WHEN UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS football coach Chuck Stobart went in for his post-season interview Dec. 14, he must have thought something strange was going on. It was like like reading a book for the second time or watching "It's a Wonderful Life" at Christmas. He'd been there before.
Soon Stobart knew why. He was being fired, and for the same reason he was fired a decade earlier by the University of Utah. Neither school complained - at least not loudly - about his record, his coaching or recruiting abilities. It was his failure to excite the fans.At age 60, though, Stobart's firing at Memphis State was less painful than the one at Utah. A decade ago, he was still a relatively young coach with much of his career ahead. He claims he passed up a possibility at a head coaching job in the Big Ten after his first year at Utah. "We felt that wouldn't be fair to look at other jobs," he said in a telephone interview this week.
After leaving Utah, Stobart began a series of stops that eventually landed him another head job. He worked as an assistant at Pitt, Arizona and Southern Cal before taking the top position at Memphis.
Things change with time, though, and after being fired again, Stobart isn't as worried anymore about being a head coach. "I've never been in the NFL. It's something that is intriguing to me, particularly at this time in my career," he said.
Stobart had a relatively successful stay at Utah. He brought in junior college transfer Erroll Tucker, who went on to become the nation's No. 1 kickoff and punt return player the year after Stobart left. Filipo Mokofisi was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year and Eddie Johnson was named WAC freshman of the year under Stobart's guidance.
The Utes even seemed to be gaining ground on BYU. In his final year at Utah, Stobart's team lost 24-14 to a Cougar team that went on to win the national championship.
"We felt we were on the verge of something. We lost some games that could have been decided by a coin flip either way. It's usually just a matter of time before things start evening out for you," he said.
Though time has softened the edges, Stobart admits scars remain from his firing at Utah. He was 16-17-1 in three seasons, but the Utes went 6-5-1 the final year. However, officials said Stobart (repeat after me) couldn't excite the community. He was a Midwestern interloper who subscribed to the Bo Schembechler brand of no-nonsense, smash-mouth football. Unfortunately for Stobart, he didn't have any of Schembechler's no-nonsense, smash-mouth players. While BYU was on its way to winning a national championship with perhaps the best passing game in the nation, the Utes were hoping to someday get a weight room. Attendance rarely if ever approached sellout proportions, except for the BYU game.
So when Stobart was fired last month at Memphis, it wasn't a new experience. Though his record was just 29-36-1 in his six seasons there, the Tigers went 6-5 in each of the last three years.
Stobart has little to say about the correlation between his being fired at both schools for the same basic reasons. "All I can say is my philosophy has been that I never turned down a speaking engagement at either community. Two a day, sometimes. But I make no apologies. I'm a football coach first. I'm a coach. That's why, as I look back now, I think I enjoyed my tenure at Arizona and Southern Cal. Both those teams, all I had to do was worry about football. I'd go to work at 7 a.m. and turn on the projector and let the head coach worry about all that other stuff."
Though he did fulfill his outside responsibilities, he was never a favorite among Ute fans. He had neither the public relations savvy of Jim Fassel, nor the one-of-the-guys appeal of Ron McBride, nor even the defiant abandon of Wayne Howard. He was stiff and formal with fans and the media, and made it no secret he'd rather be on the football field than at a booster club luncheon.
Philosophy aside, Stobart allows that most schools don't give coaches the luxury of staying for decades at the same place anymore. "I don't know if there's such an animal as that out there anymore. There's not too many of those around when you start talking about it," said Stobart. "Now after four, five, six years in a place, people get tired. It's part of the game."
After a career that went from Toledo to Utah to Pitt to Arizona to Southern Cal to Memphis State (now University of Memphis), Stobart has no major complaints. It didn't work out perfectly, but it was a good ride nonetheless. "I've been a fortunate guy," he said.
But not fortunate enough that the community wanted to come see his games, no matter what direction his program was going.