Revisiting the best and worst coaches debate; more mail

Wednesday July 10th, 2013

Iowa fans rushed defend coach Kirk Ferentz despite his 27-29 Big Ten record over the last seven years.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Well, it's been an interesting week. While I certainly expected some backlash from Monday's "10 best and five worst coaches" lists -- there always is when rankings are involved -- never in a million years did I expect the entire state of Iowa to come after me on Twitter. Call me naïve, but it never even occurred to me that Kirk Ferentz's inclusion on the less flattering list would be all that controversial given his program's gradual descent over the past seven years from annual Big Ten title contender to sub-.500 conference team (27-29).

Folks, I have never seen a fan base defend a coach coming off a 4-8 season the way Iowa fans defended Ferentz this week. It's been incredible. A small sampling (all from Twitter):

Silly me, I expected more heat for breaking my own rules and including Illinois' Tim Beckman after just one season at the school. Whoops.

Moving on, let's get to some questions about the best coaches, shall we? (And I promise there are some completely unrelated questions after that.)

Where would Chip Kelly have ranked on your list had he not left for the NFL?
-- Zwood, Portland, Ore.

Good question. You'd be hard-pressed to find many college coaches who enjoyed a better four-year run than Kelly's stint at Oregon, which included a 46-7 record, four BCS bowls, three Pac-12 titles and a national championship game appearance. Plus, he was one of the sport's greatest innovators in recent memory. I'd have a hard time placing Kelly above two coaches, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, with multiple national titles, or above Chris Petersen, who has a similarly gaudy record with far fewer resources. So Kelly would have landed at No. 4.

Also, let me just add that my wife and I spent last weekend visiting the Pacific Northwest. You've got it good there in Portland (and Seattle). My compliments to the chefs at Pok Pok and Noble Rot.

How can you leave Bill O'Brien off your 10 best coaches list for 2013? Name someone else who could have gotten eight wins out of a depleted team facing long-term sanctions. Penn State's NCAA penalties do not change the fact that O'Brien has done a great job.
-- Jerry Miller, Richmond, Va.

O'Brien got the most "snub" emails of any coach I left off my list, and I certainly agree that he's off to a great start in State College. But don't you think we should wait more than one season before ranking him alongside the likes of Gary Patterson and Bob Stoops? I seem to recall another former Patriots offensive coordinator who swept in and impressed during his debut season at a prominent college program. You now know him as the current head coach at Kansas.

ELLIS: Ex-Penn State defensive coordinator Roof talks about transition to Georgia Tech

Les Miles is a top-10 coach? I really enjoy your columns, I really do ... but on this one I feel you are WAY off. A top-10 recruiter? Fine. But it appears you have forgotten Miles' repeatedly blatant time-management mistakes, his poor handling of recent quarterback situations and his questionable decision-making. Remember, this is the same coach who was on the hot seat before the 2010 season.
-- Bryan G, Lake Worth, Fla.

Obviously, I'm well aware of Miles' faults, but at this point, anyone who still discounts Miles' overall abilities as a coach is too hung up on his eccentricities and apparently immune to his accomplishments. Beyond the fact that he has a national title and two SEC titles, here are Miles' season-by-season win totals at LSU: 11, 11, 12, 8, 9, 11, 13 and 10. He's gone 47-17 in the toughest conference in the country. Do you really believe there are 10 other coaches out there who would have fared better at the same program in the same league over the same time span?

Indefensible to have Ferentz on five worst list. Just admit mistake, remove him and re-post. #credibility
-- Pete Young (@AllPSUFootball)

Man, even Penn State fans are defending Ferentz. If only Iowa had bothered to defend Penn State during last year's matchup.

My comment involves Urban Meyer. The whole Aaron Hernandez fiasco has dredged up Internet chatter about Meyer's tenure at Florida and how it appeared to be a situation where the inmates were running the asylum. Could that have been a case where a win-at-all-costs mentality prompted Meyer to gloss over some of the moral responsibilities that should have been inherent in his job?
-- Steve Smith, Burlington, Wis.

First of all, anyone who thinks Meyer, as a football coach, would somehow have had the ability to change the course of history and prevent Hernandez from devolving into an alleged sociopathic murderer by disciplining him differently at Florida is just piling on the coach. Ty Duffy of The Big Lead wrote an excellent piece to that effect. The 31 arrests during Meyer's tenure in Gainesville have been well documented. It's not a flattering number, though it's also hardly unprecedented for a major college football program.

