2017 Head-Coaching Hire Analysis: First-Year Head Coaches

So the head-coaching openings for the 2017 season are filled. There were 21 job changes in all, though we should acknowledge that in the past few years there have been changes well outside the traditional window for hiring and firing (Bobby Petrino at Arkansas, Tim Beckman at Illinois and Art Briles at Baylor, just to name a few). So we can’t rule out a job change before the season starts in late August.

But for now, I review each of the 21 head-coaching hires for the 2017 season. I’m not ranking them this time around because I’ve always felt ranking head-coaching hires is stilted a bit toward coaches with head-coaching experience. So instead, I’m grouping the hires in three categories — first-time head coaches, head coaches moving from one head-coaching job to another and head coaches returning after at least a year’s break from being a head coach. No letter grades, either. It’s just my belief on how good or bad the hire might be. We’ll start with the rookie head coaches.

First-Time Head Coaches

Note: We will define first-time head coach as coaches that have been hired to be the permanent coach for the first time. I am not counting interim head-coaching experience, because being the temporary coach is far different than being “the man.”

Justin Wilcox, California. The Golden Bears plucked the defensive coordinator from Wisconsin after firing Sonny Dykes. But Wilcox has plenty of west coast ties, including a three-year stint as a linebackers coach at Cal. He has spent the majority of his career on the west coast, and before he left for Wisconsin for the 2016 season he was the defensive coordinator at USC for two seasons, and the defensive coordinator at Washington for two seasons before that. So he knows both northern and southern California’s recruiting landscape and should be able to hit the ground running. He’s coordinated defenses for nearly a decade and Cal’s defense needs help. He’s a disciple of Chris Petersen and Jeff Tedford, and played at Oregon under Mike Bellotti. So he understands Pac-12 football. The big challenge is recruiting in a northern California area where the northern Pac-12 schools in Oregon and Washington have made serious inroads. I think he got the job primarily for his west coast ties. Now he must capitalize, starting with hiring the right offensive coordinator. Getting to a bowl game in Year 1 would be a good first step.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati. He spent the entire 2011 season as the interim head coach at Ohio State in the wake of Jim Tressel’s resignation. What a horrible way to get your feet wet. But he piloted the Buckeyes to a bowl game anyway. Fickell was practically an Ohio State lifer and survived the transition to Urban Meyer, with Meyer later saying he wasn’t planning on keeping Fickell until he met with him. It turned out to be a good decision. Fickell helped coordinate a national championship defense and got five years to work under one of the game’s best head coaches. He probably could have been a head coach sooner, but Cincinnati is a great choice for him. The Bearcats aren’t starting from scratch in terms of talent. They were a bowl team in 2015. Fickell knows Ohio recruiting like the back of his hand, and that’s talent he must win on signing day — at least the talent that doesn’t go to Ohio State. Fickell’s initial hires include well-traveled wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, safeties coach Jon Tenuta and Purdue co-defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, a fomer Ohio State linebacker. Additionally, Fickell flipped a recruit just by getting the job, as former OSU wide receiver Torrance Gibson — who was on his way to transferring to a junior college — will instead transfer to Cincinnati, according to The Lantern. Finally, Fickell plucked Notre Dame wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock to be his offensive coordinator, a solid veteran coaching hire. I think Fickell has a chance to return the Bearcats to a Bowl game in Year 1. He’s assembled a solid staff and is already making a difference in recruiting.

Shawn Elliott, Georgia State. Elliott is the former South Carolina offensive coordinator. He has, in part, his previous relationship with GSU AD Charlie Cobb to thank for the hire. Elliott was at Appalachian State when Elliott was an assistant coach. Elliott worked under ASU legendary Jerry Moore for most of his early coaching career, and before that he played for Moore. At South Carolina he worked as the offensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier, though I imagine Elliott didn’t call plays so much as helped Spurrier craft the game plan. Interestingly, Elliott was the only assistant coach retained by new Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp, but Elliott was only the offensive line coach. In 2015 Elliott was the interim head coach after Spurrier’s resignation, and he went 1-5. Spurrier had hoped that Elliott would get the permanent job. Elliott’s identity as a head coach is a work in progress. But he does provide tight recruiting ties to the area where the Panthers must recruit well — South Carolina and north Georgia — to succeed. He’s inheriting a program that needs time to develop home-grown talent and will soon have a new home in the refurbished Turner Field near downtown. It took him little time to fill out his staff, most of which are local to the southeast and two of which are high school head coaches in South Carolina and Georgia. In terms of the hire, I like it. But I don’t love it. But there’s enough positives to lead me to believe Elliott could get the Panthers to a bowl game by Year 2.

