Interim coaches hope auditions go well
One day last week, Houston coach Tony Levine locked his office door and turned out the lights, hoping everyone would think he wasn't there.
Levine started the month as Kevin Sumlin's assistant head coach and tight ends coach, then was promoted to interim coach when Sumlin left for Texas A&M on Dec. 10 and was named his replacement earlier this week after winning the job over three other finalists.
After a whirlwind month, Levine wanted to spend at least an hour last week watching film of Penn State, the No. 19 Cougars' opponent in the Jan. 2 TicketCity Bowl in Dallas.
"Every eight minutes, someone knocked on the door, asking me what we wanted to eat on Dec. 28 or where we wanted to put the TicketCity Bowl patch on our warm-ups," Levine said. "It never ends."
Since Sumlin left for College Station, Levine has been working around the clock. Little did he know it would be on-the-job training.
"It may or may not be an audition," Levine said last week before he was named Sumlin's replacement. "I don't know. To be honest, I've been too busy to think about it."
Levine, who worked on Sumlin's staff at Houston for four seasons, said he has started most workdays at 6 a.m. since becoming interim coach. He stayed at the office until 3 a.m. one day last week, then slept in his office the next night.
"I was the assistant head coach prior to this change, but my role has changed significantly," Levine said. "My focus has been to be in the office to make sure everybody finishes well academically with our current players. We've had recruits on campus for official visits, and we've made in-home visits. I've had to schedule everything up until our bowl game in terms of travel, meals, events, bowl practices and recruiting weekends."
Levine isn't alone in carrying an increased workload this bowl season. Ten schools will have interim coaches -- or in Toledo's and Houston's cases, a new coach -- on the sideline when they play in bowl games.
• Penn State also will have an interim coach in the TicketCity Bowl. Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has served as interim coach since iconic coach Joe Paterno was fired Nov. 9 in the fallout of child sex abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Bradley, who has spent 33 seasons on the PSU staff, interviewed for the head-coaching job last week.
• North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers, who took over the UNC program when former coach Butch Davis was fired July 28 in the fallout from an NCAA investigation, will coach the Tar Heels for the final time when they play Missouri in Monday's AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora was hired as UNC's new coach earlier this month; he'll coach the Golden Eagles for the final time against Nevada in Saturday night's Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Withers, meanwhile, will join Urban Meyer's staff at Ohio State, serving as the Buckeyes' co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
• Illinois and UCLA will both have interim coaches on the sideline when they play in the Dec. 31 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is serving as the Illini's interim coach after Ron Zook was fired on Nov. 27. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is serving as the Bruins' interim coach after Rick Neuheisel was fired Nov. 28. Former NFL coach Jim L. Mora has been named UCLA's new coach.
• Toledo offensive coordinator Matt Campbell will guide the Rockets as head coach for the first time against Air Force in Wednesday's Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman in Washington. Campbell, 32, was named Toledo's new coach on Dec. 12 after Tim Beckman left to replace Zook at Illinois.
• Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is working as Texas A&M's interim coach after Mike Sherman was fired on Dec. 1. DeRuyter will coach the Aggies for one game against Northwestern in the Dec. 31 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. DeRuyter was named Fresno State's new coach last week.
• Luke Fickell, who guided Ohio State to a 6-6 record after former coach Jim Tressel resigned May 30 for breaking NCAA rules, will coach the Buckeyes against Florida in the Jan. 2 Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. Former Florida coach Urban Meyer was hired as OSU's new coach last month; Fickell is expected to remain on OSU's staff as defensive coordinator next season.
• Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is working as the Panthers' interim coach after former coach Todd Graham abruptly left last week to become Arizona State's new coach. Patterson will coach the Panthers against SMU in the Jan. 7 BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was named Pitt's new coach Thursday.
• Arkansas State running backs coach David Gunn is serving as the Red Wolves' interim coach against Northern Illinois in the Jan. 8 GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Former ASU coach Hugh Freeze left earlier this month to become Ole Miss' coach. Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has been named the Red Wolves' new coach; Gunn has taken a position on Malzahn's staff for next season.
Interim coaches face a difficult challenge in trying to balance dual interests during bowl season. They're trying to win bowl games in their final games at their current schools, while preparing for positions with new teams or, in some cases, trying to find a new job for next season.
