Turning a downtrodden college football program around has many rewards, including bowl appearances, but it also places a target on those who helped shape the upswing.
Under Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State went from a laughingstock to a 10-win program, a Military Bowl matchup against Bowling Green and a No. 24 ranking in The Associated Press poll.
As soon as the season ended, though, the rumors began swirling about MacIntyre’s future, with the speculation overtaking the Spartans’ early bowl preparations.
“It comes with the territory,” MacIntyre said during an interview Dec. 6. “I take it as a positive for our whole program.”
Just a few days later, MacIntyre was gone, tasked with overseeing the Colorado rebuilding project.
In his stead, defensive coordinator Kent Baer was given the interim job of getting the shellshocked Spartans ready for the Military Bowl.
“None of these kids have been through that before,” Baer said. “It’s never easy. It’s always difficult. There are a lot of emotions. Coach Mac did a great job as head coach, and he left a good foundation. There were some distractions when he left. I told them, ‘This is the nature of the business.’”
Baer, a longtime defensive coordinator at California, Arizona State, Notre Dame and Washington, has been through the interim spot before, having coached the Fighting Irish in the 2004 Insight Bowl after Tyrone Willingham was fired.
“I understand how sensitive this is,” Baer said. “It interrupts a lot of lives and families.”
On a conference call with reporters, Baer initially said there was a 90 percent chance this would be his last game at San Jose State, in the wake of reports that the Spartans had hired University of San Diego coach Ron Caragher and that Baer would join MacIntyre’s staff at Colorado.
He then later clarified there would be “no chance” he was returning to the Spartans.
“The last five years have been unbelievable,” he said. “It’s special when you take a team that no one thought could win, recruit the kind of players we have, evaluate them and work hard to be ranked 24th in the country with 10 wins under our belt. I’ve been at this a long time, and this is one of the top two or three seasons of all time for me because of where we came from.
“I’m going to miss them, that’s for sure. We’ve got a lot of great young men.”
San Jose State defensive end Travis Johnson said the team was shocked by the news of MacIntyre’s departure, but understood they needed to keep moving forward.
“After we found out, we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Coach Baer took control and told us the staff was all there to work hard to get us the win. Basically, we’ve all understood what’s going to happen and that we all want to win the game. That’s all that matters. Right now, we’re going to go as hard as we can to get the win. That’s all we’re worried about right now.”