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All Hail L-Fed the Hat...Any Day Now...

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First, a disclaimer: it's not a done deal. Officially, no offer has been extended and interviews for the Southern Miss job are still underway, with Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson reportedly flying in today after being grounded by the nasty weather in the middle of the country Sunday. But all signs at Southern Miss point to Larry Fedora, if the price is right:

Sources in Mississippi still maintain Fedora will be named head coach at a press conference Tuesday or Wednesday. One source said Fedora's wife, Christi, looked at houses in the area and his son, Dillon, talked with a high school football coach.

But Southern Miss athletic director Richard Giannini emphatically has said it's not a done deal. Apparently, he planned to interview Wilson. There's also a report Giannini might interview another offensive coordinator from a BCS school.

Fedora obviously hasn't signed on the dotted line. He's back in Stillwater. No one saw him packing boxes.

The primary reason he hasn't been named head coach revolves around assurances his assistant coaches will receive higher-than-normal salaries for a Conference USA school.

Fedora is bargaining from a position of strength. One of the highest paid offensive coordinators in the country, Fedora earns $393,000. Last year he was given a five-year contract. Guaranteed.

That's why Fedora could turn down Rice's head coaching job last year and an opportunity to be Alabama's offensive coordinator. It's also why he might be playing college football's version of Texas Hold 'Em with Southern Miss officials.

USM assistants made a combined $800,000 this season. The offensive and defensive coordinators were paid $130,000.

If Fedora can convince USM officials to commit $1.2 million a year to his staff, Fedora could pay coordinators around $230,000 each and his other six assistants close to $130,000.
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Bring unto us your perpetual five o'clock shadow, Fedora, and let u see that it is good.
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The mainstream "sources in Mississippi" reporting Fedora is the guy consist of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, which reported Saturday that Fedora was offered and accepted the job. This report was based on...a report from OSU's Scout.com site, GoPokes.com. Which has since retracted the story based on the apparent financial wrangling yet to be hashed out. Er. I have more confident (and probably more reliable) sources in my inbox who insist it's Fedora all the way, but the Ledger didn't even run a "no new news" update in today's edition, which should be mandatory after its weekend teasers.

I say pay that man. Fedora is late of successful stints at OSU and quarterbacks coach at Florida, where, as Señor Swindle points out, he was one of the primary play-callers in Ron Zook's "quality control" system and got more out of Chris Leak as a sophomore than Meyer/Mullen did the following two seasons. USM wants some innovation offensively after a decade of pure woe under Jeff Bower, whose lo-fi, one-back offense was a black hole for a good half dozen soon-fired coordinators through the years. Fedora also presumably has some recruiting chops in the area: his most productive player among many productive players at Ok. State the last two years was running back Dantrell Savage, who was plucked out of nearby Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Southern Miss will always be the kind of program that thrives on a JUCO influx, so if Fedora brings a better pipeline to the state's rich two-year talent - even if most of the best players are non-qualifiers tucked away for safe keeping at Pearl River or some awful place by Florida States and Alabamas and the like - more power to him. Southern message boards are already imagining 40-point-per-game explosiveness by 2009; I'd settle for 30, a mark USM hit once under Bower, in 1998 (unless you round up in 2005, a very similar, frustrating year opposite one of the worst USM defenses of the era). I'd settle for whatever it takes offensively if Fedora brings that defensive pride back - the Eagles led the league in defense, which is like leading the NBA in fewest tattoos: the trend in C-USA is frustratingly towards wide open, point-a-minute shootouts between teams that don't even pretend to want to cover or tackle one another (kind of like, uh, the Big 12 as of late), and evolving into just another point factory in a series of pinball games is not appealing.

But whatever it takes to reassume the position of league kingpin. Given the incessant Bowden/DuBose chatter, rumor that reverberated loudly enough to make real headlines in generally credible outlets, I'm tentatively thrilled with the prospect of an upwardly mobile, ruggedly-stubbled, non-retread mind such as L-Fed's using Southern as a stepping stone to fame and riches at a bigger school. Really, I don't mind - we'll survive. In the meantime: thrive. Go for broke.

