Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Latest Dirt On the Head Coach Search

So much has been flying these days before Christmas it's been dizzying to keep up with it all. Here's my take on the latest developments in the Lehigh head coaching situation. Brace yourselves, this is going to be an awfully long post, but it's one you'll not want to miss.

[Updated with Paul Solokowski's column link & quotes - how did I miss that?]

(While I have no idea if former Lehigh head coach Kevin Higgins (picture to your left) is actually in the running for the head coaching job once again, at this hour it seems unlikely. Every indication is that he wants to remain at The Citadel to bring that program back to prominence.)

The Allentown Morning Call has featured three articles on the developing head coaching situation, and the Easton Express-Times has also reported some information as well. Here are the links to the articles:

Allentown Morning Call:
Groller: Shadow of Higgins Unfairly Haunted Lembo
Lembo Takes Over At Elon

Easton Express-Times:
Solokowski: Lembo Picks Best Time To Leave Mountain Hawks
Lembo Leaves Lehigh

Here's a little cross-section of what the press is saying:

"I knew the minute that I was promoted to head coach at Lehigh that because of the guy I was following, there was always going to be a small percentage, a vocal minority, that would never totally buy into what I did," Lembo told Adam Smith of the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News on Monday.

"I'm human, so I'm not going to say that never bothered me at all. But it was never a distraction."

He would forever hear, "Yeah, but he's no Higgins."

It's not a shock to anyone that as news of Lembo's exit became official, requests of "Bring back Kevin!" were launched in cyberspace.

Sterrett made it clear that none of that pressure came from within the Lehigh athletic department. But Lembo had to feel it everywhere else.

Virtually everyone who talks about Lembo said he was a great recruiter and a perfect salesman for the university.

Perfect as a coach? Nah.

But as athletic director Joe Sterrett said Monday, "Pete was unfairly undervalued in the grand scheme of things by more people than should have been the case. He did a lot of things very well, some of which were not particularly visible to most fans."

"When you lose to Lafayette three of the last four years, you wonder if that's going to trigger something; rumors start to fly," said wide receiver Frank Trovato, a Bethlehem Catholic grad who will be a senior next season.

"It will receive a mixed reaction from the rest of the team. I went through this between my junior and senior of high school. You never like to go through a complete change. I've become comfortable with the offense we run and I've learned a lot from my offensive coaches. I wouldn't want to see everyone go."

Quarterback Mark Borda, whose senior season was cut short by injury, said Lembo should be remembered for much more than just two disappointing losses to Lafayette the past two seasons.

"He taught his players a lot more than just football," Borda said. "Right now, everybody is dwelling on the loss to Lafayette, but when people look back on his career they'll remember his teams won a lot of games, got to the playoffs and won league championships. Hopefully, when he looks back on his time here, he will remember those things and not the Lafayette losses."

"But no one foresaw that Coach Lembo would be leaving," he said.

Now, some clamor for another ex-Higgins staffer, Dave Cecchini, who left Lehigh after 2002 to become the offensive coordinator at Harvard.

Next to the highly unlikely return of Higgins to Bethlehem, Cecchini would be the most popular choice of fans.

And the former LU star would stay popular, at least until he loses his first game.

[Lehigh AD Joe Sterrett] already received recommendations from Lembo, as well as others from outside the Lehigh community, and will consider applications from among the current coaching staff. Sources said wide receivers coach Adam Scheier, who's been with the program for four seasons, has expressed interest in the job and five-year veteran offensive line coach John Powers is expected to apply.

"The most important thing we're looking for is leadership," said Sterrett, who didn't set a deadline but hopes to fill Lembo's vacancy quickly.

"Sometimes the best decision is from within your organization, sometimes the best decision is from outside your organization," he said. "I'm willing to look at everything. As soon as you decide it's got to be a certain flavor, then you eliminate any other possibilities."

The Mountain Hawks won big before Lembo took over, they won while he was there, and they will be expected to win after he's gone -- whether or not Lembo's replacement comes from the current coaching staff or someone else's staff.

"I don't see why we would have to step back at all," Sterrett said. "We've had a successful program for a long time. We've won Patriot League championships with three different coaches. There are good foundation elements in place. I don't see any reason why we can't continue that."

The ever-critical Lehigh fans, who find every bit as much fault in victories as they do losses, won't settle for anything less. They're not looking for the next Pete Lembo. They're demanding a whole lot more.


I realize some of this is talking about coach Lembo and not the head coaching vacancy, but it does show to me that it was a decision that took many players by surprise. It also reveals that a lot of speculation is centering around Harvard offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini ('91), a former Lehigh player and coach. He may very well be considered the early frontrunner for the position.

Another fascinating tidbit that needs to be emphasized is that Lehigh AD Joe Sterrett ('76) is, for the first time in 20 years, considering head coaching candidates from 'outside the family'. Adding to the speculation is the following press release from LehighSports.com:

One of the immediate decisions I made upon Pete Lembo’s decision to accept the Elon offer was that we would conduct an open search, and would not make an immediate internal promotion. While I feel strongly about the quality of our assistant coaches, and I expect qualified internal candidates to compete for the opportunity to serve as head coach, I also felt that an open process would be healthy for our program at this point in time.

