Do College Football Teams Really 'Take on the Identity' of the Head Coach?

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistJune 20, 2013

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 04:  Head coach Dabo Swinney (C) of the Clemson Tigers gets set to lead his team onto the field against the West Virginia Mountaineers West Virginia Mountaineers during the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 4, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Though it would be impossible to apply an actual mathematical formula to weight its impact against other key elements, it’s absolutely true that hiring the right head coach is a fundamental cog in building a winning college football program.

Indeed, illustrations across history tell the story of college football teams with elite facilities, top-ranked recruits and a generous cash flow that ultimately fail to hit the mark due to a coaching staff that can’t seem to transform the ideal situation into a triumphant bottom line.

Names that come to mind range from Ron Zook during his three year stint at Florida from 2002 to 2004, Rich Rodriguez’s three season run at Michigan from 2008 to 2010 and John Mackovic’s attempt to revive football at Texas from 1992 to 1997.

The intriguing discussion that each of these examples bring forward is how much impact the head coach really has on the win/loss results in college football.

Taking this one full forward, do college football teams really take on the identity of their head coach?

Yes, when programs hire a new sideline leader does destiny prescribe that the team will one day magically morph into a group version of the man entrusted with the golden whistle?

To attempt to answer this question we’ll turn to six recent examples of college football head coaching hires—all brought on within a loose window of the past five years—and try and track whether or not individual mindset is transferrable to the larger concept of team.


James Franklin, Vanderbilt

After serving two seasons as the OC at Maryland (2008-10), Vanderbilt hired the then 39-year old James Franklin to take over a program that hadn’t won more than seven games in a season since going 8-4 in 1982.

Franklin’s coaching persona is deliciously intense and extremely passionate. Even more key in terms of his specific assignment, he has consistently proven himself to be undaunted by the task of trying to revive a program that has struggled epically against the backdrop of its SEC membership.

The results?

Well, the Commodores have suddenly become a force to be reckoned with—seemingly detached with their once dubious history—and managed a 9-4 finish in 2012.

To put the result in historical perspective, the last time Vandy won nine games was back in 1915 when they posted a 9-1 record with a single loss to Virginia.


Bo Pelini, Nebraska

The super-wired Bo Pelini came to Nebraska in 2008 and since his arrival the Huskers haven’t dropped below the nine-win mark, a run that includes four Top 25 finishes.

Though Nebraska’s football history is obviously far more storied than that of Vanderbilt, it’s key to note that Pelini took over the reins after the four-season Bill Callahan era that resulted in two dismal five-win seasons equaling a program low since the early 1960s.

Pelini gets a lot of press for his freakishly intense leadership style but what’s less heralded is the fact that he is an all-business leader who shuns emotional distractions. 

To illustrate, take a look at Pelini’s reaction—as per an article posted on on Oct. 2, 2012—on traveling to the Horseshoe to square off against his alma mater Ohio State.  Did he feel nostalgic?

“Why would it?...I’m at a different time in my life, a different place…I mean, I have a job to do. That’s all I’m concerned with…I do have pride in where I went to school and my career there, that has nothing to do with Saturday…It doesn’t really make any difference what happened back in ’86 to ’90. That’s a different time in my life.”

As far as how this translates to Nebraska’s personality as a football program, there has to be some level of an “all-business” attitude when you manage to capture four divisional titles in two BCS conferences over a five-year span.


Art Briles, Baylor

Often overlooked from a national standpoint, what Art Briles has managed to do over his five years at Baylor is every bit as impressive as Bill Snyder’s revival at K-State.

When Briles took over at Baylor in 2008 the Bears had only managed 11 total-conference wins since the Big 12 opened up for business in 1996.

Since 2008, Baylor is 17-25 in league play and managed to finish tied for third in the 2011 Big 12 race with a stunning 6-3 mark.

Under Briles' direction, the Bears also found their first Top 25 finish since 1986 by virtue of ending the 2011 campaign as the AP’s No. 12 ranked team.

