clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Arizona State and Texas A&M fired winning coaches. That backfires all the time.

You usually can’t just fire your way out of Glen Mason Territory.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For a long time in my offseason preview series, I have talked about Glen Mason Territory and what it does to a program. I should probably explain what it is.

In 1997, Minnesota hired Mason to replicate a salvage job he had just pulled at Kansas. The former Ohio State offensive coordinator arrived the year before Bill Snyder at Kansas State and had a job nearly as tough.

Mason never quite pulled off a top-10 finish at Minnesota, but he did what he was asked to do. The Golden Gophers had been to three bowls, with zero ranked finishes, in the 35 years before his arrival. The Big Ten was producing redemption stories left and right — Wisconsin in 1993, Northwestern in 1995, and soon, Purdue in 2000 — and Minnesota was getting left behind.

After winning eight combined games in his first two years, Mason won eight in 1999, pulling a program-defining upset of No. 2 Penn State and reaching 12th in the country before a bowl loss.

The Gophers would bowl again in 2000 and 2002, then surge in 2003. Behind the punishing combination of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney, they beat Penn State and Wisconsin on the way to a 9-3 regular season, then Oregon in a Sun Bowl thriller to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1905.

The problem: he never won 10 again. The Gophers started 2004 5-0 and reached 13th before losing five of six down the stretch and needing a bowl win to salvage 7-5. They went 7-5 again in 2005 and were on the doorstep of a third straight seven-win season in 2006 before blowing an enormous Insight Bowl lead to Texas Tech.

A year after a contract extension, Minnesota used the bowl collapse as impetus for panic. Despite seven bowls in eight years — for a program that had been almost absent from college football's consciousness for nearly four decades — the school pushed Mason out.

The program had grown stale, you see, and needed young energy. “I believe the program needs a new vision to reignite fan enthusiasm,” said athletic director Joel Maturi.

So he brought in Tim Brewster, a charismatic NFL position coach and Illinois alum. Brewster was the anti-Mason. He would recruit. He would give the program a shot in the arm. He would prove the Gophers should expect more than bowl bids. He would go 15-30.

Glen Mason Territory comes when your head coach raises the bar but fails to keep raising the bar.

You know it is coming when you see fans, beat writers, or athletic directors use words like "stale" or "raise the bar" or “aspiration” or “potential” or “sleeping giant.” The AD, when addressing the firing with the media, might say something like "We want to be in major bowl games on a consistent basis."

Arizona State and Texas A&M their fired coaches on Sunday after 7-5 seasons.

For A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, the firing might have almost felt freeing. He’s been on or near the hot seat pretty much non-stop since 2015, a victim of his initial success. After going 11-2 and engineering the Aggies’ first top-five finish since 1956 with Johnny Manziel, Sumlin couldn’t take the next step. (That’s a tricky thing to do, since there was only about one step above that one.) He went 8-5 each year from 2014-16 and was on the doorstep of the same this fall.

Mind you, that’s damn good. In a division in which the last-place coach was regularly guaranteed to make $4 million-plus, A&M never finished all that close to last place.

Bret Bielema, engineer of three Rose Bowl bids at Wisconsin, went 4-8 this year at Arkansas. Dan Mullen just upgraded to the Florida job after going 14-11 the last two years at Mississippi State. Sumlin was canned after 15-10 over the same span.

Sumlin’s limitations were established. It even shows up in the most virulent defense I can muster for him.

He went 7-5 with an ultra-young team this year. But he almost always had an ultra-young team.

Texas A&M v LSU
Kevin Sumlin
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

A&M fielded two freshman quarterbacks, a sophomore running back, a receiving corps with seven freshmen among the top eight WRs, an injury-plagued offensive line (10 different guys started at least once, and freshmen and sophomores accounted for 26 of 60 starts), and a defense with nine freshmen and sophomores among the 15 leading tacklers. That the Aggies won at Florida and Ole Miss and overcame a devastating early loss to UCLA to win seven games with that is a bit of an accomplishment.

Sumlin would sign top-15 classes, play a bunch of young studs early, then lose a lot of them before they could mature. That was especially true at quarterback, where either a freshman or a sophomore took the majority of snaps in all but one of his years (and the one upperclassman, Trevor Knight in 2016, was a graduate transfer).

Hiring a new coach is a terrifying crap shoot, and I always say that you shouldn’t do it unless you know you can’t fulfill realistic goals with the guy you’ve got.

I don’t think you could say that with certainty about Sumlin and A&M. But you also couldn’t guarantee a surge. A&M hadn’t been able to top 24th in S&P+ since Manziel left. And when you spend money like A&M does — and oh, ho, ho, is A&M willing to spend money — one can understand a lack of patience, even if I remain someone who always stresses patience.

Arizona State, though?

Since peaking under Bruce Snyder in the mid-1990s — the Sun Devils went 11-1 in 1996 and damn near won the national title, then went 9-3 the next year as well — ASU has proved capable of brief, high ceilings.

