The Lesson of 1999

Let's take a trip back down memory lane for a moment and let us recall the 1999 college football season. Oh sure, I imagine images of Shaun Alexander and Chris Samuels immediately come to mind, but let's take a broader view of the college football scene as a whole.

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Florida was the SEC East champion, finishing with a 7-1 record in conference play with the only blemish coming at the hands of eventual SEC champion Alabama, in overtime, in Gainesville. The Gators won the East thanks to their thrilling 23-21 win over then #2 Tennessee in the Swamp early in the year. After losing to the Tide again in Atlanta, making three straight years for head coach Steve Spurrier with no conference championship -- after winning five of six from 1991-1996 -- some wondered if his reign of dominance was over, but even so Spurrier would be only 55 the following year, and everyone expected him to generally keep the Gators flying high for years to come. Meanwhile, Phil Fulmer was continuing to stockpile elite talent in Knoxville, and even without Peyton Manning he seemed to be guaranteeing the Vols a spot in the national championship discussion for years to come.

In the SEC West, Alabama took the crown after overcoming the early season embarrassments of a loss to Louisiana Tech and the public admittance by head coach Mike Dubose of an affair with his secretary. With an SEC title in his pocket and a top recruiting class on the way, Dubose received a contract extension and a renewed vote of confidence following the 1999 campaign. Many thought the Tide was all but guaranteed a return as a national powerhouse, and more than a few thought Alabama would be national champions the following year. Coming in second that year in the West was Mississippi State with their best season under Jackie Sherrill, and with his fifth 7+ win season to date, it certainly seemed like Sherrill had established the Bulldogs as consistently solid, tough, winning program.

As for the rest of the SEC, several other schools had major question marks and concerns. Auburn improved in Tommy Tuberville's first year over their disastrous 1998 season, but it was still ugly on the Plains. LSU once again crashed and burned amid high pre-season expectations, scraping to a 3-8 finish that saw head coach Gerry Dinardo get fired. South Carolina went 0-11 in its first year after making a splash by hiring Lou Holtz, and while Jim Donnan had improved Georgia over the disastrous Ray Goff years, many were left wondering, after their 7-5 finish, whether or not they could really be an elite program and legitimately compete with Florida and Tennessee.

In the Big 12, Nebraska's reign of dominance continued. Frank Solich's squad took off, going 10-1 in the regular season, with the only loss coming in a tightly-matched 24-20 heartbreaker, in Austin, against Texas, a loss that the Cornhuskers would later avenge by thumping the 'Horns in the Big 12 Championship Game. Nebraska finished the year 12-1 and #3 in the country after beating Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska's biggest foe in the Big 12 North that year was a tough Kansas State program, being led by Bill Snyder, that had averaged over 10 wins per season for many years at that point. Meanwhile, in the South, it was Texas and Texas A&M fighting it out for the top spot.

On the other hand, several other programs were struggling. Oklahoma had Bob Stoops -- a lifelong assistant coach who was hired with no previous head coaching experience -- in his first year in Norman, and the 7-5 season he produced, with a trip to Shreveport, was middling at best. Missouri went 1-7 in conference play, and Kansas continued their traditional football ineptitude. Oklahoma State was on its way to their 13th losing season in 14 years, and Texas Tech seemed destined to be mediocre-at-best for years to come.

In the Big Ten, Michigan remained the consistent King Kong of the conference, but Ron Dayne powered Wisconsin edged them out for a trip to the Rose Bowl, their second consecutive appearance in Pasadena. A young Nick Saban had rebuilt the previously dormant Spartan program from the depths of NCAA sanctions to be a major player, and their thrilling upset of Michigan, 34-31, in East Lansing kept the Wolverines from a trip to the Rose Bowl. Penn State was continuing to go strong, but most thought that Joe Paterno was down to his last couple of years. And meanwhile, Ohio State fell apart, leading to John Cooper's exit a year later, and they still couldn't beat Michigan if their lives depended on it.

The Pac-10 was perhaps even crazier. Stanford won the conference championship on the back of one of hottest young coaching prospects in the country, Tyrone Willingham, and many thought that if the Cardinal could hang on to him, they could establish themselves as the power of the Pac-10. Meanwhile, USC went 3-5 in conference play, and 6-6 overall. Without only one 10+ win season in the previous 20 years, the consistently solid but rarely spectacular Trojans were almost becoming an afterthought on the college football scene, and Paul Hackett was clearly on the hot seat moving forward.

