Chestnut Hill will never be mistaken for Tuscaloosa, Ala., Gainesville, Fla., Athens, Ga., Columbus, Ohio, Baton Rouge, La., or any of the other various bastions of college football zealotry where people voluntarily abandon tailgaiting to, you know, attend the game.
Those are schools where football is regarded as religion. Boston College is a school where religion is regarded as religion.
But it’s not the lukewarm college football culture in the area that is responsible for BC’s football program sinking faster than the Lusitania. Interest level doesn’t always directly correlate to success. If it did then Auburn wouldn’t have gone winless in the Southeastern Conference this year. Tennessee wouldn’t be searching for its fourth head coach since 2008.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington always talks about building the next great Red Sox team. Well, newbie BC athletic director Brad Bates has to find the school’s next great football coach. Then he has to be prepared to let him go.
BC’s football program is in its current state of disrepair because former athletic director Gene DeFilippo wanted a coach who only had eyes for The Heights. He got one in Frank Spaziani, who was fired on Sunday after a 2-10 campaign, BC’s worst since 1978.
It’s the old adage that you get what you pay for. When you’re No. 1 priority in a coach is fealty and not ability, you end up with high fidelity and a lot of losses.
To return to being a perennial bowl team, the folks at The Heights have to accept that BC is a layover and not a final destination.
It was that way in 1940, when Frank Leahy, who led BC to the Cotton Bowl and the Sugar Bowl in back-to-back seasons, wriggled out of his contract to coach a little school named Notre Dame. Not much has changed in 70-plus years.
Bates has some experience with the wanderlust of college football coaches from his previous job at Miami University (Ohio) from 2002 to this October. He hired Mike Haywood in 2009.
After winning the Mid-American Conference title in his second season, Haywood took a job as the head coach at Pittsburgh. He never actually coached a game there, as he was fired after being arrested on a domestic violence charge two-plus weeks after his hiring. (The charges were later dismissed.)
Bates stressed repeatedly that BC values loyalty in a coach, but he admitted he viewed his hire of Haywood as a successful one.
“Absolutely, is the quick answer. If we want a coach to conduct himself the way we expect our students to, then when is it OK to leave? We would prefer to have continuity, but if you have someone leaving a program in a much better place than you found it you’ve made the right hire.”
Amen to that.
BC should be disappointed if it has a coach who isn’t soliciting job offers five years from now.
Bates knows what a good college football coach looks like. He played for legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
He wouldn’t divulge candidates, but said BC is not ruling out hiring a coach from the NFL ranks such as New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator and BC alumnus Pete Carmichael. Bates said previous head coaching experience is not a necessity.
His predecessor went the NFL route once with Jeff Jagodzinski, but brandished a wooden cross and garlic at the mere mention of the league afterward. Bates is a bit more contemporary. He has posted about the search on Twitter (@BCBradBates).
“I have a list of candidates of interest. Does it mean someone on that list today gets the job, maybe, maybe not,” said Bates. “What’s taking place right now is we’re doing research. We’re always talking to conference commissioners, athletic directors, college coaches, NFL head coaches, looking for confirmation of rising stars and great coaches out there being confirmed by people that live the game.”
BC would benefit from a coach who plays a more exciting brand of football, like Harvard’s Tim Murphy, who coached at Cincinnati before he took over the Crimson, or Mississippi’s State’s Dan Mullen, a New Hampshire native who served as offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer.
Let’s not fool ourselves. The reason Oregon’s Chip Kelly is revered isn’t just because he wins games. It’s how he wins — with a no-huddle offense that scores as fast and as often as the blink of an eye. Style-points matter in the college game.
“You need to have coach who knows how to adapt his scheme to the personnel on the roster and the personnel we’re recruiting,” said Bates. “In terms of the broader-based answer, I really don’t care what the brand is, I just want to win.”
Success at BC is never going to be measured with the same ruler used by the gridiron gentry, BCS Bowls and national titles. But BC did go to 12 straight bowls from 1999 to 2010 and at one point won eight straight.
You probably can’t win a national championship at BC, unless the next Doug Flutie or Matt Ryan walks through the Alumni (or is it Aluminum?) Stadium doors, but you can win a lot of games with the right coach. Jack Bicknell did it. Tom Coughlin did it. Tom O’Brien did it.
Look around the landscape of college football. Northwestern just had a nine-win season. Pat Fitzgerald, who would be a dream candidate for BC, has the Wildcats in a bowl for the fifth straight season. Stanford, which will host the Pac-12 title game Friday, has won 12, 11, and 10 games the last three seasons. Vanderbilt went 8-4 this year. Duke — Duke! — is bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994.
BC doesn’t have to win the hearts and minds of Boston sports fans. It just has to win over the right coach — and then not get too attached.