Creating the Perfect College Football Coach

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2013

What if you could stroll into the kitchen and whip up a mouth-watering dish of the prototypical coach?

Take two parts Spurrier, mix in four parts Saban, one part Meyer, a dash of Petersen, three tablespoons of Dantonio, a heaping cup of Stoops, a pint of Sumlin and a healthy splash of Miles, just for flavor.

Throw it in the oven, on the hibachi or in the Fry Daddy until it’s done and voila! You’re winning games and crystal footballs like nobody’s business.

If there were a basic recipe for the BCS-era headset wearer, it would look something like this.


Be a Player

Did you know that 115 of the 125 FBS head coaches in 2013 played college football? That’s 92 percent.

Can you name the 10 exceptions?

2013 FBS Head Coaches Who Didn't Play College Football
Hugh FreezeOle Miss
Charlie WeisKansas
Paul JohnsonGeorgia Tech
David CutcliffeDuke
Mike LeachWashington State
Sonny DykesCalplayed baseball at Texas Tech
George O'LearyUCF
Bobby HauckUNLVran track at Montana
Charley MolnarUMass
Dennis FranchioneTexas State
Phil Steele

Beyond that, did you know that the last time a team captured a national championship with a head coach that did not play college football was in 1927? The team was Illinois, and the coach was Robert Zuppke.

The next 86 national championship coaches all played college football.

If you look at the NCAA's 2012 ranking of active coaches by winning percentage, only three didn't play college ball: No. 14 Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech), No. 20 Mike Leach (Washington State) and No. 23 Dennis Franchione (Texas St.).

What's not necessary for a successful college coach is playing experience in the pros. Only two guys in the NCAA's top 25 winningest active coaches made it to the NFL: No. 10 Kyle Whittingham (Utah) and No. 11 Steve Spurrier (South Carolina).


Be Well Traveled

Though many employers look for a resume that shows commitment, loyalty and staying-power, finding the perfect coach requires a different approach.

Yes, in the case of the prototypical coach, the more jobs he’s had and the more zip codes he’s lived in, the better.

To illustrate, Chris Petersen, Urban Meyer and Jimbo Fisher all had five stops as an assistant coach in their careers. David Shaw, Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin had six, Nick Saban had eight and Mark Dantonio had nine.

TCU’s Gary Patterson—at 53 years young—leads the pack with 10 stops as an assistant.

The message is clear: The longer the list the better. 

Though this is a tough reality for the individual and his family, it’s all a part of upward mobility. Check out what Louisiana-Monroe head coach Todd Berry (10 stops as an assistant) had to say, according to Paul Myerberg, Christopher Schnaars and Steve Berkowitz of USA Today:

I think everybody’s a little different along those lines in terms of their motivation, but there’s certainly a significant number of individuals out there that make moves based off of not necessarily the money or happiness, but rather what’s going to give them the best opportunity to further their career and maybe be head coaches down the road.


Be a Coordinator

One of the age-old questions when conducting a coaching search is: Do we hire a guy who has head coaching experience or promote a solid coordinator?

Though the answer to this depends on the individual, the following numbers paint a clear picture that coordinator experience is a prerequisite to FBS head coaching success.

Of the NCAA's 25 winningest active coaches, only six don't have coordinator credentials on their resume. That’s 76 percent of the field with OC or DC experience. The exceptions are Meyer (Ohio State), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Terry Bowden (Akron), Chris Ault (Nevada), Frank Solich (Ohio) and Larry Blakeney (Troy).

Of the 10 coaches in this season’s BCS, seven spent time in the coordinators role—that’s 70 percent. The exceptions are Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Meyer and Baylor’s Art Briles.


Make Connections

Perhaps the biggest difference between coaching at the college level and the pros is the importance of relationships.

Where the NFL coach is more of an executive who drafts a set number of players and then focuses on X’s and O’s and game-plans, his college counterpart is all about rubbing elbows.

The cornerstone of big-time college football—and coaching—is recruiting, which is all about building relationships, establishing trust and selling a product.

This task requires knowing the marketplace, reaching out to high school coaches and staying in the forefront of recruits’ minds.

After you convince the kid to join up, you don’t just rely on his professionalism and commitment to a paycheck. You have to build him up and support him as he morphs from an 18-year-old kid to a 22-year-old man.

Beyond this, you have to hobknob with the alumni, the donors and the administration to keep the money flowing in, the support high and the grades acceptable.

And then, after all the off-field stuff, there are the X’s and O’s and the actual game plans.

For an insider’s perspective, check out Barry Switzer’s take on the difference between being a pro coach and one in the college ranks, according to Danny O’Neil of The Seattle Times in 2010:

I’m going to tell you something, I enjoyed coaching professional football a lot more than college football…Professional football is about nothing but coaching…Those [college] kids, I still know to this day, their mothers, their fathers.  When you recruit them, you’ve got them for life.  In pro football, you might not have a guy but a day…I couldn’t name you many of the 16 [members of his Dallas Cowboy Super Bowl team in 1995]…I could tell you every kid that played on my national championships [Oklahoma 1974, 1975 and 1985]…Pro football is totally impersonal to a degree.

So, it’s more Swinney than Bill Belichick and more Fisher and Mike Gundy than Mike Shanahan and Rex Ryan.


Statistics courtesy of College Football Data Warehouse, Phil Steele and Sports Reference/College Football. Winningest active coaches courtesy of the NCAA.


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