One of the burning questions in Wildcatland since the Cats' pitiful loss to Fresno State officially ended the 2007 campaign has been whether Ron Prince is on the proverbial "hot seat" as we enter the 2008 season. The conventional wisdom, at least among supposedly independent observers, is that Prince is on the hot seat, but will likely return for the 2009 season (even if he goes 4-8 this year).
From what I have seen and heard, K-State fans fall into two camps on this one. First, there is the "you have to give a coach at least four years, and most likely five, so he can prove what he can do with his players and firing a coach after three years is crazy" camp. Second, there is the "We're K-State, dammit, we should be winning 10 games and challenging for the Big 12 North every year, and if Prince can't do that now then get someone in here, preferably Jim Leavitt" camp.
So who's right? Well, in a vacuum, both sides are right. If you look at it without any other facts, it is insane to fire a coach after three years, but given what we saw under Bill Snyder, it's also crazy not to expect a very good product on the field pretty much every year. Let me explain.
In support of its position that Prince needs at least four and maybe five years, the "Prince Apologists" (I have to give them a nickname) camp points to the east, to Lawrence and Columbia, where the Jabba the Coach and the Choker were given more time than their fanbases wanted them to have, and produced incredible seasons in 2007. As the argument goes, we would be making a humongous mistake by firing Ron Prince after the 2008 season, no matter what, because of what Mangino and Pinkel did. Further, the "Prince Apologists" argue that you simply must give a coach at least four or five years, because if you don't, you turn into Alabama. In other words, you become a program where good coaches don't want to go because they will be saddled immediately with unreasonable expectations and will only get three years to prove they can win the Big 12 North. We shouldn't have to tell you that winning the Big 12 North is not as easy now as it was in, say, 2004 or 2005. Besides, he's done better than any other K-State coach in history did in his first two years!
On the other side, the "Prince Haters" (again, gotta give 'em a nickname) say that two years has clearly shown us Prince is not the man for the job because, dammit, we don't have a Big 12 North title and have only played in one bowl game. Which we lost. Badly. On top of that, the 2007 team imploded like the Kingdome the last four games of the season, demonstrating a definite lack of leadership.
So who has the strongest argument?
If you ask me, both sides could be right and both sides could be wrong when looked at in the black-and-white, abstracted-from-reality context I just presented. Maybe I'm setting up strawmen, or maybe message boards are not a place for serious, in-depth discussion of sporting issues.
Let's start with the Prince Apologists arguments. Is three years too few for a coach to demonstrate his worth? Almost certainly. However, that's a statement made without any context. Is three years too few if the coach's team goes out, plays its guts out, loses five games by less than 10 points and finishes 5-7 two years running? Yes. Is three years too few if the coach's team spends the last third of the season acting like it doesn't care and getting blown out by marginal teams? No. To put it in basics, we cannot become hamstrung by a number that has no meaning without context. Giving Prince a fourth year if his team shows no heart, gets blown out five times, and goes 4-8 this season is entirely too much.
Going further with the Prince Apologists argument, what happened at KU and MU has little or no bearing on what happens in Manhattan. For one thing, KU and MU were in worse shape when their current coaches took over than K-State was. In the year before Mark Mangino took over at KU, the 'beaks were 3-8 and got beat a combined 150-13 by K-State, Nebraska and Texas. In Mangino's first year, his imaginary birds went 2-10 and lost to K-State a combined 64-0. As for Pinkel and Mizzou, the Tigers were 3-8 the year before Pinkel took over, and 4-7 his first year. While Bill Snyder's final year at K-State was anything but stellar, it resulted in a 5-6 record. Ron Prince clearly took over a program that was in better shape than those inherited by Mangino and Pinkel, thus measuring Prince's progress against theirs makes for an invalid comparison.
Finally, current K-State athletic director Bob Krause recently noted that Ron Prince has done better in his first two years than any other coach in K-State history. Uhh, Bob, I hate to break it to you, but we were the runaway champion as the worst football program in the country world universe until about 1990. Being the best in that group, even with Snyder included given what he had to overcome, deserves nothing more than a "congrats, you weren't as bad as the coaches of our worst teams in history and the great coach who inherited one of the worst teams in history."
As you can see, I do not ascribe to the school of thought that says, no matter what, Ron Prince must get at least four years, simply because, well, you have to give a coach four years. But does that mean I want him gone unless we win at least seven games this year. In a word...
Let's address the "Prince Haters" points. Yes, we are K-State. We hired one of the greatest coaches in college football history, had a bunch of 10+ win seasons, won the Big 12 North a few times, went to a bunch of bowl games, won more than half of them, and annihilated Oklahoma in 2003 to win a conference title. It has been well and truly proven that sustained football success is achievable at K-State. But success doesn't continue just because you want it to. I vividly remember asking former athletic director Tim Weiser in an interview back in 2006 what it takes for a school like K-State to compete with schools with way more money, like Texas. Paraphrased, his answer was as follows: We can't afford to make personnel mistakes at K-State, because we can't throw money at those mistakes like Texas or Oklahoma can. Translated: If we make a personnel mistake at K-State, it could put us in a deep hole that will take a long time from which to escape.
Sticking with Snyder through 2004 and 2005 was not the mistake. Bill Snyder earned the right to coach in Manhattan until he conked. Sticking with some of Snyder's assistants, who after the 2003 conference title decided recruiting rated right up there with sticking your wiener in a meat grinder, was the mistake. Recruiting dropped, play on the field got sloppy, and before we knew it, we had endured two straight losing seasons.
In a very roundabout way, I'm saying that you can't expect success because of the logo on your helmet. Ask Nebraska. Sometimes bad things happen to a program, and you can't always right the ship immediately. Bad things happened to us in 2004 and 2005, and it will take some time to right the ship. Going to a bowl in 2006 was a nice start. Beating Texas both years was a positive sign. It's not like it's been all doom-and-gloom.
Now, what of the Prince Haters' argument that the collapse at the end of last year means Prince has to demonstrate last year was a fluke in order to be granted a fourth year? Well, they're partially right. If we again see a team that gets to a point where it doesn't appear to be giving maximum effort, especially when there's a lot for which to play, then Prince's seat will be getting very warm. At that point, we will know the problem is either the attitudes of the players Prince has recruited (not a good thing) or Prince and his staff's inability to motivate those players (also, not a good thing).
However, you can't just say that because the team fell apart last year that this year we must see "X" number of wins (probably at least seven, which would ensure a bowl game berth) in order for Prince to retain his job at K-State into 2009. Yes, if Prince does win seven games this year, he should absolutely be around for 2009. But even if he doesn't, how we get our win/loss total should determine whether the coach is back for another year.
So if you've stuck with me this far, you're probably wondering what I consider necessary for Prince to make it through to 2009. Basically, any won/loss record that includes at least six wins should result in Prince's return for 2009, end of discussion for me. A bowl berth this year, with a very experienced team returning for 2009 would be a sign of progress.
Now, if we see less than six wins, things get interesting. If the team wins four or five games, but is in every game until the fourth quarter and never gets blown out, I could live with a fourth year for Prince. However, if the team wins four or five games, but ends the season like it did last year with an embarrassing losing skid that includes several ugly blowouts, I will not be against Prince's firing. If the team wins less than four games, unless the circumstances of that won/loss record are extremely screwy, I will be among the loudest voices calling for a new coach next year. It's all about progress, and if Prince can't maintain at least a minimum level of success, it will be time to find someone who can.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours?