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December 19, 2007
Many bowl teams will have new leaders
No person meant more to the resurgence of Navy's football program than Paul Johnson.
Navy had gone 1-20 in the two seasons before Johnson's arrival as coach. The Midshipmen have posted a 45-29 record in the six years since, and have earned bowl bids a school-record five consecutive years.
But they'll make that record bowl appearance Thursday without the man most responsible for the Middies' stunning turnaround. Georgia Tech hired Johnson away from Navy on Dec. 7. Offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo was promoted to replace Johnson, and he will coach the Middies in the Poinsettia Bowl against Utah.
"I am who I am," Niumatalolo said. "I'm not trying to come in here and be General Patton or anything. I am just trying to do the best I can."
Navy's situation is hardly unique. Nine teams are preparing for bowls while also dealing with coaching changes.
Michigan's Lloyd Carr is coaching the Wolverines in the Capital One Bowl in his final game before retirement, and Southern Miss' Jeff Bower will lead the Golden Eagles in the Papajohns.com Bowl despite announcing his resignation last month.
Carr and Bower are the exceptions to the rule. The other seven schools in this situation head into the final games of their season with familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. That includes Georgia Tech, which named defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta as its interim coach after firing Chan Gailey.
"It's definitely different," Georgia Tech punter Durant Brooks said. "It brings a new challenge to the table."
But it's not an insurmountable challenge.
Teams in the midst of coaching changes went 4-2 in bowls last season, so it certainly is possible to focus on the present – even when all your fans are more worried about the program's future.
Michigan and Southern Miss are hoping to copy the formula Miami enjoyed last season, when the Hurricanes edged Nevada 21-20 in the MPC Computers Bowl to send fired coach Larry Coker out as a winner.
Both teams already have hired their coaches for next year – Larry Fedora at Southern Miss and Rich Rodriguez at Michigan – so they don't have to worry about the distractions of a coaching search. They instead can focus all their attention on giving their current coaches a fitting sendoff.
Bower resigned under pressure last month after leading Southern Miss to 14 consecutive winning seasons; that included 10 bowl bids in the past 11 seasons. Golden Eagles linebacker Gerald McRath said Bower's job status hasn't changed the coach's approach as the Eagles head into their bowl game.
"The coaches are still coaching hard," McRath said. "They're not going to lie down. They teach character. They teach how to handle adversity. And that's what this is. Are you going to lie down and point fingers, or are you going to step up?"
McRath indicated the players have chosen the latter option. They want to make sure Bower wins his last game.
"We owe it to Coach Bower and this staff," McRath said. "He's done so much for this program. He's helped build this program. He's the reason why I'm here in the first place."
"We're just trying to go out with a bang and send him out with a victory," wide receiver Mario Manningham said. "It makes it special, knowing this is his last game, and God knows the last time he won a bowl game, you know what I'm saying? We've got to send him out right, with a victory."
But the rest of the outgoing coaches from bowl teams won't remain with their teams through the postseason. They either have moved on to their new schools or already were fired from their old ones.
The teams in those positions are hoping to follow the leads of Central Michigan and Boston College, which won their bowls last season after temporarily promoting longtime assistants.
Central Michigan interim coach Jeff Quinn, now at Cincinnati, led the Chippewas to a 31-14 Motor City Bowl triumph over Middle Tennessee. Boston College's Frank Spaziani directed Boston College to a 25-24 Meineke Car Care Bowl victory over Navy in his one game as interim coach before returning to his more familiar position of defensive coordinator.
Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Houston, UCLA and Texas A&M have copied that strategy this season. Houston named cornerbacks coach Chris Thurmond as its interim coach for the Texas Bowl after Art Briles left to take over at Baylor. The other four schools assigned their defensive coordinators to coach the bowls.
Promoting an assistant to take over as interim coach doesn't necessarily mean business as usual. Brooks noted that Tech's practices have increased in intensity since Tenuta replaced the more mild-mannered Gailey.
"Coach Tenuta is a little more hardcore, a little more 'his way or the highway' kind of deal," Brooks said. "That's the main difference. He set the rules down. If a meeting's at 8, you'd better be there at 7:55. If you're there after that, you're late. We did a little bit of running before practice to get loose. We just went straight to stretching with Coach Gailey."
When an assistant takes over for a bowl, it often is considered an audition of sorts. Quinn entered last year's Motor City Bowl as a candidate to become Central Michigan's permanent coach, though the Chippewas eventually hired Butch Jones instead.
UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker finds himself in a similar situation. A victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl could improve Walker's chances of being hired as the full-time replacement for Karl Dorrell, who was fired last month.
Walker is the only interim coach with a chance of becoming a long-term solution. Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Houston and Texas A&M already have hired coaches for the 2008 season, though none of those guys will be coaching their new teams in the bowls.
Rarely does a new coach get hired early enough to lead his new team in a bowl, though Brian Kelly's fast start at Cincinnati has shown the long-term benefits of that strategy. Kelly led Cincinnati to an International Bowl victory over Western Michigan last season less than a month after being hired away from Central Michigan. Kelly was able to start that soon because the International Bowl didn't take place until Jan. 6.
This season, Cincinnati finished the regular season in the national rankings for the first time ever. Punter Kevin Huber said the Bearcats benefited from the momentum Kelly established last winter while preparing them for the bowl.
"Coach Kelly came in, sold his program, sold his system and everybody bought into it really well," Huber said. "I think that was a huge success for the bowl game and going into this season."
Navy is trying a combination of both strategies: promoting from within and letting the new guy coach the bowl.
"With the continuity in our staff, we can hit the ground running and just go," Niumatalolo said. "I'm excited about that."
Staying focused amid uncertainty
Here's how the teams that went to bowls with uncertain coaching situations last season fared in their postseason contests.
The Crimson Tide fell 34-31 in the Independence Bowl to Oklahoma State under interim coach Joe Kines, who had served as a defensive coordinator on the staff of fired coach Mike Shula.
The Sun Devils lost 41-24 to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl in their last game under Dirk Koetter, who had been fired at the end of the regular season.
Boston College rallied to beat Navy 25-24 under interim coach Frank Spaziani, who had worked as a defensive coordinator on former Eagles coach Tom O'Brien's staff. Spaziani stayed at Boston College as defensive coordinator after Jeff Jagodzinski replaced O'Brien, who left for North Carolina State.
The Chippewas beat Middle Tennessee 31-14 under interim coach Jeff Quinn, CMU's offensive line coach who was a candidate for the permanent coaching position at the time. Quinn decided a couple of days later to join former Central Michigan coach Brian Kelly's staff at Cincinnati. Central Michigan filled its coaching vacancy by hiring former West Virginia wide receiver coach Butch Jones.
The Bearcats hired Brian Kelly away from Central Michigan early enough to allow him to coach in the International Bowl. The Bearcats beat Western Michigan 27-24 in their first game under Kelly.
Hurricanes won the MPC Computers Bowl 21-20 over Nevada in their final game under Larry Coker, who had been fired at the end of the regular season.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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