Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2019

Examining which first-year coaches did the best job in 2019

The 2019 college football season featured 27 new coaches at FBS programs, and with the year completed, it's time to grade and rank the hires. Ohio State's Ryan Day and Louisville's Scott Satterfield were considered two of the top hires last offseason and didn't disappoint in their first year at the helm. Day guided the Buckeyes to the CFB Playoff, while Satterfield led the Cardinals to a six-game improvement in the win column. WKU's Tyson Helton, North Carolina's Mack Brown and Kansas State's Chris Klieman also deserve high marks for their first season.


With the season officially in the books, Athlon Sports has ranked and graded the 27 full-time coaching hires from the 2019 coaching carousel. 


Grading College Football's First-Year Coaching Hires for 2019


1. Ryan Day, Ohio State

Before: 13-1 (8-1)

After: 13-1 (9-0)


Day ensured Ohio State didn’t miss a beat as he inherited the difficult task of replacing Urban Meyer. In his first season as the head coach, Day guided the Buckeyes to 13 victories, a Big Ten championship and a trip to the CFB Playoff. Ohio State won all 13 games by at least 11 points and finished No. 1 in the ESPN SP+ rankings for 2019. As expected, Day called the plays for a dynamic offense once again. The Buckeyes averaged 46.9 points a game and nearly seven yards a play (6.94).

Final Grade: A+


2. Scott Satterfield, Louisville

Before: 2-10 (0-8)

After: 8-5 (5-3)


Satterfield quickly showed why he ranked as the top hire in the 2018-19 coach carousel by Athlon Sports. After a disastrous 2018 season under Bobby Petrino, both sides of the ball for Louisville showed marked improvement in a year where the program improved its win total by six games. The Cardinals averaged 33.1 points a game (up from 19.8 in 2018) and the defense gave up 11 fewer points a contest than it did the previous season. Louisville knocked off Coastal Division champ Virginia and also defeated Mississippi State to earn the program’s first bowl victory since 2015.

Final Grade: A+


3. Tyson Helton, WKU

Before: 3-9 (2-6)

After: 9-4 (6-2)


WKU equaled its win total (nine) from 2017-18 combined in Helton’s first year at the helm. The Hilltoppers started Helton’s tenure with a surprising 35-28 loss to FCS opponent Central Arkansas but rebounded by winning eight of the final 10 games. Included in that stretch were victories over C-USA West champ UAB and Western Michigan in the First Responders Bowl. A strong defense led the way for Helton’s first team. WKU led Conference USA by holding teams to 20.1 points a game and only one of the last 10 opponents managed to reach 30 points in a contest.

Final Grade: A+


4. Chris Klieman, Kansas State

Before: 5-7 (3-6)

After: 8-5 (5-4)


It’s never easy replacing a coaching legend, but Klieman successfully filled the big shoes left behind by Bill Snyder. Kansas State improved by three victories from 2018 and tied for third in the Big 12 with a 5-4 mark in conference play. The Wildcats picked up a big non-conference win at Mississippi State and was the only team to defeat Oklahoma in the regular season. Of Kansas State’s five losses, three came by four points or less. Klieman will have a few holes to fill in 2020, but this hire already looks like a home run for the Wildcats.

Final Grade: A


5. Mack Brown, North Carolina

Before: 2-9 (1-7)

After: 7-6 (4-4)


Brown is off to a strong start in his return to the sidelines in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels improved their win total by five games from 2018 and weren't too far from double-digit victories with all six defeats coming by seven points or less. The program also ended the season on a high note with three consecutive wins, including a decisive 55-13 win over Temple in the Military Bowl. A high-powered offense led by freshman quarterback Sam Howell averaged 33.1 points a game, and the defense showed big-time improvement by holding teams to 23.7 points a contest after giving up 34.5 in 2018. With Howell and a loaded offense in place, the Coastal Division title is within reach in 2020.

Final Grade: A   


Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2020


6. Jim McElwain, Central Michigan

Before: 1-11 (0-8)

After: 8-6 (6-2)


The Chippewas showed marked improvement in McElwain’s first year. Central Michigan made one of the biggest one-year jumps of any program in the nation by winning seven more games than it did in 2018. Additionally, McElwain guided the Chippewas to their first MAC West title since 2009 and earned a trip to the New Mexico Bowl. McElwain’s background on offense had a huge impact on that side of the ball. After averaging just 15 points a game last year, Central Michigan averaged 30.4 a contest in 2019.

Final Grade: A


7. Will Healy, Charlotte

Before: 5-7 (4-4)

After: 7-6 (5-3)


Healy is a rising star in the FBS coaching ranks and his first season at Charlotte only increased his stock. The 49ers posted their highest win total (seven) and the first bowl appearance (Bahamas) in program history last year. Charlotte got off to a slow start with a 2-5 start but got stronger as the season progressed with five wins over the final six games. An improved offense was instrumental in Healy’s debut. The 49ers averaged 29.8 points a game, which marked an eight-point increase from 2018 (21.7).

Final Grade: A


8. Eli Drinkwitz, Appalachian State

Before: 11-2 (7-1)

After: 13-1 (7-1)


Drinkwitz stepped into one of the best situations for any first-year coach in 2019. Appalachian State returned 15 starters – including standout quarterback Zac Thomas – from a team that won 11 games in 2018. Drinkwitz maintained or topped the pace in some respects from the previous year, as the Mountaineers defeated two Power 5 teams (North Carolina and South Carolina) and only one win against a Sun Belt opponent came by one score. Drinkwitz parlayed his successful 2019 season into the head-coaching position at Missouri.

Final Grade: A


9. Hugh Freeze, Liberty

Before: 6-6

After: 8-5


Freeze returned to the sidelines after a two-year absence, guiding Liberty to the program’s first winning record in its short tenure at the FBS level. The Flames won eight games on the strength of an offense that averaged 32.8 points a game, but the defense showed marked improvement by holding teams to 28.1 per contest. Additionally, Freeze led the program to its first bowl win, a 23-16 victory over Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl.

Final Grade: A


10. Neal Brown, West Virginia

Before: 8-4 (6-3)

After: 5-7 (3-6)


With Will Grier and David Sills off to the NFL, the 2019 season was already set to be a rebuilding year in Morgantown. However, Brown was hit with some unexpected attrition on both sides of the ball after spring practice, which only added to the challenge in his first year. Despite the significant roster turnover, West Virginia just missed a bowl and lost games against Baylor and Oklahoma State by a combined 10 points. Upgrading an offense that averaged only 20.6 points a game and features question marks at quarterback and along the offensive line holds the key to a winning record in 2020.

Final Grade: B-


Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2020


11. Rod Carey, Temple

Before: 8-5 (7-1)

After: 8-5 (5-3)


Carey was the second coach hired by Temple last offseason after Manny Diaz left for Miami. The former Northern Illinois coach started his tenure off on a high note, as the Owls defeated two Power 5 teams (Maryland and Georgia Tech) and knocked off Memphis – the top Group of 5 team – en route to a 5-1 start. Temple finished 3-4 over the next seven games, which included a 55-13 loss to North Carolina in the Military Bowl. Rebuilding a defense that ranked third in the AAC will be the top offseason priority for Carey.

Final Grade: B-


12. Gary Andersen, Utah State

Before: 11-2 (7-1)

After: 7-6 (6-2)


Despite returning quarterback Jordan Love and seven starters from a defense that held teams under 23 points a game in 2018, Utah State slipped from 11 victories to seven in Andersen’s return to the sidelines in Logan. A non-conference schedule that swapped New Mexico State and Tennessee Tech for Wake Forest and LSU didn’t do Andersen any favors, but ESPN’s SP+ rankings illustrate how much this team regressed. After finishing No. 21 in 2018, Utah State slipped to No. 83 last season.

Final Grade: C+


13. Geoff Collins, Georgia Tech

Before: 7-6 (5-3)

After: 3-9 (2-6)


The 2019 season was essentially a Year Zero for Collins. Georgia Tech began a massive transition away from the option offense to more of a spread approach and returned just seven starters from a team that won seven games in 2018. Among the nine losses was an overtime defeat to FCS opponent The Citadel and six other defeats by 16 or more points. However, there were signs of progress in the second half of the season. The Yellow Jackets stung Miami and beat NC State to avoid a winless ACC mark. Collins is a good recruiter and has a plan to get this program on track. After growing pains in 2019, there should be visible progress next season.

Final Grade: C+


Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2020


14. Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina

Before: 5-7 (2-6)

After: 5-7 (2-6)


Chadwell worked as the interim coach while Joe Moglia took a medical leave during the 2017 season, but 2019 represented his first full year in charge. The Chanticleers defeated a Power 5 team (Kansas) for the first time as an FBS member and just missed out on a bowl with four Sun Belt losses by no more than 10 points. While the record (5-7) was the same as it was in Moglia’s final year, Coastal Carolina showed improvement on the stat sheet on both sides of the ball and seems headed in the right direction for the 2020 season.

Final Grade: C+


15. Mike Houston, East Carolina

Before: 3-9 (1-7)

After: 4-8 (1-7)


Houston ranked as one of the best hires in the 2018-19 carousel, and despite the 4-8 mark in his first year, East Carolina seems to be trending in the right direction. The Pirates picked up only one victory (UConn) in AAC play but nearly pulled off upsets against Cincinnati (lost by three points) and SMU (eight) in November. Making the jump to a bowl game will require major improvement on defense after East Carolina surrendered 6.5 yards a play in 2019.

Final Grade: C


16. Mel Tucker, Colorado

Before: 5-7 (2-7)

After: 5-7 (3-6)


The Buffaloes appeared to be on pace for a bowl game in Tucker’s debut after a 3-1 start to the season. The three victories included a 52-31 victory over rival Colorado State, a road 34-31 upset versus Arizona State and an overtime win against Nebraska. Colorado scored November wins over Stanford and Washington to stay in the mix for a bowl but finished with losses in six out of their final eight games. The defense – Tucker’s area of expertise – regressed on the stat sheet, while the offense finished 10th in the Pac-12 in yards per play.

Final Grade: C


17. Matt Wells, Texas Tech

Before: 5-7 (3-6)

After: 4-8 (2-7)


The Red Raiders’ win total regressed by one from 2018 in Wells’ first season but overcoming injuries to quarterback Alan Bowman and standout offensive lineman Jack Anderson wasn’t easy. Despite missing two of the team’s best players, Texas Tech suffered five of its seven Big 12 defeats by 10 points or less and three came by three points or fewer. The defense – a longstanding issue in Lubbock – was once again porous. The Red Raiders gave up 35.9 points a game and 7.2 yards a play in Big 12 contests in 2019.

Final Grade: C-


Related: College Football's Early Breakout Players for 2020


18. Dana Holgorsen, Houston

Before: 8-5 (5-3)

After: 4-8 (2-6)


The combination of Holgorsen’s high-powered offense and dynamic quarterback D’Eriq King was supposed to lift Houston into contention for the AAC title. However, after a 1-3 start, King decided to redshirt the rest of the year and eventually transferred to Miami in late January. The Cougars weren’t as explosive on offense without King, but the defense shared a role in the four-win season after it surrendered 34 points a game. With most of the two-deep returning in 2021, Holgorsen – the nation’s highest-paid Group of 5 coach – has a chance to rebound after a disappointing debut. 

Final Grade: C-


19. Manny Diaz, Miami

Before: 7-6 (4-4)

After: 6-7 (4-4)


Diaz’s first season ended with a disappointing three-game losing streak that included defeats to FIU, Duke and a no-show performance against Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl. The lackluster finish capped an up-and-down debut for the Miami native. The Hurricanes lost all seven games by 14 points or less but also picked up big wins over rival Florida State and ACC Coastal champion Virginia 17-9. Diaz wasted no time making changes at the end of the season. Miami will have a new coordinator and scheme on offense next fall, with Houston transfer D’Eriq King brought in to be the answer at quarterback.

Final Grade: C-


20. Les Miles, Kansas

Before: 3-9 (1-8)

After: 3-9 (1-8)


Miles provided a much-needed boost for a program that hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009. However, the on-field results resembled many of those previous teams. Kansas opened the season by beating Indiana State but lost to Coastal Carolina in Week 2. A week later, the Jayhawks pulled off a stunning 48-24 win at Boston College. Miles’ team notched a victory versus Texas Tech in late October to avoid a winless season in Big 12 play and was competitive in losses to Texas (lost by two points), West Virginia (five), and Iowa State (10). With several key seniors departing, things may get worse for Miles before they improve in Lawrence.

Final Grade: C-


21. Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois

Before: 8-6 (6-2)

After: 5-7 (4-4)


Last year’s 5-7 record was just the second time Northern Illinois finished a season with fewer than six victories since 2008. Hammock’s first year at his alma mater featured quality wins in MAC play over Western Michigan, Toledo and Ohio, but the Huskies lost to Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan by a combined score of 93-27. Close losses to Ball State (seven points) and Miami (Ohio) (three) cost Hammock’s team from reaching six games and a bowl trip. Northern Illinois’ defense slipped from the 2018 version that helped lead the program to a MAC title but improving an offense that has finished 10th in the conference in scoring in back-to-back years is an offseason priority.

Final Grade: C-


22. Mike Locksley, Maryland

Before: 5-7 (3-6)

After: 3-9 (1-8)


Maryland got off to a fast start in Locksley’s return to College Park by defeating Howard and Syracuse by a combined score of 142-20. However, the Terrapins won just one contest over their final 10 games and scored only 161 points in that span. The program’s only victory in Big Ten play came against Rutgers but two other games (Michigan State and Indiana) were decided by no more than six points. Both sides of the ball left a lot to be desired. Maryland averaged just 16 points in conference games and surrendered 41.8 in Big Ten matchups. Locksley is regarded for his recruiting prowess and a couple of classes are needed to get this program on track.

Final Grade: D


Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2020


23. Scot Loeffler, Bowling Green

Before: 3-9 (2-6)

After: 3-9 (2-6)


Loeffler’s first year didn’t register any improvement in the win column, but Bowling Green had a few signs of progress. The Falcons pounded Morgan State 46-3 in the opener and defeated Toledo for the first time since 2009. Loeffler worked as an offensive coordinator at four different jobs prior to taking over at Bowling Green, but this side of the ball struggled in 2019. The Falcons averaged only 16 points a game – the lowest mark since 2000 – and was held to 10 or fewer points in six contests. Loeffler wasn’t brought in to engineer an overnight fix and signing one of the MAC’s top recruiting classes for 2020 provides optimism for improvement next fall.

Grade: D


24. Jake Spavital, Texas State

Before: 3-9 (1-7)

After: 3-9 (2-6)


Texas State returned one of college football’s most-experienced rosters but couldn’t translate returning production into wins in Spavital’s debut. The Bobcats won two games in Sun Belt play by a combined five points and lost six out of their final seven contests overall. Both sides of the ball regressed under the new staff. Spavital’s offense tied for last in the Sun Belt in scoring (18.4 ppg), while the defense slipped to sixth (32.6) after allowing 27.7 a contest in 2018.

Final Grade: D


25. Chip Lindsey, Troy

Before: 10-3 (7-1)

After: 5-7 (3-5)


Troy was one of the biggest disappointments at the Group of 5 level in 2019. After losing just eight games from 2016-18, the Trojans lost seven times in Lindsey’s debut. Despite a productive season from first-team All-Sun Belt quarterback Kaleb Barker and an experienced roster from a team that won 10 games in 2018, Troy beat only one team with a winning record and lost its last two contests by a combined score of 101-16. Defensive struggles were primarily to blame for the five-win regression. After holding teams to 22 points a game in 2018, the Trojans surrendered 34.8 in ’19.

Grade: D


26. Walt Bell, UMass

Before: 4-8

After: 1-11


Facing a brutal schedule as an FBS Independent and a depth chart that featured just six returning starters from 2018, Bell’s debut was all about building a foundation for 2020 and beyond. The Minutemen defeated Akron on Sept. 28 to earn their only victory of the season. However, UMass was soundly defeated by at least 21 points in all 11 of its losses. The offense cycled through three starting quarterbacks and averaged only 19.8 points a game. The Minutemen lacked size and depth on defense, which translated into the unit surrendering 52.7 points a contest and 7.8 yards a play. Bell will need a couple of years to get this program on the right track.

Grade: D-


27. Tom Arth, Akron

Before: 4-8 (2-6)

After: 0-12 (0-8)


With eight winning seasons since 1987 and financial concerns, Akron is not an easy place to coach. Arth returned to his home state of Ohio after two years at FCS member Chattanooga and inherited a program in need of repair. However, as evidenced by the 2019 season, the Zips are headed for a complete teardown and rebuild. Akron finished winless for the first time in program history at the FBS level, with only two of the 12 defeats coming by one score. Arth’s background is on offense, but the results weren’t pretty on that side of the ball. The Zips scored just 15 touchdowns all year, averaged 10.5 points a game and 4.02 yards a play.

Grade: D-

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