As the process has gone on, as the novelty of wild speculation has worn off and a multitude of names - 75 inquiries? - come and go and get kicked around and fall by the wayside, the discussion of "who will be the new coach?" has shifted to "what are the expectations of the new coach?" which is a perfectly reasonable question to ask of a decidedly second tier program that just fired a coach well into his second decade of winning. A substantial segment of the USM fan base insists the school made a huge mistake by dumping Bower after 14 winning seasons, and will rue the day it callously pushed such consistent, loyal success out the door. And for what? This is what the national media wanted to know in the immediate aftermath of Bower's firing, too: who else, exactly, would ever dare venture into Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to coach a Conference USA program with no upward mobility? Ivan Maisel played fortuneteller of doom for this consituency:

Southern Mississippi begins a search for a coach who fits what it needs more than Bower does. It won't happen. The Golden Eagles will find that out soon enough.
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[Emphasis mine]

Unambiguous, that. It won't happen. Not even a chance, huh? Not even worth the slightest qualifier?

I dealt with this picture of my alma mater once already, but it kept eating at me over the last week and the contention between "pro-Bower" and more optimistic factions has only grown online as the argument gets back to expectations. What are Southern Miss' expectations? To finish with five losses, two full games back of the conference champion in the standings and go to a barely profitable bowl game that didn't exist five years ago? Under Bower, that's been the team's fate seven of the last eight seasons. A lot of people think those are perfectly reasonable expectations for Southern Miss.

Maybe they're right. For some idea, let's compare Southern Miss to Southern Miss. Historically, putting Bower's 17 seasons against the 17 seasons immediately preceding his tenure - roughly covering USM's "modern era" since the mid-seventies, when it began playing a schedule comparable to what it plays these days - and the history of the program since it began playing a full schedule during the Great Depression:

1991-2007 1974-1990 1935-1990
Win % (Ntl. Rank) .595 (35) .599 (31) .643 (15)
Winning Seasons 15 13 44
Losing Seasons 2 3 6
8+ Wins 6 5 12
Wins vs. Ranked 6 6 7
Highest AP Rank 13 (2000) 9 (1981) -

Of the four "modern era" coaches, Bower's winning percentage at USM ranks third; all-time, of the eight head coaches the program has employed since the Depression, Bower's winning percentage ranks fifth. Seven of those coaches left Southern Miss as career winners; the one who didn't ("Bear" Underwood, 1969-74) finished one game under .500 at 31-32-2. Fourteen winning seasons in a row is impressive - about half as impressive as the 31 straight winning/non-losing seasons the program turned in from 1935-68 under Reed Green and "Pie" Vann, both of whom left with career winning percentages above .700 without once falling below the Mendoza Line. Bower's immediate modern predecessors, Bobby Collins, Jim Carmody and Curly Hallman, won exactly 60 percent of their games from 1975-1990, just a hair better than Bower's .592 clip over the same number of years, against roughly the same level of competition.

I don't want to get into pre-1975 much, because I'm not interested in crowing about the virtues of a team in the "small college" division, or whatever it was called in those days. It's a vastly different game, a vastly different school, a vastly different level the program plays on now than the one it did then. The point is that, when USM was in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, it won. When it was in the short-lived Gulf South Conference, it won (four straight championships with one conference loss the only years it was a member, followed by a pair of UPI College Division national championships in 1958 and 1962). When it was an independent, it won. When it joined Conference USA, it won (four titles in the league's first five seasons). Whatever level USM is on, historically, it wins on that level, and wins consistently. Not big, necessarily, but consistently. This has been the case for seven consecutive decades. Bower's teams in the late nineties are a hallmark for the program, but they were not unprecedented, and over the long run, his tenure was status quo. Winning seven games a year at Southern Miss in a twelve-game schedule is about baseline; it's just average. This is true historically, by the numbers, and intuitively, by just watching the team play.

So: expectations. Over the long run, USM ranks 25th in all-time win percentage; since we're concerned with the modern era here, we'll drop that to 27th in win percentage from 1975-2007. The average record is about 7-5 (6.8-4.6, to be exact), sometimes better, very rarely worse. That's where the team performs on an eerily consistent basis.

Given the kind of schedule Southern Miss plays, as a top 30 program in terms of pure winning percentage, it's not unreasonable to expect to be a top 50 program overall over the course of any four or five-year period. Top 50: not very ambitious. Given the conference it now plays in, and its past success in that conference, USM should seriously compete for a conference championship three out of four seasons and win it at least once.

These are the standards we're going to go with, based on what USM has accomplished on a consistent basis in the recent past: over any four-year period, a coach should average 7-8 wins per year, finish no worse than third place in C-USA for three of the four years, win C-USA once and field a top 50 program overall. These are minimum expectations, and I can't believe anyone would call them very ambitious. This is not a "next level" harangue.

Southern Miss since joining Conference USA, using Jeff Sagarin's numbers (archived since 1998) for a shorthand comparison to the rest of the country:

Record C-USA (Gms. back) Sagarin Rank C-USA Conf. Rank
1996 8-3 4-1 (-) - -
1997 9-3 6-0 (-) 19 (AP) -
1998 7-5 5-1 (-1) 35 8
1999 9-3 7-0 (-) 14 8
2000 8-4 4-3 (-2) 40 7
2001 6-5 4-3 (-2) 60 8
2002 7-6 5-3 (-1) 68 8
2003 9-4 8-0 (-) 51 9
2004 7-5 5-3 (-3) 73 11
2005 7-5 5-3 (-2) 64 9
2006 9-5 6-3 (-2) 52 10
2007 7-5 5-3 (-2.5) 92 14

Ignoring this to me is like Texas comparing itself to the rest of the Big 12, saying, "Oh, we finished third again in the division. Darn. Oh well." These are clearly diminishing returns in a stunningly (well, since Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida bolted to fill the Miami-VaTech-BC void in the Big East and TCU jumped to the Mountain West, perhaps not so stunningly) diminished conference. This year, Sagarin ranked the Sun Belt, the independents and two I-AA conferences as tougher than Conference USA. And Southern Miss finished sixth, its worst finish as far as I can tell in any conference in the history of the program, and without playing either of the two best teams in the West division, Tulsa and Houston. It lost to Rice on national television in what I believe is as embarrassing a performance as has ever been delivered in M.M. Roberts Stadium and to Memphis for the third time in four years. Maybe the "national television" thing is why people think the program has just ascended from the ashes over the last decade: we're on ESPN! On Wednesday! Or in some ESPN-manufactured, Web site-sponsored bowl game! Cameras are a kind of validation that didn't exist before - we're on TV now, and we weren't then, so that's a step up, right?

But back to expectations: the above crimes are the most glaring offenses of the slide, I'd say the basic expectations laid out above were met once in the last seven seasons. These team upheld the obligation to win 7-8 games per season, but even as C-USA deteriorates, the team generally has not seriously competed for the conference championship on a consistent basis (at least two games out of the top spot four years in a row?) and is only borderline top 50 at its best. On the whole, it's been a below average performance - that is, finishing among the bottom half of the country - five years out of the last seven.

This may be fine with some people, and I'm not going to argue with them. Bower roughly met his minimum requirements on the field; the program was exemplary off the field. The latter is more important to certain factions, and that's okay. I was not an advocate of firing Bower and will not say anything bad about him personally. His tenure on the whole was unambiguously positive. There is a persuasive argument that Jeff Bower should not have been pushed out the door, and I'm receptive to it.

But USM's history as a whole is unambiguously positive, in context, and there is every indication that Bower's successor will win on at least the same level. Just like the coach before him and the coach before him and the coach before him and the coach before him and the coach before him and the coach before him and the coach before him. I'm not receptive to the idea that USM was in uncharted territory that cannot be matched, sustained or exceeded. A lot of people will be waiting to pounce when next year's team - sans this year's top two quarterbacks, three starting offensive linemen and six multi-season starters on defense, a rebuilding effort under any administrative circumstances - only wins six or seven games, and if it doesn't improve from there, well, we sold out a favorite son for what? More of the same?

This is the point, though: more of the same is the minimum standard. It is just the basic requirement of the job. Every head coach USM has employed in the last 35 years has met that standard, and at some point exceeded it, and there is no reason at all to expect Fedora (or whoever) to fall short of this. Bower held the line; any competent hire should be able to hold the line. Seven wins and a dopey bowl game is the least expectation, and that is not new.

This is a critical hire - the program is in a position to go further backwards if it's botched - but there is no reason to fear not being able to find someone to fulfill your least expectations. The school's "search for a coach who fits what it needs more than Bower does" is just an echo of every new coach it's hired for decades before Bower came along, and all of them worked out fine. If Fedora or whoever falls on his face, his successor will come in with the same set of expectations. They're Southern Miss' standards, not Bower's. He took good care of them, for the most part, but at some point, there's nothing wrong with taking a shot at better than "just getting by."