10 College Football Assistant Coaches Who Should Be Head Coaches
The all-time great coaches in college football history may come from different walks of life from different parts of the country, but they all have one thing in common: They all had great assistant coaches.
The complexities of a modern college football program are far too large for any one man to handle. That's where the assistants come in.
From developing the underclassmen to developing an offensive or defensive scheme to scouting next week's opponent, assistants are the unheralded, the under-appreciated, yet all-too-important lieutenants in the armies of the gridiron.
Still, most of the great head coaches got their start as unseen assistants, and there's little doubt that the next crop of legends are patiently waiting their turns in the ranks of the assistants.
So who are they? Here, we'll uncover 10 current college football assistant coaches who are ready to make the jump to the big office and should be head coaches themselves.
James Coley, Florida State
There aren't a ton of holdovers left at Florida State from the Bowden era, but offensive coordinator James Coley is one of them.
Coley served as tight ends coach, recruitment coordinator and offensive coordinator under Bobby Bowden from 2007 to 2009, and was retained by Jimbo Fisher when he took over in 2010.
Since Coley took over as offensive coordinator in 2008, Florida State has posted a record of 35-18. And while wins can't be wholly attributed to the offense, it's pretty plain that Florida State's offensive prowess has had a lot to do with that success.
With the Seminoles poised to compete for an ACC title in 2012, it may be only a matter of time before Fisher finds his staff the target of athletic directors around the nation looking for a new head coach.
And James Coley could be one of the first to leave Tallahassee to take over his own program.
Al Borges, Michigan
Al Borges, the offensive coordinator under Brady Hoke at Michigan, has a résumé that reads like a listing of top programs.
Boise State, Oregon and Auburn show up in addition to Michigan, and Borges has found success as an offensive coordinator at all of them.
Hoke brought Borges from San Diego State when he made the move to Michigan, and it was one of many examples of Hoke's ability to compile a stellar cast of assistant coaches (as his defensive coordinator will also appear later on this list).
Borges was part of the Michigan Miracle in 2011, turning a struggling program into a BCS contender in just one season.
Thanks in part of Borges and his offensive scheme implemented at Michigan, the Wolverines finished 2011 with an 11-2 record, which included a Sugar Bowl championship—the program's first BCS invite since 2006.
Josh Heupel, Oklahoma
After spending five seasons as Bob Stoops's quarterbacks coach at Oklahoma, Josh Heupel was promoted in 2011 to co-offensive coordinator, a position shared with Jay Norvell, the wide receivers coach.
Together, Heupel and Norvell put together one of the nation's top offenses in 2011, as the Sooners finished fifth in the FBS in passing offense and total offense.
There are few places in the country better to study the art of college football coaching than Norman, Oklahoma, and Heupel has been present for the recruitment and development of some of the nation's top quarterback talent over the past half-decade.
If he can translate that know-how into a head coaching position, there's little doubt he would be able to have similar success with a team of his own.
Shawn Watson, Louisville
Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson isn't new to the college coaching game.
After beginning his playing career at Illinois, Watson transferred to FCS Southern Illinois, where he eventually became a graduate assistant after finishing his playing days.
Watson then spent time on the staffs of Illinois and Miami University before being named the head coach of his alma mater.
After three seasons, Watson returned to the ranks of FBS assistants, first with Northwestern before making stops at Colorado and Nebraska before finally landing at Louisville.
With 30 years of coaching experience under his belt, Watson no doubt has the experience needed to return to the top job.
Watson took over as offensive coordinator last season after Mike Sanford was demoted, and Watson, the quarterbacks coach, took over as OC.
Under Watson, Louisville's offensive production rebounded a bit, and the Cardinals captures a share of the 2011 Big East championship with a 5-2 conference mark.
Chuck Martin, Notre Dame
Chuck Martin is about to take the biggest step in his young coaching career this fall, as he takes over as offensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish under Brian Kelly.
Martin has long been a protege of sorts for Kelly, as Martin got his first coordinating experience under Kelly at Grand Valley State.
After beginning as defensive backs coach, Martin was soon promoted to defensive coordinator under Kelly at GVSU, winning a pair of national championships with three straight title game appearances.
Martin then took over as head coach when Kelly left for Central Michigan, and won a pair of national titles of his own (while also appearing in three title games) before leaving to join Kelly at Notre Dame as, you guessed it, defensive backs coach.
After two seasons in the defensive backfield, Martin moved to the other side of the ball, taking over as offensive coordinator.
Martin may have been 74-7 in his six seasons at Grand Valley, but he had a reputation of being a conservative play-caller (as he also served as his own offensive coordinator).
Kelly and Martin have proven to be a successful duo, and their contrasting offensive styles might complement each other just enough to propel the Notre Dame offense out of that low gear in which it's been stuck.
Martin will prove he's ready to take on the challenge of his own FBS program, but getting this longtime Kelly follower and Chicago-area Catholic to leave Notre Dame will be pretty tough.
Still, Martin's résumé is more than enough to earn him a spot on our list of assistant coaches who should have their own programs.
Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State
The Michigan State Spartans are enjoying a run of success they haven't seen since those glorious national championship days way back towards the middle of the last century.
With a share of a Big Ten championship in 2010 and a divisional title in 2011, the Spartans have won 22 games over two seasons—a number no other Big Ten team can top.
