Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Spurrier vs. Saban: The back-to-school boys

One's a rube and a boob. The other's a scum and a bum.

Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban. Both won major college football's hypothetical national championship, and both were the hottest thing on campus since Pauly Shore (don't act like you don't remember). Both were heavily courted by NFL teams. Both received Oprah-league money to bolt for the pros. And both went scampering back to the college game, their shorts torn and streaked with brown, after two middling-to-dismal seasons on the Sunday sidelines.

Spurrier and Saban arrived in Washington and Miami, respectively, with big aspirations and big talk but tiny little game plans. They were given the keys to beloved franchises, got them up to about 35 mph and then drove them straight off a high, proud cliff, the horn blaring all the way down. It wasn't pretty in either city, but which man did the most damage to his team? Which coach did the most to cripple the organization, humiliate the owner and alienate the fans? We've had three years to evaluate the aftermath of the Spurrier Experiment but just days to gauge the Saban fallout. No matter. At Down and Distance, we make our snap judgments at Internet speed. Let's review:

    Spurrier had famously "won everywhere he'd coached," first with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, then with, of all teams, Duke, whom he led to the ACC title in 1989. (The ACC of the '80s, however, didn't have Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech or Boston College. It was a basketball conference first, second and third. And maybe a soccer conference fourth. Winning the ACC football championship back then was like winning the Big Ten swimming title: Hey, good for you, but no one besides the student newspaper and your grandma is going to notice.) From Duke, Spurrier moved on to his alma mater, Florida, where he rebuilt a scandal-tarred program and won five SEC titles, plus the 1996 national championship.
    Saban's propensity for job-hopping gave him the opportunity to enjoy success in all sorts of places -- though that success was frequently of the "shared" variety. And as my great-uncle, The Colonel, used to tell me during calisthenics every day at dawn, shared success is individual failure. Saban was the coach at Toledo when it shared the MAC title in 1990. He was on Bill Belichick's staff in Cleveland in the mid-'90s. Saban then went to Michigan state for five years. The first four years, his teams finished 6-5-1, 6-6, 7-5 and 6-6. In the fifth year, he went 9-2 and immediately bolted for a better job before the Spartans had even played their bowl game. That job was at LSU, where he won two SEC titles and a share of the 2003 national championship (Southern Cal won the AP title). After five years at LSU, that was enough of that, thankyouverymuch, and he once again jumped ship before his team had even played its bowl game.
    •Who did the most damage? The sins a coach commits in his previous life usually have very little practical effect on his next job. Spurrier's relentless baiting of Tennessee while at Florida, for example, didn't affect how he coached with the Redskins. But Saban's sketchy work history opened the Dolphins up to the what-the-hell-did-you-expect variety of ridicule that rained down on them when he packed up for Alabama. So the answer is Saban

    Spurrier climbed aboard a Redskins franchise that had been lying in its own filth for a decade. Operating under the influence of Norv Turner, Washington had made the playoffs just once in the 10 seasons since winning Super Bowl XXVI. In a desperate attempt to demonstrate to everyone in Washington that he really could keep from meddling with the football operation, owner Dan Snyder coaxed Marty Schottenheimer out of retirement and gave him total control of the team, including personnel matters. Schottenheimer, however, soon found that the roster was loaded with uncuttable, overpaid and over-the-hill free agents unimpressed with his old-school, medicine-balls-and-blocking-sleds style (Deion Sanders retired rather than play for him). The 2001 season started with a training-camp revolt over Marty's beloved Oklahoma Drill, and the Redskins lost their first five games. The players finally rolled over and asked Schottenheimer nicely to knock it off with the windsprints and the jumping jacks and the hey-hey-hey, and he dialed it back, and the team finished 8-3 and appeared ready to go on to great things in 2002. Then Snyder heard that Spurrier was looking for an NFL job, and he gladly ate the last four years and $20 million on Marty's contract. Schottenheimer moved on to San Diego, where he coached the Chargers to a 14-2 record this year. Oh sure, Marty has had a lot of trouble in the playoffs over the years, but do you know how we know that? Because his teams make the playoffs.
    Saban joined the Dolphins as they were coming off a 4-12 season, their worst since Don Shula took over as coach in 1970 -- and only the fourth losing season in that stretch. Miami had been looking for the right coach ever since Shula retired after the 1995 season. First, owner Wayne Huizenga lured Jimmy Johnson back to Miami, where he'd had so much success as a college coach with the Hurricanes before going on the build a Super Bowl winner in Dallas. Palpably unhappy working in Shula's shadow, Johnson spat out three progressively better but still mediocre seasons -- 8-8, 9-7, 10-6 -- before trying to quit in 1999. Huizenga persuaded him to stay and encouraged him to bring aboard his old assistant and buddy Dave Wannstedt, who had just been canned by the Bears after six crummy seasons in Chicago. With Wannstedt as his "assistant head coach," a newly re-energized Johnson ... went 9-7 and quit anyway. Wannstedt, who had been hired as a courtesy to Johnson, not for his head coaching acumen, woke up one day and found himself the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Wannstedt enjoyed a couple nifty 11-5 seasons with the team Johnson had put together, but the thing eventually started to come apart. In 2004, the Dolphins started 1-8, and Wannstedt's head had to roll. Interim coach Jim Bates finished the year a decent 3-4 but didn't get a sniff at the top job because Huizenga was in Baton Rouge throwing pebbles at Saban's bedroom window in the middle of the night.
    •Who did the most damage? The Redskins had been spinning their wheels for years and had finally gotten some traction under Schottenheimer. The Dolphins had enjoyed decades of success but had suddenly plunged into the abyss. Despite all the damage Spurrier did, the Redskins were back in the playoffs within two years of his departure. There's nothing that says the Dolphins won't recover just as quickly. But there's nothing right now that says they can, either. Saban

    Spurrier pretended that everybody in the press loved him -- and they responded by loving him for real. When pressed for details about how he was going to beat, say, the Eagles (or "the Green Team," as he memorably called them after one loss), he'd hem and haw and wink and grin and bake up some half-assed cornpone about coaching 'em up and running 'em out there. Fans and reporters, thankful that Schottenheimer wasn't behind the mike threatening to send them to bed without supper any more, ate it up for a good long while. When it eventually came time for Spurrier to go, the media gave him a rhetorical parachute and concluded, "As swell as he was, the old ball coach just didn't have what it takes for the NFL." A lot of coaches on their way out get far worse.
    Saban acted as if everybody in the press hated him -- and he hated them right back. When pressed for inconsequential details like "Who's going to be your quarterback this Sunday?" or "So what's with your agent trying to find you another job?", Saban would roll his eyes and sigh in exasperation and all but demand to know what dipshit gave Rain Man over there a press pass. Saban didn't even bother to mask his contempt for just about everyone except, funny enough, Ricky Williams. Nick Saban likes no one. You? No, Nick Saban doesn't like you, either.
    • Who did the most damage? Saban

