You’re a traditional college football power, and you’ve just run your failure of a head coach out of town. That’s the first step toward righting your listing ship.
What’s vital now is to get the next hire right. The last thing you want is for your program to slip into, or languish longer in, dreaded long-term mediocrity. Continuing irrelevance on the national stage is poison, as far as your hundreds of thousands of alums and millions of devout followers are concerned.
Ask Oklahoma about that in the ’90s. Or Notre Dame last decade. Or Alabama before Nick Saban came to the rescue. Or Michigan now.
Michigan has been in that boat since losing to Appalachian State in 2007. Head coach Brady Hoke was fired Tuesday afternoon, after four progressively worse seasons (11-2, 8-5, 7-6, 5-7). He took over for Rich Rodriguez, who was whacked after three controversy-addled years of mostly dreadful play (3-9, 5-7, 7-6). That followed almost four decades of consistent, top-shelf success under Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr.
Michigan is one of three traditional national U.S. college powers whose search for a new head coach has officially commenced. Florida and Nebraska are the others.
Florida’s Will Muschamp already had announced his resignation before his last game on Saturday, a loss to arch-rival Florida State. Urban Meyer’s success-lacking successor since 2011, Muschamp went 7-6 and 11-2 with the Gators before last year’s implosion (4-8) and this year’s continuing travails (6-5).
Nebraska has wobbled on and off since the Tom Osborne era ended in 1997. Frank Solich, Bill Callahan and now Bo Pelini haven’t come close to matching Osborne’s incredible success. Pelini wasn’t a bum, either, but that’s the rub at the top of the college profession. Fans of big-time programs might put up with a rare clunker season, but what they absolutely cannot stomach is season after season of “almost there” success. That is, a 9-3 record or thereabouts just about every year. Never a great season, just a lot of maddening “almost there” seasons. That’s exactly why Pelini was fired Sunday morning. It’s why “Ol’ 9-3 Earle” Bruce was fired by Ohio State the first year he finally fell short of that maddening level, in 1987. And why many Michigan fans had tired of Carr before he was pressured out the door in 2007.
So now the Wolverines, Gators and Cornhuskers search anew.
Each thinks it can get the “best man out there” because of the prestige of its brand and, in Nebraska’s and Michigan’s case, because of a tradition of long-term excellence few schools can match. There are no sure things in head-coach hires, however. Not even Jim Harbaugh, wishful Michigan fans. Or Chip Kelly, wishful Florida fans.
But recent and ancient history inform. If you’re familiar with the history of coaching at the top-end level of college football, the trends are unmistakable. Yet it’s stunning how often top football-playing universities ignore these lessons of the past and get their crucial hires wrong. Over and over and over again.
Following are the seven most important attributes that any traditional college football power, in any year, needs to seek in a new head coach — at least if it wants to give itself the best chance to some day chisel the next guy’s face into the granite mountain alongside the program’s other “Mt. Rushmore” coaching legends:
1. PREVIOUS HEAD COACHING EXPERIENCE
Nothing is as important as this. There is no substitute for it at the highest level.
No one ever better illuminated this point than Ara Parseghian. Years after he retired in 1974 as Notre Dame’s third legendary football coach, after Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, Parseghian reflected on why his second successor, Gerry Faust, was failing so epically. Notre Dame had elevated Faust directly from the high-school ranks in 1981. Parseghian had been a successful college head coach since 1951 at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern before the Irish plucked him in 1964. “I needed all 13 of those previous years as head coach to have any chance of success at Notre Dame,” Parseghian insisted to then CBS-TV broadcast partner Brent Musberger in 1985.
Let that sink in. All 13 years.
Parseghian didn’t need 13 years of experience to succeed at (no dig intended) Louisville. Or Illinois. Or Arizona State. Or Syracuse. Those schools elevate coordinators or other assistant coaches all the time, and some occasionally find success.
But at Notre Dame — or any other top-flight program, where the time demands are so much greater, the spotlight so much brighter, the fan bases so much more zealous, the margin of error evermore minute — Parseghian believed he needed all that seasoning.
