Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leads the list
Thirty is the new 40. At least in coaching.
During the last run through the coaching carousel, five schools hired coaches who had yet to reach their 40th birthday. That included the nation’s youngest coach, P.J. Fleck, who took the Western Michigan job at age 32 with neither head coaching nor coordinator experience.
Meanwhile, one 30-something coach, Willie Taggart, took his second head coaching job when he left Western Kentucky for USF.
At some schools, it’s tough to argue against the youth movement. Stanford’s David Shaw, who turned 40 last summer, has led Stanford to two BCS bowls and a Pac-12 title. Steve Sarkisian has revived the Washington program. And that’s just on the West Coast. Pat Fitzgerald, once the youngest coach in the country himself, has led Northwestern to unprecedented heights.
The under-40 coaching crowd is an interesting fraternity in college football, especially now that nearly half of it is made up of first-time head coaches in 2013. Programs hiring coaches are often looking for an influx of youthful energy, especially if the coach has local or school ties.
Whether any of these coaches will be in the game long enough to challenge records is unknown, but many of them have built enviable careers before their 40th birthdays.
*All ages as of Sept. 1, 2013.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL’S BEST COACHES UNDER 40
1. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (team preview)
Fitzgerald was tabbed as a potential head coach at Northwestern years before the sudden passing of Randy Walker put him in the position at 31. Now, he’s the second-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten. In 2012, Fitzgerald led Northwestern to its first 10-win season since 1995 and first ranked finish since 1996 (Fitzgerald, of course, played linebacker for both of those teams in the 90s). He’s already Northwestern’s all-time wins leader at 50, passing Pappy Waldorf with the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. As usual, Northwestern is rarely the most talented team on the field, but the Wildcats find a way to be competitive. The only question is if any job, college or otherwise, could pry him from Evanston.
2. Steve Sarkisian, Washington (team preview)
The former BYU quarterback and USC assistant Sarkisian brought Washington back to relevance within the Pac-12 after taking over an 0-12 team in 2009. The Huskies have gone 7-6 in each of the last three seasons, but Washington fans would like to see the program take the next step. After rebuilding the defensive coaching staff after 2011 and dealing with the injury bug in 2012, Sarkisian’s team is ready.
3. Willie Taggart, USF (team preview)
In his first head coaching job, Taggart led his alma mater Western Kentucky into the FBS. The Hilltoppers went 7-5 in each of the last two seasons, including 7-1 in the Sun Belt in 2011 and the program’s first bowl game in 2012. Now, he’ll try to revive the program in his old backyard. Taggart graduated from Manatee High in Bradenton, Fla., and now his job is to lead a stagnant USF program over the hump. A Jim Harbaugh disciple, Taggart knows how to build a program built on toughness and resilience, something the Bulls have lacked in recent years.
4. Lane Kiffin, USC (team preview)
Where to start with Kiffin? It’s tough to find a more interesting — putting it gently — six years for a head coach in college and the NFL. He was hired and fired by Al Davis, hailed as a hero and scorned at Tennessee, and then had mixed results at USC. Despite NCAA sanctions, the Trojans went 10-2 including a win over Oregon on the road in 2011. That high mark as a coach only set Kiffin up for a dramatic fall from No. 1 in the preseason to 7-6 last season. For 2013, Kiffin parted ways with his father as defensive coordinator and Matt Barkley as quarterback. He could surprise again or he could land himself on the hot seat before his 40th birthday.
5. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech (team preview)
Even the risk averse might be OK with Texas Tech hiring a 33-year-old with only four years of full-time coaching experience. The former Red Raiders quarterback Kingsbury worked with NCAA career leading passer Case Keenum and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in his brief career. Moreover, Kingsbury is intimately familiar with what worked not so long ago in Lubbock. Kingsbury was Mike Leach’s first quarterback at Tech and an assistant under Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen at Houston. After the uncomfortable fit Tommy Tuberville was in Lubbock, Kingsbury will be a return to familiarity.
6. Justin Fuente, Memphis (team preview)
The 4-8 record isn’t impressive and three-game winning streak to end the 2012 season were over patsies like Tulane, UAB and Southern Miss. Still, it’s not like Memphis had three-game win streaks of any kind under Larry Porter or in the final years of Tommy West’s tenure. Porter’s 3-21 stint was a disaster, but Fuente, the former TCU offensive coordinator, turned the culture around by November. Will it be enough for Memphis to compete in the American Athletic Conference?
7. Matt Campbell, Toledo (team preview)
Campbell was the youngest coach in the country when Toledo promoted him for the Military Bowl against Air Force after the 2011 season. As former Rockets coach Tim Beckman limped to a 2-10 season at Illinois, Campbell went 9-4 in his first full season at Toledo, displaying the same explosive offense that’s become a trademark at the Glass Bowl. This season, the Rockets should be in the mix for their first MAC title since 2004.
8. Bryan Harsin, Arkansas State (team preview)
Harsin hopes to become the next former offensive coordinator to win big at Arkansas State, and the Red Wolves wouldn’t mind if he sticks around a little longer than Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn. Harsin’s best days as an offensive coordinator came at Boise State where he coached Jared Zabransky, Ian Johnson and Kellen Moore during undefeated seasons in 2006 and 2009. While Texas never finished higher than 40th nationally in total offense under Harsin, the Longhorns’ output increased both years.
9. Brian Polian, Nevada (team preview)
Let’s say this: Nevada had better field good special teams. Polian, the son of NFL executive Bill Polian, has been special teams coach for Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M. Those aren’t bad places to be an assistant, particularly under Kevin Sumlin, David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh. He’ll keep the Pistol offense installed at Nevada, which is good news for a program that hasn’t won under anyone other than former coach Chris Ault.
10. Matt Rhule, Temple (team preview)
Rhule was integral in the rebuilding job at Temple in recent years, helping to transform the Owls from a doormat to MAC contender. In between then and taking over for Steve Addazio, Rhule spent a season as offensive line coach with the New York Giants.
Related College Football Content