College cans Lyons as head football coach

by Ben Zimmerman | 12/1/04 6:00am

WEB UPDATE, Nov. 30, 10:36 p.m.

The number "13" may not instill fear quite the way it used to, but Dartmouth coaches ought to pay heed. Earlier this year, Dave Faucher -- the third winningest coach in Big Green history -- stepped down after 13 years at the helm of the College's basketball program. Aside from wishing his former colleague the best of luck, it is unlikely that John Lyons -- fired Tuesday by athletics director Josie Harper -- paid much attention to the move.

However, as Lyon's 13th season as Dartmouth's head football coach unfolded this fall, the curse of the baker's dozen struck again. Injuries, a string of missed extra points, and one blocked field goal returned for a touchdown left a promising Dartmouth squad 1-9 by season's end.

"It was a frustrating season because everyone had high hopes for this year, but we didn't put it together enough as a team to fill up our win column," co-captain Chris Little '05 said. "We struggled to replace some injured guys on offense and didn't manage to play consistently enough to get it done this year."

Thus, with one season left on his contract, John Lyons, 52, was fired -- a point that the former coach wants made explicitly clear.

"I was given the chance to resign but turned it down." Lyons said. "When I heard the news, I spoke with my players later that day. I wanted to let them know that I did not quit on them. I was fired."

Lyons came to Hanover in 1988 as a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach and within three years, fashioned a defense strong enough to lead the Big Green to its first outright Ivy League title since 1978. The following season, Lyons was named Dartmouth football's head coach.

Over the next six years, the Big Green garnered a 44-15-1 record, two Ivy League championships and three second place finishes.

In 1996, Lyons' second championship season, Dartmouth ran the table, finishing 10-0. It was the College's first undefeated season since 1970.

The awards soon followed. Throughout his tenure, Lyons has received coach of the year honors from, among others, the New England Football Writers Association, the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston and the Metropolitan New York Football Writers Association for Division I-AA. But following the 1997 season, the magic disappeared.

Between 1998 and his firing, Lyons and his players limped to a mere 16 wins against 53 losses. Though the football team took five out of six games to close the 2003 season 5-5, this year's 1-9 performance, the worst in Dartmouth history, proved the last straw for the athletic department.

"As difficult a decision as this was, it is a good time to make this move in order to change the direction of the program," Harper said Tuesday. "John has had his share of success here and we appreciate all that he has done for the College, but, in the larger picture, we feel that this is in the best interest of Dartmouth football at this time."

Yet, despite Lyons' recent run of lackluster showings, his players remained firmly behind him.

"All of the guys love Coach Lyons and have nothing but awesome things to say about him and his time here," co-captain Clayton Smith '05 said.

"Every football program struggles at one time or another because you cannot always be on top. I just hope that the struggles of our program in the last few years do not overshadow the wealth of success that John Lyons had as a coach here at Dartmouth in the past. He is a great man and a great coach, and we will all miss him."

For the first time in 13 years, Dartmouth must now find a new head football coach, but from what Lyons' players have to say about him, that task is easier said than done.

As for Big Green football's former leader, the future may be uncertain, but the direction is never in doubt.

"I have been coaching for 31 years, and that's what I want to continue doing," Lyons said. "I was fortunate enough be in Hanover for as long as I was, and I really wanted to coach the team next season. Now, I guess I'll have to go somewhere else."

Dartmouth will begin a national search for Lyons' replacement at an as-yet unspecified date.