Posted: 4:00 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013
By War Machine Dawg
Ever since mid-3rd Quarter last Saturday, the Mississippi State social media world has been blowing up with calls for the firing of Les Koenning as offensive coordinator. While I agree that Koenning’s job performance leaves something to be desired, I find myself compelled to ask another question: Is Koenning at the root of MSU’s offensive problems or is he a convenient scapegoat? To help answer this question, let’s take a look back at Mississippi State's offensive coordinator history.
For the vast majority of the last 20+ years, Mississippi State has struggled when it comes to offense. By struggling, I mean that MSU has mostly been a middle of the pack to lower third offense most of this time. This is especially disconcerting when you consider the offensive revolution being seen in college football during that same time frame. During this span of time, MSU has also had 7 different offensive coordinators. In order: Watson Brown, Bruce Arians, Lynn Amedee, Sparky Woods, Morris Watts, Woody McCorvey, and Les Koenning. It should be noted, each has had various degrees of freedom. We’ll go through them one by one.
Watson Brown was the first Jackie Sherrill Era offensive coordinator. When Brown became OC in 1991, college football and the SEC was a very different place offensively. The SEC was still the "3 yards and a cloud of dust" league. But Watson was somewhat different. Sure, he was a ball control, option guy. But he was known for crafting his offense year-to-year to fit his available talent. In those days, Mississippi State had Sleepy Robinson, Micheal Davis, Kevin Bouie, Kenny Prince, Walt Harris, Olanda Truitt, and John James on offense. Watson crafted an innovative option offense that moved the ball effectively. His downfall came on that ill-fated Stand in the '92 Egg Bowl. Brown would go on to a somewhat successful coaching career, capped by a head coaching stint at UAB.
Enter Bruce Arians. Bruce was truly an innovative force at offensive coordinator. Arians had Derrick Taite and Eric Moulds to work with, so we became a high-octane passing offense. In many ways, Arians offense was an early predecessor to the current Spread Offense being seen in college football. But his twist was more of an Air Raid approach, due to the talent he had on offense. Unfortunately, his wide open offensive philosophy didn’t mesh with the physical, ground-and-pound style that Sherrill wanted. He would be fired after three seasons in charge. Bruce would go on to become one of the most successful offensive coordinators in the NFL at Pittsburgh. He’s currently the head coach at Arizona. I would argue he was potentially the best offensive coordinator at State in the last 20 years.
Following Arians, Sherrill hired his long time friend, Lyn Amedee. Amedee installed a pro style, I-Form attack that would take us to the SEC Championship Game in 1998. The '97 & '98 offenses were solid, if unspectacular. JJ Johson would forever cement himself in the hearts and minds of Bulldog fans as a favorite. And who can forget the consecutive 4th and 10+ conversions against Arkansas in '98 on the way to the game winning drive? Amedee left after the '98 SECCG run to become a high school head coach.
Sparky Woods took over in 1999. Woods offense would struggle in '99, but be effective enough to help State to a 10-2 record. The Mississippi State offense in 2000 was a force. It would help beat back-to-back Top 10 teams in Florida and Auburn. Wayne Madkin had a career year at QB, and the running back tandem of Dicenzo Miller & Dontae Walker was incredibly effective. Woods’s offense that season featured a pro style attack similar to Amedee’s, but focused more on an effective short-to-intermediate passing game. In 2001, the Sherrill Era began to come apart at the seams. Woods would be fired in 2002.
Morris Watts was hired to get the offense back on track. Morris had successful runs at LSU and Michigan State prior to coming to MSU. He was known for an offensive philosophy that was similar to the West Coast Offense, but with an emphasis on shifting formations. Unfortunately, MSU was devoid of offensive talent during his tenure, especially on the offensive line. The Jackie Sherrill Era would come to an end following the 2003 season, and Morris Watts would not be retained.
Under Sherrill, the offensive coordinators were given the freedom to create their own offenses and run the show. But Sherrill had one primary directive he insisted they follow: Be physical, run the ball, control the clock. The only exception was Arians. To be clear: While the "look" of the offense was up to each individual OC under Sherrill, the philosophy was Sherrill’s. We had about 5 plays that we ran to death: Power Left, Power Right, Power Middle, Play Action Deep Bomb, Crossing Route. Despite the various OC’s, the basic philosophy and approach was the same, with varying degrees of success.
MSU would garner national attention for the hiring of Sylvester Croom as HC following Sherrill’s departure. In his first press conference, Croom announced he would bring the West Coast Offense system with him from Green Bay. Croom would then hire his good friend Woody McCorvey as OC. Croom openly said that he would teach McCorvey the WCO, as McCorvey had no experience with the system. As we all well know, MSU was completely inept on offense under McCorvey. Mississippi State would never crack the Top 100 in offense in McCorvey’s 5-year run. We can all agree that Woody was essentially the OC in name only during his tenure, as the offensive philosophy was brought and implemented by Croom.