Major Applewhite, Houston. The Cougars interviewed some high-profile candidates for the job, but they ended up elevating Applewhite from offensive coordinator to head coach. The players appreciated the continuity, even though they didn’t show up for their bowl game, a loss in Applewhite’s debut. There’s a lot to like here, not the least of which is that he’ll likely only make minor tweaks to the offense that has been so successful the past two years under Tom Herman. However, he’s brought in an SEC touch with the hire of Mississippi State quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Here is the list of people Applewhite has played or worked for — Mack Brown, Greg Robinson, Nick Saban, Todd Graham and Tom Herman. Salty list. If he brings the best from each of them he has the chance to do really well in Houston. I like the hire but I have two big questions. Is Applewhite ready to lead a program? And can Applewhite recruit like a head coach? Those will be key to whether Houston remains at the top of the American Athletic Conference. But I like his chances, especially in Years 1 and 2. Herman left him a full cupboard and because of that I feel of the first-year head coaches Applewhite has the best chance for success in Year 1. Plus, his assistant coaching hires have been solid, snagging Miami (FL)’s Mark D’Onofrio to coordinate his defense and veteran offensive line coach Darren Hiller to run his offensive line and coordinate his run game.

Tom Allen, Indiana. The Hoosiers thought enough of Allen to elevate him to head coach immediately after firing Kevin Wilson. Allen took a long route to becoming a collegiate head coach, working the high school ranks and college assistant jobs at Drake, Arkansas State, Ole Miss, USF and Indiana. He was a college assistant for just seven years before taking over the program for the Hoosiers’ bowl game. Allen is a defensive guy and hasn’t been a head coach since 2004-06, when he led the program at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. He has his work cut out for him. Indiana is an average Big Ten program. Allen must convince new recruits that the Hoosiers are ascendant, and there is little evidence of such. However, Indianapolis area head coaches reportedly love the hire and that could help Allen in the long run. Also helpful is that Wilson’s staff appears to be sticking around for now. This is one of the bigger gambles on the coaching carousel this year, in my opinion. Indiana may make a bowl game next season, and I think that would be a win for Allen in Year 1.

Jay Norvell, Nevada. Norvell has been everywhere as an assistant coach and has worked for some of the game’s most storied programs, including Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. But after 30 years he’s finally a head coach. Can he win on his own? Great question. Norvell is an offensive coach and he’s earned the trust of many of his former bosses. But can he earn the trust of potential Wolf Pack recruits? His ties to California and Texas help, but he needs to develop the ties to keep whatever in-state talent he can (UNLV is the only competition). Norvell is making California a focus, and looking to hire assistants with ties to the state. That’s smart given all of that talent in California can’t go to the Pac-12. His coordinator choices are quite good — Jeff Casteel for defense and Matt Mumme for offense. I’m not as high on this first-year coaching hire as I am some of the others on this list. But at least Norvell finally gets a chance to prove whether he has the chops or not. Some assistants don’t even get the opportunity after 30 years. I can see the Wolf Pack missing a bowl game in Year 1. But that must change in Year 2.

Brent Brennan, San Jose State. This might have been the hardest job to fill on the carousel. The Spartans never had a winning season under Rod Caragher and there was some thought that former Spartans player Jeff Garcia might have taken the job. That would have been a mistake, in my opinion. One plus here is that Brennan was once a Spartans assistant under Dick Tomey and Mike MacIntyre. While he’s been at Oregon State the past six years, he’s continued to recruit Northern California, so there are relationships to build upon. His coaching staff includes a local juco head coach, Alonzo Carter, last at Contra Costa, along with four other assistants under the age of 30. Attracting talent will be key to getting SJSU back over .500. But the real question is whether Brennan can lead a program, and there’s only one way to find out. A bowl game by Year 2 would be a success.

Geoff Collins, Temple. The Owls hired the Florida defensive coordinator after Matt Rhule left for Baylor. He’s already hired an offensive coordinator in Dave Patenaude, who was the OC at Coastal Carolina. He was on Jim McElwain’s staff for two years and during that time Florida was a Top 11 defense nationally. He has Deep South recruiting ties after stints at Mississippi State, FIU, Alabama, UCF and Georgia Tech. He’s been a recruiting coordinator and a player personnel director as well, so he brings some uncommon experience at operationalizing recruiting and football programs to the job. Temple players wanted the school to promote from within (and Collins did manage to retain the interim coach, Ed Foley). Collins retained a few of Matt Rhule’s assistants, so that may help the Owls remain relevant locally as Collins tries to steal a few kids from the south. I like his recruiting acumen and I’m more interested to see if he can handle the rigors of head coaching. Maintaining a bowl berth in Year 1 is going to be difficult, in my opinion.

Mike Sanford, Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers have made their bones on offense the past few years so hiring Sanford isn’t a huge surprise. It’s his first head coaching job after bouncing around for a decade as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at seven different schools. One of them was WKU, where he spent 2010 as the quarterbacks coach under Willie Taggart. He was an offensive coordinator at Boise State in 2014 and at Notre Dame the past two seasons. He certainly helped improve Notre Dame’s offensive output in 2015, but the Irish took a step back in 2016. He has a great chance at success in 2017 because he inherits a conference champion with plenty of talent, has recruiting ties to the area and ran an offense at Notre Dame that isn’t a whole lot different than WKU. Sanford tapped Boise State wide receivers coach Junior Adams to run his offense, and his quarterbacks coach has a familiar surname — Spurrier, as in Steve Spurrier Jr. Contending for the 2017 Conference USA title should be a goal in Year 1.


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