Tuesday, January 23, 2007

New coaches at Rice and North Texas

Last week, Rice University hired David Baliff as its new head football coach. Baliff was formerly the head football coach at Texas State, where he led the Bobcats to a 21-15 record over three seasons, including the 2005 season in which the Bobcats won their first Southland Conference championship and reached the Division I-AA semifinals.

Rice football has its second coach in as many years due to previous coach Todd Graham's decision to climb aboard the coaching carousel that began when the NFL's Atlanta Falcons decided to hire Louisville Cardinals head coach Bobby Petrino to take over their franchise. Louisville then lured away Tulsa Golden Hurricane head coach Steve Kragthorpe to be their new top guy. That left a coaching vacancy at Tulsa. Graham, who was from the area and who had previously served as Tulsa's defensive coordinator, decided to take the job.

Never mind that Graham was only at Rice for one year. Nor mind the fact that Graham decided to change jobs just two days after agreeing to a contract extension through 2012 at Rice, or that he did it three weeks before signing day, or that Tulsa, being another private school in the same conference as Rice, can't be considered anything other than a lateral move on Graham's part. But money talks, and the reported $1.1 million/year Graham will receive from Tulsa was simply too much for him to turn down.

It's true that college football is a business, and that coaches have to do what's best for themselves. Contracts don't mean anything and loyalty to a certain institution doesn't even come into play; when another school with a larger pocketbook comes calling, coaches will do what most of us would probably do if presented with the same choice: take the money. It might make football fans angry - the furor regarding Nick Saban's decision to leave the NFL's Miami Dolphins to become the head coach at the University of Alabama is one of the more notable coaching controversies of the last few weeks - but it's just part of the sport. While it is indeed regretful that the same coaches that preach to their players about "integrity," "character," "dedication" or "commitment" simply don't practice it themselves, it's not something that's ever going to change.

That didn't make Rice fans feel any better about Graham's sudden departure. Most of the commenters on the Chronicle's Owl Sports Blog entry about his departure clearly felt used and betrayed. Chronicle columnist John Lopez had some harsh words to say about Graham, as well.

My question is, why did Tulsa allegedly offer $1.1 million / year for this guy? That's a huge contract by Conference USA standards, especially coming from a small private school like Tulsa. Given that Graham only has one year of head coaching experience, is he really worth that kind of money?

At first glance, maybe so. After Graham came to Rice, he raised some money, got new fieldturf and a new scoreboard installed at Rice Stadium, and made Rice fans excited about their moribund football program again. He was able to coach the team back from a 1-5 record, as well as the devastating death of freshman tailback Dale Lloyd, to acheive a 7-5 record (a six-game improvement on Rice's 1-10 2005 campaign). Graham led the Owls to their first bowl game in 45 years, and was named C-USA's Coach of the Year.

But dig a little deeper, and Graham's success at Rice becomes a bit less clear. Rice's bowl drought, quite frankly, should have been broken five or ten years ago; Ken Hatfield's 1996 (7-4) and 2001 (8-4) Rice teams were arguably better than Graham's 2006 squad. Those teams didn't go to bowls because the Western Athletic Conference, of which Rice was a member at the time, didn't have very many bowl tie-ins. Furthermore, there weren't a record 32 bowl games, as there are now, which ensured that every team with a winning record last season went to a bowl. Moreover - and there's no way to put this nicely - Graham and his team were utterly embarrassed by Troy in the New Orleans Bowl, 41-17. While Troy is not exactly a bad program - they were Sunbelt Conference champions, for what it's worth - they're not going to be confused with Texas or Florida State, which were the only other two schools that put such lopsided beatdowns on the Owls during the season. Rice simply had no answer for the Trojans, and Graham's helpless frustration - he always seemed to be cursing into his headset when the ESPN cameras zoomed in on him during the New Orleans Bowl - was evident.

Then there's Graham's management style, which apparently rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. After Graham came in, he essentially cleaned out the athletics department, firing a lot of longtime department staffers, assistants, and trainers (he kept the receptionist because, as the ESPN sportscasters said during the New Orleans Bowl, she reminded him of his mother). He destroyed the sense of continuity and community within Rice's athletics department, and Graham's departure created the sense, expressed by John Lopez in the above-referenced column - that he actually made things worse at Rice in the long term by his actions.

I don't know if I'd go that far in criticizing Graham, and if Rice was not where he wanted to be - and it's obvious that it wasn't - it's probably better for the program that he left sooner rather than later, even if "sooner" only meant one season. And, in the end, it's all over now. Rice has a new guy at the helm that hopes to pick up where Graham left off, and reaction to his hiring seems to be generally positive. As somebody who normally roots for Rice when they aren't playing Houston, I wish him the best of luck.

Needless to say, this fall's matchup between Rice and Tulsa is going to be interesting to watch.

Up in Denton, another coaching controversy has also been put to rest. Although there was some dissention - much of it coming from a Houston furniture magnate - over the University of North Texas's decision to fire head coach Darrell Dickey before the 2006 season had ended, there generally seems to be support for UNT's decision to hire former Southlake Carroll head coach Todd Dodge to take over the helm of the Mean Green. Southlake Carroll was a high school powerhouse under Dodge's leadership, winning four Class 5A state championships and amassing an overall record of 98-11 since Dodge's tenure there began in 2000. Dodge has some familiarity with college football as well as UNT, as he served as offensive coordinator for the Mean Green during the 1992 and 1993 seasons. North Texas obviously hopes to enjoy the success that Houston has had with Art Briles, who was a very successful coach at Stephenville High School before moving up to the college ranks.

Finally, I can't help but notice that former UH head coach Kim Helton is now the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama-Birmigham. Helton will work under head coach Neil Callaway, who, ironically, was Helton's offensive coordinator for a few seasons in Houston. More recently, Callaway was the offensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs. UAB's search for a new head coach, which met with interference from the University of Alabama's Board of Trustees, was another coaching controversy.

I hope Blazer fans like draw plays, because they'll probably be seeing a lot of them...

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