Commentary

The quick trigger is turning college football into the NFL

Originally Published: October 14, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where midseason is not supposed to be firing season:

Holy Al Davis! What's Going On Here?

Fitting that the two schools engaging in the cold-blooded, NFL Lite practice of kneecapping coaches in October are Auburn (1) and Clemson (2). They historically rank among the most warped perspectives in college football. Check the NCAA infractions database: Auburn has had five major infractions cases in football alone; Clemson has had three.

[+] EnlargeTony Franklin
AP Photo/Dave MartinTony Franklin got the quick hook just five games into his first full season.
Patience has never been a strong suit at Auburn. Terry Bowden resigned there at midseason 10 years ago under direct pressure from super-booster Bobby Lowder. Five years later, the school orchestrated a clandestine interview with Bobby Petrino to replace Tommy Tuberville (3) while Tuberville still had the job. And Tubs has changed coordinators like underwear in his tenure.

Given that cuckoo's nest context, it's not shocking to see Auburn trap-door offensive coordinator Tony Franklin (4) all of six games into his first full year at the school. Sources told The Dash that the coaching staff had become embroiled in turmoil and Tuberville felt compelled to do something to stave off an internal insurrection -- but shouldn't the head coach and administration be able to settle disputes with something less rash than an in-season firing? Isn't that part of the reason a coach and athletic director get paid the big bucks, to handle personality and philosophy conflicts?

Clemson's move Monday to whack Tommy Bowden (5) 10 years to the month after his brother stepped down on The Plains is a monument to bad management. In firing Bowden less than a year after handing him a raise and a four-year contract extension to keep him from going to Arkansas, Clemson now is on the hook for a $3.5 million buyout to a coach it has never really loved. Good thing the IPTAY members have more money than sense.

The Dash won't cry many tears for Bowden, who did a spectacularly poor job preparing his team for this year and then threw senior quarterback Cullen Harper (6) under the bus after losing to Wake Forest, benching him in favor of freshman Willy Korn (7). But what does a midseason firing accomplish, beyond making a mockery of all the ideals college sports are supposed to enhance? What about the bromides about handling adversity with class and fostering team unity and building character? Do they apply only during winning seasons?

The hire-and-fire cycle in college football already has shortened to a dangerous degree. If midseason pink slips are going to become standard operating procedure, as well, the sport's tenuous moorings in higher education might as well slip free altogether. This isn't the NFL -- yet.

Ten More On The Griddle

What Auburn and Clemson have started, other schools will continue -- though hopefully not until a full season's work is on the books. The 10 coaches on the clock as we reach midseason, from most urgent to most secure:

[+] EnlargeTy Willingham
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIt's just a matter of time before Ty Willingham is asked to leave Seattle.
Ty Willingham (8), Washington. How bad is it: Apocalyptic. The Huskies are 0-5 this year, 11-30 in Willingham's four-year tenure, and quarterback Jake Locker is on the shelf with an injury. Low point: 34-point loss to Arizona on Oct. 4, in which Willingham burned the redshirt of receiver Cody Bruns in the second half while trailing 38-7. Chance of a turnaround: Nil. Last word: From Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times: "Watching the beleaguered coach huff through humiliation reminded me of the last days of my childhood pet, Benji. He was a toy poodle, and for the unoriginal name, blame my parents. After my brother and I left home, Benji turned old and jinxed. My mother tripped over him once, dropping her coffee on him, scalding a patch of his black fur. A few years later, the neighbor ran his truck over Benji, breaking his pelvis.

"During his final years, I would visit home, notice Benji graying and limping and hairless in one spot and think to myself, 'Lord, please take him.'

"Which is the only way to feel about Willingham right now."

(Given the inevitability of Willingham's demise, the obvious leading candidate for the job would be Missouri coach and former Washington assistant Gary Pinkel -- if he wants it. There are plenty of reasons he might not, starting with the fact that, at age 58, he's not into another rebuilding job. But in an interview with The Dash last week, he mentioned his mentor, former Washington coach Don James, about a dozen times. What if his mentor called him to come save the program? "There's no job opening at Washington," Pinkel said. "I just do my job here. I don't deal too much in hypotheticals." That's fine, but everyone else will. Another alternative for the Huskies could be Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who played at UW and was a finalist for the Washington State job last year.)

