Explaining the Youth Movement in College Football Coaching

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2014

Brendan Maloney/USA Today

On national signing day, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney discussed the never-ending nature of college football. Ten years ago, Swinney said coaches took several weeks off after national signing day before beginning to evaluate the film of the following year’s prospects.

These days, that’s an archaic idea. The Tigers coaches spent much of the 2014 recruiting homestretch evaluating 2015 prospects and have already dug into the 2016 class.

Recruiting never ends, much like the calendar of college football itself.

Preseason and the regular season bleed into bowl practice, which bleeds into prime recruiting season and national signing day.

Which bleeds into winter workouts and spring practice, which bleeds into offseason “voluntary” workouts where players grind in the weight room and under the hot summer heat as they take summer school classes.

That, in turn, bleeds into college football media days and the start of preseason practice.

Coaches are lucky to get a week or two off per year, if they’re fortunate, to enjoy the spoils afforded by their multimillion-dollar salaries and hard work.

College football is increasingly a younger man’s game, and the numbers support it.

Using biographical information, I surveyed the average age of every head coach in the five major college football conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference) at four data points over the last 30 years.

With icons like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno gone from the game, college football is increasingly a younger man's sport.
With icons like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno gone from the game, college football is increasingly a younger man's sport.Phil Sears/Associated Press

I examined the average age for the head coach of the 62 programs currently in those leagues in 1983, 1993, 2003 and 2013. I also used the same league formats at each data point. In other words, West Virginia was grouped with the Big 12 in all four checks, not with the Big East, and the old Southwest Conference programs were also counted with the Big 12, among other changes over the years.

What I found didn’t surprise me: college football is getting younger.

While the average age of a BCS-level college football coach in 2013 was 50.2 years, nearly five years older than 1983 (45.8), coaches are younger than they were, on average, in 1993 and 2003.

In 1993, the same group of programs surveyed had coaches averaging 50.6 years old. In 2003, those same programs featured coaches who were, on average, 52.2 years old.

Average age of college football coaches by conference
Big 1046.754.955.850.1
Big 1245.147.847.652.9
College team websites

Ten years later, the national average dropped by two whole years.

Last fall, the Big 12 was the nation’s oldest league, with its 10 coaches averaging 52.9 years (and that was with Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, who checked in at a spry 34). Of course, one must consider Kansas State’s Bill Snyder was the oldest coach among those surveyed at 74.

The ACC (with Virginia Tech’s 67-year old Frank Beamer) checked in at 51 years, while the SEC was 50.5 and the Big Ten was 50.1. The Pac-12 (with 38-year old Lane Kiffin at USC and 39-year old Steve Sarkisian at Washington) was 47.25.

Part of the age drop might be due to the departures of long-tenured coaches like Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Penn State’s Joe Paterno.

At 44, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is one of the nation's brightest young head coaches.
At 44, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is one of the nation's brightest young head coaches.Steve Helber/Associated Press

In 2003, with Paterno (who was 77 at the time), the Big Ten averaged 55.8 years across the board. Following Paterno’s firing (he was replaced by 44-year-old Bill O’Brien), it helped drop the league’s average age 5.7 years.

In addition, the untimely death of 52-year-old Northwestern coach Randy Walker led to the elevation of assistant Pat Fitzgerald, who was only 39 last fall.

The ACC went from an average of 54.9 years in 2003 (Bowden was 74 at the time) to 51 last fall. Bowden was replaced by Jimbo Fisher, who was 48 last fall. Youth isn’t always the right recipe, however: 59-year old David Cutcliffe led Duke to a 10-win season and its first ACC Coastal Division title last fall.

Of the five leagues that will have automatic access to the new College Football Playoff, all are older than they were in 1983. The ACC went from 46.7 years on average to 51. The Big 12 went from 45.1 to 52.9, the Big 10 went from 46.7 to 50.1, the SEC went from 46.2 to 50.5 and the Pac-12 went from 45.7 to 47.25.

It only makes sense the increased stress required with being a college football head coach is pushing the age spectrum toward younger coaches, who conceivably have higher energy levels.

Of course, youth doesn’t always win. Consider Alabama, winner of two of the last three national championships.

In 1983, coach Ray Perkins was 42 years old. In 1993, a year after the Crimson Tide won a national championship, Gene Stallings was 58.

Ten years later, Mike Shula was forced to clean up after NCAA probation and the quick departures of Dennis Franchione and Mike Price at the age of 38.

And, of course, age appears to be just a number to Nick Saban. He’s 62 years old.

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace