- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
Here at Four Downs and Punt we're all about family.
That's why I spent a big chunk of Rivalry Week at Walt Disney World, chasing my 6-year-old daughter as she chased princesses. Yes, the holiday lines were long, but that gave me time to talk football with the thousands of other fathers, most dressed in the colors of their schools, who were also dutifully doing time. The most anxious group was the large contingent of folks draped Texas and Texas A&M garb on Thanksgiving Day.
As one dad from Fort Worth, Texas, said to me as we watched our daughters dance with Handy Manny and the Little Einsteins, "My entire day has been spent wearing my family out so that I can cart them back to the hotel and have them passed out in time for kickoff."
Then he smiled, slapped me on the shoulder and said, "And by the way, that stuff you wrote about A&M being the 'program that should be great but isn't' was total bull crap. Happy Thanksgiving."
To the plays!
First Down: Should Dabo Swinney Be Nervous?
The 2010 edition of the college football coaches firing line got cranked up on Saturday morning when Vanderbilt's first-year head coach Robbie Caldwell "resigned." By dinner, Randy Shannon was out at Miami, and by Sunday brunch word had leaked that Ricky Bustle was out at UL-Lafayette. Indiana canned Bill Lynch a few hours later.
What do all of the above gentlemen have in common?
1. They took over struggling programs and provided at least some sort of instant excitement that hadn't existed within their programs in quite a while.
2. They are exceedingly-nice men.
3. They were longtime, highly-touted assistant coaches, and three were promoted from within the staff.
4. They are unemployed.
Shannon had been Miami's defensive coordinator for six seasons and replaced Larry Coker after the boss was fired at the end of 2006. Caldwell, Vandy's offensive line coach under Bobby Johnson from 2002-09, took over when Johnson abruptly retired prior to the season. Lynch inherited the Hoosiers program in 2007 when longtime friend and head coach Terry Hoeppner stepped down to fight brain cancer, an ailment that took his life that summer. Lynch, who had been offensive coordinator for three years, led IU to its first bowl appearance in nearly a decade and a half.
Bustle hadn't been with the Ragin' Cajuns before, but he had long been considered one of the best assistant coaches in the land. Before moving to Arcadia he spent six years as OC and quarterbacks coach at Virginia Tech, teaching a couple of guys named Jim Drunkenmiller and Michael Vick and co-constructing the foundation for the Hokies two-decade run of excellence.
At the time they were hired, they all seemed like sure things. And over the last few days, some have argued that none were given a long enough period of time to succeed. Others claim that the programs' expectations were a little too high. LA-Lafayette had won nine games in the five years before Bustle's arrival and won six games in four of the last six seasons, while Vandy and Indiana are, well ... Vandy and Indiana.
"As athletic director or even the university president, what do you do?" former Kentucky AD and basketball Hall of Famer C.M. Newton asked me during a conversation two years ago. "On one hand, you can promote from within, reward a loyal employee, particularly if they are a good person, and ease the transition, not to mention save jobs. On the other hand, your program might need a total overhaul. As difficult as it might be, throwing everything out and starting over can recharge the atmosphere."
I was having the conversation with Newton in November 2008 because Clemson had just fired head coach Tommy Bowden after the preseason top 10 Tigers had fallen to 3-3. Bowden, who hadn't made a lot of friends during his decade at the helm, was replaced on an interim basis by the nicest guy on his staff, assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Swinney. In one month on the job, he had fired the offensive coordinator, beaten archrival South Carolina and instituted the SEC-ish "Tiger Walk" into Death Valley.
Still, at the end of the regular season, some Clemson supporters were screaming that the school needed to go the "throwing everything out" direction and hire a big-time name from outside the staff. It was much the same type of cries that had come from Miami boosters when Shannon was up for the job in Coral Gables.
Like The U, Clemson went with familiarity. And like The U, the short-term impact was immediate. In 2009, Swinney led the Tigers to their first ACC Championship Game and came within six minutes of a BCS bowl berth. This year, despite key personnel losses that everyone knew was coming (C.J. Spiller), Clemson's 6-6 record has been hugely disappointing, and the people in orange are howling once again, especially after Saturday's 29-7 beatdown by SEC East champ South Carolina in Swinney's second straight loss to the Gamecocks. The Tigers are 1-3 versus ranked teams this season, and one of those victories came against then-No. 16 Miami. Three of their six wins have come against North Texas, Presbyterian and Wake Forest.