Monday, December 18, 2006

The Mercury News is supposedly planning to write daily stories on the Spartans from now until the bowl game. Saturday supposedly started that streak with this story on the impact Dick Tomey had on the team. Really, there's nothing probing there, not really anything those of us who have followed the team didn't already know. Pretty disappointing, really.

The kicker to this story was the sidebar that accompanied it. It's basically a half-hearted homage to one Dr. Fitz Hill, who once again escapes direct blame for anything bad that happened at SJSU under his watch. By reading this story, you could be excused for believing that Hill was just the recipient of bad luck from an administration looking to throw someone under the bus.

While I don't discount the hardships Hill faced, he has never taken one bit of responsibility for the very numerous things that went wrong during his four-year tenure. So, I'll tick off his offenses and let you decide who got screwed.

2001: Inheriting a team that had gone 7-5 the previous season and returning most of the impact players, Hill started off 0-5 and finished 3-9, the first time since 1970 that a coach other than John Ralston had lost that many games.
Excuses: The team opened at USC, at Colorado, at Arizona State, and played eight road games.
Rebuttal: Losing those first three games is fine, but losing 104-30 in the final two games after hanging with USC was inexcusable. It also doesn't explain losing their first two WAC games and going 3-5 in conference, and failing to competitive in all but one road game. This team was obviously very talented, as evidenced by scoring more than 60 points on two separate occassions. It was also inexcusably inconsisstent, as it scored less than 17 points eight times. A perfect indicator: This team was outscored 295-461. That offensive output was actually deceiving in that more than half of thos points came in just three games. Defensively, that was a record of futility, rivaled only by John Ralston's 3-9 squad in 1996 that gave up 448. As we will learn, this will become a trend in the Fitz Hill era.

2002: Coming off what was generally considered a disappointing season, the Spartans opened up with light-weight Arkansas State and squeezed out a 33-18 win. That was followed by successive losses to Washington and Stanford, the latter 63-26, this season felt like here-we-go-again. But then this happened: a 38-35 victory at Illinois, the first time SJSU had beaten a BCS conference team other than Stanford since 1992. The Spartans eventually went 6-7, with the season ending on a sour note, a 19-16 loss to Fresno State with a bowl berth on the line.
Excuses: A lack of depth and another road-heavy schedule (nine games) left the Spartans bruised and beaten and unable to hold real practices.
Rebuttal: Again, he's got a point: nine road games is ridiculous and whoever decided to visit Ohio State in the middle of the season was pretty evil, but no team should ever give up 467 points in a season, and certainly not when schools like UTEP, SMU and Tulsa are scoring 23, 24 and 38 points, respectively. All in all, though, I think this was the one year he did a decent job.

2003: The year starts out with a 29-0 shutout of Grambling State -- a bonafide Division IAA power -- in front of the largest crowd in Spartan Stadium history that was broadcast on ESPN. Young, smart, black war-vetern is the coach of the up-and-coming Spartans. Good feelings. Great expectations...The Spartans lose their next four games and never recover, finishing 3-8.
Excuses: Road games, blah, blah, blah. This year, though, Hill had a new one: a home game. Although he wouldn't break this one out until late the next year, Hill claimed that he put so much time and energy into making the Grambling game a success that it sapped his energy for most of the next two seasons.
Rebuttals: Losing at Florida 65-3 in the second game of the season certainly hurt, but this season was nothing out of the ordinary as the Spartans played only two out-of-conference road games and one of them was at Stanford. The Grambling this is just bizzarre, but was THE sign that Hill was simply In over his head. There were other tell-tale signs, like the Spartans' 13-10 loss to Hawaii, in which the Spartans drove inside the Warriors' 5 with about 20 seconds remaining. With no timeouts remaining, the Spartans elected to run perhaps the one play that would take enough time to run out the clock and not give them a chance to attempt the tying field goal -- a long-developing TE screen that was stopped at the goalline. The Spartans tried to get a snap off, but ultimately were denied by the refs and were instead stuck with a mind-numbing loss to a highly touted team. A good coach shrugs his shoulders and moves on. A great coach takes responsibility and promises improvement. Hill blames the refs, never acknowledging what a stupid play-call he made even putting it on his offensive coordinator.

2004: In an attempt to make an annual to-do out of bringing a traditionally black college with a great marching band to Spartan Stadium, SJSU's home-opener is a blowout of Morgan State. That followed a 49-3 loss to Stanford and preceeded a 36-13 loss to lowly SMU. The Spartans then beat Rice 70-63 -- the highest scoring regulation game in NCAA history -- but that's when the roller-coaster ride stopped. Seven straight losses followed -- concluding with a 62-28 embarrassment to Fresno State. By the end of the season, barely anyone was coming to games, sometimes just a couple thousand, and cancelling football was a very real possibility.
Excuses: Hill broke out all the old standbys -- Long road trips, lack of players -- and really started to harp on a new one: No support from administration or students. Of course, the team's performance had something to do with this, but it had become a legitimate distraction none-the-less. He had probably lost the team, too, although he never used that as an excuse.
Rebuttals: Sure, the Spartans travelled to SMU, Washington, Hawaii and Tulsa, but three of those were conference games and only three games all year were outside the Pacific Time Zone. Really, this was the easiest schedule Hill ever had and it was the worst record he ever posted. Still, this team allowed a school record 469 points and held just two teams to fewer than 30 points in a game and allowed the opposition to score 40 or more points SIX times. This might have been the worst defense in NCAA history. Morgan State -- a middling DIAA program -- scored 28 points for god's sake. And there was never any accountability for this, just the same tired excuses. No assistant was ever fired by Hill in his four years, as far as I know, and he never took one ounce of responsibility for the team's struggles. After this debacle, many people, myself included, were willing to let football go.

There have been worse stretches in Spartan history in terms of record, but this was as bad as Sparta ever got. But through it all, Hill would have us believe that he was getting a raw deal, and maybe that's partly right. Maybe if he's a white coach, he gets one more year, although I doubt it. In fact, he probably gets less. I think he was simply consumed by the whole idea of being a head coach, to the point that he was completely overwhelmed. While there is no amount of excuses that explains his 14-33 record, I will give him this: As one of a handful of black IA coaches, he always felt he needed to succeed and maybe that pressure was too much for him to handle.

At times, he seemed so focused on things like HOW MANY scholarship players he had, that he seemed to forget what to do with them. Sometimes, he seemed so intent on not admitting that he had a staff full of inexperienced nobodies that he never wanted to blame them for anything. He seemed so defensive about the idea that he was representative of black coaches as a whole that he made an issue out of it. The sad thing is that Hill looked so good on paper: Young, smart, educated, a war vet, and he was black, too. Who better to lead the Spartans? But it all unraveled. The fact is a lot of his excuses had merit and a lot of what he says about the state of college football is right. But he had his chance to make things right and failed, miserably. Now he's a bad messenger.

His players did not graduate, did not stay eligible, had their trouble of off-field problems and DID NOT WIN. His willingness to bring religion into the lockerroom also supposedly alienated some players, while making others fiercely loyal. He was given four years and succeeded only in making the situation worse. Perhaps the only good thing he did was ensure the ouster of Chuck Bell, who refused to fire Hill and was therefore fired himself.


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