Most interim coaches say the most important task is making sure their current teams are ready to play in bowl games.
"It's the last game with these kids," said Withers, who led the Tar Heels to a 7-5 record. "That's probably the biggest difference. We've got 17 seniors we want to send out on a good note. We're preparing to try and make that happen."
DeRuyter, who worked for two seasons on Sherman's staff at Texas A&M, greeted a caller earlier this week by identifying himself as "Tim DeRuyter of Texas A&M and Fresno State."
DeRuyter, who has worked as defensive coordinator at Air Force, Nevada and Ohio, has never been a head coach. He said working as the Aggies' interim coach for a few weeks will help him prepare to become Fresno State's coach after the bowl game.
"Going to a bowl game, you're responsible for the logistical plans of getting guys there and getting schedules set for when you're going to practice and meet," DeRuyter said. "It's a lot of things you take for granted, but it is on-the-job training. You get a chance to do media interviews, set the schedules and set the tone for the way you want the team to be."
DeRuyter said he is trying to balance his work schedule by focusing on the Aggies' bowl preparations during the day, then on his plans for Fresno State at night. He has spent most of his nights interviewing potential assistants and developing a recruiting plan for the Bulldogs.
"Timewise, it's tough," DeRuyter said. "You've got to make staff choices and recruiting choices. On this end, we've got a bowl game and it's my last game, these coaches' last game and the seniors' last game. You absolutely want to do right by Texas A&M. I love this group of kids."
DeRuyter said it helps that he lives only 10 minutes from the Aggies' football offices.
"I'm sleeping in my own bed -- just not for very long," DeRuyter said. "It's convenient, but it's not very good for my body."
Koenning, who was the architect of the Illini's No. 7-ranked defense this season, said it's difficult to make many changes to a team as an interim coach. He has focused on improving the Illini's special teams, which were a weakness this season, while trying to keep his players motivated. Koenning changed his team's practice routine and has added new wrinkles on offense and defense.
"We're trying to do a lot of things to motivate them, and we're doing team-building exercises," Koenning said. "In our case, we needed to get our stinger back. I've tried to change some things to give them things that were different and not status quo to keep it interesting."
Koenning, who is expected to join Fedora's staff at North Carolina as defensive coordinator next season, said interim coaches have to make it clear that they're in charge, even if the former coach is no longer around.
"I've got to deal with the academic people and reset some of the team rules and things like that," Koenning said. "I had to structure it for them because, when you're in this situation, guys tend to not act right. I've just tried to add as much structure as I can to their days. Kids tend to act more confident and at ease when they have more structure. When things start to slip, I've got to be the hammer."
Several teams are working with skeleton coaching staffs this season because coaches left for new jobs. Pittsburgh has only half of its coaching staff after Graham took co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Mike Norvell with him to Arizona State. Three other Pittsburgh assistants had previously left to join Rich Rodriguez's staff at Arizona. The Panthers will have only five full-time assistants when they play SMU on Jan. 7.
When Freeze left Arkansas State for Ole Miss, he took four Red Wolves assistants with him, including defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, linebackers coach Tom Allen and defensive line coach Chris Kiffin.
The Red Wolves hired former Memphis defensive coordinator Kenny Ingram and Nashville (Ark.) High School coach Billy Dawson as assistants to work through the bowl game. Ingram is a former Arkansas State player; Dawson has led his high school team to three state championships since 2005.
"We wanted to make sure we had every opportunity to win this bowl game," Gunn said. "It's been an excellent fit. The kids embraced them right away, and they're very familiar with the program. They're good men and excellent football coaches."
Other schools are preparing for bowl games without key assistant coaches. Malzahn will coach Auburn's offense against Virginia in the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl, but defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for a similar position at Central Florida. Arkansas, which plays Kansas State in the Jan. 6 AT&T Cotton Bowl, lost offensive coordinator Garrick McGee to UAB, and defensive coordinator Willy Robinson was fired.
DeRuyter, who is trying to assemble a coaching staff at Fresno State, said college football's silly season will get more intense before it ends.
"It's just awkward right now," DeRuyter said. "There's going to be a big shift in coaching after this bowl season is over."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- Wife believes Sandusky 'definitely' innocent
- McCarron: Feel like I'm best QB in the draft
- Lee tries to get 'up to par' at USC pro day
- RB Williams improves speed at BC pro day