Friday, November 18, 2005

Too cool for school

The Nick Saban I know probably isn't locked in his office, peeking out from under his tinfoil hat and questioning whether he was right to leave his throne at Louisiana State University to buckle himself into the captain's chair of the rudderless Miami Dolphins. (And since you asked: No, I don't know Nick Saban.)

Truth is, it will be a while before anyone can judge whether Saban made the right choice. Through nine games, his Dolphins are 3-6, including upset victories over the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. The defense appears steady, and the running game seems to be developing. But the passing game is unpredictable, and not in a Brett Favre, risk-taking-gunslinger way. More like a whoops-I-forgot-to-set-the-emergency-brake-and-now-where-do-you-suppose-it's-gonna-go way. When Gus Frerotte heaves the ball up, you just kind of hold your breath and hope it gets caught by someone wearing the same color shirt. All we can say with confidence about Saban's new start in Miami is that he throws a mean press conference. Whenever a reporter starts in with the stupid questions -- like, "How is going today, Coach?" -- Saban puts on this look like someone farted in church. Uncomfortable.

As Saban transitions from college head coach to NFL head coach, Dolphins fans are hoping he makes out like Jimmy Johnson with the Cowboys. Like Saban, Johnson won a national championship in college before taking his act to the NFL. Johnson endured a tough first season in Dallas, improved dramatically in Years 2 and 3 and won the Super Bowl in Year 4. Those same Dolphins fans, however, are also well aware that Saban could follow the lead of Steve Spurrier. Like Saban, Spurrier won a national championship in college before taking his act to the NFL. Spurrier enjoyed a fairly successful first season in Washington, tumbled into an open grave in Year 2 and was gone by Year 3.

After nine games, Johnson was 1-8; Spurrier, 4-5. Discuss.

Spurrier. Glad I mentioned him, because this past weekend The Cautionary Tale of Steven Orr Spurrier came full circle. Descending briefly into the boozy world of college football, we see that last Saturday Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks upset the 12th-ranked Florida Gators, for whom Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 as a player and the mythical national championship in 1996 as the head coach. The game knocked Florida out of contention for the Southeastern Conference title and signaled that the Gamecocks will hereafter be part of the equation in the SEC East.

The Carolina* victory also affirms two things related to Spurrier. One is that Florida's decision not to rehire him a year ago will loom larger and larger in Gainesville. (According to lore, when Spurrier discussed the job with the Florida brass, he was invited to submit a resume. He allegedly responded by telling the Florida AD to stick his head out into the hall and look at the trophy case. If it's not true, it should be.) The second is that the college game is where Spurrier belongs, because he clearly had no business in the NFL.

Having done just about everything a coach can do in college, Spurrier left Florida abruptly after the 2001 season, put on his prettiest outfit and let it be known he was ready for NFL teams to come courtin'. There was every reason to expect they would. He'd had success at every stop -- first with the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits (named in honor of co-owner Burt Reynolds), where he went 35-19 in three seasons and made the playoffs twice; then with the eternally sorry Duke Blue Devils, whom he turned into ACC champions (remember, we're talking about football here); and finally at his alma mater.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder had been writing Spurrier's name over and over on the cover of his Trapper Keeper since he bought the team. So when Spurrier finally broke up with the Gators, Snyder was at his locker the next day with an enormous contract. Marty Schottenheimer, whom Snyder had brought home to meet Mom and Dad a year earlier, got the heave-ho. (Chuckling to himself and millions of dollars richer, Marty soon accepted San Diego's invitation to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. And that's as far as that analogy will stretch.)

In Washington, Spurrier was unable to replicate the success he'd had at Florida, in part because he tried to replicate the success he'd had at Florida -- meaning, installing the exact same offense and putting it in the hands of the exact same players, including peashooter QBs Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews and lousy WRs Taylor Jacobs and Chris Doering. After two seasons and a 12-20 record, Spurrier resigned and disappeared into America's golf underbelly before resurfacing in South Carolina. Snyder, meanwhile, pulled the last rabbit out of the hat: Joe Gibbs.

