Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley's questionable coaching decisions have had a dramatic effect on the Gators' football program.
In December 2004, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley pulled off one of the great coups in modern college sports when he beat out Notre Dame to hire Utah coach Urban Meyer. The only greater indignity for Notre Dame than losing out on a rising star who had said that coaching the Irish was his “dream” job was that television cameras tracked Notre Dame AD Kevin White from the moment the private plane with a ND logo landed in Salt Lake City. Notre Dame’s failure played out like reality television, while Foley surreptitiously slipped in and out of Salt Lake City to secure Meyer’s services without notice.
In December 2014, reporters tracked Foley’s trip on a private plane to Fort Collins, Colo. Members of the media then followed a white SUV carrying him to the house of Colorado State coach Jim McElwain. There’s even a picture of Foley admiring the view. Reports have identified McElwain as the leading candidate to replace Will Muschamp at Florida, and it would be shocking if Foley went through that whole exercise without pulling the trigger. (UPDATE: Florida announced the hiring of McElwain on Thursday morning.)
Ten years to the day of White’s ill-fated trip to Salt Lake City, Foley’s voyage to Fort Collins unfolded like a bungled modern coaching search, with fans and journalists live tweeting along the way. Foley waited a year too long to fire Muschamp and then proceeded to run a search without the same discretion and aggressiveness that allowed him to outfox Notre Dame a decade ago. We’ll reserve judgment on McElwain for what he does on the field. But the lost 2014 season at Florida and squandered opportunities for Foley to hire a more established and bigger name coach shows just how far he and the Gators have fallen.
How has Foley messed up things in the last decade? Let us count the ways. Start with the candidates Foley likely could have lured to Gainesville. There are four coaches with better track records and decisively more potential that Foley missed or ignored. The timing of Foley’s firing of Muschamp cost him a shot at Charlie Strong and James Franklin last year. For reasons that are still unclear, Foley ruled out Rich Rodriguez and Dan Mullen before this search even began. The result is the rest of the SEC snickering at Foley, who has two football flops -- Ron Zook and Muschamp -- and a Hall of Famer (Meyer) on his track record. McElwain deserves a shot, but there aren’t a lot of signs that he’s the next Meyer.
Consider that in October 2004, Foley fired Zook after a loss at Mississippi State. By doing so, he became the model of an aggressive athletic official for dismissing his football coach early in the season. Foley then went out and hired the best available coach, and it paid dividends when Meyer led Florida to a pair of national championships.
But in 2013, with Florida’s offense stuck in the Proterozoic era and the program hitting a low by going 4-8 and losing to Georgia Southern, Foley didn’t take action. Foley blamed injuries, and his naïve belief in Muschamp belied the obvious -- Muschamp simply wasn’t a good head coach. (And Foley’s biggest blunder may have been choosing Muschamp over Strong, then the coach at Louisville, or Mullen in 2010. He chose an unknown commodity at the Florida pressure cooker over a proven one).
By keeping Muschamp for 2014, Foley’s belief in his own hire trumped the reality of a situation that everyone but him saw clearly. He stuck with Muschamp for a predictably flat 6-5 season, his faith proving dubious on first guess and embarrassing on the second. The inability to show the same vision he had in 2004 cost Florida mightily. Foley whiffing on Strong has to be especially galling to Florida fans, who saw him recruit and coach so well there at various times over 15 seasons. Instead of going with the obvious choice, Foley appeared to try to outsmart everyone.
Under Muschamp this season the results were predictable. Florida still looked pre-historic on offense, lost by a combined score of 84-34 to the SEC’s two division winners (Alabama and Missouri) and inevitably brought Foley to the decision he couldn’t muster the gusto to make the year before. (Foley’s biggest mistake with Muschamp may have been allowing him to hire Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator in his first year, a tone deaf $765,000-a-year mistake bailed out only by Kansas’ Mr. Magoo vision to make him the head coach. The move put Florida in a two-year hole on offense).
When this coaching search came around, Florida’s strangest maneuver came when it leaked to ESPN the day Muschamp got fired that it wouldn’t be pursuing Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen or Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez. This would have been fine if the Gators hired Bob Stoops or Chip Kelly, but in retrospect it appeared like Foley was setting a low bar. There’s been no good reason given for both those coaches not being considered, and few competent athletic directors would choose McElwain over Mullen or Rodriguez. (If the narrative of a blue blood school passing on Rodriguez for an obscure Mountain West coach sounds familiar, ask Michigan how that worked out.)
Comparing McElwain to Mullen or Rodriguez is unfair, as Rodriguez nearly made the national title game at West Virginia and has Arizona -- ARIZONA! -- in the Pac-12 title game. Mullen overcame a half-century of futility at Mississippi State and led the Bulldogs to a No. 1 ranking this season, has unquestioned offensive acumen and brings the invaluable experience of having coached in the Florida bubble. Either would be realistic threats to win the national title with the Gators. McElwain has had a solid season at Colorado State (10-2), and his experience under Nick Saban at Alabama will help him in the SEC.
McElwain’s best career head coaching win came at Boston College this fall, while Mullen and Rodriguez have a track record of building non-traditional powers to the highest levels. To be fair, few expected Foley to call Mullen. They have a decent relationship, but it became complicated after Foley essentially mocked Mullen’s decision to leave his job as Florida’s offensive coordinator for Mississippi State.
The decision to rule out Rodriguez may come back to haunt Foley the most. While Rodriguez had NCAA issues at Michigan and clashed with the administration, he’s been a model coach at Arizona and his offensive ingenuity would be embraced along with his down-home personality. When Foley ruled out Rodriguez and Mullen for the job, the SEC let out a collective sigh of relief. If Foley hires McElwain, there will be high fives of celebration, as the move looms as intimidating as a Powder Puff prevent defense. (Can't you imagine Steve Spurrier already getting his one-liners ready for media day?)
As Florida has sputtered through the past two seasons, the most glaring example of Foley’s negligence and arrogance has come through his refusal to acknowledge the Gator’s inferior football facilities. At the press conference in which he dismissed Muschamp, Foley shot down any notion of Florida falling behind in facilities.
Florida lacks a stand-alone indoor facility, and Foley’s refusal to acknowledge this as a problem prompted mocking texts and audible laughs around the SEC. (Both Mississippi schools have vastly superior football facilities.) While Foley has taken a victory lap for the millions that the athletic department has donated back to the University -- more than $77 million since 1992 -- the Gators are in the bottom tier of the SEC in terms of football facilities. Foley is the only one who has failed to realize this.
“Foley’s position reminds me of Miami in the early 2000s, which denied having facility problems because of their success and then found themselves a decade behind the competition,” said a southern coach familiar with both schools.
Is Foley falling asleep at the wheel? Florida hasn’t won a major bowl game since the 2009 season, and it appears destined for a lost decade unless McElwain can rebuild in a hurry. And he’ll be doing so with Foley watching closely, as few athletic departments in America have ADs whose offices are joined by the football coach's office. (Get used to Foley popping in to watch film, too, a habit that makes you wonder if he would have been better off keeping his eye on the big picture instead of the game plan.)
It’s a credit to Foley’s success at Florida -- including coaches Meyer and Billy Donovan -- that he has survived two hires as disastrous as Zook and Muschamp. But if McElwain doesn’t work out and Florida sputters through a few more seasons, it will be easy to pinpoint Foley’s fatal decision. One decade after he outsmarted Notre Dame, Foley looked foolish on Tuesday night for both the way he ran the search and the coaches he didn’t go after. Rest assured if the next coach flops, Foley won’t be around to correct his mistake.
1. Oregon’s Freeman excels with low-key approach
Oregon freshman running back Royce Freeman tries to avoid attention like defenders. “I’m not really trying to be in the spotlight or anything like that,” Freeman told The Inside Read. “I just want to go on the field and play as hard as I can.”
But even with Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota as his teammate, the 6-foot, 229-pound Freeman has emerged as a star in his own right entering Friday’s Pac-12 championship game against Arizona. He’s rushed for 1,185 yards and 16 touchdowns this season and on Tuesday was named the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year.
After not hitting the 100-yard rushing mark in his first five games, he’s now done so in five of his team’s last seven. The two he didn’t, he missed by a combined three yards. “I feel like I’ve been growing each game,” Freeman said.
Freeman has done so under the watchful of Gary Campbell, who has been Oregon’s running backs coach for 31 years. He recruited Freeman out of Imperial, Calif., where Freeman set CIF San Diego Sectional career records for rushing yards (7,601) and touchdowns (111) while averaging 11.8 yards per carry.
Campbell has compared Freeman to one of his former players, Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart. Both are physical runners, but while Freeman describes himself as “a lot of force,” he is working to be a more balanced running back.
