Commentary

Recruiting date change could slow coaching carousel during bowl season

Originally Published: January 1, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Calvin Magee is leaving West Virginia for Michigan, but not yet.

Calvin Magee
Gary Lake/WireImage.comWest Virginia offensive coordinator Calvin Magee is staying on to coach the Mountaineers in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Mountaineers' offensive coordinator couldn't walk out on his players with a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl game to be played against Oklahoma.

"I think it's the right thing to do to put closure on it," Magee said. "We went through a tough season together."

The Mountaineers appreciate Magee's dedication to the cause, and to a bond forged through hundreds of hours in winter conditioning and spring ball and summer workouts and a full fall of games.

"I'm glad he did stick around," fullback Owen Schmitt said, "because he's one of those guys who have gotten us this far."

"For him to stay and compete with us says a lot about his commitment to the team," quarterback Pat White said.

Great. Nice. Now here's the elephant-sized question hovering in the room: What about Rod?

What does it say about head coach Rich Rodriguez's commitment to the team, since he's now in Ann Arbor while his players are in the desert? What does it say about an ethically bankrupt system that makes the program architect's abandonment of his team before its biggest game perfectly understandable and increasingly common?

Schmitt sighed when those questions were put to him. He's heard them so many times in the last few weeks, since Rodriguez bolted for Michigan. And nobody is more powerless in these situations than the players.

"The saying of this whole thing is, 'It is what it is,'" Schmitt declared.

"It is what it is" has become the most-favored Sportspeak for "it sucks and it's an absolute travesty, but what are we supposed to do about it?"

Here's what we're supposed to do: Fix it. Change the recruiting calendar, or pass NCAA legislation limiting when coaches can be hired or fired, or fine the shorts off schools for tampering with another school's coach before its season is over. There already is an epidemic of lying intrinsic in the job-search market; the fact that it has intruded so heavily upon the bowl games only makes it worse.

Rich Rodriguez
AP Photo/Tony DingRich Rodriguez hasn't looked back since taking the Michigan job.

A bundle of bowl games have been reduced to sideshow status, with interim coaches plugged in where head coaches used to be, because nobody wanted to wait until the season was complete before shuffling the deck.

The reason you will hear for why haste is paramount is recruiting. The new coach must get into his new digs and must assemble a staff because they must firm up the old commitments and must secure the new and must raid those who already have committed to other schools. Because signing day is the first Wednesday in February, and of course that date is set in stone and more sacred than Christmas falling on Dec. 25.

Why, exactly, nobody knows. Would the earth stop rotating if they moved signing day to, say, the first Wednesday of March?

Or, would it be criminal to let high school players who have already committed sign letters-of-intent in December, when the junior-college players do it? That's Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione's preferred idea -- though not necessarily for the purpose of slowing the job carousel.

That, he believes, is a hopeless task.

"You could try to pass legislation prohibiting contact," Castiglione said. "But in today's world I don't think we could get to that point legally."

It was only four seasons ago that Urban Meyer stuck it out through Utah's Fiesta Bowl game against Pittsburgh and completed an undefeated season with the Utes. Now that looks like an aberration, waiting until January to move all your boxes to your next job. It all seems accepted now.

"I don't know if it would change anything even if you moved recruiting back," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "When you're changing jobs, I don't know if the timing is ever very good for it."

It would run counter to human nature -- especially in a competitive business -- to expect schools and coaches not to consider their next move. But shoulder shrugging at what has become an ingrained part of the game is an insufficient response.

Wouldn't it make sense for the alleged intelligentsia of college athletics to find a way to preserve the competitiveness of their precious bowl system by actually making sure the head coaches show up for the games?

Interim and/or lame-duck coaches are 0-6 in bowls so far, with the remaining three all underdogs. That tells you the effect the carousel can have on the marquee portion of the college football schedule.

The only good that has come from Rodriguez's fleeing to Michigan is the chance to meet the charming soul that is Bill Stewart. West Virginia's interim coach is a football lifer who seems to consider himself the luckiest guy on Earth -- and not just because he's the man in charge for the Fiesta Bowl.

He's worked from high school to the CFL with nearly a dozen stops in between, and the journey hasn't soured him a bit. In fact, when Stewart wound up on the podium at media day in University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday, he compared it to working as the dunkee at a dunking booth as Sistersville (W.V.) High School in the mid-1970s.

[+] EnlargePat White
Bob Donnan/US PresswirePat White and the Mountaineers are adjusting to the coaching changes.

"It has been a great trip, a great trip," Stewart said of the journey from dunking booth to BCS bowl. "I've had my bride [Karen] most everywhere. She probably thought she married Jim Bridge when she locked onto me. All I ever told her [when changing jobs], 'Are you ready to go?' " And she says two words to me: 'Let's go.' So I am very blessed.

"I tell our young coaches all the time, if you are going to get in this business, get in it because you can't live without it. Don't do it because you love it, because love sometimes strays. If you can't live without it, then you get in football. And then you make sure you have a good gal to roost with you, because it is a long road."

To hear Stewart tell it, he wandered along the wrong side of the street as a kid growing up in New Martinsville, W.V.

"That's the kid right there, the mountains of West Virginia, he stole turnips out of his neighbors' gardens, and I did," he said. "He threw snowballs at cars, and I did. He threw apples at tractor-trailer trucks. I never hit the cab, but I hit the boxcars. We jumped trains. I went to the high school and many a day walked up to the principal and walked out the back door and went fishing. That's all Cub and Boy Scout honor, I did that."

Not exactly high crimes and misdemeanors. Certainly nothing that should keep West Virginia from considering him to be its permanent coach, if the Mountaineers shock the Sooners on Wednesday night.

Stewart doesn't want to hear anything about it right now, but several of the players have spoken out in support of him as their next coach. And at least publicly, they've also gotten past the evacuation by their old coach.

"It's a business, man," said defensive lineman Keilen Dykes. "[Rodriguez] gotta do what he gotta do. When it comes right down to it, it comes down to the almighty dollar."

There's the life lesson the job hoppers have taught their young men: When the money calls, drop everything else and go take it.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.