Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Spartan Football Door: Just Another Revolution

John L. Smith had no illusions about the enormity of the task at hand when I talked to him in the middle of summer preparation for the 2006 season.

"We know it's going to take time," Smith told me in a preseason piece for Motor City Sports Magazine. "You'd better know what you're doing and you'd better have a strong philosophy and strong beliefs of what ... it's going to take to have success ... We know what we have to do. It's a slow process."

Smith is out as MSU's head football coach at the end of this season. The university is hanging out another "Help Wanted" sign, right on schedule. They have this fetish of canning coaches at regular intervals. Smith's stint lasted four seasons. Before him, Bobby Williams was given three. Nick Saban did a little better, lasting five seasons, but he was a hotshot who was destined for bigger and better things.

Smith spoke with enthusiasm and pride back in July when we chatted about leading a major college program that hasn't sniffed any real success since winning the Rose Bowl in 1988.

"We want to provide a culture of winning. But it's winning everyday in the classroom. It's winning everyday outside of the classroom, socially. It's winning everyday on the practice field. If we can change that culture, the the wins and losses will follow.

"The kids are going to class. They're doing the right things. Now we're working on the facilities. These are the things that are going to make us an upper echelon Big Ten football team," Smith said at the time.

But none of it was enough, not near enough, for John L. to last for the remaining season of his five-year contract. There were too many embarrassing losses. Too many in-game breakdowns. Too many collapses during the second halves of seasons. And only one bowl game -- a loss.

But the question begs, when football universities acquire a reputation of having a revolving door in the head coach's office: Who will want to coach football in East Lansing?

It can't possibly be a job that will attract the cream of the coaching crop. Maybe at one time. But no longer. The MSU program is beginning to take on that most negative of auras -- the one that says that no one can lead it back to glory. Similar to the football program downtown with the Honolulu Blue and Silver adorning it.

So who, really, wants to take on a program such as that?

When we spoke in July, some of Smith's words turned out to be cruelly ironic.

"We just have to put together a program of stability -- and not one that's going to be changing every darn two years."

MSU is going to be looking for another head football coach this winter, right on schedule. And doubtless that person will have not more than the requisite three, four, or five years to turn around a program that may not be turnaround-able.

It's not enough time, of course, but that'll be all the time that's allotted. So good luck finding a top notch coach to step into that situation.

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