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December 25, 2009

Marshall fired up for bowl even without coach

The coaching carousel annually causes a few teams to enter the postseason without the men who led them there.

Cincinnati faces Florida in the Sugar Bowl minus Brian Kelly, who coached the Bearcats to an unbeaten regular season before Notre Dame hired him. Kelly will be replaced next season by Butch Jones, who left Central Michigan for his new job as the Chippewas were preparing for their GMAC Bowl contest with Troy. In the meantime, both Cincinnati and Central Michigan are playing their bowl games with interim coaches.

And then there's the case of Marshall, which is playing its bowl with an interim coach for a different reason.

Marshall's Mark Snyder resigned under pressure in the wake of a 6-6 season. One week later, the Herd earned an invitation to face Ohio in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which takes place Saturday at Detroit's Ford Field.

While preparing for a bowl under these types of circumstances might seem awkward, Marshall's players say the situation hasn't caused a distraction. They insist interim coach Rick Minter has helped them make a seamless transition.

"If you were going to tell me all the coaches were going to be gone and we were going to get a whole new coaching staff before the bowl game, yeah, we'd be at a huge disadvantage," Marshall quarterback Brian Anderson said. "But we're only missing one guy.

"If a team misses a running back, the next running back steps in. It's the same situation. We're missing our head guy, but Coach Minter is doing a great job of stepping in."

A number of teams have won bowl games with interim coaches in the past few years. Bill Stewart removed the "interim" from his title two seasons ago by helping West Virginia upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after Michigan hired away Rich Rodriguez. Jeff Quinn led Central Michigan to a victory over Middle Tennessee in the 2006 Music City Bowl after Kelly left for Cincinnati; Quinn later followed Kelly to Cincinnati and will serve as the Bearcats' interim coach in the Sugar Bowl before taking over Buffalo's program. Boston College rallied past Navy in the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl with Frank Spaziani serving as interim coach after Tom O'Brien took over at N.C. State.

Tough assignments
Interim coaches generally haven't fared well in bowls when they're replacing a coach who resigned under pressure or was fired. Here's a look at some recent examples of teams that have entered bowl games under those circumstances.

UCLA in 2002
Old coach
: Bob Toledo (fired).
Interim coach: Ed Kezirian (assistant athletic director for academic services).
Bowl: Las Vegas.
Result: UCLA 27, New Mexico 13.
The buzz: Kezirian was serving as an academic official at the time he was appointed as interim coach, but he had worked as an assistant with the Bruins from 1976-77 and from 1982-92. He spent more than three decades at UCLA as an offensive lineman, assistant coach and athletic official before retiring in the spring of 2008.

NEBRASKA in 2003
Old coach
: Frank Solich (fired).
Interim coach: Bo Pelini (defensive coordinator).
Bowl: Alamo.
Result: Nebraska 17, Michigan State 3.
The buzz: Nebraska fans chanted "We want Bo!" after the game. They wouldn't get their wish at first, as the Huskers hired former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan instead. Pelini went on to become LSU's defensive coordinator, only to return to Nebraska as coach when Callahan was fired after four seasons.

FLORIDA in 2004
Old coach
: Ron Zook (fired).
Interim coach: Charlie Strong (defensive coordinator).
Bowl: Peach.
Result: Miami 27, Florida 10.
The buzz: Florida had won three of its last four games for Zook after his midseason firing, but the Gators came out flat when he didn't coach the bowl game.

NOTRE DAME in 2004
Old coach
: Tyrone Willingham (fired).
Interim coach: Kent Baer (defensive coordinator).
Bowl: Insight.
Result: Oregon State 38, Notre Dame 21.
The buzz: Oregon State scored on a punt return and a blocked punt to take an early 21-0 lead and went on to hand the Irish their seventh consecutive bowl loss.

ALABAMA in 2006
Old coach
: Mike Shula (fired).
Interim coach: Joe Kines (defensive coordinator).
Bowl: Independence.
Result: Oklahoma State 34, Alabama 31.
The buzz: Alabama rallied from a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter deficit to tie it, but Jason Ricks made a 27-yard field goal with 8.9 seconds left to give Oklahoma State the victory.

