BOWLING GREEN — Call it the Monster.com Bowl.
Winning coach gets hired. Loser gets fired.
A WWE-style career ... ladder match.
OK, dumb idea, but Wednesday night’s Toledo-Bowling Green game is a proving ground just the same.
For the schools’ second-year coaches, the rivalry showdown and the coming weeks will go a long way toward deciding their employment future.
If Toledo wins as expected — and keeps winning — Jason Candle will soon be in line for a big-time new job.
If Bowling Green pulls off the stunner — or keeps the night competitive — Mike Jinks will reinforce hope he is right for his current one.
“When you win your rivalry game,” Jinks said, “sometimes all is forgiven.”
Let’s start with Jinks and cut right to it. I still get asked if Bowling Green will consider firing him after the season. The answer remains no. Even if a booster were to intervene, I’m told the conversation is a non-starter for BG President Mary Ellen Mazey. A school that pleads poverty and made former basketball coach Louis Orr clock in for every last penny he was due — no matter how far it set the program behind — will not cut a $1.2 million check to buy out the final three seasons of Jinks’ contract.
He is safe. For now.
The reason the Falcons need to show life Wednesday is to inspire faith for 2018, because, honestly, that’s the real make-or-break season.
My sense is the school wants to evaluate Jinks’ performance with a reconstructed staff and a roster filled with his promising recruits. Then we can have the talk.
Which is fair.
That’s not to defend Jinks, who, of course, knows no single game can salve the burn of six victories in two seasons. The 45-year-old Texan’s tenure here has so far disappointed, the result of a cupboard left deceptively bare by former coach Dino Babers — an indifferent recruiter who wisely got out of town after winning the 2015 MAC title with a senior-heavy team — and his own inexperience running a program.
I remain convinced former athletic director Chris Kingston’s biggest mistake was allowing Jinks unilateral control in hiring his staff. Jinks may be sharp, driven, and magnetic — and he is — but a coach is only as good as his lieutenants, and that goes double for one whose only previous college experience was three seasons as running backs coach at Texas Tech.
There remains an in-over-their-heads feel at the football building. Jinks needed the sounding board of an experienced hand or three, but instead hired seven first-time Division I assistants. As his top veteran aide and defensive coordinator, he tabbed Perry Eliano, previously the safeties coach at Texas-San Antonio, where the pass defense ranked 117th in 2015. The Falcons rated 113th in total defense last season and are 126th this year.
I asked Jinks if he is weighing significant staff changes this offseason.
“This is not the time,” he said. “It’s always about this team’s improvement. It starts with me. I’m self-evaluating myself, things I felt like I did well, didn’t do well. I’m sure our administration will do the same. I’ll do the same with our staff. Right now is not the time to have those discussions.”
Up the highway, meanwhile, Candle faces a different sort of challenge.
He needs to prove he can elevate the Rockets from pretty good to championship good.
A respected offensive mind and recruiter who surrounded himself with veteran assistants, the 38-year-old Candle inherited a more ready-made winner than Jinks. But he has shown his coaching chops.
If it is not easy to replace three NFL draft picks and endure a series of season-ending injuries — including to star receiver Cody Thompson and two starting offensive linemen — the Rockets have often made it seem that way, their miserable performance at Ohio the exception.
Now comes the defining stretch run, for the program and perhaps Candle. Toledo (8-2, 5-1) needs only to beat BG and four-loss Western Michigan to clinch its first trip to the MAC championship game since 2004.
No matter what, Candle will be a dark-horse name to watch for a job at a second-tier power conference school. (Think along the lines of Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa State, the past destinations of Toledo coaches.) But if the Rockets win a likely title-game rematch against Ohio, history suggests he will strike when his candidacy is hottest.
This is not to suggest Candle wants out. My sense is he loves Toledo, where he has another top-rated recruiting class lined up for 2018. It’s just how it goes. You win the MAC, you get hired. Since 2006, eight league coaches — Brian Kelly, Turner Gill, Butch Jones, Mike Haywood, Dave Doeren, Dave Clawson, Babers, and P.J. Fleck — captured the conference title, then promptly left for bigger gigs.
Let’s see what happens. The testing ground awaits.
On Wednesday, two coaches and rival programs heading in opposite directions but with much to prove will pass in the Bowling Green night.
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