Commentary

With firings, timing can be everything

Originally Published: September 30, 2013
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Lane Kiffin and Paul Pasqualoni have joined an exclusive club.  

On Monday, Connecticut fired third-year coach Pasqualoni, two days after the Huskies fell to 0-4 following a 41-12 loss to Buffalo.

A day earlier, USC fired fourth-year coach Lane Kiffin only hours after the Trojans were blasted 62-41 at Arizona State, dropping their record to 3-2.

Such early-season firings are rare, but not unprecedented. Since 1998, only four head coaches at BCS schools had failed to coach their teams past the sixth game of the season: Arizona's Mike Stoops (2011), Clemson's Tommy Bowden (2008), Arizona's John Mackovic (2003) and Auburn's Terry Bowden (1998).  

We've seen two such firings in the last 48 hours, and the calendar hasn't even turned to October.

"It's disturbing to me," Baylor coach Art Briles told reporters on Monday. "It makes me thankful when I walk into my office that the chair's there."

But Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said Connecticut and USC made the right decisions if the schools didn't think they were going to bring their coaches back next season. After Florida lost at Mississippi State 38-31 in the seventh game of the 2004 season, Foley decided to fire coach Ron Zook and begin the search for his replacement immediately.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Foley
Jason Parkhurst/USA TODAY SportsFlorida athletic director Jeremy Foley fired Gators head coach Ron Zook midway through the 2004 season. He said making the decision early allowed him to focus on finding a new candidate, which ended up being Urban Meyer.

"Obviously, we've been down that road ourselves," Foley said. "I understand why it's done. If it's not working, there's no reason to wait. It gives those two universities time to get their ducks in a row."

Zook stayed to coach the Gators' final four regular-season games in 2004, as Foley and a four-person committee conducted the search for his successor. Foley pledged not to interview a candidate before the end of the regular season, but he was still able to talk to agents, former colleagues and close friends of potential coaches on his list. Foley said he wouldn't have been comfortable gauging candidates' interest in the job and vetting their backgrounds if Zook believed he still had a chance to keep his job.

"We knew it was the right thing to do because we were going to do it at the end of the season," Foley said. "Were we not going to be honest with everybody for five weeks? If you talk to people about the job when he's still there, you're going behind the coach's back."

Some of the coaches on Foley's wish list -- Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and then-Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis -- weren't interested in the job. It didn't take Foley long to focus on then-Utah coach Urban Meyer, who was on his way to guiding the Utes to a 12-0 record in 2004, including a 35-7 rout of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.

Six days after the Utes wrapped up their regular season with a 52-21 rout of BYU, Foley flew to Salt Lake City to meet with Meyer on the day after Thanksgiving. They met for four hours at Meyer's home, and Foley left knowing he wanted Meyer as his new coach. But when Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham after a 6-5 regular season in 2004, Foley realized he had competition for Meyer.

Nine years later, Foley is convinced his head start is what caused Meyer to choose Florida over Notre Dame, where Meyer had worked as an assistant. Meyer guided the Gators to BCS national championships in 2006 and '08 and compiled a 65-15 record in six seasons before retiring (temporarily) after the 2010 season.

"That time was crucial," Foley said. "Notre Dame made a move for him in December, and I've always felt that time was critical."

Foley said the most difficult part of making a coaching change in midseason is disrupting a team's season and recruiting.

"It's tough on a team," Foley said. "It really was the toughest part for me. Recruiting is always important, but finding the right person is the most important thing. We talked to a multitude of people and had the time to do it. It's hard to do it at the end of the season because everybody's talking to people."

Arizona faced a similar dilemma in 2011. The Wildcats fired former coach Mike Stoops halfway through his eighth season at the school, after a disappointing 1-5 start.

"It gives us a head start on the process of finding our new football coach," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said at the time. "I believe strongly that you are, when you have an existing head coach, you need to be committed to that coach. At this point, we decided this was an opportunity to start moving forward for the future."

About a month later, Arizona hired former Michigan and West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, who was working as a TV analyst during the 2011 season. Rodriguez guided the Wildcats to an 8-5 record in 2012, and they're 3-1 this season.

Not all early-season firings have been as calculated. In 1992, Arkansas fired coach Jack Crowe after an embarrassing 10-3 loss to The Citadel in their opener. Crowe met with athletic director Frank Broyles the next day and the men had a heated encounter.

"It ended with me saying, 'Frank, I'm going home to have lunch,'" Crowe told The Associated Press in 2012. "If you want me to be your football coach, call me. And he didn't call me."

Broyles replaced Crowe with interim coach Joe Kines the next day.

USC athletic director Pat Haden broke the news to Kiffin early Sunday morning, after the Trojans had arrived at Los Angeles International Airport a few hours after the  loss at Arizona State. Haden pulled Kiffin off the team bus and relieved him of his duties during a 30-minute meeting in a private room in the airport.

While Haden said the ugly loss at Arizona State was the breaking point, he'd been contemplating Kiffin's future for a while.

"This has been brewing for a while," Haden said. "I have been thinking about it since the Hawaii game [in the Aug. 29 opener]. We didn't feel consistency there. We realize that our history has been great and we need it to be great again."

Foley doesn't think that early firings will become a trend in college football, but he doesn't fault the administrators who have to make difficult decisions.

"I think it's a prudent way to go because it gives people time to make the next step," Foley said. "That length of time really allows you to hone in on candidates."

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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