If your college football team has a new coach, congratulations on the excitement of moving in a new direction. however, it will most likely not work.
That’s not meant to be a bully. it’s a fact about the industry. More than 40 percent of FBS head coaches hired between 2013 and 2020 have been laid off. that includes eight of the 27 hired in the 2018-19 cycle three years ago. (Let’s ignore what that says about the success rate of search firms for now.) so taking a look at some of the trends and lessons from this previous coaching carousel is a reminder of how much turnover there is in the profession and how often things don’t go as expected.
Reading: Coaching changes in college football
there were 29 changes in the 2021-22 cycle, the most since the 29 after the 2015 season. the average over the last 10 years is just under 23 per cycle. this was a bit of a late year, as there were only 17 changes after the 2020 season, and financial issues from covid-19 gave some coaches a longer leash.
Not only was this cycle busy, but heavy jobs also opened up. usc, notre dame, oklahoma, lsu, florida, miami (fla.), and washington all openings in one year were unprecedented. It made all kinds of drama, with a trickle down effect to other jobs, and could reshape the landscape of the sport considering the new investment in usc and miami.
Of the 29 new head coaches this cycle, seven were hired directly from head coaching positions, 19 were assistant coaches and three were out of work. what can we get out of this carousel? here are eight things we learned.
1. no job is too good to leave or take
This past trainer carousel is the one that finally broke the glass. no program is too big to lose a coach. By leaving for USC, Lincoln Riley became the first coach from Oklahoma since 1947 to leave for another college job. By going to LSU, Brian Kelly became the first Notre Dame coach to do the same since 1907. Some Oklahoma fans didn’t know how the program could move forward with a trip to the Bowls. more than two decades had passed since the job was opened.
Welcome to the life of a normal college football fan. Arkansas State once lost three coaches in three years to other jobs. losing a coach can happen to anyone. does not mean that notre dame or oklahoma are less programs. sometimes a coach just wants something new. Both have been replaced by more outgoing coaches (Brent Venables at Oklahoma, Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame) who have brought new energy to their programs. maybe that was necessary in the long run. we’ll see.
And while some of the best perceived programs may have been shot down in the pride department, the flip side is that there’s no need to run from jobs at the bottom level. Michigan State fans feared losing another coach to LSU, a Nick Saban redux in 1999. Instead, Mel Tucker left the Tigers and stayed with the Spartans. A new 10-year contract meant Tucker probably isn’t looking for another college job. MSU also showed that he has a new source of money through a couple of billionaire alumni who could make the Spartans a consistent force in the Big Ten.
luke fickell is still in cincinnati, now coming off a college football playoff appearance. If the timing had an impact on his possible availability to Notre Dame, he remained committed to the Bear Cats. The Big 12 are also in Cincinnati’s future, taking away a reason to leave. Jeff Traylor could have picked up some Power 5 jobs in Texas, but he signed a 10-year deal in UTSA, with a big buy that should keep him going for at least a few years. Matt Campbell also remains in the state of Iowa. this coaching carousel was defined by both the coaches who stayed and those who left.
2. defensive trainers are finally back in style
Of the 19 assistants hired for head coaching positions, 11 were defensive assistants. it is the first time in many years that more defensive than offensive assistants are hired. the previous three carousels combined had 12 defensive assistants hired for head coaching positions. This year’s group includes veteran targets like Venables, but also young trainers like Freeman and Dan Lanning (Oregon, via Georgia). it also reached a group of 5 schools like nevada (ken wilson, via oregon) and troy (jon sumrall, via kentucky).
For more than the last decade, football has become an offense-based game, through schemes, quarterbacks, and rule changes. Ads looking to hire a new coach often focused on offensive coaches, because even if you don’t win, you might as well score points and play an exciting form of football. but the coaching turnover remains as high as ever, and anyone can play a good offense now. Alabama and Georgia finished in the top 10 in scoring last season. eventually, you need to find the coach who can really put together a complete program and win games, to get defensive coaches back on the scene.
“i have had experience hiring both because bob stoops was a young and attractive defensive coordinator when we hired him in 1998, but i have always believed in hiring the person who best fits the university, the program, the culture”, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “What you want is a leader who moves forward, regardless of whether he has a lot of experience on one side or the other.”
Castiglione gave Atletico that appointment… in 2020. Before that, he had to replace Riley. More than a year later, he went ahead with it and hired Venables.