Freeman has yet to meet Stewart but has spent time with former Ducks running backs Dino Philyaw, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, all who have played in the NFL. Their advice has all been the same: stay focused, run hard and listen to Campbell. Sounds simple enough, but Freeman still cringes recalling his debut this season when he struggled to calm down.
“You’ve got to get comfortable,” Freeman said. “Find your comfort zone.”
Mentally, Freeman believes he’s also made strides, especially when it comes to in-game adjustments. “The game is slowing down a little bit,” he said. “It’s gotten easier.”
The reserve Freeman slows way down when he’s not playing football. He acknowledges he’s the definition of “chilling.”
“I like to lay down, just hole up and watch TV and movies,” Freeman said. “Take my mind off things, get a good meal and just relax.”
It’s low-key for the increasingly high-profile Freeman. Just the way he likes it.
2. UAB players reeling after decision to shut down program
Alabama-Birmingham coach Bill Clark was still in disbelief Tuesday night, hours after the official announcement that his football program was being shut down. “It was awful,” Clark told The Inside Read. “It was just so sad.”
Clark was referring to the meeting he had with his team earlier in the day to inform them of the bad news about the financially strapped program. While he spoke, some players cried. Just four days earlier, tears of joy flowed after Saturday’s 45-24 win at Southern Miss that made the Blazers bowl-eligible for the first time in more than a decade.
“They’ve poured their lives into us,” Clark said. “We’ve built a family here. That’s how we won. They just had to fight, claw and scratch.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Clark said his players were steadfast that they still want to play in a bowl game. Clark would like for that to happen, but isn’t sure it will.
It’s been a rollercoaster for Clark since he took over the downtrodden program last January. “People said if you win one, that’s something,” Clark said. “If you win three, you’ve done unbelievable. If you win six, you’ve performed a miracle.”
Clark’s team had a miracle season by going 6-6. He orchestrated another major turnaround last year in his lone campaign as coach at Jacksonville State, which he took to the FCS playoffs.
He was also instrumental as defensive coordinator in the startup of South Alabama, which after just six years is already heading to its first bowl this season. His collegiate success came after he won consecutive state championships in 2006 and '07 at Prattville (Ala.) High.
Clark is referring to Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze, both former high school coaches who won state championships.
“I don’t mean that arrogantly,” Clark said. “I think that’s where we are now. I think we’ve proven it. I really do. We’ve just got to take the next step.”
3. Arizona's Scooby Wright III tearing up Pac-12
Scooby Wright III grew up watching Tedy Bruschi, wore his New England Patriots jersey and had a poster of the former NFL linebacker on the wall of his bedroom. But it wasn’t until the overachieving Arizona sophomore linebacker arrived in Tucson that he realized he was playing for Bruschi’s alma mater after noticing a photo of him on the wall of the old weight room at the McKale Center.
Now, the once unheralded Wright is not only exchanging text messages with his idol, but also is being compared to him entering Friday’s Pac-12 championship game against Oregon. For good reason as Wright has 14 sacks, third-best in the FBS, and a nation-leading 27 tackles for loss this season.
On Tuesday, Scooby was named the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year. He’s currently on pace to be the first FBS player since Clemson’s Keith Adams in 1999 to finish in the top five nationally in total tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. “It’s a great honor,” Wright said about being compared to Bruschi, “but I’ve still got a lot to live up to.”
Coming out of Windsor, Calif., the 6-1, 246-pound Wright’s lone FBS scholarship offer was from Arizona. Despite testing off the charts at recruiting events, he was told by schools that he was either too slow or undersized. The worst came from the team he grew up watching in the Bay Area, California, which recommended that he consider FCS school Sacramento State.
“It definitely fuels the fire a little bit more,” Wright said of the snubs. “Guys wouldn’t give me the time of day coming out of high school.”
Now those same teams spend considerable time trying to figure out how to keep Scooby from disrupting their offenses. “I just play hard-nosed and fast,” Scooby said.
Growing up, Scooby also looked up to former NFL linebacker Zach Thomas, but Bruschi was his guy. He woke up to a text message from Bruschi after Arizona’s 28-26 loss at USC in October, a game in which Scooby had a sack and 12 tackles, three for loss. “It was pretty sweet,” Scooby said. “I thought I was dreaming.”
Since then, Scooby and Bruschi have traded text messages occasionally. “It’s mainly encouragement and staying levelheaded,” he said.
Scooby stays focused by keeping a list of his long-term goals, something that he had declined to reveal to anyone until now. He wants to win a Pac-12 championship, make all-conference and be an All-America.
Scooby has other goals too that he just hasn’t written down. He has a long ways to go but is eyeing Bruschi’s school record for career sacks (52).
He is looking forward to eventually meeting Bruschi. Just like Scooby would someday like to be on a wall with his idol -- in Arizona's retired numbers.
• The problem was obvious to Boise State's Bryan Harsin. As the first-year Broncos coach looked around the locker room after his team’s surprising 28-14 loss at Air Force in late September, no one had to tell him. He could see it in his players’ sullen faces.
They came to Boise State to continue the improbable success that has made the program the darling of non-Power 5 teams. But the magic disappeared last season with a disappointing 8-5 record in then-coach Chris Petersen’s final campaign, the first time the Broncos had failed to achieve double-digit victories in 11 years.
The pressure to not let it happen again had already taken its toll on Harsin’s youthful team less than a month into the season. “We were so heartbroken and just down,” Harsin told The Inside Read. “We had so much football left. If it was going to be that painful every week from that point on, it wasn’t going to be any fun. It was going to be miserable for everybody.”
Harsin came up with a theme for the following week that he credits for saving his team’s season: Enjoy the process. His players have taken that motto to heart and Boise State has won seven straight en route to capturing the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division. The Broncos (10-2) play in Saturday’s conference championship game against Fresno State (6-6).
Instead of being uptight and anxious about likely securing the Group of Five conferences’ one automatic berth in the six New Year’s bowls with a win, the Broncos are enthusiastic and confident. “It’s been different,” Harsin said. “Smiles, excitement, enjoyment. Not a whole lot of pep on the sideline trying to talk guys into playing. They already want to do that, which, if you’ve got that, that’s half the battle.”
Running back Jay Ajayi has provided plenty of smiles for the Broncos this season (1,619 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns and 45 receptions for 536 yards and four touchdowns, all career-highs). The 6-foot, 216-pound redshirt junior had more career-highs in last Saturday’s 50-19 rout of Utah State with 229 yards and six touchdowns (five rushing). He is expected to leave for the NFL Draft after this season.
“He’s playing at a different level right now,” Harsin said. “For a running back this late in the year, he’s just faster, more powerful. His level has stepped up a notch in these bigger games. That’s your elite players. Guys like that stand out. That’s how’s they play.”
Boise State’s defense has also rounded into shape the last two games under rising defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, giving up an average of 16.5 points, just over 11 points better than its season average. It’s all setting up for the Broncos to potentially return to the Fiesta Bowl, where they became a national sensation with the legendary Statue of Liberty two-point conversion to beat Oklahoma in 2006.
“We feel like we’re a power program,” Harsin said. “We feel like we’ve got all those things you need to beat a power program.”
• New Troy coach Neal Brown was on his way to a school Christmas party in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday night when his cell phone cut out. He lost reception because he was taking the back roads with his wife, Brooke.
“Luckily, I don’t need a GPS,” Brown told The Inside Read with a laugh.
That’s because Brown’s hiring at Troy marks the former Kentucky offensive coordinator and quarterback coach’s return to the Sun Belt school. He was an assistant under now retired Larry Blakeney, his predecessor, from 2006 to '09 in the midst of the Trojans’ five straight conference championships.
“We won,” Brown said, “and we won big.”
He expects to win quickly at a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2010. He plans to bring back the mentality that made the Trojans one of the nation’s most feared non-BCS schools during his previous stint with the program.
“We were competing with anybody in the country because our guys played with an edge,” Brown said. “They played fast, hard and physical. When we were on national TV, we always played extremely well. That’s important. We’re going to get back to where we play with an edge.”
The 34-year-old Brown, who is the second-youngest head coach in the FBS behind Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, will have to address problems on both sides of the ball. The Trojans ranked among the worst in the nation in points scored (21.8 ppg) and points allowed (36.2) per game this season.
Brown will call the plays on offense and run his fast-paced spread attack that he nicknamed NASCAR (for its speed) while offensive coordinator at Texas Tech from 2010-12. It’s no secret that Brown’s biggest decision will be the hiring of his defensive coordinator, who he wants to be fundamentally sound, but also aggressive.
An accomplished recruiter, Brown is eager to tap into Troy’s fertile recruiting grounds of South Alabama, South Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, which are all nearby. “I want our guys playing fast,” Brown said. “I don’t want them thinking. I don’t want them reacting. I want to play fast.”
Brown spent Monday afternoon walking around Troy’s campus, reconnecting with friends in the dining hall and with deans. On Tuesday, he planned to visit businesses in Troy’s downtown square. He is looking forward to an after-church lunch on Sunday at Sisters’ Restaurant, which is legendary for its Southern-style buffet.
“It’s really a neat time,” Brown said. “We always kept our eye on this place. Troy is a special place for us. Not very often in your career do you get to go back to a place where you got it started.”
Troy is where Brown and his wife first lived after they got married, and where their first child, 6-year-old daughter Adalyn, was born. It’s where Brown’s wife will also have their third child, a boy, due in February.
Brown was also promoted at Troy in 2008, when he was the youngest offensive coordinator in the FBS, at 25. Troy was third nationally in total offense the next season, his final year.
“To be able to come back in a time of need and get this program back to where it belongs and should be, I’m honored and I’m humbled to do that,” Brown said.
Monday’s Christmas party was a reminder for Brown of where he intends to take his new team. He attended the annual event a couple of times while previously at Troy after the Trojans accepted invites to the New Orleans Bowl.
“We’d love to get back bowling and come to this party and be talking about what bowl we’re going to play in,” Brown said.
He does know the way to get there.
• Illinois coach Tim Beckman rattles off the mistakes as if he were in confessional. He used chewing tobacco during a game. He was penalized for being run over by an official while not paying attention after his team threw an interception, an embarrassing faux pas that lives in YouTube lowlights.
He also finally admits, after refusing to apologize repeatedly in the past, that he’s remorseful for the decision to send his assistants to recruit Penn State players in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He acknowledges he did so after he panicked about his program’s lack of players.
“It was not a right decision,” Beckman told The Inside Read. “I take full blame for that.”
All the incidents came in the third-year Fighting Illini coach’s dreadful 2-10 first season in Champaign, which included an 0-8 mark in Big Ten play. “The first year was a disaster,” Beckman said. “But in the last two years, not to brag about, we’ve come out of a basement. We’ve taken steps. This program was in deep, deep trouble.”
So was Beckman, but on Sunday Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced that Beckman had improved enough to return for next season, putting an end to much speculation about his future. The announcement came a day after the Fighting Illini beat rival Northwestern 47-33 to become bowl-eligible for just the fifth time in 15 years.
His team’s 6-6 record comes after a 4-8 campaign last year. He’s done it with a group that’s finally grown up, as evidenced by 40 of 50 players returning from last year’s two-deep. “It’s maturity,” said Beckman, who has a 12-24 record at Illinois. “We’re getting better. I really like what we’ve got coming in, but we’ve got to continue to build this thing.”
Beckman’s offense has struggled without a healthy Wes Lunt, his prized redshirt sophomore quarterback who didn't play in Saturday’s win and has been hindered by a leg injury. But the defensive-minded Beckman believes he’s making progress on the other side of the ball.
He knows he and defensive coordinator Tim Banks have been much maligned for a defense that ranks among the nation’s worst in points allowed (33.9 ppg). But he credits the unit for the Fighting Illini’s three wins in its last five games.
In those victories against Minnesota, Penn State and at Northwestern, the group surrendered an average of just 23.6 points. One of the reasons has been 6-6, 295-pound junior defensive lineman Jihad Ward, a first-year junior college transfer who Beckman says is “playing as good as any player that I’ve ever coached.”
That includes the more than a dozen players that Ohio State had drafted into the NFL during Beckman’s two years on staff as the Buckeyes’ secondary coach. Ward, a wide receiver as recently as three years ago, has three sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries this season.
"It's just taken him some time," Beckman said.
Beckman could say the same of himself.
• Lance Leipold sat outside the office he’s leaving at Wisconsin-Whitewater on Tuesday morning, getting ready to walk back in for the first time as Buffalo’s new coach. “I don’t even know what day it is,” Leipold told The Inside Read with a laugh. “Where are we at?”
It’s been a whirlwind span for the 50-year-old Leipold, who had his introductory press conference in Buffalo on Monday. He still has to prepare his top-ranked and defending national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater team for its game Saturday against Wartburg (Iowa) in the quarterfinals of the Division III playoffs.
He will coach the Warhawks (12-0) through the remainder of this season, which could last two more weeks if they advance to the Dec. 19 national title game. They are seeking their sixth national title in Leipold’s eight seasons as head coach. “It’s been nonstop,” Leipold said. “You always kind of hear about it, but you never fully understand it until you get in it.”
That’s also how Leipold feels about his new job after spending two jam-packed days in Buffalo. He inherits a program that went 5-6 this season under coach Jeff Quinn, who was fired after going 20-36 across five seasons.
Leipold’s jump to the FBS level from Division III is unprecedented. He’s done it by taking a vagabond path without any full-time assistant experience at college football’s highest level. “Coaching at this level wasn’t going to define me, but being competitive in this profession, you’d like to have the opportunity to do what you’ve done at one level at another,” he said.
Leipold, who last month became the fastest coach in NCAA history across all divisions to reach 100 wins, appreciates that Buffalo athletic director Danny White is taking a chance on him. He’s impressed by White’s rebranding efforts for the Buffalo athletics program and his plans to upgrade facilities.
Leipold is also encouraged by the enthusiasm of those he met at a reception after his hiring. “There’s so much excitement and potential,” Leipold said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
In the meantime, Leipold is trying to balance winning at Wisconsin-Whitewater while making staff and recruiting decisions at Buffalo. Leipold plans to bring with him his “Pound the rock” mentality. His players at Wisconsin-Whitewater have struck a massive boulder with a sledgehammer each week after practice. “You get a little better each day,” Leipold said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Leipold just has to remember what day it is first.
• UTEP coach Sean Kugler celebrated Saturday night with a few beers. After beating Middle Tennessee State 24-21 for his team’s seventh win this season, the program’s most in nearly a decade, he poked fun at his heavyset frame and noted the brews wouldn’t be light ones. The second-year Miners coach deserves a few cold ones after turning around his struggling alma mater, which was rife with problems under his predecessor, Mike Price.
“We had to clean some things up,” Kugler told The Inside Read.
A month after the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach was hired, 19 players were declared academically ineligible. Six players were arrested for non-traffic offenses, seven players quit the team and there were eight failed drug tests. Kugler also had to suspend 18 players and kick off 20 as UTEP went 2-10 last season. Five seniors didn’t even finish the season.
“It wasn’t fun,” Kugler said. “I was out of my comfort zone, but I felt it was a necessary thing to instill discipline and accountability. I really feel like the players are now buying into it.”
It paid off with UTEP improving in 15 of 19 offensive categories and 17 of 19 defensive categories. But most importantly for Kugler, he hasn’t had a single player declared academically ineligible, arrested, quit the team, fail a drug test or be kicked off the squad this season (there have only been three player suspensions).
The Minors have also had their highest grade-point average and APR score in school history, according Kugler.
He attributes it to UTEP’s senior leadership. After having seniors miss 28 games due to injury last year, that number has plummeted to three this season. The senior class includes starting quarterback Jameill Showers, who has had the job the last two seasons after transferring from Texas A&M, where he was beat out by Johnny Manziel.
“The seniors really came together as a group and decided they were going to be the ones who stopped the bleeding of eight straight losing seasons,” Kugler said. “I’m really proud of those guys. They really did all the hard, necessary work.”
Kugler is also proud of all those who stuck it out through last year’s difficult campaign. He preached to his players that they needed to win off the field first. “It wasn’t easy,” Kugler said. “We held those guys accountable on every little thing. We were very strict with them.”
These days Kugler hardly hears complaints from his players. And for all the discipline that’s he instilled, he’s continued to have fun, especially when it comes to having some cold ones.
“I’m not going to lie, I enjoy drinking beer,” Kugler said. “After wins they taste pretty good.”
Q&A with Greg Schiano
Former Rutgers and Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano sat out this season after getting fired by the Bucs last year. SI.com's Pete Thamel profiled Schiano last month for The MMQB and explored his new life as a breakfast chef and assistant defensive line coach at his son’s high school team, all while taking visits to programs across the country. Among other things, he talked about his year off from football, what he learned and coaching under the legendary Joe Paterno.
As the coaching carousel begins to whirl, what are you looking for in jobs as you look get back in?
