Leader Blues

Friday, December 18, 2009

SPORTS >> Deferred decision hurts Red Wolves

Leader sports editor

Arkansas State football coach Steve Roberts has held on to his job for at least one more year.

That’s good for Roberts. Bad for Arkansas State.

It’s not that Roberts is a bad coach — I think he’s a pretty decent one — it’s that Arkansas State is about to use a time-honored recipe for making the whole soufflé fall.

It was a bad enough sign last week that the university felt compelled to announce Roberts, who has two years left on his current contract extension, would be staying around. If Roberts weren’t on shaky ground, there would have been no need to announce he was staying; he just would have done it.

Arkansas State chose to break the news in the cowardly fashion programs ordinarily use to deliver bad news like player suspensions — through a press release.

Of course, the school used the same release to announce offensive coordinator Doug Ruse was being let go, so maybe there was bad news after all. Then again, after the Red Wolves’ offense finished near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference in most major categories, some fans might not think that news was so bad.

Here is what the press release didn’t say but what was on plain view between the lines:

“We at Arkansas State know fans are disappointed in the Red Wolves’ 4-6 record this year and are generally frustrated with the team’s inability to get beyond six victories and one Sun Belt championship in coach Roberts’ eight seasons.

“However, to release coach Roberts and buy out the remainder of his contract now would be a costly measure for a program like ours, which still has to schedule non-conference games against major college powers like Nebraska and Iowa in order to pull down six-figure paydays to help us pay the bills.

“Rather than buy out coach Roberts at the full amount of his base salary now — which multiplied by two years would cost us $280,000 plus, possibly, guaranteed booster money — we are giving him one more year. If we feel a buyout is necessary after next season it will only cost us half that amount as stipulated by the terms of the contract.

“However, to demonstrate we are concerned, proactive and tuned in to fans’ desires we are cutting loose coach Ruse and keeping our fingers crossed that will placate the base.”

I don’t recall that releasing and replacing coordinators has saved many head coaches’ jobs in football; it sure didn’t work for Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee.

But Arkansas State has still managed to send a few strong signals with this move.

First, it has let the rest of the Sun Belt Conference know the program is on uncertain footing.

Opposing coaches can now say to recruits: “You don’t want to go to Arkansas State. The coach could be gone after next year.

You don’t want that uncertainty.”

The university is in effect saying the same thing to Ruse’s prospective replacement: “Sure, take the job, but bring your life jacket.”

Finally, the school is telling Roberts he has to turn it around in one year after losing a four-year starter at quarterback, a likely early-round NFL draft pick at defensive end, the Sun Belt’s all-time field goals leader and the Red Wolves’ second-leading all-time rusher.

What a short memory Arkansas State has.

Just a few years ago the school did not extend the contract of men’s basketball coach Dickey Nutt, who got the team to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament final in 2007 but went 10-20 in his lame-duck season the following year. The outcome hastened Nutt’s foregone fate, and Arkansas State forced him out with four games left in 2008.

The level of talent the precariously positioned Nutt was able to draw late in his run left new coach John Brady a team that lost its final 10 last season. Brady, the one-time Final Four coach at LSU, is beginning to sort out the mess he inherited, though it remains to be seen if he can turn things around entirely.

No coach is to be spared second-guessing, and after losing five games by four points or fewer this year — including the 30-27 home loss to Troy in the Sun Belt opener — Roberts is due his fair share.

But Roberts is also the guy who heightened the expectations with which he is now saddled. Before his arrival, a malaise hung like ground fog over a program that had won six games just once at college football’s top level and was 13-43 under previous coach Joe Hollis.

Unfortunately, six victories has become the bottom rung of the expectations ladder in the Sun Belt and everyone, quite understandably, wants his team to be Troy or Middle Tennessee, both 9-3 this year. Charlie Weatherbie was recently fired at Louisiana-Monroe when he had the audacity to win only six games for a program that until recently was considered one of the Sun Belt’s bottom feeders.

Don’t sell Roberts short. He has recruited some fine talent through the years and may just be able to make the Red Wolves a surprise contender next season, but either way it shouldn’t have come to this.

Costly or not, either extend Roberts as a thank you and a vote of confidence for what he has done so far, or clean house and begin the rebuilding the school is saying it thinks it might have to undertake a year from now.

And I’m not sure, if I’m Roberts, whether I’d want to work much longer for such a wishy washy employer. If I’m Roberts, whether I win next season or not, I’m using this year to send out some resumes.