Full disclosure: I am infatuated with college football head coaches. It’s almost impossible to capture how important they are at the high-Division I level.
The head coach is so crucial, of course, because of the twisted dynamics of college athletics. College football teams operate like their counterparts in the National Football League in many respects, but there are no owners or general managers that head coaches have to report to. Further, their employees are unpaid adolescents with tiny attention spans who are with the team for the maximum of four years.
Many college football teams are generating eye-popping amounts of money, but there’s only one guy you can pencil in to long-term forecasts about the business. They get hired as part of hush-hush processes and fired ruthlessly and unfairly, because athletic directors want to cover their own butts and need to keep the cash flow coming.
It’s monumental who your head coach is, and that’s why I write pieces trying to find out where the successful ones come from – schools pay search firms hundreds of thousands of dollars to help answer that question.
Another thing that’s awfully fun is to declare winners and losers in the immediate aftermath of developments that won’t actually be able to be deemed successful or unsuccessful for years. That’s because you can make sweeping judgments without technically being able to be proved wrong unless someone (who probably has it out for you) hangs on to your takes for half a decade or goes to great lengths to unearth them.
So, in a feeble attempt to assert my integrity, below my grades for this coaching cycle’s seven biggest hires will be audits from this exact exercise two years ago.
Florida State (6-6, 4-7 ACC)
Previous HC: Willie Taggart (9-12)
New HC: Mike Norvell (38-16 in four years at Memphis)
FSU is the only repeat feature appearing on both “Grading the Hires” 2018 and 2020 editions, which is never a good sign for a program that would like to consider itself a blueblood. After Jimbo Fisher hopped in the Brinks truck that Texas A&M backed into his driveway, did the ‘Noles forget their impressive history in panic-hiring Taggart, who had one year of Power 5 head coaching experience? Nobody was going to accuse Taggart of being the best in-game coach at the time of his arrival, but there was hope that he could keep recruiting at its previously strong level under Fisher while building an exciting offense like the one he engineered around star quarterback Quinton Flowers at South Florida. As it unfolded, Taggart brought in a pair of respectable-but-not-spectacular top 20 recruiting classes during his two years in Tallahassee, which couldn’t buy him any more time after his win percentage was still sub-.500 halfway through his second campaign.
Enter Mike Norvell. Now it’s time for me to sound like a hypocrite, because Norvell has no Power 5 head coaching experience. But in four years in charge of Memphis, Norvell showed he is exactly what Florida State needs. Never winning fewer than eight games, the former Arizona State and Pitt offensive coordinator produced NFL talents like Anthony Miller and Darrell Henderson during his tenure. He led the Tigers to two ranked finishes, which culminated in a 2019 campaign that featured twelve wins, an AAC Championship, and an offense that put up 40.8 points per game.
It might actually be more promising for the FSU faithful that Norvell didn’t recruit at an elite level at Memphis, because the ‘Noles will always get talent, and Norvell showed in Tennessee that he can do more with less. Now, the 38-year old will get a chance to do more with more. He should provide more winning in a weak ACC while trotting out the exciting offenses Taggart was supposed to deliver.
Michigan State (7-5, 4-6 Big Ten)
Previous HC: Mark Dantonio (114-57 in 13 years)
New HC: Mel Tucker (5-7 in one season at Colorado)
This is a tricky one. It was easy to write off Michigan State’s 3-9 2016 season, which came right after Mark Dantonio incredibly produced five 11-win seasons in six years. The next season, Michigan State posted 10 wins and finished 15th in the AP Poll. But all was not well in East Lansing, as the Spartans then struggled to back-to-back 7-6 campaigns while stuck in the Big Ten East with Ohio State and a resurgent Penn State. Leave no doubt: Dantonio was going to further complicate his legacy as MSU failed to contend again in 2020. He couldn’t keep pace recruiting, and questionable assistant coaching moves further compounded the team’s issues. But Dantonio, who had the job for as long as he wanted, thought he wanted another shot in 2020. A lawsuit regarding recruiting violations probably pushed Dantonio off of the fence, and he stepped down from his role in early February, leaving Sparty high and dry after the coaching carousel had run its course.
Given their circumstances and after a failed run at Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, hiring Mel Tucker away from Colorado was met with widespread relief. It is certainly tough to pluck a sitting head coach from his job in February, let alone a Power 5 HC, so give credit to AD Mark Hollins. Tucker had re-energized the Buffs fanbase in his one season despite a poor win-loss record and comes with a strong reputation on the defensive side of the ball. Plus, his first recruiting class clocked in as the nation’s 36th-strongest, which was no small feat.
MSU had to throw $5.5 million Tucker per year and double the assistant salary pool he had in Boulder to save face, and they got their man. But I’m not expecting much from the former Wisconsin defensive back, who will have the team punching at their weight class, but not much higher without a tremendous offensive mind in the building. Michigan State can’t keep up resource-wise with Ohio State and Penn State, and if archrival Michigan figures things out, we’re looking at third or fourth in the Big Ten East being the program’s ceiling. That makes it all the more impressive that the Spartans lured Tucker away from Colorado, but it also means their 11-win days are over. Context considered, I’ll give high marks for the hire. But the last few years have been quite sobering for Sparty’s fanbase.
Ole Miss (4-8, 2-6 SEC)
Previous HC: Matt Luke (6-6 as interim HC in 2017, 9-17 in two seasons as full-time HC)
New HC: Lane Kiffin (Most recently, 26-13 in three seasons at Florida Atlantic)
The gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the SEC West grew as wide as ever in 2019, as LSU, Alabama, and Auburn finished in the top 15 of the final AP Poll while Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas posted losing records and saw their head coaches shown the door. Impressively, Ole Miss had four nine-win campaigns to its name in the decade preceding Matt Luke’s installation as head coach, and had just come off a stretch of four winning seasons in five years under Hugh Freeze before he was fired for soliciting an escort service. Perhaps that set unrealistic expectations about what the program could be, but in any case, Luke’s job seemed secure heading into last season’s Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. As it happened, a potential game-tying touchdown saw fifteen yards added to the extra point attempt when Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore pretended to urinate in the end zone, and the Rebels lost by one point. Despite objections from the team’s players, AD Keith Carter made the decision to fire Luke.
Carter’s potentially inflammatory decision sure looks like it might pay off after he lured Lane Kiffin back to the SEC. For a team with a limited ceiling from a funding standpoint, it’s hard to think of a better name than Kiffin to revitalize a fanbase that has taken its lumps over the last few years.
Incredibly, with 115 games of head coaching experience between the NFL and college football, Kiffin is still just 44 years old. His most recent gig at Florida Atlantic, which featured two C-USA championships in three years, was the final step in a mea culpa after spells at USC and Tennessee ended poorly. It certainly intrigued the Ole Miss administration watching Kiffin, working with three-star recruits for the first time in decades, develop electrifying NFL talents like Devin Singletary. Now, the former Alabama offensive coordinator gets the chance to square off against his old mentor Nick Saban every year. If nothing else, Kiffin is always a quote waiting to happen. This was a win for college football fans, and a win for the Rebels.
Mississippi State (6-7, 3-5 SEC)
Previous HC: Joe Moorhead (14-12 in two seasons)
New HC: Mike Leach (Most recently, 55-47 in eight seasons at Washington State)
That one-point Mississippi State Egg Bowl win also had implications for the state’s other FBS head coach, Moorhead. School officials had discussed terminating the former Penn State offensive coordinator if he lost to Ole Miss, but the narrow win seemed like it would buy Moorhead another season. A bowl game loss to Louisville coupled with a fight in practice that Moorhead tried to downplay led to his dismissal. Ole Miss and Mississippi State will always be inextricably linked and occupy a similar role in the college football pecking order, and it’s hard not to feel like Moorhead did a better job than his counterpart Matt Luke in two years, going 8-5 before regressing to 6-7 in 2019. Still, folks in Starkville felt Moorhead hadn’t done enough with a talented 2018 roster and wasn’t a cultural fit for the Deep South.
Well, the Bulldogs matched the exciting hire of Kiffin at Ole Miss by bringing in their own enigmatic, sometimes controversial figure, signing Mike Leach away from Washington State. In some respects, this hire looks like a slam dunk. Leach has been doing the whole more-with-less gig for two decades now, bringing more highs than lows to Texas Tech and WSU despite having limited support staffs and recruiting assets to leverage. Middle-of-the-road recruiting classes have never stopped Leach from winning, especially at Tech when he posted 10 straight winning seasons. Plus, his Air Raid offenses always make for fun viewing.
Still, it’s fair to wonder if Leach is ready for his most daunting task yet, in the SEC West, at 59 years old. Recruiting well is more a necessity than a luxury in the conference just to keep up, and Leach, who doesn’t seem to care too much about his reputation, could call it quits after two years without a second thought. I’m torn on whether this will work out or not, and whether Leach is even an upgrade over Moorhead. Again, you can’t question the entertainment value, though.
