By Rick Sarro
Over the past year, the McNeese State athletic department has fired two of the program’s highest-profile head coaches — a thing that’s never been done before: at least in the department’s modern-day history over the last 40 years.
Jack Doland Fieldhouse has resembled the set from President Donald Trump’s old reality TV show “The Apprentice.” But I’m pretty sure athletic director Bruce Hemphill has not barked out, “you’re fired” with the same intense passion as Trump did before his rise to the White House.
The once conservative and patient athletic department had a tendency to give coaches a long leash. They only made changes when a coach left with a better job offer. That’s a practice McNeese no longer employs.
Back in the spring, Hemphill finally pulled the trigger and canned head basketball coach Dave Simmons. This move was a no brainer, and had been whispered about for the last two years, as the losing seasons stretched to six straight, and Simmons’ 12-year run clearly lost all support.
There were no rumors or back-room chatter surrounding Hemphill’s latest move, though. The quick and bold firing of head football coach Lance Guidry came one day after the Cowboys lost to Lamar, ending the season with a three-game losing streak and a disappointing 6-5 record.
The athletic department, which at times seemed as if it hired coaches to 10-year contracts, suddenly ran short of patience.
I wonder where and when that impatience will come into play again?
Guidry had no clue of the impending ouster, and in fact spoke comfortably about sitting down with “the AD and Dr. Burckel (McNeese president Dr. Daryl Burckel) after the Thanksgiving holiday” to discuss a new contact.
A meeting took place between Guidry and Hemphill three days after the season ended, but not to talk of a new contract. Instead Guidry was informed of the university’s decision. He was blindsided by the firing and reportedly went directly to Burckel’s office.
Burckel, a former McNeese football player himself and first-year university president, confirmed his support of the firing, saying only, “we felt the football program needed to go in a different direction.”
That’s not much more than Hemphill has said to the media, fans and supporters of the team.
Following the pattern of Simmons’ firing months earlier, the athletic department released a four-paragraph, prepared statement via email announcing that Guidry’s original three-year contact would not be renewed and a national search for a new head coach would begin immediately.
“I thank coach Guidry for his service to the university and wish him well in his future endeavors,” was the lone statement issued by Hemphill.
It was a four-paragraph email ending with “we thank Guidry for his service, and oh, by the way, we have some move-out boxes for him downstairs next to his office.”
Hemphill and Burckel are smart guys. They have been in leadership roles for most of their careers, either in athletics or academics. However, this wasn’t the right or best approach to handling high-profile firings, especially in the case of Guidry.
Football is the face of the university in many respects — in particular to people outside the school’s confines. It’s the primary source of the McNeese brand; it drives the entire athletic department — both financially and in terms of national stature. Football, basketball and baseball are the only way in which many people connect to the university if they aren’t students or alumni.
McNeese football fans deserve better explanations and more transparency from university officials, who made the decision to fire Guidry behind closed doors and then stay behind those same closed doors with no further communication, explanation or insights into the reasons for the firing and the way the search process for a new head coach will proceed.
I’ve been covering sports for nearly 40 years and have reported on many firings and coaches coming and going. This was simply not the correct approach — especially for a smaller university like McNeese that’s trying to make friends, not enemies, of their fans.
Any time a university makes coaching changes, you will always have speculation, rumors and opinions either way. The rumors are even more widespread and enhanced because of increased scrutiny from the press, booster clubs, fan bloggers and social media in general. That’s why it’s always better to get out in front of personnel moves and put a voice and face to the decision — not just a press release via email.
Offer whatever level of clarity and transparency you can, with the goal of satisfying the natural curiosity of your fan base.
Speaking from the media side, a formal press conference to announce the Guidry decision may well have been a bit of a dog and pony show, because Hemphill and Burckel would not have been able to answer all questions, since many would fallen under the heading of “personnel and privacy issues.” But it would have shown Guidry and the position the respect they deserve.
I don’t agree with the firing itself.
I think Guidry, a long-time McNeese assistant coach before being named head coach three years ago after succeeding Matt Viator, should have been given another season to fix the offense and deliberate further his dual role as defensive coordinator and head coach.
Under Guidry, this was a team that was 5-1 in the first half of the season and ranked as high as sixth in the country in FCS national polls. Then came the open date and a shocking 45-17 road loss to Incarnate Word. It was a time in the season that Guidry himself pointed to as pivotal in the Cowboys’ season.
Four losses over the last five games turned a promising year, with hopes of another SLC title and a playoff bid, into an epic slide not seen since 2014, when Viator’s Cowboys dropped their last three games to finish at 6-5.
Viator retained his job, of course, and came back the next year in 2015 to go 10-1 and capture McNeese’s last conference championship.
There is broad speculation about why McNeese didn’t possess the patience with Guidry in 2018 that they did with Viator in 2014.
Let’s start with the lack of a warm and fuzzy relationship between Guidry and his direct boss in Hemphill. There was tension; the two were polar opposite in personalities.
Hemphill is a button-downed suit-and-tie athletic director who measures his every word. Then there’s Guidry. He’s more comfortable in coaching sweats with a whistle around his neck. He’s in your face with this upfront and blunt communication style. He’s brash and confident with a down-home Welsh, La., vibe.
Move on to the Florida State issue that was apparently a rub with Hemphill and Burckel all year.
A quick history lesson. Guidry visited Tallahassee in late 2017 after missing the FCS Playoffs despite posting a 9-2 record. He had discussions with new Seminoles head coach Willie Taggart, whom Guidry worked under as a defensive coordinator at Western Kentucky. Taggart had an opening for a defensive secondary coach. The two went back and forth about the position over a three- to four-week period.
