Last season, three of the four fattest coaches in FBS (Division I-A, the highest division) college football were fired (Mike Mangino during the season, Weiss and Leach after). This year, the last of the four, Ralph Friedgen, was let go. When Mangino was fired, I wrote the following:
People are willing to put up with a lot when you’re winning or doing a great job. Texas Tech coach Mike Leach can be a weird Mormon Pepperine Law graduate in a part of the country that doesn’t think a whole lot of Mormons and educated people, but as long as he is winning, nobody will care. That’s not to say that it won’t hurt your career when it comes to advancement (like Mangino, Leach doesn’t get the job offers his records would indicate), but you’re not going to lose your job over it without some other justification.
Unfortunately, this applies not only to people with significant attitude problems, but people that for no fault of their own defy people’s perceptions of what they should be. This is where Mangino’s weight comes in. The guy does not look like a coach. He looks like somebody whose only exposure to sports is getting hot and sweaty when standing up to cheer for a team from a college that he never went to.
Of course, people look at the fact that there are obese coaches and black coaches* and suggest this proves that there is no discrimination going on. And further, if Kansas was willing to hire an obese guy, they’re not going to fire someone for being obese, are they? Most likely not. But that doesn’t mean that he is necessarily going to be given the same opportunity to succeed and the same margin of failure.
I didn’t realize at the time that Mike Leach (who was actually the fourth most overweight coach, though to be fair the other three are in a class all my themselves in terms of sheer volume) was going to be fired at the end of the season. Here is a rundown of the success level of each of the four coaches involves:
- Mike Mangino – He had a .510 winning percentage, which is higher than any coach since the 1940’s at Kansas. He produced the first 10-win season in the program’s history, going 12-1 in 2007. In seven seasons, he produced four of the team’s nine winning seasons in the last thirty years. His successor, Turner Gill, posted a 3-9 record this season.
- Charlie Weiss – He was marginally less successful than his two most recent predecessors, posting a .564 winning percentage compared to .583 for Ty Willingham and Bob Davie. His successor, Brian Kelly, posted a 6-6 record this season (bowl game pending).
- Mike Leach – He had a .661 winning percentage, the highest Texas Tech has had since the 1940’s when they were in the Border Conference when they were playing West Texas State and Arizona State Teacher’s College–Flagstaff. He posted 8 or more wins in eight of his ten seasons (a feat only accomplished three other times since 1975) and the program’s only 10+ win season (11-2 in 2008). His successor, Tommy Tuberville, has a 7-5 record this season (bowl game pending).
- Ralph Friedgen – He had a .596 winning percentage, the best the Maryland program has seen since the early 80’s. He was the ACC Coach of the Year this year.
So were these coaches fired for being fat? Not in any individual case. Even so, it’s quite interesting that only the Weiss firing seems strictly justified. Also noteworthy is that Leach and Mangino, despite their extraordinary success, were both regularly passed over when it came to better job opportunities. On the other hand, Maryland seems poised to replace Friedgen with Leach, suggesting that extra heft doesn’t bother them.
With the exception of Weiss (again), they all had another thing in common besides their girth: they didn’t fit in. Mike Leach was not west Texas material. The administration there technically fired him due to some allegations of player mistreatment, but internal memos surfaced that they wanted to fire him the season after he posted the best record Texas Tech has ever seen. Being slim wouldn’t have helped him much, but being less odd would have. He wasn’t the good ole boy that the program wanted. All he did was win games. The same applies to Mangino, whose feat was far more impressive than Leach’s, in my opinion. Neither fit the mold of being the good old ball coach, which both programs believed they were entitled to. Friedgen, on the other hand, very much fits that profile and were he not from New York (and perhaps not so heavy) would almost be exactly what Texas Tech would have looked for. But they wanted the very thing that Texas Tech detested in Leach: a spark of the odd. Someone that draws fans. Because of this, one imagines that they will give Leach more leeway than Friedgen and Texas Tech will give the slim and accented Tommy Tuberville a few more losses than they gave Leach.
Coming from a school with a sporadic football tradition at best, this whole thing is pretty alien to me. In fact, I tend to root against programs that pull stunts like this. Firing a good coach not because they couldn’t win but because they didn’t fit some pre-conceived role of what a coach should be. Absent actual misconduct, let the coach be a Mormon Pirate or a tub of lard.
Ultimately, though, the coaches often seem to become victims of their own success. The schools start thinking that the victories are owed to them. They take them for granted and start thinking that it’s the greatness of the institution and the program rather than the efforts of a single coach. And taking the wins for granted, they start becoming more concerned with how they win. So they become embarrassed by Mike Leach’s defense, or lack thereof (there’s no accident that they hired a defensive coach as his replacement), not thinking that it might be hard to recruit great defensive players to Lubbock. They wonder why Friedgen isn’t drawing from the fickle fan base in Maryland*, nevermind that it’s the fickleness of the fanbase that’s part of the problem. They start thinking that they can get a winning coach with a winning personality, forgetting that any such coach is not likely to want a whole lot to do with them.
Of course, such thinking can really lead you astray. Southern Tech ran into this when, after a string of success with innovative coaches with innovative offenses, the administration started wondering why they couldn’t win the old fashioned way. After years of mediocrity, they found out that the success was not owed to the Packers but was a product of coaches finding the right formula for the right school and changing that formula meant futile efforts to try to out-recruit programs with athletics budgets twice our size. When it happens to other schools, I get a feeling of schadenfreude. Kinda sucked when it happened to mine, though**.
* – I shouldn’t pick on Maryland too much, since the coach they seem to be eyeing is a coach that may well help with attendance and they seem more aware that they need the trickery and weirdness to draw fans and win because they’re not going to do it based on Terp tradition and fanbase. It’s really Kansas that I believe misread the situation the most. Texas Tech falls somewhere in between.
** – The fiasco started before I enrolled, but I happened to be there during the nadir. My high school and college teams both went winless in conference/district my senior years.
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