Florida State continued their absolute domination of the ACC, once again going undefeated in conference play on their way to a national championship. The 'Noles average margin of victory in conference play was roughly 24 points, and with Bobby Bowden still having a few years left in the tank, mixed with FSU's recruiting juggernaut, no one really thought anyone in the ACC was in any position whatsoever to even give them any legitimate competition, much less actually knock them off the top, for years to come.

The Big East saw Virginia Tech come on as a major surprise with redshirt freshman Michael Vick popping eyes and leading them to the national championship game. Despite that, the Hokies really didn't get much respect. The general consensus was that Vick would leave early after the 2000 season (which he did), and the Hokies would return to Earth. Meanwhile, Miami was really starting to take off under Butch Davis, who was putting the pains of NCAA sanctions behind them, and the assumption was that the 'Canes would probably dominate the conference for years on end like Florida State had done for so long with the ACC. West Virginia, who finished 4-7, and others were considered mere afterthoughts and also-rans.

Elsewhere, Marshall continued in many ways to be the powerhouse non-BCS conference program. After being a powerhouse in Division 1-AA, Marshall went 35-4 in their first three seasons in Division 1-A, all of which was capped off with a 13-0 season in 1999. With players like Chad Pennington and Randy Moss coming out, the Thundering Herd was making splashes everywhere you looked. In all fairness, though, the level of competition in the MAC was a bit low, so perhaps you could argue that Southern Miss was the top non-BCS conference team around, winning Conference USA again in 1999 on the way to a 9-3 season. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, finished dead last in Conference USA for the second year in a row. The once proud TCU program had rebuilt itself from the ashes of the Pat Sullivan era into a fine program with Dennis Franchione and LaDainian Tomlinson leading the way, but with those two leaving at the end of the season, everyone expected them to return to the proverbial outhouse.

And that was how the 1999 college football season played out. But exactly what happened moving forward? Suffice it to say, much of what ultimately happened was far from what was expected.

In the SEC, Alabama was indeed going to make a return to the national scene, but it would be four coaches and nine years later before it would happen. In the meantime, a nasty recruiting scandal and a coaching carousel doomed the Tide to arguably its worst stretch in school history. Florida won the SEC again the following year, but Steve Spurrier shocked everyone by resigning following the 2001 season, and as a result the Gators suffered through three years of mediocrity under Ron Zook. Tennessee was on the brink of a return to the national title game in 2001, needing only to beat LSU (which it had done so easily earlier that year), but lost in an upset, and from that moment forward it was all downhill for the Vols. Despite the unbelievable amount of talent on hand, Tennessee would not win the SEC nor return to a BCS game again under Fulmer, who was ran out of Knoxville in 2008 after overseeing a long, slow decline of the program. And as for Mississippi State, Jackie Sherrill had one good year left in him, but in 2001 the bottom fell out in Starkville, plunging the program into a deep abyss that it has still yet to recover from almost a decade later.

Meanwhile, LSU made probably the biggest move in school history following the firing of Dinardo by hiring Nick Saban, who wasted no time in turning the Bayou Bengals into a national powerhouse. Four SEC championships and two national championships followed over the next eight seasons. Auburn broke through to win the SEC West in 2000 on the back of star tailback Rudi Johnson, and over the next several years Auburn was one of most consistently successful programs in the country. Meanwhile, Georgia also took off in a big way with the hiring of Mark Richt, and South Carolina has had some of its most successful years since 2001.

In the Big 12, not only did the seemingly unstoppable Nebraska Cornhuskers come to a complete stop, they turned into a bit of a laughingstock. Frank Solich was fired after overseeing a general decline in the program, and his successor Bill Callahan was an abject failure. Almost ten years later, they had to resort to hiring a wholly inexperienced defensive coordinator to lead the program. Kansas State had a few good years left under Snyder, but the program collapsed starting in 2004 with four losing seasons in five years, and out of desperation the Wildcats recently re-hired the aging Snyder in hopes of rejuvenating the program. Texas continued on as a top program, but the Aggies quickly fell into a tailspin that it has yet to recover from, despite making a splash hire in 2002 by snagging Alabama's Dennis Franchione.