Snyder won just 17 games from 1998-2000 and was replaced by Dirk Koetter, who helped to build the Boise State machine and went 9-3 in 2004 but otherwise averaged 6.2 wins per year. He was let go after back-to-back seven-win seasons and replaced by Dennis Erickson, who stormed out with an 8-0 start, then 23-31 from then on.

Todd Graham came to Tempe in 2012 and immediately established a higher level. ASU improved from 6-7 to 8-5 in his first year, 10-4 and won the Pac-12 South in 2013, and won 10 games again in 2014, finishing 12th in the AP poll (their highest finish since 1996).

With success came turnover. Graham has long been one of the best hirers in the game — he hired Auburn's Gus Malzahn and SMU's Chad Morris at Tulsa, and longtime protege Mike Norvell is 18-6 in two years at Memphis. After losing Norvell, he lost his next offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey, to Malzahn.

Arizona v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

He had to replace difference-makers on the field and on the sideline and went 11-14 in 2015-16. After a 2-3 start in 2017, Graham's Sun Devils won five of their last seven, knocking off No. 5 Washington in October and finishing with a 12-point win over rival Arizona.

They went 7-5 with an exciting, underclassman quarterback and a young receiving corps. That's the kind of run that saves your job. Only, ASU fired Graham.

ASU athletic director Ray Anderson gave one hell of a performance in his post-Graham press conference on Sunday. He announced:

  • He wasn't okay with minor bowl bids.
  • ASU didn't have "competitive consistency" (even though ASU hasn't had "competitive consistency" since the Frank Kush years in the 1970s).
  • He wasn't happy that ASU had only one draft pick in 2017.
  • He wants Graham's replacement to consider keeping both of Graham's coordinators, Billy Napier and Phil Bennett, noting that star QB Manny Wilkins "does not need a fourth coordinator in four years."
  • Those who think he's setting the bar too high are "misguided, they are living in the past."

Basically, he wants to keep all of the good Graham things but change all of the bad Graham things.

Maybe Anderson has someone in mind. Per one early rumor, it might even be Sumlin. Napier’s offensive vision isn’t that far from his, and if Sumlin can upgrade recruiting, maybe he’s the man to take advantage of a Pac-12 South in transition. He’s a good coach.

Or maybe he’ll win eight games a year, and Anderson will tire of that just like A&M did.

Georgia fired Mark Richt despite 50 wins in his last five seasons in charge. After a one-year reset, Kirby Smart has the Dawgs 11-1 and a game away from a likely College Football Playoff bid. We have no idea about Smart's program maintenance abilities, but safe to say, the Dawgs have gotten what they hoped for early on.

They're also Georgia, a heavyweight in a state loaded with blue-chippers.

For schools with lesser advantages, impatience almost never pays off.

  • On the heels of 11- and nine-win seasons, Boston College pushed Jeff Jagodzinski out because he deigned to interview for other jobs. They were 2-10 four years later and haven’t reached nine wins since.
  • Ron Zook took Illinois to nine wins and a Rose Bowl in 2007, and after a two-year reset, got them back to 7-6 in both 2010 and 2011. He was fired. Illinois has averaged 3.7 wins per year since.
  • Dan McCarney won at least seven games five times in a six-year span at Iowa State but was let go after a 4-8 downturn in 2006. ISU has not topped seven wins since, though that could change with an upcoming bowl game.
  • Ralph Friedgen took Maryland to seven bowls in 10 years, and after a two-win collapse in 2009, rebounded to nine wins in 2010. Maryland has averaged 4.7 wins per year since firing him.
  • NC State pushed Tom O'Brien out in 2012 after 24 wins in three years. Their best three-year win total since: 22.
  • David Cutcliffe won seven or more games for five straight years at Ole Miss, peaking with a 10-win campaign in 2003. But after a 4-7 reset in 2004, he was fired. The Rebels would top four wins twice in the next seven years.
  • Pitt pushed Dave Wannstedt out after after 26 wins in three years. The Panthers have averaged 6.6 wins since.
  • Despite seven ranked finishes in 11 years, Syracuse fired Paul Pasqualoni after he hit a dry spell. He went 4-8 in 2002 then rebounded to only 6-6 in 2003-04. Syracuse went 10-37 under replacement Greg Robinson and has averaged 4.4 wins since Pasqualoni.
  • Phil Fulmer took Tennessee to 15 bowls and five SEC championship games in 16 years. He won the national title in 1998 and won at least eight games 14 times. He fell to 5-6 in 2005 but rebounded back to 10 wins in 2007. After a second five-win reset in 2008, he was fired. The Vols have hit the eight-win mark twice in the nine years since.

When you find yourself stuck with a coach who is good but not good enough, the problem often isn’t him.

It’s infrastructure. It’s history. It’s program support. It’s something other than the head coach. But the head coach is the easiest thing to change, so schools follow the same fruitless road over and over and over again.

Maybe Arizona State and/or Texas A&M turn out to be the exceptions. But you can almost never fire your way out of Glen Mason Territory, no matter how good it feels to try.