That brings us to the present. As we all know, Dan Mullen succeeded Croom as MSU head coach. Mullen was given one simple order: fix the offense. To that end, Dan brought the Spread with him from Florida, Utah, and Bowling Green. Mullen also hired Les Koenning as his OC. Like McCorvey before him, Koenning had no experience with the offensive system he was going to be asked to run. Mullen would be teaching Koenning the system himself.
Let’s take a deeper look at Les Koenning’s role as offensive coordinator. As I said just a moment ago, Koenning has no experience running the Spread. In fact, he was nearly out of football when Mullen hired him. I’m forced to ask myself, why was Koenning hired? What is his role, considering the facts above? We know for a certainty that Les is in charge of coaching and developing the quarterbacks. We also know that Les helps create the weekly gameplan. As of last year, Les was handed play calling duties. But rumors have surfaced that Mullen himself called the plays Saturday. (Something I’ll take a look at in a future article.) But for the sake of argument, let’s say Les called the plays Saturday.
Does replacing Koenning change anything of significance? I think the answer is a resounding "No." Let’s be honest: The Spread is Mullen’s offense. He brought the system to MSU. He "taught" Koenning the offense. Mullen called the plays in 2009 and 2010. Frankly, offense is the Dan Mullen Show. Dan is making all the decisions of any real significance when it comes to that side of the ball.
Like many before him, Koenning will probably be the scapegoat for our offensive struggles. It’s easy for a head coach to blame his offensive coordinator, even if the head coach is an offensive guy who’s running the show. My personal opinion is that Koenning may not be a good offensive coordinator, but he’s a solid developer of QBs and a good administrative coach in terms of game planning and such. He’s also one of our better recruiters on staff.
That brings me to the thrust of this article. If we fire Koenning, who would we hire to replace him? Mississippi State faces two major challenges when it comes to hiring an offensive coordinator: 1) This is Mullen’s offense and 2) Uncompetitive Salary for the position.
As I’ve said a few times above, this is Dan Mullen’s offense. He makes the decisions, and he runs the show. Very few offensive coordinators with any serious career aspirations will be willing to work in that environment. Good offensive coordinators want control and freedom to make their offense work with minimal interference from the head coach. This is particularly true for young, up-and-coming OCs who are more likely to be running the Spread. If they agree to work for Mullen, they would know that it’s Mullen’s way or the highway. Their control and freedom would be extremely limited. That means we would likely be forced to hire another retread like Koenning who has little or no experience with the Spread and nothing significantly changes.
The other problem, and perhaps the biggest, is MSU does no pay its coordinators competitively with the rest of the SEC. Let's take a look at the salaries of some of the other OCs in our league:
Cam Cameron, LSU (2013)
Doug Nussmeier, Alabama (2012)
Jim Chaney, Tennessee (2012)
Scot Loeffler, Auburn (2012)
Brent Pease, Florida (2012)
Paul Petrino, Arkansas (2012)
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M; (2012)
Randy Sanders, Kentucky (2012)
Mike Bobo, Georgia (2012)
Matt Luke, Mississippi (2012, Co-OC)
Dan Werner, Mississippi (2012, Co-OC)
David Yost, Missouri (2012)
Les Koenning made $275K at MSU in 2012. On that list, the one name to me that jumps out as being underpaid last season was Mike Bobo, and he still made $335K. I also noticed that when combined, Mississippi pays their offensive Co-OCs $516,667. That easily puts their salary into the top half of the SEC. Virtually ever other SEC OC makes $300K+. To competitively pay a new offensive coordinator with talent on par with other SEC schools, we would need to increase our pay for the position by at least $100K, in my mind.
If MSU isn’t willing to make a serious commitment to increase the pay of the offensive coordinator position to a competitive level, we will be stuck with only two options. The first option is to attempt to hire a young up-and-coming OC who will look to use us as a stepping stone for a bigger job. But that returns us to the problem of "This is Mullen’s offense." Realistically, it will be hard to make that type of hire, although it is what I’d prefer. The second option is to do what we’ve always done: Hire another retread OC. And if we do that, we can’t ask for results that are much different than what we’re currently getting from Koenning.
Here’s what I propose: Start talking up the need to pay our assistant coaches, particularly our OC, competitively. We can find the money in the budget. If Mississippi can find $516,667 for their OC position, we can find another $100-150K in our budget. Offensive coordinator is a position where "you get what you pay for" to borrow an old cliché.
Coming next week: A look at "This is Mullen's Offense" and an argument why Mullen has to either become more hands on with the offense or why he needs to totally relinquish control of the offense.