All this is not to say that defensive coaches can’t score points either. After all, Pat Narduzzi’s pit crew finished third nationally in points last year. but the days of hiring an offensive coach just to score points and find out the rest later are long gone. athletic directors understand that they need someone who can build a complete program, no matter which side of the ball they come from. and if you’re someone who can slow down an offense, that’s more valuable than ever.
3. second and third chances continue to be popular
Three out-of-work head coaches were hired: Jim Mora (Uconn), Jeff Tedford (Fresno State), and Clay Helton (South Georgia). There’s also Jerry Kill (New Mexico State), who was an off-field assistant and then interim head coach at TCU.
See also: Week 14 Fantasy Football Rankings
Tedford, who stepped down at Fresno State after the 2019 season due to ill health, isn’t the only coach to take the reins of a program for the second time. umass hired arizona defensive coordinator don brown once again. Brown previously coached umass from 2004 to 2008. This is the second time umass has returned to a pit, after mark whipple coached the show twice. In the assistant ranks, Kirk Ciarrocca is back in Minnesota as offensive coordinator for the second time.
As well as the bias toward offensive coaches, a bit of age discrimination had taken hold in the profession over the past decade. but recent years have seen a return to older coaches as ads seek head coaching experience, giving coaches a second or third chance. A year ago, coaches like Steve Sarkisian, Gus Malzahn, Bret Bielema and Butch Jones were brought back into the head coaching ranks.
mora spent the last two years at espn and watched college football change, but thinks he learned from his time at ucla.
“what i learned is just to stay connected with the recruiting,” mora said. “I mean extremely connected. managing expectations is important, but more than anything, it’s recruiting.”
usc fired helton early last season. Rather than sit back and collect a buyout, Helton wanted to get back in.
“I’ve seen guys who’ve won national championships who decided to… stick it out and try to find exactly the right thing, and then it’s passed you by,” Helton said. “The game meant more to me.”
4. there has been no exodus to the nfl yet
There have been more and more anonymous quotes from coaches to reporters in recent years about wanting to get out of college football and head to the nfl. the new zero and transfer rules have made the complaints louder than ever.
and yet a college head coach hasn’t jumped into the nfl since matt rhule after the 2019 season. rhule and kliff kingsbury are the only two since 2015 (urban meyer wasn’t coaching when he left for the Jaguars). ryan day is still in the state of ohio. pat fitzgerald is still in the northwest. Lincoln Riley went to USC instead of NFL. Fickell and Campbell are still in their schools. Jim Harbaugh wanted the job of the Minnesota Vikings, but the Vikings went elsewhere and Harbaugh says he is now committed to Wolverines for the long haul.
Several assistant coaches jumped into the NFL, as they do every year, and the improvement in quality of life is probably greater for them than for head coaches earning more than $5 million. There are only 131 FBS head coach jobs and 32 NFL head coach jobs. they are hard to come by. There are likely to be rule changes, like transfer windows, to make things easier for coaches, and few of those anonymously threatening to go to the NFL have the ability to do so. The general lack of success for college coaches who made the leap (see: Meyer’s firing and Rhule’s benching) has also discouraged some NFL teams.
5. more opportunities for Asian-American head coaches
There will be two more black head coaches on the fbs in 2022 than there was in the previous season, and that’s not the only minority group to see growth. There’s been a rise in Hispanic head coaches in recent years, and this carousel brought more attention to Asian-American coaches, with Timmy Chang taking over from Hawaii and Freeman, who is black and half Korean, taking over from notre dame
Norm Chow is considered the first and only other Asian American football head coach in NCAA history, when he led Hawaii from 2012 to 2015. Chang, who is from Hawaii with Chinese grandparents, was previously one of the most famous Asian-American players in college football history during his time as a record-setting quarterback at uh.
“There aren’t many of us, but I’m definitely proud,” Chang said. “If I can inspire other Asian Americans to strive to be great, it doesn’t matter who you are. you just have to work.”
Playing on the islands, Chang did not realize his impact on the Asian-American community until late in his playing career. When he visited San Francisco for the East-West Shrine Game, the local Chinese population organized a celebration event for him. His coach, June Jones, told Chang that he should sell his jerseys in China.
“Being wrapped up in the moment, I didn’t think about those things that meant a lot to other people and maybe inspired other people,” Chang said. “it’s great to look at it now. When I look around the office and places I’ve been, there aren’t many Asian-Americans.”
freeman’s mother is from south korea, and he coached another korean-american player at notre dame in kyle hamilton. Although the coach acknowledged that he often marked “black/African American” on paperwork, he recently told a crowd at Notre Dame’s Liu Institute for Asia that his Korean heritage has always been a part of life, such as church services and food.
