Friday October 23rd, 2009

Sometimes in college football, Daniel-san has to try to crane-kick Mr. Miyagi's butt. Luke Skywalker has to challenge Yoda to a lightsaber duel. Dewey Oxberger's unit has to capture a hill from a unit led by Sgt. Hulka.

The incestuous nature of the coaching biz can turn a mentor into an opponent, a prodigy into a roadblock. We saw it earlier this season when first-year Washington coach Steve Sarkisian beat his old boss, USC's Pete Carroll. We saw it again last weekend when first-year Boston College coach Frank Spaziani whipped his mentor, NC State coach Tom O'Brien, by 32 points.

Saturday in Starkville, Miss., first-year Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen will try to make it 3-0 for the whippersnappers when his Bulldogs face Florida. Mullen got his first full-time job when Urban Meyer hired the then-Notre Dame graduate assistant as his quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green. Mullen followed Meyer to Utah and then to Florida, where he served as offensive coordinator for two national championship teams. Now, Mullen stands between the Gators -- No. 1 in the BCS rankings -- and their dream of an undefeated season. Florida has gone 0-4 in Starkville since 1985, but the cast of characters has turned over completely since 2004, when Mississippi State shocked Florida and got Ron Zook fired, paving the way for Meyer and Mullen to come to Gainesville.

Mullen knows Florida quarterback Tim Tebow better than anyone, and Mullen played a critical role in designing Florida's offense. He knows signals, audibles and tendencies. "Some things are very alarming," Meyer said, "that we're going to cover in great detail." Mullen's knowledge makes Mississippi State more dangerous than the average 3-4 opponent, but Mullen realizes he also faces a distinct athletic deficit. As Mullen's mentor would say, Meyer's checkers are better than Mullen's checkers.

"I can look at them on film and know what they are doing, but it is a whole different story in stopping them," Mullen said. They've got a lot of weapons and a good offensive system. When they have that type of speed, if you make one mistake, it turns a 10-yard gain into a 60-yard gain."

So does Mullen stand a chance? A look back at 11 recent first-time pupil-teacher matchups suggests he does.

Only one team came within a touchdown of the Seminoles on their march to the national title, and it was the one coached by Bobby Bowden's son, Tommy. The elder Bowden didn't just teach Tommy to shave and tie a Windsor knot; he also schooled him in the gridiron arts. Tommy played for Bobby at West Virginia, and daddy hired son as his secondary coach at Florida State in 1978. Tommy only coached for his father at Florida State for four years (1978-79 and 1981-82), but he never stopped learning from Bobby. After a successful stint as Tulane's head coach, Tommy took over at Clemson prior to the 1999 season. In the days before Bowden Bowl I, Seminoles receiver Peter Warrick returned from a suspension for his Dillard's shopping spree. At the game, Bobby's wife (and Tommy's mom), Ann, wore a half-FSU, half-Clemson sweatshirt. The Tigers took a 14-3 lead in the second quarter, but FSU rallied and secured the elder Bowden's 300th win with on Sebastian Janikowski field goal with 5:26 remaining.

Winner: teacher

Bob Stoops' star rose as defensive coordinator for Bill Snyder's Kansas State teams in the early '90s. After a three-year stint as Florida's defensive coordinator, Stoops took over at Oklahoma in 1999. He didn't face his mentor until the following year. In a clash of unbeaten teams, Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns as the Sooners rolled over the Wildcats. Stoops wouldn't have to wait long to face his former boss again; Oklahoma beat Kansas State in the 2000 Big 12 title game en route to the BCS title.

Winner: pupil

In his second year at Oklahoma, Stoops had already spawned his own coaching tree. Mike Leach learned the most from former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme, but it was Leach's one-year stint at Oklahoma that won him command of the HMS Red Raiders. The Sooners won a sloppy game in which quarterbacks Heupel and Kliff Kingsbury each threw two interceptions. The win allowed the Sooners to clinch the Big 12 South title. In eight more tries, Leach has only beaten his former boss twice. Their next meeting comes Nov. 21.

Winner: teacher

A year later, Bobby Bowden found himself across the sidelines from another familiar face. Chuck Amato, a longtime Bowden defensive assistant, had stayed in the ACC for his first head-coaching job. Amato's debut against his mentor wasn't as impressive as Tommy Bowden's, though. Led by tailback Travis Minor, who gained 129 yards and scored two touchdowns, the Seminoled crushed the Wolfpack. Amato got his revenge, though, winning the 2001 and 2002 meetings.

