Throwback Thursday: The Strange Saga of Jeff Jagodzinski

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Jeff Jagodzinski has not been the head coach of a college football program in a decade, and it remains one of the most confounding mysteries of the sport.

College football coaches — especially successful college football coaches — can typically rehabilitate their careers rather quickly, and with minimal effort. Take Bobby Petrino, who spent all of one season and less than a calendar year on the shelf after his dismissal from Arkansas as a result of hiring his mistress to an athletic department position.

Those who fail to land head coaching jobs in short order can become prominent assistants. Mark Mangino was back in the Big 12 as tight ends coach and later offensive coordinator for Iowa State, five years after Kansas fired him for abusive language directed at players. Jim Leavitt, the only coach USF football had to that point, was fired the same season as Mangino under similar circumstances.

Leavitt resurfaced in the college ranks at Colorado not long after, was in the running for the Frank Broyles Award as an integral part of the Buffs’ 2016 resurrection, and landed the defensive coordinator job at Oregon the following offseason.

More recently, Hugh Freeze’s name has been kicked around as a potential option at offensive coordinator for various programs, not one year after Ole Miss fired him in the wake of one of the more salacious scandals in recent memory.

One need not even have been successful as a head coach to transition back to a lucrative assistant’s job. Mike Locksley spent two seasons-and-change at New Mexico not winning a damn thing — he went a staggering 3-31 — and making headlines for off-field incidents. Locksley landed a job back at Maryland as offensive coordinator immediately after his firing, and is now offensive coordinator at Alabama.

These examples only begin to illustrate how coaches can rebound from unseemly head-coaching failures relatively quickly. And, if you need further convincing, consider the growing din for Art Briles to land another job.

All of the above only makes the career arc of Jeff Jagodzinski all the more confounding. To best comprehend why this story is so incomprehensible, two of his aforementioned offer some context.

Mangino and Leavitt gained some clout on the national college football landscape in the turbulent 2007 season, which was Jagodzinski’s first at Boston College. The three coaches headed an unlikely club of programs that peaked at No. 2 in the national polls that autumn.

Kansas had the best season of the bunch, winning the Orange Bowl and finishing ranked No. 7. Boston College’s final ranking of No. 10 was nothing to scoff at, however, marking the program’s best finish since the magical 1984 campaign with Heisman Trophy winner, Doug Flutie.

Meanwhile, as Kansas regressed to .500 in conference play during the 2008 season, and USF underachieved badly at 2-5 in the Big East, Boston College won the ACC Atlantic division for a second consecutive season.

The Eagles’ ACC Championship Game appearances in 2007 and 2008, Jeff Jagodzinski’s only two seasons on Chestnut Hill, are still today the only in program history.

Jagodzinski’s tenure at BC lasted considerably shorter than Leavitt’s at USF or Mangino’s Kansas, sure. But as far as peaks, Jagodzinski had a better two-year stretch than either Leavitt or Mangino. His head-coaching success at 20-8 marked the culmination of the previous career spent as a positions coach and coordinator in both high-level college football at BC, and in the NFL.

That’s a resume that, despite an acrimonious split from his head coaching job, would seemingly beget a power-conference assistant’s position. Jeff Jagodzinski is indeed an assistant these days, at Notre Dame — Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

Given all the comebacks from scandal this sport has fostered, nothing baffles me more than Jagodzinski post-Boston College. His dismissal was not the result of NCAA violations being uncovered, nor rampant disciplinary issues running amok.

The longtime NFL assistant was instead fired because he interviewed for a vacant pro coaching position.

Now, there is context that frees Boston College athletic brass from being villains in this story. Jagodzinski did not seek approval before interviewing with the New York Jets, and the coach since expressed his regrets for interviewing in a 2016 podcast interview with BC Interruption.

What’s more, BC is justified in being perhaps overly sensitive to some of the grimier elements of big-time college athletics. The university’s basketball program was at the center of a point shaving scandal in the late 1970s involving Henry Hill’s crew of Goodfellas fame. A little more than a decade before Jagodzinski’s brief tenure, investigators pinpointed 13 Eagles football players who bet against BC in a game against Syracuse.

Now, a coach interviewing for a vacant NFL position is worlds apart from gambling scandals, but one can understand hyper-vigilance. Think of allowing job-hopping as the beginning of a slippery slope.

However, Jagodzinski’s firing juxtaposed against the dismissal of basketball coach Al Skinner a year later in a manner that never felt quite congruent. Skinner spent more than a decade with the Eagles, leading Boston College to seven NCAA Tournaments. His teams featured noteworthy stars like two-time Big East Player of the Year Troy Bell, and ACC Player of the Year Jared Dudley.

But Skinner’s 13th season at BC went poorly — just like his 11th. Two sub-.500 finishes in three years is enough to oust a head coach from a typical ACC basketball program; Boston College isn’t the typical power-conference basketball or football program, though.

The decision to fire Jeff Jagodzinski always felt strange, providing both the impetus for an on-field downturn from which the program has yet to recover; and setting a fitting tone for the decade to follow.

Still a hot commodity in the months after his dismissal, Coach Jags quickly resurfaced as offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jagodzinski never made it to the regular season with the Bucs, fired just days before the season opener for “attention to detail” issues.

Bizarre, to be sure, with the implication being Jagodzinski did not know the playbook. I can’t help but wonder if the Tampa Bay situation plagued the coach far more than his split with Boston College. The cynic in me wonders, with some of the previously cited examples, if failure in game-day execution is viewed as the greatest coaching sin.

That’s not to suggest Jagodzinski lost his touch entirely after two great seasons at Boston College, which can certainly happen. The game passes coaches by routinely.

After a stint as an assistant in Div. II — that’s NAIA Div. II — Jagodzinski showed some flashes of the BC magic in his only NCAA job in the decade since leaving Chestnut Hill. He worked as offensive coordinator under Trent Miles at Georgia State, a program that was one of the biggest building projects in FBS.

By his second season with the Panthers, Jagodzinski had the nation’s No. 26-most prolific passing offense. In 2015, quarterback Nick Arbuckle’s 336 passing yards per game ranked sixth in FBS. It wasn’t quite Matt Ryan’s 2007 campaign, but Arbuckle’s big arm played a critical role in college football history, as the 2015 team was the first bowl-qualifier in Georgia State’s brief existence.

Arbuckle graduated following the landmark season, but there was plenty of reason to be excited about Georgia State’s future. Freshman wide receiver Penny Hart hauled in 1,099 yards in Jeff Jagodzinski’s offense, while much of the defense from 2015 were underclassmen. Jags was promoted to associate head coach ahead of the 2016 campaign, and then…Hart was injured, Georgia State regressed to 3-9, and Miles was fired.

The long, strange saga of Jeff Jagodzinski — from Boston College, to the NFL, back to BC, back to the NFL, to the upstart United Football League, a spell at NAIA Div. II Ava Maria University, a promising return to FBS — took a turn to the high school ranks. 

The coach’s Twitter timeline isn’t updated often, but two of the more recent entries really struck me. There’s allusion to his time at Boston College in a link to Matt Ryan’s new contract with the Atlanta Falcons. Next most recent is a tweet espousing life advice. It’s the kind of rhetoric one would expect to see on any football coach’s social media, but the trajectory of Jagodzinski’s place in the profession adds important, almost melancholic context.