I’ve been interested in coaching tenure patterns for the entire time I’ve been writing about college football. Not every coach will fit to a particular trope, but enough do that there are things that you see more than once.
The first one I became aware of was a leap in a coach’s second year. I first heard about it in relation to Urban Meyer as he was getting ready to start his time at Florida. It wasn’t huge at Bowling Green, going from 8-3 (5-3) to 9-3 (6-2) in his two years there. It was a bigger deal at Utah, going from 10-2 to a dominant 12-0. Then, of course, he went from 9-3 to 13-1 in his first two years in Gainesville.
The decade of the 2000s, as it turned out, was the golden era of second-year surges. Meyer was one in a string of coaches who won the national title in their second seasons on the job: Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Meyer, Gene Chizik. Several others that didn’t quite win it all had big jumps, like Pete Carroll (6-6 to 11-2), Mark Richt (8-4 to 13-1), and Nick Saban at Alabama (7-6 to 12-2). I discussed second year effects in relation to Dan Mullen earlier this offseason.
The next one I discovered is what I call the scheduled down year. It’s a direct consequence of noticing all the Year 2 bumps, since the scheduled down year is a regression that happens to coaches most often in their third seasons but sometimes in their fourth. After that one down year, they recover to a higher level of performance.
When a new coach takes over a program, there usually are some hiccups. Transitional recruiting classes tend to be smaller than normal, and they often are one of, if not the lowest rated group the coach will sign. There often can be attrition with them since the new coaches may be signing a number of recruits who they didn’t build up long relationships with. Then, players recruited to the old staff will transfer because the new systems don’t fit them well or there’s a personality conflict with the new staff or whatever else.
There usually comes a point in the third or fourth year where those factors conspire to pull a record down. Florida has several examples.
Steve Spurrier revolutionized the Gators with 9-2 and 10-2 records in 1990 and 1991, but his 1992 team tied for the most losses he’d sustain in Gainesville with a 9-4 finish. He’d then win four straight SEC titles. Meyer’s third team lost four games despite Tim Tebow’s Heisman-winning campaign thanks in no small part to a terribly young secondary. He went 13-1 in each of the next two seasons. Will Muschamp’s second team went 11-2 but his third fell to 4-8 when injuries revealed a team with zero experienced depth. The team recovered to bowl eligibility, though is wasn’t enough to save his job.
I collected a wide variety of schedule down year examples here. It was right before Jim McElwain’s scheduled down year, one that helped lead to his downfall.
I’m coming to realize there may be a third such pattern. I’m going to call it the “culture change rebuild”, as it relates to teams outside of the blue bloods that need extensive work to get up to quality. The cliche is that they need a culture change, or they have to be taught how to win. It seems to take about six years, maybe plus or minus one, to really get these things turned around.
I noted last year that both Mullen and Spurrier saw real gains in their sixth seasons at Mississippi State and South Carolina. Those programs took a sustained, if not permanent, jump in quality at that point.
We just saw another SEC program get there this past year with Kentucky. Mark Stoops went 2-10, 5-7, 5-7 in his first three years, and then his Wildcats were a marginal bowl team the next two. In Stoops’s sixth season, UK jumped up to 10-3 with a No. 12 finish in the AP Poll and an end to Florida’s winning streak.
An older example I found is Mark Mangino’s Kansas. He fits all the patterns. His Jayhawks went 2-10 his first year and jumped up to a bowl at 6-7 in his second. They then regressed to 4-7 in his third, the scheduled down year, before recovering to six or seven wins the following two campaigns. Then in his sixth season of 2007, KU went 12-1 and finished seventh in the polls. Kansas had a laughably bad schedule that year, but they still beat the teams they were supposed to beat.
I said “maybe plus or minus one” above because while looking for other examples, I saw some jumps that came in fifth and seventh seasons. Nick Saban’s Michigan State was about a .500 program for four years before bumping up to 9-2 pre-bowl and a top ten poll finish in his fifth season. Bobby Johnson took over a desperately bad Vanderbilt program and made a bowl in his seventh year. Dabo Swinney’s Clemson made the jump from good to elite in his seventh full season on the job. Mike Leach’s Texas Tech became good enough to start finishing in the polls in his fifth season, and then his Washington State first made the final polls last year, his seventh, with an 11-2 record and No. 7 finish.
I can go back in time and find others. When Bill Snyder took over the dumpster fire that was Kansas State in 1989, it took him to his fifth year with them to get the Wildcats to finish in the polls. Our old pal Bobby Bowden didn’t get West Virginia ranked in the final poll until his sixth and final season there.
It’s not hard to write the story for these situations. It does take time for cultures to change, and if the group of players from a downtrodden situation that the new coach inherits really aren’t going to get there, then it takes up to four years for all those guys to graduate. Early classes for these programs aren’t going to be blowouts, as it takes some time for the coaches to get going on the trail. Maybe they can’t get great assistants at first and have to establish that they’re going to be sticking around for a while before the better ones come.
I’ll have to do more research on this topic before I’m ready to pronounce it solid. There are some notable culture change rebuilds that didn’t take so long, like Barry Alvarez making the Rose Bowl in his fourth season at Wisconsin — though he didn’t start winning at least eight games consistently until Year 7. Still, I’m letting you in on it early.
Programs that aren’t elite recruiters with national brands should give coaches at least five and probably six years to get things going. Unless it’s an obvious situation where things explode in the hangar — Jon Embree at Colorado and Charlie Weis at Kansas leap to mind — these programs need to be patient.