Grades for Every 2nd-Year Coach in College Football
Coaching changes are always among the most important stories late in a college football season.
Some programs need to replace a head coach who accepts a promotion—whether elsewhere in college or the NFL—or a longtime boss who retires. And of course, many schools are looking for a new team leader after someone else's unsuccessful stint.
Following the 2018 season, 27 teams underwent a coaching change. No situation is similar, and context is essential for each one. Realistic timelines for improvement vary dramatically, but two seasons—even considering the bizarre circumstances of 2020—is enough of a sample for an assessment.
Look no further than Utah State, which has already parted ways with Gary Andersen.
Andersen is one of three coaches hired two years ago who are no longer in that position—Eli Drinkwitz (Appalachian State) left for Missouri, and Mel Tucker (Colorado) headed to Michigan State—so they're not included. The other 24 are all here.
While the grades are subjective, factors considered are overall record and recruiting success while considering the context of the job someone accepted. Akron and Ohio State are not equal.
Tom Arth, Akron
Akron fired Terry Bowden after he'd finished with a winning record only once in seven seasons. So, in fairness, Tom Arth didn't inherit a winner. Still, the Zips hoped for more than a 15-game losing streak to begin his tenure.
Scot Loeffler, Bowling Green
During the last half-decade, Bowling Green has tumbled from its place as a perennial MAC title contender. Similar to Arth, it's fair to note Scot Loeffler entered a challenging job. But the Falcons are 3-12 and have ranked no higher than 125th in either points scored or allowed per game.
Mike Houston, East Carolina
After three straight 3-9 seasons, East Carolina edged up to 4-8 last year. Were it not for a botched call at Tulsa, the Pirates would be 3-5 in 2020. At the worst, Mike Houston has sustained ECU's performance on the field and in recruiting. That's a low bar, though you can argue Houston should be a grade higher without much argument.
Les Miles, Kansas
This looked ill-fated from the start. Unfortunately, it's been nothing but that. Kansas managed a 3-9 record in Les Miles' first season but has become a doormat again. The 2020 team is 0-7 and is simply a disaster on both sides of the ball.
Walt Bell, Massachusetts
Considering the program has earned no more than four victories since joining the FBS in 2012, this isn't a surprise. Nevertheless, UMass is 1-14 in Walt Bell's tenure with an anemic offense and porous defense. This isn't a readymade winner! But even a little competitiveness would be a step in the right direction.
Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois
NIU shouldn't be panicking, given the decent recruiting success under Thomas Hammock. However, an 0-3 start to 2020 has dropped his overall record to 5-10. The Huskies can struggle through the fall but need to start winning next season.
Matt Wells, Texas Tech
No question about it: The defenses under Kliff Kingsbury stunk. Matt Wells' effort to reshape the unit would always take time. The problem is the offense's effectiveness has steadily dropped to the point that hitting 30 points feels like an accomplishment. That's not good enough for the Big 12.
Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech
Although the Jackets are 5-14 in his tenure, Geoff Collins gets a huge dose of patience. Georgia Tech ran a triple-option attack under Paul Johnson, so Collins is completely reshaping how the offense plays. That's not a two-year process.
Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Because he turned 2019 into a season of redshirts for several key players, Dana Holgorsen is basically starting in 2020. So far, the Cougars are 3-3 with victories over the teams they're supposed to beat and losses to the teams they're not supposed to beat. That's about as average as it gets, right?
Scott Satterfield, Louisville
Had you asked us two months ago, Scott Satterfield would be higher. Louisville has an established identity, which led to an improvement from 2-10 to 8-5 in Satterfield's debut. Since the Cardinals have struggled this season and dropped to 3-6, there will be pressure for a rebound year in 2021.
Jake Spavital, Texas State
The 2020 campaign will mark six straight years of nine-plus losses, yet Texas State has made considerable progress. For the first time in five seasons, the Bobcats are averaging more than 20 points—and they're all the way at 28.9. Results need to improve in the future, but Jake Spavital has clearly made a positive impact.
Rod Carey, Temple
Is this a repeat of his Northern Illinois tenure? Rod Carey inherited a strong NIU program but struggled to accomplish much. Temple has facilitated the rise of four straight Power Five coaches, the most recent of which was Collins. Carey capped his debut year at 8-5, but the Owls are 1-6 this season. He's on the lower end of the C-range, barring a late surge in 2020.
Chip Lindsey, Troy
Relatively similar to Temple, Troy had a highly successful coach before the current leader. Neal Brown, who guided the Trojans to three straight 10-win years, left for West Virginia. Troy has dipped to a 9-11 mark under Chip Lindsey, and that's far below expectations for an annual Sun Belt contender. Lindsey, like Carey, is flirting dangerously with a lower grade.
Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky
The year before Tyson Helton took over, the Hilltoppers finished 3-9. WKU soared to 9-4 in his first year but has tumbled to 4-6 in 2020. While the offense's struggles are concerning given Helton's background as an offensive coach, his success in 2019 buoys the grade for now.
Jim McElwain, Central Michigan
Right before Jim McElwain arrived, Central Michigan trudged to a 1-11 record. The former Florida boss sparked an immediate turnaround, leading the Chippewas to the MAC title game. Though a loss to Western Michigan likely ends the hopes of a return trip, CMU is 2-1 and near the top of the MAC hierarchy.
Will Healy, Charlotte
Will Healy engineered an incredible surge at Austin Peay, and the earliest returns at Charlotte are promising. With a 7-6 record last year, Charlotte posted a winning record for the first time since the program returned to the field in 2013. The 49ers are 2-3 this season, leaving much room to improve. But it certainly appears Charlotte made the proper hire.
Chris Klieman, Kansas State
Perhaps this narrative would be even more positive if an upper-body injury hadn't ended quarterback Skylar Thompson's season. Kansas State jumped out to a 4-1 start but has totaled only 28 points in the last three contests, dropping the team to 4-4. Yet in 21 games under Chris Klieman, the Wildcats are 12-9 with two wins over Oklahoma. He's been an unquestionable success to date.
Mike Locksley, Maryland
Recency bias is a possible factor in Mike Locksley holding a B-range grade. After the Terps finished 3-9 last season, they're 2-1 with victories over bad Minnesota and Penn State teams. Nevertheless, Locksley's recruiting success in the 2020 cycle is a major positive. Sustaining that progress on the trail is imperative.
Manny Diaz, Miami
How do you properly weigh a dreadful 6-7 year against a not-incredibly-impressive-but-still 7-1 record and mostly outstanding work in recruiting? Given the team's overall performance under Manny Diaz, Miami is not a true championship threat. Yet the object is to win games, and winning games aids recruiting. The proverbial arrow isn't steady, but it's pointing in the correct direction.
Mack Brown, North Carolina
North Carolina's best-case scenario is no longer possible in 2020, but a 6-2 record is hardly a letdown. Mack Brown propelled the Tar Heels from 2-9 to 7-6 in his debut season, and that improvement has continued in 2020 while UNC's recruiting has remained strong. Two ugly upset losses (Florida State and Virginia) and a mediocre defense keep Brown from a higher grade for now.
Neal Brown, West Virginia
Parts of the 2019 campaign looked awfully ugly, but the struggles have paid off in 2020. Neal Brown has instilled a clear identity for the program as an Air Raid-based offense that wants to run effectively and play tough defense. Perhaps that sounds straightforward, yet it's difficult to actually accomplish. The 5-3 record in 2020 suggests West Virginia is trending the right way.
Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina
This year, Coastal Carolina is 8-0. That should be enough evidence for a strong grade, but context drives home the point. After totaling six Sun Belt victories in 2017-19, the Chanticleers have matched that total in 2020 with another game to play. Jamey Chadwell is doing a tremendous job.
Hugh Freeze, Liberty
Liberty transitioned to the FBS in 2018, a year that capped four straight six-win seasons. Though it was a controversial hire, Hugh Freeze took over in 2019 and lifted the Flames to 8-5. This year, they're 8-1 with ACC wins over Virginia Tech and Syracuse. Freeze is a polarizing coach, but the results are undeniable.
Ryan Day, Ohio State
Even excluding his 3-0 mark as the interim coach in 2018, Ryan Day is 17-1 at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten and reached the College Football Playoff last season and are the unanimous favorite to claim the conference title in 2020. Anything other than an A-range grade would be laughable.