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No More Mr. Nice Guy: Bower Fired at Southern Miss

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Jeff Bower was fired this morning, two days after securing his 14th straight winning season at Southern Miss, per "sources close to the program" or "a member of the football staff." My dad, a USM alum who spent a year decades ago as an assistant with Bower, thinks this is "just awful." I don’t know.

His will be the widespread sentiment even among partisans with no such personal ties, because as long as Bower has been the face of a regional, non-mystique program like Southern Miss, it felt like you knew him. He’s just a guy in manner and speech, and ostensibly deserves some loyalty – he was a successful quarterback at USM in the seventies, an assistant for most of the next decade and a half and his teams in the late nineties were good enough to finish in the top 20 twice (1997 and 1999), shut out Alabama and inch within a couple spots of the top ten as late as November (2000) and dominate its new conference, as good a five-year run as any coach has ever had in Hattiesburg, and good enough to draw serious overtures from bigger schools. Bower was rumored to be the man to replace Ray Goff at Georgia, his home state, but he didn’t go. He was true to his school, graduated his players at a terrific clip, never had a hint of NCAA scrutiny, and that, along with the consistent winning records and bowl games, turned Bower into a kind of low-key institution. Everything Lloyd Carr was to Michigan, Jeff Bower was to Southern Miss.

That analogy cuts both ways, though. As with Carr, despite the undeniable, admirable consistency, Bower’s greatest success is a decade behind him, and the coaching reaper has loomed larger with every new disappointment. Bigger schools have not called in years, not because everybody just knew he was so unwilling to go, but because Southern Miss football dropped off the map. The schemes never changed, the offense never rose from the bottom third of the national rankings; never five wins, true, but never ten, either. Three Conference USA titles in the league’s first four seasons were met with just one over the last eight, and the "winning record" streak consistently hinged on salvaging unfulfilling, 7-5 records against UAB, East Carolina or Arkansas State at the end of the year, even as Louisville and TCU bolted for greener pastures and a respectable league rapidly deteriorated into a midweek distraction, the MAC of the South, with no teams anywhere near the polls. His teams are 16-36 this decade against teams that finished with winning records, any teams, and of the big wins over BCS teams in that span – over Alabama and Oklahoma State in 2000, Ok. State again in 2001, Illinois in 2002, Nebraska in 2004, N.C. State in 2006 – only that Nebraska team (final record: 5-6 in Bill Callahan’s first season) even finished within a game of .500. The biggest victory of the last three seasons was an ordinary home win last year against Houston, which later avenged the loss in the conference championship.

The current team, returning an overwhelming number of starters off a division title in 2006, was the unanimous favorite to win C-USA in the summer, and I predicted it would win double digit games for the first time in Bower’s tenure. With a conference championship game and a bowl game on top of a twelve-game regular season, there was no excuse not to expect that kind of success against such a depleted conference with no other apparent challenger. This was not Bower’s worst team, but against that backdrop, it was his most disappointing. It’s not like the expectations are unrealistic, or that coaches are under a daily pressure cooker. USM is not the kind of place that pulls its hair out with every loss; it is excusable, for example, to lose at Boise State, which has lost once on its home field in five years. It is not excusable, however, to be thoroughly trounced without an ounce of fight or a clue on national television. And it certainly is not excusable under any circumstances – through whatever combination of injuriy, malaise, weather, disease, depression or famine – to follow that disgraceful performance with an all-time horror show of a defeat to winless and completely hapless Rice at home. Bower’s fate may have been sealed there – the subsequent loss to Central Florida was bad, and the subsequent loss to Memphis was bad, but to lose at home to Rice, Rice – Rice! – a team that actually managed to look more inept in victory that night than even its horrible numbers could convey, was the final, depressing link in the evolution from stale to absolutely putrid, the worst defeat of Bower’s career, and doubly unacceptable given the high goals the team still had intact to that point. The season was spoiled there, and with it possibly everything Bower had built Southern Miss to stand for as a mentally tough team that takes care of its business. Anything is possible after a loss to Rice. The bottom is suddenly, horrifyingly visible. There is another bowl game in three weeks, but clinging to an uninspring, six-point win over Arkansas State to secure a trip to the Bowl (it’s not sponsored by the restaurant chain, see, but by the web site of the restaurant chain) does not cleanse the foul taste of sub-mediocrity.

The look we know all to well.
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The shame is that Bower had to be pushed after all he’s done for the university, and couldn’t read the writing on the wall and leave on his own terms. He does deserve that. And the move is obviously a risky one, because the odds of USM getting another boss that meets the expectations of a conference championship every three years or so – or that even does what Bower did in guiding the program to eleven bowl games in twelve years – are dramatically lower than the odds of hiring a worn-out retread or generic coach who turns the program into Memphis or UAB, a mediocre team with a seven or eight-win ceiling and a two or three-win floor, and hardly any way to distinguish which result you may get from year-to-year. This describes most of Conference USA right now, and the only reason it hasn’t described Southern Miss as far as I can tell is that Jeff Bower, at the very least, has never allowed the bottom to fall out to such an embarrassing degree. So the Eagles can do much, much worse, and the odds may be that they will.

Can they do better? Yes – briefly. A young hire that pays off in quick success is certainly possible, and will be great for the program in the short term, before he’s poached for big bucks by a bigger school on his way up the ladder. Mid-majors all want to make the splash hire, the Urban Meyer, Bobby Petrino, Steve Kragthorpe, Dennis Franchione, Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins who will take the program back into the polls, but the reality is that those coaches will move up quickly or, if they stay – like Bower or his nearest longtime parallels, Pat Hill at Fresno State and simultaneously-deposed Sonny Lubick at Colorado State – they will eventually succumb to the limitations of the location and drift back to the pack, and that coach will eventually stagnate and be forced out. See not only Bower and Lubick, but LaVell Edwards and Fisher DeBerry before them. Hill’s time will come. Chris Peterson will be paid lavishly soon to leave Boise State; ditto Bronco Mendenhall at BYU, or else his program will eventually move to the middle, too, as it did for Edwards. There are no exceptions to this.

I prefer Southern go the supernova route, hire a young, innovative guy and hope he pays spectacular dividends before moving on. At least we’d have those three or four great seasons and get a glimpse at the moon before descending back to Earth. Because in the long run, Southern Miss is just Southern Miss, and I don’t know that anyone can do a better job with that over an extended period of time than Jeff Bower.

(HT: Frequent commenter osuvandy)