    Spurrier inherited a team without a starting quarterback. In 2001, Redskins fans had been treated to the preposterous spectacle of Jeff George trying to run Marty Schottenheimer's offense, an experiment that was abandoned after just two weeks when George was waived, ending his career. The Skins then rode out the season on the weary legs of Tony Banks. That in itself was reason for optimism, as the two previous teams to replace Banks as their starting quarterback had gone on to win the Super Bowl: the Rams (with Trent Green and, ultimately, Kurt Warner) in 1999, and the Ravens (with Trent Dilfer) in 2000. The Redskins didn't have a quarterback named Trent, but they did have one named Sage -- Iowa State alumnus Sage Rosenfels, the QB on Mrs. Down and Distance's dream team, who had been Marty's rather surprising fourth-round pick in his one draft with the team. (Schottenheimer clearly made the pick with an eye toward the future. You just don't do that on Planet Snyder.) Spurrier, of course, cut Rosenfels' ass with a quickness, earning Mrs. Down and Distance's eternal enmity, and brought in two guys who had done wonders in his Fun 'n' Gun system at Florida but next to nothing of consequence in the NFL: Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews. The thinking was that since the "Florida guys" already knew the Fun 'n' Gun, they could hit the ground running. They hit the ground, all right. Hard. Just for kicks, the Redskins went ahead and drafted Patrick Ramsey in the first round(!) in 2002, but Ramsey would get about as fair a shake under Spurrier as he would later get under Joe Gibbs. By 2003, Wuerffel and Matthews were both gone, and the Redskins fielded an ugly two-and-one-quarter-headed monster of Ramsey, Tim Hasselbeck and future NFL Europe legend Gibran Hamdan. Midway through the '03 season, with everything falling down around him, Spurrier tried to lure Wuerffel back to D.C., but Danny, wisely, said no thanks. Everyone except Spurrier, it seems, had given up on Danny Wuerffel -- including Danny Wuerffel.
    Saban also inherited a team without a marquee quarterback. The Dolphins had A.J. Feeley, who had looked good in five games with the Eagles in 2002 and lousy everywhere else ever since, and they had Sage Rosenfels. Rather than give Sage a legitimate shot, Saban went out and got Gus Frerotte, who had been around forever, played for half the teams in the league, even made the Pro Bowl once, but still is remembered mostly for head-butting a concrete wall and injuring his neck in 1997. Frerotte handled the bulk of the QB duties in 2005 but didn't exactly set the league on fire, so in the offseason the Dolphins went shopping for a new guy to call signals. There were three guys available with considerable experience as an NFL starter: Drew Brees, Daunte Culpepper and Joey Harrington. Hedging his bets, Saban signed not one but two of the three. The odd man out, Brees, guided the Saints to the playoffs and will start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl. Culpepper's knee turned out to be too damaged for him to play effectively, and Harrington's psyche was so damaged it's surprising he could play at all. To make room for these two retreads on the roster, Saban cut whom? Sage Rosenfels. Mrs. Down and Distance doesn't even know who Nick Saban is, but rest assured, she despises him by proxy. Gary Kubiak, if you know what's good for you, you'll give Sage the ball in '07.
    •Who did the most damage? In fairness to Saban, there were plenty of people who thought taking Culpepper over Brees was the smart choice. With another year to rehab the knee, Culpepper may still come back strong in 2007. Spurrier's QB decisions, however, were ridiculous. Wuerffel and Matthews were washed up before they ever saw Washington. (Also: To get Wuerffel, a quarterback no one wanted, the Redskins had to work out a trade with Houston. That's because the Texans claimed him from the Bears in the 2002 expansion draft specifically because they knew Spurrier would want him.) Ramsey, meanwhile, is one of the great, unrecognized wasted draft picks of the 21st century. Why take a QB in the first round if you have no intention of playing him? Verdict: Spurrier

    Spurrier kicked off his tenure in Washington with a rootin' tootin' executin' 31-23 victory that had the Fun 'n' Gun on full display. Matthews was 28-of-40 for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns of 17, 26 and 43 yards. Stephen Davis ran for 104 yards. All D.C. was in thrall, hailing the brilliance of Spurrier's hiring. Week 1 of the 2002 season was such a feel-good time in the lives of the Redskins faithful, in fact, that few had the heart to dwell on the fact that the opponent had been the decrepit Arizona Cardinals. Only twice in the next 31 games would the Redskins score as many points as they did that week. The team -- and the city -- came crashing back to earth over the next two weeks with a 37-7 undressing at the hands of the Green Team and a 20-10 loss to the 49ers, who were enjoying their last good season before descending into madness. The Skins rose from the ashes in Week 4 to beat Tennessee 31-14. From there, the roller coaster was off and running: two more wins, two losses, one win and three losses before closing out the season with wins over Houston, an expansion team, and Dallas, which desperately needed a loss to wrap up its third straight 5-11 season under Dave Campo, the coach who famously demonstrated to Jerry Jones that, no, just anyone can't coach this team. The season-ending win, their first over the Cowboys since 1997, gave the Redskins a respectable 7-9 record and had visions of the Super Bowl dancing in the heads of folks from Richmond to Hagerstown. As the team looked forward to 2003, it was decided that the problem wasn't Spurrier's high-powered offense, which was producing a whopping 19 points per game, but the defense, which was allowing 23. So Snyder did what Snyder does and waved seven figures at Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who gladly took the money to move down I-95 for a year while he sent out resumes. 2003 started even more auspiciously with wins over the Jets and Falcons, two playoff teams from the year before (both would turn out to be awful in '03, though). After a close loss to the Giants, the Redskins turned in their finest game of the Spurrier era: a 20-17 victory over the Patriots. It was the last game New England would lose for more than a year. It was the last game Washington would win for more than a month. After starting 3-1, the Redskins finished 2-10. There were a lot of close losses (27-25, 24-23, 24-20, 20-17 and 27-24 to the Saints, whose workaholic coach Spurrier had famously ridiculed) and a few not-so-close losses (35-13, 24-7), and as they piled up, Spurrier looked more and more distracted on the sidelines. In the final weeks, as they were getting blown out 27-0 by Dallas and 31-7 to Philadelphia, he appeared disconnected entirely. When the damage was totaled up, Spurrier's offense had dropped to 18 points per game, and the defense hadn't made any progress. Nobody held that against Lewis -- who can succeed with the Redskins, after all? -- and Marvin was soon gone to Cincinnati. Spurrier? He went golfing.
    Saban also began his NFL tenure with a win, a considerably more impressive 34-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos, who would go on to finish 13-3 and reach the AFC title game. A 17-7 loss in Week 2 to the Jets, who were still one game away from losing Chad Pennington, was followed by another impressive win, 27-24 over perennial preseason darling Carolina. The Dolphins at that point were 2-1, already halfway to their win total from 2004. Everything was looking up! Then they started losing. To Buffalo, to Tampa Bay, to K.C., to Atlanta. Miami lost six of its next seven, hitting bottom with a 22-0 loss to a Cleveland team on the verge of benching its starting QB. Everything was looking bleak! Then they started winning. Miami reeled off six straight victories to end the season, making the Dolphins a fashionable pick to end New England's AFC East dominance in 2006 -- and maybe even reach the Super Bowl. But look at who they beat in those six games: Oakland, who would finish 4-12; Buffalo (5-11); San Diego (9-7, but falling apart in the homestretch); the Jets (3-13); Tennessee (4-12); and a New England team, gunning for the No. 6 playoff seed, that started its third-string QB and sent Doug Flutie out to kick an extra point. Facts be damned, all anyone saw was a six-game winning streak and a 9-7 record. That, coupled with the addition of Culpepper and his 1.3 functioning knees, had South Florida high on more than just the usual cocaine when the Dolphins appeared in the '06 season opener against the Steelers. Sure, they lost, but come on, it was the defending Super Bowl champions, in Pittsburgh. A loss like that is forgivable. A loss like they suffered the following week, 16-6 to the motley Bills, was not. Nor were the four straight losses they suffered, starting with a 17-15 embarrassment at the hands of the Texans in Week 4. Seven games into the season, the Dolphins were 1-6, that one win a 13-10 squeaker over the Kerry Collins-led Titans. Saban had given up on Culpepper by this point and put the offense in the hands of Harrington and running back Ronnie Brown. Brown's breakout game -- and the signature victory of the Saban-era Dolphins -- came against previously unbeaten Chicago in Week 9. Brown ran for 157 yards on 29 carries, Harrington threw three TDs, and the defense picked off Rex Grossman three times as the Dolphins stunned the Bears, 31-13. Beginning with the Bears game, Miami won five of six to climb back into playoff contention. But the final game of that stretch, a convincing 21-0 thumping of the Patriots, was followed a week later by a 21-0 thumping at the hands of the Bills. Needing to win their final three to have a shot at the postseason, the Dolphins lost all three to end up 6-10, and the city of Miami turned its attention to 2007: Who would be the new coach? Saban had spent weeks denying that he was headed elsewhere, but by Week 17, everyone knew he was lying.
    •Who did the most damage? The entire modern history of the Redskins has been one mediocre/bad season after another. From Gibbs' departure in 1993 until his return in 2004, the Skins were 4-12, 3-13, 6-10, 9-7, 8-7-1, 6-10, 10-6, 8-8, 8-8, 7-9 and 5-11. Spurrier was just keeping with tradition. The Dolphins, however, hadn't had a losing season in 16 years before 2004. Saban got them another one in just two years! Saban

