullets."

Looking at The Vest's coaching tree, there are a few names that stick out, having achieved some level of success at some level of the game. Mark Dantonio, perhaps, is the most easily recognizable as a success story, as his tenure at Cincinnati propelled him into a near-tenured position as the head coach of the Michigan State Spartans. He's done yeoman's work there, guiding the "little sister" program in That State Up North, and recruiting against two of the best recruiters in the conference (credit where it's due: along with competitive eating titles, Brady the Hut recruits like a champ).

Beyond that, however, who stands out? Some names to consider:

  • Tim Beckman, head coach of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini (are we allowed to call them that anymore?)
  • Darrell Hazell, newly-minted head coach of the Purdue Boilermakers
  • Paul Haynes, newly-minted head coach of the Kent State Golden Flashes

On one hand, it's pretty impressive that three of the 12 current coaches of Big Ten football teams are former Ohio State assistants under Jim Tressel. On the other hand, Dantonio is always just on the cusp of breaking through into the upper echelons of the conference, Beckman is on the hot seat in Champaign, and Hazell is completely unproven at this level of play (though his turnaround job at Kent State was inspiring, and a turnaround is just what the Fighting Mustaches need at this point).

Beyond the four guys currently working as head coaches of FBS teams, who else is there of note?

  • Luke Fickell, the sacrificial lamb interim head coach immediate successor to Tressel in the wake of the Tat-gate debacle
  • Mark Snyder, current defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and former head coach of the Marshall Thundering Herd
  • Mel Tucker, current defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears
  • Tim Spencer, now-former running backs coach of the Chicago Bears
  • Taver Johnson, cornerbacks coach at Arkansas (calling the hogs with Bert... oy vey)

Okay, not so terrible, then... It also appears that longtime Buckeye Bill Conley is the current head coach at Ohio Dominican, because everyone needs something to do in retirement. Fan favorite Dick Tressel, meanwhile (I jest), is now the offensive coordinator at Carleton College (that's in Minnesota), and former tight ends coach John Peterson is the offensive line coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Oh, and former quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano is apparently a "coaching assistant" for the Cincinnati Bengals, whatever that means.

Moral of the story? While Mark Dantonio may be the biggest success story to come from the Ohio State coaching ranks of the past decade (I still have hope for you Beckman, and see lots of potential in Hazell), most of the gang appears to at least be working somewhere in the profession.

Lots of great coaches coaches at Ohio State...Which brings us right back around to Wally Bollman. Reading some of the comments from fellow 11 Warriors when Hazell made the somewhat questionable decision of naming Bollman to his staff, and again when Dantonio stole him away to restock his coaching cupboard in East Lansing, it gave me reason to ponder: if Tressel, Hazell and Dantonio think this guy is worth putting on salary, what are the rest of us missing?

In other words, because I think at least two of these guys are pretty darn good football coaches (yes, I like Mark Dantonio - perhaps it was that year I spent rooming with a rabid Spartans fan), I have to assume they put Bollman on their staff with good reason. While some see the "good ol' boy network" alive and well in Bollman's recent hiring, I'm more inclined to think Dantonio, who worked with the man closely in Columbus during a pretty golden period for Ohio State (14-0, anyone?), knows what Bollman's strengths and weaknesses are, and is choosing to soar with the one, and manage the other.

And so we come to the Peter Principle: "Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence."

Let's presume that at some point, Bollman was good at something. And because he was good at one thing (I'm not saying I know what that is, because I don't), he got more duties added to his plate - say, Offensive Coordinator, for example. At this new thing, he wasn't very good at all.

Now because Jim Tressel valued loyalty above all things, Bollman was safe to continue floundering around and generally annoying the fanbase, because the strengths of the team - lights-out defense - compensated, for the most part, for the offense's deficiencies. Elsewhere, however, this was not the case. Urban Meyer sure wasn't going to play Tresselball, and Boston College didn't set the world aflame in 2012.

Enter Dantonio's hire of one of 11W's favorite foils, and we note that Bollman's duties are much more limited, perhaps because Dantonio understands the Peter Principle, and says you let people do the thing they are good at, and leave it at that.

Creating this sort of culture in football coaching is challenging, by the way. The lure of becoming a head coach is strong, and not for nothing: head coaches make a helluva lot more money than do assistant coaches. Of course you also have the intangible draw of being "the boss," of having your name on the door, and of getting the accolades (and condemnation) of steering the ship. While we adore our assistant coaches at Ohio State, how many average fans can name more than one or two assistants on their favorite teams?

To further illustrate my thinking re: the Peter Principle, consider Heacock and Coach Mickey Marotti for a moment. Heacock was one of the touchstones of Ohio State's sensational defense of the Tressel era. He did a below-average job as head coach at Illinois State (though hiring Urban Meyer was certainly a wise decision), but flourished when he found the right role in Columbus.

He didn't want to coach with his hair on fire, particularly when it came to recruiting, apparently, and when/if he returns, reports indicate it will be in a role that is tailored to the things that he does well, and that allow him to basically not do the things he doesn't want to do. This, by the way, is pretty good application of management theory, I think. The hypothesis at work here says that he will be more productive by focusing solely on the things he's good at and enjoys, while limiting the headaches and burdens of doing activities that are less enjoyable, or at which he is less successful.

Likewise Coach Mick: he is a strength and conditioning guy, period. That's his bread and butter, and his role is focused on getting these young men lean and mean. And as it turns out, when you look at the typical tenure of other assistant coaches, Marotti doesn't move around a whole lot - in fact, he's been attached to Urban Meyer since 2005. Meyer, in fact, has said he's not sure how he'd do what he does without Marotti's services.

While many of us assume that assistants like Tom Herman, Luke Fickell and Everett Withers are not long for this program - head coaching opportunities will pop up - the question becomes, can they be retained? Marotti is a specialist, and paid well for his services (somewhere in the neighborhood of $400k, it appears). Herman and Withers each pull in more than $400k, with bonus opportunities that would put them near or beyond $600k.

But is that enough? Head coaches make millions of dollars, literally. Like the Greg Odens of the world, on one hand you have to think the mantra is "cash that check while you can," because the opportunity may not be there again. Then again, if you're really, really good as an offensive coordinator, do you ride that horse as far as you can in hopes that you have a nice, long tenure in a town like Columbus, raising your kids on a very comfortable salary, working for a program that will get you to national title games consistently?

It's a rhetorical question, of course, because in most cases the answer is no. Then again, looking back at Tressel's many assistants who served five, six, seven years by his side, perhaps the question becomes, was Jim Tressel simply that good of a manager that he knew how to keep his assistants happily productive at the role just below their level of incompetence?

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Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good, thought-provoking blog post, Andy.
Perhaps what Bollman (or Sicilliano for that matter) was better at, however, was working under Tressel. JT was known for being very hands-on in tutoring QBs, devising game plans, calling plays during games, and generally overseeing the offense. JT had his faults, too, but he was a genius when it came to understanding the stragetic ebb & flow of the game - field position, risk/reward management, squeezing the opponent's pressure points, etc. Rather than trying to pinpoint three darts in the bulls eye like his opponent was doing, he'd fix the game so that he'd get to throw a dozen darts and eventually more of his darts would hit the target.
Well, maybe JT's command-and-control style halfway covered-up the shortcomings of guys like Bollman. Maybe that allowed a guy like Bollman not only to surivive, but even semi-thrive, in the JT system. That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that Bollman will ever be functional under a different coach.   

AndyVance's picture

Great thinking, and you've teased out more of what I was thinking as I pondered this question. My first boss at my first "real" job used to say "it's about getting the right people on the bus, in the right seats on the bus." Tressel knew his strengths, perhaps better than anyone, and capitalized on those. Likewise he surrounded himself with folks who played to those strengths, and shored up (for the most part) his deficiencies.
Bollman very well could be a good example of that. The $250,000 question this season, then, has to be: can Dantonio replicate the managerial style of his one-time mentor?

LouGroza's picture

Bollman and Sicilliano were there for Tressel to be just that, yes men, for lack of a better term. For someone of Tressels acumen, having someone filling the coaching spot that will not push to instill his philosophies is all that he wanted. Having witnessed firsthand too many times that having an uber talented leader like Tressel, with underlings that will not settle for the second fiddle role, a situation in complete disarray. Tressel needed figure heads that were just happy to be there while he called every shot as he required. And that is what those two were.

Hovenaut's picture

Nice revisit down assistant coach memory lane. Tress left/resigned/retired under fire, but nice to see the coaching legacy he's left.

Not all coaches are head man material, and some thrive very well in a specialized role (Buddy Ryan comes immediately to mind). I think that's something Tress and UFM both get, and the collective builds/sustains the program.

Nice post AV.

AndyVance's picture

"Not all coaches are head man material."
BINGO. Unfortunately, many don't figure that out until they're holding the pink slip from Anywhere State University and wondering what the hell happened. Even worse, by that point they may be damaged goods and unable to come back and find success again at the role in which they previous succeeded.

Buckeyeneer's picture

The fact that 11W has this quality of post coming from the Commentariat is why this is the best damn site in the land. Kudos.

"Because the rules won't let you go for three." - Woody Hayes

THE Ohio State University

Poison nuts's picture

Hey Andy - another great post! We discussed the subject of Bollman at MSU briefly on another post after the hiring...I could go on about this at length, but I believe Fido nailed down my thoughts pretty well. The thing about Hazell & Dantonio hiring him comes down to this: they worked with him while Tressel was there & times were very good, with loads of success. They've not seen him without Tressel. They've not seen him lately. My guess is that this is a roll of the dice based on prior knowledge...but as you mention, Dantonio is a good coach. It's likely he knows a whole lot we don't.
This very storyline (Bollman to MSU) is one of the sub-plots I'll be paying attention to this upcoming season. Time will certainly expose what sort of a move this really was.
Edit: Dear 11W staff, this is exactly the sort of post worthy of Front Paging IMHO...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

hetuck's picture

How about the DB coach Earle Bruce fired who is now the head coach at Alabama?
I'll never forget sitting in Ohio Stadium as Dave Wilson passed the Illini up and down the field setting an NCAA record for passing yards. Talk about learning what not to do. 621 is burned into my memory as much as 2-10-1. To be fair, I don't think it was Saban's fault; it was the defensive philosophy of the DC (5-2, give up the short pass, soft zone).

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

TBDBITLinWIScantSON's picture

Good angle on considering why some staffs gel, and others don't. As you pointed out with Tress, it was about balance (Strong Defense, safe offense). Urban's approach seems to be one of controlled aggression.
A couple of thoughts:
Is there pressure on a guy like Fickell to try to be a head coach, even if he might be happy to just be a DC?
Would an assistant want to stay somewhere, even if they are tabbed as a hot commodity for a head coaching position? Say, for example, Tom Herman had 3 young children and established some balance with life, and was happy to be a OC under Urban, as opposed to the pressure that comes with being THE coach (and having to relocate).
I'm only bringing these up, because I think these human factors play into what someone may be willing to take on, and may influence their "incompetencies". Basically, people may not achieve when their life isnt balanced.
NOTE: I see no excuse for Bollman. Perhaps Dantonio knows he can bring 5-star lineman in, he just cant improve them.  


AndyVance's picture

I think there are LOTS of pressures on these guys to take a shot at HC duties, regardless of their desire or aptitude... Let's face it: Fick wouldn't be making $750k as co-DC if he hadn't been HC last year.
They didn't force him to take a pay cut, obviously, so he may be more likely to stay now than to take jobs at Pitt, for example, where the HC isn't going to make $4 million per year. If Illinois called next year and said "hey, we want you," on the other hand, I have to think he'd be hard pressed not to at least entertain an offer.
You paragraph about having kids, balance, etc., is a big deal in my book, but when you look at rational economic self-interest, it's hard to see how a guy like Herman could turn down a $1-2 million salary increase to move to Indiana or Minnesota. Hell, Bert left a pretty good gig at Wisconsin for a million or so.
My point is that I think more guys should think long and hard before jumping into the HC pool if they are happy and successful in their current role as an assistant, and I think if I were an Urban Meyer, I'd be thinking long and hard about how to help them do that, be it financial incentives or whatever else it might take.

TBDBITLinWIScantSON's picture

I think you're right, about the pressures on these guys. Coaching is a very hierarchical/ alpha dog endeavor. You have a shot to prove yourself the top dog- you have to take it. It is a measured risk, and could flame-out quickly (Beckman, we'll see....)  
As for Bert, I don't think there was much keeping him in Madison- not many liked him here. And his wife is a feather he plucked from Vegas, so I don't think re-locating was a big deal! 
This was a good follow-up to your post about pushing players.


Statutoryglory's picture

We should have a separate forum for mocking other B1G coaches and former OSU coaches.  With bert, crean, and bollman we could have quite the forum humming.  11W might be forced into another server upgrade.

Nutbuck1959's picture

Really glad you joined this site AV. Great post, as always!

AndyVance's picture

Thanks! Writing here has become my hobby, sort of. I love writing, and writing about the Buckeyes is even better.

buckeyedude's picture

Hate to be nosey Andy, but if I may, what was your major and what line of work are in? If you aren't in the media(your icon?), you certainly missed your calling.
Great blog. There is a big difference between an assistant coach and a HC. Hence the $ discrepancy. Know your role. Not all coaches want the pressure and big bucks.
Update: just read your personal profile. ;)



AndyVance's picture

Not nosy at all; I opted not to remain anonymous on the boards here, so I don't mind you asking. As you gathered from my profile, I'm an agricultural journalist, writing for the nation's leading weekly agribusiness journal. I also host a daily news podcast and weekly interview podcast for the paper, and write a couple of related blogs on the side.
I really appreciate the kind words about my writing - I've been a broadcaster for more than a decade, but I've only been writing professionally for the past couple of years, so it still feels somewhat new to me, and it's nice to get the feedback.

jthiel09's picture

Having the problem of retaining talented coaches isn't necessarily a bad problem to have. It's followed Urban everywhere he's been and he continues to be successful and also continues to bring in great coaches.
Great article AV.


BuckeyeChief's picture

Man, it must be crazy going from the lifestyle and perks of a D-1 assistant to Carleton College. I couldn't even imagine the differences, but I also didn't realize Dick Tressel was so successful as a head coach.

"2014 National Champions...deal with it!!!"

AndyVance's picture

I thought the same thing - what a difference a couple of years can make, right?