So what has been the secret sauce in the recipe of success in East Lansing?
Head coach Mark Dantonio has done a fantastic job of placing the right assistant in the right position to maximize success.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has been Dantonio's defensive coordinator dating back to 2004 at Cincinnati. When Dantonio left Cincy for MSU, Narduzzi's name was floated for the head job—a job that eventually went to Brian Kelly.
Dantonio quickly brought Narduzzi on at MSU, and the benefits continue to show on the field.
Last season, Michigan State was sixth in the FBS in total defense, and with eight returning starters for 2012, you can bet Narduzzi's Spartan defense will again be up to the task in the Big Ten.
We can understand why Narduzzi didn't get the head coaching job in Cincinnati; if there's a Brian Kelly out there, you probably do your darnedest to get Brian Kelly.
But it's entirely possible that if Kelly hadn't been available, or said no, Narduzzi would still be the head coach of the Bearcats today.
He's certainly good enough.
Del Miller, Kansas State
When it comes to longevity as an assistant coach, there are few in the FBS that can equal Kansas State's Del Miller.
Miller got his coaching start way back in 1977 as an assistant at Iowa.
His first gig at Kansas State came in 1989 as the offensive coordinator before also being named associate head coach in 1991.
His lone venture into head coaching came from 1995 to 1998 when he guided FCS Southwest Missouri State to a 21-23 record over four seasons.
In 2000, Miller became the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State before returning to Kansas State in 2001.
Miller continued his journeyman career by taking over as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at San Diego State from 2006 to 2008 before returning to Kansas State for a third time in 2009 to once again act as K-State's offensive coordinator.
Clearly, there's no shortage of FBS experience for Miller, and he's been part of a number of successful teams over the years, including KSU's recent resurrection.
He's also been a longtime assistant of Bill Snyder, and some of that magical Snyder touch has to have worn off on Miller by now, right?
Mark Helfrich, Oregon
There's no question that the Oregon Ducks have fielded one of the most prolific offenses of the past three years.
The defending Rose Bowl champions and three-time Pac-12 title holders are embarking on their 2012 campaign for an unprecedented fourth-straight conference title and trip to the BCS, but they'll have to get past a feisty (and Pac-12 Championship Game-eligible) USC this time around.
Good thing Mark Helfrich is still in charge of Chip Kelly's offense.
The Ducks have excelled under Helfrich, who came on board with Kelly for the 2009 season.
Helfrich actually got his start at Oregon as a grad assistant for the 1997 season. After bouncing around, including stops at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, Helfrich has found more success in three seasons at Oregon than many coordinators find in a career.
With so many conference championship rings and BCS invites on his résumé, it's high time Helfrich gets a shot to build his own program; it would be interesting to see if he could be as offensively gifted as a head coach.
Greg Mattison, Michigan
There are few places in the nation where a college coordinator job beats out coordinator jobs in the NFL.
Michigan is one of those places.
Greg Mattison left a pretty nice gig as the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens to join Brady Hoke in Ann Arbor last season.
And it appears to have been a match made in heaven.
The entire nation got a pretty good chuckle out of the winningest college program in history (895 wins) falling on really hard times over the previous three seasons.
Things had gotten so bad in Ann Arbor that the Wolverines found their statistical rankings among teams like Rice, UNLV and New Mexico State.
In 2010, Michigan ranked 110th in the FBS in total defense.
Is it any wonder Michigan fired everybody after that debacle?
The first thing Hoke did was the hire a top-notch staff, which included Mattison. Hoke had actually worked under Mattison at Michigan in the 1990s, and Hoke was well aware of Mattison's ability to field a top-notch defense.
But most observers believed it would take a little time—at least a couple of seasons—before Michigan was back at fighting weight.
Mattison had other plans.
In just one season, the Wolverines staged one of the more dramatic statistical turnarounds in history. The Michigan defense rocketed up 93 positions to finish the 2011 season 17th in the FBS in total defense.
If Mattison can do that in one season as a defensive coordinator, imagine what he could do as a head coach.
Kirby Smart, Alabama
If defense wins championships, Alabama fans owe a lot to Kirby Smart.
Smart has been assistant coach and defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007, helping to engineer two BCS National Championship runs over that albeit brief span.
But Smart isn't new to the assistant game. After leaving Georgia in 1999, Smart spent the next season as an “administrative assistant” at his alma mater.
His first true coaching experience at the college level was in 2000 at Division II Valdosta State, where he began as the defensive backs coach.
After move up to the position of offensive coordinator at Valdosta State in 2001, Smart returned to school to earn his master's degree at Florida State, where he served as a graduate assistant under Bobby Bowden.
In 2004, Nick Saban brought Smart on board at LSU as defensive backs coach, but Smart soon returned to Georgia for a season before joining Saban in Miami.
Saban also brought Smart along for the trip to Alabama, where both coaches have achieved their greatest success.
Smart's abilities have not gone unnoticed, either. In 2009, just prior to Alabama's first BCS title under Saban, Smart was awarded the Broyles Award as the nation's top college football assistant coach.
Clearly, Smart has proven himself as one of the top assistants in the nation, and it's high time he be given the opportunity to prove himself as a head coach.
But luring Smart away from his mentor, Saban, at a program that's a perennial contender for a national championship is a lot easier said than done.