IU's Mallory, UK's Curry cut, left to bleed

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bill Mallory deserved better. So, for that matter, did Bill Curry. If you must fire a man, you don't do it gradually.

Football is a brutal business, no doubt about that, but it should not be sadistic. Coaches get canned all the time, but few colleges are so callous as to impose the additional indignity of advance notice.

Until now. In successive weeks, Indiana University and the University of Kentucky have notified their head football coaches that they are to be terminated. In each case, the firing does not take effect until the end of the season.

Both Mallory and Curry could have seen the end coming. They are grown men, after all, and fully capable of reading a scoreboard, a newspaper and the tide of public opinion. Neither coach, however, was fully prepared for the possibility of being sacked in midseason with the expectation that they would stay on as lame ducks.

It is, at best, an awkward arrangement. At worst, it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. ''An untenable position,'' says outplacement specialist Nancy Schellhous, chief executive officer of Cincinnati-based Promark Co.

''It's hard to be in the limelight one minute and the next minute feel like you've got a social disease,'' Schellhous said. ''They're going to be under a microscope, but it's a different type of microscope. You've got to feel that you've got something branded on the back of your shirt and everyone's watching you to see how you react.''

Pro-like business

College administrators are reluctant to make coaching changes in midseason. It bespeaks panic, and misplaced priorities. It erodes the illusion that college sports exist for the growth of students and not the aggrandizement of alumni. It says that the values of State U. are as base and businesslike as those of the pro teams in the big city.

Certainly there are circumstances - illegal activities, moral turpitude, and/or getting caught by the NCAA - that justify a coach's immediate removal. It is hard, however, to find the logic underlying a firing that does not take effect for several weeks.

Thursday, Indiana University Athletic Director Clarence Doninger explained the timing of the Mallory dismissal by citing the necessity to ''get a handle'' on all the rumors that were floating around his football program. Doninger might have been able to come up with a lamer excuse, but ''the dog ate my homework'' didn't apply.

Simply put, Mallory didn't win enough. Same with Curry. Their bosses were eager to reassure fans and recruits that the need for change was recognized, and that the search for replacement coaches would not be delayed by any disingenuous votes of confidence for the incumbent.

''I wanted to end the speculation and discord related to our football coaching situation,'' said Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton. ''And I also wanted to begin the process of hiring a new coach.''

If your job depends on alumni donations and ticket sales, you are obliged to act accordingly. Sometimes this means mollifying the mob with the scalp of a good man. Sometimes this means firing a coach with half his schedule remaining.

Victims linger

The problem here is not so much with the decisions made in Bloomington and Lexington, but with the way in which they were implemented. When beheadings were all the rage in Europe, the condemned would often bribe the executioners to make sure it was done in one blow. At IU and UK, they prefer to let their victims linger. Instead of appointing an interim coach, they have designated martyrs.

''In a normal corporate setting, if someone is being let go because of performance, the shorter the person is on the job, the better,'' Schellhous said. ''It is better for the individual to be able to focus on what their future is and for the business to get on with its business. It's very difficult for a person to stay on in an environment where they've been told they're no longer wanted.''

Bill Curry has persevered in spite of his public humiliation. Six days after he was fired, the Wildcats beat Georgia, 24-17, for their second victory of the season. It was homecoming. Sort of.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 2, 1996.