With the recent retirement of long time Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden and the upcoming retirement of long time Penn State coach Joe Paterno, I got to thinking. What happens to major college football programs in the modern era after their long term coaches leave the university? There are a few college football programs that have enjoyed success after a successful long tenured coach. Ohio State hasn’t missed a step without Woody, Michigan goes on without Bo (although it’s getting a little testy up there), BYU keeps winning after LaVell, Georgia survived Vince Dooley, West Virginia is still in good shape after Nehlen and Air Force keeps running after DeBerry. But, is it generally good to have one coach for so long? If you look at some of the most successful college football programs in the modern era, you will see that they share something in common. They cycle through coaches. They could be let go after a couple years of mediocrity, a losing season or two, pressure from alum for not being better than 8-4, inability to beat your rival or they may just leave for greener pastures. Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Auburn, Texas, LSU, Notre Dame and Miami, for example, have had a string of coaches with less than 11 years at the helm. Most are less than that. Yet those programs are perceived as generally successful without a long term coach. So, is it good to have the cut-off point for a coach’s tenure at one school around the 12 year mark or is it better to ride their winning streak and success out and worry about the now instead of the future? I’ve listed the unlucky 13 programs that have not recovered from the success of their one long tenured coach.
13. Tennessee – Though it’s still early, the repercussions of letting your long time coach go have been pretty impactful. He was a long time assistant under Johnny Majors, a former standout athlete for the Vols and native Tennessean. Phil Fulmer took over the program in 1992. In fifteen seasons as head coach, he won a national championship, compiled a 152-52 record, had an 8-7 bowl record, won one outright SEC championship and four divisional SEC titles and ended the season ranked 13 times. He was let go after only his second losing season. It’s been a controversial two years since his departure. Two head coaches, a 7-6 overall record, several student transfers and recruiting de-commitments have plagued the program.
12. Purdue – Although he officially retired, Joe Tiller brought a Purdue program ten bowl berths in twelve years where they previously had only five. He became the leader in all time career wins at Purdue. He compiled an 87-62 record, one conference championship and ended the season ranked in the top 25 five times. Since then, the Boilermakers have gone 5-7.
11. Iowa. When the1998 season ended it marked the end of Hayden Fry's 20th season at the University of Iowa. Fry had a 143-89-6 (.622 winning percentage) record at Iowa and led the Hawkeyes to three Big Ten titles, three Rose Bowl appearances, and 14 bowl games. His impact to the university, the football program and traditions was tremendous and put Iowa on the college football map. Since Kirk Ferentz took over the Hawkeyes haven’t quite been able to match Frye’s success. Eight bowl appearances in eleven years, three losing seasons, two Big Ten championships and a .595 winning percentage.
10. UCLA. Terry Donahue coached the Bruins from 1976-1995 while compiling a144-81-8 record. He won five Pac 10 titles and went 8-4-1 in bowls (he won 3 Rose Bowls). His teams ended in the Top 25 12 times. Since then UCLA has owned a .565 winning percentage, has gone 4-5 in bowl games, ended the season ranked three times and won two conference championships.
9. Nebraska. Although the standard was set incredibly high, the comparison of coaches “Post Tom Osbourne” to what he achieved has been lower. The tremendous success of the Nebraska program took a hit after he left in 1997. Osbourne did not have a losing season in his 25 year tenure. He compiled three national championships, 13 conference championships, 25 bowl games and a 255-49-3 overall record (.839 winning percentage). In the 13 years he has been gone, the Cornhuskers have had two losing seasons, been ranked in the final Top 25 rankings seven times won two Big Twelve Championships and compiled an 86-41 overall record (.681 winning percentage).
8. Kansas State – Not sure how to handle this one, but I’m throwing it out there. Bill Snyder took over a program that had 510 losses in 809 games. They had only one bowl bid, one conference title and two winning seasons in the previous 34 years. He coached 17 seasons, compiled a 136-68-1 record, attended 11 bowls, won a conference championship and three division championships and ended the season ranked in the top 25 ten times. He retired from Kansas State in 2005 as the winningest coach in K State history (obviously). The K-State faithful had tasted the fruits of success after once being labeled as “America’s Most Hapless Team.” So, Ron Prince’s 17-20 record in three years didn’t cut it and he was fired under controversial circumstances. Snyder was rehired in 2008 making him one of the few head coaches to have non-consecutive tenure at the same university. He went 6-6 last season.
7. Arizona. Remember “Bear Down” and “Desert Swarm?” Dick Tomey coached 14 seasons for the Wildcats compiling a 95-64-4 record (.595 winning percentage). In that span he took the Wildcats to seven bowl games, one Pac 10 championship and four Top 25 rankings. Since his departure in 2000, Arizona has gone through two coaches compiled a .426 winning percentage, ended the season ranked in the Top 25 once and gone to two bowls.
6. Colorado State – Sonny Lubick took the challenge of building a successful college football program in Fort Collins. Much considered a college football dead end, Colorado State responded under Lubick for 15 successful seasons. He compiled a 108-74 record, went to nine bowl games (they had two previously), won six conference championships and ended three seasons in the final top 25 rankings. After he was let go of his responsibilities in 2007, the Rams have gone 10-15.
5. Colorado. One national championship, two conference championships, nine bowl games, six Top 25 rankings and a 93-55-5 record was all accomplished in Bill McCartney’s 13 year stint as head coach of the Buffaloes. Three coaches later and the Buffs hold a .505 winning percentage.
4. Baylor. I remember when the Bears were always competitive and either in or around the Top 25 year after year. Grant Teaff coached the Bears for 21 seasons. In that span he had 128 victories, 13 winning seasons, eight bowl appearances, three Top 25 final season rankings and two conference championships. Since he left in 1992, Baylor has endured 14 consecutive losing seasons under five different coaches.
3. Washington. Don James coached18 seasons before resigning in1992 to protest unfair sanctions to this team. In that span he led the Huskies to a National Championship in 1991, a 4-2 record in Rose Bowls, eleven Top 25 rankings and a 10-5 record in bowl games. He won 22 consecutive games from 1990-92 and five Pac-10 championships. He was a three time National Coach of the Year and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Since 1992 the Huskies have gone through five coaches, a .500 winning percentage, two conference titles, four Top 25 rankings and six bowl games. They have not had a winning season since 2002 and were winless in 2008.
2. Texas A&M. RC Slocum coached for 14 years at College Station before he was let go in1998. He compiled a 123-47-2 record and is the winningest coach in A&M history. He did not have a losing season and won four conference championships - three of which were undefeated. He led the Aggies to 12 bowls and 10 final AP rankings. Slocum was fired after going 6-6. Since then, there have been no final AP rankings, no conference championships, a secret e-mail booster scandal and a .488 winning percentage.
1. Syracuse. It’s been a dreadful six years for SU. Paul Pasqualoni ended his 14-year stint as the Orange’s second-winningest coach with a 107-59-1 record (.644 winning percentage). He guided SU to four Big East titles, nine bowl games and only one losing season. After his controversial firing in 2004, the Orange have complied a .237 winning percentage under two coaches; One of the seasons concluding with the worst record in school history (1-10).
Do you fire a long time winner or short time loser? Do you sign coaches to contracts less than ten years with no option to renew? Are the schools in the Midwest and West too nice and patient? They seem to like to have coaches for a long time whereas the South and Southeast like to cycle through coaches after a few years to keep winning fresh in everyone’s mind. If I’m playing the percentages correctly, the short term coach is the way to go for continued, steady success. And when Beamer leaves Virginia Tech and Paterno leaves Penn State, I imagine there will be lots of people praying for success. I know Florida State is.