Grading College Football's Head Coach Hires for 2015

Jim Harbaugh ranks as the No. 1 hire.

College football’s coaching carousel for the 2014-15 season has finished and only 14 programs changed coaches. The 14 changes among FBS programs is the lowest mark since the 2006 season (11). After at least 21 teams changed coaches from 2009-13, there’s a period of stability settling into the coaching ranks. However, the drop in changes isn’t expected to last forever.

Most programs seemed to hit the right marks in their coaching search this season. Michigan was the biggest winner in the carousel by hiring Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers. Harbaugh should win at a high level in Ann Arbor and is a critical hire for a program that needs to get back to the nation’s elite. Oregon State (Gary Andersen), Houston (Tom Herman), SMU (Chad Morris), Buffalo (Lance Leipold), Florida (Jim McElwain) and Pittsburgh (Pat Narduzzi) also earn high marks for their new coaching hires.   

Grading College Football's New Coaching Hires for 2015

1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Previous Job:
49ers head coach
Career Record: 29-6 (San Diego), 29-21 (Stanford), 44-19-1 (49ers)

We could spend thousands of words discussing Harbaugh’s hire at Michigan, but it’s simply summed up in this statement: This is the best hire for the Wolverines and an opportunity for the program to reclaim its status as one of the nation’s elite. Harbaugh was the top target for Michigan after Brady Hoke was fired and is the best fit for a program that has been trending in the wrong direction since an 11-2 mark in 2011. Harbaugh’s ties to Michigan are no secret. He played four seasons for coach Bo Schembechler  and was the 1986 Big Ten Player of the Year. Harbaugh played in the NFL from 1987-2001 and worked as a volunteer assistant coach with his father (Jack) at Western Kentucky from 1994-2001. After his playing career in the NFL was finished, Harbaugh worked with the Raiders from 2002-03 and was named San Diego’s head coach in 2004. The Toreros went 29-6 under Harbaugh’s direction, who left in 2007 for Stanford. The Cardinal increased their win total in each of the four seasons under Harbaugh, culminating in a 12-1 record in 2010. And Harbaugh was successful in the NFL, finishing his tenure with the 49ers at 44-19-1. Michigan needed a home-run hire to get the program back on track. Harbaugh is exactly what the Wolverines needed, and his arrival certainly doesn’t hurt the Big Ten as a whole. If Michigan is in contention again, it only helps the perception of the conference.

Final Grade: A+
 

2. Gary Andersen, Oregon State   

Previous Job: Head coach at Wisconsin
Career Record: 19-7 (2013-14, Wisconsin), 26-24 (2009-12, Utah State), 4-7 (2003, Southern Utah)

Andersen’s decision to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State qualifies as one of the biggest surprises in coaching moves in recent years. Under Andersen’s watch, the Badgers went 19-7 and won the Big Ten West Division in 2014. Prior to his two-year stint in Madison, Andersen went 26-24 at Utah State, which included an 18-8 record over the final two seasons. In the six years before Andersen’s tenure in Logan, the Aggies did not win more than three games in a season. However, he guided Utah State to back-to-back bowl games and a No. 16 rank in the final Associated Press poll in 2012. Andersen also spent one year at Southern Utah (2003) and was an assistant from 1997-2002 and 2004-08 at Utah. Even though Andersen was successful at Wisconsin, he wanted to get back on the West Coast and Oregon State was open after Mike Riley left for Nebraska. Oregon State isn’t an easy job, but Andersen’s recruiting ties out west and in the junior college ranks will help to establish a solid talent base. Andersen is arguably one of the top 25-30 coaches in the nation. This is a great hire for an Oregon State program that struggled mightily prior to Riley’s first tenure in 1997.  

Final Grade: A
 

3. Tom Herman, Houston
Previous Job:
Offensive coordinator at Ohio State
Career Record: First season

Few coaches had a better 2014-15 season than Herman. The Ohio native played a huge role in Ohio State’s national championship run, won the Broyles Award as the top assistant in college football and landed a FBS head coaching gig at one of the best jobs in the American Athletic Conference. Herman was born in Ohio, but he has deep coaching roots in Texas. After a playing career at California Lutheran, Herman was hired as Texas Lutheran’s wide receivers coach in 1998. After one season at Texas Lutheran, Herman worked as a grad assistant at Texas from 1999-2000 and was hired at Sam Houston State from 2001-04 as a wide receivers/special teams assistant. Herman coordinated Texas State’s offenses from 2005-06 and spent the next two years at Rice (2007-08), guiding the Owls to an average of 41.3 points per game in 2008. After three seasons at Iowa State, Herman jumped at the opportunity to coordinate Ohio State’s offense in 2012. The Buckeyes averaged 37.2 points per game in Herman’s first year and jumped to 45.5 per game in 2013 and 44.8 in '14. Herman’s coaching ability was on full display this season after Ohio State lost starting quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller due to injuries, and third-stringer Cardale Jones guided the Buckeyes to the national championship. Despite this being Herman's first opportunity to be a head coach, there are few negatives for Houston. Herman is the right hire at the right time for the Cougars.