History supports that assessment.
If we stay at Notre Dame and look at Parseghian’s seven successors since 1974, his wisdom is proved correct. Dan Devine, Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly are the only ones that had extensive previous head coaching experience. Devine and Holtz each won a national championship, and Kelly’s 2012 Irish played in the national championship game. Three of the other four — Faust, Bob Davie and Charlie Weis — had no college head coaching experience at all. They were abject failures. Fifteen years, down the drain. The other of the four, Tyrone Willingham, had taken Stanford to only four bowl games in seven seasons. A Rose Bowl season, yes, but losing seasons too. At Notre Dame he experienced big highs and huge lows in a truncated three-year tenure. That is, he merely did what he’d done. And people were surprised.
Alabama has gone through coaches like no other traditional power since 1983, the year after Bear Bryant died. Nick Saban is the ninth. Two of the eight before him had no previous college or NFL head-coaching experience — Mike DuBose (1997-2000) and Mike Shula (2003-06). Combined, they went 50-46. Seeya.
How about Florida? Lifetime assistant coach Ron Zook succeeded Steve Spurrier in 2004. Three years later? Gone. Similarly, lifetime assistant Muschamp, after four years.
At Oklahoma, following the glittering (if NCAA-alerting) successes under Barry Switzer from 1973-88, the school hired four new head coaches in an 11-year span. One, Howard Schnellenberger, had turned Miami (Florida) into a national power, but he quit after one awful season in Norman. The other three had no previous head-coaching experience. Gary Gibbs went 44-23-2 from 1989-94 before he was forced out. John Blake went 12-22 from 1996-98 before he was fired. The third, Bob Stoops, of course has worked out. But that’s only 1-in-3.
Stoops (who had been Florida’s defensive coordinator) and a small handful of other elevated coordinators prove it is not mandatory to have had previous head-coaching experience. Other examples include Carr (who had been the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator) at Michigan in the late ’90s and early ’00s and, now, Jimbo Fisher at Florida State (a lifetime assistant coach until Bobby Bowden retired in 2010).
But these men are the exception, not the rule.
2. … AND OVERACHIEVED AT THOSE STOPS, TOO
This is really 1b.
It isn’t enough to merely have had previous head-coaching experience. The common thread among most great coaches in college football history is that they overachieve at every college stop. And usually not just with one great season. Those can be flukes — or, if you’re into analytics, outliers.
For example, Hoke went 12-1 at Ball State after four losing seasons and a 7-6 season. But 12-1? Woot! San Diego State scooped him up, where Hoke went 4-8 then 9-4. Nowhere did Hoke show an ability to win consistently, but it was enough to convince then-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon — urged by a small army of Carr loyalists — that the one-time Carr assistant was ready. Clearly he wasn’t.
If you don’t see overachievement on a coach candidate’s resume, by his previous schools’ traditional standards, then what would you must ask yourself: what makes you think he’d do any differently on your bigger stage? It’s amazing how many big-time athletic directors and their moneybags boosters fail to properly consider this elemental question.
Overachievement is relative. If a coach were to take, say, perennial Big 12 doormat Kansas to a mid-tier bowl game every season for 4-5 years, that’s impressive overachievement. That coach deserves a long look. But if he coached, say, Wake Forest or San Diego State or North Carolina State to more or less the same middling level of success as his predecessors, then why are you even interested in him?
Almost all great coaches overachieved at previous college gigs. Such as Bryant at Kentucky and Texas A&M before Bama. Or Woody Hayes at Denison and Miami (Ohio) before Ohio State. Or Holtz at Arkansas, Minnesota and other stops before Notre Dame. Or Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida before Ohio State.
Trends are not coincidences.
3. NICE GUY? FORGET IT
First, look for a bigger-than-life personality — the guy who owns the room when he walks into it. Morose men, or loners, almost never rise to become Hall of Fame coaches. Leahy was the all-time asterisk.
But just as importantly, if too many people say of your candidate, “Boy, he’s such a nice guy,” then drop him from your list. Fast. Nice guys rarely win big at the highest levels of football. Pricks win big. It’s just the way it is, by and large. The coaches who don’t give a rat’s butt whether anyone likes them, players included, stand a better chance of winning. “I’m not trying to win any popularity contests,” Hayes always famously said. “I’m trying to win football games.”
Players respected or even feared the likes of Hayes, Schembechler, Holtz, Bryant, Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, Meyer, et al — and similarly in the pro ranks the Bill Bilichicks, Don Shulas, Chuck Nolls and Vince Lombardis. But most of their players probably didn’t really like them until years later, if ever.
And what of it. How many times have we heard of head-coach failures late in their regimes being described by empathetic TV announcers as super nice guys and, boy, it’s really a shame they couldn’t make it work. The two things are often correlated, people. Nice guys don’t finish last in this profession at the highest level. Usually just fired.
4. IS HE SECURE ENOUGH TO HIRE THE BEST ASSISTANTS?
How many times do we see head coaches fail at the big-time college level — if not more so in the NFL — because although they ably took care of one side of the ball, they refused to bring in a similarly competent, “big name” coordinator to run the other side? “Hey, he might steal too much of the thunder. Can’t have that.” You’d swear with some that that’s their thinking. If so, it’s so wrong.
The best head coaches are secure enough in themselves to embrace the fact it’s not just great players who make your team a lasting, huge success, but great assistants too. The most successful head men search far and wide for the best possible coordinators and assistant coaches, and successfully recruit them. Even big-ego guys.
If you want a prodigious coaching tree, you have to want big branches to sprout from it. Otherwise go play in the park, not the forest.
5. WHAT’S HIS PLAN?
A head coach needs to come in with a well-thought-out rebuilding plan, built in part — if not in whole — around how to knock the reigning king off the hill.
In a lengthy interview with me in 1991, Schembechler provided this fascinating insight — which I’ve never written before — about how he turned Michigan’s fortunes around upon arriving in Ann Arbor in 1969. The launch point to this discussion was why Schembechler installed the “angle” 5-2 defence, at a time when Hayes and Ohio State ruled the Big Ten roost.
“We brought it — and we coached it — with the idea of stopping the Ohio State offence,” Schembechler said. “That’s all we did. ’Cause if we can beat those guys, the rest of them will take care of themselves. So that’s what we did.
“We also simulated (Ohio State’s) offence with regard to the fullback play. Because the fullback play was the basis of their attack, and nobody in this Big Ten had the slightest idea of how to stop it. So we built the defence, put the off-tackle (fullback) play into (our) offence — because we play against each other more than we play against anybody else — and made up our minds that we’re going to stop that play.
“And THAT’S how the great series — that 10-year series — came to be, and THAT’S why they were great defensive battles.
“And they could talk to me all they want about, ‘Why don’t you pass (more?)’ … I only had one thing in mind: beat Ohio State. I didn’t care about anything else. Because if I can beat Ohio State, I’m gonna beat these other guys. And that’s what happened. And we didn’t beat them all the time, but we were in every damn game. And we won our share.”
Slightly more, in fact. Schembechler went 5-4-1 against Hayes through 1978, and three times Hayes had the No. 1 team in America.
Schembechler furthermore implied he had little respect for ‘system’ coaches — those who bring pretty much the same attack with them to every stop. That’s not how you climb back up the hill.
“You can’t just go in and say, ‘We’re going to put in our offence and da-deeda-deeda-dada,’” said Schembechler, who died in 2006. “You’ve got to zero in on some specific people that you know you’re going to play, year in and year out, and then DECIDE how you’re going to (beat THEM). Why would I put in an offense that’ll score 50 on Northwestern? To what purpose? That won’t do me any good.
“The dominant team in the Big Ten in the ’60s was Ohio State. They DOMINATED everybody, they RAN over everybody, and Michigan just came off a 50-14 loss to ’em when they were playing for the championship, in Columbus, in’68. I said to hell with that, they ain’t putting 50 on us EVER. We’re gonna play defence and we’re gonna stop that attack, that’s what we’re gonna do. And the next year they got TWELVE.”
