Five years ago this week, after the Golden Hurricane football team blew a 27-7 home lead and lost 38-30 to USF, University of Tulsa officials decided Bill Blankenship would be fired at the end of that season.
Blankenship was succeeded in TU’s head-coaching position by Philip Montgomery, who had been a Baylor assistant and who now is 7-23 in his past 30 Tulsa games.
On Oct. 5 at SMU, TU entered the fourth period with a 21-point cushion, but wound up with a 43-37 triple-overtime defeat. Last week, there was the 45-17 home loss to Navy. At 28 points, it was Montgomery’s worst home setback.
Since the start of the SMU fourth quarter, the Hurricane has been outscored 79-24.
While Blankenship’s downfall was tied in part to his refusal to relinquish total control of the offense and hire a coordinator, Montgomery shoulders the same multiple layers of heavy responsibility: oversight of the offensive operation, play-calling and program leadership.
Tulsa’s Blankenship years (2011-14) and Montgomery years (since 2015) are strikingly similar. However, while Blankenship’s fate was sealed at midseason in 2014, the university apparently exercises more patience with the 47-year-old Montgomery, who has two seasons remaining on a contract believed to be worth about $1.4 million a year.
“I’ve talked to other people in the administration,” TU athletic director Derrick Gragg said this week, “and right now, there’s no panic here.”
It’s a suggestion Montgomery controls his destiny. If the Tulsa coach has a better-looking second half of the season, he’ll have the full support of the man — Gragg — who hired him.
“We’ve played one of the toughest schedules in the country,” Gragg said. “Our first five games, the opponent was undefeated at the time we played them. The last opponent (Navy) was 3-1.”
“Every game is critical,” Gragg added. “There’s always a certain amount of pressure on a head coach.”
The second-half schedule also is daunting. In its next four American Athletic Conference games, Tulsa has a trip to Cincinnati, a home contest against Memphis, a trip to Tulane and a home game against UCF. Those teams have a combined record of 19-5.
“We are a head-and-shoulders better football team than we’ve been the last couple of years,” Montgomery told the Tulsa World. “Our schedule has been rough.
“We needed to win the SMU game, (but) this may be the most talented team we’ve had overall since I’ve been here. The collective group. We’re bigger, faster and stronger — but so is everybody we’re playing (against).”
TU got nice first-season results both from Blankenship (eight wins) and Montgomery (six), and each coach achieved a tremendous second season. The 2012 Hurricane was 11-3, with a Conference USA title and a bowl victory over Iowa State. Driven by a record-breaking offense, Montgomery’s 2016 Hurricane recorded 10 wins.
Year 3: Blankenship was 3-9. Montgomery was 2-10.
Year 4: Blankenship was dismissed at the end of a 2-10 season. Montgomery was 3-9.
Blankenship did not get a Year 5. Montgomery did and this is how it looks at midseason: Having committed an average of 10 penalties a game, TU is 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the AAC.
It is believed the University of Tulsa would support Montgomery in the hiring of a coordinator, if the head coach chooses to go that route.
“Have I thought about it? Yes,” Montgomery said. “Do I really want to do that? Not really. We’ve had (offensive) struggles the last two years. I don’t think we are struggling as bad right now. The tough part is, when you hire somebody, you’ve got to trust them to do it. Right now, all of this is on my plate. Who am I going to trust more than me?
“There are some guys out there who I trust, but can I pay them enough? Probably not. Would they want to come here right now, under these circumstances: ‘How much security do you have left, Coach?’ ”
When a coach is 2-10 in 2017 and 3-9 in 2018, the baseline expectation is improvement must be obvious. The 2019 Hurricane clearly is a more complete team, and that’s why Gragg can state there currently is “no panic.”
The Navy performance was awful, but this Tulsa defense is the program’s best in seven years. Tulsa’s passing game is significantly beyond where it was in 2017 and 2018.
The SMU fourth-quarter collapse will be an anchor storyline in whatever becomes of Montgomery. As in, Tulsa’s coach overcame the SMU debacle and rebuilt a winning program; or, the SMU outcome was significant in his demise.