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Canzano: Fire the football coach?! Cheers to one who stayed the course
"Someone buy Chris Hill a beer" the text read.
“Someone buy Chris Hill a beer,” the text message read.
Hill — is the former long-time University of Utah athletic director. The text — on Saturday night, came from an athletic department administrator at a rival Pac-12 Conference school.
Hill refused to panic when football coach Kyle Whittingham went through a dismal stretch several years ago in Salt Lake City. It feels fitting to share this story today, because a couple of Power Five programs fired their head coaches over the weekend.
On Sunday, Colorado parted ways with Karl Dorrell, who was struggling in Boulder. His overall record: 8-15. A few hours later, Wisconsin surprised just about everyone by firing Paul Chryst, who was 67-26.
That makes five head coaches in the Power Five football universe who have been fired this season. Don’t feel too sorry for them, they’re getting paid. In fact, the buyouts for the “fired five” are an interesting study:
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin: $16.4 million
Karl Dorrell, Colorado: $8.7 million
Scott Frost, Nebraska: $15 million
Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech: $11.4 million
Herm Edwards, ASU: $9.4 million
Total: $60.9 million
Major athletic departments are printing money. Television revenue has soared. Impatient, high-dollar donors fall in behind that, eager to write a check and buy a sliver of hope. If the football team isn’t winning games at a clip you can tolerate or a style you enjoy — fire the head coach… and do it yesterday — the buyout isn’t an obstacle.
Chryst’s firing was ruthless. He was born in Madison and played quarterback for the Badgers. He’d never finished with a losing season at Wisconsin, but was off to a 2-3 start. The three losses? Ohio State (5-0), Washington State (4-1) and Illinois (4-1).
Those who have spent time in the vortices of the Wisconsin football tornado, know it can be unforgiving place. Remember, it’s where former Badgers coach Gary Andersen first learned how to quit. It got so bad with ex-coach Barry Alvarez peering over his shoulder in 2014, that Anderson won 10 games and promptly ditched in the middle of the night for Oregon State.
Wisconsin was struggling on offense this season. But it plays Northwestern (1-4) and Michigan State (2-3) in the next two weeks. The Badgers looked ready to stabilize and could have easily been 4-3 by mid-October. Chryst’s firing feels like a case of second-year AD Chris McIntosh knowing that he needed to make a change before his football coach had time to turn it around. I have no doubt Chryst will get hired someplace else, maybe even Colorado or Nebraska.
Still, it got me thinking about Whittingham and that text message I received on Saturday night. Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011 and went 8-5 in that inaugural season. Whittingham was only 4-5 in conference play, however.
In the following two seasons, the Utes’ struggles were amplified. They posted back-to-back 5-7 records. In conference play, Utah was a dismal 5-13 in that same two-year period. There were whispers and questions about Whittingham’s trajectory. And Chris Hill, the AD in charge, heard the noise.
“It had my attention,” the former Utah AD told me on Monday morning. “We got lots of complaints at that time. But I felt that Kyle was doing a lot of good things that people didn’t notice. I also never talked about personnel with boosters — ever.
“I didn’t think that was my job. I would listen. I was polite about it, but I couldn’t let that happen.”
Hill said he’d made the decision to err on the side of patience if the success didn’t come in those first few seasons. Utah was stepping up from the mid-major world to the Pac-12. When frustrated boosters and fans demanded Whittingham be fired, the AD pushed back.
“I’m not a surgeon,” Hill would tell them. “If I go in for a knee replacement, I don’t question the surgeon.”
That blend of stubborn-patience paid off. In Utah’s fifth season as a Pac-12 member, it won the South Division and finished 10-3. The Utes have now appeared in three of the last four Pac-12 title games and seized the conference championship last season. With that, Whittingham delivered Utah to its first-ever Rose Bowl.
Don’t miss my point.
I’m not saying Colorado should have stuck with Dorrell. The Buffaloes weren’t competitive. Also, the calculus of major college athletics has changed in the last decade. Hill admitted as much, telling me on Monday, “If the situation were now, maybe I wouldn’t have been as patient.”
Still, it’s a cautionary tale, particularly for an institution like Wisconsin and some others considering coaching changes. The available head-coaching pool isn’t deep. Trading the known for the unknown has become fashionable. Losing continuity comes at a cost, though. Sometimes, sticking with an embattled coach works out much better. Utah knows what I’m talking about.
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