- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
It is a busy time here at Bottom 10 headquarters. It always is. Because, as it says in the Good Book, there is no rest for dreary … er, weary. And these days, as the 2021 college football season trudges toward the oasis that is December (or more likely a mirage), there is SO much weary, and thus so little rest to be found.
But for once we aren’t focused on the usual Bottom 10 suspects. You know the types. Those mid-major teams who struggle to hold off smaller, weaker FCS opponents. Or a multi-time Bottom 10 champion such as Kansas, who was ranked at the top/bottom of our standings one week ago, largely because of the Jayhawks’ continuing road struggles, a record of 56 consecutive Big 12 losses away from Lawrence.
Instead, our eyes were drawn elsewhere as last Saturday unfolded like wax paper origami. First a Florida team that one year ago came within a quarter of winning the SEC championship suddenly became one of those types of teams we are so familiar with, the kind who can’t stop a run-of-the-mill FCS offense.
Then we saw the Kansas game, but we weren’t looking at Kansas. That historically awful road slump suddenly ended in OT, a one-point win celebrated on the turf of the once-proudest of all Big 12 foes, the University of Texas. We were gazing through the Bottom 10 looking glass, watching Dan Mullen and Steve Sarkisian crash through that glass like Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop.”
In case you were wondering, the Bible verse referred to earlier is from the Book of Lamentations, chapter 5, verse 5: “Our pursuers are upon our necks. We are weary and have no rest.” Lamenting indeed. Misery cloaked in two very different shades of orange, from the Day-Glo draping of Florida’s Swamp to the burnt, nay burned out, hues of Texas’ DKR Memorial Stadium.
Florida and Texas have combined for seven national championships, 40 conference titles, five Heisman trophies and nearly 1,700 wins, producing nearly 100 consensus All-Americans and earning 103 bowl appearances.
And yet this fall, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, they are a combined 9-11, and both will spend their remaining two regular-season games scrambling to achieve the eligibility that would earn them their 104th and 105th bowl berths.
Yet somehow last weekend, the Gators found themselves in a rope-a-dope situation against FCS Samford. The Bulldogs came to Gainesville with a 4-5 record and ranked fifth in the Southern Conference.
Yet they scored 42 points in the first half, a record for a Florida opponent. Even in the eventual 70-52 loss, they equaled the record for the most points scored by an FCS team against an FBS squad since the NCAA created the two divisions in 1978, to go with 530 yards of offense, the most pinned to Florida’s defensive stat sheet by an opponent this season.
Speaking of defensive, Florida’s Mullen (who, oh by the way, fired his defensive coordinator the week before Samford) bristled at postgame questions about a disappointing performance.
“Calling a win disappointing is disrespectful to the game and our players,” said Mullen, in his fourth season as Florida head coach, continuing to sharpen the “How dare you?!” professorial tone he has employed with increasing frequency as his team has lost eight of its past 13 games.
Meanwhile, after Texas fell to 31-point underdog Kansas for the first time ever in Austin, the Horns’ fifth straight loss, Sarkisian was asked Monday how to fix his seemingly rudderless program. While Mullen has started delivering his quotes as if they were lawn darts, Sark’s podium speeches have meandered around like a dart without feathers.
On Monday, he calmly responded to the “What now?” query in a hushed, punctuation-free tone for several minutes, saying somewhere in the middle of his periphrastic response: “One of the mentors of mine always told me that playing bad and winning is sometimes the worst thing that can happen to you because you don’t address the issues that you have on your team and we unfortunately have lost a lot of close games, so it continues to present issues to us that we have to address.”
The biggest of those issues to be addressed, for both coaches, is the ever-increasing number of those issues and how to address them all.
Every single time Sarkisian has stepped to the podium over the past month and a half, he might as well have walked onstage with a fire extinguisher. He is the school’s fourth head coach in less than a decade and has lost five straight games. So his postgame press conferences have been spent having to address game losses, transfer losses, players lost to injury (it was announced Monday that star running back Bijan Robinson is out for the season) and a reported loss of locker room morale, an issue exacerbated by an assistant coach’s Quentin Tarantino-esque f-bomb rant on the team bus after one of those losses, recorded and posted by a Longhorns player.
It’s the perfect example of what happens when a program as high profile as Texas loses a lot of football games. Assistant coaches have been chewing out players during rides home from defeats since teams were still boarding trains and horse-drawn carriages. When everything is running smoothly, it’s a quickly forgotten moment that the outside world either never knows about or largely ignores if they do.
But when you’re losing, to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine who lives in a house full of teenagers, everything becomes a thing. Rumors of replacements, rumors of looming NFL opportunities, rumors about rumors that someone said might become rumors. Everything is a thing.
“The part we forget in these situations is how it affects the players, who are all still kids, by the way,” said Roman Harper, the former Alabama All-American who played 11 years in the NFL and is now an analyst with the SEC Network. “So, when things get tough, how your coach handles that is everything.”
Harper ought to know. During his four years with the Tide, he was recruited by head coach Mike DuBose, played for Dennis Franchione until “Coach Fran” shocked the team by leaving for Texas A&M after two seasons, served a couple of months under Mike Price, who was fired for using his corporate credit card for adult purposes before he coached a single game, then finished out with two seasons under Mike Shula, who was fired one season after Harper left for the pros.
Midseason firings of assistant coaches can work if handled correctly, but not if it comes off in the locker room as random, emotional moves made with no explanation to the players themselves — the people who were recruited by those assistants and also work with them in position rooms each day. It’s a much tighter relationship than they ever have with the head coach.
Continued Harper: “That’s when as a teenager who is working at this 24 hours a day, they start asking, ‘Where do I really fit in here?’ It makes it difficult to play as hard as you can for that guy if it doesn’t feel like you’re all really in this together. Like a real team.”
In other words, that’s a great way to go from nearly stopping No. 1 Alabama at home in Week 3 to becoming a hot mess that can’t stop South Carolina or Samford less than two months later. Or from a 4-1 team that comes within a touchdown of knocking off then-No. 6 Oklahoma in Dallas on Oct. 9 to a team that hasn’t won a game since.
Only the people in those locker rooms in Gainesville and Austin know what that atmosphere is really like. That’s all about that air that’s being blown in and out of that room.
“Coaches in that situation will tell you that the outside noise isn’t a factor. If they do tell you that, then they are not being honest with you,” explains Lou Holtz, who held seven head coaching jobs, six in college. “The best advice I can give them is to go talk to other head coaches who have been in those shoes, guys who have had jobs at the highest profile jobs, guys who lost those jobs and guys who managed to keep the job even after their situations got bleak. You don’t know what you don’t know, and unless you’ve been there, you don’t know.”
Mullen and Sarkisian needn’t look far for those who know how to lose and survive. They can start right here with us, we who have long lived in the Bottom 10 multiverse. They don’t even need to ask for directions on how to get here. Heck, they’re already knocking on the door.
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