6 First-Year Coaches Set Up for Immediate Success
Making an immediate judgment on a head coaching hire is an exercise in futility.
There is so much we don’t know about a coach and how he fits a college football program that can’t be contained in an introductory press conference.
How will he recruit? How will he respond to his new players? Will he charm the program’s boosters?
Will he be able to compete in a new league?
Those are questions that are difficult to answer in year one, the kind of questions that flesh themselves out over three or four years.
However, today’s college football world values immediate success. "What have you done for me lately?" fans ask.
This mentality is reflected in college football’s coaching carousel, which spins to life every December and January. Some coaches are pushed out. Others move on. Still more move up to prime positions, fueling a seemingly never-ending web of rumors and intrigue.
Last winter, 19 FBS programs welcomed new head coaches. Here is a look at which new hires are primed for immediate success, leaving their new supporters happiest this fall.
Bryan Harsin, Boise State
Chris Petersen was a constant presence on college football’s coaching carousel, and with good reason. Petersen won, and won, and won at Boise State. Under his watch, the Broncos were 92-12 in his eight seasons, winning at least 10 games in each of his first seven years, with a pair of Fiesta Bowl wins, two unbeaten seasons and four top-10 finishes.
But following 2013’s 8-4 record, Petersen found it to be the perfect time for a move. So he jumped to Washington following Southern California’s hiring of Steve Sarkisian.
The Broncos don’t have Petersen anymore, but they found the next best fit in Bryan Harsin.
Harsin spent 10 years as a Boise State assistant from 2001-10, rising from a graduate assistant to spend his last five seasons as offensive coordinator. Over Harsin’s last four seasons, the Broncos finished no lower than 18th nationally in total offense.
He left for Texas following the 2010 season and helped the Longhorns offense rise 18 spots in the total offense rankings, going from No. 58 in 2010 to No. 40 in 2012. He left Texas to become a head coach at Arkansas State, guiding ASU to its third consecutive Sun Belt title in his only season as head coach.
Harsin will run a pro-style offense that will operate out of the shotgun and be up-tempo and fun to watch.
Returning starter Grant Hedrick accounted for 22 total touchdowns a year ago, but he’ll have a spring challenge from junior college transfer Tommy Stuart.
Petersen left behind some offensive talent, including wideout Shane Williams-Rhodes (77 catches, 702 yards, six touchdowns in 2013). In all, 15 starters return from a year ago, and it sounds like they could benefit from a fresh voice.
Harsin understands Boise’s program and what made the Broncos so successful under Petersen, but could look at it in a slightly different way. Boise opens in the Georgia Dome against Ole Miss but has its toughest Mountain West tests (Colorado State, BYU, Fresno State, Utah State) in Boise, which will help immensely.
2014 Prediction: 10-2
Bobby Petrino, Louisville
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy famously said, “There’s no place like home.”
Bobby Petrino’s coaching career has shown that he doesn’t quite know where “home” is. The famously nomadic head coach has bounced from Louisville to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons to Arkansas to Western Kentucky, leaving the Falcons and Arkansas in ugly fashion.
But when Charlie Strong left Louisville for Texas last December, athletic director Tom Jurich thought Petrino was the perfect candidate to come home. Again. And why not?
Petrino was tremendously successful in his four seasons at Louisville, putting together a 41-9 record with an 11-win season and a 12-win season punctuated by an Orange Bowl win and a pair of top-10 finishes.
Say what you will about his personal failings; the man knows how to win football games.
Strong left talent behind, including defensive starters like linebacker James Burgess, defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks in 2013) and cornerbacks Terell Floyd and Charles Gaines as well as safety Jermaine Reve.
Louisville allowed just 251.5 yards per game (No. 1 nationally in total defense) and 12.2 points per game (No. 2 in scoring defense), and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is expected to shift the Cardinals from a 4-3 to a 3-4 attack, which could lead to some growing pains.
In addition, star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (expected to be a top-10 NFL draft pick) must be replaced. Will Gardner, Kyle Bolin and Brett Nelson will compete for the position in spring practice and likely beyond.
However, offensive talent like star wideout DeVante Parker and starting tailback Dominique Brown, as well as three starting offensive linemen, will return.
The Cardinals’ first ACC schedule will mark a significant upgrade from the AAC slate. Louisville must travel to Clemson and Notre Dame and will host Miami and Florida State.
Still, Strong built a strong foundation following Steve Kragthorpe’s failed tenure. Petrino must build on it and build on the values that Strong imbued.
2014 Prediction: 8-4
James Franklin, Penn State
Two years ago, Bill O’Brien walked into a seemingly impossible situation. You never want to be “the man who replaces the man,” and succeeding college coaching icon Joe Paterno, O’Brien was most certainly that.
Add in the fact that Paterno was forced out in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal and O’Brien’s job got exponentially harder. Throw in the historic NCAA sanctions imposed in July 2012 (40 scholarships over four years, $60 million in fines, a four-year bowl ban) and, well, you get the idea.
O’Brien succeeded despite the odds, compiling a 15-9 record with a team that had no hope of reaching postseason play.
The former NFL assistant received significant pro interest, returning to the NFL in January as the Houston Texans’ new head coach.
Enter someone else who also found success in an impossible situation: James Franklin.
Before Franklin took over in 2011, Vanderbilt had never reached a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Franklin took the Commodores to bowls in each of his three seasons, winning nine games in 2012 and 2013 and finishing both seasons with bowl wins.
The Pennsylvania native was a natural candidate for Penn State, and O’Brien left him an improving picture. The NCAA announced last fall that it will walk back its scholarship reductions, allowing the Nittany Lions to compete with 75 scholarship players this fall, 80 in 2015 and a full 85 in 2016.
That should help Penn State compete, and O’Brien left talent behind.
