Commentary

Interim coaches understand how the process works

Updated: December 31, 2007, 12:59 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The first time Gary Darnell served as an interim coach, he replaced Galen Hall, who resigned as Florida's coach five games into the 1989 season after admitting he broke NCAA rules.

[+] EnlargeGary Darnell and Dennis Franchione
AP Photo/Paul ZoellerGary Darnell, right, replaces Dennis Franchione at Texas A&M for one bowl game.

Nearly two decades later, Darnell is an interim coach again, replacing Dennis Franchione, who resigned as Texas A&M's coach after the regular-season finale against Texas. Darnell will be the Aggies' coach when they play Penn State in the Dec. 29 Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) in San Antonio.

Hall, now the Nittany Lions' 67-year-old offensive coordinator, will be matching wits with Darnell during the bowl game.

"It's full circle," Darnell said.

But once again, Darnell knows there's a finish line. After acting as the Aggies' head coach for the first time, Darnell will be looking for work when the game ends. Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman, now an assistant with the Houston Texans, already has been hired as Franchione's replacement. Darnell isn't expected to be a member of Sherman's coaching staff.

"If I was a younger guy, it might be different," Darnell said. "But I've been to a lot of rodeos and been on a lot of railroad tracks. I know these things work out and know the ups are very exciting and that you can live through the lows."

Darnell, 60, has been a head coach at Tennessee Tech and Western Michigan and worked as a defensive coordinator at Texas, Notre Dame, Florida, Wake Forest and Kansas State during a coaching career that began 35 years ago. He insists serving as an interim coach, without a guaranteed future, is no less important.

"It depends where you are in your profession and where you're at in your career," Darnell said. "I've been pretty true to the sport of football for a long, long time. After a while, your perspective becomes a lot different. In our situation here, our players and our team, they didn't deserve this. To have an opportunity to help them get something accomplished like winning a great bowl game, it makes it very easy to wake up each day and to try to do the right thing."

Texas A&M is one of seven schools that will have interim coaches in bowl games. The Aggies were one of three teams to fire their coaches and name interim replacements -- defensive coordinators Jon Tenuta of Georgia Tech and DeWayne Walker of UCLA replaced fired coaches Chan Gailey and Karl Dorrell, respectively.

Walker is one of several candidates who have interviewed for the Bruins' vacancy. Tenuta was a candidate at Georgia Tech, which hired Navy's Paul Johnson to replace Gailey.

Four other schools -- Arkansas, Houston, Navy and West Virginia -- were forced to name interim coaches because their previous head coaches left for other jobs.

Coaches like Darnell, Tenuta and Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring have experienced most of the highs and lows in coaching. For them, serving as interim coach is part of the job.

"It's really easy for anyone who has been in the military," Darnell said. "Whenever you take over someone's command, it's like you're on a watch. We're on a watch right now. There will be a transition here and it will be seamless. Our players know we'll do everything we can to help them."

[+] EnlargeKen Niumatalolo
AP Photo/US Naval AcademyKen Niumatalolo no longer wears the interim tag at Navy. His Midshipmen play Utah tonight.

For Navy assistant head coach/offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo, the transition is a golden opportunity. When Johnson left for Georgia Tech earlier this month, Niumatalolo not only was named the Midshipmen's interim coach -- he was named Johnson's successor. Niumatalolo, who worked the past six seasons under Johnson, is the first Polynesian head coach in college football.

Niumatalolo, 42, makes his head coaching debut when Navy plays Utah in Thursday night's San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).

"The pieces are in place, so hopefully we can continue to do what Coach Johnson did," Niumatalolo said. "I'm just trying to get everything in order and trying to keep my head above water. My approach is: If it's not broke, why fix it? Coach Johnson left the blueprint for how to win, so why change it? I'm not one of those guys with an ego who has to change it. I just want to do things right and win."

Midshipmen quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada said the transition was pretty smooth as his team prepared to play the Utes.

"We haven't skipped a beat," Kaheaku-Enhada said. "Coach Niumatalolo isn't completely focused on the offensive line anymore. He's going back and forth between offense and defense. He's changed his role as the head coach. But as far as what we're doing offensively, it's the same offense and the same coaches except for one person. We're right on track."

Georgia Tech's Durant Brooks, the Ray Guy Award winner as college football's top punter this season, said the Yellow Jackets' practices have been more intense and demanding since Tentua took over. Tenuta has worked the past six seasons at Tech and has coached at nine other schools during a 26-year career.

Tenuta will work as a head coach for the first time when the Yellow Jackets play Fresno State in the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, on New Year's Eve (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET).

Like Darnell, Tenuta is probably coaching his last game at his current school. But Brooks said that hasn't stopped Tenuta from leaving his mark on the program the past few weeks.

"It's a totally different style," Brooks said. "We had our first team meeting with him and he laid out his rules and said, 'This is the way it's going to be and if you don't like it, you don't have to be here.' We had our first practice and we ran wind sprints before practice. It felt like spring drills again. He's going to let you know how he feels, and he's going to let everyone else know how he feels about you. He's blunt, but I like it. It's a very different approach from Coach Gailey."

West Virginia didn't name associate head coach Bill Stewart the team's interim coach until Wednesday, after former coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan on Sunday. The No. 9 Mountaineers play No. 4 Oklahoma in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2.

Walker, who joined the UCLA staff after working as an assistant in the NFL, will make his head coaching debut when the Bruins play No. 17 BYU in Saturday's Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

Herring, who was named Arkansas' interim coach after Houston Nutt resigned and left for Ole Miss, isn't sure what his future holds, either. The Razorbacks hired former Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino to replace Nutt. Herring's last game at Arkansas probably will be New Year's Day, when he coaches the Razorbacks against No. 6 Missouri in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

Houston secondary coach Chris Thurmond hasn't worked as a head coach since leaving Charles Page High School in Sand Springs, Okla., in 1982. A quarter-century later, Thurmond was named the Cougars' interim coach after Art Briles left for Baylor. Houston co-offensive coordinators Randy Clement and Philip Montgomery also resigned and left for Baylor, leaving the Cougars shorthanded as they prepare to play TCU in the Dec. 28 Texas Bowl. Thurmond elevated two graduate assistant coaches to replace them.

"It seems like it's gone well," Thurmond said. "The one thing we didn't let the players do was worry about it. We told them change was a part of life, and they had to embrace it and move on. We didn't talk about it or dwell on it and tried to make it as smooth and fast as possible."

Thurmond knows his college head coaching career will probably last all of four quarters. After the Texas Bowl, he's expected to join Briles' staff at Baylor.

But like the half-dozen other interim coaches around the country, Thurmond is going to cherish the experience.

"What this deal shows, and I'm not the only guy doing this across the country, is that there are hundreds of assistant coaches who can do things in efficient manners," Thurmond said. "You've just got to be given the opportunity. I'm no different from a lot of guys who could handle the job if they were given the opportunity."

Even if the job lasts for only a few weeks.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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