Some Missouri fans wanted Larry Smith fired after the Michigan State game in early 2000. The Tigers, coming off a dreadful season, had been walloped at Clemson the previous week.
Trailing by three late against the Spartans, Smith took a chance late in the game punting the ball away and trusted his defense to get it back.
Michigan State collected a first down and ran out the clock as boos filled Faurot Field. A few days later, Smith defended the call.
This was the last straw for some of the fans, and a change seemed inevitable. But there was no way that would happen before the end of the season.
“I don’t know of the advantage that is gained by that,” said Mike Alden, then Missouri’s athletic director. “Actually, there is zero advantage to be gained.”
That didn’t stop two schools — Maryland and North Texas — from firing coaches after last weekend. Two other schools have fired coaches for conduct: Tim Beckman at Illinois for allegations of abuse and Steve Sarkisian for drinking on the job. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier retired, effectively immediately.
All but Illinois’ move occurred in the last few days, setting a disruptive tone for the week. For Alden, other than temporarily appeasing a fan base, a performance-based firing before a season’s end is a negative play.
“You’ve told your guys we’ve kind of given up on the season, even with more than a half season to play,” Alden said. “And from a professional standpoint, you do a thorough evaluation on a body of work that includes the whole season, not part of a season.”
Maryland didn’t make that call with Randy Edsall, who was fired with the Terps’ standing 2-4 and coming off successive bowls seasons.
Same with North Texas. About an hour after last weekend’s 66-7 home loss to Portland State, the largest margin of victory by a FCS program (maximum 63 scholarships) over an FBS (85) program, it fired Dan McCarney, the former Iowa State coach who in 2013 led the Mean Green to a nine-victory season and bowl triumph.
A new era of impatience is appearing as athletic officials see no need to prolong misery of poor performance, chronic criticism and the cloud of negativity.
Such was the case last year at Kansas, where athletic director Sheahon Zenger fired Charlie Weis four games into the season. The Jayhawks were 2-2 at the time — Kansas aches for any victory this season — but Zenger thought he didn’t need the rest of season to conclude that the program was continuing to head in the wrong direction.
The question becomes, weren’t downward trending signs apparent at the end of the previous season? It’s a balancing act for athletic directors who understand the adjustment period required for a new regime to repair a damaged program. But an in-season firing usually doesn’t fix the current problem.
The thought of getting a jump on a new coach with a midseason firing is a fallacy, Alden said. An early opening doesn’t make a program first in line, and it could have the opposite effect.
In 2000 Larry Smith had the entire season to turns things around. He’d won a Rose Bowl at Southern California and was only a year removed from a second straight bowl season at Missouri. But as the season progressed and the losses piled up, change became inevitable, and Alden knew about Toledo’s coach, Gary Pinkel.
Everybody did. His team had won at Penn State and finished 10-1, and he was a considered one of the top candidates for a major job. Oklahoma State and Arizona State, also in the market for coaches, were interested.
Alden said Pinkel wouldn’t have been interested in working for an athletic director who fired a coach before the end of a season.
“There would have been no chance,” Alden said. “Knowing Gary, it would have worked in reverse. Why would you go to work for an athletic director who didn’t give a coach an entire season to get things turned around?”
But these days, another question is asked more frequently: Why wait?