How important is head coaching experience in the eyes of presidents, athletics administrators and boosters?
Most schools have clearly opted for a head coach who has more than just assistant coaching experience. Taking a look at the 28 head coaches in the ACC and SEC, and it’s clear: 20 of 28 in the two leagues had been head coaches prior to being hired.
Is it a prerequisite for success? Of course not.
Head coaches are likely preferred because they have a background as a coordinator on offense or defense but also due to extensive experience in managing an 85-man roster, crisis management, media responsibilities and time management.
Florida State athletics director David Coburn has not stated a preference as he, president John Thrasher and boosters begin a search. Coburn candidly stated that the goal was to find a coach “that can win National Championships. I don’t have an explicit set of criteria other than that, and I’m going to look at every option I can find. But we’re going to win, we’re going to get back to the standard of Florida State University football.”
That standard was clearly missing the last few years as Jimbo Fisher went 5-6 in 2017, Willie Taggart went 9-12 (as well as 0-5 against Miami, Florida and Clemson). It should be noted that Fisher had never been a head coach and won a national title while Taggart had been a head coach at Western Kentucky, South Florida and Oregon and couldn’t patch up the program.
Just who is the right person to bring that standard back? He may not need to have head coaching experience, but it can’t hurt either.
When arguing this point, it’s easy to state that Dabo Swinney and Kirby Smart had no head coaching experience and have done quite well at Clemson and Georgia, respectively. Swinney has won two national titles and Smart has an appearance in the national championship game.
But at the same time Pat Narduzzi is 34-27 at Pittsburgh – good but not great in an unpredictable Coastal Division. It’s too soon to evaluate Miami’s Manny Diaz, who claimed the program was in a rebuild after a home loss to Georgia Tech, tried to walk the comment back, and then rebounded with wins at Pitt and at FSU.
Among the notable SEC coaches without prior experience are Missouri’s Barry Odom, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason. Stoops is 40-43 at Kentucky, which is admirable considering the challenging schedule as well as the rebuilding effort he faced (going 2-10 in year 1 in 2013). Odom is 24-22, Mason is 26-44 and Pruitt is 9-12.
It should also be noted that Matt Luke was an interim head coach for all of 2017 at Ole Miss while Ed Orgeron went 6-2 as USC’s interim head coach in 2013. For the purposes of this ACC and SEC example, Luke and Orgeron are included as those who have prior head coaching experience.
There are some quality coordinators in college football worthy of consideration. Among those are Clemson’s co-offensive coordinators, Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, and defensive coordinator Brent Venables. There’s also LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Should they be dismissed because of the lack of head coaching background? Definitely not.
But it’s clear judging by what other ACC and SEC schools have done is that they prefer head coaching experience. FSU administrators and boosters may find themselves leaning that way, too. Why?
The program is a house with good bones, a fixer upper, and not a full rebuild. There is a foundation of talent on the roster, albeit with some significant question marks. There is a stadium that is still among the top 20 in the sport. And a recruiting hotbed in Florida and Georgia that is extremely competitive but attractive in the depth of talent within a five-hour drive to Tallahassee.
Beyond that, though, there is a roster that is emotionally unstable. Returning seniors have played for or been recruited by Fisher and then played for Taggart and interim head coach Odell Haggins twice. Offensive players have had Fisher, Randy Sanders, Walt Bell, Taggart and Kendal Briles call plays. They have been through, understatement alert, a considerable amount of change in their careers.
The right man for the job just may be someone who is patient, part coach, part psychologist, part crisis manager. Or the right man for the job may be someone who is less patient, more urgent and demanding.
FSU is a very good job. But it may need an experienced coach to lead the way.