Column: Even great coaches need time


Florida fans are engaged in a great debate. It began during a blowout loss to Alabama in the Swamp, grew hotter after a humbling defeat in Baton Rouge and has continued through three stumbling losses in winnable games.

Fans are divided as they ponder the questions facing the Florida football program – Is Will Muschamp the right man for the very challenging job of head football coach at Florida? Or is he the second coming of Ron Zook?

Do these losses reflect the expected struggles of a new coach implementing a new system? Or do they simply reveal Muschamp to be a good man who is in over his head?

Florida fans have no shortage of opinions on these questions, but few people have turned back to look at history, and it turns out history has some very interesting things to say about the current state of the Florida football program.

History shows that championship coaches do indeed need time to implement their system when starting at a new school, but that they need a lot less time than many believe, usually only one season, two at the most. But, during that first year or two, even a team coached by one of the greats is likely to struggle.  Indeed, the first season under a new coach tells you very little about what might follow.

Take the example of Nick Saban when he took over at Alabama.  The previous year, Mike Shula had led the team to a 6-6 record, which got him fired.  Alabama went on to lose the Independence Bowl and finish 6-7.  Then, Nick Saban showed up and promptly led the Tide to the exact same 6-6 regular season record, the only improvement being that Saban’s team at least won the Independence Bowl. 

The next season, of course, Alabama won its first 12 games, and the following year, the Tide went undefeated and won the National Championship.  Once Saban successfully installed his system, he had Alabama playing at a high level.  His first year record of 7-6 was followed by 31 wins in Alabama’s next 33 games.

Another good example is Jimmy Johnson.  He left Oklahoma State to coach Miami before the 1984 season.  The Hurricanes were the defending national champions and had a lot of their team coming back, including quarterback Bernie Kosar. 

But Johnson, one of the great football coaches of his generation, stumbled to an 8-5 record.  After Miami lost its first game of the next season to Florida, Johnson’s teams went a combined 44-3, winning the national championship during his fourth year.  Clearly, despite inheriting a talented team, Johnson needed a year and a game to get his system in place.  He lost fewer games his last four seasons combined than he did in his first year.

Another good example is Gene Stallings.  Alabama won the SEC title in 1989, but Tide fans were disenchanted with Bill Curry, and he left for Kentucky.  Stallings led the defending SEC champs to a 7-5 record.  Then, after losing its second game of the following season (also to Florida), Alabama won its next 31 games, including the 1992 national championship. 

Stallings, like Johnson and Saban, needed that single year to implement his system and then blew right through the competition.

And the trend is the same for coaches who inherit losing programs.  Pete Carroll was hired to take over a program at Southern Cal that was floundering under Paul Hackett, having gone 5-7 the previous season.  During Carroll’s first campaign, he improved USC’s record by all of one game, going 6-6.  The next season, USC started 3-2 and then won out to finish 11-2.  After the fifth game of that second year, USC won 45 of its next 46 games, including two national championships.

The interesting thing about these examples, and others too numerous to describe in detail, is that while it typically takes a championship coach a year or two to implement their system, those coaches almost all have their teams playing championship quality football by their third season.

The table below lists every coach that has won a national championship over the past 25 seasons.  The table omits only those coaches who were promoted from within a program, since they aren’t implementing a new system and presumably don’t need the transition time.  This eliminates Lloyd Carr, Larry Coker, Phil Fulmer, Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer.

The table lists 19 coaches.  The first column shows the record of that coach’s school the year before he was hired.  The next four columns show the records during that coach’s first four seasons.  The last column shows the number of seasons that elapsed before that coach won a National Championship.

CoachSchoolYear PriorYear as CoachYears to NC
PaternoPenn St.5-55-58-2-111-011-017
RossGa Tech5-5-12-93-87-411-0-1*4
TressellOhio St.8-47-514-0*11-28-42
Average Wins6. 
Winning Percentage0.5470.5920.7850.7980.844

* – won National Championship

Notice that only two coaches, Dennis Erickson at Miami and Les Miles at LSU, led his team to 10 wins or more his first season.  Most of the other coaches struggled their first year, with six of 19 failing to even post a winning record, and 8 of 19 failing to improve over the record from the prior season. 

Imagine that!  Of the last 19 national championship coaches, 42 percent failed to improve upon his predecessor’s record his first year out.  In fact, only three of those coaches showed an improvement of more than two victories.

The story changes dramatically, however, during the second season.  By then, 13 of the 19 coaches have their teams winning at least 10 games, and of the other six, only Don James of Washington failed to win as many games as he had in his first season.  By the third season, 16 of the 19 coaches had posted a ten-win season at some point in his first three years.  Furthermore, only one coach had fewer wins in his third season than in either his first year or his predecessor’s last season.  That coach is Bill McCartney of Colorado, who is the outlier in this survey.  He took over a moribund program and performed poorly for several years, before winning one-half of a split championship in 1990.

Overall, these championship coaches averaged 6.9 wins during their first season, which was only a marginal improvement from an average of 6.2 wins the year before their arrival.  In the second season, however, the average jumps by nearly three wins and continues to climb thereafter.  In addition, these coaches tended to win their first national championship pretty quickly as 13 of the 19, or 68 percent, won one within his first four years.

So, while Gators fans have every reason to be concerned about the struggles of 2011, they should also take a moment to step back and ponder some history.  Even a great coach would have had trouble implementing a new system against this demanding schedule, and that’s without taking into account the rash of injuries the Gators have suffered.

Indeed, much has been made of Florida’s four-game losing streak, its longest since 1988.  But, 1988 is not the right comparison for Florida fans.  A better one might be 2007. That was Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama, which concluded with the Tide losing four straight games, including one to Louisiana-Monroe. 

Another might be 2001, when Pete Carroll lost four straight in his first season at USC. A third might be 1984-85, when Jimmy Johnson lost four straight games carrying over two seasons.  And Florida’s losses this season weren’t to the likes of Louisiana-Monroe.  The Gators have only lost to teams ranked 14th or better in the current AP Poll, with the only exception being the defending national champions.

So, it’s time for Gator fans to take a deep breath, step back from the ledge and hope for better times.  This first season has been rough, but that, frankly, should have been expected, and it tells us nothing about what might follow. 

And, if you still doubt that advice, I leave you with an echo from six years ago.  This is not the first time that this analysis has been presented to the Gator Country audience.  In 2005, I wrote a similar column just after Urban Meyer was hired.  It presented similar data, and then concluded with this advice.

“So, what does this information mean for Gator fans?  Florida is hopeful that it has hired itself a championship quality coach in Urban Meyer, and I for one agree that’s likely the case.  We also have a supremely talented team coming back for the 2005 season.  Gator fans have every expectation that the marriage of Urban Meyer’s coaching abilities with the ample skills of our players will produce a great season. 

But, Gator fans also need to realize that 2005 will be a season of transition.  While it is possible that Meyer’s Gators will play like Spurrier’s 1990 team or Erickson’s 1987 team at Miami, it is more likely that they will play like Jimmy Johnson’s 1984 Miami team or Gene Stallings’ 1990 Alabama team.  The good news is that regardless of how 2005 turns out, if Urban Meyer is the coach we all think he is, 2006 and 2007 should be seasons to remember.

Gator fans won’t have to wait long to find out whether they’ve got the right coach, but they may have to wait more than one year.”