Every year around this time, the coaching carousel begins to turn anew. The market becomes competitive after the rash of pink slips handed out, usually after Thanksgiving. This year's buyers could include such prominent football programs as Tennessee and Auburn. Last year, the market was crowded with Pac-12 universities.
Greg Byrne beat the holiday rush.
A week from today (Nov. 14) marks the one-year anniversary of Byrne tweeting a photo alongside the Rodriguez family. Byrne landed a head coach with a proven track record of success in Rich Rodriguez, and he did so before most programs had even parted ways with their old head coach.
The writing was on the wall for Mike Stoops and Arizona football pretty early into 2011, after three straight blowout losses and a performance at USC wherein the Trojans never once punted. A nine-game losing streak to Bowl Subdivision competition extended to 10 at previously winless Oregon State made Byrne's decision easy, even if the program was less than two full seasons removed from competing for a Rose Bowl berth.
There's a fine line between decisiveness and rash reaction. Kansas giving Turner Gill just two seasons with its massive rebuilding project painted the university into a corner -- if Charlie Weis has the same lack of immediate success, which he's midway to matching, KU can't restart after 2013 should Weis continue to struggle -- the job already has a stigma as difficult, considering the program's longtime struggles. The added stigma of impatience makes such a job even less attractive to quality candidates.
Such a situation may have been at play in 2007 when Stoops' fourth Arizona team finished 5-7 and extended the program's bowl game drought to nine seasons. John Mackovic was fired 21/2 seasons into his tenure just four years prior. Kansas and Arizona have the similar distinction of being basketball schools, where football success is an aberration.
Jim Livengood's commitment to Stoops after 2007 paid short term dividends via three bowl appearances, and aided in Byrne's long term vision of growing a football power in the desert. Rodriguez didn't step into imploded rubble. Talented Stoops recruits like Matt Scott, Austin Hill, Ka'Deem Carey and Tra'Mayne Bondurant have allowed for a smooth transition and the program's fourth bowl game in five seasons.
However, other universities seem overly committed to situations that just aren't working. Aforementioned Tennessee fell to 0-6 in the SEC after a four overtime loss to Missouri. The 0-5 start the Vols carried into last Saturday was the third such beginning since Derek Dooley took over in 2010. Tennessee must win its final two games to reach the postseason, or miss a bowl game for a second straight season -- a previously unfathomable proposition for a benchmark of football supremacy in decades prior.
That Tennessee has not cut ties with Dooley yet is surprising. Dooley's hire was made, in part, because Lane Kiffin left the university after the coaching carousel had stopped. Consider having to locate, negotiate with and hire a coach in mid-January like Christmas shopping after New Year's. Should UT dismiss Dooley, its hesitance means jockeying with Auburn (most likely) on the proverbial Black Friday.
Arizona having its hire even before the final game of 2011 has produced a season that most would agree has exceeded expectations. Rodriguez was able to craft his staff while other programs were still seeking a head coach. He had ample time on the recruiting trail and laid a foundation for the program beyond this season.
Byrne's search was also played close to the chest and free from interference. There were plenty of names floated, sure: Mark Hudspeth, a very good coach who has Louisiana-Lafayette in the thick of the Sun Belt Conference championship race and on pace for its second consecutive bowl game; Larry Fedora, another very good coach who accepted the North Carolina vacancy after leading Southern Miss to 12-2 and the Conference USA championship.
Others had their suggestions, but Byrne was steadfast in his choice, without allowing leaks that could have sabotaged the deal. Arizona State originally pursued June Jones, but the surfacing of reports before a contract was finalized caused a kerfuffle. When Byrne introduced Rodriguez, there was never any doubt about the athletic program's commitment to him.
It's paying off in 2012. It should continue to pay off in the future.