Winner: teacher

Two months before anyone cared what was on George O'Leary's résumé, the Georgia Tech coach dropped his first game against his former offensive coordinator. Though Ralph Friedgen is better described as a Bobby Ross disciple, the Fridge made quite a name for himself while working for O'Leary. Though Friedgen's offense helped the Terrapins win the 2001 ACC title, his defense was the star in Atlanta, forcing six turnovers. Kicker Nick Novak booted a 46-yarder as time expired to force overtime. In the extra period, Novak kicked a 26-yarder and the Terps' defense recovered a fumble to end the game.

Winner: pupil

When a man coaches the same team for more than 30 years, his coaching tree sprouts a lot of branches. Bowden had handled his pupils until the 2003 Sugar Bowl, when former FSU offensive coordinator Mark Richt capped his second season at Georgia with a win against his mentor in New Orleans. Richt, who rode Musa Smith's 145 rushing yards and four Billy Bennett field goals to victory, said after the game he hated playing against Bowden. "I'd rather not play coach Bowden," Richt said. "I'd just as soon not play coach Bowden again if I can help it -- unless we're playing them here next year. I would go for that." The Superdome was the site of the next BCS title game. Neither Georgia nor Florida State made it to New Orleans.

Winner: pupil

Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio was Jim Tressel's first defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Together, they won a national title, and Dantonio earned himself a sweet new job after the 2003 season. Unfortunately, his first game came against his old boss. Dantonio's team started off well enough, taking a 3-0 second-quarter lead. But the Buckeyes stopped turning the ball over in the second half, and they rolled to a win. Dantonio has since moved to Michigan State, where he is 0-2 against the Buckeyes.

Winner: teacher

David Cutcliffe helped Peyton Manning smash records as Tennessee's offensive coordinator, and his work during the Volunteers' 1998 national title season got him hired to replace Tommy Tuberville at Ole Miss. Because of the SEC's scheduling setup at the time, Cutcliffe didn't face mentor Phillip Fulmer's Vols until his final season in Oxford. By then, Eli Manning was gone, leaving the Rebels lacking against SEC east leader Tennessee. Ole Miss made a game of it, but Tennessee freshman quarterback Erik Ainge hit Bret Smith for the game-winning score with 6:58 remaining.

Winner: teacher

Sometimes, the student stabs the mentor in the back. OK, Bobby Petrino and Auburn coach Tuberville never were close, but Petrino did use his 2002 stint as the Tigers' offensive coordinator to secure the Louisville job. Then, in 2003, Petrino met with some Auburn wheeler-dealers on a private jet at the Louisville airport. There, the men conspired to oust Tuberville. Tuberville survived the attempted coup, but five years later, Petrino had split from Louisville and from the Atlanta Falcons and landed at Arkansas. There, Petrino finally got his chance to contribute to Tuberville's ousting. Three days after Tuberville fired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, Petrino's Razorbacks beat the Tigers. Tuberville "resigned" after a 5-7 season.

Winner: pupil

Pete Carroll's Trojans had just won at Ohio State, but true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley had bruised his throwing shoulder. Backup Aaron Corp, who had worked plenty with Washington coach Steve Sarkisian when Sarkisian was the Trojans' offensive coordinator, had a miserable game against the Huskies, throwing for only 110 yards and an interception. Meanwhile, Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt, another former USC assistant, led a group that held USC to three points in the final 49:24. The Huskies won on Erik Folk's 22-yard field goal with three seconds on the clock.

Winner: pupil

Eagles coach Frank Spaziani and Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien served as assistants together at the Naval Academy in the late '70s. According to a Boston Herald story, the men made a pledge that the first guy to get a head-coaching job would hire the other. When O'Brien was named BC's head coach in 1997, he made good on his promise and hired Spaziani. Spaz got passed over in favor of Jeff Jagodzinski when O'Brien left for Raleigh, but BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo rewarded the longtime assistant after firing Jagodzinski earlier this year. In the first meeting between old friends, sophomore back Montel Harris delivered a school-record 264 yards and five touchdowns performance, and Spaziani's Eagles rolled.

Winner: pupil

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