Greg Robinson (9), Syracuse. How bad is it: Nuclear winter, in a place that knows a thing or two about winter. The Orange are 1-5 and riding a nine-game losing streak against FBS competition. Robinson is 8-33 overall. Low point: Surrendering 42 points and losing by two touchdowns to Akron at home. Chance of a turnaround: Please. Last word: It's so over for Robinson that former Syracuse star Rob Konrad recently e-mailed athletic director Daryl Gross to campaign for Florida assistant Steve Addazio as the next coach of the Orange, per the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Joe Glenn (10), Wyoming. How bad is it: Hopeless. And nearly pointless. The Cowboys have been outscored 131-10 in four Mountain West Conference games. They're 2-5 on the year and Glenn is 28-38 in Laramie after a promising start. Wyoming has committed 27 turnovers, by far the most in the nation. Chance of a turnaround: Remote, like Laramie itself. According to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Glenn isn't even sending his staff out recruiting during this bye week. Last word: From Robert Gagliardi of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: "What makes this change difficult for UW is Glenn's popularity. He's one of the most genuine and likable guys you will ever meet.

"But college football isn't about being liked.

"It's ultimately about winning games and being competitive.

"UW isn't either right now.

"That's why Joe must go."

Tommy Tuberville, Auburn. How bad is it: Tense, to say the least. Like Clemson, the Tigers began the season in the AP top 10. Like Clemson, it's gone to hell faster than Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," with Auburn now 4-3. Unlike Clemson, Tuberville made a staff change that dramatically failed, when he fired offensive coordinator Al Borges last December and replaced him with the aforementioned Franklin. Low point: Losing to awful Arkansas on Saturday. Firing Franklin has fixed nothing so far, as the Tigers' offense flailed its way to 193 total yards in that upset loss. Chance of a turnaround: Never count out Tuberville, who has never won fewer than seven games in nine seasons at Auburn -- and who is packing a six-game winning streak against Alabama. If he makes it seven -- especially against an undefeated Tide -- how could you fire him? Last word: "I put our guys in a tough situation," Tuberville said after the Arkansas loss. Now he's put himself in a tough situation.

[+] EnlargePhil Fulmer
Chris Williams/Icon SMIPhil Fulmer has pulled out of tight spots before but this season looks dire.
Phil Fulmer (11), Tennessee. How bad is it: Ugly. The Volunteers have failed to score more than 14 points four games in a row. Fulmer could be staring at a second losing season in the past four years, and it's hard to believe that would be tolerated -- despite the mystifyingly enhanced contract Fulmer received during the summer. As it stands, if Tennessee somehow pulls out of this 2-4 tailspin and wins eight games, he'll be awarded another year on his contract, which would be flat crazy. Low point: The season-opening loss to UCLA was a disaster, since everyone knew the Bruins were at best average and the rest of the early schedule was brutal. Chance of a turnaround: Like Tuberville, Fulmer has pulled himself out of tight spots before. But anything short of winning out (including beating Alabama) will still leave a lot of ammunition for his critics. Last word: From Ron Higgins in the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "So here's a question for Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton and all the Vols' deep-pocket boosters. How long does this mess have to go on before you realize that Phillip Fulmer isn't going to raise this sunken ship from the bottom of the SEC East?

"Are Fulmer and his staff worse as coaches than they were at the start of this decade? Probably not. But Tennessee's recruiting has been on a downhill slide for several years, and it's showing up big now, especially with the addition in recent years of aggressive recruiters such as Alabama's Nick Saban and Florida's Urban Meyer.

"You can't fool the consumer. There are vast amounts of empty seats at the nonconference home games. And check the message boards. Even the fans who like Fulmer personally are almost apologetic when writing they've lost faith in him and his program.

"It's becoming increasingly clear that the school needs to offer Fulmer his $6 million buyout..."

Al Groh (12), Virginia. How bad is it: Considerably better now than two weeks ago. Then, the Cavaliers were 1-3 and winless against FBS competition. Now, they're 3-3, with emphatic victories over Maryland and East Carolina. Low point: A four-touchdown loss to Duke on Sept. 27. Chance of a turnaround: Groh is another escape artist, and his greatest escape could be under way right now -- but the schedule is difficult the rest of the way. Combined record of the remaining five opponents is 25-10. Finding three more victories and reaching bowl eligibility will be a challenge. Last word: From Aaron McFarling of the Roanoke Times, after the East Carolina game: "Here comes Al again. Seriously. It's getting ridiculous. The guy is winning with fake field goals now. Next week, it'll probably be the ol' Statue of Liberty play on fourth-and-20 that gets it done.

"Rest assured, though, he will get it done.

"Why? Because Al Groh is like a musket in a museum: You can't fire him. You can't even break through the glass case and TRY to fire him. Inside that orange sweatshirt with rolled-up sleeves is one resilient dude, and he's holding a midseason revival in Charlottesville for the second straight year."

[+] EnlargeRon Prince
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesHard to believe that Ron Prince is on the hot seat with a winning record in his third year at Kansas State.
Ron Prince (13), Kansas State. How bad is it: The fans have been remarkably quick to give up on a guy with a not-horrible (16-15) record. Hard to see the administration bailing on a coach in his third year if Prince can find two more victories and earn bowl eligibility. Low point: Down 38-14 at halftime against Texas Tech, at home. Chance of a turnaround: It might have gotten under way Saturday, when the Wildcats handily beat Texas A&M on the road. Prince has a couple of solid lines on his résumé -- 2-0 against Texas, 2-0 against Colorado -- but it's not hard to see K-State at 4-6 heading into a two-game home stand against Nebraska and Iowa State with a lot on the line. Last word: From Jeffrey Martin of the Wichita Eagle: "Yesterday meant everything from the administration to the coaching staff, which whooped it up after the game as if they'd just won the Super Bowl. In some ways, it was startling, but then you remember the company line...

"Everybody now -- 'It's hard to win.'

"Can the Wildcats win two in a row? It's hard to fathom how we got here, when a little more than a week ago it was all gloom and doom. It's not as if K-State is out of the woods, so to speak, but this is obviously still the manageable portion of the schedule."

Mike Stoops (14), Arizona. How bad is it: It's better than in past years -- but more improvement is needed for Stoops to be out of the woods. The Wildcats are 4-2 for the first time in eight years, but blowing a late lead at Stanford on Saturday was a step back. Low point: The loss to the Cardinal makes Arizona 0-4 over the past two years against Stanford and New Mexico, games that many fans circled as winnable in August of 2007 and '08. Chance of a turnaround: It appears to be ongoing -- just a question of whether Stoops is the guy to see it through. A 10-year bowl drought would seemingly have to end this year for Stoops to be around for a sixth season in Tucson. Last word: From Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star: "Going home for a series against Cal and USC is not the prescribed way to get well. It is, instead, a predictable way to fall to 4-4 and create a sense of desperation. Losing to Stanford and New Mexico means that the Wildcats now must beat Wazzu and one of the Oregon schools next month to avoid playing Arizona State with everyone's jobs at stake."

Dave Wannstedt (15), Pittsburgh. How bad is it: Riding a four-game winning streak that includes consecutive Big East road victories, it's pretty good. The Panthers are 4-1 and should be bowl eligible before November arrives. But Wannstedt has blown a sure thing before, with a five-game losing streak to end 2006 that kept Pitt home for the holidays. Low point: Season-opening loss to Bowling Green was not the way to start an anticipated breakthrough season, and it ramped up the criticism of Wannstedt here in Year 4. Chance of a turnaround: If the Panthers don't beat Navy this week and Rutgers the next, it could get dicey. Closing stretch -- at Notre Dame, Louisville, at Cincinnati, West Virginia, at Connecticut -- looks full of toss-up games. Last word: From Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "This Pitt win [over South Florida] ... proved that Wannstedt, in his fourth season, has the program back on track after the nightmarish home loss to Bowling Green in the opener Aug. 30. It also means Pitt is a strong contender -- maybe even the favorite -- to win the Big East Conference.

"Imagine that.

"Hats off to Wannstedt and his staff for keeping the Pitt team together when just about everybody -- me included, certainly -- gave up on the Panthers."

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesOnce the apple of the NFL's eye, Kirk Ferentz has been average for a few years now.
Kirk Ferentz (16), Iowa. How bad is it: Bounce-back rout of Indiana renews hope that the 4-3 Hawkeyes can earn a bowl bid after staying home last season. The bigger issue might be making sure no more players wind up on the police blotter, after 19 have been arrested since April 2007 -- which is why the school hired a director of player development three weeks ago. Low point: Loss to Michigan State was the third straight this season, by a total of nine points, and was the fourth straight game in which Iowa failed to score more than 20 points. Chance of a turnaround: Ohio State is not on the schedule, which is a positive. Michigan is not on the schedule, which now looks like a negative. Ferentz has won at least six games seven years in a row and this should be eight -- but the most overpaid coach in the country has just a 23-21 record since 2005. Still, it's almost certain that Ferentz will be back for an 11th season unless other off-the-field issues arise. Last word: From Sean Keeler of the Des Moines Register, "Grumble all you want about the play-calling, the predictable offense, the cushion given to opposing wide receivers, the stubbornness, the loyalty. Let the 'ghost room' go.

