Coaches who need a big spring

Building a little momentum in March and April is not the sole domain of the athletes at this time of year. In fact, a handful of head coaches on thin ice are just as eager to put poor finishes behind them and gather up a much-needed head of steam for the 2011 season.

Now, that’s not to suggest that all are facing must-win situations. Jeff Tedford and Greg Schiano, for instance, are probably going to be safe even if Cal and Rutgers, respectively, don’t compete for a league title. However, that doesn’t quell the urgency to exceed last season’s uninspired efforts. It all begins in the spring, where the seeds of next fall and improved job security are about to be put in the dirt.

Mike Locksley, New Mexico: Sure, Locksley inherited a challenging situation when he arrived from the Illinois staff, but he’s responded with one of the worst two-year debuts in history. He’s won just two games, once in each season, claiming Wyoming and Colorado State as his only victims. Plus, when he’s made headlines, it rarely was flattering, such as being accused of sexual harassment and getting suspended for punching an assistant. He’s a powder keg, without the record to back up the volatility. And it’s worth noting that the Lobos went to five bowl games between 2002-07 when Rocky Long was on the sidelines. Locksley is such a good recruiter that he’ll always be employed. It just might not be in Albuquerque unless things turn around dramatically.

Jeff Tedford, Cal: As an aggregate, Tedford’s nine seasons in Strawberry Canyon have been wildly successful, especially compared to predecessor Tom Holmoe. He’s won 72 games, been to seven bowls, and has dominated Stanford in the Big Game. He remains one of the most respected quarterback mentors in America. However, the bulk of his achievements occurred in the first half of his tenure. Over the last four seasons, the Bears are just 29-22 and failed to finish higher than fourth place in the Pac-10. They’ve been caught — and surpassed — by the rival Cardinal, and are coming off their first losing season since 2001. Oh, and there have been a number of duds behind center since Aaron Rodgers was last on campus almost seven years ago. Tedford’s objective is to show that his best years aren’t permanently behind him.

Butch Davis, North Carolina: Davis survived a high-profile NCAA probe that cost a number of key players the 2010 season, but he sure sweated it out. While his Tar Heels performed well under the circumstances, the coach lost a lot of supporters and margin for error. Any additional problems or a regression on the field might be enough to seal his fate. Yes, Carolina has turned the corner under Davis, winning eight games each of the last three seasons. Still, there’s a gnawing feeling around Chapel Hill that a long-awaited ACC title might have come to fruition had DE Robert Quinn, DT Marvin Austin, WR Greg Little and CB Kendric Burney not missed all or part of the season. More than anything, the coach needs the kind of uneventful offseason that allows him to develop new starters on both sides of the ball.

Greg Schiano, Rutgers: While it’s almost sacrilegious to even suggest that Schiano might be in trouble, ignoring the recent plight of the Scarlet Knights would be worse. He’s as much a part of Rutgers football as any individual, and the man most responsible for the improbable turnaround over the past six seasons. However, while the school was busy chopping wood, it was unknowingly hitting a wall. Since the memorable win over Louisville in 2006, the Knights are 13-18 in Big East play, often fattening up on a weak non-conference schedule to become bowl-eligible. Last year was like old times, winning once in the league and finishing with six straight losses. There’s a short attention span for college football in these parts, and Schiano realizes another losing season would be disastrous.

Jim Grobe, Wake Forest: Grobe is a terrific coach and has been a transformational figure for Demon Deacons football. However, there’s a statute of limitations for everything in sports. Even Wake Forest fans, who pay far more attention to the basketball team, are beginning to get a little grumpy. Maybe he’s become a victim of his own success, raising the standard with 28 wins and an ACC title during a wicked three-year period beginning in 2006. Since then, the Deacs went 8-16, really bottoming out in a horrid 2010 campaign. Wake Forest is unlikely to do better than Grobe, a nice fit for a school that has to overachieve in order to offset recruiting disadvantages. That said, a third straight losing season could put the coach in a delicate situation heading into 2012.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson: You don’t go 6-7 at a school like Clemson without earning a spot on the coaching hot seat. The Tigers’ Atlantic Division-winning season of 2009 was quickly replaced by a disappointing campaign that failed to capitalize on a mess of next-level talent. The program expects to be competing for an ACC title each season, but it remains to be seen whether Swinney is the guy to get it to that place. He has a number of holes to fill on defense and a pressing need for young Tajh Boyd to flourish at quarterback. He’s also facing the specter of quality free-agent coaches, like Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach, who’d love a shot to coach some of South Carolina’s best players at a school with a rich football tradition.