“I hope they don’t see me as just an African-American head coach,” Freeman said, according to an inside source. “(I hope) they see me as the Asian-American head coach and accept it. everyone can see your African American side. but when you have that Asian-American connection, that’s unique. I accept it and I love it.”
6. ten-year contracts are apparently the new norm
This carousel will also be known as the time when ridiculously long contracts became common. A few months after four head coaches signed 10-year contracts, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades did the same.
traylor started the trend on the coaching front, with his 10-year deal at utsa in late october. The James Franklin and Mel Tucker deals followed in late November, and Brian Kelly subsequently landed a 10-year contract at LSU. it’s unlikely any of these coaches will finish that contract because most coaches don’t stay 10 years anywhere. still, tucker and kelly will earn $9.5 million per year. Franklin hovers around $8.5 million with some guaranteed incentives. the contracts differ on how much is guaranteed and how much each coach’s departure costs, but some people in the industry found the terms absurd. if coaches don’t deliver, schools will stick with them for a long time.
“Who but Penn State would give James Franklin a 10-year contract?” an industry source said. “So what if he leaves? you will get another. You are from the state of Pennsylvania. you can get another good trainer. (with tucker), if you want to give him that deal after he beats ohio state, then i get it. you get it on a saturday morning and then get smoked? not even competitive. … some schools have to realize who they are. I don’t know if they’re trying to curry favor with the alumni. some ads like to say they’re the ones who hired this guy.”
The coaching pay scale is out of control right now. well, even more than usual. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day earns $7.6 million, less than either Tucker or Franklin. dabo swinney earns $8.5 million at clemson. these are coaches who play in national championship games. Ohio state ad Gene Smith has said there is no urgency to renegotiate the deal of the day. one would think that the day (and his agent) feel otherwise. (Note: Two days after publication, the day received a $9.5 million annual raise.)
Even in the era of zero, don’t expect that to detract from coach salaries. It’s already clear that those numbers will keep going up and up. And in the wake of Riley and Kelly’s departures, more schools will try to lock up successful coaches for a long time.
7. clemson leads the strong rotation in the acc… and what could miami become?
There are 11 new offensive coordinators and 11 new defensive coordinators on the 14-team account. both numbers topped all conferences. Clemson replaced both: Venables went to Oklahoma, and Tony Elliott took over Virginia.
dabo swinney enters the 2022 season with the most questions since taking over the show full-time. he not only lost the two long-time coordinators, but also doubled down on stability, promoting from within to replace four of the five openings on the full-time staff. Swinney promoted quarterbacks coach Brandon Streetr to offensive coordinator, senior defensive assistant Wes Goodwin to defensive coordinator, analyst Kyle Richardson to tight ends coach and analyst Thomas Austin to offensive line coach. The only outside hire was Auburn defensive line coach Nick Eason, who came on as defensive tackles coach. It comes at a time when Swinney has said he won’t be too aggressive on the transfer portal. Coming off Clemson’s worst season since 2014, and with major questions at quarterback and offensive line, Swinney has turned more inward.
The acc’s four head coaching changes also tied for the most among all conferences. That includes Elliott (Virginia), Cristobal (Miami), Brent Pry (Virginia Tech), and Mike Elko (Duke).
miami might be the most exciting change in the country, even more so than usc. The tens of millions that Miami and its boosters scraped together to buy Cristobal from Oregon, bring him home and give him an expensive staff, including Broyles Award-winner Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator, was impressive. Miami has never invested in soccer in this way. he succeeded in the 1980s with poor facilities and remote management. now, they’re all together and john ruiz is funding a null program. there is a level of potential in miami that we haven’t seen in two decades. can christopher really bring the u back?
8. previous experience in a school is still a main factor in a search
When ads say they want someone who understands their school, they mean it. Fifty-six of the 131 FBS head coaches had previous school experience as a player or coach. that’s 42.7 percent, and it correlates almost perfectly with this cycle, in which 13 of 29 (44.8 percent) had that prior experience.
That doesn’t even include experience with a sports director. jerry kill previously worked for the state of new mexico ad mario moccia in southern illinois. Temple’s new head coach, Stan Drayton, worked in Texas with Temple AD Arthur Johnson. relationships in a school have always been a determining factor in coaching searches and continue to be.
Editor’s Note: All week long, the athletic enters the 2021 College Football Coaching Carousel- 22 with a series of stories about one of the wildest cycles in history.
(Brent Venables and Lincoln Riley main photos: Brian Bahr and Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images; Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic)