Skip to main content

For men of a certain age, wins no longer enough to keep head jobs

Over the past week, new athletic directors at West Virginia and Maryland forced out incumbent coaches who, by most reasonable standards, had been relatively successful. Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart, 58, has won nine games in each of his first three seasons. Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen, 63, has taken his team to seven bowl games in 10 years and was named the ACC's Coach of the Year this season.

West Virginia AD Oliver Luck, who started on the job last June, is taking the program in a new and indisputably odd direction. He's bringing in highly regarded Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, an acquaintance from when both were working in Houston a couple years ago. In a Nov. 14 meeting, Luck gave Stewart two choices: resign after this year, or resign after next. Stewart chose Option B, so Holgorsen will serve as his forced-upon offensive coordinator in 2011.

"Because of [Stewart's] professionalism, I have all the confidence in the world that our transition year will work very smoothly," said Luck.

Maryland AD Kevin Anderson, meanwhile, inherited an admittedly awkward situation when he arrived in September. Predecessor Debbie Yow had locked in offensive coordinator James Franklin to be Friedgen's successor by 2012, well before the Terps endured a 2-10 season last year. Maryland jumped back up to 8-4 this fall, but when Franklin accepted Vanderbilt's head coaching job last week, it opened the door for Anderson to hire any coach he wanted. As Franklin packed his bags for Nashville, Anderson asked Friedgen to retire. Friedgen refused, so the school bought out the last year of his contract.

"[Friedgen] made it very clear he didn't want to be a lame-duck coach," said Anderson. "I was looking to move the program in a different direction, and I wasn't willing to give him a contract extension."

It's widely believed that Maryland is looking to pounce on free-agent Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach who happens to be close friends with one of the Terps' most influential boosters, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. Leach has expressed interest, and Anderson admitted Leach is "on the list." Leach, 49, is 14 years younger than the man he'd be replacing. West Virginia hire Holgorsen, 39, is nearly two decades younger than Stewart. (Coincidentally, Holgorsen is a former Leach protégé, having worked under him for a combined 11 years at Valdosta State and Texas Tech.)

In that respect, Maryland and West Virginia are merely following the national trend in coaching hires: Youth and energy trump age and experience. Pittsburgh recently replaced 58-year-old Dave Wannstedt, an NFL and college head coach for 17 seasons, with 46-year-old Michael Haywood, a head coach for two seasons at Miami (Ohio). Colorado axed Dan Hawkins, 50, who's been a head coach for 15 seasons, and hired Redskins tight ends coach Jon Embree, 45, a CU alum who'd never previously served as even an offensive coordinator.

New Florida coach Will Muschamp is a 39-year-old first time head coach. Indiana (Kevin Wilson) and Vanderbilt (Franklin) went with first-time head coaches, too. Franklin, 38, is 18 years younger than Robbie Caldwell, the man he replaced. In fact, all eight BCS-conference hires to date are younger than the coaches they're replacing.

>>Keep track of all the 2010-11 coaching changes

It's not hard to see why the sport is headed in this direction. One need only look at the upcoming BCS National Championship Game participants, Auburn and Oregon. Tigers coach Gene Chizik, 48, was hired largely off his successful stints as defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas. (He spent two losing seasons as head coach at Iowa State.) Oregon's Chip Kelly, 47, was just two years removed from serving as New Hampshire's offensive coordinator when the school nudged out 14-year coach Mike Bellotti to promote Kelly. Another BCS bowl coach, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, was a 35-year-old defensive coordinator when then-coach Barry Alvarez anointed Bielema to be his successor five years ago.

"Wisconsin and Oregon -- programs that we want to model ourselves after -- they are today two of the most successful programs in the country," said Luck. "The model that is ... almost exactly like ours is at the University of Wisconsin, back in 2005-06, when [Alvarez] segued out in favor of [Bielema]."

Luck left out a few important details. Unlike Stewart and Holgorsen, Alvarez hired Bielema from Kansas State to be his defensive coordinator. Bielema spent a year in Madison before being dubbed "head coach in waiting" and then another year apprenticing. Stewart had never met Holgorsen before being told by his boss he was getting a new offensive coordinator.

Luck was more candid in explaining the reasons behind pushing out Stewart. "I didn't believe we had an opportunity to win a national championship with the direction of the program," he said. Fair enough. Most of us felt the same way about the congenial West Virginian from the day he was hastily promoted from interim coach following the Mountaineers' Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma.

But if national championships are the standard in Morgantown, every other coach before Stewart -- including revered Hall of Famer Don Nehlen -- was also a failure, because West Virginia has never won one. Apparently Luck believes the one to pull it off is Holgorsen, an eccentric Leach-like figure (he lived in a hotel during his 11 months in Stillwater) who engineered the nation's most productive offense each of the past two seasons at Houston and Oklahoma State. West Virginia is just three years removed from a BCS bowl appearance and shared this year's Big East title, but Luck believed the program had lost its sizzle.

"Our season ticket base has declined from Stewart's first year to the present time," said Luck. "We've had only two crowds since 2004 under 50,000, and both of those took place in the last couple of years. That to me is an indication that our fans aren't satisfied with the product."

Maryland had a similar but more drastic problem. With the enthusiasm of Friedgen's early tenure (three straight 10-win seasons from 2001-03) a distant memory, the Terps averaged just 39,168 per game this year at 54,000-seat Byrd Stadium. On the field Maryland showed considerable promise, led by freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien, the ACC's Rookie of the Year. But with several assistants expected to follow Franklin to Vanderbilt, Anderson, who called his move a "strategic business decision," made it clear Monday he had no desire to let Friedgen rebuild his staff and continue coaching the current group.

"This was a good football team, and I believe it can be great," Anderson said. Keeping Friedgen, "would not in the best interest of moving the program from good to great."

According to TheWashington Post, Maryland offered numerous incentives to entice Friedgen to just retire, including installing his name on the stadium's Ring of Honor. But the man with the school's highest winning percentage (.597) since 1986 wanted to keep coaching. So the school spent $2 million to buy out his final year.

Ultimately, both programs may well be making a positive long-term move. West Virginia fans are already intrigued by Holgorsen. Maryland fans will go gaga if they get Leach (or someone of similar caliber). Both can go about pursuing their goal of becoming the next Auburn, Oregon or Wisconsin.

All it cost was the dignity of two ultra-loyal "geezers" who went a combined 17-7 this season.