What do Penn State and Michigan football have in common with Duke and Kentucky basketball? These are four collegiate programs with a rich tradition of excellence. They are also four programs that have experienced unusually disappointing seasons.
The Michigan football team under head coach Jim Harbaugh finished with a 2-4 record. That was the first losing season for the Wolverines in six seasons and their second losing season in the last eleven seasons.
Penn State under head coach James Franklin lost their first five games this season before winning their final four games to settle for a 4-5 record. This was the Nittany Lions’ first losing football season in sixteen years going back to 2004.
Kentucky has lost six straight games in college basketball. The Wildcats begin the new year with a 1-6 record which is the worst start in the eleven seasons John Calipari has been the head coach of the program. In fact, Kentucky’s six losses are already a many as Calipari has had with his teams at Kentucky in five other full seasons.
These results make Duke’s 3-2 record this season seem tame in comparison. Things may have looked direr for the Blue Devils if they had not had some games canceled due to COVID. Yet with Duke’s best win on their resume being against a 3-5 Notre Dame squad, it is fair to say that the season has been underwhelming so far for head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Another thing these four programs have in common is they all have highly regarded (and well-paid) head coaches. These veterans did not suddenly forget how to coach their sport.
Of course, this year has been unique for all college football and basketball teams because of the COVID pandemic. While every team has been impacted by the virus, some programs have experienced bigger challenges.
What these four blue blood programs also have in common is that they were all bringing back young teams that needed the attention of their highly paid and regarded head coaches.
Michigan returned only 11 starters from last year’s team that finished 9-4. Ten of their players were drafted into the NFL last April. They then had their top returning player on offense and defense opt-out of the season to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft.
Penn State returned 13 starters from the team that finished 11-2 last season. While eight starters were back on offense, the defense experienced turnover with six starters from last year needing to be replaced. Yet when linebacker Micah Parsons then opted-out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft, the Nittany Lions lost perhaps their most important player.
Harbaugh and Franklin did not have the benefit of full spring practices. Fall practices were modified because of COVID protocols. It makes sense that the best coaches are the most impacted by disruptions in the practice schedule since that is one of the areas where they excel versus their peers.
Opt-outs heightened the challenge. Because it is the blue blood programs that have more future professional players, they are the ones hurt the most when those players decided to not play this season. The pandemic helped to level the talent playing field.
Kentucky and Duke are experiencing similar challenges, albeit without the opt-outs. The Wildcats lost their top six players from last season with only Keon Brooks returning who played significant minutes last season. The Blue Devils lost their top three players for last year. They are two programs that need practice and coaching. What is also not fully appreciated is the loss of coaching time college programs experienced with a full March Madness from the NCAA tournament. The Kentucky and Duke supporting cast from last year that is now being asked to take larger roles would have been better served from that postseason experience.
The blue blood programs are the easiest targets. However, critics should be mindful of the ways that the COVID pandemic impacted their programs in ways that other teams did not experience. As with everything, appreciating the context can help lead to a better understanding of the circumstances.
Good luck - TDG.