Meyer also has a long history of giving troubled players second and even third chances. You may recall Marty Johnson, the former Utah running back who Meyer allowed to return to the undefeated 2004 Utes despite two DUI arrests. Johnson later wound up in prison following more DUI arrests after his career. I also know that Meyer was haunted by the 2007 overdose death of Avery Atkins, a former Florida cornerback who Meyer had dismissed the year before following two domestic battery arrests. "I can't let go of saying, 'Is there something else we could've done?'" Meyer told Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price in 2009.

I was not inside the walls of Florida's program from 2005-10, so I can't speak to whether "the inmates were running the asylum." I can, however, relay an anecdote from my visit to Ohio State in April. I was allowed to sit in on a weekly life-skills seminar the entire team and staff attended. The players all had notebooks. At the beginning, Meyer quizzed random players about topics ranging from money management to job interviews. The guest speaker that day was former Buckeyes star Chris Spielman, who recounted how he dealt with the tragic death of his wife, Stefanie, in 2009, and implored the players to become good men and husbands. Obviously, Meyer can't force a 19-year-old to pay attention to one of these lectures, nor can he control what they ultimately do with the information. And I don't know what goes on inside Ohio State's program the rest of the week. But I can confirm that, at least for an hour each week, Meyer does more than pay lip service to his "moral responsibility." That doesn't excuse the arrests or his sometimes inconsistent disciplinary decisions. But at the very least, it humanizes a guy who, for whatever reason, seems to draw an incredible amount of ire over the wrongdoings of other people.

Though LSU lost several key players to the NFL, the Tigers should pose a challenge to 'Bama on Nov. 9.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Nick Saban rarely loses back-to-back games to the same team, so it's unlikely he'll lose to Texas A&M this year. Who has the best potential to take down Alabama in the SEC?
-- Sharath, Columbus, Ohio

You and Paul Finebaum are both already writing off the Aggies, I see? Fair enough. For the sake of this hypothetical we'll just skip over what very well could be the biggest game of the year in 2013.

The rest of the Tide's SEC slate is admittedly unimposing on paper, but LSU is the obvious answer here. While I do think the Tigers might slip a bit after losing 11 underclassmen to the NFL, they'll have plenty of time to gain experience before traveling to 'Bama on Nov. 9, and LSU-Alabama games are almost always tightly contested (at least in the regular season). Since Nick Saban took over the Tide in 2007, he's 4-3 against Les Miles' teams, with five of their six regular-season meetings decided by one score. Last season's game in Baton Rouge came down to a last-second AJ McCarron touchdown drive, and the year before LSU won that infamous 9-6 overtime game in Tuscaloosa.

Now, if you're looking for more of a "trap" game, I'd offer two possibilities. One is Ole Miss' visit to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 28, wedged awkwardly between games against Colorado State and Georgia State. Hugh Freeze's hurry-up offense posed some problems early in last year's matchup and should be considerably more dangerous a season later. Whether the Rebels' defense can put up a fight is another story. And the other, of course, is the Iron Bowl. While it may seem unlikely that an 0-8 SEC team from a year ago could pose any sort of threat to the reigning national champs, remember that an average Auburn team very nearly ended Alabama's 2009 BCS title run in Gus Malzahn's first year as offensive coordinator. It's certainly possible he could give Saban similar fits in his first year as head coach.

Stewart, thanks for grading our coach so poorly. It's not like Kirk Ferentz lives in Florida or Texas and has recruits basically falling to him. No, he has to put in work to get players ... WITHOUT cheating tactics. And if he did cheat, he would admit those faults to the NCAA. Let's discount the fact that Iowa is a top-10 school in terms of NFL players drafted over the last 10 years -- that would be nonsense. But go ahead, base your list loosely on the last five years mostly from the W/L column and salary.
-- Matt, Des Moines, Iowa

Actually, the fact Iowa has produced so many NFL players is a testament to just how grossly it has recently underachieved. Which is generally a sign of poor coaching. But don't listen to me, I'm the idiot judging a $3.6 million-a-year coach on his W/L column.

Stewart, as everyone knows, this will be the final year of AQ and non-AQ conference designations before the College Football Playoff splits leagues into power conferences and the Group of Five. Which non-AQ teams do you think could gain an automatic BCS berth this year and send larger fan bases, such as Oklahoma's or Michigan's, into hysterics?
-- Andy R., Whitehall, Mich.

Boise State is clearly the leading candidate. The Broncos will start their campaign solidly in the Top 25, so even a season-opening loss at Washington wouldn't necessarily prevent them from eventually climbing back up into the top 12. Quarterback Joe Southwick (66.8 completion percentage last season, 19 touchdowns, seven interceptions) is poised for a nice senior season, and the Broncos should field another fine defense. But they aren't without questions. Neither is Northern Illinois, last year's BCS buster, but the Huskies do return star quarterback Jordan Lynch and a whole bunch of skill players on offense. Coach Rod Carey's team should be the overwhelming favorite to emerge again from the MAC.

