I’ll try my best not to write a book. Here goes….
Why it happened
The Vikings went 5-6 this year and 6-5 last year. Both teams clearly had the talent to win 8 games or more. This year’s team not only finished with a losing record, but they finished a full four games back of USF in the standings, and even if you believe that USF is a truly powerful program, there are still plenty of Augie folks who have a tremendous amount of disdain for the Cougars. That didn’t help.
And of course, they lost to USF. At home. In front of over 7,000 fans. In a game in which the Vikings were the better team for long stretches.
They got killed on their homecoming. 52-14. Yes it was to an MSU-Mankato team that ended up going 11-0, but only bottom-feeders are supposed to lose that bad, especially at home.
They got killed in their last home game of the season. As strongly as I maintained all along that I didn’t think Aldrich was going to be let go, the 73-35 loss to Winona definitely had the feeling of one of those games that lead to serious repercussions. It was ugly. The mood was somber. I was frankly surprised that Mike didn’t take the loss harder. It’s really hard for fans and boosters to forgive that kind of effort at home — on senior day, no less.
They lost close games because they couldn’t fix the kicking game. This problem has existed on some level dating back to the Brad Salem and Jim Heinitz eras, but the fact that the Vikings couldn’t execute field goals and extra points any better than Roosevelt High School was a problem, and they couldn’t get it fixed. Aldrich waited way too long to pull Drew Behrens off placekicking duties, and even when he did, he still didn’t replace him with the best kicker — Division I kicking recruit Josh Hanson. When he finally did put Josh in it almost seemed like that made it worse, because it just made it that much more obvious that a mistake had been perpetuated for so long. And even when Hanson or Ben Albrecht were kicking, protection was still a problem.
If Augie had just converted a few more chip shot kicks — extra points, 25-yard field goals, Mike might still be the coach right now.
But for all those on-field reasons, it seems clear to me that Aldrich (and offensive coordinator Steve Olinger, who was fired after directing arguably the most prolific offensive season in school history) were fired more for personal reasons.
You haven’t had to listen too close to hear whispers of Olinger’s unpopularity with many, and he and Aldrich are definitely a departure personality-wise from the typical Augie Doggie.
They cuss. I’m pretty sure they chew tobacco. They don’t like to schmooze with boosters or kiss donors’ asses. They’d rather play Call of Duty over a couple of beers than mug for PR stunts.
(Note: These are generalizations. Mike and Steve have never come out and said these things to me. Though I have played Call of Duty with the entire staff and I did have a couple (literally, two) beers with Steve the night before the playoff game against Duluth in ‘10).
In my opinion, these traits are in no way a bad thing. In fact, I liked Mike and Steve a lot for those very reasons. I felt like they were a breath of fresh air at a school that can be a little too polite and milquetoast. They were blue collar guys at a white collar school. But considering I’m something of a black sheep every time I set foot on Augie’s campus, the fact that I liked them maybe didn’t bode well for them.
Heinitz and Salem were very well-schooled in playing the role of ambassador and public face of the program. Aldrich apparently was not playing this role to the satisfaction of Augie higher-ups. In fact, it would seem there were a lot of people in and around the program who flat out did not like them.
AD Bill Gross didn’t take calls yesterday, but we had an email exchange, and here were some pertinent quotes from it (emphasis mine):
“We felt the overall leadership and direction of the program was not where it needed to be.
“Our assessment of the program included both on the field issues including competitiveness, game management, etc as well as interactions on campus and public relations. So yes, there was much more to the assessment then just a review of wins and losses.
“We are looking for a head coach with strong experience, skills, and knowledge. This is a big job so we are looking for a person who has had successful head coaching experience at the college or university level. We also want a coach who will be a powerful public relations representative for the Sioux Falls community and region.
If you read into it what I’m suggesting you read into it, I think you have your answer as to why Mike and Steve are gone, and what the Vikings are looking for going forward.
Why I feel bad for Mike
For starters, he’s got a (very pretty) wife and two (very cute) young kids and they live here. This is a life event that hurts his family. That always sucks.
From a coaching standpoint, he led them to their best season ever. I don’t want to take any credit away from Brad Salem at all, but I believe strongly, and many, many players from the 2010 team have said it as well — that the Vikings do not win 11 games and compete for a national championship if Mike Aldrich isn’t the coach of that 2010 team.
Brad was a very smart coach and a very compassionate man, and I think he was very good at psychoanalyzing kids. I loved that he took a philosophical and intellectual approach to the game as opposed to disingenuously playing the role of tough guy or drill sergeant. But he was too much of an apologist for his team. I won’t call him soft, as others have, but he didn’t strike me as a great motivator, and I felt like he too often made excuses for them when they failed instead of holding them accountable. I sensed some of this from Heinitz, too, but wasn’t nearly close enough to the program at that time to really say.
When Aldrich took over, he immediately made it clear that he was not going to accept excuses and he was not going to make them. And he never did. He brought an instant level of accountability to the team in 2010. He gave them an edge. His players needed no encouragement to adopt his persona as a blue collar, dip-spittin’, gouge-out-your-eyes team. In the space of one year he changed the teams personality from one of finesse and hope to one of toughness and swagger.
It carried over into 2011, but a few blown field goals and bad breaks turned 8-3 into 6-5. This year a few blown field goals and bad breaks turned 5-2 into 3-4, and then it fell apart from there. The kicking game was the one area where he failed to practice accountability.
