Commentary

Coaching "fit" hard to define

Originally Published: September 16, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

"Fit" is the new buzzword of coaching hirings and firings. It's a tidy word that feeds the collective ego of fans and administrators who believe their program is special. When a coach is successful, it's not just because he recruits good players and teaches them to win. No, he's a good fit. When a coach isn't successful -- especially after he has won at other schools -- he's not a good fit.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
AP Photo/Tony DingPerhaps all it will take is wins to make Rich Rodriguez a "Michigan man."

All of which raises the question: Does "fit" exist? Is it merely another word for success?

Michigan went 3-9 last season, the first under coach Rich Rodriguez. He spent the last two weeks before the season defending himself against accusations, first reported in the Detroit Free Press, that he had ignored the NCAA 20-hour rule.

Michigan has been a button-down football program for as long as anyone can remember. Rodriguez, with his West Virginia accent, golden-retriever friendliness and optional grammar, is not a button-down personality. The accusations made it appear as if he had people pulling against him as well as for him.

After Michigan's rout of Western Michigan and last-second victory over rival Notre Dame, Rodriguez is 2-0, and questions of fit have been subsumed by a wave of maize-and-blue love.

"People haven't said anything to me [like], 'Hey, you're not a Michigan man,' or 'He doesn't understand Michigan,'" Rodriguez said. His next sentence came out slowly, for emphasis.

"Yeah, I do," he said. "The foundation isn't any different than anywhere else. It's recruiting the right guys and helping them make the grade. Every school is unique. But the foundation for building a championship program is no different here than West Virginia or Glenville State."

Michigan athletic director Bill Martin saw college football trending toward what Rodriguez coached, a spread offense with an emphasis on speed, not bulk. That meant setting aside what the Wolverines had done well throughout the tenures of Lloyd Carr, Gary Moeller and Bo Schembechler, going back nearly 40 years.

Every school is unique. But the foundation for building a championship program is no different here than West Virginia or Glenville State.

-- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez

"I wasn't looking for Bo," Martin said. "Lloyd did a wonderful job for us. He won 75 percent of his games. But the game has changed."

That change probably ensnared Dennis Franchione, who built a winner at five schools in three NCAA divisions before arriving at Texas A&M in December 2002. He spent five mostly mediocre seasons coaching the Aggies before the school fired him in 2007. Franchione found that his style of football didn't match up with what the Aggies wanted.

"In the beginning, it was a good fit," Franchione said. "That school has built its reputation on defense. We were never able to get good enough to live up to the 'Wrecking Crew' status. Aggies don't care how many points you score as long as you don't let the other guys score."

To arrive at a defensive-minded school just as the offensive explosion consumed the Big 12 was, Franchione said with a laugh, "baaaaad timing."

DeLoss Dodds, who has hired three football coaches in his 28 seasons as athletic director at Texas, laughed and said he didn't know whether "fit" existed, much less how to define it. Dodds said the key to hiring the right coach is that the coach be available. That's not always the case.

"The marketplace determines what's out there," Dodds said. "It wasn't lucky that we pulled the trigger to hire Mack Brown. It was lucky we had a chance to get him. … You might have 10 things you're looking for. You want somebody who has seven or eight of them. But you've got to hire somebody. You interview three guys, and each has got five of those 10 things. You're going to hire one of them."

Brown came to Texas in 1998 after building a winner at North Carolina. He has won 10 games or more in each of the past eight seasons and won the 2005 national championship.

"There is a tendency, and it's strong on everybody's part, to hire the opposite of who they just fired," said Dodds, who then retraced the Longhorns' coaches over the last 25 years, from embattled Fred Akers, who made the mistake of replacing the legendary Darrell Royal, to the home-grown David McWilliams to the aloof John Mackovic to the just-right Brown.

"Sometimes you overcorrect it," Dodds said. "Sometimes you don't."

Stanford fired Buddy Teevens after the 2004 season because of a lack of discipline and hired Walt Harris from Pittsburgh. Harris coached with such rigidity that he lost the locker room. After two seasons, Stanford fired him and replaced him with Jim Harbaugh, who has brought discipline and enthusiasm in prescription-strength doses.

[+] EnlargeWalt Harris
Rob Holt/Icon SMIWalt Harris was successful at Pitt but won only six games at Stanford.

No one could say that Frank Solich didn't fit at Nebraska. He had been there as an assistant coach for 19 seasons before he took over as head coach in 1998. Solich won 58 games in six seasons but got fired anyway.

Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson had hired winning coaches such as Harris and basketball coach Ben Howland at Pittsburgh. Pederson brought in former Oakland Raiders head coach Bill Callahan to replace Solich. Callahan brought an NFL feel to a campus where football had been handled pretty much the same way for three decades. When his teams ranged from good to mediocre, Callahan got fired, and so did Pederson.

"Bill's a good football coach and a good man," said Pederson, who was later hired as athletic director at Pittsburgh. "I think, you know, if you look at it, if you win enough games, everything's fine."

Rodriguez, like Callahan at Nebraska, has been criticized for trampling on tradition because he changed practice and training regimens.

"There's a difference between tradition and best practice," Rodriguez said. "Tradition is the fight song and the winged helmets. It's not style of play or how you pick captains. … When I interviewed for the job, they didn't ask, 'How are you going to pick game captains?' They said, 'We want you to be successful on and off the field.'"

And, probably, in that order. The Wolverines are 2-0. Perhaps it is that simple. In the end, winning is one size that fits all.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com