On the other hand, Oklahoma's risky bet on a young defensive coordinator payed off, as Bob Stoops quickly proved himself as one of the top coaches in the country. A national championship followed in Stoops' second year, and Oklahoma has been a consistent national championship contender ever since. Likewise, both Kansas and Missouri have both turned themselves into good programs since then, and Texas Tech has enjoyed arguably its greatest successes ever under the highly entertaining Mike Leach.

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin remained a good program throughout most of the 2000's, but they were never able to make it back to Pasadena, and with Bret Bielema leading the program to finishes of 12-1, 9-4, and 7-6 in his first three years (in that order), many in the frozen tundra are fearful that the program is headed in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, the King Kong of the conference, Michigan, has really hit hard times. The program slowly declined under Lloyd Carr, and after he was effectively ousted, Rich Rodriguez came in and had worst  year in school history in his debut campaign, with not much better promises around the corner in year two. Michigan State, too, experienced a bitter taste of reality as well. They couldn't hang on to Nick Saban, and the post-Saban hires of both Bobby Williams and John L. Smith turned into flops. Six losing seasons have followed since Saban's departure to Baton Rouge, and only now does the program look to finally be turning the corner again under the leadership of Mark Dantonio. Meanwhile, Ohio State fired John Cooper, brought in the long-time coach of Youngstown State, Jim Tressel, and they caught fire. A national championship followed in year two, and despite some embarrassing failures in BCS games, the Buckeyes have nevertheless been one of the elite programs of the decade, and their reign of success looks to extend well into the next decade to boot. Furthermore, in a total reversal of fates, it is now Michigan who cannot beat Ohio State if their lives depended on it. And ol' Joe Paterno? Yes he may be older than Moses now, but he's still alive and kicking, and thriving, in Happy Valley.

In the Pac-10, Stanford couldn't hang on to Ty Willingham, who left for Notre Dame two years later, and they quickly returned to the cellar. After several years of struggles, they are finally showing some signs of life under Jim Harbaugh (if they can hang on to him). Meanwhile, after Paul Hackett's firing following the 2000 season, USC hired Pete Carroll and quickly turned itself into the dynasty of the decade. So much for the Trojans being an afterthought...

In the ACC, Florida State turned out to be human after all. Despite a return to the national title game in 2000, FSU had plenty of struggles in 2001, and really have never found their way back since. The talent has been there but the actual production has not, and the program struggled to remain above .500 in 2006 and 2007. Ten years later, FSU fans are largely trying to forget this decade, and hoping that the 'Noles can make a resurgence after a solid 2008 campaign. And making matters worse for FSU, they were recently hit with major sanctions from the NCAA, and despite the fact that the 'Noles have declined so much since their dynasty years, no other ACC team has really been able to step up and fill their void. Despite the influx of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College in the middle of the decade, the last elite team the ACC has produced is still the 2000 Seminoles.

The Big East has arguably seen the greatest change of all. Virginia Tech didn't go away like most expected with the departure of Michael Vick, and almost a decade later they have remained one of the most consistently successful programs in the country. Likewise, Miami did go on a tear in the early part of the decade, and Boston College remained a solid program, but by the middle of the decade, these programs had left the Big East entirely. In their absence, the likes of West Virginia, Rutgers, Louisville, and Cincinnati all dominate the conference today, all of which were complete afterthoughts as programs just a few years back. Now, the question for many is not whether or not the Big East is a weak conference, but whether or not they are even legitimately deserving of a guaranteed BCS bid.

The non-BCS conferences have seen even more change. The once might Marshall has learned the hard way that consistent success in Division 1-A football does not come easy, as they have suffered through four consecutive losing seasons, with many expecting a fifth in 2009. Southern Miss remained a solid program, but they did experience a bit of a decline under Jeff Bower, who was ultimately ran out of town following the 2007 season. On the other hand, not only did TCU not implode, they became even better under Gary Patterson, who frankly turned out to be a better coach than Dennis Franchione ever was. Cincinnati made its way into a BCS conference a few years later, and in 2008 won the Big East and earned a bid playing in the Orange Bowl. Meanwhile, Utah and Boise State have came out of nowhere the past five years on their way to a combined three undefeated seasons and three BCS bowl victories.

The lesson of 1999? College football is a highly dynamic sport, and things rarely turn out as expected. Your time on top rarely lasts long, so enjoy the run while you can.

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