In this new feature, a thinly-strung premise where I’m actively trying to ruin an ongoing joke among the commentariat, I’m talking about 4-8. Last week, we discussed things that were kind of crappy - a four - and things that were pretty decent - an eight.
This week, I want to talk about a specific kind of sub-mediocrity, and here’s what it’s inspired by:
Okay, a few things about this:
- Lovie Smith is a former NFL head coach, having led the Bears to a surprising Super Bowl berth in 2006 and accruing a career winning record of 89-87. He played and coached on the defensive side of the ball his whole career, and has been known as a strong defensive innovator.
- In three years as the head coach of the Illini, his record is 9-27. The best record of those three seasons was last year, when they went — you guessed it — 4-8.
- So? Yeah? Be your own defensive coordinator, because... maybe it’ll work? Maybe it won’t? The important thing is: it does not matter.
When you’ve achieved a certain level of head coaching success - say, multiple jobs in the NFL, or long stints at top Power 5 college programs, you can always be hired again. But you don’t want to strain yourself too much. You want a job where you can relax a little bit. A place where the boosters are just happy they’ve heard of you - he coached in a Super Bowl! Coach, can we see your Super Bowl ring? Oh, sorry, Larry said you won a Super Bowl. Do you get a ring just for going? A place where it’s not really going to matter if you win or not. You can show up, go through the motions, have a book ghost-written for you, and make a few more payments on your boat before you fully ride off into retirement.
Let’s rank some of the types of destinations for that. Somewhere between four and eight of them.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Mid-Major That’s Happy To Have You
Tommy Tuberville certainly pulled it off, phoning in four years of decreasing results a short drive from his wife’s family, but it’s gonna be a long time before the program can rebuild its pension fund for the next guy to do that. Use these sparingly.
5. Somewhere you can praise the school’s uniquely high standards while using them as an excuse for your lack of results.
EXAMPLE: ANY OF THE SMART SCHOOLS (Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Georgia Tech, Stanford)
Now, this one might not be entirely fair, because these programs are all in some degree of trying, and none of their current coaches fit this bill. David Shaw and Pat Fitzgerald have put together good, successful tenures in Palo Alto and Evanston. Georgia Tech is rebooting from the Paul Johnson era into a modern program with the Geoff Collins hire. Derek Mason is not very successful, but also not very old.
That said - if any of these coaches leave, for one reason or another - a better job comes along, they get fired, whatever - these are perfect for a Jim Zorn, a Marvin Lewis, a Chuck Pagano, a Mike Martz to come in, talk a great game about respecting the unique challenges of coaching at a school with such exemplary academic standards, and then win 13 games in three years before going back to retirement.
4. Somewhere you used to coach that’s fallen on hard times
EXAMPLE: NORTH CAROLINA
Obviously, they’re on the list because they’re doing exactly this right now. Mack Brown has not coached a game since 2013. He has not coached a team to ten wins since 2009. But he’s familiar! He’s won a national championship! He coached here before!
North Carolina football is often decent and rarely ever great. The athletic program has a lot of brand recognition and money, but mostly from basketball. They want to compete - this isn’t a hopeless situation - but it’s an afterthought more than anything.
Also, a program that’s had a major athletic department scandal in recent memory is a great candidate for this kind of hire. “Hey! We know him! He’ll clean this back up!”
3. Somewhere that has athletic department money and wants to try [reads card] foogball?
Kansas makes a ton of money off basketball, which is all anyone truly cares about. They might as well occasionally peel off a big stupid chunk of that and throw it at a coach they’ve heard of. Charlie Weis? Great! Les Miles? Sure! Eight years from now, they’re going to hire Jim Harbaugh fresh off a failed run coaching the Colts. The cycle continues.
2. Somewhere that’s usually very bad but good just often enough to want to try
The expectations at Illinois have to be some of the most manageable in the Power 5. The Illini have made six bowl games in the last 25 years. But that includes a Rose Bowl and a Sugar Bowl! They have hope that they can be good. This isn’t Kansas, where it’s more of an expensive hobby.
They have institutional memory of a 5-7 team that took Jim Tressel’s eventual champion OSU team to overtime, almost derailing their title drive. They’re a program that thinks they can win, that wants to win, but rarely does. This is almost the perfect situation for a well-known coach to swoop in, reassure the fans that yes, greatness is on its way, and then to do nothing.
Almost the perfect situation.
1. ARIZONA STATE (This is the whole category)
EXAMPLE: ARIZONA STATE
We all laughed when this happened. Herm Edwards, who had not coached at the college level in any capacity for almost three decades, had not coached any team in a decade, and was a thoroughly mediocre NFL coach - with a record of 54-74 in eight seasons - jumped from the broadcast booth right back to the sideline, and said he was going to run the program like a CEO, overseeing a stable of talented assistants- but the assistants he was going to oversee left. Also, he seemed to not know what the program’s mascot was?
Then the weirdest thing happened - it sort of... worked? The Sun Devils went 7-6, and everyone was pleasantly surprised!
Of note, 7-6 with a bowl loss was exactly the record that got his predecessor, Todd Graham, fired.
This is a program that often makes bowl games, but rarely big ones. They’ve won two conference titles and played in one Rose Bowl in 30 years. So you come in boasting you’re going to delegate half your duties, replicate your predecessor’s mediocre results, have everyone consider that a victory, AND you’re already in one of the country’s prime retirement areas?
That’s the best semi-retirement job in the country. I bet he could even get away with going 4-8 next year.