Arkansas (2-10, 0-8 SEC)
Previous HC: Chad Morris (4-18 in two seasons)
New HC: Sam Pittman (Offensive line coach at Georgia)
No need to mince words here, as Chad Morris was always headed for the chopping block with zero SEC wins (and a 2-4 record against Group of Five schools) after 22 games. Make no mistake, Arkansas is a difficult job, perhaps the toughest in the SEC besides Vanderbilt. Still, it had to be difficult for Razorback fans to see their last two coaching vacancies snapped up by some respected names (Bret Bielema and Morris), only for the two coaches to deliver one eight-plus win season since 2013.
Now Arkansas has gone off the beaten path in signing Sam Pittman, who has never been a head coach or even a coordinator at the FBS level. Pittman does bring a strong track records in recruiting and coaching offensive line back to Fayetteville (he was the team’s OL coach from 2013-15 under Bielema), but he doesn’t exactly seem like the type of hire to breathe new life into the program with any fresh philosophies. If nothing else, the Hogs should play with discipline and hold their own in the trenches under Pittman. But there also might be a seven-win ceiling on the team under his watch as competition in the SEC West remains extremely stiff.
Missouri (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
Previous HC: Barry Odom (25-25 in four years)
New HC: Eli Drinkwitz (12-1 in one season at Appalachian State)
It seemed harsh for AD Jim Sterk to cut Barry Odom loose with the team at .500 in 2019 after two winning seasons. Sterk’s expectations seemed rooted in the team’s achievements under Gary Pinkel, when they won the SEC East in back-to-back years after joining the conference in 2012. But the SEC East has changed a great deal since then, as Georgia is now entrenched as one of the titans of the sport while Florida seems close to challenging for that status again.
In any case, the switch from Odom to Drinkwitz could not have gone over well with the team’s players, who fought for Odom to keep his job. Now, they’ll be led by a 36-year old coach with one year of head coaching experience, who was making the transition from coordinating a high school offense to doing quality control for Auburn a decade ago at this time. And while Drinkwitz has risen rapidly through the coaching ranks, his accomplishments as the offensive coordinator of Boise State and NC State don’t jump off the page, and most of the players featuring in last year’s 12-win App State campaign were recruited by current Louisville coach Scott Satterfield. If the bar at Mizzou is putting together nine or ten-win seasons, I don’t see Drinkwitz being the coach to put them over the top in an intense conference.
Washington (8-5, 4-5 Pac-12)
Previous HC: Chris Petersen (55-26 in six seasons)
New HC: Jimmy Lake (Defensive coordinator at Washington)
The carousel grades will conclude with by far the most stable program on this list. Chris Petersen’s tenure was everything Huskies fans could have hoped for and then some – though it took many by surprise when he resigned to take a year off from football and “recharge,” UW should be in good hands with Jimmy Lake, one of the fastest-rising assistants in college football over the last few seasons.
Petersen, a unanimously loved figure, was never going to step away without leaving Washington in good hands, and with Lake, the coaching transition should go about as smooth as possible. It was only a matter of time before the 43-year old former DC got a head gig, and Petersen will remain with the team in a less-demanding advisory role. Lake has kept the 2020 recruiting class extremely strong – 15th in the country according to 247Sports – and five-star 2021 QB Sam Huard has stayed on board as well. Washington averaged 10 wins in Petersen’s four most recent seasons, and with Lake, there should be no drop-off and the Huskies should remain outside contenders for the College Football Playoff long-term. The only knock against Lake might be that he’s never been a head coach, but if Petersen had to leave, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better replacement.
Now, For the 2017 Audits…
Florida State (6-6, 3-5 ACC)
Previous HC: Jimbo Fisher (83-23 in eight seasons)
Replacement: Willie Taggart (7-5 in one season at Oregon)
Summary: “Taggart has a losing overall record (47-50) as a head coach at the college level, and does not have the big-time school pedigree to prove he deserves this job. It’s hard to think that [AD Stan] Wilcox and Florida State president Mark Thrasher couldn’t have tried to catch a bigger fish.”
2017 Grade: C-
I’ve already covered what an unmitigated disaster Willie Taggart’s time in Tallahassee was. What Taggart had going for him at the time of his hiring were solid ties to the Florida area after a successful spell at the University of South Florida, and a mildly promising one-year stint at Oregon where the Ducks averaged 36.9 points per game. I was on the right track in my skepticism of the hiring, but the grade should have been even lower.