The NSIC is a lot better now than it was, even in 2010. This year saw more parity in the league than ever before. The idea that the Vikings should be able to back their way into a minimum of 7 wins every year just because this is the lowly NSIC is a completely ignorant one. This won’t be the last losing season the Vikings ever have in the NSIC.
And one last thing to remember/consider, Salem left for Michigan State after signing day in 2010. So Aldrich has only had two recruiting classes that were his own. The only players from the post-Salem recruiting era that have played any significant snaps are CJ Ham, Brian Long, Steve Miller, Brandon Mohr, Sam Lee and Adam Juhl — the latter two of whom ended up starting as true freshmen this year, and holding their own pretty well considering their youth. I haven’t even mentioned the older players Aldrich recruited when he was the D-coordinator.
Why it still makes sense
A losing season is a losing season. The Vikings have a ton of built-in advantages in D2 and the NSIC. A truly amazing stadium. Terrific institutional support — corporate sponsors, donors and a sports-friendly college president. A great city. A very strong academic reputation. A strong pool of local high school talent to mine, as well as fertile recruiting ground nearby in the Twin Cities. There’s no reason to tolerate mediocrity for long.
Aldrich did kind of fall into the job. A lot of people wondered if it was wise to turn the job over to Mike when Salem left without first conducting a national search. The job was just as attractive then as it is now, so there surely would’ve been many outstanding candidates.
And when Augie struggled the last two seasons, it obviously got Gross and Co. thinking about who they might be able to attract. Aldrich could be getting pushed out the door as much to make room for someone else as because he failed.
All those things I said before about Mike and Steve not being a great fit for the school personality-wise? You can get away with it when you’re winning. When you start losing, and you don’t play ball with the suits…
And of course, fair or not, people who are in charge of things can do what they want. Bill Gross and Rob Oliver don’t have to justify anything to anyone. They have the right to make a change. Every coach knows when he’s hired there’s a good chance that eventually he’ll be asked to leave in some way or another. It’s the business.
If the new coach is a success, this will end up being a good decision, no matter what kind of success Mike ends up having elsewhere (speaking of which, Aldrich had very little to say on his immediate future. He was still kind of in a daze when I spoke to him.)
If the next coach fails, Gross and his bosses will face scrutiny for having pulled the trigger too quick (or for the wrong reasons) on Aldrich.
Like I said, for Mike that remains to be seen. I don’t know if he’s made enough money to wait for the right job to open up — he may have to take what he can get. He’d make a great replacement for Kurtiss Riggs as the Storm’s head coach, but Riggs just signed a two-year extension, and Josh Siegfried seems entrenched as the DC.
For the Vikings, it’s clear they want a more outgoing, hand-shaking people-person. This feels very similar to the USD/Ed Meierkort situation. Meierkort was successful, but didn’t like to play politician. So the Yotes canned him and replaced him with Joe Glenn, who seems from afar to have basically spent his first season at the U making speeches, cracking folksy one-liners and losing football games.
There are a dozen candidates that have been mentioned already.
Scott Underwood of St. Cloud State makes the most sense, as he’s an alum, he has a proven record at SCSU, and there’s reason to believe he’d jump at the chance, as Augie has better facilities, provides better support, and hasn’t threatened to fold its football program.
Kalen DeBoer makes sense as well. It’s unclear how safe the Southern Illinois staff is, and Kalen remains very close to the Sioux Falls area. His wife is an Augie alum. He had interest in the USD job last year. Would he be willing to go across the rivalry to coach at Augie? Hard to say. When I contacted him yesterday he said he was too busy focusing on finishing the season at SIU, but that he was sad to hear about Aldrich.
And if Kalen applies, and I suspect he might, would Augie be willing to hire the guy who built their rival to what it is today? The phrase ‘swallow your pride’ doesn’t really do the situation justice.
There’s also Aaron Keen, the Mankato offensive coordinator who led the Mavs to an 11-0 season this year as acting coach after Todd Hoffner was suspended for the child abuse thing. This is tricky, but the case against Hoffner appears to be crumbling, and he wants his job back. I’m almost certain the Mavs prefer Keen at this point. But they can’t both be the coach, and MSU could be facing a lawsuit from Hoffner - the whole thing is going to get even messier than it already is. An offer from Augie might look awful attractive to Keen.
And of course, there’s always the chance Augie will get a tremendous resume from an NFL or D1 assistant or veteran D2 coach somewhere outside the area, someone we’ve never heard of. This entire blog post is, after all, speculation.
I’d expect the Vikings to move quickly, but they may have to wait for the conclusion of the D2 and FCS playoffs.
On a personal note, I’m very sad to see Mike go. He broke the news to me himself, and it literally knocked the wind out of me. It wasn’t a fun conversation.
I’ve known Mike for a long time going back to his days as an assistant with Augie and the Storm, and I haven’t bothered trying to hide the fact that I admire him. He’s been very good to me, giving me far more access to his staff, his players, his practices and his facilities than I ever had any right to expect. He took my phone calls even when I wrote critical things about him and his team, and never lost his temper with me or dodged a question or tried to bully me into writing something favorable. I always saw the respect and friendliness his players showed me (which they did without fail, even when they were losing) as a reflection on him. He never made excuses after a bad game, and he never, ever complained (to me) about anything I wrote, probably because he was too busy preparing to win the next game. What a concept, huh?
I hope to see him on the sidelines again soon.
I’ll try my best not to write a book. Here goes….