To sum up Briles’ coaching personality, how about his motto at Baylor, as per an interview piece posted on just this month: “no excuses, no comparisons, no compromises.”

Though this sounds fairly simplistic, this maxim has absolutely transferred to Baylor’s football culture; a claim that can be backed up solidly by the fact that the Bears' 25-14 run from 2010 to 2012 marks the best three-year performance in the 114-year history of the program.


Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is one of the more emotional, enthusiastic and player friendly coaches in BCS football.

Swinney got bumped up to the head job at Clemson in 2008 after five seasons as an assistant, coaching receivers and coordinating the Tigers recruiting efforts.

What’s less appreciated—or heralded—about Swinney is his toughness and stick-to-it-ness he developed via his struggle to walk-on as a player at Alabama where he roomed with his mother and worked odd jobs to get by.

Swinney’s resilience is oh so apparent in both his on-field product at Clemson and the overall direction of the program under his guidance.

A prime illustration of the Tigers’ fortitude under Swinney comes via the 2011 team’s Orange Bowl disaster where they got killed by West Virginia 70-33.

Rather than folding the season after the beat down, Clemson improved to 11-2 in 2012 and capped off the season with a dramatic and thrilling 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-fil-a Bowl.

From a broader program standpoint, it’s hard not to respect the grit Swinney showed after the 2010 season when the Tigers dropped to 6-7 and he was literally just inches from being canned.

But, in the off-season while rumors of his replacement were thick in the air, Swinney didn’t quit in despair. Instead, he engineered the 2011 effort which brought home Clemson’s first ACC title since 1991.


Lane Kiffin, USC

Basically the antithesis of guys like Vandy’s James Franklin, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Lane Kiffin’s coaching persona can be defined with terms that start with “not.”

Yes, Kiffin is “not” emotional, “not” fiery and “not” inspiring.

And yes, glimpses of these traits can be seen in Kiffin’s USC teams, notably the 2012 product which was stacked with talent but seemed to lack the fire necessary to reach the finish line.

To further highlight Kiffin’s personality, think back to the incident early last season when he awkwardly walked out on a post-practice presser after only two questions.

Kiffin seemed totally bedazzled by a reporter’s query regarding an injury and rather than answer, he simply walked out. Check out the story and a video clip of the exit on

To be blunt, Kiffin quit on the press conference and to be frank, the Trojans didn’t necessarily play to the final whistle in 2012.

Though it’s rough to tag a group of young men with this caliber of quality as dubious, the point here is more about how Kiffin’s behaviors have managed to trickle down to his program’s culture.

Kiffin signed on with USC in 2010 after a single season as the head coach of Tennessee in 2009.


Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly presents a complex case in terms of personality profile.

Words that could describe Kelly are cocky, confident, aloof, a winner, aggressive and a revival master.

Kelly came to Notre Dame in 2010 after engineering turnarounds at D-II Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and then Cincinnati where he led the Bearcats to back-to-back BCS bids.

As far as determining whether or not Kelly’s personality has taken firm root at Notre Dame, all indications are that the indoctrination is underway in earnest.

The Irish are definitely in the throes of a revival, a statement backed up by the fact that under Kelly in 2012, Notre Dame hit 12 wins for the first time since Lou Holtz led the program to a dozen triumphs back in 1989.

In terms of aggressive confidence, how about a defense which finished last season ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring (12.8 points per game), No. 11 vs. the run (105 yards per game) and No. 7 in total defense (305 yards per game)?

Based on these somewhat simplified examples it seems absolutely plausible to argue that college football teams do indeed take on the identity of their head coaches.

Using this as the backdrop for making predictions regarding the future, it’s intriguing to consider how this season’s set of new coaches will fare over their first four or five years in their new roles.

Yes, based on their personalities how will Kliff Kingsbury do at Texas Tech, how will Gus Mazlan transform Auburn, and can a guy like Mike Stoops single handedly manage to make Kentucky a winning football program?


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