Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2015

Which first-year coaches did the best job in 2015?

College football’s coaching carousel is one of the most interesting aspects of any season. Coaches are under more pressure than ever before to win and win immediately. The rumor mill never stops churning either. Once one year ends, the hot seat and replacements talk heats up for the next offseason. 


It’s no secret coaching changes can have an instant impact on a problem, but some hires need a couple of years to rebuild a mess inherited from the previous staff. Winning right away as a new coach doesn’t necessarily guarantee long-term success, but it’s easy to get a read on the outlook for any coach after one season. With that in mind, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 15 coaching hires from the 2015 coaching carousel.


Houston’s Tom Herman and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh earned the highest marks from the 2015 season, with Florida’s Jim McElwain and Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi taking the next two spots in our rankings. 


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


Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2015


1. Tom Herman, Houston

2015 Record: 13-1


It’s a close call between Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Houston’s Tom Herman for the No. 1 spot on this list. However, the edge goes to Herman after a 13-1 debut and a No. 8 overall finish in the Associated Press poll. Herman’s H-Town Takeover is well underway, as the Cougars tied the single-season record for most wins in school history (13), claimed a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State and won a conference title for the first time since 2006. Houston also scored a key road win at Louisville and easily handled Vanderbilt 34-0 in late October. Additionally, the only loss suffered in 2015 was the only game quarterback Greg Ward did not start (injury). With non-conference matchups against Oklahoma and Louisville next season, along with the return of Ward and the top recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference, Herman has Houston poised for another breakthrough campaign in 2016.


Final Grade: A+


Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2016


2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

2015 Record: 10-3


Harbaugh was widely considered the top hire in last year’s coaching carousel. And after one season in Ann Arbor, it’s clear Michigan with Harbaugh guiding the program is well on its way to becoming an annual threat to make the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines improved their win total by five games in Harbaugh’s first season, soundly defeated Florida (41-7) in the Citrus Bowl and lost two of its three games by a touchdown or less, including one of the season’s craziest endings in a last-second defeat against Michigan State. With an elite recruiting class coming to campus and 14 starters returning, Michigan will be picked near the top of the Big Ten and should be a top-10 team next fall.


Final Grade: A+


3. Jim McElwain, Florida

2015 Record: 10-4


McElwain’s first season at Florida was quite the roller-coaster ride. The Gators started 6-0 behind an impressive 38-10 victory over Ole Miss and a last-minute 28-27 win over Tennessee. However, the Gators season took an interesting turn in mid-October, as starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for one year for violating NCAA policy. Florida’s passing attack never recovered with Grier out of the lineup, but the Gators still won the SEC East and finished 10-4 overall. The inconsistency of the passing attack was a big reason why Florida finished the year with three consecutive losses, but McElwain pushed several of the right buttons to guide the program to a SEC East title.


Final Grade: A


4. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh

2015 Record: 8-5


Instability at head coach has been a theme for Pittsburgh in recent years. The program has watched four different coaches and three interim appointments in bowl games pace the sidelines over the last six seasons. While none of that is good news for any program, Pittsburgh found the right man for the job in Narduzzi. The former Michigan State defensive coordinator went 8-5 in his first season in the Steel City and guided the program to a 6-2 mark (highest since joining the ACC) in league play. The Panthers also spent time in the Associated Press top 25 in 2015, the first time the program has reached that goal since 2010. After a period of instability, Narduzzi’s arrival has Pittsburgh trending up and poised to contend for the Coastal Division title once again in the coming seasons.


Final Grade: B+


Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2016


5. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa

2015 Record: 6-7


Montgomery worked under Art Briles from 2003-14 at two different FBS jobs (Houston and Baylor), but the Texas native was a relative unknown when he took the top spot at Tulsa. While Montgomery played a key role in the development of the high-powered offenses at Houston and Baylor, the credit for the success went to Briles. But Montgomery is well on his way to earning national respect after an impressive debut as Tulsa’s head coach. The Golden Hurricane made a four-game jump in the win column in Montgomery’s first season, showed marked improvement on offense and earned a spot in the Independence Bowl. Montgomery is a promising up-and-coming coach to watch in 2016 and beyond.  


