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Interim coaches in college football try to hold teams together

Interim coaches in college football try to hold teams together
Western Kentucky players douse interim Coach Nick Holt after defeating Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl game. (Rob Foldy / Getty Images)

The Western Kentucky football team had just wrapped up a winning record and a bowl invitation, but as players gathered for a postseason meeting, the mood was hardly celebratory.

Coach Jeff Brohm had been hired away by Purdue and had chosen to start his new job immediately. Nick Holt, the defensive coordinator, and a former USC assistant, was left to run the team.

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"There were a lot of sad eyes around the room," Holt said. "I told the kids to hang in there."

Interim bowl coaches — assistants called upon to take command for only one game, often the biggest game of the season — are a fact of life in college football.

With the coaching carousel spinning full-tilt in December, a handful of fill-ins end up working the sidelines through the holidays.

This winter, substitutes have guided or will guide teams in the Boca Raton Bowl, the Birmingham Bowl and the Military Bowl. Last-minute hires will make their debuts in two other games.

"It's a challenge. It's one day at a time," said T.J. Weist, who will lead South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl. "That's what I told the players — don't focus on tomorrow, don't focus on next week."

Interim coaches are not unique to the NCAA. The Rams dismissed Jeff Fisher with three weeks remaining in the NFL regular season, leaving special-teams coordinator John Fassel in charge.

But college football is different in that coaches leave early for better-paying or higher-profile jobs. Or they get fired from what is essentially a playoff-bound team.

At Western Kentucky, Brohm parlayed three winning seasons into an offer from Purdue that could approach $5 million per year with incentives.

"We understood him leaving," Holt said. "You want to stick around and coach that bowl game, you want to coach the kids a little longer, but you've got work to do at your new program."

Indiana, which will face Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl on Wednesday, was left without a leader when Kevin Wilson resigned in early December. Wilson and school administrators cited "philosophical differences."

Defensive coordinator Tom Allen was handed the job. Still, like Holt and others in his circumstance, he faced a difficult team meeting on the first day.

"You have young men that were recruited by Coach Wilson," he told reporters. "I tried to be real, genuine and from the heart. I told them how much I loved them."

When an assistant gets bumped up a spot, the rest of the staff must be reshuffled. Players must adjust to a new coaching dynamic and cannot help but wonder about the future.

"They're sitting there a little bit, saying 'Who's coming, who's going?' " said Ed Foley, the interim coach for Temple in the Military Bowl on Tuesday.

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Much of the onus falls upon the athletes. Ricky Jones, a senior receiver at Indiana, said he and the other upperclassmen made a point of rallying the team: "Through tough times, we have to mesh together."

Change has become familiar to the fifth-year seniors at Western Kentucky, who have played for three coaches. They can impart wisdom on wide-eyed freshmen.

At South Florida, senior offensive lineman Kofi Amichia told reporters: "I understand the business. And everybody on the team understands the business now."

Interim coaches can help by providing some normalcy, maybe adding a few tweaks but sticking mainly to the routine and schemes established by their predecessors.

At his first staff meeting, Holt told his staff to "keep it rolling." Weist said he felt responsible for adhering to the existing "formula."

Still, practice can seem strange when a coordinator oversees both sides of the ball. Indiana players said they could sense some conflict in the usually defensive-minded Allen.

"I feel like it's an awkward situation where he wants to cheer for [the offense] because we made a great play," receiver Nick Westbrook said. "But at the same time, he has to be mad at whoever the guy is on his side of the ball. It's funny."

Another complication arises when the university hires a another coach for the next season and that guy comes around to visit.

Charlie Strong, who was fired by Texas and accepted an offer from South Florida, has been a presence at Bulls practices. Weist told reporters he doesn't mind.

Strong "actually gives us another set of eyes," the interim coach said. "He gave us some good advice."

Interim coaches might need the extra help. Performing under difficult conditions, they have won less than half of their bowl games over the last five years.

Houston tried to stabilize the situation after losing Tom Herman to Texas, immediately promoting Major Applewhite from offensive coordinator to permanent coach before the Las Vegas Bowl.

It didn't work.

The Cougars looked uninspired in a 34-10 loss to San Diego State. As Applewhite put it: "If  you lose, you did bad … doesn't matter what the circumstances are."

Western Kentucky enjoyed a much happier ending , the team rallying around Holt even after university administrators announced that Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will be the next coach.

The Hilltoppers defeated Memphis, 51-31, last Tuesday night, amassing 598 yards with a high-octane offense and trick plays that included a fake kneel-down and a touchdown pass to an offensive lineman.

It didn't matter that, like Cinderella's golden carriage at the stroke of  midnight, Holt's interim tenure had expired. The players hoisted him onto their shoulders and chanted his name.

"Just a great moment," he said. "That's why you coach."

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