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Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2014

Bobby Petrino

Bobby Petrino

College football’s 2014 season is over, and it’s time to take a look back and review the teams, players and coaches before predicting what’s to come in 2015. The coaching carousel is always one of the hot topics every offseason. And as expected, the 20 new coaches from the 2014 season had a mixed bag of success.

Washington’s Chris Petersen and Penn State’s James Franklin were the two coaches getting the most preseason buzz as the top first-year hires. But Petersen and Franklin had their share of struggles in 2014, as the Huskies and Nittany Lions combined for an 15-12 mark. Both coaches are still a great fit for the long run at their respective programs, but the two coaches earning the highest marks in our eyes for their 2014 performance are Georgia Southern’s Willie Fritz and UAB’s Bill Clark.  

Let’s take a look at how the first-year coaches performed and grade their debut: 

Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2014

1. Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern

2014 Record: 9-3 (8-0 Sun Belt)

Georgia Southern made a splash in its FBS debut, finishing with a perfect 8-0 mark in the Sun Belt and 9-3 overall. The Eagles were close to even bigger things in the win column, as this team held its own against NC State (lost by one point) and was lost to Orange Bowl champion Georgia Tech by just four points. Fritz came to Georgia Southern after a successful stint at Sam Houston State and didn’t deviate from what made this program successful on the FCS level. The Eagles pounded away on the ground with their option attack on offense, leading the nation with an average of 379.9 yards rushing per game. Georgia Southern also finished first nationally with 55 rushing scores and lost only 12 turnovers all season. Due to the transition to the FBS ranks, the Eagles were ineligible for a postseason game. However, Georgia Southern is primed to become one of the top programs in the Sun Belt, and Fritz (146-65 as a head coach) is the right coach for the job.

Final Grade: A+

2. Bill Clark, UAB

2014 Record: 6-6 (4-4 C-USA)


Clark transformed a UAB program that won five games in its two previous years to a competitive squad and one that reached bowl eligibility (6-6) for the first time since 2004. The Blazers were significantly more competitive under Clark than previous coach Garrick McGee. UAB battled against Mississippi State (47-34), nearly defeated Marshall (23-18) and recorded a .500 mark in C-USA play for the first time since 2009. Both sides of the ball showed marked improvement, as the Blazers averaged 33.2 points per game (up from 26.3 in 2013), and the defense held opponents to 5.7 yards per play (vs. 7.2 in 2013). Despite a positive long-term outlook with Clark at the helm, UAB’s program was (wrongly) eliminated at the end of the year. 

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Final Grade: A+

3. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
2014 Record:
12-2 (7-1 Mountain West)

As a former player and assistant with the Broncos, Harsin is the perfect fit at Boise State. And if the first year was any indication of what’s to come, the Broncos are going to be a consistent top-25 team and play in major bowl games on a yearly basis. Boise State improved its win total by four games after finishing 2013 with an 8-5 mark and capped the year by winning the Mountain West Championship and the Fiesta Bowl over Arizona. The Broncos’ only losses came against Ole Miss in the opener (35-13) and a bizarre seven-turnover performance against Air Force. Harsin and coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. brought a spark to the offense, averaging 39.7 points per game (up from 37.5 in 2013), while Boise State’s defense held opponents to 5.2 yards per play. Harsin has to replace standout running back Jay Ajayi, but it’s hard to pick against the Broncos as the early favorites to win the Mountain West in 2015.

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Final Grade: A

4. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
2014 Record:
9-4 (5-3 ACC)

Bobby Petrino’s return to the Louisville sideline went as expected. The Cardinals finished 9-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play in their ACC debut. The 23-21 loss to Virginia was the only puzzling defeat on the resume, with Louisville’s other three losses coming at the hands of Florida State, Clemson and Georgia – teams that combined for a 33-7 record. Petrino has room to grow the Cardinals’ offense in 2015 after averaging only 5.5 yards per play (eighth in ACC). However, the defense was among the best in the nation under the direction of first-year coordinator Todd Grantham. Louisville limited opponents to 4.8 yards per play and generated 30 turnovers (tied for 11th nationally).

Final Grade: A-

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5. Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky
2014 Record:
8-5 (4-4 C-USA)

Brohm was promoted to head coach after Bobby Petrino left Western Kentucky for Louisville. Prior to 2014, Brohm had no experience as a head coach on the FBS level. However, the Louisville native had an impressive debut. The Hilltoppers went 8-5 and lost four games by eight points or less. Brohm and coordinator Tyson Helton installed a wide-open offense and averaged 44.4 points per game behind quarterback Brandon Doughty’s 49 touchdown passes. The defense allowed nearly 40 points per game in 2014, which is one area for Brohm to address in the offseason if WKU is going to make a run at the C-USA title.

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Final Grade: A-

6. Dino Babers, Bowling Green
2014 Record:
8-6 (5-3 MAC)

Babers was considered by Athlon Sports to be one of the top hires in the new coach cycle for 2014, and the former Eastern Illinois coach and long-time assistant didn’t disappoint. Bowling Green went 8-6 overall and won the MAC East despite losing starting quarterback Matt Johnson after the opener and dealing with a handful of injuries on defense. The Falcons lost their final three games but rebounded to win the bowl matchup over South Alabama. Babers wants to implement a “Falcon Fast” approach on offense, and Bowling Green’s passing attack should be better in 2015 with Johnson back under center.

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Final Grade: B+

7. Steve Sarkisian, USC

2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Pac-12

Sarkisian’s first season at USC wasn’t perfect. But the Trojans won nine games, including a 49-14 pounding of Notre Dame and 28-26 win over Pac-12 South champ Arizona in early October. A 9-4 mark in Sarkisian’s debut certainly wasn’t awful, but USC lost three games by six points or less and was soundly defeated 38-20 by rival UCLA. Of particular concern were the Trojans’ losses to Boston College and Arizona State, games where USC was favored by double digits. Depth in the program has been a concern with scholarship sanctions, but the Trojans are finally able to sign a full class in 2015. With quarterback Cody Kessler and a solid group of young players returning on both sides of the ball returning, USC could be the favorite in the Pac-12 South next year.

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Final Grade: B

8. Charlie Strong, Texas

2014 Record: 6-7 (5-4 Big 12)

Strong is trying to change the culture of the program, and it’s evident through roster attrition he’s trying to eliminate some of the weak links and bad apples. Although Texas and Strong want to finish better than 6-7, the Longhorns overcame the loss of starting quarterback David Ash and a shuffled offensive line due to suspensions and injuries to get to a bowl. Strong’s specialty is on defense, so it was no surprise Texas limited opponents to just 4.7 yards per play. Defense should always be a strength in Austin under Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford’s watch, but the offense has to take a step forward. Is Tyrone Swoopes the right answer at quarterback? This program is trending in the right direction. However, it may take another year or two before Texas is ready to contend for a Big 12 title again.

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Final Grade: B

9. James Franklin, Penn State
2014 Record:
7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)

Much like USC’s Steve Sarkisian, Franklin is trying to juggle a roster through NCAA sanctions. According to Franklin, Penn State had only 41 scholarship players available for the Pinstripe Bowl. Most teams have around 85 scholarship players on the roster. The Nittany Lions started 4-0 but slipped to 4-4 and lost three out of their final five regular season games. A bowl win over Boston College gave Franklin’s team momentum heading into the offseason, and improved scholarship numbers should help the team address one of its glaring concerns – the offensive line. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg was constantly pressured all season, and the line surrendered 44 sacks. After losing four games by seven points or less, it’s reasonable to expect Penn State to improve by a game or two in the win column next season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the Nittany Lions’ 2015 outlook that coordinator Bob Shoop was retained after interest from LSU.

Final Grade: B

10. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
2014 Record:
7-6 (5-3 Sun Belt)

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Anderson was Arkansas State’s fifth coach in five years, yet the Red Wolves continued to have success by recording their fourth consecutive winning record. Considering the recent coaching transition and personnel losses heading into 2014, it’s no surprise Arkansas State took a small step back in the win column (8-5 in 2013 to 7-6 in '14). However, two of this team’s defeats came at the hands of Power 5 opponents (Tennessee and Miami), and the Red Wolves lost by five to an Appalachian State team that caught fire in the second half of the year. Anderson’s background on offense was showcased, as Arkansas State ranked second in the Sun Belt by averaging 36.7 points per game. Quarterback Fredi Knighten earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors in 2014, and his return should make the Red Wolves one of the front-runners for the conference title. Based on the 2014 season, all signs suggest Anderson is the right coach to keep Arkansas State as one of the top programs in the Sun Belt.

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Final Grade:B


11. Mark Whipple, UMass
2014 Record:
3-9 (3-5 MAC)

Whipple’s return to Amherst generated a two-game improvement in the win column and a team that was significantly more competitive in the MAC. The Minutemen gave Colorado (41-38) and Vanderbilt (34-31) a scare and lost three conference games by a touchdown or less. The loss of quarterback Blake Frohnapfel against Toledo prevented UMass from having a chance at winning its final two games (Akron and Buffalo). Whipple’s return also helped the Minutemen improve an offense that averaged just 4.3 yards per play in 2013. UMass averaged 5.8 yards per play in 2014, and Frohnapfel led the MAC by recording 334.5 passing yards per game. Whipple is clearly the right coach for the Minutemen, and his return comes at a critical time for a program that does not have a conference home slated for 2016 and beyond.


Final Grade: B-

12. Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)
2014 Record:
2-10 (2-6 MAC)


Martin inherited a mess and a team coming off an 0-12 record, but the RedHawks showed improvement in 2014 and finished with two wins. And with a few breaks here and there, Miami (Ohio) could have won a few more games, as Martin’s team lost five games by eight points or less. To provide an immediate boost in the win column, Martin turned to a few graduate transfers, and quarterback Andrew Hendrix (27 total TDs) and tight end Alex Welch (former Notre Dame players) were two of the team’s top offensive weapons. And the coaching staff also unearthed cornerback Quinten Rollins (a RedHawk basketball player), and the senior emerged as a NFL prospect. Martin has a lot of work to do in 2015, as Hendrix must be replaced, and the RedHawks have to find answers for a defense that allowed 33.9 points per game in MAC contests. 

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Final Grade: B-

13. Chris Petersen, Washington
2014 Record:
8-6 (4-5 Pac-12)

High expectations surrounded Petersen after he left Boise State for Washington. In eight years as the Broncos’ head coach, Petersen went 92-12 and led the program to two BCS bowl wins. The Huskies were optimistic Petersen was the right coach to elevate the program after Steve Sarkisian went 34-29 in five seasons in Seattle. But things didn’t go according to preseason expectations. Petersen finished his Washington debut at 8-6, which included a loss to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl and a last-minute defeat against Arizona. The Huskies were loaded with talent in the front seven on defense, and even with a young secondary, this unit limited Pac-12 opponents to 24 points per game. The main area of focus for Petersen this offseason should be on offense. Washington averaged only 5.4 yards per play and needs more production from the quarterback position. Finishing 8-6 isn’t necessarily a disappointment, but Petersen’s debut was a little underwhelming after most considered him to be one of the offseason’s top hires.

Final Grade: B-

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14. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
2014 Record:
3-9 (1-7 ACC)

As expected, 2014 was a struggle for Wake Forest in Clawson’s first year. The Demon Deacons had major question marks at quarterback, running back, receiver and on the offensive line. Considering all of the personnel concerns, Clawson knew 2014 was a rebuilding year and handed the keys to the offense to freshman quarterback John Wolford. Wake Forest averaged only 3.4 yards per play and a paltry 14.8 points per game. The defense was the team’s bright spot and was better than the numbers showed in 2014. Clawson is a proven winner as a head coach, enjoying success at three different programs prior to coming to Wake Forest. Although 2014 was a struggle, most of the team’s problems weren’t going to be fixed in one offseason. Expect the Demon Deacons to take a step forward in 2015.

Final Grade: B-

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15. Craig Bohl, Wyoming
2014 Record:
4-8 (2-6 Mountain West)

Bohl is going to win at a high level at Wyoming, but it’s going to take the former North Dakota State coach a few years to build the program into a consistent winner. The Cowboys started 3-1 but finished the season with just one victory over the final eight games. Three of the defeats came by 10 points or less, so there’s hope for a few more wins next year with small improvement on both sides of the ball. Wyoming struggled to find consistency in the passing game, recording only nine touchdown tosses during Mountain West play. And despite eight returning starters, the defense allowed 6.8 yards per play in conference action. Considering the scheme changes on both sides of the ball, a year of transition was expected. However, Bohl has a track record of success, and Wyoming should be in contention for a bowl in 2015.

Final Grade: C+

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16. Jeff Monken, Army
2014 Record:
4-8

Winning at West Point is no easy task. Army has just one winning season since 1997 and has lost at least eight games in four consecutive years. With a background in running the option offense, Monken should be a good fit with the Black Knights over the long haul. And this program took a small step forward by winning four games in 2014, which was the highest mark since recording seven in '10. Army beat UConn, yet lost to Yale in overtime. The Black Knights were competitive (lost by seven) against Navy, so there are signs of optimism for Monken heading into spring practice. Tough job, but Monken’s the right coach.

Final Grade: C+

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17. Charlie Partridge, FAU
2014 Record:
3-9 (2-6, C-USA)

Partridge was a highly-regarded assistant prior to his hire as FAU’s head coach, and the Florida native was known as an excellent recruiter within the state of Florida. Partridge’s ties to the high school ranks should help the Owls on the recruiting trail, and FAU is set to sign one of the top classes in C-USA for 2015. Partridge’s first season as the Owls’ head coach resulted in a three-game regression in the win column. FAU went from 6-6 in 2013 to 3-9 and won only two conference games. The Owls did lose four games by three points or less, so a couple of breaks the other way could have resulted in a 6-6 or 5-7 mark. If Partridge continues to recruit at a high level, FAU will be one of the annual contenders in C-USA’s East Division. 

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Final Grade: C+

18. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
2014 Record:
3-9 (0-8 SEC)

The bar was set high for Mason after James Franklin guided Vanderbilt to three consecutive bowl games. And the Commodores were due to regress in the win column after returning only eight starters for 2014. However, Mason’s debut was a bigger struggle than most anticipated. Vanderbilt failed to win a SEC game for the first time since 2009 and its only wins came against UMass, Old Dominion and Charleston Southern. After the three-win season, Mason isn’t sitting idle. The staff has been revamped, starting with both coordinator positions. Andy Ludwig (formerly of Wisconsin) replaces Karl Dorrell as the offensive play-caller, and Mason will handle the defensive signals. According to Vanderbilt’s game notes, the Commodores played 31 true or redshirt freshmen in 2014. That’s a good sign for the future, and Mason’s staff shuffling should be a positive for this program. Winning at Vanderbilt isn’t easy, and Mason was faced with a tough task to begin with given Franklin's three-year run. Mason needs a little time to develop some of the program’s young players before contending for a bowl.

Final Grade: D

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19. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
2014 Record:
2-10 (1-7 MAC)

Eastern Michigan is the toughest job on the FBS level. This program has only one winning season (1995) since 1990. Considering the difficulty of winning at Eastern Michigan, it’s unfair to judge Creighton based on one year. As expected in 2014, the Eagles didn’t have much success in the win column. Eastern Michigan recorded only one win in conference play and narrowly defeated Morgan State (31-28) for its only other victory of the season. Prior to taking over in Ypsilanti, Creighton went 42-22 at Drake (FCS), 63-15 at Wabash (Div. III) and 32-9 at Ottawa (NAIA). That experience should pay off in rebuilding Eastern Michigan, as it’s going to take Creighton another year or two to get this program competitive in the MAC West.

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Final Grade: D

20. Bob Diaco, UConn
2014 Record:
2-10 (1-7 American Athletic)

Diaco was a highly-regarded assistant coach prior to taking the top spot in Storrs. The New Jersey native won the 2012 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and helped to coordinate one of college football’s best defenses when Notre Dame played in the national championship game in 2012. Despite his success as an assistant, it was a tough go in Diaco’s first season as UConn’s head coach. The Huskies won only two games – Stony Brook (by three points) and a 37-29 victory over UCF – and finished the year on a four-game losing streak. During that late-season skid, UConn dropped its finale to SMU, arguably one of the worst teams in the nation in 2014. In fairness to Diaco, he didn’t inherit much to work with. The Huskies had major offensive line issues, uncertainty at quarterback and a defense with just five returning starters. It’s hard to find improvement in UConn’s 2014 season. But Diaco inherited a mess and needs more than a year to right the ship.


Final Grade: D