Final Grade: A

4. Chad Morris, SMU
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator at Clemson
Career Record: First season

Morris has been considered one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks since he ascended to the play-caller position at Clemson in 2011. The Texas native lands in a good situation at SMU, as the program has the necessary resources and talent base to contend in the American Athletic Conference, and Morris has many ties to the state. June Jones helped the program get back on track after the Mustangs posted just one winning season from 1989-2008. However, Morris seems like the right hire to elevate SMU into conference title contention. The 46-year-old coach coordinated one of the nation’s top offenses at Clemson, guiding the program to its three highest point totals in school history. Additionally, the Tigers won at least 10 games in each of Morris’ four seasons and shared or won the ACC Atlantic Division title twice. Prior to the last four years at Clemson, Morris served as Tulsa’s play-caller in 2010 and guided the Golden Hurricane to an average of 41.4 points per game. He also worked as a high school head coach from 1994-2009 at five programs in Texas. The only downside to Morris is the lack of FBS head coaching experience. However, that shouldn’t prevent Morris from winning at a high level at SMU.

Final Grade: A
 

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5. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
Previous Job:
Head coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater        

Career Record: 109-6 (2007-14 at Wisconsin-Whitewater)

Leipold has the best record among new coaches taking over a FBS program in 2014. The Wisconsin native went 109-6 in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater, leading the Warhawks to six national championships in that span. Under Leipold’s direction, Wisconsin-Whitewater had only one season of more than two losses (2012). Prior to taking over at UW-Whitewater, Leipold worked as an assistant coach from 1987-2006 at a handful of programs. Leipold served as Nebraska-Omaha’s offensive coordinator from 2004-06, was an assistant at Nebraska from 2001-03 and worked as a graduate assistant under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin from 1991-93. If Leipold continues to win at a high level, he won’t be at Buffalo for more than five years. But that’s a good problem for the Bulls to (potentially) have. Stepping up to the FBS level will present a few challenges, but Buffalo hit a home run by getting Leipold away from Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Final Grade: A

6. Jim McElwain, Florida
Previous Job:
Head coach at Colorado State
Career Record: 22-16 (2012-14 at Colorado State)

Florida is one of the top jobs in the nation, but this program has just one 10-win season since 2010 (11-2 in 2012). McElwain is tasked with bringing Florida football back to the nation’s elite and fix an offense that has struggled mightily in recent years. The Gators have not averaged more than 5.1 yards per play (in SEC play) since 2009. McElwain’s background on offense should pay dividends, as he helped to guide a Colorado State attack that averaged 33.9 points per game in 2014. And under McElwain’s direction as Alabama’s coordinator, the offense averaged at least 5.8 yards per play (SEC matchups). The Rams showed steady improvement in the win column, improving from 4-8 in McElwain’s first year to 8-6 in 2013 and 10-3 in '14. In addition to his stints at Colorado State and Alabama, McElwain spent time as an assistant at Fresno State, Michigan State, Louisville and in the NFL with the Raiders. McElwain isn’t necessarily the big-name hire most expected Florida to make. But what’s not to like about this hire? He’s a proven winner as a head coach, has worked in the SEC at Alabama and has been successful in developing offenses. McElwain should get Florida back on track in the next few years.

Final Grade: A-
 

7. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
Previous Job:
Defensive coordinator at Michigan State
Career Record: First season

Narduzzi was widely regarded as one of the top assistants in college football, and after eight years at Michigan State, the Youngstown native departs for his first opportunity to be a head coach. Under Narduzzi’s direction, the Spartans led the Big Ten in fewest yards per play allowed from 2011-13 and finished first in the conference in scoring defense in the 2012 and '13 seasons. And Narduzzi’s aggressive approach has paid off, as Michigan State recorded at least 32 sacks in four out of the last six seasons. Prior to his stint with the Spartans, Narduzzi worked at Cincinnati (2004-06) and Miami, Ohio (2003) as a defensive coordinator. And he also has stops as an assistant at Northern Illinois and Rhode Island. After having three coaches in the last five years, Pittsburgh needs stability at the top spot. Narduzzi is familiar with the area, is one of the nation’s top defensive minds and is ready to be a head coach. Everything points to this being a successful hire, but Narduzzi will need a year or two to shape the roster and accumulate the defensive talent needed to show marked improvement on that side of the ball.

Final Grade: A-

 

8. Mike Riley, Nebraska    

Previous Job: Head coach at Oregon State
Career Record: 93-80 (1997-98, 2003-14 at Oregon State), 14-34 (Chargers, 1999-2001)

Riley’s departure from Oregon State to Nebraska caught the college football world by surprise. Most expected Riley to finish his career in Corvallis, but the 61-year-old coach was ready for a new challenge. When Riley left his position as USC’s offensive coordinator to take the head coach job at Oregon State, he inherited a program that was just 13-52-1 in the six seasons prior to his arrival. The Beavers showed marked improvement under Riley’s watch, recording an 8-14 mark in his first two seasons. Riley left Oregon State for a four-year stint in the NFL, but he helped to build the foundation that allowed the Beavers to record three winning seasons in four years under Dennis Erickson. After Erickson left for the NFL, Riley came back to Oregon State. Since 2003, the Beavers have made eight bowl appearances, finished the season ranked in the Associated Press poll four times and only recorded one season of fewer than five wins. While Riley’s overall record (93-80) isn’t overly impressive, it’s important to remember Oregon State is one of the toughest jobs in the Pac-12. Simply, it’s not easy to win in Corvallis. Riley has a knack for finding and developing overlooked recruits into star players. If he can continue that trend at Nebraska, along with maintaining his success in recruiting the state of Texas, Riley should help the Cornhuskers continue to win around nine games every year. Riley may not have been the home-run hire most expected when Bo Pelini was fired, but he won a lot of games at a program that’s much tougher to win at than Nebraska.

Final Grade: B+

 

9. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin      
Previous Job:
Head coach at Pittsburgh
Career Record: 19-19 (2012-14 at Pittsburgh)
 

Chryst is returning to familiar surroundings after three seasons at Pittsburgh. The Madison native played quarterback at Wisconsin from 1986-88 and coached with the Badgers in 2002 and from 2005-11. Prior to his stint with the Badgers in 2005, Chryst called the plays at Oregon State from 2003-04 and spent three years in the NFL with the Chargers (1999-2001). Chryst is a highly regarded offensive guru, and under his direction, Wisconsin led the Big Ten in scoring offense from 2009-11. The Badgers set a school record by averaging 44.1 points per game in 2011, and Pittsburgh averaged 6.2 yards per play in 2014 (fourth in the ACC). Chryst’s overall record with the Panthers was just 19-19, but he also inherited some personnel problems and roster gaps from the previous coaching staffs. However, Pittsburgh had a favorable schedule in 2014, two of the ACC’s top players in wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner and only went 4-4 in conference play. Chryst knows what it takes to win at Wisconsin, and after losing two coaches in the last three seasons (Gary Andersen and Bret Bielema), athletic director Barry Alvarez has his long-term answer as the team’s head coach. Fit isn’t necessarily the best indicator or judge of a hire, but Chryst’s familiarity with the program should keep Wisconsin at the top of the Big Ten West Division.


Final Grade: B+
 

10. Mike Bobo, Colorado State
Previous Job:
Offensive Coordinator at Georgia
Career Record: First season

After a successful stint under a previous SEC offensive coordinator (Jim McElwain) Colorado State is trying to replicate that same formula. Bobo is another successful offensive play-caller from the SEC, but is an odd fit since he has spent only one season (Jacksonville State) outside of the state of Georgia in his coaching career. While the geographic fit may not be perfect, Bobo – despite some of the criticism from Georgia fans – was one of the SEC’s underrated coordinators in recent years. Over the last seven seasons, the Bulldogs’ offense has not finished lower than sixth in the conference in yards per play. And Georgia led the SEC twice (2012, '14) during that span. Bobo has never been a head coach on any level but is a successful coordinator and hired a solid staff to help his transition. Will Friend followed Bobo from Georgia to Colorado State, while Tyson Summers was a key pickup from UCF as defensive coordinator.

Final Grade: B+
 

11. Neal Brown, Troy
Previous Job:
Offensive Coordinator at Kentucky
Career Record: First season

At 34 years old, Brown is the second youngest head coach in the FBS ranks. The Kentucky native is a highly regarded offensive mind and returns to Troy after working under Larry Blakeney from 2006-09. Brown worked as the team’s play-caller in 2008-09, and the Trojans averaged at least 32 points per game in both seasons. In 2010, Brown left Troy to join Tommy Tuberville’s staff at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders averaged at least 31 points per game in each of Brown’s three seasons calling the plays in Lubbock. Brown joined Mark Stoops’ staff at Kentucky in 2013 and helped the Wildcats take a step forward on offense. Kentucky averaged only 17.9 points a game in the season prior to Brown’s arrival, but the offense jumped to 20.5 points per contest in 2013 and 29.2 in '14. Additionally, the Wildcats averaged five yards per play (SEC games) last season for the first time since 2010. There’s very little downside to Brown’s hire at Troy. He has experience working at Troy, is a talented offensive coach and his youth should bring a spark to a program that has not recorded a winning record since 2010.

Final Grade: B

 

12. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa            

Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator at Baylor
Career Record: First season

With an enrollment of under 3,500 undergraduate students, Tulsa is the smallest FBS school in the nation. But despite the lack of a huge student base, the Golden Hurricane has experienced plenty of success in the win column. This program has four seasons of at least 10 victories since 2007, including an 11-3 mark in 2012. Montgomery has plenty of work ahead, as Tulsa has slipped to a 5-19 record over the last two seasons and can’t afford to fall too far behind in the new American Athletic Conference divisions. The Texas native has never been a head coach on the college level and has spent the last 12 years on Art Briles’ staffs at Houston and Baylor. Although Briles played a large role in shaping the offenses at both programs, Montgomery was the play-caller for the Bears. Baylor’s offense averaged at least 6.6 yards per play in each of the last five seasons and recorded 48.2 points per game in 2014. Tulsa needs to prominently recruit Texas and Montgomery’s ties to the state will help in that area. And with Montgomery’s background on offense, combined with the amount of talent at quarterback and wide receiver in the high school ranks, this hire should help get Tulsa back into contention for bowl games on a consistent basis.  

Final Grade: B

 

13. David Beaty, Kansas
Previous Job:
Wide receivers coach at Texas A&M
Career Record: First season

After missing on its last two hires – Turner Gill and Charlie Weis – Kansas needs to get this one right. Instead of turning to a proven coach, the Jayhawks picked former assistant David Beaty. The Texas native has strong ties to the state and is regarded as an excellent recruiter. In an area where Kansas needs to target for recruits, Beaty’s ties to Texas are a huge plus. Beaty spent the last three years at Texas A&M as the team’s receivers coach (2012-14) and the recruiting coordinator (2013-14). Prior to Texas A&M, Beaty had two previous stints at Kansas (2011 and 2008-09) and short tenures at Rice (2010 and 2006-07) as an assistant. Under Beaty’s watch, the Owls averaged 28.7 points per game in 2010. The biggest concern for Beaty is the lack of experience as a head coach – especially at a place that’s one of the toughest Power 5 jobs in the nation. To help Beaty’s transition, he hired a solid overall staff, which includes Clint Bowen (interim coach last year), Rob Likens (offensive coordinator) and Zach Yenser (OL coach).

Final Grade: C

 

14. Tony Sanchez, UNLV
Previous Job:
Head coach at Bishop Gorman High School
Career Record: 85-5 (2009-14 at Bishop Gorman)

UNLV is a tough place to win. The Rebels have just one winning season (2013) since 2001 and is 31-92 since 2005. Considering where UNLV resides on college football’s food chain, it wasn’t going to attract a big-name coach or nationally regarded coordinator. Instead, the program went outside of the box and hired Sanchez from Bishop Gorman High School. In six seasons at Bishop Gorman (located in Las Vegas), Sanchez recorded an 85-5 mark and never won fewer than 13 games in a season. To help with Sanchez’s transition to the FBS ranks, he hired a veteran staff, which includes Barney Cotton (former Nebraska assistant), Kent Baer (former Colorado defensive coordinator) and Joe Seumalo (former Oregon State assistant). The last high school to college hire didn’t work well (Todd Dodge, North Texas). However, there’s little risk involved for UNLV. If Sanchez doesn’t work out, the program isn’t worse off than it was in 2014. And who knows, maybe Sanchez can keep some of the talent in Nevada from leaving the state. This hire is worth the risk for UNLV.

Final Grade: C
 

15. John Bonamego, Central Michigan
Previous Job:
Special teams coach with the Detroit Lions
Career Record: First season

Central Michigan was put in a difficult spot once Dan Enos left Central Michigan for Arkansas less than two weeks before Signing Day. The Chippewas had to scramble to complete their 2015 signing class, and it was tough to fill a head coaching vacancy this late in the process. But Central Michigan found a familiar face in Bonamego that is ready for his first opportunity to be a head coach. Bonamego has worked for the last 12 years as a special teams assistant in the NFL, with his last collegiate experience coming in 1998 at Army. Bonamego played at Central Michigan in the 1980s and was an assistant at Mount Pleasant High School (Michigan) in 1987. As we mentioned earlier, finding a coach in late January/early February is challenging. Bonamego is familiar with Central Michigan and probably isn’t looking to bolt Mount Pleasant anytime soon. The Chippewas slipped after the Brian Kelly/Butch Jones era, and Enos was headed for the hot seat in 2015. Central Michigan is one of the better jobs in the MAC. Bonamego has no previous experience as a head coach and has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator. Hiring a good staff with proven coordinators will be essential.

Final Grade: D

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