In fact, in that memorable “Ten Year War” between Hayes and Schembechler, Ohio State’s offence failed to score an offensive touchdown five times (in 1971-74-76-77-78).
And when critics in the Detroit-area press carved Schembechler for running way too much, and for being so offensively conservative?
“THAT’S ALL HOGWASH!” he shouted. “What we did was we stopped Ohio State’s attack … If we could NOT have taxed our defence with a similar-type offence, then we would NOT have had a defence to stop THEM.”
Schembechler paused and slapped his lap.
“Now, if they say when we went to the Rose Bowl it wasn’t as good? So what. Our objective was to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten championship. (It) was the right thing to do, in my judgment. Maybe some say, ‘Well maybe you could have done it a different way.’ Maybe we could have.
“But this is the way we knew — we knew how to do it! We knew how to do it! We knew how to stop ’em!
“Hell’s fire, when we went in at halftime the first year against (top-ranked and two-years-undefeated) Ohio State when it was 24-12 (for Michigan), Jim Young — our defensive coordinator — is pounding on the blackboard: ‘It’s OVER, men. It’s OVER! They cannot POSSIBLY make up the deficit, because they AREN’T going to score AGAIN. Unless we make a mistake, they are NOT going to score again!’
“And he was absolutely right – they didn’t piss a drop the whole second half.”
Now that’s a plan.
6. DOES HE HAVE LOCAL RECRUITING CONTACTS?
Unless the new head coach is a well-known national superstar (such as a Nick Saban, or Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh) who brings instant recognition and the wow factor to recruits’ living rooms, he’d better know how to harvest the choice fruit from the primary local recruiting orchards.
Here’s a great example. Jim Tressel had been a head coach only at the FCS (nee Division I-AA) level, at Youngstown State, where he overachieved to a high degree (four national championships). That was in Ohio, and he knew every high school football coach that mattered in the whole state. When Ohio State hired him in 2001, Tressel faced no recruiting learning curve whatsoever. He hit the ground running and immediately went about locking up the best Ohio prep stars, year after year. By Carr’s last year at Michigan (2007) Tressel had completely shut off what once had been Michigan’s most bountiful recruiting pipeline of superstar talent (Ohio).
This is why you don’t often see star coaches in one region of the country get big jobs in other regions. Recruiting successfully in unfamiliar territory can take time. In a pressure-packed rebuild-it-now setting of a desperate traditional power, such time isn’t a luxury.
7. ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Great head coaches usually are detail freaks: practices planned to the nanosecond (that’s an exaggeration), linemen spaced to the inch (that’s not). Saban sure wasn’t the first of this ilk. It goes back to the 1890s, when college athletics leaders first discovered that teams possessing a coach who knew what the hell he was doing owned a huge advantage over those that didn’t.
A hundred years ago, head coaches would get down and dirty with their players at practice to show them exactly how a play should work. They or their assistants also could dispense a physical penalty for failing to achieve the required precision. Leahy in the ’40s had a Notre Dame assistant who was so merciless in that regard, players called him Capt. Bligh.
All elite head coaches past and present have preached fundamentals and mistake avoidance, at all costs. These men have understood and appreciated, even if many fans still don’t, that football games are lost before they are won — by sloppy play. Precision play in all three facets — offence, defence, special teams — is the goal, and the best head coaches are able to coax, lead, drill, push, shove (whatever) their players closest to it.
You want your success-starved university to win year in and year out? You better have a coach who’s maniacal about paying attention to every detail, who plays smart football and whose players avoid killer mistakes more than their competitors, especially in big games — in whatever systems you choose to run. Losing teams and mediocre teams invariably make more dumb mistakes in games than winning teams.
* * *
Other criteria can be just as crucial at some powerhouse programs. For instance, after outsider John Cooper’s epic failures against arch-rival Michigan in the 1990s, it’s inconceivable that Ohio State any decade soon will hire a head coach who isn’t soaked to the marrow in all things Ohio. Meaning, he must not give a damn for the whole state of Michigan, since he was in diapers.
But the above seven criteria apply to all major U.S. college powers. They’re as universal as they are timeless.