THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Tom Amstutz will board an airplane later today to take his University of Toledo football team to Arizona for the first game of his eighth season as head coach.
Earlier this week, he said the first game "is always exciting and always a bit of a mystery; there are a lot of unanswered questions."
Yes there are, not the least being whether Amstutz will be around for a ninth season.
OK, I hear you. It's one thing to kick a guy when he's down, another to do it while he's still upright and undefeated.
But it's nonetheless a legitimate question.
Suggesting Amstutz is on a hot seat would have been ludicrous on this date in 2006. UT's coach had completed five seasons and taken the Rockets to four bowl games, winning two of them. His record was 45-14 and his team had captured two Mid-American Conference championships.
But since the eve of the '06 opener, Toledo has compiled back-to-back 5-7 seasons and has won just six league games after going 31-8 in the MAC during Amstutz's first five seasons. UT football teams have not experienced three straight losing campaigns in three decades.
Granted, the Rockets could have a great season and what is written here becomes a moot point. Or, some might suggest that even if UT struggles again in 2008, the coach known as Toledo Tom has stockpiled enough good seasons and enough goodwill to survive.
In the latter case, though, there's an obstacle - his contract.
When the '08 season ends, Amstutz will have one more year on his contract. One of two things has to happen - he gets an extension or he disappears. It is unlikely UT's administration would sit back and do nothing because a lame-duck season for a college football coach is the surest path to a recruiting disaster.
So, does Amstutz have to win this season to get a contract extension?
Recent history would say yes. Men's basketball coach Stan Jop-
lin was MAC coach of the year for the 2006-07 season after winning a regular-season title and posting a fifth straight winning record. In 2007-08, the Rockets went 11-19 and Joplin was fired. There were other factors, fan apathy in regards to basketball being one, that don't necessarily apply to Amstutz.
But Joplin had one year remaining on his contract. Athletic director Mike O'Brien's choices were to extend Joplin's deal or cut him loose.
Amstutz, of course, is aware of what happened to his fellow UT alum. When asked if it concerns him, he said, "No."
Toledo Tom, of course, is the eternal optimist. He expects the '08 Rockets to win. He expects to coach a team that contends for a MAC championship. We may see the schedule as impossible - Arizona, Fresno State and Michigan are the bulk of the nonleague lineup while MAC West foes Central Michigan and Ball State have two of the better quarterbacks in league history. Amstutz sees it as a challenge.
"And I love a challenge," he said recently. "I'm always excited by that. There's no pressure, just excitement. I'm still living the dream. I'm coaching at my school. I'm as calm and confident as in any season I've been here."
Maybe he knows something the rest of us do not. The Rockets surely aren't going to be as bad as the 2-10 prediction dished up by Sports Illustrated, but those on the outside looking in don't have the highest of expectations.
Still, if Aaron Opelt can produce long-awaited big numbers at quarterback, if twice as many carries lead to twice as many yards by promising running back DaJuane Collins, if a thin front-line defense can stay healthy to support do-everything safety Barry Church, well, maybe this team will prove to be more capable than many of the prognosticators anticipate.
But it is a team that has five more freshmen on its two-deep chart than it has seniors on the entire roster. Somewhere along the way, for whatever reasons, half of a class disappeared. Winning will not be easy. And losing would lead to a decision that would figure to be anything but easy.
Since the start of the 1974 season, the University of Toledo has played 389 football games. Tom Amstutz has been either on the field, upstairs in the coaches' box or on the sidelines for 356 of them.
I hope this team warrants Amstutz's optimism because, considering his past, nobody should relish being pessimistic about his future.