On Nov. 18, when Toledo thumped Central Michigan 29-6 in the 1989 season finale, Dan Simrell became the school's alltime winningest coach. He was the 21st man since 1917 to hold the job. And one of the best. Simrell's 49-38-2 record over eight years surpassed by one the number of victories Frank Lauterbur's teams had between 1963 and '70. After the Central Michigan game, the players gathered at mid-field, singing the fight song and feeling wonderful. It was college football at its best.
Four days later Simrell was fired. It was college football at its worst.
The town was stunned. Then furious. Then apoplectic. Then galvanized into action. The fans' venom was directed toward the man with the ax, athletic director Al Bohl, who went to Toledo in July 1987, after three years as an assistant AD at Ohio State.
After Simrell's firing, buttons appeared: BOHL DON'T KNOW DIDDLEY ABOUT TOLEDO. T-shirts appeared: BRING BACK DAN. A half-page ad supporting Simrell ran in The Blade (cost: $2,000). The letters columns in The Blade and the student paper, The Collegian, were ablaze with the angry opinions of Simrell's backers. There were petitions demanding Simrell's reinstatement—and Bohl's firing. Local bar owner Arnie Elzey led the effort and within five days had some 22,500 signatures.
Maybe some people signed more than once, and perhaps even a few dead people signed. But passions about Simrell ran deep. Elzey marched into the office of university president Frank Horton—who, having been president of the University of Oklahoma from 1985 to '88, knows something about winning football programs—and presented the petitions. Horton, who arrived in Toledo only in April, listened and then said he wished as many people were interested in the school's need for more classroom space. That was it. Horton—he had been critical of the Oklahoma athletic department before he resigned—put on his coat and left.
When coaches get fired, it's usually because they have disgraced themselves, either on the field or off it. This case sticks in craws around Toledo because Simrell, by almost every account, did everything right and good in the name of the college game. And was cashiered.
At his home last Thursday, Simrell was asked why he was fired. He spread his arms hopelessly and said, "I didn't win enough." He is, sadly, correct. Six of Simrell's eight seasons were winning ones. Before the just completed 6-5 season, the Rockets were picked by sportswriters to finish sixth in the Mid-American Conference. They tied for second, but that wasn't enough. The Rockets beat eventual MAC champ Ball State. That wasn't enough either. The Rockets won four of their last five games. That wasn't enough. Simrell built a team that has 15 starters returning and is favored to win the conference next fall. Not enough. Says Bohl, "He doesn't deserve to continue as coach, because his coaching was not good enough. And I had the guts to make the right decision. Our football team has to break out of the mind-set of accepting the average, and strive for excellence."
Many Toledo people feel that Horton and Bohl, outsiders from football powers, have in mind somehow converting Toledo into a similar monster. The Blade editorialized, "With any luck at all, the University of Toledo will never enter the world of big-time collegiate football." But The Blade read the firing as an ominous indication of the school's "determination to try." Horton and Bohl deny any such intentions. But Elzey says, "We have these strangers here wanting to take us into unknown areas with an unknown coach." Bohl, however, says, "I'm not trying to be Ohio State or Michigan. It's just we should be the benchmark for the MAC. We should win the championship about half the time, and the other half, people should have to beat us to win it. What's wrong with trying to be better than 6-5? Al Bohl is about excellence."
Problem is, the town is about Dan Simrell. Simrell, 46, was born in Toledo's Mercy Hospital, went to McKinley elementary school, then to DeVilbiss High and on to Toledo, where he was the starting quarterback in 1963 and 1964. He coached at St. Francis de Sales High and Toledo Start High and went back to the university in 1971 as an assistant. In 1982, he was named head coach. His wife, Geraldine, is a Toledo graduate. Simrell is not just from Toledo, he is Toledo.
He was the perfect coach for blue-collar Toledo. Work hard, keep your nose clean, be honest, don't forget your lunch pail. Obviously, the city likes Simrell. There was no call to replace him. And most of all, there was no legitimate reason.
Ironically, Bohl and Horton emphasize that they are looking for a coach who puts academics first and graduates his players. Just like Dan. Forty percent of Simrell's scholarship players who enrolled at the school in 1982 and '83 graduated, which was a higher rate than the Toledo student body for the same period (31%). Bohl and Horton want somebody who follows the rules. Just like Dan. They want somebody who cares about the players. Just like Dan. They want someone who is an all-around good person. Just like Dan. If Toledo hadn't fired Simrell, they would be hiring him.
Before this season, Bohl gave Simrell the ultimate bottom line: Have a 7-4 record or be gone. Had Bowling Green not passed for an 11-yard TD with 20 seconds left to beat Toledo 27-23, the Rockets would have been 7-4, won the MAC and played in the California Bowl.
Bohl repeatedly stresses the need to increase attendance (it averaged 18,655 in '89 versus 17,509 in '88) and to get funds raised for an $18 million stadium construction project—both of which, he feels, require more wins. He also criticizes Simrell for winning in a boring fashion, not winning on the road and winning narrowly over teams Bohl thinks Toledo should beat handily. Basically, he wants 9-2 seasons, at least. Bohl continues to be critical of Simrell, saying he won't recommend him as a coach to other schools and insisting that the decision to fire Simrell "was easy, given the facts."
Back out on Indianridge Road, Simrell, in the job market and looking outside Toledo for the first time in his life, stares out into the snow and says softly, "I stand on my record." It is a solid place to stand.