Ron Zook, Illinois: Don’t get a false sense of security from last year’s seven wins and Texas Bowl victory over Baylor. It’s a Band-Aid for a coach who’s had just two winning seasons in six years and is 28-45 in Champaign. That’s just not going to cut it for much longer. He’s developing some quality young players, like QB Nathan Scheelhaase, but losing RB Mikel Leshoure, LB Martez Wilson, and DT Corey Liuget to early entry into the 2011 NFL draft was a setback. You get the feeling that the upcoming season will go a long way to determining Zook’s future with the Illini. If he can build on last year and remain in the upper half of the Big Ten, he’s safe. If, on the other hand, he labors to get above the .500 mark, AD Ron Guenther is liable to pull the plug.

Paul Wulff, Washington State: Pull out your favorite cliché regarding Wulff’s future on the Palouse. Do-or-die. Now-or-ever. You get the point. He got a reprieve to return for a fourth season because the Cougars were markedly more competitive in 2010, even if the record didn’t show it. That said, 5-32 over three seasons is eventually going to suffocate any moral victories or developmental gains. At some point, all of the young kids Wazzu has employed over the last few years have to be parlayed into wins. Although Pullman is a difficult place to win and recruit, don’t forget that this is a school that was stringing together 10-win seasons a decade ago, and played in the 2003 Rose Bowl. More is expected than what Wulff has been able to produce since arriving from Eastern Washington.

Dennis Erickson, Arizona State: After raising the bar in 2007, his first with the Sun Devils, Erickson has been unable to really get going. The coach won his first eight games, soaring up the Top 25 and drawing rave reviews from across the country. Since then? How about 13-24 vs. fellow FBS members? Nothing seems to be working, though Arizona State flashed signs of life in 2010, upsetting rival Arizona in a thriller and coming close in all but a single loss. The Sun Devils have enough returning talent and the kind of schedule that should equal at least six or seven wins and a bonus game. If they fail to deliver and linger near the Pac-12 cellar, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that’ll compel Lisa Love to give her coach a sixth year to turn things around.

Rick Neuheisel, UCLA: If Neuheisel was going to be in trouble after three seasons at his alma mater, didn’t you figure it would be because of some nefarious off-field allegations? The program has been surprisingly quiet away from the field. And surprisingly feeble on it. The coach simply hasn’t gotten it done, going 15-22 and finishing no higher than eighth place in the Pac-10. His offenses have been awful, his quarterbacks incapable, and his lone bowl appearance was against Temple in the EagleBank Bowl. Suggestions that the Bruins might finally begin narrowing the gap on hamstrung rival USC have yet to come to fruition, especially in the recruiting arena. UCLA is on life support, and if it doesn’t perk up in a hurry, it’s Neuheisel’s career that’s going to be flatlining.

Mark Richt, Georgia: There’s a ton to like about Richt, on and away from the field. He’s the kind of guy you’d want your kid to call coach. However, the bottom line at Georgia is that the total package must include wins and titles. And the Dawgs haven’t done enough of that over the last two years, slipping in the SEC pecking order. Once untouchable when the program was averaging more than 10 wins a year between 2002-08, Richt has faced intense scrutiny over the last two seasons. Georgia has gone 14-12, finishing 2010 with an ugly loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl for its worst mark since 1996. All kinds of accusations are flying around that Richt may have lost his edge and is no longer capable of competing with the league’s best coaches. All that matters now is that he turns things around and wins the East or else he’ll have a tough time justifying another year in Athens.