As is true with most coaching vacancies, the informal network of coach communications produces quite a bit of interest in any vacancy almost immediately. Some candidates apply directly while others are nominated by colleagues. I have tried to encourage all interested candidates to communicate initially by email so that I can manage the phone follow-up process in a more organized and efficient manner. Concurrently, we are conducting a proactive effort to identify prospective candidates that have not applied or been nominated.

...

The time framework for this search is to attract the best candidate we can identify in the shortest amount of time possible. The holiday period makes this objective a little more challenging to achieve. Nonetheless, we are planning and expect to conduct multiple interviews within the current week and more immediately after the Christmas holiday weekend.

The tight timing makes the use of a search committee less efficient. Accordingly, I will be coordinating all search activity. I will use a small group of primarily campus based personnel to help me evaluate candidates that we invite to visit. This group is diversified in terms of their Lehigh roles, and includes perspectives from students, staff, faculty, and alumni. However, the time of year and the ambitious schedule we have established make unrealistic the engagement of a broader group of participants.

I have appreciated the communications received from a number of alumni about our search, their recommendations, and their aspirations for our program. It is truly inspiring to experience the passion for Lehigh football that exists among our extended community. It is my sincere intent to hire an outstanding football coach so that we can sustain and advance the strong tradition of football success that so many have worked so hard to build. Achieving this outcome matters a great deal to me, professionally and personally, and so I appreciate the trust that has been assigned to me.

To me, this shows a few things. First of all, it's abundantly clear that Sterrett is considering folks from inside and outside the Lehigh "family". Second, the informal coaching network and alumni appear to be extremely active in putting names out there for head coaching possibilities. This by all indications seems to be a hot vacancy. I've never seen a press release like this for any coaching vacancy in recent memory. Not Georgia Southern, not Fordham, not even Temple.

Who do we have "inside the family"? There are a few names: some I've mentioned before, and some new ones. First, let's look at the internal candidates who have declared, or are expected to declare, their candidacy. They would know the challenges of recruiting and coaching Patriot League players inside and out -- which could be a big leg up in getting the position.

* Lehigh WR coach Adam Scheier. A four year coach under Lembo, he would give continuity to the offense and would presumably lead the same type of offense and keep at least some of the existing staff intact. Scheier has a reputation of being an outstanding recruiter, especially in NJ. How would be be, though, as a head coach?

* Lehigh offensive line coach John Powers. A five year coach under Lembo, I don't know a lot about him, though the quality of offensive linemen that Lehigh has been able to recruit to South Mountain has been outstanding. How would he be, though, as a head coach?

Next up, you have the candidates that are "inside the family, but would need to be brought back." These are candidates who are former Lehigh, or Patriot League, coaches who have moved elsewhere and would be possibilites to return as Lehigh's head coach. These guys also would know the challenges of recruiting Patriot Lague players.

* Harvard offensive coordinatior Dave Cecchini ('91). A former player who started coaching as a graduate assistant in '92, he has worked his way through the coaching ranks and is now at Harvard, where in 2004 he was the offensive architect of a perfect 10-0 season for the Crimson. I feel he would be a very popular choice for head coach, if he wants the position. A possible knock on him is that he would be (I believe) the youngest head coach in Division I -- and he hasn't had any head coaching experience anywhere at any level.

* Penn offensive coordinator Andy Coen. A former offensive coordinator and offensive line coach under Kevin Higgins, Andy has been a great success at Penn, seemingly getting at least two All-Ivy linemen every year he's been coach. In 2003, Penn had a perfect 10-0 season and all five of his linemen were all-Ivy - his third Ivy Championship as offensive coordinator. A more seasoned coach than Cecchini, he looks to be ready to make the jump to becoming a head coach. But is this the right situation?

* California (PA)'s head coach John Luckhardt. A link to Lehigh's championship-winning Division II days, John Luckhardt has been head coach at California (PA) (D-II) and Washington & Jefferson (D-III), and is a member of the Pennsylvania Coaching Hall of Fame. He was the defensive coordinator that was the architect of the defenses under legendary coach John Whitehead. His name has been getting more notice lately since Lehigh AD Joe Sterrett was the QB when Luckhardt was the defensive coordiator. Not only that, he's a very experienced guy (as a head coach) for over two decades, and a defensive guy too - arguably something we may need in South Mountain. But is he interested in coaching at the I-AA level - a completely different challenge than sub-division-I?

Finally, we have the "true outsiders", who are bringing a brand-new approach to the team entirely. These are high-profile guys from a variety of I-A, I-AA scholarship, and I-AA non-scholarship backgrounds. Many of these guys would have to learn the idiosyncracies of Patriot League coaching on-the-fly. Since this post is getting really long, and there are quite a few of them, I'll try to keep these short.

