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On The Importance Of Buzz Around Your Athletic Programs: Why Bill Stewart and Ralph Friedgen Met The Same Fate

I once got into a heated argument with a fellow at a bar regarding the amateur status of NCAA athletes.  My premise in that argument was that for all the money the major college sports bring in, that the athletes themselves deserve some of it.  My adversary's point was that paying the athletes a stipend would ruin the "charm" of the games because the kids would no-longer be doing it "for the love of the game,"  that then it would only be about money, and besides, the kids were getting a free education.

Were I in that argument again, I think I could point to the forced removal of Bill Stewart at West Virginia and Ralph Friedgen at Maryland as evidence that college football isn't about charm, love, amateur status, etc.  It isn't even really about winning now.  It is all about money.  Winning, of course, helps with revenue, but the single-most important factor affecting fans coming to games, and teams getting prime-time TV attention, has to be buzz.  An excited fanbase means a happy, and profitable, athletic department.

Stewart andFriedgen have some similarities.  Both were long-time assistants.  Both set three-year records for wins at their respective schools.  Both seem like exceedingly nice guys.  And both are missing a quality that I think most top college programs now require of coaches: some kind of aura that attracts media and makes fans swoon.

Consider that most media outlets are reporting that Maryland's top choice to replace Friedgen is Mike Leach.  Leach is quirky, interesting, easy to write a story about, and the one word most often associated with his name in media pieces is "genius."  But if you look at his record, he has mostly posted 8 or 9 win seasons with one double-digit win total.  He is a nine-win coach.  In other words, he is roughly the equivalent of what Marlyand already had.  The difference?  Leach will excite a fan-base that clearly had tuned out Maryland football - 20,000 empty seats per home game had to send that message loud-and-clear to the Maryland athletic department.

Stewart has never impressed the WVU fanbase.  His odd (but memorable) quotes, his sideline demeanor, his general Smilin' Bill From Martinsville hokum have not played well with most Mountaineer fans, not only because it is sometimes so grating, but because it may be that that Bobby Bowden model of down-home football coach has fallen into disfavor.  It seems that fans now want their Head Coach to fit the mold of omni-competent, steely-eyed, gunslinger/assassin.  For every Bobby Bowden, there now seem to be about seven Nick Saban's.

Watching the events play out the last few days at the University of Maryland, I was struck by the similarity of tone in the comments made by WVU AD Oliver Luck, and Maryland AD Kevin Anderson

Here are two quotes:

Luck:  " I didn't believe we had an opportunity to win a national championship with the direction of the program. At the end of the day, results matter and we weren't getting the results. Our season-ticket base has declined from Coach Stewart's first year to the present me, is an indication our fans aren't satisfied with the product." 

Anderson:  "I want somebody who can have the kind of intellect to communicate and to bring the best out of our players, both as a football player, as a student and as a person.  I believe that if we hire the right person that can do that, that we'll be successful in all phases.  We will immediately begin a national search to recruit a new head coach who has the experience and the successful track record to deliver a top-25 program that is consistently competitive at the highest level, who will make the commitment to the program's long-term success and who will energize our fan base.  The decision I about our vision forward as well as solidifying our football coaching staff and our recruiting efforts for the long term."

Remove the names from the quotes, and they say almost the same thing:  we need buzz for fans and recruits, and the guy we've got now isn't providing that, which is why both of them will soon be ex-head coaches.