What Baylor football could learn from Arkansas's revival
Four years ago this week, a man who had taken over a very good football team under very strange circumstances explained his strategy for avoiding bulls while running with them in Spain. It involved waiting in a corner and hoping all the beef simply thundered past. "Just wait," John L. Smith said in May 2012. "Let 'em come to you. Then run up the hill with them into the stadium. Then you're home free. … Some will turn the corner. Some will make a hasty, abrupt stop into the corner."
Smith made comparisons between dodging bulls and the job he'd just accepted as the interim coach at Arkansas. He could only control his strategy.
We know now that Smith got professionally gored in the season he spent in Fayetteville after replacing the fired Bobby Petrino. The Razorbacks lost to Louisiana-Monroe in week two, were obliterated by Alabama in week three and never recovered. Working with assistants he'd inherited who knew they would probably be gone before the next National Signing Day, Smith stumbled to a 4–8 record with a team that would have finished in the top 25 if not for the (necessary) coaching change.
Former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe stepped this week into a similar, but more treacherous situation at Baylor. The roster is excellent. The assistants, as far as anyone outside the Baylor Board of Regents knows, are still in place. Like Smith at Arkansas, Grobe hopes to be in the mix for the job after his interim season. But what kind of job will Baylor be in the wake of a disgusting scandal that so far has gotten coach Art Briles fired, school president Ken Starr demoted* and resulted in the resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw? Will sitting Power Five coaches, hot Group of Five coaches or hot Power Five coordinators line up to take over a program with a new stadium, desirable location relative to recruits, excellent facilities and two Big 12 titles in the past three seasons?
UPDATE: Starr announced his resignation from the university on Tuesday afternoon.
Or will coaches shy away from a program that likely will remain under intense scrutiny after an investigation commissioned by Baylor found that coaches ignored or interfered with accusations of rape and domestic violence against Bears players?
Much will depend on how Grobe fares this season. After watching Smith at Arkansas in 2012 and Luke Fickell at Ohio State in 2011, it's easy to see how Baylor could go off the rails. So many forces work against an interim coach, from a lack of familiarity with the roster to staff instability, that an average season might be considered a victory. It's also unclear at this point what assistants Grobe will be working with. Incoming freshman Baylor cornerback Grayland Arnold tweeted a brief video Monday of a coaches meeting that showed offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, strength coach Kaz Kazadi and other Baylor assistants welcoming the new players.
That seems to suggest everyone on Baylor's staff remains following the firing of Art Briles, but it seems unsafe to assume anything as Baylor's regents sort through a case of systemic rot. Remember, the report from law firm Pepper Hamilton accused multiple Baylor coaches of wrongdoing. A release from the school on Thursday stated that others in the athletic department would be fired. So far, Art Briles has been the only coach fired. Multiple outlets reported that defensive coordinator Phil Bennett would be named Baylor's interim head coach, but that didn't happen. Grobe, who spent 13 seasons at Wake Forest and led the Demon Deacons to the ACC title in 2006, got that job. Within hours of Grobe accepting the job, McCaw had resigned.
Until Baylor makes an announcement regarding its coaching staff or until preseason camp starts with the staff intact, it's difficult to believe these will be the only changes. It seems almost certain that little of Art Briles's staff will remain beyond this season. Any coach who might want to take over at Baylor full time will have to accept that most of the class of 2017 recruiting cycle will be wiped out. Baylor is down to two commitments for the 2017 class and one of those players, quarterback Kellen Mond, was considered a soft commit even before last week's news.
Grobe should get first crack at the job if he can keep the Bears steady through this season. Riley Skinner, who played quarterback for Grobe at Wake Forest, believes Grobe is the ideal choice for Baylor's current predicament. "From the position they're in and the scrutiny they're getting, this is about as good of a guy as you can get to come in and take over that situation," Skinner said. "He's not a coach who is going to be influenced by the media. He's not going to be influenced by the masses. … He's not going to win at all costs if it means bending the rules."
