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Following legends a no-win job for coaches

11/1/2010

There's an old axiom when it comes to coaching jobs that goes something like this: You never want to be the guy who follows The Guy.

It's never easy and rarely prudent to be the coach who comes after a legend. Better to be the savior riding in on a white horse after the predecessor failed.

Bill Stewart and Butch Jones are finding this out the hard way. Both coaches took over programs that had enjoyed unprecedented levels of success. And both are now facing heat because they haven't been able to keep up those levels.

Stewart earned a battlefield promotion after the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, which he led as interim coach when Rich Rodriguez departed for Michigan. Rodriguez's final three teams in Morgantown won 11 games each season, went to two BCS games and finished in the top 10 all three years. He won three Big East titles in his final four seasons.

Stewart went 9-4 in each of his first two years, which Mountaineers fans considered vast disappointments. Yet they were disappointing only in comparison to the highs of the Rodriguez era. From 1984 to 2004, West Virginia won as many as nine games in a season only three times. Fans, though, quickly grew accustomed to the thrilling achievements of the final Rodriguez years.

Even when Stewart won games, he was criticized because his teams did not score enough points in those victories. They were used to Rodriguez's spread-option teams regularly crossing the 40-point barrier. Now that West Virginia has fallen to 5-3 while losing back-to-back games to Syracuse and Connecticut -- two teams Rodriguez combined to win 11 straight against -- Stewart's job is in serious jeopardy. Even if he manages to get this team back on track and lead it to another nine-win season, a large portion of the fan base is now convinced he must go, and they are convinced there's another coach out there who will replicate Rodriguez's victory total.

Jones had almost no chance of exceeding his predecessor right away, because Brian Kelly went 12-0 last season and won 33 games while earning Big East coach of the year honors all three seasons he was at Cincinnati. Since Kelly bolted for Notre Dame, the Bearcats have lost six of their past eight games against FBS opponents, including a 3-5 record under Jones this season.

Jones has had to deal with a lot of adversity this year, including key injuries, a frightfully young defense and a difficult early schedule. However, all many casual fans see is that he's not Brian Kelly. The home crowd at Nippert Stadium booed the Bearcats often in their 31-7 loss to Syracuse on Saturday before most of them fled the stands midway through the fourth quarter. Cincinnati might miss the postseason this year after going to two straight BCS games, and you wonder how that will sit with a fan base that got spoiled very quickly by Kelly.

Compare the situations of Jones and Stewart to those of Louisville's Charlie Strong and South Florida's Skip Holtz, a pair of first-year head coaches at their respective programs.

Strong is just 4-4, but Cardinal fans hold him in near-reverential stature for the way he has improved the team after the three-year debacle of Steve Kragthorpe (who himself failed to build on another program legend in Bobby Petrino). Holtz followed the only coach USF had ever known in Jim Leavitt, got off to a slow start and is just 4-3 with a difficult schedule left. But many Bulls fans felt that the program had gone as far it was going to go under Leavitt and had tired of his sideline antics and brusque manner.

And then there's Syracuse, where fans seem ready to build a statue of Doug Marrone after he has led the Orange to a 6-2 start in his second season. No fan base suffered from a bad coaching hire more than Syracuse under Greg Robinson, whose 10 wins in four years have already been matched by Marrone in less than two seasons. Even if the Orange falter the rest of the way and finish no better than 7-5, Marrone is a lock for Big East coach of the year honors.

He's also another example why it pays not to be the guy who follows The Guy.