Thursday, December 23, 2010

You're Not Getting to a Jury with this Claim, Counselor Mandel

Stewart Mandel alleges that Ralph Friedgen and Bill Stewart suffered adverse employment actions (fancy law-talking term, +1), at least in part, because of their age. In how many ways is he wrong? Let's count:

1. If Mayland and West Virginia have legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons to support their employment decisions, then Friedgen and Stewart don't have employment claims. What could that legitimate business reason be? Scroll down to the bottom of Mandel's article:

West Virginia is just three years removed from a BCS bowl appearance and shared this year's Big East title, but Luck believed the program had lost its sizzle.

"Our season ticket base has declined from Stewart's first year to the present time," said Luck. "We've had only two crowds since 2004 under 50,000, and both of those took place in the last couple of years. That to me is an indication that our fans aren't satisfied with the product."

Maryland had a similar but more drastic problem. With the enthusiasm of Friedgen's early tenure (three straight 10-win seasons from 2001-03) a distant memory, the Terps averaged just 39,168 per game this year at 54,000-seat Byrd Stadium. On the field Maryland showed considerable promise, led by freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien, the ACC's Rookie of the Year. But with several assistants expected to follow Franklin to Vanderbilt, Anderson, who called his move a "strategic business decision," made it clear Monday he had no desire to let Friedgen rebuild his staff and continue coaching the current group.
The football programs at Maryland and West Virginia, like the football programs at most schools, pay for their athletic departments. They pay the debt on stadium renovations, they pay for non-revenue sports, and they pay for bloated administrative staffs. If attendance is down (and one can assume a corresponding decline in donations), then the Maryland and West Virginia football programs will struggle to pull their weight. Is Mandel really going to argue that athletic directors should twiddle their thumbs while their fan bases show less and less interest in their football programs? Can there be a more legitimate reason to push a coach out than this?

(Side note: do we give Mandel credit for including in his article a rationale for Maryland's and West Virginia's actions or do we criticize him for burying at the end evidence that refutes his lede?)

Part of what made the Terps and Mountaineers unappealing this year were their pedestrian offenses. The two teams tied for 69th in yards per play. Their new coaches - Dana Holgorsen and Mike Leach (we presume) - are offensive experts. Mandel mentions the examples of Gene Chizik and Chip Kelly as guiding the decisions at issue here, but he ignores the fundamental lessons that the success of Auburn and Oregon teach: we are in a Spread-led offensive age in college football. There can be no denying that Auburn and Oregon are headed to Glendale because of their cutting-edge offenses. West Virginia fans don't need to have long memories to recall when their program was last nationally prominent and what the driving force was for that halcyon era.

2. On the question of whether older coaches are discriminated against, Title VII recognizes the existence of a bona fide occupational qualification as a defense against a claim of age discrimination. For instance, a construction company doesn't have to hire a 70-year old man for a position that entails strenuous lifting. Likewise, because the position of a college football head coach is an extremely demanding position in terms of the time commitment required, it seems possible that a school could fire a coach for not being able to put in the hours anymore. (I'm thinking of two particular examples right now in Tallahassee and State College.) I'm not saying that Ralph Friedgen and Bill Stewart were unable to meet the time demands of being a college football head coach. Rather, I'm making a general statement that there would be instances where a school could say "look, if you don't have the ability to watch film until 2 a.m. every day or go on recruiting visits for a solid month, then you can't be a head coach."

3. What bothers me the most about Mandel's argument is the fallacy that a head coach is solely responsible for the record of his football team. To come back to the Queen of England, this bothers me the most when writers wax lyrical about Joe Paterno, still winning games. Joe Paterno has only slightly more to do with coaching his football team as you or I do. This was perfectly obvious when health problems relegated him to the press box in 2008 and he "coached" up there without a headset. Penn State's resurgence over the past six season has been the direct result of Paterno being phased out so Tom Bradley and Galen Hall can run the team.

Let's ask this question: why did Maryland and West Virginia win this year? Maryland had to have won in no small part because of James Franklin. Maryland obviously thinks highly of Franklin because they anointed him as Friedgen's successor. With Franklin and other assistants leaving, Maryland was losing a large secret of their success. The case is even more compelling with Stewart. West Virginia won because of their defense, which is coached by holdover Jeff Casteel, and talent that was largely recruited by Doc Holliday, who is now the head coach at Marshall. Can someone explain what role Stewart played in WVU winning nine games this year? Anyone? Bueller? And we haven't even gotten around to mentioning the obvious fact that the Terps and Mountaineers benefited from playing in weak conferences. According to Sagarin, Maryland ranked 60th in strength of schedule and West Virginia ranked 73rd, so it's not as if either team had to survive the Bataan Death March to achieve a good record.

4. I'd be interested to hook Mandel up to a lie detector and then ask him the following two questions:

If you were a Maryland fan, would you rather have Ralph Friedgen or Mike Leach as your coach?

If you were a West Virginia fan, would you rather have a Bill Stewart-Jeff Casteel combo or a Dana Holgorson-Jeff Casteel combo leading your program?

The answers to both questions are fairly obvious, which invalidates the complaint about age.

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