In baseball, they call it the “hot stove league”. The off season when you talk “what if” and “I wonder when”. And for college football fans, the 2017-18 college football season is over. That can mean only one thing....
So let’s play “hot stove league” just a little and throw around an idea.
It’s December 19, 2009. With just over two minutes remaining in the game, I can still see Damaso Munoz diving into the endzone after a 35 yard kickoff return. He was flagged for celebration - the dive started at about the four yard line and there was no one near him - and the TV showed Greg Schiano grinning. After all, Munoz was a senior playing his last game. Who cared about the 15-yard penalty when you were about to be crowned champions of the St. Petersburg Bowl presented by Beef 'O' Brady's, formerly known as the St. Petersburg Bowl and currently known as the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl?
Rutgers won that game 45-24 over UCF, then coached by George O’Leary, and then part of Conference USA. Both teams finished the regular season at 8-4, RU going 9-4 and UCF 8-5 with the bowl results.
Ahh, the good old days.
This year, Rutgers went 4-8 while UCF, under Scott Frost, went 13-0, beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, and talking heads on TV were saying, “Did UCF get cheated by not being in the CFP?” Hey, the governor of Florida even declared UCF national champions! In Florida.
And in case you thought that was silly (as I did), it wasn’t the first time it happened.
But, back to Rutgers and UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
What happened!?!? In 2009 these two teams were pretty close. One had a “rising star” in Greg Schiano, the other a veteran coach with a very strong resume. To wit....
George O’Leary spent eight years at Georgia Tech, running up a respectable 52-33 record. He was lured to Notre Dame in 2001, but ran into some....uhh, technical issues with his resume and resigned that post just five days into his tenure. He resurrected his career in 2004 becoming the head coach at UCF. He went 0-11 that first year.
But he didn’t win games at Georgia Tech by accident, and O’Leary turned the Golden Knights’ program around, going 34-39 as he faced Schiano and the Knights in St. Petersburg that night. From 2010-2014, O’Leary would go 47-19. And then a disastrously bad 2015 season caused him to resign half way through the season. The Golden Knights finished 0-12 in 2015 and that ushered in the short, but very successful, Scott Frost era in Orlando.
On the flip side, in the two years after that bowl game, Schiano went 13-12 before he decided hs talents were worthy of the NFL.
And while the 2009 meeting gave the scarlet the victory over the golden, the two programs have been anything but similar since then. Or even before. From the time George O’Leary took over in Orlando (2004) through the moment Scott Frost shook hands with Gus Malzahn on New Year’s night in Atlanta, UCF has won seven more games than Rutgers, 100-93. And that includes two seasons when the Golden Knights went 0-fer, 0-11 in 2004 and 0-12 in 2015.
Now before everyone goes wack-a-doodle saying, "But UCF is in the American and Rutgers' schedule is so much tougher being in the B1G East", I know. But you have to play and win whoever happens to be on your schedule. And UCF did that more than Rutgers. So, let's move forward.
UCF hired a tainted, but very successful, experienced coach to run its program in 2004. Rutgers took a chance in 2001 on a smart, brash coordinator with no head coaching experience. It followed that up with the fill in by Kyle Flood, another coach without prior time running a program. And continued with coordinators in the hiring of Chris Ash. In fact, Rutgers has seldom hired head coaches in the “Bob era” - since I was in college. Frank Burns, Dick Anderson, Greg Schiano all came on board without ever running a team. Doug Graber had one year as a college HC at Montana State and Terry Shea had two years as the boss at San Jose State. Together they went 40-80-1 leading the scarlet. So much for experience being the key to success.
So, what does it all mean?
What would you like it to mean?
When the last opening occurred and Chris Ash was hired, there were more than a few people who felt Rutgers should shell out the big bucks and bring in an experienced coach rather than a coordinator....if that could even be done. Greg Schiano came in with no experience and there are those around these parts who are still waiting for his statue to be erected. Experienced coaches can be impactful, but still not get the results fans want; Jim Harbaugh has yet to win a division title in the Big Ten and is 1-2 in bowl games.
UCF caught lightning in a bottle with Scott Frost. But they did pretty well before that with George O’Leary. Success with both a veteran and a coordinator. There’s no perfect plan. There are, though, perfect scenarios that allow a coach to hit paydirt right out of the box.
Rutgers is in the Big Ten. UCF is not. Whoever UCF hires, will they duplicate - or even come close - to what Scott Frost did? Rutgers has a ton of advantages (read: image, conference affiliation, money) and, simply put, needs to capitalize on that. There are always G5 schools that occasionally get these hot shot coaches; UCF this year, Houston in 2015, Boise State a few years further back. The key is long term success. Rutgers needs to be - and can be - more consistent as it moves ahead.
And not just be next year’s UCF.