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How Four Ace Coaching Hires in 2016 Could Transform the ACC

Justin Fuente

Justin Fuente

When Dino Babers was the wide receivers coach at Baylor in 2008, he and the rest of coaching staff knew the Bears had ground to make up to stand up to Oklahoma and Texas. As a coach at Baylor, that’s part of the deal.

Babers didn’t have a full picture of Baylor’s failures against the league’s powerhouses until he thumbed through a media guide for the series history against Oklahoma, and the reality of Baylor’s position in the Big 12 became clear.

Lots of “Ls.” 17 of them. And no “Ws.”

Babers would be a part of three more losses to the Sooners before Baylor finally ended the streak in 2011.

Still, the futility seemed to defy the laws of chance.

“The ball bounces wrong one time — how can you roll seven 19 times in a row?” Babers says. “I’m not talking about those guys, but stuff happens.”

Babers could repeat the same exercise at his new head coaching job at Syracuse — another program buried in a conference with perennial national championship contenders. Syracuse is 0–8 against Florida State since 1978 and 0–3 against Clemson since joining the ACC in 2013. The Orange have two wins all-time against the Seminoles and Tigers.

Babers won’t be alone in the ACC, though. If the other three new coaches in the conference are so inclined, they can find their own version of futility against the ACC’s top two.

Bronco Mendenhall could look at Virginia’s 3–15 all-time mark against Florida State and 0–3 record against Clemson since 2008. Justin Fuente can look at Virginia Tech’s ACC title banner won at Florida State’s expense in 2010 but also three losses to Clemson since 2011 by a combined score of 99–30.

Mark Richt can look at Miami’s humiliating 58–0 loss at home to Clemson last season that got his predecessor fired. Even the Hurricanes’ series against rival Florida State, once one of college football’s must-see matchups, has become an afterthought with Miami losing six in a row.

Every year in college football, new coaches bring a sense of optimism, but what’s happening in the ACC is not ordinary. Fans at Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech can all reasonably believe that their school made a game-changing coaching move.

Mendenhall and Richt both revived power programs and sustained long and successful tenures at BYU and Georgia, respectively. Babers and Fuente are up-and-coming coaches who are considered among the sport’s best offensive minds.

This feature and more can be found in the 2016 Athlon Sports ACC Football Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.

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The ACC’s round of hires in this season isn’t in a vacuum, either. Louisville re-hired a proven commodity in Bobby Petrino in 2014, and Pittsburgh hired one of the most in-demand coordinators in the country when the Panthers pulled Pat Narduzzi from Michigan State in 2015. Those coaches have added to a non-Clemson/Florida State lineup that includes Paul Johnson and David Cutcliffe entrenched at Georgia Tech and Duke, respectively.

“If you were looking from the outside in, the conclusion you would draw is that the league is becoming more competitive,” Mendenhall says. “The league is striving to become very balanced, which is every team making a commitment to compete at the highest level in football and each team willing to put resources into the pursuit of that goal.”

The ACC’s four coaching hires for 2016 could signal the most important shift for the league since it added Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004. From a coaching standpoint, the closest parallel to the ACC’s new class of coaches could be the recent history in the Pac-12.

In 2012, the Pac-12 added four new coaches who added credibility to underperforming programs. Of those four coaches, three — Jim L. Mora at UCLA, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Todd Graham at Arizona State — have reached the Pac-12 Championship Game. The fourth hire that season, Mike Leach at Washington State, ended a decade-long bowl drought.

Like the ACC, the Pac-10/12 had a problem with being too top heavy for its own good, starting with USC’s run in the early 2000s. The arrival of Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh at Oregon and Stanford, respectively, shook up that paradigm. And thanks to those four coaching hires in 2012 and others in the last five years (David Shaw at Stanford and Chris Petersen at Washington, specifically), the Pac-12 now boasts a coaching lineup that matches up with any major conference.

In the ACC, either Clemson or Florida State has claimed every conference title since 2010, but neither had to be a powerhouse to do it for two of those seasons. The ACC didn’t have a team finish in the final AP top 20 in 2011 nor in the final top 15 in 2010 — a reminder that the Tigers’ and Seminoles’ rise as CFB Playoff contenders is the byproduct of the recent coaching hires of Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher.

But since the conference began its current wave of expansion in 2004, only six ACC teams not named Clemson or Florida State finished the season ranked in the final AP top 10. Four of those were Virginia Tech, though not since 2009. The other two were 2014 Georgia Tech and 2007 Boston College.

This much has been clear for several years: ACC commissioner John Swofford probably expected different results when the league first poached Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East.

It’s not as if the ACC hasn’t been producing in other ways. From 2005-15, the league produced 401 NFL Draft picks, second only to the SEC in that span. The 2015 draft marked the fourth time in five years the ACC was second among all conferences in total draft picks.

“It seems like every time there’s an NFL draft, there’s a boatload of players coming from the ACC,” Richt says. “I think there’s a lot of talent. A lot of guys have had great success coming out of the league and being professional football players.”

That disconnect is a good reason why Al Golden — or for that matter Randy Shannon or Larry Coker — isn’t the coach at Miami anymore.

Miami produced five first-, second- and third-round picks in 2015, a long way from where the Hurricanes once were in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, but too many high draft picks for a team that hasn’t finished better than 5–3 in the ACC since 2005.

In 2015, the Hurricanes got a head start in the coaching carousel by firing Golden after seven games and soon ended up with an opportunity to grab Richt, a former Miami quarterback under program architect Howard Schnellenberger in 1982.

Richt’s 145 career wins and two SEC championships at Georgia make him arguably the most accomplished head coach to take the Miami job since Lou Saban in 1977.

That said, the former Bulldogs coach fell into Miami’s lap when Georgia struggled to meet expectations in his final years in Athens. The Bulldogs won 28 games in Richt’s last three years but failed to reach the SEC Championship Game in any of those seasons.

Perhaps that gives Miami fans some pause, but the Hurricanes aren’t in all that different a spot than Georgia was when Richt took over there in 2001. The Bulldogs then were 21 years removed from a national championship and 19 years removed from their last SEC title. Richt steered the Bulldogs back to prominence, even if it never culminated in a national title game appearance.

Richt’s first task at Miami will be to rebuild connections with the local high school programs that turned Miami into five-time national champions. Golden, the former Temple coach and a Penn State assistant, always had a lukewarm relationship with Miami-Dade and Broward County high school coaches.

The most damning example of this was Amari Cooper from Miami Northwestern. Cooper grew up a Miami fan, but the coaching staff slow-played the talented receiver in recruiting. Spurned, Cooper found a more enthusiastic suitor in Alabama, where he won the Biletnikoff Award and became a first-round pick.

Cooper’s story wasn’t isolated, and Miami’s place among the high school coaches in South Florida has been strained.

To mend fences, Richt has set up a “Cane Talk” every Wednesday to meet with high school coaches and extended an open invitation to practice, not only for coaches, but also former Miami players — many of whom have been openly critical of the direction of the Hurricanes’ program over the years.

“They want to send their young men to a place where they can reach their full potential,” Richt says. “I believe most of them think that can happen here. That’s what we’re trying to prove to them — that we’ve got a plan and we’ll take care of those guys.”

If Miami’s hire of Richt seemed like a solid and safe move, Virginia Tech’s hire of Fuente was a downright coup.

Fuente, a former offensive coordinator at TCU, took over one of the worst situations in college football when he landed at Memphis in 2012. The Tigers had gone 5–31 in the previous three seasons with little fan support and little talent. By Fuente’s third season, Memphis finished 10–3, and by his fourth season knocked off a top-10 Ole Miss team and went 9–4. The 39-year-old coach with Oklahoma roots was one of the hottest commodities in the country.

Virginia Tech quietly drew his interest. Fuente could have picked dozens of jobs, but Virginia Tech offered more than a program that was five years removed from an 11–3 finish and a Sugar Bowl. It offered a high-level school that still seems distant in some ways from the hoopla of big-time college football.

“Tempo of life, quite honestly, was something I was drawn to,” Fuente says. “I enjoy going fishing and being outside, and this place has all those things close to town.”

It didn’t hurt that Fuente had the blessing of Frank Beamer, who retired as the most important figure in program history. A key piece of the transition is Bud Foster, Beamer’s longtime defensive coordinator and right-hand man who elected to stay on staff with Fuente.

All the talk about what a great fit Fuente is at Virginia Tech, though, can’t mask the work to do. The Hokies were 29–23 in Beamer’s final four seasons, never better than 8–5. The Hokies had won at least 10 games every season from 2004-11 and were the de facto flagship program in the ACC during its first six seasons.

“We need to get back to that level of play,” Fuente says. “The bottom line is that they haven’t played at the same level. It’s been really close.”

Fuente will look to fix major deficiencies in a program that, despite its recent struggles, has still reached a bowl in 23 consecutive years. He’s considered by his peers — Syracuse’s Babers among them — to be one of the brightest offensive minds in the country. The Hokies haven’t finished in the top 70 nationally in total offense since 2011.

Fuente also promises to close the gap in recruiting, particularly in the Virginia Beach 757 area code that fueled much of the Hokies’ rise under Beamer. Virginia Tech has never been a recruiting powerhouse like some of the programs in the ACC, but the Hokies can’t settle for being second choice among the state’s top prospects.

Virginia Tech has signed five of Virginia’s top-10 prospects total in the last four recruiting cycles combined. The Hokies signed five of the top 10 in 2012 alone and four in 2010.

The Hokies, however, will have to battle another new coach for the top-flight in-state recruits.

Virginia made the most surprising coaching hire when it grabbed Bronco Mendenhall from BYU. He had been entrenched with 11 seasons at BYU, and the Utah native had never coached east of the Mississippi River. After 99 wins and no losing seasons, there was little reason to believe Mendenhall would part ways with BYU.

But Mendenhall also may have taken BYU as far as it could go in its current incarnation. He revived the program with two Mountain West championships and four consecutive top-25 and 10-win seasons from 2006-09.

As an FBS Independent, however, BYU settled into the solid-but-unspectacular eight- or nine-win range.

BYU’s place as the flagship university of the LDS Church also set up a unique set of recruiting challenges. Football players at BYU must adhere to an honor code that forbids alcohol, profanity and pre-marital sex and requires specific grooming standards.

“Here just by eliminating one of those standards, in terms of being faith-specific, it’s probably increased our recruiting pool by five-fold,” Mendenhall says. “That’s just been amazing to me. We’ve had to redesign some of our processes to handle that volume.”

Mendenhall considers “organizational design” as one of his strengths at Virginia. It’s a catch-all term that includes efficiency in recruiting and communication avenues but also rebuilding the culture.

Players are required to earn one piece of the Virginia football experience each step of the way, including the program’s V and cross-sabre logo. They must maintain a clean locker to keep it, and they earn the right to practice through their performance in conditioning, Mendenhall says.

At Virginia, Mendenhall sees a program with unfulfilled potential. The Cavaliers have been to only two bowl games since 2005. George Welsh, the Cavs’ coach from 1982-2000, is the only man to win consistently in Charlottesville.

If the state of Virginia can produce a consistent winner at Virginia Tech, if the state can send its No. 1 prospects to Florida State, Alabama and Penn State, and if the University of Virginia can win in sports other than football, Mendenhall sees no reason why his program can’t thrive as well.

“The program is dripping with opportunity, and the chance to make a difference — to make something sustainable — was really appealing to me,” Mendenhall says.

Of the four new coaches in the ACC, the biggest climb to the top belongs to Babers.

Syracuse has reached the postseason more recently than Virginia, but the Orange have struggled to find their footing since the late ’90s. Not only is Syracuse the ACC’s furthest recruiting outpost in upstate New York, but the Orange share a division with Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic.

Babers’ counterparts in the Coastal are in the more wide-open division — four different teams have won the Coastal in the last five seasons. The last non-Clemson/Florida State representative from the Atlantic was Boston College in 2007.

So not only does Babers take over one of the toughest jobs in the league, reaching the ACC Championship Game would mean knocking off Clemson and/or Florida State, not to mention Louisville. For Babers, this situation isn’t much different from being at Baylor in a Big 12 led at the time by Oklahoma and Texas.

“When you’re on the other side and you don’t know who the champion is going to be, you may not prepare the way you’re going to have to prepare to go through the road that we have to go to become a champion,” Babers says. “We want to play the best. We think we have the best side of the conference. And I think we’ll attract the best recruits to play on that side.”

That, however, has been a major hurdle for Syracuse coaches since the end of Paul Pasqualoni’s tenure.

Babers is quick to point out that Syracuse isn’t Baylor. The Orange have a rich history, including Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and the 1959 national championship. That history belongs not even to the parents of his current recruits, but their grandparents.

To high school juniors and seniors, Syracuse in 2016 is just as much of an afterthought as Baylor was in 2008.

“For the kids we’re recruiting there is no difference,” Babers says. “The kids think it’s the same.”

Babers, though, brings an edge of modernity to Syracuse. That means high tempo and plenty of yards through the air. Both of Babers’ Eastern Illinois teams (2012-13) ranked in the top 10 of the FCS in passing and total offense.

In his second season at Bowling Green — when he finally had a healthy quarterback at his disposal — the Falcons finished in the top five in the FBS in passing and total offense on the way to a 10–3 season.

In four seasons as a head coach, Babers has won three conference championships, twice in the Ohio Valley and once in the MAC.

But Syracuse needs players, and the Orange don’t have the same access to recruiting territory as Miami and the Virginia schools — much less Florida State and Clemson.

This feature and more can be found the 2016 Athlon Sports ACC Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.

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Babers says he’s keeping his recruiting blueprint close to the vest, but the results show at least a glimmer of the strategy. His first class included six players from metro areas in Florida (Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando). Speed will be at a premium.

For the players on campus, Babers is trying to change mindsets.

“Normally young men play the way you treat them. If you treat them like losers, they’ll play like losers. If you treat them like winners, they’ll play like winners,” he says. “It’s the way you talk to them. If you talk about the positives and tell them where they can go and that you see them as a blossoming rose, they will respond in a positive manner.”

Babers won’t be the only one preaching this in the ACC, and he’s not the only one starting at square one in a bid to catch up to the giants in the conference.

“It’s a pretty equal playing field,” Fuente says. “There’s a bunch of good programs that are kind of battling to create their identity and take a foothold in the ACC.”

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