To be as prepared as I can be. That’s it. Not what level, or what place, but to make sure I’m prepared for everything, and I had enough time to do that. The self-evaluation. A lot of things have similarities between college and the NFL, so a lot is crossover stuff, it applies to both. What I don’t want to do is box myself in mentally on what it is I want to do, because I like both, but whatever it is I do, that’s what I want to do for a while. I want to make sure it’s a good situation. That’s the most important for me. I love coaching. My preference is to get to a great situation where you can win. That’s my preference. It doesn’t have to be winning now, but that I can look at it and say with the right measures we can win.
No. Great programs. Programs that you have a chance to win it all. And for whatever reason they’re making a change, usually that’s because it’s not going well, but that could be someone who moves up to the NFL. Trying not to box myself in, but keep an open mind and be prepared.
What have you hoped to accomplish in your year off?
There’s no X and O drawing, it’s not like, hey, we’re talking about Y24 Zebra. Or, we’re talking about Buck cover 2. Or Buck red 7. This is just understanding football. If I go back to college, I’m going to make it like a Football 101 class where I teach kids. I don’t know if Bill (Belichick) does it quite that way, but he creates a culture in their organization that everyone sees things from the Patriot viewpoint. And I want to get that to happen, whatever team is next, they view the game of football, whether it’s right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s the way we choose to do it and if everyone does it the same way, it’s the whole [boat] rowing in the right direction mentality.
I’ve been coaching 27 years, and when you’re young and going somewhere, everything looks great because you don’t know anything. As you get older and more experienced, maybe you take one or two things from your visit and say, 'Oh, that’s neat.' I like that. I’ve combined all my visit notes and all the stuff I’ve learned. I’ve visited a dozen programs.
How do you look at recruiting now that you’ve been to the NFL and taken a step back?
To me, there are two parts of recruiting. One part you see, the helicopters and cell phones and calling people. The other part is the non-sexy part. That is the grinding through tape, and that’s where I felt we were ahead of the game at Rutgers, systemizing recruiting. That’s why I think we had as many guys go to the NFL as we did -- because our philosophy -- and this will remain the same; recruit and develop. Not recruit first and then develop. It’s both. It’s recruit the guys that are right for your program and then develop the heck out of them mentally, physically, emotionally, academically, all those things. That to me is where it’s lost a little bit. Guys get too concerned in my opinion, and maybe rightfully so, in certain institutions, they get concerned about winning the Rivals trophy. Well, you know what? You don’t keep your job on the Rivals trophy.
But these days, winning the recruiting trophy can get you more money.
I know, and there are bonuses for recruiting coordinators. You talk about a flawed system. I really don’t think [the recruit is] that good, but I can get $10,000 more if I get another five-star. That’s counter-intuitive. How about the kid just can’t play? But he had a tremendous team of people who promoted him. Even at Rutgers, I made a mistake of the pressures of, ‘He’s a New Jersey kid.’ And everybody is saying, Well, if you let him get out of the state. And in my heart, he’s not as good as this kid that’s a two-star.
You’ve got one of Joe Paterno’s ties on the wall. Why is that special to you?
Coach Paterno made us wear ties to the office, all the coaches, every day. He felt like you were an educator, you should dress as such. When he passed away, it was a crazy week. I was involved with the Bucs job. I knew that his memorial service was on Thursday, but I knew if I got the job it would pop Thursday or Friday. I was recruiting, and [my wife] Christy came with me, we flew out to see Sue, his wife, and before we left she’s like Joe wanted all his guys to have one of his ties. She said pick which one you want and I said give me whatever. And she said no, he wanted you to pick.
That tie, I remember he’d wear for big games. He wore ties on the sidelines and that’s one of the reasons I think Al [Golden] does it still. That’s the tie I took and it’s sitting in my office at home because Thursday, I’m getting ready, I accepted the [Tampa] job. I accepted the job, and I’m going to fly out to State College for the memorial service. I’m literally getting dressed, and I got the TV on, and I’m putting my tie on and on the crawl at ESPN, it says Schiano hired as Bucs coach. So I undid my tie, because I’m not going out there, it’s Joe Paterno’s memorial. I don’t want attention, so I didn’t go. And that’s why I went earlier in the week in case something broke, so that’s special to me.
• Major Applewhite faced a moment of truth. Not when the former Texas co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach decided to sit out this season, but on the Tower of Terror at Disney World with his 5-year-old daughter, Lila. “As we got off the ride, I’m sure everybody thought we were awful parents because of the tears,” Applewhite told The Inside Read. “But she wanted to do that. She’s a brave girl.”
It was just the type of memory that Alabama inside linebackers coach Kevin Steele had recommended when Applewhite visited the Crimson Tide this past spring.
Steele was in a similar position for a year after he was fired as Clemson’s defensive coordinator at the end of the 2011 season. He told Applewhite, who still had a guaranteed year left on his contract, to spend as much time as possible with his family.
But the 36-year-old Applewhite has also made sure to keep up with the latest in coaching. Besides visiting Alabama, he made trips during the last year to Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Texas State, all for different reasons. At Alabama, it was to see Nick Saban’s legendary practice organization and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s play-action and naked bootlegs, which have been so key this season for first-year Crimson Tide starting quarterback Blake Sims. Texas State was to see Bobcats coach Dennis Franchione’s acclaimed ability to maximum the number of repetitions in practice, especially when short on players in the spring.
It was quarterback play with two offensive coordinators: Clemson's Chad Morris, who was recently hired as SMU’s coach, and Ohio State's Tom Herman. More specifically, it was how to use dual-threat signal callers in the run game. Georgia was to see how offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has developed quarterbacks.
While Applewhite learned new concepts at each stop, he was also encouraged by affirmations he received. “The same things I’m hearing in the meetings of Chad Morris, Tom Herman, Mike Bobo or Lane Kiffin are what I’m telling my quarterbacks,” Applewhite said. “It’s good to hear that the philosophies that you base yourself on are solid and that highly successful people are doing the same thing.”
Applewhite has been having more conversations with coaches about returning to college football, but he’s made sure to cherish the time with his family during the last year. Those like his daughter’s first day in kindergarten, watching her play soccer and taking his wife to Destin Beach, Fla.
“There were so many moments where I thought I wouldn’t be here if I was coaching,” Applewhite said.
• Kalani Fifita Sitake bounced all over the map as a child. The humble Utah defensive coordinator and assistant head coach was born in the Polynesian country of Tonga before hop-scotching to Hawaii, San Francisco, Utah and St. Louis. He returned to Utah for college to play fullback at BYU, where he also served a two-year mission in Oakland.
Throughout all his travels, Sitake came to value relationships. “I just thrive on being able to connect with people,” Sitake told The Inside Read. “It’s one thing I try to build my career on.”
The 40-year-old has done that well in becoming one of college football’s brightest young defensive coordinators. His attacking defense this season leads the FBS in sacks (52) and has perennially been one of the nation’s best units since he became the Utes’ defensive coordinator in 2009.
But self-deflecting Sitake insists that success is because of his players and his staff. He would rather go unnoticed than receive personal acclaim. Sitake speaks so rarely about himself that others sometimes don’t realize they’re actually talking about him to him. “That’s just who I am,” Sitake said.
With a first name that means “a gift sent from heaven,” Sitake also has a different approach to football. It’s rooted in fundamentals, but just as importantly intangibles.
“Toughness is not just beating on your chest and trying to beat somebody up,” Sitake said. “Toughness is being consistent and making sure you’re accountable. That’s the toughest thing to do.”
When Sitake arrived at Utah as linebackers coach in 2005, he switched sides of the ball. During his previous two-year stint at Southern Utah, he coached running backs and tight ends his first year before dropping tailbacks and adding offensive responsibilities the next season. Sitake’s experience on both sides of the ball, combined with his recruiting prowess, is expected to make him an FBS head coach sooner than later. He doesn’t want to discuss that of course.
Just like he doesn’t want to talk about himself. He would much rather turn the conversation to the relationships he has with others. “I’m really invested in people,” Sitake said. “That’s very important to me.”
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin’s palate is as refined as his playbook. He attributes it to friend Jered Couch, a chef at The Dish, an intimate bistro-style restaurant in downtown Boise. It’s where Harsin enjoys a creative menu that includes calamari picante, blueberry prawns and blue corn crepe crab enchiladas.
“It’s excellent food,” Harsin said. “Jered puts his spin on maybe some of the classic dishes with a little bit of a twist.”
Harsin recommends the salmon, which comes with a red curry and coconut sauce along with jasmine rice, soy roasted peanuts and cucumber salad. Couch even got Harsin to try tongue, a delicacy that's occasionally a special. “It’s actually flavorful and delicious,” Harsin said.
Once this season is over, Harsin is already looking forward to returning to The Dish to try Couch’s latest culinary creations.
“He explains it all to me, but I’m like whatever,” Harsin said. “Just feed it to me and let’s see what it is.”