Old coach
: Chan Gailey (fired).
Interim coach: Jon Tenuta (defensive coordinator).
Bowl: Humanitarian.
Result: Fresno State 40, Georgia Tech 28.
The buzz: Georgia Tech was favored by six points, but Fresno State racked up 571 yards of total offense while showing remarkable balance - 286 rushing yards, 285 passing yards - against a Yellow Jackets defense that led the nation in sacks.

TEXAS A&M in 2007
Old coach
: Dennis Franchione (resigned).
Interim coach: Gary Darnell (defensive coordinator).
Bowl: Alamo.
Result: Penn State 24, Texas A&M 17.
The buzz: Texas A&M entered the game as a five-point underdog, but the Aggies came out fired up and took an early 14-0 lead before Penn State's rushing attack took over.

UCLA in 2007
Old coach
: Karl Dorrell (fired).
Interim coach: DeWayne Walker (defensive coordinator).
Bowl: Las Vegas.
Result: BYU 17, UCLA 16.
The buzz: Injuries left UCLA without either of its top two quarterbacks, but the Bruins stayed close by limiting six-point favorite BYU to a season-low 265 yards of total offense. UCLA drove 87 yards in the final two minutes before BYU's Eathyn Manumaleuna blocked Kai Forbath's 28-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.

But the track record is much less promising for interim coaches who took over after their bosses resigned under pressure or were fired.

Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and UCLA headed into the 2007 bowl season under those circumstances. All of them lost their bowls. Florida and Notre Dame lost their 2004 bowls with interim coaches after the Gators fired Ron Zook and the Fighting Irish dismissed Tyrone Willingham.

UCLA came the closest to winning its bowl, as defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker replaced Karl Dorrell and led the Bruins to a near-upset of BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. Injuries forced UCLA to play without either of its top two quarterbacks, but BYU eked out a 17-16 victory only after blocking Kai Forbath's 28-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the game

What advice would Walker offer Minter and Co.?

"There's an opportunity to really do the things that you probably thought about doing when assistant coaches sit in the back of the room and hear the head coach speak and you'd think, 'I'd probably do it this way,' " said Walker, now coach at New Mexico State. "Do it your way, but try to keep it within the integrity of what the players are used to. I tried to keep it consistent, but I tweaked some things."

Walker noted that he conducted more team meetings and structured the Bruins' meetings a little different in advance of the bowl. He also tailored his message each day to make sure the Bruins remained focused amid the uncertainty surrounding them, since the players had no idea at the time who would be coaching them the following year. UCLA didn't hire Rick Neuheisel as Dorrell's permanent replacement until after the bowl.

"I would take at least 10-15 minutes each day and have a message of the day, really trying to explain that to them," Walker said. "I thought they bought into it. It's never easy when the assistant coaches are unsure of their futures and the players aren't sure whether I had a chance to get the job or if another head coach was coming in. I guess my personality is I like to put everything out there. We talked about those things as well as trying to prepare to win a football game."

Marshall heads into its bowl in a comparatively stable situation.

The school already has hired West Virginia tight ends/fullbacks coach Doc Holliday as Snyder's permanent successor, though he won't have anything to do with the Herd's bowl preparations.

And it isn't as though this game represents Minter's head-coaching debut. Minter was 53-63-1 at Cincinnati from 1994-2003 and coached the Bearcats in four bowl games.

"Our kids have worked very hard," Minter said. "Our goal is to win this football game and send our seniors out right with not only a bowl win but a winning season [that puts] Marshall football back on track."

Minter's head-coaching experience has paid dividends as the Herd prepare for this game. Marshall's players have given him rave reviews.

"The team was down after Coach Snyder [resigned], but Coach Minter stepped up," junior linebacker Mario Harvey said. "A lot of people on the team have a lot of respect for Coach Minter. Everyone's just bought in. He's our new leader. He's doing a really good job preparing us for the game.

"I think our team is in good hands going into the bowl game."

Oddsmakers have made Ohio a three-point favorite in Saturday's game, but serendipity might favor Marshall. Any Marshall fans seeking reason for optimism should research the 2003 Alamo Bowl, as Nebraska interim coach Bo Pelini led the Huskers to a 17-3 victory over Michigan State after the firing of Frank Solich.

Guess who now coaches the Ohio team that faces Marshall this week? Frank Solich.

And the last time Marshall came to Detroit for the postseason, it defeated Cincinnati 25-14 in the 2000 Motor City Bowl, which changed its name to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl this season.

Who coached that Cincinnati team? Rick Minter.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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