Coach reportedly refused to ax coordinators

Updated: December 1, 2004, 8:19 PM ET
Associated Press

OXFORD, Miss. -- David Cutcliffe struggled to replace Eli Manning and refused to make major changes after his first losing season in six years as coach of Mississippi.

Those two issues cost him his job.

Cutcliffe was fired Wednesday, following the Rebels' worst season in 10 years.

The usually stoic Cutcliffe fought through tears several times while speaking regretfully about his final season in Oxford.

"Things just haven't been good in 2004," he said.

He declined to discuss specifics of his dismissal, which came after two days of meetings with athletic director Pete Boone and chancellor Robert Khayat.

"We just couldn't come to an agreement," Cutcliffe said. "We couldn't get everything on the same page."

Boone said Cutcliffe refused to submit a written plan to fix problems within the program, including improving a defense that consistently ranked among the Southeastern Conference's worst.

"He preferred the status quo, keeping things how they are," Boone said. "I didn't hear a plan to make that better."

Assistant coaches will remain employed until the new coach decides whether to retain them, Boone said.

Boone and Khayat will lead the search for a new coach. Boone is looking for a high-energy coach with previous experience and reputations for having aggressive defenses and creative offenses.

Under Cutcliffe, "we had peaks and valleys of emotional levels by the players," Boone said. "Sometimes they're motivated, sometimes they're not."

Cutcliffe was 44-29 in six seasons at Ole Miss, 25-23 in the SEC, and just a season removed from going 10-3 and finishing tied for first in the West with Manning at quarterback.

But without Manning, the first pick in the NFL draft, Ole Miss went just 4-7 this year. The Rebels were 3-5 in the SEC and lost four games by a total of 19 points.

Manning, now the starter for the New York Giants, said he was disappointed by the firing.

"Coach Cutcliffe and I had a great run and great relationship, and I think he's a great coach and a great person," Manning said. "He definitely left Ole Miss a better place than when he came in. I know he'll be fine."

Cutcliffe, the former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee, had been criticized for his handling of the quarterback position this season.

Micheal Spurlock was the starter at the beginning of the season, but was benched midway through the second game for Ethan Flatt.

Flatt started the Rebels' next nine games. Midway through the season, Cutcliffe switched to a three-quarterback rotation with redshirt freshman Robert Lane entering the mix.

After a win over then-No. 25 South Carolina, the Rebels lost four straight -- three to ranked teams.

"It's essential that the football program be competitive. It's not now-and-then competitive. It's every-year competitive," chancellor Robert Khayat said. "We expect our program to be outstanding, to be moving forward. We will not accept ... mediocrity."

Boone said he had five candidates in mind, but declined to identify them. Speculation has already surfaced around Tommy West of Memphis, Dan Hawkins of Boise State and Tyrone Willingham, who was fired by Notre Dame on Tuesday.

"We can make up a lot of ground if we get in the right people," Boone said.

Cutcliffe was hired by Boone's predecessor, John Shafer, to replace Tommy Tuberville after the 1998 regular season.

Cutcliffe met with Khayat and Boone earlier this week after the Rebels completed the season by beating rival Mississippi State 20-3 last Saturday.

"We had a different view of what was required to move the program up," Khayat said.

Cutcliffe was the only coach in school history to win at least seven games in his first five years.

After last season's success, his contract was extended. He has three years remaining on a deal that pays about $1.2 million annually, including perks and bonuses.

Khayat declined to discuss Cutcliffe's contract situation.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press