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In the interim, UCLA and Illinois will try to prevail in bowl game

The schools are playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Saturday with fill-in head coaches as the programs will have new staffs next season. The Bruins and Illini are not the only ones.

December 28, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA interim coach Mike Johnson isn't the only fill-in who will be on the sidelines during the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Saturday.
UCLA interim coach Mike Johnson isn't the only fill-in who will be… (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press )

Reporting from San Francisco — UCLA and Illinois will play Saturday in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park, but the matchup could also be dubbed the Interim Coach Bowl.

The Bruins and Fighting Illini are being guided by fill-ins acting as postseason bridges between outgoing and incoming staffs.

For UCLA, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson has the reins in the wake of Rick Neuheisel's firing and Jim Mora's hiring. For Illinois, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has been calling the shots since Ron Zook was let go. Tim Beckman will take over next season.

Perhaps no other bowl game can match the upheaval surrounding this game, but interim coaches have dotted the postseason landscape. Of the 12 bowl teams undergoing coaching changes, eight will play with interim coaches. Two other interims recently were made permanent.

"It's a weird year," said Gary Cavalli, executive director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

UCLA at least knows the drill. This is the third time in the last decade the Bruins have gone to a bowl game with an interim coach. UCLA won the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl with interim coach Ed Kezirian and lost the 2007 Las Vegas Bowl with interim coach DeWayne Walker.

The Las Vegas Bowl this year included another team with a fired head coach, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson, but he was allowed to stay on to guide his team through the game — a lopsided loss to Boise State.

Where there is an interim coach or a lame-duck staff, it can create "an uncomfortable situation," said Tina Kunzer-Murphy, executive director of the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl.

"You want everyone to have a great time," she said, "but people have lost jobs and they have families, and there are times you hold events where they have to be with the administrators who made that decision."

Johnson, UCLA's interim coach, is not expected to be retained by Mora, though his contract with UCLA runs through the 2012 season.

The most challenging thing about the interim tag, Johnson said, was "making sure that you get the players focused, making sure they get their mindset in the right direction." He admitted, though, that his own future is "always in the back of your mind."

Among other UCLA coaches, defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield will be retained by Mora and run-game coordinator Jim Mastro has been hired by Washington State. Everyone else is hunting for a job.

Illinois has experienced even greater tumult.

Koenning, the defensive coordinator and interim coach, turned down an offer from new coach Beckman to stay with the Illini. Three other assistants are in a dispute with the university over the exit terms in their contracts.

"You wonder whether the kids are going to be motivated or not in these situations," Cavalli said. "You wonder whether the coach is going to have control over the team."

The TicketCity Bowl, with Houston and Penn State, had interim coaches for a time, but Houston made Tony Levine its permanent choice last week. Penn State is being led by Tom Bradley, who took over when Joe Paterno was fired in the wake of the scandal surrounding former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

Tom Starr, president of the TicketCity Bowl, has an advantage, though — some football selling points.

His game features high-scoring Houston, ranked No. 20 by the Associated Press and led by record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, against No. 24 Penn State, one of college football's traditional powerhouses.

"I think it has helped us that we have two top-25 teams," Starr said.

In San Francisco, Cavalli is lacking that type of plot line.

UCLA (6-7) needed an NCAA waiver to play in a bowl game with a losing record. With another loss, the Bruins would become the first bowl team to have an eight-loss season.

Illinois (6-6) is coming in with a six-game losing streak.

"We understand that both these teams had their ups and downs," Cavalli said. "We point out that the game is not about the coaches, it's about the kids."

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