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Interim coaches struggling to find winning equation

Save for the two initial victories that came at the outset of Jim Haslett's four-game tenure as interim coach of the St. Louis Rams, the unsettled and unsuccessful starts for the NFL's three interim coaches -- including Tom Cable (Oakland) and Mike Singletary (San Francisco) -- are pretty much par for post.

Singletary's in-game admonishment of tight end Vernon Davis, passionate post-loss news conference and, as was found out later, halftime display of the back of his boxers, added some uncustomary spice to things. However, his actions weren't totally off the charts, seeing as though desperate times call for desperate measures.

"Those things don't happen if things are good," said Rams defensive coordinator Rick Venturi, who served as interim coach in Indianapolis (1991) and New Orleans (1996). "You are taking over a tough situation in some tough times. That opening was there because things were rough. Every situation is different, but to step in, it takes a lot of personal sales, emotion and drive."

Venturi has about as good a take on interim coaching as anyone. He was young and relatively new to coaching in the NFL when, as linebackers coach, he was asked to step in for Colts coach Ron Meyer, who was fired five games into the 1991 season. The hope was that Venturi would do well enough to develop into the full-time head coach. He finished 1-10 but was rehired -- as new head coach Ted Marchibroda's linebackers coach.

Five years later, while serving as Jim Mora's linebackers coach in New Orleans, he was promoted to interim coach when Mora became fed up and resigned midway through the season. Venturi went 1-7. He was retained after the season by Mike Ditka in his previous role as linebackers coach.

The veteran Venturi finds himself in the mix of coaching hirings and firings again this season. When Haslett took over for the fired Scott Linehan after four games, Venturi went from assistant head coach/linebackers to defensive coordinator.

"Jim took it over with 12 games to go and he's an established and winning head coach, not a guy brought in to mop it up," Venturi said of Haslett, who had a 45-51 record as coach of the New Orleans Saints (2000-2005). "The minute he walked up there in front of the team, he had instant credibility. It kind of gave everyone new life. We were fortunate to win those first two games too.

"There are only so many things you can change in what seems like 10 seconds. The biggest part is the emotional part, getting everybody on the same page. If you don't have instant success, you could end up just playing out the string."

Singletary lost his debut as interim coach two weeks ago to Seattle, while Cable's Raiders have gone 1-3.

June Jones was hired as the interim coach in San Diego after Kevin Gilbride was fired six games into the 1998 season. He had 10 games to show whether he was a capable full-time head coach, as he had been from 1994-96 in Atlanta. Jones went 3-7 and was not retained. Mike Riley was hired as head coach.

"It's always hard for whoever is named (interim head coach) because his loyalty has been to that person who was just fired so sometimes it's hard to step in," said Jones, in his first season as head coach at SMU after coaching at the University of Hawaii. "We changed practice times and started practicing in the morning and did some things like that differently. You can change up the routine but the main thing is you try to find different ways to put the players in more of a leadership role, to try to get them to take ownership of the team."

That's not always easy, though. Sometimes the supposed leaders or best players never wanted to assume that duty. It's often why the team was in a rudderless state to begin with.

"There are always core players and core covenants you have to live with and live by," Jones said. "Peer pressure is the best way to start to get things turned around. Even though we didn't win a lot of games, we started to turn things around. (Linebacker) Junior Seau always tells me he's never forgotten how we dealt with things and that he has a strong feeling that what we did was the right way to get the ship turned around."

Longtime NFL assistant Terry Robiskie took over for head coach Norv Turner in Washington with three games left in the 2000 NFL season. He went 1-2.

"You have to have a realistic talk with the players," said Robiskie, currently the wide receivers coach with the Atlanta Falcons. "In my situation, with such a short time, we didn't get together and say, 'Guys, we have three games left, let's go undefeated.' The realistic conversation was, 'Go into every game, look everybody who is sitting next to your right now in the eye, and promise him you'll lay it on the line for him.'

"We can't control if we win or lose but we can control how hard we will play. Guys might play hard from start to finish or guys might just get through the game."

Robiskie said the biggest and most important adjustment in the transition to interim head coach is forsaking the previous job as a position coach or coordinator. If you don't leave the group you've coached and make yourself all inclusive, the cause, no matter how hopeful or bleak, will be lost.

"When I took over in Washington, I had people tell me the worst mistake they made doing this was not leaving their position group," Robiskie said. "I had to tell myself that I'm no longer coaching five receivers. I'm responsible for 53 football players and they're all different guys. The thing I enjoyed the most was the chance to interact with all positions.

"That was great for me."

Unlike many coaches thrust into the interim position, Robiskie didn't view his short stint as an audition for a full-time job.

"I'd been an assistant coach for 30 years," said Robiskie, who also served as an interim coach for five games in Cleveland (1-4) in 2004 when Butch Davis was fired. "If that wasn't a long enough audition, then I don't know what was."

The issue with the interim gig serving as an audition, Robiskie said, is that the previous head coach typically had at least seven months to draft and acquire players he liked, implement those players into his scheme and design plans and practices to his liking. To unravel that system and then redo things to the desire of the interim coach -- all while games are being played -- is nearly impossible.

So it's very tough to gauge how good an interim coach could be in the role permanently, even if he has more than half a season to show his stuff.

"The main thing you can do to help that cause is to show ownership, America or whoever is watching, that you've stepped into an adverse situation and got guys who haven't been competing to compete," Robiskie said. "People can judge that."

The issue with teams who make in-season coaching changes is that problems are often bigger than the coaching staff or player personnel, Jones said. Management and ownership could have a history of poor drafting, misguided free-agent transactions and not massaging the roster to prevent age from crippling the product.

The Raiders, 49ers and Rams have been spotty in those areas the past few years. In Oakland this week, owner Al Davis began purging the roster he spent millions on before the season by cutting cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who he paid $8 million to play just eight games.

"You're not dealing with that situation if everything is right," Venturi said. "When I took over the Colts, you couldn't ask for better ownership. The Irsay family did everything in their power to get things done with that team. In New Orleans, when I took over for Jim Mora, things were in place because he was one of the best coaches ever. There are just problems some places, where the talent could have just gone down or relationships might not be what they once were."

Besides trying to inspire players to do things they hadn't done, maintaining some form of sanity on the coaching staff is another task. Jealousy that one guy got the job over others who felt more deserving is a constant threat. Maintaining unity -- or at least not letting players learn of dissention among the readjusted coaching staff -- is crucial.

"Motivation of the team starts with the motivation of the staff," Venturi said. "It's difficult. You've got to fight that idea that you're going to play out the string. It comes down to your personality and your personal sales approach. There's no magic potion. It's how you deal with people, how you deal with guys on your staff and team, and how you attempt to show the way."

As precarious as it is being an interim head coach, those who've held the job don't have many regrets. Even if the won-loss record isn't great, the redeeming elements are worthwhile.

"Your mindset is that while what I'm doing might be on an interim basis, it's mine," Robiskie said. "At the beginning it might say interim but at the end it says head coach. Mike Singletary might win eight games in a row, go to the playoffs as a wild-card team and win the Super Bowl. The record book might say, 'Mike Singletary: interim head coach.' I bet he would care less."

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