Sources tell me Guidry wasn’t totally forthcoming with his McNeese bosses at the time, and they felt Guidry left the football program in limbo too long over whether he was staying or leaving.
In Guidry’s defense, it took that long for Taggart and Florida State to put together an offer that ultimately didn’t have the dollar figure Guidry was looking for. So he announced he was remaining at McNeese.
There’s also talk that there was a fractured locker room over Guidry’s quarterback shift to sophomore Cody Orgeron and away from veteran starter James Tabary for the homecoming game against Central Arkansas, and Guidry was losing the support of players.
No doubt, Tabary and his family were not happy with the quarterback change. But I don’t buy into the loss of the locker room and unhappy players.
The players and coaches shouldn’t be happy over losing four of their last five games. If they aren’t in surly moods in the midst of all that losing, then something is really wrong.
Another drag on Guidry may have been his dual role as defensive coordinator and head coach and the fact he delegated too much control and oversight of a struggling offense to offensive coordinator Landon Hoefer and quarterbacks coach Kerry Joseph.
Ironically, in his last press conference after the Lamar loss, Guidry talked about coming back and dissecting all that was offensive about his offense. He was leaving no stone unturned in preparation for improvements that were to begin with spring practice.
More than likely, Guidry’s termination as head coach after only three years and with a respectable 21-12 record can be found in one or more of these scenarios. Or it could be as simple as the notion that McNeese did not like the path the team was on and a new direction with a new head coach was at the core of the decision.
We don’t really know because university officials refuse to go on the record.
Guidry has not said anything either, only telling me in a text that he will speak when the time is “appropriate.”
The 47-year Guidry, a veteran defensive coach with previous stops at FBS Western Kentucky and Miami of Ohio, will not be unemployed for long. His resume is solid and the number of his friendships and relationships in the coaching fraternity is vast.
McNeese has named Joseph, the popular Hall of Fame quarterback and two-year assistant coach, as the team’s interim head coach as it works through the critical early recruiting period this month.
The naming of Joseph as interim is curious in some respects. But with Guidry out, the coaching staff is in limbo until a new coach is named. My hunch is athletic officials might try to protect Joseph and fellow Hall of Fame player and assistant coach Zach Bronson and persuade the next head coach to retain those two, and maybe more, on his new staff.
A search committee approved by Burckel is in place and has begun working on compiling a list of coaching candidates. This committee will do the heavy lifting of vetting any and all who apply, and maybe even seek out and gauge the interest of coaches who are still busy coaching teams preparing for bowl games.
The search committee is made up of eight individuals: panel chairman Tanner Stines, McNeese Associate Athletic Director and former McNeese football coach Bobby Keasler, Dr. Jeff Lemke, McNeese faculty athletic representative and Liberal Arts professor Dr. Michael Snowden, chief diversity officer and Title IX officer Kedrick Nicholas, Associate Dean of Students and former McNeese football players and prominent local businessmen Dennis Stine, Lester Langley and Ben Bourgeois.
As they did in the hiring of new head basketball coach Heath Schroyer from BYU, the committee will probably submit three finalists to Hemphill and Burckel. They will conduct final interviews either in person or by internet to speed the process along.
This needs to be a true national search to unearth the best coaching prospect for a program that has a lot to offer by virtue of new and improved facilities; a history and tradition of winning SLC championships; national recognition and brand power; a rich recruiting geography in Louisiana and south Texas; a university president who is a former Cowboys linebacker and who truly understands the importance of football and athletics; and a talented redshirt quarterback in Cam Smith, who could be good enough to win quickly.
All that is well and good, but it may come down to money. And with a head coach’s base salary of $180,000 per year, McNeese doesn’t have much to throw around.
Booster clubs and private donors may have to augment that annual salary to the tune of at least $225,000 to $250,000 to attract and sign a hot prospect.
Some recognizable coaches who may toss their names into the mix are former McNeese assistant and UL- Monroe assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Mike Collins; and Grambling head coach and former McNeese assistant Broderick Fobbs; former McNeese assistant coach and quarterback and current UL-Lafayette receivers coach Tim Leger; and former Stephen F. Austin head coach and ex-McNeese assistant coach J.C. Harper.
The common denominator with those men is that all have strong McNeese ties. That can be a good or a bad thing: good in that they know the program, its history, the people, the region, the Southland conference and how to recruit and sell McNeese; bad because for some, being close to the Cowboys is too much of a past connection. Been there. Done that.
It’s a common belief that maybe it’s time for a coach outside the McNeese circle — one who’s new to the area and has an offensive background and philosophy; who can create an overhauled coaching staff to lead the program with fresh ideas, improved player development; and can bring a different energy and vibe.
Can McNeese try to entice an offensive hot shot from either North Dakota State (yes, the same program seeking a seventh national FCS championship) or Eastern Washington or James Madison?
Is it beyond McNeese’s reach to expect interest from a top level coordinator from a mid-major FBS program like the University of Alabama-Birmingham or Appalachian State?
To attract coaching talent from a successful FCS program, Conference USA or Sun Belt school, it will come down to money, facilities and the career track and goals of the assistant coach.
It’s been nearly 30 years since McNeese has hired a head football coach outside the Blue and Gold family. The last one without direct ties to McNeese to head the program was Bobby Keasler. He managed fairly well, winning four SLC titles. He was one of the winningest coaches in school history and enshrined in the Cowboys Hall of Fame.
The search committee will soon see just how attractive this job really is by gauging the sheer number, variety and quality of the coaching candidates.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.