By Jeff Greenberg
The world today does not look like the world of old. Today’s societal “microwave mentality” demands satisfaction immediately. That mentality has carried over to college football fandom in the last twenty years, particularly when it comes to how fan bases look at their head coaches.
Gone are the days of coaching tenures like Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler and Bobby Bowden. Each of those men coached at one school for twenty years or longer. They had ups and downs, but the good times far outweighed the bad during their tenures when it came to winning and losing football games. A twenty-year tenure at one school in the modern college football era will be almost impossible to reach under the current mentality towards coaches.
College football programs today are too quick to make a coaching change. These days, even a 7-5 record will have fans calling on the head coach to clean house with his assistant coaches. It’s reached a point where in some cases, multiple coaching changes have plunged programs into multiple years of ineptitude. Firing head coaches every 2-3 seasons is not a recipe for success.
There are plenty of examples of how showing a little patience for a season or two more can pay huge dividends in a program’s success. The greatest names in college football coaching history were all given the time and patience needed to build a winner. Coaches should be able to at least see their first full recruiting class take the field as seniors. That’s why most contracts offered to head coaches today start at five years in length. However, too many times that coach doesn’t make it to the end of that contract.
There are 130 FBS head coaching jobs in college football today. Over the past three seasons, 71 of those jobs have changed hands, meaning 55% of the head coaches in the FBS during 2015 season are no longer at their respective programs. There are only 10 coaches that have been at their current program longer than ten years. Now, some of those departures do involve coaches taking new jobs at other schools, but the majority of the turnover stems from coaches being fired. These statistics are hard to fathom. How can you expect to build any sort of continuity with that rate of turnover? Building a consistent contender takes time.
There are common threads to making a program successful. As most coaches will tell you, recruiting is the lifeblood of your program. Recruiting takes time and depends on the building of relationships and sustaining those relationships over time. The recruiting process of the players that just signed during the early signing period began two years ago. It’s a long and tedious process.
One of the biggest disruptions to recruiting is a coaching change. Changing coaches can set a program back two to three recruiting cycles. New coaches are usually hired right before signing day so that first class is typically in a lame-duck situation. Then, the new staff is already a year behind on the next class because, as mentioned above, signing day is usually the culmination of two years worth of work by the coaching staff. If they’re lucky, and hit the ground running in building relationships with the high school coaches and prospects in their areas, then they might be able to turn in a stellar class in year three. Depending on the health of the program and the roster the new staff inherits, those two to three cycles can really delay how fast they get the program back up on its feet and winning more games.
Culture is another common thread you will hear coaches talk about at their introductory press conferences. Culture cannot be built overnight and sometimes it takes turning over the roster in order to get everybody in that locker room to buy in to that culture. That can be a multi-year process. Once the culture is set, the chances of getting everybody in the program moving in the same direction increase. Winning games consistently is the result of getting everybody on the same train and moving in the same direction.
There are many examples of programs that reaped the rewards for being patient with their new head coaches.
Michigan State is one of those programs. In 1995 their new head coach went 6-5-1. The next season saw Sparty finish 6-6, followed by a 7-5 season in 1997. Halfway through the coach’s fourth season their record stood at 3-4. Some fans even began calling the head coach a “bum,” and they wanted him fired. Michigan State missed the bowl season again and fell to Penn State in their finale, 51-28. However, they did manage to upset #10 Notre Dame and beat #1 Ohio State at the Horseshoe earlier in the season. So the athletic director decided to give that “bum” one more season. That “bum” was Nick Saban. Who knows what would have come of his career had he been fired after that 6-6 season in 1998?
Speaking of Saban, how about another coach who has taken his team to each of the first three College Football Playoffs? When Dabo Swinney was handed the reigns to the Clemson Tigers’ football program, many critics inside and outside of Clemson didn’t see this young guy with no head coaching experience as a long-term solution. In 2010, Swinney’s Tigers turned in the first losing season at Clemson since 1998, a result that got Head Coach Tommy West fired at the time. After finishing that season with a losing record, fans came out of the woodwork demanding that Swinney be fired. The athletic director decided to let Swinney coach a fourth season. His Tigers went 10-4 that year and have gone on a run unlike any seen in the history of Clemson. Swinney has turned in double-digit win totals in seven straight seasons. There had only been seven double-digit win seasons in program’s entire history before Swinney’s tenure.
There is no need to believe that those success stories are indeed, stories of a by-gone era. Yes, coaches makes millions of dollars now, but that doesn’t change the fundamentals of what it takes to build a successful program. Continuity matters. Continuity is the secret sauce to winning. What’s changed, at the detriment of more programs having sustained success, is that the business side of coaching has started to interfere with the “art” of coaching.
Mack Brown, the former national champion head coach of the Texas Longhorns, said this to me about coaching, “Coaching college football is a wonderful profession, but it’s become a terrible business.”
Coach Brown, who will be inducted to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame this year, knows a little bit about what it takes to build a program. When he arrived at the University of North Carolina in 1988, he had a specific plan in mind to rebuild the football program in Chapel Hill. The athletic director at the time, current ACC Commissioner John Swofford, made a commitment to Brown for 5 years. Brown also made a commitment to Swofford that he wouldn’t talk or listen to other schools for at least 3 years. The business side of coaching was removed and Brown was able to just focus on coaching. Patience was the key to his success at North Carolina.
Coach Brown moved to build his foundation first by playing all of his underclassmen from day 1. He went 1-10 and 1-10 in his first two seasons. Can you imagine what would happen in today’s world if a head coach at his first power-5 job had that record after two seasons?
Instead, Swofford stuck to his commitment and kept his head coach in place. The rest, as they say, is history. Brown took the Tar Heels to new heights, finishing in the Top 10 in each of his last two seasons in Chapel Hill, his 9th and 10th seasons with the Tar Heels.
Texas then hired Brown to replicate that success in Austin. During his 8th season at Texas, the Longhorns ended up winning their first national championship in over 3 decades.
One can only wonder what would have happened to Brown’s career and the success of those two programs had Swofford acted like some athletic directors today and fired him after two seasons in Chapel Hill.
Coach Brown isn’t the only Hall of Fame Coach to have a rocky start at his first major college head coaching job. When Virginia Tech hired Frank Beamer to replace the school’s all-time winningest coach, Bill Dooley, the decision was widely criticized by the Hokies’ fan base. Then, Coach Beamer starts out 22-32-1 in his first five seasons in Blacksburg. Does any reasonable fan think he would have been given a sixth season in today’s football climate? Surely his sixth season at Virginia Tech went better and saved his job and career, right? Wrong. His team went 2-8-1, which only bested his first season there when his team went 2-9. However, the athletic director stood behind him and gave him another season. That year the Hokies went 9-3 and went to a bowl game, the first of 23 straight bowl games for Beamer’s program. He went on to lead Virginia Tech to seven conference championships and played for the national title in 1999. His overall record of 238-121-2 during his 29 years at Virginia Tech makes him the 6th winningest coach in FBS history. Looks like the athletic director’s decision to stand behind Coach Beamer was the right move.
Over the last few years there have been more examples like the ones above. At Colorado, 3 years of patience with Mike MacIntyre rewarded the Buffs with a 10-win season and Pac-12 division championship in year 4. Back in Chapel Hill, patience with Larry Fedora resulted in an ACC division championship in year 5, and the first double-digit win season since Mack Brown was the coach in 1997.
This isn’t an exact science, and there are certainly some examples of removing the head coach before their 5th season being the correct decision at the time. However, it’s clear that the odds are more in your program’s favor if a head coach is shown the same patience that was shown in the examples mentioned above. In this business patience can pay and a lack of patience may cost you your program.