College Football: New Year Should Bring New Coach To Bryant

Dec 21, 2016

While coaches Jim Fleming of the University of Rhode Island and Phil Estes of Brown shop for football talent these days, Bryant athletics director Bill Smith searches for a head coach to replace Marty Fine, who resigned on Dec. 1 “to pursue other opportunities.”

Smith said he expects to fill the post before the New Year from “an outstanding pool of candidates.” I’m surprised the search has taken so long. Fine built a solid program is his 13 years as head coach and despite 5-6 records the last two seasons established a tradition of winning. Bryant football does not need rebuilding. That plus a supportive administration led by President Ron Machtley, excellent training facilities and a decent stadium make this an attractive assignment. Nevertheless, procedures must be followed.

Bryant is an ideal position for a young assistant coach with sufficient experience to warrant a crack at a head job. Or a seasoned Division III coach. But a look at Bryant hires in the major men’s sports in the last 10 years indicates a different approach. Tim O’Shea in basketball, Steve Owens in baseball and Mike Pressler in lacrosse had significant experience as Division I head coaches before coming to Bryant. O’Shea spent seven years at Ohio Univesity, Owens 11 at Le Moyne and Pressler 16 at Duke.

By most measures, Fine succeeded at Bryant. His overall record was 80-61. In Division II he won Northeast-10 championships in 2006 and 2007 and took the Bulldogs to the NCAA playoffs. He guided the transition to Division I in 2008 and posted a 31-25 record in the D-I Northeast Conference. In 2014 his team finished 8-3 and attained its first national ranking. He was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson national coach of the year award. The 2015 and 2016 seasons were disappointing but not cause for dismissal. He and his coaches produced all-league selections, Gold Helmet Award winners and upstanding campus citizens.  Officially, his reason for leaving is between him and the Bryant administration. Unofficially, when a coach resigns to pursue other opportunities, he or she usually faces being fired as an alternative. And no one wants “fired” on a job application.

Fine’s resignation was another lowlight in a college football season full of them in Rhode Island. We have only four teams here in the Ocean State. URI, Brown and Bryant had losing records. URI gave up 12 touchdowns in a game. Brown lost to Columbia, the perennial last-place team in the Ivy League. Bryant blew more leads than Hillary Clinton. Only Salve Regina, the Division III stalwart in Newport, produced a winner and a post-season appearance.

We know we are not Alabama, but are we this bad?

At URI, the Rams lost more than they won for the 28th time since their 1985 championship season. At home. On the road. It didn’t make a difference. URI was an equal opportunity loser. This year the record was 2-9.

Rhody’s results over the decades make defending the program’s existence a stiff challenge. You can explain away the 55-6 trouncing at Kansas to start the 2016 season. Kansas is a big-time program. And the $500,000 check must have taken some sting out of the loss. But how do you account for the 51-21 loss at Harvard? Or the 35-0 wipeout at Villanova.  Or the mother of all blowouts this fall, that 84-7 pounding from James Madison.  84 points? That’s a dozen touchdown, folks. And URI’s only score came on Harold Cooper’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Renewed cries to drop football ensued, but the athletics director Thorr Bjorn stood by his team, as he did in 2015, when he told me that football still draws people to the Kingston campus who might otherwise not visit. Okay, drop to a less competitive conference, commentators suggested. Easier said than done. URI walked away from the Northeast Conference, Bryant’s league, four years ago, so it’s doubtful the NEC would extend another invitation. The Patriot League is the other regional Division I conference, but its members are private schools with smaller enrollments and higher academic standards and unlikely to be interested in URI.

So, the tough Colonial Athletic Association looks like URI’s football home for the foreseeable future, which raises this question again: If Maine and New Hampshire can win in the CAA, why can’t URI?

What’s going on at Brown? After winning Ivy League championships in 1999, 2005 (outright) and 2008, the Bears have gone into title hibernation while Penn with five championships, Harvard with four and Princeton with two have ruled the Ancient Eight. Brown has endured three consecutive non-winning seasons overall and four consecutive 3-4 finishes in the league. With a few exceptions every fall, Brown players have been average, which explains the average results.  Gone are the days when Brown quarterbacks and receivers ranked among the best nationally and running backs routinely shredded defenses. This downward spiral no doubt concerns Estes and his staff. Perhaps renovations to the football facilities will help them recruit the better players they need to win again.

Thanks to Salve Regina, the Ocean State football scene was not a complete bust. The Seahawks were 8-1 in the regular season and lost to Framingham State, 37-34, in the inaugural New England Bowl. Head coach Kevin Gilmartin is 30-12 in his four seasons, and the Seahawks have played in six consecutive Division III post-season games. I wonder if the Bryant search committee considered him.