Big 10 Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg returns for his sophomore season as the Nittany Lions’ quarterback after a solid freshman season (2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions).
Plus, the three-headed backfield of Zach Zwinak, Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton will provide solid ground support.
A replacement must be found for All-America receiver Allen Robinson, who took his 1,432 receiving yards to the NFL (Geno Lewis is the top candidate entering spring). Depth at defensive end is an issue, and there are concerns at safety, but plenty of solid pieces remain in place on defense.
Penn State will begin the season in Ireland against Central Florida, but the Knights will be breaking in a new quarterback to replace NFL-bound Blake Bortles. On the Big 10 slate, Penn State travels to Michigan but hosts Ohio State and Michigan State, avoiding Iowa and Wisconsin in the league rotation.
There’s reason to believe the Nittany Lions could improve from 2013 if Hackenberg develops and the defense finds answers.
2014 Prediction: 9-3
Steve Sarkisian, Southern California
Steve Sarkisian built a solid program at Washington, taking the Huskies from zero wins the season before he arrived to four bowl games. His overall record (34-29) wasn’t entirely impressive, but by taking the Southern California job, Sarkisian puts himself in position to recruit better talent with a high-powered program that he knows well.
Last season, the Trojans overcame a tumultuous early season that resulted in the firing of Lane Kiffin to finish with a 10-4 record and a Las Vegas Bowl rout of Fresno State under interim coach Ed Orgeron, which propelled them into a top-20 final ranking.
This is the final season of NCAA scholarship reductions stemming from the end of Pete Carroll’s tenure, and USC can have only 70 scholarship players. Sarkisian told USA Today that he expects the sanctions' effects to linger for two years.
However, a wealth of talent remains. Junior quarterback Cody Kessler threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, and tailback Javorius Allen had 1,027 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns.
2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee is gone, but wideout Nelson Agholor (the nation’s No. 2 punt returner) is back. He had 56 receptions for 918 yards and eight touchdowns, accounting for 1,444 all-purpose yards.
In addition, eight starters return from a defense which finished in the top 25 nationally in eight categories including total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. They’re led by All-America defensive end Leonard Williams (13.5 sacks in 2013) and linebacker Hayes Pullard, the Trojans’ leading tackler with 94 stops last fall.
Eighteen starters return in all, and while depth will be an issue (as can be the case following NCAA sanctions), if the Trojans stay healthy, they could challenge for a Pac-12 division title.
USC must travel to Stanford and UCLA, but hosts Arizona State and Notre Dame. The Pac-12 road tests could be the difference between a good and great season.
2014 Prediction: 9-3
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Before James Franklin arrived in 2011, Vanderbilt’s expectations were decidedly low. The Commodores had never enjoyed back-to-back postseason trips in their program’s history. Before he departed for Penn State in December, Franklin changed the culture, making three consecutive bowl trips with back-to-back nine-win seasons, finishing 2012 and 2013 with bowl wins.
Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was charged with continuing Franklin’s success, and his predecessor left a solid foundation. Despite numerous defections from the 2014 recruiting class, Mason signed a 22-member class (gaining 13 commitments in the cycle’s final four days), highlighted by 4-star California defensive end Nifae Lealao.
Mason and new offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell will run a pro-style system led by sophomore Peyton Robinette, who led a bowl victory after starter Austyn Carta-Samuels was sidelined by a torn ACL. Robinette will receive a challenge from 4-star 2013 signee Johnathon McCrary, but found success as a backup in 2013.
The Commodores return four starters from 2013’s offensive line, with All-SEC tackle Wesley Johnson the only loss. Vandy must replace star receiver Jordan Matthews, but does return tailback Jerron Seymour, who scored 13 touchdowns a year ago.
Defensively, Vandy returns just four of its top 10 tacklers from a year ago, but that does include linebacker Darreon Herring, who made 84 tackles a year ago. Another keystone is defensive end Caleb Azubike (four sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss in 2013).
All four starters from the 2013 secondary are gone, which is a concern.
But the Commodores have enough back to make another bowl appearance likely. Vanderbilt avoids Alabama, Auburn and LSU from the SEC West, and Florida and South Carolina visit Nashville. Road trips to Georgia and Missouri will be tricky, but the 2014 slate could be a lot worse.
2014 Prediction: 8-4
Charlie Strong, Texas
Everything is bigger in Texas, including the expectations. This is what Charlie Strong steps into as he begins his first season as the Longhorns’ head coach. Strong wasn’t Texas’ first choice, but he brings a stellar pedigree from Louisville to replace Mack Brown, who resigned under pressure in December.
Strong never recruited a top-25 class at Louisville, but he just won. In four years, the Cardinals were 37-15, including 23-3 over his final two seasons, ending the 2012 season with a Sugar Bowl rout of Florida.
Talent will not be Strong’s biggest issue. David Ash, who redshirted last season after suffering an early season concussion, will return as the No. 1 quarterback, and tailbacks Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown give the Horns a solid trio on the ground.
Texas also has most of a defensive line that led the Big 12 in sacks last season returning, although defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the winner of the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end, graduated. So did wideout Mike Davis, who finished his career fourth on Texas’ all-time receptions list, fourth in receiving yards and fifth in touchdowns.
The Longhorns also must replace three starting offensive linemen.
Still, Strong will be working with a much stronger talent pool than he ever did in Louisville. Can he add some much-needed toughness to the roster? That’s the real question. He’ll be dealing with a much larger spotlight than in the former Big East/AAC, and it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts and how his new team responds.
The Longhorns will host BYU, UCLA and Baylor and travel to Oklahoma State and Texas Tech while playing the annual neutral-site rivalry game with Oklahoma at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl.
It isn’t an easy slate, but there’s room for improvement and a good start in 2014.
2014 Prediction: 9-3