Final Grade: B+


6. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

2015 Record: 10-3


After three seasons as the head coach at Pittsburgh, Chryst returned to Madison to lead his alma mater. Chryst was only 19-19 in three seasons with the Panthers but was a good fit for the Badgers after Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State. Chryst was solid in his return to the Wisconsin sidelines, guiding the program to a 10-3 record and a 6-2 mark in league play. One of the Badgers’ defeats came at the hands of national champion Alabama (35-17) and the other two (Iowa and Northwestern) were decided by a touchdown or less. Losing coordinator Dave Aranda was a huge blow for Chryst and a tougher schedule is on tap for 2016. Chryst’s biggest priority will be finding a quarterback and developing an offensive line that featured four freshmen starting in the Holiday Bowl.


Final Grade: B+


7. John Bonamego, Central Michigan

2015 Record: 7-6


Bonamego was a curious hire after Dan Enos’ late departure for Arkansas last season. His last coaching job in college was at Army in 1998 and his career as an assistant in the NFL was spent on special teams. But Bonamego quickly proved to be a solid hire for Central Michigan, as the Chippewas finished 7-6 and tied for the MAC West’s top spot at 6-2 in league play. Additionally, Central Michigan gave Oklahoma State (24-13) all it could handle, lost by three to Syracuse and defeated Northern Illinois – the MAC West champion. With a full offseason at the controls, Bonamego can make the necessary changes to build off last season’s success and continue to put his stamp on the program.


Final Grade: B


Related: A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2016


8. Mike Bobo, Colorado State

2015 Record: 7-6


Colorado State returned to the SEC for its next coach after Jim McElwain – a former SEC assistant – left to be the head coach at Florida. Bobo had a similar profile to McElwain as an offensive coordinator at a high-level program (Georgia), and this job (Colorado State) was his first opportunity to be a head coach. Bobo inherited 14 returning starters, but the program had transition in schemes on both sides of the ball and a new starting quarterback. The result was a 7-6 mark, which included two overtime losses – Colorado and Minnesota – against Power 5 opponents. The Rams finished the season on a high note by winning four out of their last five games. Bobo’s debut was solid, but he has plenty of work ahead in the spring with standout receiver Rashard Higgins off to the NFL and a handful of seniors departing on both sides of the ball.


Final Grade: B-


9. Mike Riley, Nebraska

2015 Record: 6-7


Nebraska’s athletic director Shawn Eichorst’s decision to hire Riley as Bo Pelini’s replacement came as a surprise, and the first-year coach received plenty of criticism after the Cornhuskers finished with their first losing record (6-7) since 2007. However, Riley’s first season had its share of bad luck and depth issues left behind by the previous staff. A minus-12 turnover margin was tough to overcome, especially since Nebraska lost six games by eight points or less. If the Cornhuskers eliminate some of the turnovers and quarterback Tommy Armstrong takes a step forward in his development, a few of the close losses should become wins in 2016. While the seven-loss season certainly left a lot to be desired, Nebraska ranked as the No. 36 team in Football Outsiders F+ rankings – only six spots worse than 2014. Coaches are expected to win and win big in Lincoln. But considering how close the Cornhuskers were to eight wins, Riley’s debut maybe wasn't as bad as the record indicated.


Final Grade: C+


Related: Top 50 Players Returning in College Football for 2016


10. Neal Brown, Troy

2015 Record: 4-8


Brown is one of the nation’s youngest coaches, but the Kentucky native was ready for this opportunity after working as an offensive coordinator at three different programs – Troy, Kentucky and Texas Tech – from 2008-14. In his first year at the helm, Brown guided Troy to a 4-8 mark – a one-game improvement from 2014. Advanced metrics also gave favorable ratings for Brown in his debut, as the Trojans jumped from 126 (2014) to 90 (2015) in the F+ rankings by Football Outsiders. Troy was closer to adding to the win total with three losses by six points or less, and both sides of the ball made improvement on the stat sheet.


Final Grade: C+


11. Tony Sanchez, UNLV

2015 Record: 3-9


UNLV is a tough job. The program has played in only two bowl games since 1995 and only one season (2013) has resulted in more than three wins since 2010. Needless to say, Sanchez inherited a rebuilding project and needs a lot of time to transform this program into a consistent bowl contender. Sanchez made the rare jump from high school (Bishop Gorman) to FBS head coach. After winning 85 games at Bishop Gorman, Sanchez went 3-9 in his debut but won a rivalry game (Nevada) and lost four games by eight points or less. The on-field improvement was notable in Football Outsiders’ F+ rankings, as the Rebels jumped from 118 (2014) to 105 nationally. Transitioning from the high school to the college ranks isn’t easy, but Sanchez hired a good staff and helped the program take a step forward in 2015.


Final Grade: C+


12. Lance Leipold, Buffalo

2015 Record: 5-7


Leipold was an ultra-successful coach at the Division III level, winning 109 games from 2007-14 and six national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Few coaches in last year’s hiring cycle could match Leipold’s credentials, and the jump from Division III to the FBS level made this hire one of the more intriguing moves in the coaching carousel. Year one for Leipold at Buffalo produced more losses (seven) than he had during his eight years (six) at Wisconsin-Whitewater. However, the Bulls were just a few plays away from reaching the postseason. Buffalo gave MAC champ Bowling Green (28-22) all it could handle, lost by five against UMass, by three to Nevada and by 11 to MAC West champ Northern Illinois. The Bulls have a few holes to fill on both sides of the ball for 2016, but Leipold is bringing in a solid recruiting class and the players are more familiar with the schemes on both sides of the ball.


Final Grade: C


Related: College Football's Top 15 Projected Breakout Players for 2016


13. Gary Andersen, Oregon State

2015 Record: 2-10


A rebuilding year was expected at Oregon State in 2015. The Beavers returned only nine starters from a team that went 5-7 in 2014 and entered the season with question marks at the quarterback position. With that in mind, it’s no surprise Andersen’s debut resulted in a 2-10 record. The Beavers were simply outmanned on both sides of the ball. The offense ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring (19 ppg), and the defense was last in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (6.4). After winning 19 games at Wisconsin from 2013-14 and taking Utah State from 4-8 in 2009 to 11-2 and a top 25 ranking in 2012, it’s clear Andersen is the right coach to rebuild Oregon State. Unfortunately, rebuilding in the Pac-12 isn’t easy. The Beavers will be better in 2016 but are a year away from the postseason.


Final Grade: C


14. Chad Morris, SMU

2015 Record: 2-10


Morris was considered one of the top coaching hires last January, but success was hard to come by in his first year. The Mustangs finished 2-10 last season but made a jump from 127 (2014) to 106 in Football Outsiders’ team rankings. While this team improved its win total by only one game from 2014 to 2015, there were signs of progress. SMU’s offense averaged 27.8 points – up from 11.1 in 2014. Morris has this program trending in the right direction and a solid recruiting class is on the way to Dallas to help the rebuilding project for 2016 and beyond. Better days (and seasons) are coming for Morris and the Mustangs.


Final Grade: C


15. David Beaty, Kansas

2015 Record: 0-12


Considering Beaty inherited a mess from the former coaching staff and a roster thin on overall numbers and talent, it’s unfair to place the blame for Kansas’ 0-12 record on his shoulders. The Jayhawks lost seven games by 30 points or more, ranked last in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed on defense and generated on offense and only one player (Fish Smithson) earned All-Big 12 honors. But there were a few positives for Beaty in his first season. Kansas nearly knocked off TCU (23-17) and Texas Tech (30-20) and a few freshmen – QB Ryan Willis, DT Daniel Wise and DE Dorance Armstrong – showed flashes of promise. Beaty needs a couple of recruiting classes to get Kansas back in contention for a bowl. 


Final Grade: C-

(Credit to @UHCougarFB/Stephen Pinchback for the top photo of Tom Herman)

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