(Spurrier's tenure in D.C. is a sore spot in our household. My wife, an Iowa State alumna, resents Spurrier for cutting former Cyclones QB Sage Rosenfels, whom Schottenheimer had drafted. ["He has such a big heart," Tracy says.] Rosenfels now backs up the human spray-bottle Frerotte in Miami; if he's cut again, she can hate Saban, too.)

So Saban is best advised to emulate Johnson rather than Spurrier. Of course, Johnson's run of success began with conning the Minnesota Vikings into trading away their future for Herschel Walker. Saban doesn't have that option with his Heisman-winning running back. A player is limited to one franchise-destroying trade in a career, and Ricky Williams already had his.

Spurrier's experience in the NFL looms as much more common than Johnson's. Should Saban fail, he'd be just the latest college coach to slam into the rocks of the pro game. Butch Davis left Cleveland a very unhappy man. The best you can say about Dennis Erickson is that he was mediocre (and that what happened in San Francisco last year wasn't his fault). Frank Kush turned Arizona State into a national power before his career died in a bean field somewhere between Baltimore and Indianapolis. Spurrier's predecessor at South Carolina, Lou Holtz, was so traumatized by his one season with the New York Jets, which he didn't even finish, that he never seriously considered another pro job, even after winning the national title at Notre Dame.

The allure of the NFL is understandable: the game's biggest stage, the best athletes, the most money. The coach doesn't have to find anyone to write his players' papers, and he can buy them shoes or a bus ticket (HA HA HA!) without worrying about putting his program on probation. Every coach who scores big in NCAA Division I-A dreams that he can be the next Jimmy Johnson, or maybe the next Barry Switzer, who Walter Mitty'd his way to a Super Bowl title with Johnson's players. Or at least the next John Robinson, who left Southern Cal for the Los Angeles Rams and made the playoffs in six of his first seven years there. But those dudes are the exceptions.

Saban had coached in the NFL as an assistant to Bill Belichick before dropping down to the college level to get head coaching experience. I can understand why he would grab at this chance to be The Man in the pros. Just as I'll understand when Charlie Weis leaves Notre Dame and his absurd 10-year contract when the right NFL job opens up. What I don't get is why Pete Carroll would ever consider returning to the NFL. Carroll was a middling NFL coach who had the distinction of heading the Patriots in the years after Bill Parcells took them to the Super Bowl and before Belichick took them to the Super Bowl. Now he's at Southern Cal, where he is pursuing his third straight national title and is the toast of Los Angeles. He'd give that up for what? A chance to lead the Houston Texans to an 8-8 season? To earn a wildcard berth with the Buffalo Bills? Yeah, whatever. I can't save a fool from his fool self.

While some successful college coaches move up to the NFL and get their heads cut off, some unsuccessful NFL head coaches drop down to college and prosper, because that's where their talents are the best fit. Look at Spurrier. Look at Al Groh, a disappointment as Parcells' successor with the Jets who is now thriving at Virginia. Chan Gailey -- replaced by Dave Campo in Dallas -- won a bowl game last year at Georgia Tech. Gene Stallings won a national title at Alabama after crapping out with the Cardinals. Saban's predecessor at Miami, Dave Wannstedt, wasn't an abject failure in the pros, but he wasn't exactly a roaring success, either (and Dolphins fans must still be wondering how exactly he wound up as their coach). Now he's at his own alma mater, Pitt, trying to lead a resurgence.

All of which brings us back to Nick Saban, who is not sitting there in his office, not drumming his fingers, not rocking in the corner consumed by doubt. It was a big step to leave LSU -- but one whose only real risk is to the ego. Should he succeed, he'll have himself a career in the NFL. Should he fail, he'll have his pick of college jobs whenever he wants to go back. And if I know Nick Saban, I know what's in store for him!

* I love that the South Carolina athletics department stakes as big a claim to the word "Carolina" as the university in Chapel Hill. For that matter, I also love that the University of South Carolina has no problems referring to itself as "USC."

No comments: