Texas, Nebraska and USC could each be searching for new coaches in 2014. Each school is a prominent, national name. The natural inclination is to rank them within a hierarchy of college football jobs, based mostly on recent success and quantified, en vogue recruiting data. You will hear many, definitive pronouncements about what you can and cannot do at each of those programs.
Every job presents both perks and conundrums. Some, it’s true, are more onerous than others. The trouble is such rankings invariably overrate structural factors. College football success, viewed over a broader time window, is far more fickle and disparate than perception suggests. Coaching agency seems to be a more critical factor than recent recruiting footprint.
We looked at the “Big Five” conferences and Notre Dame over the last 20 seasons. Of those 63 teams, 45 of them had at least one 10-plus win season and at least one season with four wins or fewer. That group includes “elite” powers such as Texas, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Michigan and Notre Dame. It also includes backwaters such as Boston College, Wake Forest and Washington State.
If we reduce those bars to five wins and nine wins, 56 of the 63 had at least one high and low season, nearly 89 percent. Three programs, Duke, Indiana and Kentucky failed to win nine games. Maybe that’s recruiting base. Maybe that’s relative resource distribution. Maybe that’s the level of competition. Maybe that’s just not having found the right coach. Beyond that, every school produced at least one football team that was a credible contender.
The four programs that did not suffer a downfall over the 20 years? Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Florida and Florida State. Other schools rivaled and or even outstripped those programs considering resources. The difference, for them was great, stable head coaching. Virginia Tech has had one coach the past two decades, Frank Beamer. Florida State basically had one in Bobby Bowden. Both were among the top men in their profession. Bowden had an absurd 14-year run of 10-plus win seasons. Beamer did it 11 times in 13 seasons from 1999 to 2011.
Ohio State and Florida made multiple great hires. Ohio State has hired five head coaches since 1951. The past 10 seasons have included Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. The worst of the bunch, John Cooper, produced a run of five 10-win seasons in six years. Florida had Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer in their respective primes.
How “good” a job seems depends, largely, on which coach is there at present. Alabama in 2006 was Tennessee in 2012: institutional discord, meddlesome boosters and mediocre football. Rich Rodriguez turned Alabama down to stay at West Virginia. Rumored candidates to replace Mike Shula included Paul Johnson, Jim Grobe and Jeff Tedford. In 2013, with Nick Saban gunning for his fourth title in five years, Alabama is considered the nation’s best job, or right up there. Why would he leave Bama for Texas, Pawwl?
Coaching matters most. We should remember this when assessing the schools that may come under consideration. There’s no school that is idiot proof. It is easier to win at Texas or USC. It is not easy. Both have hired replacement level coaches and suffered letdowns. There are very few schools in major conferences that are condemned. It’s harder to win at Nebraska than the former two jobs. But talent base and other issues are factors, not limiting factors. Tom Osborne was able to get players there. Maybe a Scott Frost-type could come there and do the same if Bo Pelini isn’t.
Any of the three jobs could look a lot better in five years with the right hire. Any of the three could look worse with the wrong one.