There is, as Mike O Brien said yesterday, no good time to dismiss a coach.
But the University of Toledo s athletic director joined a few of his brethren in beating the rush when it was announced this past Monday that the 2008 football season would be the last for Tom Amstutz at the Rockets helm.
These early exits may not signal a trend, but they are becoming more evident at the college level.
Clemson s Tommy Bowden was literally shown the door just six games into the season on Oct. 13. Since then, four coaches have been relieved of their duties effective the end of the season Washington s Ty Willingham was axed on Oct. 27, Amstutz and Tennessee s Phillip Fulmer both took part in press conferences last Monday and Ron Prince of Kansas State was let go on Wednesday. In the latter cases, the coaches and their teams had at least three games remaining on the schedule.
Amstutz and the Rockets had four games, the first being Wednesday night s 47-30 loss at Akron, during which the Rockets sleep-walked to a 21-0 first-quarter deficit.
There is always the possibility of maybe losing some focus, O Brien admitted.
Well, yes, there is that. But he insists there are some benefits, too.
How it s handled depends on the institution and the situation, O Brien said. You have to look at it case by case. For us, I thought the uncertainty about Tom s future was getting to be a distraction for so many people. There s a point where you need to create closure. So we made the decision, we let it be known, now we ll finish the season and in that time frame begin the process of the search for a new coach.
It is always a mystery how a team will react to a coaching change. When word of Earle Bruce s fate at Ohio State became public late in the 1987 season, the Buckeyes rallied to his defense, donning those famous EARLE headbands and sending him out with a 23-20 upset victory at Michigan.
There were no STUTZ headbands evident at Akron, nor, at least at the start, was there any evidence the Rockets had much interest in playing.
I saw a team that wasn t all the way in synch at first, Amstutz said yesterday.
Maybe that was understandable for a lot of reasons. The timing of the announcement, just two days before the game, was surely a factor. UT has only 10 seniors on its roster, so more than the usual number of players are affected by the coach s pending departure. And there are nine assistant coaches who, regardless of how hard they work to prepare the team, would not be human if they aren t thinking about how they re going to be feeding their families a year from now.
We have a young team, young kids, and I m close to a lot of our players, Amstutz said. It s only natural that I m a part of their lives and that my thing had to affect them.
O Brien can talk about ending distractions. But he also created some for those most directly involved. Ironically, it s Amstutz s job to get the Rockets through it.
I m talking to them individually and in small groups, UT s coach said. I m letting them know that I m going to be fine, they re going to be fine and they ll have a good coach here next year. The players are resilient. They ll understand and they ll get used to it.
In time to save a little face in what is now a 2-7 season? It will certainly test their mettle.