In an era of college football when fans and athletic departments are fickle and hyper-critical of their coaches, creating unrealistic expectations that have little hope of being accomplished, there is one case where fans, media and athletic departments should be more critical: the performance of Michigan State’s Bobby Williams.
If the Spartans were ever going to win the Big Ten title, this was the year to do it. A down year for the Big Ten in which almost any team has the chance to win, Michigan State appeared to have the edge at the beginning of the season. It did not have to face the conference’s best team in Ohio State and played eight of its 12 games at Spartan Stadium.
But the Spartans have failed to take advantage of the schedule so far, going 3-4 in their first seven games. And it isn’t so much the fact they lost the games – California and Notre Dame both have come out of nowhere and Iowa and Minnesota have been pleasant surprises in the Big Ten – but it is how they lost the games.
Michigan State was absolutely run off the field in losses to California, Iowa and Minnesota – and twice that field was its own. The Spartans are talented (several of the players are pro prospects), but are undisciplined, play with no pride and at some point, the critics of the team will start to take a closer look at Williams.
There is no reason for Michigan State to be committing an obscene amount of turnovers and penalties and be unable to put up points with wide receiver Charles Rogers and quarterback Jeff Smoker.
Williams may have been given too much, too soon, after he was named head coach following Michigan State’s thrilling victory over Florida in the 2000 Citrus Bowl. Williams had coached in the place of Nick Saban who left for Louisiana State before the new year. The win set the bar high for the Spartans and for Williams.
The team appeared to carry a bit of the momentum over to 2000 by beginning the season 3-0, including a win against Notre Dame. But after that the wheels came off the wagon as the Spartans lost their next four games and coasted to a 5-7 season.
In a similar fashion, the 2001 Michigan State team started well by winning the five of the first seven games of the season, including victories over Wisconsin and Michigan. Yet just like in the 2000 season, the Spartans collapsed by losing their next three games after the win over the Wolverines. Only a victory over Missouri in the last game of the season kept Michigan State bowl eligible.
At some point, a coach is expected to follow up a big win with more success. Williams simply has not done this, and he will eventually have to take the blame. His teams have proven they can win, but only sporadically.
There is a growing movement in the media to place blame on the players rather than the coach, after all they are the ones on the field and playing the game, not the coach. This was a hot topic regarding Texas’ Mack Brown, whose Longhorns suffered another letdown in a big game. But if the blame cannot be placed on the coach than neither can the praise for a good season by the same reasoning.
The blame should be split between both the coach and the players, but the majority of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the coach and his assistant. They design the playing systems and the disciplinary actions. They decide how to motivate and how to discourage.
Respect should be given to those coaches that have proven themselves under extreme duress and high expectations. Ohio State’s Jim Tressel built a solid foundation for the Buckeyes with a win over Michigan last season, and has followed it up with a sterling season thus far.
Similarly, Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham keeps winning after squeezing by Michigan this season, and all of it is done with the same players that former coach Bob Davie went 5-6 with last season.
Neither Notre Dame nor Ohio State has the most talent in the nation, but find themselves near the top of the polls due to good coaching. By the same token Michigan State – which has arguably just as much talent as Notre Dame and Ohio State – finds itself at the bottom of the Big Ten due to poor coaching.
And when Michigan State Athletic Director Ron Mason finally realizes this, Williams may find himself out of a job.
Jeff Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.