When Lisa Love made the decision a few days ago to relieve Dennis Erickson of his duties as head coach of the Arizona State football program, she did so with reckless abandon. In fact, it may very well prove to be the nail in her own proverbial coffin as an ASU employee because community support for her seems to have hit an all-time low. Many ASU boosters have grown increasingly unhappy with her inability to keep the athletic department as a self-sufficient, money generating entity. They’ve also grown weary of the number of NCAA investigations that ASU athletic programs have incurred in the past few years on her watch, especially when those programs have failed to yield the type of results that are needed to keep boosters happy.
The ASU football team doesn’t have the historical prowess and Love doesn’t have the type of financial backing to hire a top-tier coach, so her options were already limited. If football programs were restaurants – bear with me here – ASU is probably a Sizzler, a generic chain that lacks any sort of real excitement but never fails to put out an extraordinarily mediocre product. The pool of available and made-available coaches is much more shallow than in years past and the handful of scalding-hot commodities (Chris Peterson and Urban Meyer for example) were going to have their choice between Fleming’s and Ruth’s Chris (i.e. Ohio State and Penn State) whether it was this year or next. The second tier of coaches, the up-and-comers like Kevin Sumlin from the University of Houston and Larry Fedora of Southern Miss will have their pick from programs like UCLA, UNC and Ole Miss, the popular local restaurants that sometimes waver in quality but always seem to do well for themselves in the end. What the ASU athletic director hasn’t realized is that here are only three types of people that want to eat out at Sizzler:
1.) Old people who have a pocketful of enough buy-one-get-one-free coupons to last them until their death bed. Their taste buds don’t work anymore anyways but they still need to eat so what’s the difference, right?
2.) People who have been feasting on fast food on a daily basis for years. They’re either looking for a safe change of pace or a stepping-stone to bridge the gap between order-from-the-counter and leave-a-tip-that-doesn’t-include-loose-change.
3.) The person who has been holed up in their apartment, out of sight and out of mind for what seems like forever. Their water got turned off last month so they reek of dead skin and rotting pizza boxes right now. They want to start socializing and mattering again but they’re too proud for a babystep and too unsure for a giant leap, but reality is harsh and the world is just waiting to swallow them up and spit them back out.
The coaches who fit one of these descriptions and might have some interest in coaching at ASU include: Mike Bellotti, Mike Martz, Jim Mora Jr., Ron English, Kirby Smart, Derek Mason, Justin Willcox and Mark Helfrich. Those aren’t the type of names that are going to save Lisa Love’s job because not a single one of them is going to be able come in and take that program to a Rose Bowl soon enough. She needed a hail mary but is instead going to end up with a hook-and-ladder that gets snuffed out by the defense and results in a gain of 6 yards as the time runs out. Her three Pac 12 colleagues that also fired their head football coach this season all took vastly different approaches to the process. At Arizona, Washington State, and UCLA, blue skies are on the horizon; at ASU, the storm is just getting started.
For the University of Arizona, AD Greg Byrne is in Year 2 of his tenure and has immediate and extensive monetary commitments tied to the future of the football program, so a clean cut from the Mike Stoops Era was almost a no-brainer with the way he lost all momentum in the past year. Byrne, despite his undergraduate education from ASU, exemplified great foresight and a superb understanding of economic principles in doing things the way he did. Firing Stoops mid-season was initially viewed with some skepticism by Arizona fans and he caught almost everyone by surprise when he hired Rich Rodriguez after a secretive, six week search. In hindsight, Byrne was able to appease the fan base and boosters, capture the national media’s attention, and hire “his guy” for a very reasonable price before anyone else could get to him. That’s pretty much the triple crown of coaching hires right there.
In UCLA’s case, the only plausible reason for athletic director Dan Guerrero to keep Rick Neuheisel around was that Bruins managed to back their way in to the inaugural Pac 12 championship game, but ultimately, that wasn’t enough to make up for a 21-28 overall record and the 50-0 mockery that rival USC had just handed his team. Guerrero hasn’t named any possible replacements yet but UCLA is a job with a profile high enough for him to sit back and wait for his candidate(s) to finish their respective seasons so that the market can dictate what they’re worth. He can be picky and use a strong financial backing and his school’s prime real estate as leverage. It’s a luxury that few Pac 12 schools, or really any schools across the country, can enjoy and Guerrero knows that.
In a case that diametrically opposes UCLA’s, Washington State AD Bill Moos was between a rock and hard place in his situation with Paul Wulff. Wulff was a former Cougar player and a popular public figure in eastern Washington who had doubled Wazzu’s win totals from the previous season for two straight years. This firing probably exceeds Dennis Erickson’s in terms of shock value, but before Wulff could even clean out his office, Moos had agreed to terms with former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. Leach, like Rodriguez, comes with baggage, but if you’re going to make an unpopular move, you had better have your next move already lined up. In this case, the Washington State football program was able to capture headlines across the country and has given themselves a chance to be known for something other than their four bajillion game streak of having their flag displayed on ESPN College Gameday.
Ultimately, all of these moves can only truly be judged by the results, but so far it’s pretty obvious that there isn’t much of a reason for optimism up in Tempe. Just the way we like it in Tucson.