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The problem is Grobe might not win at all. There is no telling what will happen if staffers learn they aren't coming back. They could rally to make the most of their final months together. They could mail in their final games. Baylor has two quarterbacks (Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham) who could start anywhere in the country, but ask former Arkansas signal-caller Tyler Wilson how much having an established quarterback means when everything goes pear-shaped.
Meanwhile, any coaches considering Baylor beyond 2016 will need to consider the words of Bret Bielema, who took over that Arkansas program following the disastrous 2012 season. Bielema had enjoyed a relatively easy start at Wisconsin after ascending from a coordinator job. Barry Alvarez had helped identify all the potential pitfalls, so Bielema knew exactly what spots to avoid. When Bielema arrived at Arkansas, the former Iowa defensive tackle truly understood one of Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry's pet sayings.
"Coach Fry used to say you go through and plow up snakes," Bielema said. Translated, that means this: "You're trying to uncover the things that cause you problems without them causing you problems," Bielema said. This happens any time a coach gets fired, but it becomes even thornier when a coach gets fired under scandalous circumstances and replaced by an interim whose tenure doesn't last the year.
Bielema's boss, Jeff Long, understood that his new coach would need time. That's why no one panicked when the Razorbacks went 3–9 and 0–8 in the SEC in 2013. Whoever gets the athletic director job at Baylor will have to understand that the process will be slow, and whoever gets the coaching job needs to know the start will be uncomfortable. "So many times, coaches have failure before their time because they don't have enough time to discover the things that were going to destroy them," Bielema said. How long did it take Bielema to find all those things at Arkansas? "Still going on," he said. But the issues are minimal now. Bielema said the "meat and potatoes" of identifying risks and changing culture took two years.
With Baylor, there remains the question of whether the NCAA will go outside its normal procedures and issue a punishment with no actual bylaw broken. That's what happened at Penn State, and Bill O'Brien had been on the job for months before the sanctions were handed down. That will be a consideration for any coach looking at Baylor, though the NCAA's abandonment of the Penn State sanctions after being embarrassed in court may keep the governing body from issuing any unusual punishments. As for the punishments the NCAA more routinely hands out, a coach should know by November whether any violations of NCAA bylaw were dug up in concert with the more serious issues that got everyone fired.
Meanwhile, Grobe will try to keep the Bears looking forward. If winning the ACC at Wake Forest doesn't qualify as a documented football miracle, nothing does. But even a miracle worker can struggle when nothing is certain and the bulls can come to a hasty, abrupt stop at any moment.
After a vigorous discussion last week on Twitter, it was decided that I should rank the best free carbohydrate products available at chain restaurants. This is an excellent idea that absolutely won't blow up in our stomachs later.
1. Logan's Roadhouse yeast rolls
1A. Texas Roadhouse yeast rolls
If Quincy's wasn't on the verge of extinction, I'd probably give it the top spot because the Big Fat Yeast Roll was the perhaps the greatest carbohydrate innovation since—wait for it—sliced bread.
2. Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits
Fact: No one has ever sailed into Cheddar Bay because it's impossible to get a ship into a waterway composed entirely of saturated fat.
3. Olive Garden breadsticks
Say what you will about the rest of the Olive Garden's offerings, but the breadsticks and salad satisfy almost every time. The danger of getting the occasional burnt batch of sticks is the only reason these aren't ranked higher.
4. California Dreaming baby croissants
I would have included Hops and its baby croissants here if Hops weren't on life support. Instead, we'll go with the South Carolina-based chain that has better food and better baby croissants with honey butter.
5. Jim 'N Nicks cheese biscuits
This Alabama-based outfit has proven that chains can make decent barbecue, and every meal starts with these tiny calorie bombs.
1. Ole Miss released its NCAA notice of allegations, its response to the notice and its proposed penalties on Friday. The juxtaposition with the Baylor story probably blunted the public relations hit, but it probably won't change any minds on the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. The COI probably isn't going to hit Ole Miss much harder than Ole Miss plans to hit itself unless something actionable turns up in the investigation into the Laremy Tunsil text messages released on draft night.
2. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity apologized last week to his school's athletics board for not noticing the contract rider for rapper Ludacris, who was paid $65,000 for a 13-minute performance at Georgia's spring game. The rider included items such as two bottles of Luda's own brand of cognac and a box of Trojan Magnum condoms.
Had McGarity wasted as many hours as a certain sportswriter who shall go unnamed perusing The Smoking Gun's treasure trove of concert riders, he'd have known right off the bat that bringing in an act who spent time on the A-list means some odd requests are forthcoming. Guns N' Roses wanted Dom Perignon and issues of Penthouse. Moby demanded 10 pairs of boxer shorts. But they may all pale in comparison to the demands of guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) in the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.
3. Speaking of money Georgia paid to people... Former Bulldogs coach—and current Miami coach—Mark Richt is donating $1 million to help build an indoor practice facility for the Hurricanes.
4. There will be less Pac-12 After Dark next season. League members decided last week that games on the Pac-12 Network would not kick off later than the 6 p.m. Pacific time window. This likely means the Pac-12 will have to take less money from Fox and ESPN because some Pac-12 Network games will encroach on games that previously were in exclusive windows. The networks paid a premium for that exclusivity, but rampant complaints about late kickoffs—and teams facing consecutive late kickoffs on the road—pushed the league to reconfigure its television schedule.
5. Big 12 presidents are scheduled to vote this week on a rule change that would give Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield another year of eligibility. Mayfield was docked one of his four years to play—not a redshirt year—for transferring from one Big 12 school to another. That might have made sense if he hadn't been a walk-on at Texas Tech who was transferring to be a walk-on at Oklahoma. If a player is paying his own way, he shouldn't face an eligibility penalty for changing schools.
6. The SEC won't be spiking the revenue football at the close of this week's league meetings in Destin, Fla. Previously, the SEC would announce its revenues at the close of each meeting. This year, the league will wait until after the close of its fiscal year and release its revenue split in October. It probably takes a little extra time to count all that SEC Network money. But the league's most recent IRS Form 990 should offer a clue. In the tax filing that included the first year of the SEC Network, the league reported revenue of $527.4 million.
7. Former Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton has joined former coach Gary Andersen's Oregon State staff. Keeton and Aggies teammate Funaki Asisi are currently listed as administrative staffers for the Beavers.
8. Duke coaches enlisted walk-on defensive end Danny Doyle's parents to deliver some good news last week.
9. If new Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert can turn the field at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium into a lake, then Shane Buechele might be the nation's most dominant quarterback.
10. Unless, of course, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph bests Buechele for the coveted Jet Ski Heisman.
What's Eating Andy
It'll be sad to turn on an SEC on CBS game in 2017 and not hear Verne Lundquist. Uncle Verne provided the soundtrack for some of my favorite Saturday afternoons. He is the aural equivalent of the host who invites you into his house and makes sure you have a beer and enough to eat before you get through the door. Brad Nessler, a fine play-by-play man, will replace Lundquist. Nessler has a smooth, deep voice that lends gravitas to any proceeding. But it always feels like a party with Verne. Fortunately, we get one more season to enjoy the festivities.
What's Andy Eating
My eating and drinking odyssey through the greater Knoxville, Tenn., area never would have happened if Sweet P's Barbecue hadn't had all its desserts gobbled by hungry diners early one Saturday afternoon. After a half-rack of succulent ribs crusted with a sweet-and-salty rub and a muffuletta—that day's special—that combined smoked turkey with Genoa salami and a homemade olive dressing, I wanted something sweet to cap off the meal. I figured a piece of Sweet P's chocolate chess pie would satisfy that craving.
Unfortunately, plenty of other diners had already tamed the same hunger with that pie. I drooped after the man behind the counter delivered the bad news. But I shouldn't have. By inhaling all the pieces of chess pie, those hungry Sweet P's diners set me on the path to the best pie I've ever eaten.