Revised Grade: F
UCLA (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12)
Previous HC: Jim Mora (46-30 in six seasons)
New HC: Chip Kelly (Former HC of Oregon, the Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers)
Summary: “This is a guy who knows how to recruit the West, and UCLA is just off the beaten path enough that Kelly can stay out of the spotlight relative to what he would’ve experienced at a Florida or Tennessee. Disappearing amongst the bright lights of Los Angeles, Kelly will be able to build a monster at UCLA on his own terms. A great deal for both parties.”
2017 Grade: A
Yep, I loved this hire. I couldn’t think of a better rehabilitation opportunity for Kelly, who took Oregon into the highest echelon of college football in the early 2010s, than a lower-pressure Pac-12 job after he flamed out in the NFL. He started out with a bang, too, pulling in the country’s 19th-ranked recruiting class on short notice in 2018. Two years in, however, Kelly’s record stands at a miserable 7-17 and he doesn’t have an out-of-conference win.
There’s no hot seat talk yet because UCLA hasn’t exactly supported their new coach well, with the athletic department running fiscal deficits recently (they also don’t have the money to pay Kelly’s buyout if he were to be fired). There’s little room for wavering here, as the win-loss record in a Pac-12 that has been weak pretty much says it all.
Revised Grade: D+
Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC)
Previous HC: Jim McElwain (22-12 in three seasons)
New HC: Dan Mullen (69-46 in nine seasons at Mississippi State)
Summary: “Any college football fan knows keeping a job for nine years in the SEC West is something to be proud of, and a job like Florida’s is the logical next step for Mullen. He has an impressive resume of rejuvenating sputtering offenses like the Gators, and, under Mullen’s leadership, the Gators will have a man who knows the program and can create a contender for the College Football Playoff given time.”
2017 Grade: A-
Jim McElwain’s record in Gainesville doesn’t seem fireable at first glance, but context is necessary. The SEC East was atrocious at the time, and McElwain couldn’t capitalize despite having one of the best recruiting backyards and support systems in the country. 24 months later, it’s fair to say the UF administration made the right decision. Dan Mullen is 21-5 so far and just led the Gators to an 11-win 2019 season despite archrival Georgia going full juggernaut mode over the last few years.
I wrote that Mullen could create a Playoff contender at Florida, and if anything, his team has arrived ahead of schedule. Beating Georgia and the Playoff are the next step, and with two top-10 recruiting classes in as many years, Mullen has the Gators on the cusp of those achievements.
Revised Grade: A
Tennessee (4-8, 0-8 SEC)
Previous HC: Butch Jones (34-27 in five seasons)
Replacement: Jeremy Pruitt (Defensive Coordinator at Alabama)
Summary: “Pruitt is a great defensive mind, and has a stellar reputation as a coordinator, but he has never been a head coach, and, with all the inherent benefits of coaching in Knoxville, one would’ve hoped [AD Phil] Fulmer landed one of those more experienced, offensive minded names.”
2017 Grade: C+
Butch Jones’ tenure at UT was promising at times, but certainly underwhelming overall, and he deserved to be let go. Two nine-win seasons in five years doesn’t cut it when coaching in that aforementioned hapless SEC East at one of the highest-spending programs in the nation. However, I questioned new hire Pruitt’s ability to rejuvenate a sputtering offense, even if he would solidify the Vols defensively.
At the moment, Pruitt is treading water with a 13-12 overall record and a 7-9 mark in the SEC. His seat was red-hot after a shocking home loss to Georgia State early in 2019 came on the heels of a 5-7 debut campaign, but Tennessee turned things around down the stretch with a road win over Kentucky and a bowl victory. The Vols still have a long way to go, as evidenced by totally noncompetitive losses to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Pruitt has recruited fairly well and his defense buttoned things up down the stretch, but 2020 will still be a make-or-break year.
Revised Grade: C-
Texas A&M (7-5, 4-4 SEC)
Previous HC: Kevin Sumlin (51-26 in six seasons)
Replacement: Jimbo Fisher (83-23 in eight seasons at Florida State)
Summary: “Though they overpaid, A&M managed the difficult, if not impossible, task of convincing a coach to ditch one of America’s top jobs to hit the reset button with a team in a worse spot for the future. For that, they deserve credit.”
