Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Colleges

In college football, the right coach is the top priority

The eminent college football program puttered along for a decade. There were a couple of 10-win seasons, but mostly worse ones. During 10 seasons, the team had four interim and permanent head coaches and, not accounting for NCAA sanctions, went 67-82. The punishment did not help, but neither did a general feeling of malaise and inconsistency — in short, the effects of suboptimal coaching.

Then the team hired a new head coach. In the ensuing decade that team, Alabama, has put together a 117-18 record, with four national titles (again, leaving the NCAA sanctions out of the equation).

Nothing but the coach had changed. Alabama was called the Crimson Tide before and after it hired the new coach, Nick Saban. At all times, it was the proud program of Frank Thomas and Bear Bryant, of Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, and of, if you wish, Forrest Gump.

What the Alabama experience showed, or confirmed, was that legacy, fans, colors — and everything else that lends narrative coherence to the sport of college football — end up mattering not all that much, except for their allure to the proper coach.

College coaches are, to their teams, what the owner, the head coach and the general manager, combined, are to an NFL team. For everything to work, the university needs a competent president and athletic director, but success begins and pretty much ends with the head coach.

Which is why this past weekend was the biggest of the year on the college football calendar, and not only for the rivalry games that went a long way toward determining the eventual composition of the College Football Playoff. While far fewer teams rode the coaching carousel this year than did last year, a few consequential decisions were made, with more in the offing.

Most notably, Texas fired Charlie Strong, who in his three years in Austin went 16-21, and hired the coach-of-the-moment Tom Herman, who in two years at Houston, his first head-coaching job, went 22-4, including 13-1 last season. Money was apparently no object for Houston, which wished to keep Herman; blame the Big 12's refusal to admit entry to the Cougars (or anyone else).

And LSU, which fired longtime coach Les Miles early in the season, decided to make Ed Orgeron its head coach after he went 5-2 as the interim.

Texas, in particular, is a case study for college football's coach-centric reality.

In an earlier era, Texas could sit back and wait for the state's copious high school talent to beg for scholarships. Mack Brown, Texas' previous head coach, more or less did this well into the 2000s — that is, long after it would have worked nearly anywhere else — to the tune of one national title and a second title game appearance.

But the amount of money injected into the sport has substantially leveled the playing field, permitting upstart programs with the right coaching to seize the spotlight in recruiting and on the field.

During Brown's long tenure, Houston pumped out Art Briles, who transformed Baylor from perennial also-ran to Big 12 champion. Under Gary Patterson, Texas Christian busted into the major conferences' Bowl Championship Series enough times that it eventually let TCU in. Texas A&M jumped to the SEC, giving the Aggies a structural advantage that, one day, the right coach will probably ride to the playoff.

Both Strong and Orgeron were notable for having had prior head-coaching experience (Orgeron had a largely unsuccessful stint atop Mississippi).

Jed Hughes, a former coach who now works at the search firm Korn Ferry, said that the track record of those with experience leading programs was better than those who had only been high-profile coordinators before stepping into top jobs.

"If you're talking about the elite schools, the success of coordinators with no head-coaching experience going in isn't very good," he said, adding, "these large elite jobs are not for on-the-job training. It's too complex, it's too complicated."

Pointing to the SEC East, he noted that Jim McElwain went from being Alabama's offensive coordinator to Colorado State's head coach before going to Florida, where he has led the Gators to consecutive conference title games. Florida faces Saban and Alabama on Saturday in Atlanta. By contrast, Kirby Smart went directly from being Alabama's defensive coordinator to Georgia's head coach; in his first year, the Bulldogs finished 7-5.

Notable remaining openings include Baylor, where acting coach Jim Grobe, brought in after Briles was fired in the wake of scandal, was never intended to last beyond a season; likely Oregon, where Mark Helfrich went 4-8 in his fourth season; Houston; and Purdue, where Darrell Hazell was fired this year. Also potentially on the clock: Jim Mora at UCLA and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M.

Should those programs on the cusp be trigger-happy? There are reasons for college programs to be more averse to changing coaches than professional franchises are.

For one thing, there is a conceit that educating the athletes through sport is at least as much a team priority as is winning. More concretely, the players — recruited by the coach — may not transfer nearly as easily as the coaches may. There is also the issue of buyouts, such as the — Texas reportedly owes Strong, even as Herman's contract reportedly pays him more than $5 million per year.

But purely from a competitive perspective, the answer is obvious: Athletic directors with real doubts about their coaches, along with alternatives they believe to be better, should make the change. While there are a few programs that have punched above their natural weight by turning consistency into its own virtue — Michigan State, where nobody is considering moving on from Mark Dantonio despite a 3-9 record this season, comes to mind — the track record is crystal clear: Coaching changes do not slow down programs; bad hires do.

To its credit, Texas' administration appeared to realize this, cutting Strong loose after just three years, making his the shortest head-coaching tenure there since the 1930s.

Consider another team. In seven seasons, through 2014, encompassing the full tenures of two coaches, it went 46-42; in the final two years of that run, it was 7-6 and 5-7. Then a new head coach came in and — with virtually the same roster from that 5-7 team — went 10-3, finishing the season ranked 12th.

This season, in coach Jim Harbaugh's second year, Michigan is 10-2 and ranked fifth. Hint: It's not because of the maize and blue uniforms.

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