Fifteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. Our second stop takes us to Gainesville.
Three bowl appearances in four seasons, including a bid to the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 campaign were not enough to keep Will Muschamp employed at the University of Florida. You would be hard pressed to blame the powers that be for giving Muschamp the axe. Under his predecessor, Urban Meyer, the Gators were perennial contenders and winners of two national championships. In fact, outside of the outlier 2012 season when the Gators went 7-1 in SEC play, Florida was just 10-14 against league opponents under Muschamp. That kind of mediocrity might fly at Kentucky and get a statue erected in your honor at Vanderbilt, but Florida fans are used to the finer things in life (excluding leg wear of course). To replace Muschamp (a defensive-minded coach), the Gators have tabbed Jim McElwain, a former quarterback at Eastern Washington, offensive coordinator at Alabama, and head coach at Colorado State to be their new leader. How did McElwain perform at his previous head coaching stop in Fort Collins?
The Colorado State Rams were a mid-major force in the 1990’s under Sonny Lubick. The Rams finished in the top-20 of the final polls three times between 1994 and 2000. However, as the new millennium began, the Rams fortunes declined. After finishing 10-4 in 2002, the Rams went just 24-36 over Lubick’s final five seasons and finished with a winning record only once in that span. Lubick was replaced by Steve Fairchild, a Colorado State alum, who was also an assistant under Lubick in the glory days of the program. Fairchild’s tenure began with promise as the Rams went 7-6 and won the New Mexico Bowl in 2008. However it was all downhill from there as the Rams finished with identical 3-9 marks over the next three seasons and won just three of their final 23 conference games. Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was hired to return the Rams to prominence, but early on the tide was against him. The Rams began McElwain’s first season 1-6 before rebounding to win three of their final five games and finish 4-8. The Rams improved to 8-6 in his second season, including an epic bowl win over Washington State, and were 10-2 in the 2014 regular season before he was snatched up by the Gators. So, after starting 1-6, the Rams won 21 of the final 31 games they played under McElwain. They also entered the top-25 (albeit briefly) for the first time since 2003 and beat a pair of Power Five programs (Colorado and Boston College) in 2014.
So we know how McElwain’s Rams performed by basic wins and losses, but how did they perform in relation to their conference brethren in other areas? The table below lists Colorado State’s performance under McElwain in terms of Yards per Play (YPP), Yards per Play Allowed (YPA), Net Yards per Play (Net), Offensive Touchdown (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). Keep in mind these numbers include conference games only and the ranking in parentheses is their standing against the rest of the Mountain West.
Weston Richburg, an offensive lineman in the second round and Crockett Gilmore, a tight end in the third round) and just one projected to be drafted in the first two days this spring.
So what does that mean for Florida in 2015 and beyond? Well, Florida's issue under Muschamp was scoring points. The defense was either above-average or elite as compared to the rest of the SEC in Muschamp’s tenure. Hiring a proven mid-major coach with an offensive background was a logical progression. Of course, Muschamp was a defensive guy, so the possibility exists that the offense will improve just as the defense collapses and leave the Gators in the same position they are currently in four years from now.
So now that we know a little about McElwain, what do we know about BCS or Power 5 programs that hire successful mid-major coaches? I have examined all the successful mid-major coaches hired by BCS (now Power 5 programs) since 2008. I have made a few arbitrary decisions about which coaches we should exclude because it is too early to tell how they might end up. Feel free to disagree if you want. Here are the coaches we are excluding and why in no particular order.
Bobby Petrino, Louisville, 2014 – Second tenure at Louisville. Bowl game and top-25 finish in first season back. How long will he stay? Only his real estate agent knows for sure?
Dave Doeren, NC State, 2013 –Winless in conference play in first season, bowl win in second.
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest, 2014 – Blew things up. Terrible offense and only one conference win, but did beat the team that beat the eventual nation champions.
Al Golden, Miami, 2011 – Been in south Florida for four seasons, but the Hurricanes have had a dark cloud hanging over the program in the form of Nevin Shapiro and possible NCAA sanctions. If you want to rate him as mediocre or a failure, I won’t argue too hard.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina, 2012 – Similar situation as Golden with a scandal dangling over the program like the Sword of Damocles.
Todd Graham, Pitt, 2011 – Did not have quite the longevity of other legendary Pennsylvania coaches like Joe Paterno, Chuck Noll, or Bill Cowher.
Tim Beckman, Illinois, 2012 – Will be entering his fourth season. Just 4-20 in Big 10 play, but did guide the Illini to a bowl in 2014.
Darrell Hazell, Purdue, 2013 – Early returns are not great, but the Boilermakers did improve in his second season.
Gary Andersen, Wisconsin, 2013 – Stayed just two seasons. One Big 10 division title.
Sonny Dykes, Cal, 2013 – Winless in conference play his first season and one win away from a bowl game in his second.
Chris Petersen, Washington, 2014 – Not easy leaving the Boise bubble. Lost six games in 2014. Did not lose his sixth at Boise State until his sixth season.
Mike MacIntyre, Colorado, 2013 – Just 1-17 through two seasons of Pac-12 play.
Butch Jones, Cincinnati, 2010 – One could argue he stayed long enough to evaluate his tenure. Two bowl games and one top-25 finish in three seasons before leaving for the riches of the SEC.
Willie Taggart, South Florida, 2013 – South Florida was technically a BCS program when he arrived. Improved in his second season, but still an also-ran in the American Athletic Conference.
