Firing college football coaches midseason has become such a shrug that people don’t even bother to shrug anymore.
Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente on Tuesday became the 11th coach of this in-progress season to meet the axe or resign amid the gloom of unsatisfactory victory totals and a national response of, Yeah, whatever. That discounts a 12th, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich, ousted for defying a state-employee mandate to get a coronavirus vaccine.
And add Dan Mullen to the list after he was fired by Florida this past Sunday following an upset loss to Missouri.
Amid this big little world of madcap money and accompanying madness, revisiting early September 1992 can feel like opening a door long closed and entering some quaint old room with weird clocks and stuff.
“It used to be that there was the domain of the coach, and particularly in-season, that was a protected domain,” Jack Crowe said by telephone. “And there was him and his players, and the role of leadership in their lives.”
So after what happened to Crowe at Arkansas on Sunday, Sept. 6, 1992, the nation mustered an outcry. The Citadel, a formidable team from the lower division at the time called “I-AA,” opened the season at Arkansas, plucked a fumble in the fourth quarter that one of its ends, Judson Boehmer, toted 34 yards for a touchdown and beaten Arkansas 10-3 before a meek 35,868.
That seemed dire in Fayetteville but maybe not that dire. But then the next morning, Arkansas athletic director, former coach and so-called guru Frank Broyles had some meetings, and not in church. Senior associate athletic director Terry Don Phillips, who 16 years later would promote Dabo Swinney to head coach at Clemson, came to Crowe’s office and said, “’This ain’t good, man,’ ” as Crowe recalls. “’We’ve got to go talk to Coach Broyles.’ ”
They went, and, “When Terry and I walked out the door” after the meeting, Crowe said, “he said, ‘I should have known better than to put two redheads together.’ ”
Broyles would yank Crowe at 0-1 in his third season, and people yowled.
“It saddens me that football has reached the point, much like the professional ranks, where a coach can be dismissed after a devastating loss,” Colorado coach Bill McCartney said, “When you reach that point, you’ve really got to rethink the whole thing.”
“You wonder,” Mark Bradley wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “How can Arkansas delegates take seats at the next NCAA convention without bags over their heads?”
“One frightening, precedent-setting move,” Gene Wojciechowski called it in the Los Angeles Times, needling, “Oh, how we long for the days when Frank Broyles was confined to an ABC television booth on Saturday afternoons, and his impact on college football was limited to breathless and inane pronouncements such as, ‘Gracious sakes alive! Keith, I have nevuh . . . evuh . . . seen an ath-a-lete get around a defensive end so quickly.”
“Frank Broyles seemed to accept Tuesday that he is not the most popular man in college athletics,” Steve Wieberg wrote in USA Today.
Even The Citadel got irked.
“I feel it was an insult,” defensive end Jake Erhard told Jack Wilkinson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Well, fashion can zoom across 29 years, and someday there’s not really even time to be insulted.
“I think we’ve diminished the value of the coach,” Crowe said without bitterness, having gone on to coach Jacksonville (Ala.) State from 2000-12, and having birthed a foundation that hopes to limit child sports-related injuries. “What does the role really mean? ... It just seems like you can plug one in and unplug it, and the relationships don’t matter.”
By this past Wednesday, a man of the era drove along Georgia State Route 358, with that open-road exhilaration people can get on highways.
“I can tell you what,” Clay Helton said, “I’m so happy right now. I’m traveling on a two-lane road with semis going by me, and I’m loving every second of it.”
Helton, a 49-year-old man noted for his decency, has hit some kind of wacko exacta this season: He has gotten the common in-season firing and the rare in-season hiring. It’s a 21st-century miracle. Follow if possible.
Southern California, which gets fussy about its football only daily, fired Helton on Sept. 14 with a 1-1 record in his seventh season and an unsightly loss to Stanford, placing Helton second on the 2021 in-season national ouster list. Helton inhaled, got to see his son play football, went to Illinois for a week at coach Bret Bielema’s invitation and refurbished his appreciation for his sport.
He also stopped waking up at 5:30 a.m.
“I would wake up at 3:30,” he said. “My mind’s racing, and just thoughts. Sometimes the fear of the unknown keeps you up at night.”
Next on the ouster list after Helton, in slot No. 3, came Chad Lunsford of Georgia Southern, dismissed Sept. 26 at 1-3. Five more weeks passed, and Helton was chosen to replace Lunsford.
The hyperkinetic reality leaves Helton’s thoughts twofold.
“From the coaching aspect, we’re all big boys,” he said. “We chose this life. And we know what the expectation is. There’s so much money being invested now. And we know . . . We know we’re going to be OK.”
But: “The college athletes, they get that experience only one time. You, me, the administration, we all have jobs because of these young people. There might be 25 seniors that are going through the last moments of their college experience.”
Within Helton’s gracious assessment of Mike Bohn, the USC athletic director hired in November 2019, four words might tell a story of an era. See if you can spot them: “Mike gave us every resource to be successful. You know what? We went 9-3 together, and lost a championship game. That’s college football. There’s high expectations, and I’ve always welcomed those expectations.”
We went 9-3 together . . .
Certainly the Trojans didn’t look like Trojans like to look, but nowadays there’s a premium against dallying. “Those are hard decisions to make,” Helton said of Bohn’s decision. “I don’t envy it. It’s hard.” And it’s fashionable to say they’re getting out ahead of the additional national signing day, which comes in December rather than just early February.
“I think that’s an excuse,” Crowe countered. “I don’t think that’s it. It may fit along the lines — I think very rarely does a program become unstable and think that’s the way to stabilize. They just chopped the head off the recruiting process, because that’s the head coach.”
It might boil down to the money and the money people and the words Crowe recalls from a legendary coach: “As [Barry] Switzer said, ‘You create these animals. It’s feeding ‘em that’s the problem.’ ”
It doesn’t even take a losing record. LSU and Ed Orgeron agreed to part ways at 4-3, one day after a win and 21 months after confetti rained upon him as a national-champion coach. (He became No. 4.) Texas Tech fired Matt Wells at 5-3 during his third season. (He became No. 5, discounting Rolovich.)
“Look at Orgeron,” Crowe said. “Those guys played their ass off for Orgeron [at Alabama on Nov. 6]. You’d think they’d be better if Orgeron weren’t there?”
The teams firing coaches have gone a collective 8-22 since, not that they dwell on that.
Crowe went on home on that Sunday in 1992. He didn’t reel all that much. He worried for his sons walking school hallways, especially the one in junior high but concluded, “Tell you what: It developed their character. They didn’t fold. Never missed a day. Never complained.”
Alabama’s Gene Stallings and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden invited him to hang around. Arkansas traveled to beat fellow SEC debutant South Carolina 45-7 — Crowe had asked Broyles to wait for that game at least — but the Hogs careened from there.
“We would have been in a bowl game if they hadn’t fired me,” he said. “That team was a lot better than” 3-7-1.
He fought back when he heard Arkansas might try to fire him “for cause,” finding that idea “dirty,” but said, “I don’t call it much of a negative, to be honest with you. I’m fine where I ended up, and I’m grateful where I am today. I don’t think anything was taken from me. I was honored to be the head coach at Arkansas.”
And he did receive the balance of the five-year contract extension he had just signed that off-season, its annual base salary shouting from the pages like some antique: $84,000.