It was never about the coordinators.
The images are iconic.
Woody Hayes, with his black baseball cap with the red block O outlined in white, prowling—and that was the word—the sidelines with his rumpled white shirt and thin black necktie, working the officials and, in one unfortunate incident, the opponent’s players.
Bear Bryant, with his checkered fedora, steel-jawed and squinting into the Saturday afternoon sun, the wheels turning in his mind as to how to grab a few yards on a crucial third down against Auburn.
Lou Holtz, marching up and down the sidelines in front of his team, moving 20 to 30 yards without even looking up from the ground, his play-calling sheet folded up and jammed into his back pants pocket, the next chess moves racing around in his brain.
And Bo Schembechler, wearing the cap with the maize block M, holding a headset to his ear, crouched and peering through his sunglasses, wearing athletic cleats and white socks.
These were just a few of the men who ran college football’s most prestigious programs. They were in charge. The assistants were mere satellites—lieutenants to the four-star general.
Only the most die-hard, obsessed fans of Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan knew who the offensive and defensive coordinators were for those schools when Woody, Bear, Lou and Bo were the big cheeses.
And there certainly weren’t any press conferences announcing the hiring of coordinators.
But in today’s world of college football, I am reminded of a gem of a quote from former NFL head coach Chuck Knox, who once was an assistant for the Lions. Knox was speaking to NFL Films:
I’ve seen situations where the defensive coordinator was the head coach in charge of the defense, and the offensive coordinator was the head coach in charge of the offense, and you had a head coach who was in charge of nothing.
In today’s game, the coordinators are almost more of the media and fan darlings—and goats—than their bosses.
The coordinators, if they are considered hot shot, are the anointed ones for another program, somewhere. They are just what the other program needs, according to the other program’s head coach and athletic director.
Pat Narduzzi is hot shot today. He’s the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, and to hear some tell it, the Spartans wouldn’t be 13-1 and No. 3 in the country if head coach Mark Dantonio had someone else in charge of the defense.
Narduzzi, who already rejected the University of Connecticut's head coaching position, was in the running for the top job at Louisville, filled last week by the ne’er-do-well Bobby Petrino.
Narduzzi is the flavor of the month.
Across the state, in Ann Arbor, Al Borges was the day-old bread.
Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, was 180 degrees opposite of Narduzzi in terms of popularity at his school and got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.
He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.
The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.
So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.
“Every decision that’s going to be made by me is going to made in what’s best for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.
The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.
Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.
Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football. He promised to be "tough, physical, explosive," per Anthony Fenech of USA Today.
This is what college football has become. Head coaches standing off to the side, listening to coordinators have a press conference.
This is also what college football has become: coaching trios instead of solo artists.
You don’t just hire a head coach. You hire two coordinators who come with him.
But the head coach can still offload coordinators. Michigan fans demanded a sacrificial lamb after 2013’s 7-6 record, and Hoke threw them one, in Borges.
But the head coach can only toss so many lambs out before he himself is offered up to the angry masses.
Coordinators are used as fodder and currency, with which the head coach can buy some time.
Brady Hoke cashed in Al Borges and, in doing so, purchased another year or two as head coach at Michigan.
Everyone knows what’s going on here.
Hoke felt the pressure, presumably from his superiors, and made the swap of Borges for Nussmeier. And everyone knows that if this doesn’t work, Hoke will be the next lamb.
Everyone knows that Nick Saban wanted Kiffin very badly at Alabama to coordinate his offense, and thus Nussmeier became expendable.
But it won’t matter, and no one in Ann Arbor will care how the sausage was made, as long as Nussmeier is able to develop Gardner and start torching defenses that Michigan should be torching, by all rights.
And Hoke won’t care how Nussmeier became surprisingly available, as long as the win totals start to move into double digits consistently.
If none of the above happens, Michigan will be looking for a new head coach. It’s as simple as that.
Is Brady Hoke, to invoke Chuck Knox’s words, a head coach in charge of nothing?
That’s actually OK, as long as the coordinators below you produce results.
It’s not how Woody, Bear, Lou or Bo would have done it, but this is a different time.