The Secret Sauce: Appreciating Good Coaches
I was six years old in 1991 and was just beginning to watch and understand the basics of football. This was also the year that the Washington Huskies assembled one of the greatest football teams of all time. They went 12-0, won 11 games by double digits, and tied for the National Title. After the season, their offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson left to become the head coach at California and legendary coach Don James promoted his son in law, Jeff Woodruff. In 1992, UW scored 13 fewer points a game, went 9-3 and this, along with a trumped up scandal, led to the slow decline of UW football into a mediocrity that they only have recently escaped from.
In 2001, the Florida State Seminoles were coming off two consecutive trips to the National Championship game. They had finished ranked in the top 5 every year since 1987. Mark Richt was the offensive coordinator, and had coached two Heisman winning quarterbacks since 1994 and a legendary spread offense that ruled over college football. Richt, deservedly so, left for the head coaching job at Georgia. The legendary Bobby Bowden promoted his son, Jeff Bowden, to offensive coordinator. The decline was immediate. Florida State, despite still immeasurable talent, finished 8-4 in 2001. For the rest of Bowden’s tenure, they won ten games only once and made a habit of finishing 7-6.
The Washington State Cougars in the winter of 2002 had just qualified for their second Rose Bowl in six years. Despite facilities that resembled most run of the mill high schools, head coach Mike Price had assembled an excellent and experienced staff, which was essential to winning in the emptiness of the Palouse. Price was being courted by the Alabama Crimson Tide, a program of unlimited resources. He went to the Athletic Director, Jim Sterk, and demanded raises for his staff. Sterk refused, and Price left. After a bowl game the next year, WSU wouldn’t even reach a bowl for a decade afterwards.
The lessons from all of this is that to win consistently in college football, absolutely requires an excellent coaching staff. Many successful programs are undone by an inability to effectively replace assistants that have moved on to better positions. Ohio State’s offense has resembled a clunky overpowered machine ever since Tom Herman left for Houston. A major part of Frank Beamer’s long running success at Virginia Tech was due to Bud Foster never leaving for a better job. In every sport, subpar organizations try to poach coaches of the elite teams, believing that these coaches will infect their organization with a winning culture. That level of change is inevitable, even though history shows that line of thinking is often misguided (See: Ray Handley, Gus Bradley etc.).
Some coaches are more vulnerable to staff overturn than others. Most coaches have a specialty, whether it is offense, defense or special teams. Few coaches remain aggressively hands on in that unit once they become a head coach. Mike Leach at Washington State IS the Air Raid. He dictates every aspect of the offense, from a receiver’s footwork to a linemen’s splits. Regardless of who is in the defensive coordinator role at Alabama, that unit remains Nick Saban’s. This level of intimacy with the scheme allows the head coach to survive churn in their staff and maintain continuity of scheme with the players.
Nepotism and loyalty remains the guiding principle of a poorly assembled staff. Tyrone Willingham dragged Kent Baer to each one of his coaching stops with increasingly poor results, finally firing Baer when it became a “Fire or be fired” situation at Washington. Steve Spurrier naming his son Recruiting Coordinator led to the slow decline of talent and Spurrier’s eventual exit. Coaches that buck these trends, often find themselves making innovative hires. In 2007,Mike Belliotti found himself trying to replace his offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. Oregon had endured five up and down years and were becoming known for their poor conditioning and lack of toughness. Crowton recommended that Belliotti look at the longtime offensive coordinator of New Hampshire named Chip Kelly, whom Crowton had met in the coaching clinic circuit Kelly and his light speed offense completely changed the trajectory of the Oregon program and has left a substantial mark all across college football.
The next college football season is just a few short months away. Once again there have been numerous coaching changes and replacements hired. How will Wisconsin fare hiring their 3rd defensive coordinator in 3 years? Will Kevin Wilson find a way to open the throttle on Ohio State’s offense? These answers and others will end up weighing more than recruiting rankings or facilities, and will end up determining the fates of coaches throughout the country.