"According to the report, presented Thursday to the Iowa Board of Regents, there was no Hawkeye cover-up of an alleged sexual assault of a woman by two Iowa football players. No tampering. No malice. Which means if you anonymously ripped Ferentz, the Hawkeye football coach, on some radio show or smeared him anonymously on some message board, you owe the man an apology."

[+] EnlargeOlivia Wilde
Mathew Imaging/WireImageOlivia Wilde has been associated with hot but it has nothing to do with a seat.
Other guys who are feeling twitchy: Chuck Long (17), San Diego State (8-22, third year); Shane Montgomery (18), Miami (Ohio) (16-26, fourth year); Mike Sanford (19), UNLV (9-32, fourth year); Mark Snyder (20), Marshall (15-26, fourth year); Doug Martin (21), Kent State (16-37, sixth year); Brent Guy (22), Utah State (7-34, fourth season).

Coach whose FBS career can only get better in Year 2 (provided there is a Year 2): Washington State's Paul Wulff (23). The guy hired from nearby Eastern Washington is presiding over an all-out grease fire on the Palouse. The Cougars not only haven't beaten an FBS opponent, they haven't come within 25 points of one. They've given up 63 or more points in three of four Pac-10 games. They've had so many injured quarterbacks that they actually held open campus tryouts for warm bodies. Oh, and guess who comes to town Saturday? USC. Have fun, Paul.

And one person whose job is absolutely secure: Dashette Olivia Wilde (24). Enjoy your lifetime contract.

Waiting List

With five unbeatens going down last week, The Dash is all the more convinced that there will be, at most, one unbeaten team in the BCS conferences. Which means the one-loss teams remain prominently in the BCS National Championship Game mix.

In order, The Dash ranks the ten most relevant one-loss teams with help from Jeff Sagarin's ELO-Chess rating system:

[+] EnlargeMatt Stafford
AP Photo/John BazemoreMatt Stafford and Georgia might have the best chance to make some one-loss noise.
Georgia (25). Where the Bulldogs stand: 10th in the AP poll, seventh in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: awful at halftime, but not bad by final margin, versus Alabama (No. 4 Sagarin). Best win: At South Carolina (No. 29 Sagarin). What lies ahead: the best remaining schedule of the 10 -- six teams in the Sagarin top 50, led by Georgia Tech (16th) and Florida (6th) -- which means plenty of opportunities to polish the power ratings by winning out. (The X factor for Georgia and most of the teams on this list is a potential conference championship game, ostensibly against an opponent that would help or at least maintain the computer power rankings.)

Oklahoma (26). Where the Sooners stand: fourth in the AP poll, fifth in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: not at all, versus Texas (No. 1 Sagarin) on a neutral field. Best win: TCU (No. 14 Sagarin). What lies ahead: meetings with high-powered unbeatens Texas Tech (11th) and Oklahoma State (9th), plus two other top-40 opponents. But Oklahoma needs Texas to lose twice to win the Big 12 South and advance to the Big 12 title game.

Ohio State (27). Where the Buckeyes stand: 12th in the AP poll, 15th in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: not bad, other than the margin, at USC (No. 13 Sagarin). Best win: Minnesota (No. 25 Sagarin). What lies ahead: The Buckeyes face three straight Sagarin top 15 opponents in Michigan State, Penn State and Northwestern. Believe it or not, the anchor game on their computer ratings is Michigan, which checks in at No. 105 Sagarin.

Virginia Tech (28). Where the Hokies stand: 17th in the AP poll, 12th in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: getting worse all the time, versus East Carolina (No. 64 Sagarin) on a neutral field. Best wins: over Georgia Tech (No. 16) and North Carolina (No. 19). What lies ahead: Five teams in the Sagarin top 53. The weak sister is Miami at No. 82.

[+] EnlargeJavon Ringer
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesJavon Ringer and the Spartans are flying under the radar.
Michigan State (29). Where the Spartans stand: 20th in the AP poll, 10th in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: getting better all the time, at California (No. 24 Sagarin) in the season opener. Best win: at Northwestern (No. 14). What lies ahead: Michigan State has major serve-notice opportunities this week against Ohio State and to end the season at Penn State. Nothing in between (Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue) will register well with the computers, but possibly with the voters.