    Spurrier's fading interest in his grand NFL misadventure was evident long before the sand ran out on the 2003 season. Everyone in town knew he was going to be gone, and though there was considerable affection for the old fool, no one was particularly upset about his imminent departure. The only questions were: A) Would he quit, or would Snyder fire him? B) Would he return to the University of Florida, whose program his successor, Ron Zook, was plowing into the ground? C) After putting all his eggs in Spurrier's basket, what the fuck was Snyder going to do now? Three days after the season ended, we had the answer to A: The team announced that Spurrier had resigned. However, when The Washington Post called him on his cellphone out on the golf course, Spurrier, delightfully, denied knowin' anything 'bout no resignation. "We had a little miscommunication there," he told AP. Just one?
    Saban, of course, pulled the ripcord almost as soon as the final whistle sounded on the 2006 season, bolting to Alabama for upwards of $30 million. Less than a week before abandoning ship, he told reporters, "I'm not going be the Alabama coach." That was a lie, but so what? Coaches lie all the time. Especially college coaches, when they're telling somebody's son that he'll get a good education or a starting slot or whatever. The lying isn't so much the problem. This is the problem: "I'm not talking about any of that stuff," Saban huffed when reporters followed up on the news. "And I'd appreciate the courtesy of not being asked." In other words, Saban was chastising the media for being so rude as to catch him in his manly web of lies. Fuck you, Nick Saban. Later, it came out that Saban's agent had been soliciting interest from colleges in the middle of the 2006 season, indicating Saban had every intention of splitting. Fuck you twice, Nick Saban.
    •Who did the most damage? Like you have to ask. Saban

    Spurrier took a year off from coaching and remained in the Washington area while his son finished high school in Northern Virginia. The fact that he didn't jump immediately to another job helped soften local opinion toward him: He hadn't walked out on the Redskins; their parting was by mutual consent. Spurrier's name came up at Florida when the Gators finally made Captain Zook walk the plank, but he soon asked that his name be taken out of consideration after UF's athletic director (allegedly) asked him to send a resume. (His response: Look in your trophy case.) The Florida job went to Urban Meyer, who seems to be doing all right with it. Spurrier eventually took the head coaching job at South Carolina. After nearly drowning in Washington, it's got to be a hell of a relief to be a big fish in a relatively small pond again. As for the Redskins, the day after Spurrier resigned, Snyder's plane was at the airport in Charlotte, and within a week Washington's insane little owner was pulling what absolutely has to be the last fucking rabbit out of his hat: Joe Gibbs was returning to the Redskins. Steve who?
    Saban left the Dolphins for Alabama. Could things possibly get worse for Miami? Yeah, they could get Alabama's crappy coach in return. Mike Shula, son of Dolphins legend Don Shula and the coach Saban is replacing with the Crimson Tide, has reportedly interviewed for the job. Mike Shula went 26-23 in four years at Alabama, raising the question: How did he get to hang around for four years with a record like that? What other winners are they going to interview, David Shula?
    •Who did the most damage? Three years later, Redskins fans can barely remember that anybody besides Gibbs coached the team between 1993 and 2004. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are stuck with an abandoned rebuilding project, their owner has been publicly humiliated, and Miami sports fans who gave Saban the benefit of the doubt for two years woke up to find they had been both lied and condescended to. Unless Huizenga can somehow pry Don Shula's skinny ass out of the steakhouse, this debacle will long linger in the Miami mind. Is there really any question? Saban

Saban 6, Spurrier 1

BE SURE TO CHECK BACK WITH US in January 2009, when we look back on Bobby Petrino's disastrous two-year tenure with the Falcons.

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