Luke DeCock

For college coaches, once it goes, it never comes back

Steve Spurrier at least figured out in the middle of the season what many of his peers only figured out too late.

As the end of a college football coach’s career approaches, once you lose it, once it starts to slip, you never get it back.

It doesn’t matter how many wins, how long the resume, how many rings on the fingers.

It happened to Bobby Bowden. It happened to Lou Holtz. It happened to Spurrier. And it’s happening to Frank Beamer right now.

The talent level starts to slip as recruits go elsewhere. Key assistants leave. The game changes while the game plan does not. And slowly, the foundation of a program, no matter how strong, erodes.

Bowden hung on at Florida State until he was finally removed against his will in 2009. The Seminoles didn’t have a 10-win season in his final six years there. Joe Paterno, always the exception, recovered from some truly dismal seasons in the mid-2000s to make the Rose Bowl in 2008, but he declined again to 7-6 in 2010 before he was forced out in the middle of the next season by the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Holtz staggered to the end at South Carolina, LaVell Edwards lost 20 games in his final four years at Brigham Young.

Tom Osborne and Bo Schembechler went out on top, and Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant only had one subpar final season, but the end is rarely kind to football coaches.

After peaking with back-to-back-to-back 11-2 records under Spurrier, the greatest success that program has ever known, South Carolina went 7-4 a season ago and was headed for 6-6 at best this season. The collapse happened quickly, so quickly it sent Spurrier running for the golf course at the halfway point.

Beamer’s overall record and accomplishments at Virginia Tech are unimpeachable, but the Hokies haven’t played for an ACC title or posted double-digit wins since 2011 as Beamer, who turns 69 on Monday, has tried desperately to hold things together. Last Friday’s win over N.C. State won’t do enough to reverse that trend.

It’s an inexorable force, driven by a self-perpetuating cycle of talent loss both among players and assistant coaches and reinforced by an unwillingness to innovate or move away from the concepts that brought so much success in the first place.

This effect isn’t as strong in basketball, where one or two recruits can make a season-changing difference. In football, you have to recruit a herd, and like any herd, recruits will act in unison and look elsewhere once they start to smell stagnation on a program.

That dynamic was abundantly clear when South Carolina opened the season against North Carolina in Charlotte. There was a glaring lack of SEC-caliber talent on both sides of the ball for the Gamecocks. Even when South Carolina was winning, only two years back, the recruiting wasn’t keeping pace. The Gamecocks had three players drafted this spring and two a year ago (although Jadeveon Clowney was one of them). In 2012 and 2013, South Carolina had 11 players drafted, two in the first round.

The same dynamic is playing out at Virginia Tech, where Beamer is mired in his fourth straight season of mediocrity. It’s widely believed Beamer is hanging on until Virginia Tech and Tennessee play at Bristol Motor Speedway next September, but that may be a season too long for the Hokies.

All the hallmarks are there: Virginia Tech hasn’t recruited as well in recent years, especially in the talent-rich Tidewater; Beamer remained too loyal to his offensive assistants for too long while the offense stagnated; other teams in the Coastal Division are getting better while Virginia Tech is struggling just to maintain.

Spurrier saw the writing on the wall and walked away. Beamer will keep fighting, but history is not on his side.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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