USC (30). Where the Trojans stand: Living off reputation with the humans, they're sixth in the AP poll but only 13th in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: Oregon State is an OK team, but being dominated didn't help. Best win: wipeout of Ohio State (No. 15 Sagarin). What lies ahead: A horrible schedule. Only Cal, Notre Dame and Stanford are in the Sagarin top 45, but none is in the top 20. Games against UCLA, Washington and Washington State could torpedo the Trojans with the computers.

Missouri (31). Where the Tigers stand: 11th in the AP poll, 17th in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: not bad against unbeaten Oklahoma State (No. 3 Sagarin) but it happened at home. Best win: walloping of Nebraska (No. 39) in Lincoln. What lies ahead: a huge opportunity at Texas on Saturday, but then only two other top-50 opponents in Colorado (No. 50) and Kansas (No. 34).

The Dash's Heisman List

1. Colt McCoy, Texas. Vaults to the head of the class with an inspired performance in the comeback victory over Oklahoma. At times McCoy was the only thing the Longhorns had going for them -- and it was enough to keep them in the game. As The Dash has said before, he's out-Tebowing Tim Tebow.

2. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma. Even in defeat, it's hard to drop a guy who threw for 387 yards and five touchdowns. So The Dash left him right where he was.

3. Chase Daniel, Missouri. Falls from the pole position after two bad fourth-quarter interceptions help keep the Tigers 30 points below their season scoring average in an upset loss to Oklahoma State. But he's got a great shot at redemption Saturday: at Texas and against Colt McCoy.

ESPN.com's Heisman Watch | Vote!

Florida (32). Where the Gators stand: nobody is getting by on laundry more than Florida, which is 5th in the AP poll and 26th in the Sagarin Ratings after crushing LSU. How bad was the loss: very bad, at home to Mississippi (No. 52). Best win: wipeout of LSU (No. 38). What lies ahead: five opponents in the top 45, including Georgia in the Cocktail Party game Nov. 1. But a late date with The Citadel will hurt the power ratings.

California (33). Where the Golden Bears stand: 25th in the AP poll, 24th in the Sagarin Ratings. How bad was the loss: ugly, at schizophrenic Maryland (No. 53 Sagarin). Best win: over Michigan State (No. 10) in Berkeley. What lies ahead: a big chance at USC, plus three top-45 opponents. But Cal has a long way to make up in the polls.

Georgia Tech (34). Where the Yellow Jackets stand: receiving votes in the AP poll, 16th in the Sagarin Ratings. They're the converse of Florida. How bad was the loss: by three points at Virginia Tech, not bad at all. Best win: shutout of Duke (No. 20) Oct. 4th. What lies ahead: good serve-notice opportunities against Georgia, Florida State and whatever is left of Clemson.

Last Interception Pool Update

Our final two competitors remained in the running after big victories and quality performances Saturday.

Baylor freshman Robert Griffin (35) tore apart Iowa State, completing 21 of 24 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. He's now gone 128 passes without a pick.

Mississippi State junior Tyson Lee (36) kept the ball away from the notably larcenous Vanderbilt defense, completing 12 of 22 passes for only 81 yards and a touchdown in a big upset of the Commodores. Lee has now thrown 93 passes without an interception.

This week: Griffin faces an Oklahoma State defense that just collected three of Chase Daniel's four interceptions on the season. Lee takes on Tennessee, which has intercepted 11 passes this season and took two from Matthew Stafford on Saturday.

Good luck to both men.

Putting Out An APB For ...

... Former Michigan State running back Lorenzo White (37), who was the first Big Ten back to gain 2,000 yards in a season (1985) before going on to a solid NFL career. Anyone with information on the Spartans' all-time leading rusher, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that former LSU quarterback Jeff Wickersham (38) is alive and well and, in his own words, living in Metairie, La., where he owns Shipyard Supply, LLC, an industrial distribution company with locations in Metairie and in Mobile, Ala. The Dash thanks all of Tiger Nation for the recon work.

Point After

When hungry and thirsty in Columbia, Mo., The Dash recommends the mini cheeseburgers at Booches (39), an old-school, no-frills pool hall that's been there since Norm Stewart had hair. For drinks, head to Willie's (40), which shares space with The Field House to offer everything an overly enthusiastic (and occasionally over-served) football fan could want.

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