Consider all the college football coaches who registered meaningful achievements, carved out substantive careers, and then lost steam because they refused to fire coordinators or other important assistants.
It’s a long list. Take just a few recent examples.
Frank Beamer was loyal to a fault at Virginia Tech. Mark Richt kept Mike Bobo for a long time at Georgia, before Bobo left for a head coaching gig. Charlie Strong should have aimed for a top-tier offensive coordinator when he moved from Louisville to Texas, but he kept Shawn Watson and paid a significant price. He hopes Sterlin Gilbert will rescue him this season and — should he get a fourth — in 2017.
On the other side of the coin, consider coaches who struggled and — instead of maintaining their staffs — found the willingness to whack a coordinator in the pursuit of improvement.
At the University of Oklahoma, Bob Stoops got rid of Josh Heupel and hired Lincoln Riley.
At the University of North Carolina, Larry Fedora junked his previous co-coordinators on defense and hired Gene Chizik.
Oklahoma made the College Football Playoff, revitalizing Stoops’ luminous career. Fedora gained the breakthrough he sorely needed in Chapel Hill. Their decisions might not have been easy ones, but they were necessary, and they wielded enormous transformative power.
This brings us to our story and the San Joaquin Valley, located in the inland portion of central California.
Fresno will always be a college sports town. Jerry Tarkanian made the NCAA Tournament there. The city’s college football team, the Fresno State Bulldogs, thumped USC in the Freedom Bowl decades ago and — in 2005 — played the very same Trojans in one of the most memorable games of the 21st century.
Fresno aches for a taste of college sports glory at the highest levels of competition. When Tim DeRuyter came from Texas A&M to be the Bulldogs’ new head football coach, he gave the locals something to shout about.
In his first two seasons on the job — yes, he inherited Derek Carr and Davante Adams, but he still made good use of them — DeRuyter won 20 games, a share of one Mountain West title, and an outright conference championship. His 2013 team entered its last regularly-scheduled game with a perfect record. Fresno State came agonizingly close to a BCS bowl berth.
Then Carr left.
The dynamic passing game which carried the Bulldogs in DeRuyter’s first two seasons collapsed. Fresno State actually won the Mountain West’s West Division in 2014, but only because every opponent was worse, not because the Bulldogs attained a higher standard. At 6-6, Fresno State attained bowl eligibility, but due to the need to play the Mountain West Championship Game (which the Bulldogs lost to Boise State), DeRuyter’s group fell to 6-7. When it then lost its bowl game, Fresno finished 2014 at 6-8.
Last year, the bottom fell out.
The Bulldogs finished 3-9, as you’d expect of a team which finished last in the Mountain West in scoring defense; next to last in rushing defense; and last in third-down defense (conversion percentage allowed).
The offense had to be special to overcome the defense; instead, it was below-average: 22.3 points per game, 10th in the 12-team Mountain West; 31 percent of fourth downs converted, next to last in the league; and 69.7 percent of red zone trips converted into scores, next to last in the league and one of the seven worst teams in the FBS. Only seven teams converted fewer than 70 percent of their red-zone trips into points; Fresno State was one of them.
The Bulldogs were a team in disarray, on both sides of the ball. DeRuyter had to face the fact that neither coordinator — Dave Schramm on offense or Nick Toth on defense — was getting the job done. DeRuyter also had to realize that while he did a superb job with inherited talent, his own recruits were not delivering the goods. That’s an inescapable conclusion for a coach who excels in his first two seasons and plummets in his third and fourth campaigns.
DeRuyter arrived at the intersection of loyalty and progress. Choosing one would cut against the other.
Bob Stoops and Larry Fedora were willing to change their staffs.
DeRuyter followed their example.
Eric Kiesau (offense) and Lorenzo Ward (defense) give DeRuyter two new coordinators in 2016. Several further additions and reshufflings have created a dramatically different staff.
Crises can be responded to with stubbornness or change. Leaders can cling to what has worked in the past or embrace what needs to be done for the future.
There are no guarantees DeRuyter’s decisions will bear fruit, but at least he has made a good-faith attempt to address conspicuous and widespread problems.
If Fresno State produces a winning season this year, Bob Stoops and Larry Fedora will nod and smile, knowing Tim DeRuyter did what he had to do, when he had to do it.
Change is scary, but a miserable stasis is worse. Fresno State, with two new coordinators under a fifth-year head coach, will represent one of the more fascinating coaching stories of the coming college football season.