As a hitter, Lou Piniella’s temper regarding pitchers was so short, some wondered if he should be trusted near one with a wood club in his hands. As a manager of Mariners pitchers, he had to become a bit more tolerant. He learned he shouldn’t fire them on the spot for a walk.
After watching a relief pitcher walk two batters in a row, a steamy, yet more controlled, Piniella had seen enough. As he stepped onto the mound, the pitcher blurted, “Lou, I’m tryin’ to throw strikes.”
Piniella turned slightly toward the grandstand and swept his arm toward the fans.
“Son,” Piniella said, “I can get a truck driver out of the stands to try.”
I think of that episode each time Jimmy Lake has a press conference lately.
Such as the one after the 31-10 loss at Michigan Saturday, when he was asked about changes he made to the offense following Season Debacle No. 1, the 13-7 home loss to Montana.
“We’re trying to do everything better right now,” he said. “We’re trying to run the football, we’re trying to give some easy completions, we’re trying to get our quarterback comfortable so he can get back there and see what he needs to see so he can get the ball to who he needs to get the ball to.”
At the professional level for which he is compensated — the state’s second-highest paid employee, behind, ahem, Washington State coach Nick Rolovich — trying is not sufficient.
The truck drivers are lining up at Montlake.
Because if the University of Washington scuffs another football game Saturday, this one against AFSFCS (Arkansas Freakin’ State, Fer Cripes Sakes), there will be one job vacancy. Maybe two.
One is obvious — second-year offensive coordinator John Donovan will be fired. No inside knowledge here about the deep thinkers at UW, just general knowledge of the savagery of the big-time college sports jungle.
The second one would be Lake, although that seems unlikely.
At least it did, until Monday.
That’s when, despite a seven-year record of 46-24, USC fired head coach Clay Helton. His fatal flaw was a 42-28 home loss Saturday to a rebuilding Stanford team that was a 17-point underdog. Calls for Helton’s job had for years undercut his regime because Trojans failed to win their biggest games, and began a slide from relevance in the hyper-intense LA sports market.
As someone who knows a little about the USC job, Pete Carroll offered some professional-courtesy support to Helton.
“I got beat by Stanford a couple of times too,” he said at his Monday presser. “It’s hard. Like (a USC predecessor) John McKay said, ‘By far the toughest match-up we ever had was with Stanford.’ It carries a lot of weight and, unfortunately, they had to make a change.”
Good try, Pete. At least Stanford is another Pac-12 Conference member. It’s not like having to defend losing to Montana, and potentially Arkansas State, wrapped around a defeat at Michigan marked by a delay of game penalty on UW’s first play. (“Unacceptable,” Lake said Monday. “I’ll take that one.” Was there a choice?)
Helton’s firing was also a tell-tale in the urgent new business world of college football far different than in the days of Carroll and McKay.
The crumbling governance of the NCAA under the arrival of professionalism, as well as the transfer portal, has left many programs scared spitless about the future. The Southeastern Conference’s hijacking of Texas and Oklahoma has created an entertainment colossus in the Kingdom of ESPN that threatens financially all who are not part of it.
Amid profound uncertainty about the way forward in the largely rules-free landscape, there is only one rule: Don’t get behind. No conference or school wants to make major mistakes on the field or the admin offices that bring discredit during the volatile transition.
That’s part of why the UW athletics department for this fiscal year put a line item in the budget dedicating $1.75 million for administering and supporting the pending changes wrought by player compensation for use of name, image and likeness (NIL). Problem is, right now there’s no way for UW or any school to know if it is ahead, behind or nowhere, because there is no national transparency obligation for reporting NIL income. So UW threw money at managing the unregulated venture, in order to not get behind.
In light of potentially persistent disruption in an industry whipsawed from the outside by a pandemic and teenagers’ social media compulsions, steady football success is imperative even beyond the previous urgency. Everything is accelerated, including hasty judgments by recruits and parents about where they can get the most profile AND pay while playing football.
A winless non-conference start would be brutal in any year, but acutely so now, with players able to transfer without career pause. A firing obviously would be disruptive, but so would keeping a coach who can’t correct the course. In the before times, a firing after seven career games as a head coach would have been an absurd notion. But 0-3 in the new times? It has to be a consideration. This is not a time to get behind in college football.
Saturday at Michigan Stadium’s intense environment, there was little evidence of any meaningful change in personnel or playcalling from the Montana blunder. It may have grown worse, considering that early in the second quarter at the Michigan 31 and faced with a fourth and four, Donovan had QB Dylan Morris in the shotgun. Instead of passing, Morris handed off to RB Richard Newton, standing next to him. Three unblocked defenders were upon Newton to drop him for a loss, a turnover on downs and a fumble. Worse play calls than that probably can be found in recent UW history, but I can’t recall one.
Neither Lake, 44, nor Donovan, 47, previously has been a head coach. That may be part of the problem.
In his weekly half-hour with the media Monday, Lake as usual ducked and dodged any meaningful answers, covering himself with his catch-all bromide of, “It’s on me.” Because that’s always been true in coaching, it’s also meaningless.
But he did, apparently accidentally, offer insight when he responded to a question about how much he’s involved in game planning with coordinators. After a broad reference to having “input,” he said this:
“I’ve been on a bunch of different staffs where a head coach meddles a lot during game day and he ends up making it even more chaotic. So I definitely don’t want to do that. I’m going to cause more chaos during the week, and then let our coordinators coach on game day.”
I get his point, but that’s how a longtime coordinator would think. A head coach thinks differently. He has the obligation to override a coordinator if circumstances require. It’s not a matter of professional custom or courtesy. It’s a matter of winning. When Lake heard the run call on 4th-and-4 on the road against a quality defense, that play should never have stood. That is not meddling.
These kinds of rookie mistakes were probably inevitable, and the Huskies Saturday have an opportunity to turn down the heat. But what constitutes a convincing win against a supposedly lesser opponent? Hard to say, because the hole dug by the first two UW games was so unexpectedly deep, especially given Lake’s own public belief in UW’s talent level.
Again, Lake is right; it is on him. A nearly unbelievable third loss would seem to force him into action by ousting Donovan, partly because it’s the kind of difficult call required of a head coach in a time of accelerations.
As for Lake’s future, his boss, athletics director Jen Cohen, needs to ponder two things.
As Piniella points out, trying isn’t enough. As the college football industry points out, don’t get behind.