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How Does a Destination Job Lose Its Luster?

December 6th, 2012 at 5:38 PM
By Dan Smith

'Employees pay tribute to former district engineer, Vols coaching legend' photo (c) 2012, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Those who have spent a lot of time following Notre Dame cannot help but watch what is unfolding in Tennessee and be reminded of some of the wretched coaching searches of Notre Dame's past. The success of Brian Kelly's Irish has been a reminder that no matter how far removed a blue blood program is from the glory days, it can always be resuscitated by the right man. What can Tennessee learn from Notre Dame?

In 2004, Notre Dame fired head coach Tyrone Willingham after just three seasons. Willingham hadn't been anyone's first choice in the first place; he only got the job after Notre Dame's first choice, George O'Leary, was forced to step down after just one week on the job after lying on his resume. Despite a stellar first season, Willingham never fully won over a Notre Dame fanbase that knew from the jump that they could have/should have had a more accomplished head coach than a guy who was barely over .500 for his career. The moment things turned south, he was out the door. 

Sound familiar, Vol fans? Like Ty Willingham, Derek Dooley would have never gotten his shot as a head coach of a premier football power if his employer hadn't been left in the lurch by his shady predecessor. He only got three years, and after numerous humiliations, was let go. Sadly for Tennessee fans, the Vols repeated every mistake Notre Dame made then.

Like Tennessee, Notre Dame flirted around with Jon Gruden. At this point, anyone foolish enough to get in bed with Gruden gets what they deserve. He's a narcissist who clearly gets a certain amount of gratification from hearing his name bandied about by other teams. For a college program that has to maintain a high level of secrecy in their coach searches, getting involved with Gruden is a kiss of death. He will never keep your advances secret, because that defeats the whole purpose for him. Even if you think he would be a great coach, he'd submarine your recruiting every season with rumors of his departure. 

But Gruden does have value as a smoke screen. He gets your more idiotic boosters off the AD's back so he can go after the guy he actually wants. I am not unconvinced that the Tennessee/Notre Dame-Gruden rumors weren't just such a thing. In 2004, Notre Dame's top realistic pick was Urban Meyer.

Meyer was coming off two stellar season at Utah, and was a former Notre Dame assistant. Notre Dame was convinced they'd have Urban, and were horrified when FLORIDA, who had spent the last three seasons falling back into the pre-Spurrier 7-8 win pit they had historically occupied. 

Like Tennessee fans who are baffled at how they could be turned down by a LOUISVILLE head coach, Notre Dame fans were forced to deal with being spurned by one of their own, a guy who had a Notre Dame-clause in his Utah contract, choosing a school that had never won anything without Steve Spurrier over them.

The problem in both cases is that Notre Dame and Tennessee relied too heavily on playing the "don't you know who I am" card instead of really selling themselves to their top choice. In Notre Dame's case, they did not even seem to consider that they very smart and successful Florida AD Jeremy Foley was doing a great job of selling himself to Meyer. For Urban, the chance to work with an AD who he trusted matter more than a "dream job."

In Tennessee's case, they very publicly courted Mike Gundy from Oklahoma State, who had interest in their job. All Gundy was ever interested in was a salary increase from his employers at Oklahoma State, a school he played quarterback for and has worked as a coach for 22 years now. Tennessee threw a lot of money at Charlie Strong, but Strong clearly felt more love from Louisville and decided not to enter a viper's pit where he wasn't the clear number one choice.

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The most common mistake any major program makes when they botch a coaching hire is when they just ASSUME everyone wants their job, and do not do the job they need to do to sell a talented coach (who has a LOT of options) on their program. The other mistake is not having their guy before they pull the trigger on firing the current one.

Emotional firings based on recent on field disasters almost always backfire. You cannot fire your current man until you have the next guy lined up. Notre Dame learned this lesson after the disastrous Willingham firing that led to the school being accused of racism and led to them hiring a guy with no head coaching or NCAA experience.

Rather than fire Weis after his 3-9 season, they gave him the five years Notre Dame has traditionally given even its worst coaches, to show the coaching community that they would have a chance to build something at Notre Dame before being fired. And when they finally pulled the trigger on Weis, they had Brian Kelly lined up before they ever cut Weis loose. 

Nobody with a brain thinks Derek Dooley was doing a good job at Tennessee. But what is worse for a program? A fourth year with a mediocre coach or a coaching search you're not prepared for?

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Tennessee will end up hiring someone with a resume good enough they'll be able to talk themselves into him. Whether it's Bo Pelini, Greg Roman or a long shot like Butch Davis, they'll get a guy who at least has a shot at building a quality program at Knoxville. But they will be hiring a far riskier coach than a program of their stature should. 

They've blown their chance at hiring the sure thing. They did so because of a combination of hubris and poor planning. Maybe the high risk pick they end up with turns out, but more likely than not, we'll be looking at Tennessee hiring a new coach again in five years or so. You'll see a lot of articles saying TENNESSEE JUST ISN'T THE JOB IT USED TO BE and the always classic THEY JUST CAN'T BE GOOD AGAIN.

Meanwhile, Tennessee's brass will learn from this experience, and either the current Athletic Director or the man who follows him will do a much better job when put in this situation again. They will do a much better job planning for a coaching switch, and their fan base will have such lowered expectations that the new guy will get plenty of time to fix the ship.

This year's national championship game features two programs, Alabama and Notre Dame, who were left for dead by various lazy columnists who assume that the way things are are now are how they will forever be. Alabama was dead because Florida State and Miami were permanent juggernauts and kids just didn't have any interest in Tuscaloosa. Notre Dame was dead because nobody wants to go to South Bend, they don't have a local talent base and the school is too hard.

All of those COLD HARD TRUTHS now look ridiculous as we prepare for a 12-0 Notre Dame to take on a 11-1 defending national champion Crimson Tide. All the pronouncements about how TENNESSEE IS DOOMED because of the strength of programs like SOUTH CAROLINA and GEORGIA are going to look pretty ludicrous as well in ten years, we imagine.

No blue blood program is ever dead forever. Tennessee will find their man. It just looks like it won't be for another five years, however.

Tags: NCAA, Notre Dame, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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