2017 Grade: B+
This hire was a stunning one at the time, with Fisher receiving the biggest contract in college athletics history, a 10-year, $80 million megadeal with $75 million guaranteed. Kevin Sumlin never had a losing season but only won ten games once in six tries, and with the SEC West stiffening almost weekly, the A&M administration decided to pull the plug. And what a hire they made, poaching a sitting head coach with six ten-win campaigns in eight years and a national championship from his seemingly better gig at Florida State.
If I had any reservations about the Fisher hire, it was the price tag, but even that doesn’t matter too much given how much money these programs have to throw around while exploiting their free labor. After a promising 9-4 mark in 2018, Fisher’s Aggies mostly held serve this year, losing to five top-ten opponents and winning their other eight contests. Undoubtedly, Jimbo’s hiring injected optimism among the 12th Man fanbase, as the A&M athletic department has received the most donor money in the country. Now, it’s time for Fisher’s last two recruiting classes, which clocked in at 4th and 6th, respectively, to step up and knock off some of the SEC West’s big boys.
Revised Grade: B+
Nebraska (4-8, 3-6 Big Ten)
Previous HC: Mike Riley (19-19 in three seasons)
Replacement: Scott Frost (19-7 in two seasons at UCF)
Summary: “A little bit of luck always helps a problem, however, and Nebraska got extremely lucky in hiring Scott Frost. After all, it’s not often that one of a university’s legends goes on to be an extremely successful head coach as well. What a story Scott Frost is writing, and what a coup for the Cornhuskers.”
2017 Grade: A
There wasn’t a soul who thought that Scott Frost’s tenure at Nebraska would go poorly when he got hired two years ago. Every school in the country with an uncertain head coaching situation wanted to sign the offensive whiz who had transformed the UCF Knights, winless in 2015, into a 13-0 squad putting up 49.4 points per game just two years later. Nebraska had to be thanking its lucky stars that Frost was an alum, because there’s no way any other candidate is turning down Florida’s deep pockets for Lincoln and (only) $5 million per season.
That being said, the 2018 and 2019 seasons had to be quite sobering for the Huskers faithful. A marriage that began with so much promise has now endured 4-8 and 5-7 seasons and a host of baffling losses. The caveat here is that Frost’s protege, rising true junior quarterback Adrian Martinez, missed a month in the heart of the Big Ten schedule, so Nebraska could be bounce-back candidates in 2020. But for a team picked preseason to win the Big Ten West, falling to five-win Colorado and four-win Purdue is simply unacceptable. This isn’t the mid-90s – Nebraska is no longer a premier job by any means – and Frost has been getting some impressive recruits to make the trek to the Midwest. He’ll have every opportunity to right the ship, but early returns have been concerning.
Revised Grade: B-
Arizona State (7-5, 6-3 Pac-12)
Previous HC: Todd Graham (46-31 in five seasons)
Replacement: Herm Edwards (Former head coach of the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs)
Summary: “The move to hire Edwards, who has been an analyst for ESPN since 2009, has a 54-74 record as an NFL head coach, and last coached at the college level as the defensive backs coach at San Jose State from 1987-89 (!!), is the epitome of a head-scratcher. Even if the Sun Devils are able to stay in games and have a high-character team under Edwards, they’re going nowhere in the Pac-12 if they can’t put up points. And in this day and age of college football, you simply can’t hire a proven offensive innovator without giving him the title of ‘Head Coach’ to match, making it highly doubtful ASU will be able to keep pace offensively in the Pac-12.”
2017 Grade: D
Oh, how I hated this hire. Todd Graham’s ASU was rarely excellent, posting two ten-win seasons and four other mediocre campaigns. One could argue he should have been cut loose, but subsequently hiring Edwards made next-to-no sense at the time. This was a 63-year old that had been out of coaching for a decade, hadn’t coached college since ‘89, and knew defense. I wasn’t alone in questioning if Edwards would have the energy to recruit and tinker to the degree necessary to help the Sun Devils contend for the Pac-12 title.
Two years in, Herm has held his own with a 15-11 record (9-9 in the Pac-12). In an 8-5 2019, the Sun Devils pulled off a massive upset of No. 6 Oregon and lost four games by five or less, which suggests they’re close to where Edwards wants them. Heck, they did that while starting a true freshman at quarterback, the talented Jayden Daniels. Edwards has recruited fairly well, too. I worry about the team’s ceiling – folks seem all too willing to heap praise on Herm for 8-5 in a poor conference – but he’s made a lot of doubters at least shut their mouths for the time being.
Revised Grade: B