Commentary

Emotions vary when a coach leaves

Originally Published: May 25, 2012
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

Coaches win and lose and get fired and hired. That's what they do.

[+] EnlargeRocky Long
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireSan Diego State had a contingency plan when Brady Hoke left for Michigan. His name is Rocky Long.

Fans and media love coaches or hate them. That's what they do.

And the pitch of those feelings mostly depends on whether they are looking at the coach coming or going.

When coaches leave on their own accord, however, they leave a void behind. Into that void flows anger, fear and sometimes sorrow. Often the aftermath includes a boiling brew of all three.

Of course, the circumstances of getting left in the lurch vary widely. When Todd Graham unceremoniously bolted from Pittsburgh for Arizona State after just one year this past offseason, he left behind a text message goodbye and a fuming mob of Panthers players, administrators and fans. That's a good example of anger.

Fear? That was USC after Pete Carroll jumped to the Seattle Seahawks after the 2009 season. Trojans fans had reveled in Carroll's dynastic run, which returned a traditional college football power to the spotlight after an inexplicably long period of dormancy. His departure, an extended struggle to find someone willing to fill Carroll's rather large penny loafers and brutally unfair oncoming NCAA sanctions left the Trojan fan base fretting a return to the dreary 1990s.

Then there's the sorrow of feeling like a stepping stone. San Diego State athletic director Jim Sterk experienced that twice. First, at Washington State, he watched Mike Price coach the Cougars to the 2003 Rose Bowl, even after deciding to ditch them for Alabama. Then, after Brady Hoke led San Diego State to a 9-4 finish in 2010, he saw Hoke take a running leap to Michigan.

Whatever emotions swirl into the ensuing void when a coach leaves a program behind, the athletic director left in the lurch must somehow interpret and manage them. He needs to redirect that anger, fear and sorrow. He needs to get it looking forward with hope, not looking back with despair. That is not easy.

Take San Diego State. Its nine wins in 2010 were its most since 1971. Its 3514 win over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl was its first bowl game since 1998. Aztecs fans knew they had something special with Hoke. And then -- poof -- special was gone.

"That is something that is difficult to manage," Sterk said of the ensuing despondency. "It was very vital that we do something quickly."

Truth is, Sterk, though on the job at San Diego State for less than a year, was well-aware that Hoke wasn't likely to stick around. Because of that, he had a contingency plan in mind: Defensive coordinator Rocky Long, who had a found a way to be successful as head coach of New Mexico for 11 seasons. Long was announced as Hoke's replacement before Hoke was formally introduced at Michigan.

"[San Diego State administrators and boosters] respected the heck out of Rocky Long," Sterk said. "That wasn't a tough sale."

Moving fast is also what Steve Pederson did at Pittsburgh. Whatever one thinks of the Twitter onslaught against Graham from media and Panthers fans and players, it wasn't helping Pittsburgh move on. For one, a tantrum never looks good. It also foregrounded the simple fact that what seemed like a lateral move apparently didn't seem that way to Graham. Further, the Panthers were looking for a fourth coach in just more than a year, an unsavory tumult from Dave Wannstedt to Mike Haywood to Graham.

The solution? Hire a highly respected coach who just about everyone thinks is a talented, stable up-and-comer: Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.

Said Pederson, "The energy quickly focused on where we were headed. We got Paul Chryst hired pretty fast. By Dec. 22, he was our head football coach. That really, immediately, turned the page completely."

Well, probably not completely. Expect the Panthers' faithful to be eyeballing Tempe, Ariz., for the next few seasons, hoping their new guy, Chryst, outshines their old guy, Graham.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Robert Johnson/Icon SMILane Kiffin wasn't a popular hire at USC at first, especially considering the man he was replacing.

Neither of these cases, however, approximate the media storm at USC. It included: 1) Carroll's surprising departure; 2) A meandering hunt by then-athletic director Mike Garrett for a replacement that included rejections from Mike Riley, Jeff Fisher, Jack Del Rio and Steve Sarkisian; 3) The already controversial Lane Kiffin's near-riotous departure from Tennessee; 4) And then a shockingly brutal axe blow from the NCAA.

That's what Kiffin stepped into, and shortly thereafter so did new athletic director Pat Haden.

"There was real concern," Haden said. "We were losing a great and beloved coach in Pete Carroll, plus right before I got here we'd just got hammered by the NCAA sanctions. There were a lot of question marks around the program. There were questions in my mind, there were questions in fans minds. It was a very difficult period when I first arrived. And when, I think, Lane arrived. I don't think Lane expected the sanctions to be as great as they were."

Deadpanned Kiffin, "Ideally, if I could have written the script, it would have been different."

Haden and Kiffin were both well-aware of the coaching maxim: "Don't be the guy after the guy."

"I give Lane Kiffin a lot of credit for not being afraid of following a legend," Haden said. "That showed me a great deal of confidence that he thought he could get it done here."

Kiffin said he didn't feel much motivation to slap backs and shake hands to win folks over after his hiring, which wasn't exactly greeted with universal approval among fans or media. PR is not really his thing, in any event. As a former assistant under Carroll at USC, he knew what the Trojans were all about: signing the best players in the nation and winning conference and national titles.

"Trying to win people over -- I don't really believe in that," he said. "When you win, you win people over. You can try to win over whoever you want, but you better be winning on the streets in recruiting and winning on the field on Saturdays. That's really how you win people over."

The jury was undecided after an 8-5 finish in Year 1. But in 2011, the Trojans surged to 10-2 with a final No. 6 ranking. Recruiting has remained elite, even with scholarship reductions. USC is likely to be ranked among the top two this preseason, again a national title contender fronted by the leading Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Matt Barkley.

You know, sort of like how things were every year with Carroll.

Still, these voids aren't filled yet. Chryst, Long and Kiffin -- like many who stepped into a coaching void before them -- can terminate the anger, fear and sorrow with only one thing: winning. That's the only reliable cure for the residual bad feelings experienced by a program left in the lurch.

Ted Miller | email

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