But before we get there, let's talk about the main course. If you aren't looking for the original Sweet P's, you'll never find it. The owners have opened a second location in downtown Knoxville that is much easier to stumble across, but a visitor must be tipped off to find the original tucked away next to a small marina in nearby Maryville. The gorgeous drive across the Tennessee River from Knoxville and the in-on-a-secret location wouldn't mean much if Sweet P's didn't get the barbecue right. But since Sweet P's takes such care with its smoked meats, it all melts together into a glorious dining experience.
I wouldn't have ordered that muffuletta if the barbecue wasn't excellent. Why would I trust anyone to do a great New Orleans sandwich correctly if they couldn't handle their core business? But after tasting those ribs, I knew the people in the kitchen at Sweet P's loved food enough to put the same care into everything they made. So after the ribs, I bit into a sandwich every bit as good as the ones I'd eaten in Louisiana. The smoky meat and the soft ciabatta provided the foundation. (The restaurant provided a recipe to the local NBC affiliate that uses ham along with the salami.) On the day I visited, Sweet P's used its juicy turkey.) The olive dressing, with its mix of green and kalamata, provided the fireworks.
But after something so tangy, I needed sugar. With Sweet P's out of desserts, I decided to visit the other place I'd read about when I was scouting dishes the way Nick Saban scouts opposing offenses. A place called Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop had set up on Kingston Pike in Knoxville in 2012. I walked in and immediately knew what I needed. The featured pie at Buttermilk Sky is called the I-40 in honor of the perpetually-under-construction interstate that runs east and west through Knoxville. It mixes traditional pecan pie filling with chocolate chips and coconut shavings atop a shortbread crust. Precious little in this world can enhance the standard pecan pie, but the coconut and chocolate chips do. Only adding coconut wouldn't work. Only adding chocolate chips would make it too sweet. Adding both does the trick.
But that isn't why the I-40 is the best pie I've ever eaten. That perfect shortbread crust is why. It's tough to make a light crust that can handle the weight of a heavier filling such as pecan. Buttermilk sky has found a way. The crust didn't disintegrate with each swipe of the fork. Instead, it came apart in huge hunks that held a commensurate amount of filling. But it didn't do this because it was overly thick or burned. It remained light and buttery soft at the same time. It was a remarkable feat of pie physics, and I'm not sure I'll ever meet another pie that measures up.
That pie satisfied my sweet tooth, and I was content to head back to my hotel and pay my penance at the dumbbell rack. But then I remembered what was nearby. From 2000–02, I lived in Knoxville. My first real job was covering Tennessee for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. What should have been an ideal first job was complicated by the fact that my fiancé—who became my wife in 2001—was eight hours away in Gainesville, Fla., finishing her undergraduate degree. Her next step was a physician assistant graduate program, and there weren't any of those in Knoxville. So I spent most of my time in Knoxville lonely and frustrated that I'd eventually have to give up this great job to move back to Florida, where no one had been particularly interested in hiring me in the first place. But one thing that always made me feel better in those days was a giant Hint of Orange iced tea from Petro's Chili and Chips.
This may sound silly, but I get very sentimental about iced tea. Great tea always brightens my mood, and there is very little brewed that comes close to the Hint of Orange tea at Petro's. For the uninitiated, Petro's is a small chain that sells what Texans call Frito Pie in a cup. Diners can replace their Fritos with pasta, and that dish essentially mimics the business model of Cincinnati staple Skyline Chili. Petro's probably should have made one of my Chains That Should Go National lists, but the edibles, while good, pale in comparison to the potables. That's why I pulled into a Petro's further west on Kingston Pike that afternoon. I was stuffed with ribs and sandwich and pie, but I needed that tea. In my younger days, I ordered it sweet. Now, I order unsweet and break out the yellow packets. Neither option is particularly healthy, but we pick our battles.
I sat in that little Petro's that day let that beautiful brew wash down my throat and into my soul. I finished one cup. Then I refilled it and drank another. Then I got another refill for the drive to the hotel. And as I drove toward the sunset, I thought back to those days when a cup of Hint of Orange was a bright spot to be cherished. Those days helped get me here, and I wouldn't trade them for all the tea in Knoxville.