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Published: Wednesday, 11/28/2007

Rockets in downward spiral: Amstutz is not in trouble ... for now

Tom Amstutz's office in the Larimer Complex behind the north end zone at the Glass Bowl features a scattered mix of the man's eclectic tastes.

The 2005 GMAC Bowl trophy sits gleaming on an edge of his desk., but it is surrounded by antique fishing lures, antique cameras, old-time football helmets and pads, family pictures, awards, keepsake game balls, and even a scary-big samurai sword inside its scabbard.

"It symbolizes the warrior spirit," Amstutz, who just concluded his seventh season as head football coach at the University of Toledo, said about the sword.

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<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <font color=red><b>READ: </font color=red></b> <a href=" /apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071128/SPORTS11/711280437" target="_blank "><b>Amstutz focuses on recruiting defensive players for UT</b></a> 
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<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <font color=red><b>READ: </font color=red></b> <a href=" /apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071128/SPORTS03/711280422" target="_blank "><b>8 Falcons, 7 Rockets All-MAC</b></a> 
<br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <font color=red><b>READ: </font color=red></b> <a href=" /apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071128/SPORTS11/711280437" target="_blank "><b>Amstutz focuses on recruiting defensive players for UT</b></a> <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <font color=red><b>READ: </font color=red></b> <a href=" /apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071128/SPORTS03/711280422" target="_blank "><b>8 Falcons, 7 Rockets All-MAC</b></a>
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Then there are books, dozens of them. But only one was off the shelves and on his desk. Its title? Winning Sure Beats Losing.

Amstutz may be more sumo than samurai, but he has always been a warrior in the slang-type sense that football games are considered battles. And he has always known that winning is fun. Losing is a more recently-acquired taste and one that Amstutz would rather spit out.

UT's Rockets, who went a combined 45-18 and played in four bowl games during Amstutz's first five seasons at the helm, just wrapped up a second straight 5-7 campaign. They mark Toledo's first back-to-back losing seasons since 1977-78. That's three decades and five coaches ago.

Amstutz's job is secure because he is, after all, Tom Toledo. He is one of us - born, raised, educated and employed. His is the broad, friendly face of this community because he is every man who ever walked into the Jeep plant, had the Friday fry-up at Mike's Perch House, shopped at The Andersons, stuffed a Packo's dog between his lips, sat in a gym watching his kid play ball, or stopped for a shot and a beer at the Anchor Inn after pulling in the lines out on Maumee Bay.

But nowhere is it guaranteed that something lasts forever. As the book title says, winning sure beats losing. And the Rockets are losing. Forget all the off-field issues that UT fans are tired of reading and hearing about. This is all about W's and L's. For perhaps the first time as a head coach, Tom Amstutz has a sense of urgency.

"We didn't win enough," he said. "I admit it. There are no excuses. Now, I dig in. As the head coach, I can't let it happen again. That's fundamental."

Amstutz will hold a team meeting Friday. He'll go over some housekeeping details, fill his players in on this weekend's team banquet, and then dismiss the seniors. They'll leave to an ovation. And then Amstutz will tell the juniors to move up and take their seats and the meeting will continue.

"It's symbolic," he said, "of a new start."

The Rockets need one. Not so much on offense, perhaps, where the numbers were pretty decent. But the defense needs imploding.

Amstutz glosses over injuries - "Not something I can control," he said - but there were major personnel losses on defense and he admitted there were times during the last couple weeks of the season that he was playing kids "who physically weren't able to get the job done, whether they weren't fast enough or experienced enough. That wasn't a great feeling."

So Amstutz will review the game films, review his staff, review the schemes, review the personnel, review the needs. And, first, he will review himself.

"I'll look at myself and my performance and see what I need to improve," he said. "But I think I know my job. I know how to get a team playing its best. There are up and down cycles. It's a humbling game. We have to get back up and that's my job. I enjoy a challenge. I don't mind taking some heat. It gets my senses alert and alive. I'm going to come out swinging.

"I already have a vision for our team for next season. I can see it so clearly that I see it in color. I'm very optimistic. I suppose I always am."

Yes, he is, but optimism won't necessarily make the task any easier. The Rockets will play non-conference games against Arizona, Fresno State and Michigan next season. And the Mid-American Conference figures to be tougher because, for goodness sake, it couldn't be any worse.

Late last Friday afternoon, as darkness descended and the final minutes ticked off the clock during UT's 37-10 season-ending loss at Bowling Green, I ran into Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien near an end zone at Doyt Perry Stadium.

"So, is your coach's job safe?" I asked with maybe half a smile.

O'Brien looked at me incredulously.

"You're joking, right?" he replied.

Well, yes, I was. But if the same question has to be asked 365 days from now, it will have to be asked with a straight face.



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