We're in one of the big dry spots on the college football calendar, lumped in between signing day and the beginning of spring football. Still, there are a handful of things to keep an eye on. Here are the winter's 10 biggest soap operas:
Mike Leach versus Texas Tech: What a mess this is. Leach is coming off the best season in school history while the bulk of Tech's other athletic programs are really struggling, but the contract negotiations between the two sides have dragged on and on. Usually, contract talks take about two weeks. This thing has lasted a year, and we're on the brink of Tech's deadline, which is Tuesday. Leach said he was all set to agree on the deal before Tech added in four terms, two of which were rare for coaching contracts. One said that all the money from his personal speaking properties -- for example, if he makes an appearance or writes a book about his life in Wyoming -- would go to Tech.
- The Kiffin Chronicles: It doesn't seem as though two days pass without some news item about new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin. The former Oakland Raiders coach has been prone to brash statements. He hasn't just stepped on people's toes -- he's stomped on them and then gotten in his car and drove over them, too. It's still two months before the Vols' spring game, but you wonder what else might come up.
- Bryce Brown: Arguably the nation's top running back prospect, Brown is still deciding where he'll attend college. Reportedly, he committed to Miami, but if you read comments he made recently, it doesn't sound that way. It sounds more as if he's leaning toward Oregon. Of course, he likes LSU and coach Les Miles. But he also might visit USC because he's intrigued by the marketing potential of being in L.A. He visited Tennessee this past weekend, although he didn't sound too impressed by the talent currently in Knoxville. Oh, and this doesn't mention anything about his mentor, recruiting adviser Brian Butler.
- Staff shifts: Although schools are busy preparing for spring ball, many staffs are in flux as key assistants come and go. Washington just lost its offensive coordinator, Jim Michalczik, to the NFL. ASU's Dan Cozzetto left Dennis Erickson's staff to go to Washington. Matt Lubick, the Sun Devils' ace recruiter, almost went up to Seattle, too, but got a promotion at ASU and stayed. Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly wanted to shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, so he fired D-coordinator Joe Tresey. Word is he might bring over UVa DC Bobby Diaco, who could be just one of several big moves at Virginia if head coach Al Groh has, as rumored, rehired former Cavaliers offensive coordinator Ron Prince.
- Free-agent QBs: Robert Marve isn't the only gifted quarterback with starting experience out there. Michigan's Steven Threet, who began his college career at Georgia Tech, is also on the market. Marve, the former Miami quarterback, is back at home this semester in Tampa plotting his next move. He could take up to five official visits. On Monday, his high school coach, Robert Weiner, said there has been a lot of interest from Purdue, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Cal. Weiner said the "perfect situation" would be a school that'll have a senior starting quarterback for the 2009 season, such as Oklahoma State, OU or Cal. Marve also is open to the possibility of going to one of the three schools that are on the red-flag list as set by Miami: Florida, LSU and Tennessee. Marve would have to pay his tuition for one year at those schools. According to Weiner, Marve also can't speak with coaches at those schools or tour their facilities during this latest recruiting process.
- Getting his Irish up: There is no hotter seat than the one under Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. He has coached the Irish to two dismal seasons in a row. ND finished off this past recruiting year well, landing top LB prospect Manti Te'o and his pal, slot receiver Roby Toma. Last week, Weis announced he's taking control of his team's play-calling responsibilities for 2009. "I thought the best chance for us to win this year would be to make me the offensive coordinator," Weis said. Weis also announced that defensive coordinator Corwin Brown has been promoted to associate head coach, even though Brown will be only a "co-defensive coordinator" with linebacker coach Jon Tenuta. Weis, whose team won the Hawaii Bowl in December, is still dealing with two bad knees. There have been rumblings that he might coach from the press box, but my hunch is that isn't true.
- Cleaning house at SMU: The Mustangs have made national news, as head coach June Jones got rid of nine scholarship players. This past weekend, SMU athletic director Steve Orsini defended the statement issued by Jones that violations of department policies and/or team rules applied to all nine football players released from the program, Bobbi Roquemore reports.
- More losses for Wazzu: After finishing one of the worst seasons in school history, Washington State took another big hit after coach Paul Wulff got hit for rules violations during his tenure at Eastern Washington. "We're not talking recruiting violations," he said. "We're not talking the types of violations that truly give a competitive advantage."
- The Oregon succession: There have been all kinds of rumors about when Mike Bellotti will step aside and designated head coach Chip Kelly gets the keys to the program. Some expected it would've happened the day after signing day, but obviously that day came and went without any shift. Columnist George Schroeder got on the roller coaster at Oregon with athletic director Pat Kilkenny for an interesting Q&A about the transition:
- The oversigning scramble: In the past few years, as recruiting coverage has boomed, we've heard more and more about how some schools "oversign" and what happens in the wake of it all. Last year, there were a lot of eyes on Alabama. This year, the focus shifts to Oxford, where Houston Nutt just signed a class of 38. Does this mean staffs run off other scholarship players to make room? Do they have their fingers crossed that lesser talented signees don't make it academically in favor or more promising borderline student-athletes? It's all fairly murky, but between now and fall camp, keep an eye out for some of the fallout.
Leach's representatives at IMG counteroffered, asking for the same salary while keeping the terms of his current deal. However, on Friday, Tech athletic director Gerald Myers issued a statement saying that doing so would make Leach too expensive to fire. Now there is talk of a rally in support of Leach outside the Tech football offices Tuesday at 11 a.m.
"As with any great event, several people helped organize it, and information has been sent to 50,000 people through e-mail, Facebook, local media and fan-site message boards," says 28-year-old Tech grad John Baucum, one of the rally's organizers. "I am in contact with the student newspaper right now, and a local business is going to pass out fliers about the event around campus. I have no idea how many to expect. I'm hoping that we have several hundred people. A thousand or more would be awesome."
Baucum majored in journalism and earned his bachelor's degree in 2003 and a master's in sports management in 2007. He says he and others in his group don't want to see Leach leaving Lubbock any time soon. "I'm hoping that the rally shows both sides that the fans are steadfast in their support of Leach and that we're hoping both sides can come together and reach an agreement on what's become a contract stalemate at this point. Mike Leach and his family want to be here, there's no doubt in my mind about that."
Also in the ACC, Miami has two new coordinators to break in, and the Canes are just a few weeks away from beginning their first spring practice.
"Money's not the issue for one year, but in the end, it's a matter of being able to evaluated those places," Weiner said. Another wild card in this is Orson Charles, a blue-chip tight end senior prospect from Weiner's Plant High School powerhouse, who still hasn't announced his college choice. The coach said Marve is intrigued by the potential of playing with Charles, who is considering UF and Tennessee among his other choices of Georgia, FSU and USC.
In the wake of Jones' decision, a few players have come forward to try to clear their names. One of them is sophomore linebacker Taylor Bon, who has a 3.3 GPA and no strikes under Jones' three-strikes disciplinary policy. Bon said the statement implied that the reason he was let go was that he was a troublemaker. "I don't want my reputation hurt," Bon said.
I spoke to a college coach about his thoughts on this situation. After saying it's always tricky to try to read into the inner workings of another program, he joked and said that maybe the violation of team rules came about because "someone didn't make enough plays." This situation isn't a common one, although usually you don't hear a reason given publicly for why a program dismissed a player. It's more along the lines of, "So-and-so won't be returning to our team this season."
Wulff has been suspended from the first three days of the Cougars' 2009 fall football practices because of NCAA rules violations that occurred when he was Eastern Washington's coach from 2000 to 2007. The NCAA, terming the violations "major," found that from 2003 to 2007, Eastern Washington exceeded the NCAA-mandated 11 coaches on its football staff. It also found that the program allowed ineligible players to practice with the team. Finally, it charged the program with a lack of institutional control and Wulff with a failure to monitor his program. Wulff blamed a "culture" at EWU that he said allowed the violations to occur, and he indicated that Dick Zornes and Mike Kramer, his football predecessors, had been part of that problem. However, on Sunday, Wulff issued a statement saying the violations under his watch were his own fault. "I have taken responsibility for violations at Eastern Washington while I was head coach and accept the penalties," Wulff said.
The whole situation is pretty sticky, as Bud Withers wrote Sunday.
"I hope [Bellotti] does it sooner as opposed to later," the athletic director said. "It's a selfish answer. You know, I don't think he really knows -- which I find a little curious. But everybody operates at a different speed. Maybe he's going to go off to the top of the mountain and have an epiphany. ... I almost think he's ready to leave coaching but not ready to take this job on. I think maybe he's struggling a little bit with that, given the uncertain times and so on and so on."
RANDOM STUFF• Is another SEC coach in hot water for a recruiting violation? The Memphis Commercial Appeal took Alabama coach Nick Saban to task after hearing the comments made by a junior from Memphis who had committed to Bama. The recruit said he liked the "stuff that he was saying" after running into Saban when the Tide coach visited his school. The player's high school coach later tried to "clear all this up," as Chris Low reports.
My three cents: This story is a prime example of the farcical side of today's recruiting world. Maybe Saban has a special way for wording "Hi, how ya doin'?" that makes him come across like Beyonce. In truth, this kind of enhanced bumping is increasingly more common, especially with high-profile celebrity coaches. It's also why the NCAA didn't want head coaches out on the road during the spring evaluation period. Of course, that doesn't mean the same stuff can't happen in the winter, when they are allowed to be on the road. In fact, it's now more likely to happen because the recruiting calendar has shifted up so much earlier in the past two years.
• The Tulsa World caught up with Oklahoma LB Ryan Reynolds, who reports he's set to return in 2009, although he's skipping spring ball.
Reynolds recently got fitted for his new knee brace and began straight-ahead running Feb. 9. "Then it's just progressing for the next three months," he said. "After that, I'll be cleared for May, June, July and August. I'll get a good three or four months before the season starts."
Reynolds said the most important lesson he learned the first time about bouncing back from major knee surgery was dietary. Last time, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Reynolds ate himself into a 245-pound body, then had to drop weight while playing his way back into game shape. Now, with a conscientious eating plan and as much cardiovascular work as he can get, Reynolds has stayed at 225 and will be fast and fit when May comes.To go around the college football landscape with Bruce Feldman, become an ESPN Insider.