If you're looking for a less obvious candidate -- a first-time party crasher for the final year of the system -- I'd urge you to look at Fresno State. The Bulldogs should pose a legitimate threat to Boise in the Mountain West (which will be much tougher this year with the addition of 2012 11-win teams Utah State and San Jose State). Fresno scored 40-plus points in more than half its games last season. Quarterback Derek Carr, an early candidate to captain this year's eighth-year senior team, threw for 4,104 yards, 37 touchdowns and seven picks last season and should be even more effective in his second year in coach Tim DeRuyter's system. And wouldn't it be something if Carr led the Bulldogs to a BCS berth 12 years after his brother, David, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated during an impressive early-season run of upsets over Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin? This year's squad opens against Rutgers and visits Colorado in Week 3 before a potentially huge Friday night home game against Boise State.

Wow! Al Groh, Dennis Franchione, Tommy Bowden, Bill Doba, Karl Dorrell, Chan Gailey, Bill Calllahan, Mike Stoops, Ron Zook and Houston Nutt were all fired shortly after you named them among the worst coaches in college football. Ten for 10! Impressive! I'd hate to be a coach on this year's list. Should Tim Beckman start packing now?
-- Frank Irizarry, Boston

Not necessarily. Gary Pinkel marches on.

Hey Stewart, I was reading the other day about Minnesota's proposed facility upgrades, many of which will be funded by billionaire T. Denny Sanford. I started thinking that Minnesota, aside from a shortage of in-state talent, has been a sleeping giant in the college football landscape, with an administration committed to winning, a large alumni base with a willingness to spend money and a student body that supports winning programs. This led me to think about other possible college football sleeping giants. I came up with Illinois, North Carolina and Pitt as programs that seem to have all the pieces, but haven't put them together for some reason. Which other programs could be only one great coach away from becoming perennial contenders?
-- Dan, Sheldon, Iowa

First of all, it seems a bit of a stretch to group Minnesota among the sleeping giants, unless the past 50 years have merely been a slumber. But I get what you're saying. Of the schools you mentioned, I've long considered North Carolina a potential behemoth, but one that keeps shooting itself in the foot. It's a large flagship university with a mostly robust athletic department in a very fertile recruiting state. Mack Brown showed briefly in the late '90s that the Tar Heels can win big in football, but those were the days back before UNC and the ACC really started caring about football, and the school couldn't match a suitor like Texas. Furthermore, just a few years ago, Butch Davis elevated recruiting to the point where the Tar Heels seemed primed to compete nationally, but the program imploded amid a potpourri of NCAA violations. UNC made another good hire with Larry Fedora, who could get things going as soon as this season, but the stench of the ongoing academic scandal continues to hover over that campus.

Another perennial sleeping giant that comes to mind is Arizona State. It has never made sense that a warm-weather program in a major city with easy access to Southern California recruits doesn't field Pac-12 title contenders more frequently. The Sun Devils have had their moments, most notably the 1996 Rose Bowl season, but recent coaches Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson could never string together any consistency. And fan support for the team is lackluster. However, Todd Graham has made a positive impression so far, and with USC still feeling the effects of scholarship reductions, the time is ripe for someone -- whether it's Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona or even Utah -- to become a player in the Pac-12 South. Graham's program has the necessary pieces, starting with the best defensive tackle in the country (Will Sutton).

Of the teams that were really terrible last year (Kansas, Colorado and Boston College, among others), which has the best chance to be good this year? Or, at the very least, competitive?
-- Dan, Washington D.C.

It's going to take new Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre and new Boston College coach Steve Addazio at least a year or two to build up the necessary talent at their respective programs. My colleague Pete Thamel recently wrote an interesting piece about BC's recruiting renaissance. But Kansas' Charlie Weis is conducting an interesting experiment that could pay immediate dividends this season. He has basically assembled a juco all-star team in an attempt to upgrade last year's widespread deficiencies, signing 17 such transfers last winter. If Weis' plan works, the Jayhawks should be much more competitive in the Big 12. If it doesn't ... well, ask former Kansas State coach Ron Prince.

You're an idiot Mandel. Whoever is hot at the moment is now a top-10 coach? Art Briles? Kevin Sumlin? Neither can coach defense, and Sumlin pulled one of the all-time great chokes in the Conference USA title game against Southern Miss in 2011. What has either ever won? Ever? You should sell shoes.
-- Kenny Carleton, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Now that's not nice. Plenty of upstanding, hardworking shoe salesmen probably read this column. Leave them out of this.

@slmandel is one of the five worst sports columnists, enough said.
-- Michael Boone (@michaeltheboone)

See, that's how it's done.

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