Can any coach turn Southeast into winning football program?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

I have to say I was pretty stunned when I heard the news Friday that Tim Billings will no longer be Southeast Missouri State's football coach.

While Billings officially resigned -- he coached his final game Saturday when the Redhawks ended the season at Tennessee Tech -- he was basically ushered out by the administration with two years remaining on his contract.

That Billings would have been let go is not all that surprising in itself, because the Redhawks have struggled the last two seasons, and his six-year record wound up 25-43 after Saturday's 31-24 loss.

But I simply didn't think the university, with all its financial concerns, would eat the remaining two years of his contract.

As it turns out, Southeast did not have to pay Billings the entire worth of the contract -- his base salary was about $93,000 per year -- as he and the university worked out a settlement for $90,000.

Had Billings held out for the entire $186,000 or so that he was owed, Southeast would have had the option of reassigning him in another capacity at the university. This way, he gets a decent chunk of change as he departs the school.

Without getting into whether Billings deserved to be shown the door -- there are probably valid reasons for both sides of the argument -- I want to emphasize that he is a good man and a class act, and he definitely worked his proverbial rear end off to try and build Southeast's program into a consistent winner.

Why he wasn't able to do that -- even after leading the Redhawks to their most wins since 1969 with an 8-4 record in 2002, and then having them within one victory of their first Ohio Valley Conference title and playoff berth in 2003 -- is open for debate.

There are probably a variety of reasons, not the least of which were the facts Southeast football doesn't have the greatest facilities and lags in funding when compared to other OVC programs.

I wrote in a recent column that it's open for debate whether any football coach could consistently win at Southeast given the current situation.

Facts are facts, and in 15 years on the Division I-AA level, Southeast has had two winning seasons. The program's overall Division I-AA record is 58-110, including 41-70 in the OVC.

Until the university makes a strong financial commitment to the football program, it's hard for me to imagine the Redhawks ever doing well on a consistent basis, other than the occasional solid season.

Of course, simply putting plenty of money into a program and having impressive facilities does not automatically guarantee success. Just look at Missouri State.

Randy Ball was a proven winner at Division I-AA Western Illinois. He took the job at what was then Southwest Missouri State -- a Division I-AA program with considerably more resources than Western Illinois, featuring a major financial commitment and sparkling facilities -- but never lifted the Bears past the mediocre stage. He recently was let go.

There have been various programs over the years that appeared hopeless but were turned around by miracle-worker coaches -- two examples are Kansas State's Bill Snyder on the big-time level, and SIU's Jerry Kill closer to home in Division I-AA -- but those stories aren't all that prevalent.

Southeast hopes to have a new coach in place by mid-December, and there will no doubt be plenty of highly qualified candidates, be they Division I-A assistants or Division II head coaches, or coaches from some place in between.

When the university announces its hire, that person will likely have all the apparent qualifications to lead the Redhawks into the promised land -- just like Billings appeared to have.

Whether the new coach can ultimately pull it off, however, will not be determined for some time.

I sincerely wish Billings all the best in the future, no matter what he decides to do. He was nothing but gracious and helpful to me in the six years he coached at Southeast.

There is no question Billings can continue in coaching if he so chooses. He was a proven assistant at Division I-A Marshall before coming to Southeast, and I don't think he would have any trouble returning to that level.

Also, good luck to Southeast's assistants, the majority of whom will also now be looking for jobs. They're also a bunch of really good guys.

That's one thing some people might not realize, that when a head coach is let go, most if not all of his assistants are also out of work, because it's generally left to the new coach to bring in his own staff.

It's part of the profession -- everybody knows it when they get into that line of work -- but you've still got to feel for the coaches and their families.

It's hard for me to say a whole lot of good things about Friday night's season opener for the Southeast men's basketball team, a 59-56 struggle past Division II Truman State.

About the only positive is that the Redhawks were able to squeeze out a victory.

But I've covered sports long enough to know not to put too much stock in one game. And, for fans already pushing the panic button: When the Redhawks went to the NCAA tournament in 1999-2000, they struggled with Division II Rockhurst early in the year.

It's often not easy to get a Division I squad to take a Division II opponent seriously. That was probably the case Friday night.

And, at the end of the season, regardless how things turn out, nobody is going to remember that the Redhawks struggled with Truman State -- but if they had lost, everybody would remember it.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: