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Crisis or catharsis — coaches confront career-crafting clashes

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Coaches live for conference championship games, rivalry games, and Rose Bowls. They live for the kinds of moments they witnessed on television — or as players, or as coaches’ sons — decades ago.

For some, such as Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops (to name a few), the journey up the coaching ladder never encountered a close brush with the hot seat. The path to greatness wasn’t free of problems, but it was marked by a steady ascendance.

For most coaches, the attempt to acquire something great — to coach in a game of supreme substance — first requires the ability to survive the hot seat, to escape the flames of anger from fan bases or boosters (or both) who run out of patience and support.

That moment arrives in Week 4 for a number of college football coaches.

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The games which confront several coaches in perilous positions might not be “insta-fire” games, in which losses mean automatic dismissals (read: zero chance of lasting into 2017 with a job fully intact). All games, however, mark the kinds of moments which — if not successfully conquered — will be nearly impossible for fans to forget. Losses on Saturday will likely become albatrosses that will be difficult for each coach to remove in October or November.

Winning — for these coaches — is a career-preserving necessity in Week 4.

No one fits the description more than Butch Jones of Tennessee.

The problem with the continuation of the Vols’ very long losing streak against Florida is not that the Gators have been the better team in most years; it’s that when Tennessee arrives at a favorable situation, it does something dumb to let a game slip away. This has happened twice under Jones, more precisely in each of the last two seasons.

Last year’s game in Gainesville wasn’t infuriating solely because the Vols blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead; Jones made very poor game-management decisions which contributed to the calamitous flow of events. Fans don’t like it when their players aren’t as good as the opponent’s players, but they can accept situations in which superior talent wins out. They can’t (and shouldn’t) tolerate poor coaching which turns neutral or slightly advantageous situations into the opponent’s win column. That — more than the Florida losing streak itself — is why Jones has to beat the Gators on Saturday.

He’s not gone if he loses the game; Tennessee could still win the SEC East and save its season. However, imagine the weight on Jones’s back if he has to go Between The Hedges to Athens in a must-win situation.

Jones doesn’t stand on the precipice now, but a loss to Florida would put him there and remove any margin for error. This is definitely a survival game for Jones’s career — not a hot seat game, but a portal to the chamber of flames if he falls short.

October 15, 2015: UCLA Bruins head coach Jim Mora watches during the game between the Stanford Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California, USA. Stanford won, 56-35, affirming its dominance of the Bruins. Mora is among the coaches whose careers face pivotal moments this weekend. (Photo by John Hefti/Icon Sportswire)

October 15, 2015: UCLA Bruins head coach Jim Mora watches during the game between the Stanford Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California, USA. Stanford won, 56-35, affirming its dominance of the Bruins. Mora is among the coaches whose careers face pivotal moments this weekend. (Photo by John Hefti/Icon Sportswire)

The most underachieving Power Five program in college football is UCLA — you could look it up. (You could also argue, but you’d have to make a very strong, very complete case to topple the Bruins.)

No program has stood in the way of UCLA more than Stanford has. No one could have anticipated such a reality near the end of the Pete Carroll era, but it’s true: Despite USC’s lack of sustained success, UCLA hasn’t been able to take advantage, a searing indictment of the Bruins this decade.

The Cardinal defeated UCLA in one Pac-12 Championship Game (2012) and knocked the Bruins out of another (2014). UCLA head coach Jim Mora, Jr. is 0-5 against David Shaw. He has been outcoached to a substantial degree whenever he faces the Trees. He gets lost in the forest. The Pac-12 title game loss was painful, but UCLA fought well. The 2014 game, played on UCLA’s home field, represents the worst experience of Mora’s career against Stanford.

The 2014 campaign marked the one year in Shaw’s tenure that didn’t proceed according to plan, the one year which didn’t create a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl appearance for the Cardinal.

That Stanford team — a relatively mediocre one — still blasted UCLA out of Pasadena. The Bruins, with a chance to win the Pac-12 South; face Oregon for the league title; and possibly remain on the periphery of the College Football Playoff debate, were flat as a tortilla in the second half.

Stanford has given UCLA and Mora their worst moments, but that’s being too charitable to the Bruins. They’ve been at their worst against Stanford; the Cardinal fully expose all of UCLA’s deficiencies, all the ways in which the Bruins fall short.

Mora might coach three, four, five more seasons in Westwood, but if he can’t beat Stanford this year, at home, when the Cardinal are in a transitional period (at least at quarterback), when will he do it? It’s a lot like the Butch Jones situation at Tennessee, relative to Florida.

19 September 2015:  Auburn Tigers at LSU Tigers; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) during a game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Coaches Gus Malzahn and Les Miles have to win Saturday's renewal of this SEC West Tiger tussle. -- Icon Sportswire

19 September 2015: Auburn Tigers at LSU Tigers; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) during a game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Coaches Gus Malzahn and Les Miles have to win Saturday’s renewal of this SEC West Tiger tussle. — Icon Sportswire

The final stop on this tour requires little explanation.

Can Les Miles coach in Baton Rouge in 2017 if he loses to Auburn this Saturday? Only if he then beats Bama and pulls out the SEC West, against all odds.

Can Gus Malzahn coach at Auburn in 2017 if he fails to beat LSU, Alabama or Ole Miss?

Given that Auburn plays Bama and Ole Miss on the road, this is Malzahn’s best chance — by far — to notch a signature win and somehow keep his job on the Plains.

Miles has survived for a long time in his profession. Malzahn has enjoyed two mountaintop moments — one as an offensive coordinator — but failure at Auburn would be a crushing blow for his career as a head coach.

Moment of Truth Saturday is here for a number of college football head coaches.

The profession is a cruel beast, but the cruelty is precisely why the joys mean so much.

If Butch Jones, Jim Mora, and the Miles-Malzahn winner get through Saturday, they might be able to surprise the nation by the time the 2016 season ends.

Crisis or catharsis — coaches confront career-crafting clashes

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