* Jim Hofner, former coach at I-A Buffalo. A fairly successful head coach at Cornell before inheriting an unwinnable situation at Buffalo of the MAC, he brings loads of experience to the table - but with an 8-49 record at his last coaching stop, it's an open question as to whether Lehigh fans will ahve the stomach to stick with him if times get hard. He would have a very good resume on paper with his Cornell experience, however, making him an interesting choice.

* Bobby Wallace, former coach at I-A Temple. Like Hofner, he was a good head coach in an unwinnable and sad situation at Temple. Like Hofner, he brings a ton of experience to the table, but in my opinion Lehigh would be a tough situation for him to jump into. Unlike Hofner, Wallace wouldn't have any experience recruiting at the Ivy/Patriot level.

* Mike Sewak, former coach at Georgia Southern. Emotionally forced out after guiding the Eagles to an 8-3 record and a I-AA playoff berth, he's been looking everywhere for a new head coaching position, from Elon to Northern Colorado. He doesn't seem like a good fit if he wants to bring the triple-option with him (I don't think Lehigh fans and alumni would go for that) - however, he's proven he can win games at the I-AA level. An intruguing choice - but also a choice with a lot of questions.

* Chip Kelley, New Hampshire Offensive Coordinator. Just named Assistant Coach of the Year by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston, he has spent the last 13 years at New Hampshire and was the architect of the deadliest offense in all of I-AA last year. A great offensive mind, but is he ready for the challenge of becoming a full-time coach in the Patriot League, with grants-in-aid instead of scholarships?

I think that's enough for now! I will continue to print the information as it develops. Please comment below. What do you think might happen?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Lembo Leaving Lehigh

Today, Elon University in Elon, NC will be announcing that Lehigh head football coach Pete Lembo will be their new head coach.

They will be getting a head coach who has enjoyed great success at Lehigh. Coach Lembo inherited Kevin Higgins' team in the 2001 season and guided them to their first home game in the I-AA playoffs (in which Lehigh beat Hofstra, 24-21, in overtime). For his efforts that year, he not only won a Lambert Trophy for Lehigh (for the best I-AA football school in the East), but he also won the Eddie Robinson award for the best coach in I-AA as well.

Overall, the Lembo era had Lehigh in the playoff hunt every year, and had Lehigh in the national I-AA rankings almost every year. With a 44-14 overall record (incliding 2 playoff losses), you could almost always say "Lehigh is in the race for the Patriot League Title" and you'd have been right. Lembo is a very even-tempered, poised coach, who is a complete professional on and off the field. Elon will be getting a very good coach.

Lembo's fate may have been sealed by losing to Lafayette 23-19 this year, falling out of the Patriot League title and I-AA playoffs. Furthermore, Lembo had lost 3 of 5 to a resurgent Lafayette program. It's likely that Lembo would have had an incredible amount of heat on him from fans on South Mountain this year for that 2-3 record against Lafayette. It says an awful lot about how this program has progressed under coach Lembo that a 44-14 record with isn't considered job security. Yet, that's where we are. Wins against Lafayette, no matter how much they've improved under coach Frank "GQ" Tavani, are expected now.

I think you could make a case that Lembo was a victim of his own success. After having maintained Lehigh's status as a national I-AA power, delivering home playoff games and regular season sucess, all of a sudden the talk came of national championships -- and the Patriot League title was a given. But something happened. Colgate got just as good as Lehigh. And so did a program that five short years ago was in disarray - Lafayette.

Lafayette may paint themselves as "little Lafayette", but they now are as accomplished and talented as Lehigh, and seem set to remain so for the forseeable future. Losing to Lafayette when they were struggling as a program was unthinkable. Now, Lehigh and Lafayette are on even footing, yet fans still expect easy wins over the Leopards and easy Patriot League titles. This ain't your mother's Lafayette team. This team is great.

For better or worse, expectations on South Mountain couldn't be any higher. Whomever the next head coach will be, he will be guiding Lehigh through unparallelled expectations in a I-AA atmosphere in which it's harder and harder to compete. Early candidates for the new head-coaching vacancy would include:

* Harvard Offensive Coordinator Dave Cecchini (former Lehigh coach and Lehigh player)
* Stony Brook Defensive Coordinator Andrew Cohen
* Penn Offensive Coordinator Andy Coen (former Lehigh coach)
* Former Georgia Southern head coach Mike Sewak
* New Hampshire Offensive Coordinator Chip Kelley
* Delaware Offensive Coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca

Let the interviews begin. Personally, I wish nothing but luck to coach Lembo and his family in their new challenge. Elon is a team which has struggled mightily since joining the Southern Conference in 2001, so Lembo will be leading a complete rebulding effort. I'll be rooting for him to get Elon back to their winning ways.

Good luck, Pete.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Say it ain't so....

Normally I don't post rumors on here, or anything I cannot follow up independently elsewhere, but this one is serious.... footballscoop.com is saying that it's a done deal that Pete is taking the head coach position at Elon, with an 11:30AM press conference coming tomorrow.

Elon scoop: Pete Lembo (HFC at Lehigh) has been hired by Elon as HFC



Say it ain't so, Pete. Say it ain't so.

Tune in tomorrow at 11:30AM. It will be an interesting day.
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