The University of Delaware dropped a bombshell on its fans on Monday. As first reported by the Wilmington News Journal, the school fired head football coach K.C. Keeler.
“We appreciate the efforts and accomplishments of Coach Keeler in leading the Blue Hens football program,” UD Director of Athletics and Recreation Services Eric Ziady said in a release from the school on Monday evening. “The 86 wins and the 2003 National Championship will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of the Blue Hen faithful, and I thank Coach for his commitment to his alma mater.”
“However, at this important time in UD Athletics, and after thorough evaluation over the past two months, I believe a change of direction is needed in Delaware football. We must reinvigorate our program and reenergize our supporters as we lay the foundation for future success.”
According to News Journal reporter Kevin Tresolini, Keeler was told of his firing in a meeting with Ziady, executive vice president Scott Douglass and a school attorney. Tresolini was told by Keeler that he was informed the school wanted a new direction.
The timing more than anything is what makes this so shocking.
Had Keeler been dismissed immediately after the season, it would have been surprising, but not earth-shattering. After all, UD has failed to qualify for the postseason in four of the last five and six of the previous eight campaigns. In two of those years when the team missed out on the playoffs, it was quarterbacked by a guy who is currently playing in the NFL. Those kinds of numbers tend to hurt a coach’s job security.
They probably would have been outweighed by the fact that Keeler had reached three national championship games and won one national title in 11 years overall at UD, if not for one other overwhelming factor: Delaware’s rapidly declining attendance.
At the end of the day, it was the apathy in the stands at Delaware Stadium which did Keeler in.
Attendance had been dwindling since the tail end of 2010. During the regular season that year, the Hens averaged 20,684 fans per home game. While the playoffs always draw smaller crowds, that season’s postseason run drew an appallingly low number of patrons. UD averaged a meager 10,912 fans in three home playoff games. In 2011, Delaware’s regular season attendance average fell to 19,018. It dropped even further last season when the Hens drew just 18,542 fans per game.
In Keeler’s defense, much of the drop off was not his fault. The university implemented some rather unpopular fees on fans beginning in 2011, and fans stayed away in droves as a result. But Keeler has never been all that popular amongst Blue Hen Nation, and with the school needing something to rekindle its fan base’s flames for the program, his ouster was a logical move.
And again, when you miss the playoffs four times in a five-year span as Keeler did, you leave yourself vulnerable to this type of thing.
What made this stunning, however, is when the decision was made. Schools do not tend to let their coaches go on January 7. We are less than one month away from national signing day. Unless Delaware is prepared to promote someone from within Keeler’s staff to take over the program (and it certainly does not appear as though they are), it is going to be very difficult to salvage the Hens’ 2013 recruiting class.
The university has said it will begin a national search immediately. That’s going to take time, and time is just not on Delaware’s side right now.
Now if I’m being honest, Ziady has done nothing but earn my confidence since arriving in Newark by the way he has carried himself and tackled issues head-on. So if he thinks he can find a new coach—and that coach will have enough time to put together a competitive recruiting class this year—then I believe him. But man, it’s not going to be easy.
I also feel bad for Keeler, who has to leave his alma mater in the midst of a four-game losing streak. You cannot imagine he saw this coming, at least not so soon. If so, why would he have fired offensive coordinator Jim Hofher after the season? Keeler was progressing as though everything would be normal in 2013; unfortunately for him, that normalcy lasted less than a week into the new year.
Keeler has the kind of resume that will allow him to wind up on his feet though. He had years remaining on his contract, so he won’t leave empty-handed (monetarily speaking) and he will likely land another head coaching gig in 2014. His assistants, however, might not be so fortunate. They are likely to be left standing in the coaching profession’s annual game of musical chairs. At this stage of the coaching carousel, there are few jobs left vacant. And considering that a new coach is likely to want to build his own staff, loyal Hens like Brian Ginn and Greg Perry may be left scrambling for jobs.
Unfortunately, that’s the risk you take in the coaching business. As Hofher told Tresolini in the News Journal after he was fired, “Football is a great game, but a terrible business.”
Now Delaware has a great deal of business left on its plate. A critical national search is underway with a ticking clock hanging over everything. The process must be expedient, but done right. This may be the most important moment in Delaware sports history. UD football needs someone who will reignite the passion this state once felt for its preeminent Division One program.
No pressure, Mr. Ziady, but Delaware fans are all counting on you and President Harker to get this one right.