So with that out of the way, here are the successful mid-major coaches we will include in our analysis (sorted chronologically).
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech, 2008 – Johnson turned the Navy program around and brought the triple-option to the big leagues. In his seven season in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets have gone 37-19 in ACC play, won three division crowns, an ACC title, and finished ranked three times. Good hire.
Art Briles, Baylor, 2008 – The former high school coach had turned around the fortunes of the Houston Cougars before he was given the unenviable task of attempting to turn the Baylor program around. With a boost from Robert Griffin, Briles got the Bears to 10 wins in 2011, and it looked like the team might have peaked. Little did we know, the best was yet to come. The Bears have played in five consecutive bowl games and have won 22 games over the past two seasons. Great hire. Briles has also written a book I recommend you check out if you are into that kind of elitist stuff like reading. Beating Goliath is the title.
Turner Gill, Kansas, 2010 – Gill turned the woebegone Buffalo Bulls around, winning the MAC championship in 2008 (on the strength of some unsustainable turnover luck). However, his tenure at Kansas was as short as it was abysmal. The Jayhawks won just five of the 24 games they played under Gill. He probably should have been given at least another year, but since he wasn’t you have to rate the hire as poor.
Skip Holtz, South Florida, 2010 – Fresh off two consecutive Conference USA titles at East Carolina, Skip Holtz was hired by the Bulls to replace the only coach they had ever known, Jim Leavitt. His first squad finished 8-5 and his second began the year 4-0 before losing seven of their final eight games. His next team again finished with a losing record and he was canned. The 2011 and 2012 teams are anomalies under Holtz as they posted a wretched 3-8 mark in close games. In his other 13 seasons, his teams have gone 40-30 in one-score games. Thus, his 2011 and 2012 teams were probably not as bad as they appeared. We’ll say bad hire, but Holtz probably should have been given another season.
Brady Hoke, Michigan, 2011 – His tenure as Michigan head man began in such a promising manner. His first team won the Sugar Bowl and finished in the top-15. His second team went 6-2 in the Big 10 and only lost to very good teams (Alabama, Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and South Carolina combined for a 58-8 record). His third team began the season 5-0, but lost six of their final eight games to put Hoke squarely on the hot seat entering his fourth season. His final team posted a 3-5 Big 10 record and finished 5-7 overall. The offense was impotent over his final two seasons and greatly contributed to his firing. Mediocre hire.
Jerry Kill, Minnesota, 2011 – After leading Northern Illinois back to the MAC mountaintop, Kill assumed the head coaching position at Minnesota. After a ho-hum first year, Kill and the Gophers qualified for a bowl in 2012 thanks to a soft non-conference schedule. Then the team continued to improve in both 2013 and 2014. Now they just need to win a bowl game. Good hire.
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss, 2012 – After one season at Arkansas State (unbeaten in Sun Belt play), Freeze headed to the Grove where he was an assistant under Ed Orgeron. His time there is chronicled in Meat Market, another book I would recommend. The Rebels have improved in each of his three seasons, and despite the fact that 2014 ended on a sour note, Ole Miss appears to be in good hands. Good hire.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M, 2012 – After nearly leading Houston to a BCS bowl in 2011, Sumlin stayed in-state, but moved up in class. His tenure at Texas A&M has coincided with the Aggies shift to the SEC. The Aggies have won three bowl games and finished ranked twice in three seasons under Sumlin. Oh, and some guy won the Heisman Trophy. We’ll call this a good hire, but mention in passing that the Aggies win total has declined each season since their breakout in 2012. Perhaps Sumlin set the bar too high?
Gus Malzahn, Auburn, 2013 – Yes, he has only been at Auburn two seasons (after a one-year stint at Arkansas State), but Malzahn led the Tigers to an SEC crown in his first season as well as a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers declined in his second season, but still finished ranked in the final poll. Good hire, and perhaps a slam dunk.
By my estimation, of the nine hires included in this unscientific study, six were either good or great (Johnson, Briles, Kill, Freeze, Sumlin, and Malzahn), one was average (Hoke), and two were bad (Gill and Holtz). I will once again remark that Gill and Holtz were not given ample time to fix their struggling programs, and that in regards to Skip Holtz, he was probably more unlucky than bad. Now, some might argue that I have cherry-picked who to include here, and I have to a certain extent. However, I just don’t think we can yet judge relatively new hires like Golden and Fedora because of the off the field messes they stepped into and others like MacIntyre because he took over such a bad program. In other instances, like Beckman and Hazell, I feel those programs are at a crossroads like Bone Thugs N Harmony, and shouldn’t be judged just yet. If you want to lump those two in with the bad hires, be my guest.
Based on the data I examined, employing a proven mid-major coach appears to be one of the safer crapshoots in hiring a coach. Think of it as a roulette wheel with 22 black spaces (and you are betting on black) instead of 18. If you hire a successful mid-major coach, you will probably at worst get to one bowl game in his tenure. Of course, Florida has more ambitious aspirations that getting to a bowl game. Were I a betting man, I would bet against Florida winning a national title under McElwain, but that has more to do with the fact that it is damn hard to win a national title (pretty sure they only award one per season) than anything to do with McElwain specifically. McElwain revived a dormant program in a short time and appears to have the offensive bona fides to get the Gators back near the top of the SEC. He’s not the slam dunk hire Urban Meyer was a decade ago, but there is a lot to like.