‘Tis the season for interim coaches.
It’s one of the most difficult jobs in all of sports. A head coach is suddenly no longer manning his post—perhaps he was fired after a recent run of underachieving or maybe he secured a massive salary bump at a new school. Regardless, he's gone.
Before this coach can be officially replaced, however, there is still one game remaining. Call it an exhibition with a sponsor attached to the title.
Well, that’s actually what it is.
The former voice—the one the players have been listening to all season—is out. A new “permanent” coach has not been yet hired, or perhaps he has been and he’s hitting the recruiting trail hard after delivering a rousing introduction at the podium.
And so, it’s up to an assistant to lead the team after a few weeks of practice. After all, someone has to.
This scenario has become a familiar one in college football in recent times. The coaching carousel has become a whirlwind of sorts, as turnover among college coaches is at an all-time high. Interim coaches are being tasked to lead teams in one-game seasons, and the perception is that they will deliver a lackluster performance because of this change.
What do they have to play for? Why play for him? Their coach gave up, so they will, too.
Not exactly. This perception exists, but it is based off of wild assumptions. While the collective results of interim coaches in recent years don’t exactly light the world on fire, adding a checkmark in the loss column before the game is played is premature. Especially this season.
In the last 18 bowl games, interim coaches have a record of 7-11. This does not include Luke Fickell or Everett Withers, both of who acquired the interim tag before the season began. Fickell took over for Jim Tressel at Ohio State, while Withers replaced Butch Davis at UNC before this season.
Others, like Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey, were named head coach before the team’s BCS bowl game against Florida State last season. Dave Doeren’s departure to NC State gave Carey an opening, and the Huskies waited little time before finding a permanent replacement.
While Carey wasn’t given the interim tag, it was still a unique situation. Tony Levine was put in a similar scenario in 2011 when Kevin Sumlin left Houston for Texas A&M. Levine was named official head coach after first acquiring the interim tag and delivered a bowl victory against Penn State shortly after.
Assistant Chris Thomsen embraced this tag at Texas Tech a season ago, thrown into it without much warning. After Tommy Tuberville seemingly bolted for Cincinnati in the middle of the night, Thomsen led Tech to a thrilling 34-31 win over Minnesota in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Although Barry Alvarez didn’t deliver a Rose Bowl victory as interim coach last season, he filled in nicely for Bret Bielema when he left for Arkansas. After all, the man could always coach. The Badgers lost to Stanford 20-14, but battled the entire game.
Of course, there are also clunkers. Dana Bible took over for Tom O’Brien at NC State shortly after the 2012 regular season and proceeded to get handled by Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. When Hugh Freeze left Arkansas State in 2011—a now yearly ritual— David Gunn took over and proceeded to get waxed by Northern Illinois in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
It is not a perfect science, and the results are more matchup-based than anything else. Assuming that an interim coach won’t have his team ready to play, however, is false.
Some of these coaches have been around these players for years. And while their voices might not have reached the levels of the man in charge, this isn’t a total stranger suddenly taking over.
As for this year, the interim coaches are again lining up.
Bob Gregory has perhaps the most intriguing job of the bowl season. He has to replace Chris Petersen before former Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin takes over. Gregory began the season as linebackers coach, although he’ll have sideline duties against Oregon State in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve.
Speaking of Arkansas State, John Thompson was named interim coach of the Red Wolves for the second consecutive year—yes, he’s becoming a pro at this—with Harsin’s departure. Arkansas State will take on Ball State early in the Go Daddy Bowl.
At USC, Clay Helton will take over a fascinating situation while new head coach Steve Sarkisian hits the recruiting road. From Lane Kiffin to Ed Orgeron to Helton, USC will be led by its third coach this season on Saturday against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
For his part, Helton says the Trojans remain focused.
"Just a terrific attitude they came out here with," Helton told reporters, via Conquest Chronicles. "These guys really want to compete to get 10 wins. It's something that a lot of them have come up to me and said, ‘Coach, we want to prepare. We want to go make the Trojan family proud, and it was evident today."
And finally, Bowling Green will follow up its dominating performance in the MAC Championship without the man who led it out of the tunnel. Dave Clawson took the job at Wake Forest, and Adam Scheier will lead the team against Pittsburgh in the Little Caesars Bowl.
The only significant underdog of the group is Arkansas State, and that’s a product of taking on a team that thrived during the regular season. Bowling Green and USC are both favored, and Boise State is nearly a pick' em against Oregon State.
Does the change at head coach matter? Of course it does, but there are many factors in play.
The long layoff, scheduling conflicts because of the holidays and players at different stages of their football and student careers are just as much of a factor—if not more—in how a bowl game will play out.
Motivation for each team outside of the national championship is a legitimate concern, but not strictly because of the person leading it onto the field.
There are plenty of moving parts during this time of season, many of which are coaches. And while the interim tag isn’t an ideal situation for anyone involved—especially the players—the track record isn’t nearly as flawed as one might think.