Dozens of coaches every year go to bed one night in the winter having just realized a dream. Maybe they’ve taken their first head coaching job; maybe they’ve reached the top of the profession.
Everything is grand.
By the next morning, the rush of excitement turns into an avalanche of anxiety.
This new head coach is responsible for 100 scholarship players and walk-ons. He needs to hire assistant coaches and support staff and lead them, too. He has to recruit an entire class in a matter of weeks. All the demands of being a CEO of a major football operation are staring back at him.
“It’s an emotional high for your family getting the opportunity to take a new job,” new Bowling Green coach Mike Jinks says. “And then you wake up the next morning and, ‘OK, who am I going to get to keep (in the recruiting class)?’ It’s almost a panic type of deal. Then you start thinking about who you would like to bring in.”
As early as September last season, it was clear the 2015-16 coaching carousel would be one of the most compelling in years. The first coach was fired a week before the season. By Nov. 1, nine coaches had resigned, retired or been fired. South Carolina and Virginia Tech replaced legends. Georgia, USC and Miami (Fla.) hired new coaches. Illinois, essentially, hired two head coaches.
The job of a college football coach grows more expansive with every passing year. The most challenging time may be the first few months.
“A lot of times in these coaching changeovers you can make mistakes early on,” says Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who is taking the second head coaching job in his career. “Unfortunately when you make those mistakes, they can haunt you down the road.”
Some of the challenges are obvious — filling a recruiting class and hiring a staff.
Some tasks are less clear. For example, Campbell received his first commitment to his new class at Iowa State and had an immediate dilemma — how do we present this on social media?
During a meeting with staff on other topics, they started to spitball ideas for hashtags for the Cyclones. One idea was #TheStormIsBrewing, but in an effort to save characters on Twitter, they picked #AStormIsBrewing.
No detail can be overlooked for a new coach.
“I don’t know that I’m really proud of that, but it was a good discussion on what we’re going to hashtag,” says Campbell, who also changed his Twitter handle within hours of leaving Toledo for Ames.
The job of a new coach is all about meeting people and shaking hands, too, and some of it is by chance.
Here’s how new UTSA coach Frank Wilson, the former running backs coach at LSU, got to know some of the folks in student housing at his new campus: “You get a freshman who is a midyear guy who is living in the dorm area who brings a Crock-Pot in where Crock-Pots aren’t allowed. And then you have to let them know no harm was intended. He’s new.”
As 28 new coaches take over at jobs from Honolulu to Piscataway, from USC to ULM, Athlon Sports checked in with the new coaching class of 2016 to ask them about their figurative first 100 days on the job — everything that occurred from the day they were hired to the start of spring practice.
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What a coach does first depends on when he’s hired
The first variable thrown at a new coach is the recruiting calendar.
Most coaches are hired between early December and early January, but the NCAA’s recruiting calendar varies during this time, from the least restrictive portion (the contact period) to the most restrictive (the dead period) and back again. In 2015-16, the dead period extended from Dec. 14 through Jan. 13, meaning coaches during that time were not allowed in-person contact with recruits, even on campus. The weeks before and after include the contact period when coaches can visit recruits and families in their homes.
A coach hired on Dec. 5 like Dino Babers at Syracuse had nine days of in-person recruiting. His replacement at Bowling Green, Jinks, didn’t have that luxury on Dec. 10.
“They had the press conference and, boom, I’m on the road,” Jinks says.
The night of the press conference introducing him at South Carolina, Will Muschamp met with remaining staff to go over the recruiting board. With a week until the dead period, Muschamp’s first priority was to visit the six high school prospects who were looking to enroll early at South Carolina, including five offensive skill players the Gamecocks sorely needed.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of your program, so you cannot waste a day,” Muschamp says. “You’re so limited in the number of times you can go out, so you’ve got to maximize that.”
Maximizing time doesn’t just mean grinding to get that first class. It means recruiting efficiently. Not knowing the recruiting landscape can be devastating. A new coach might breathe new life into recruiting or open doors that otherwise had been closed.
But the new guy also needs to know when to walk away.
“The worst thing you can do — and this was a lesson I learned at Florida in a transition — you can’t waste time on guys you’re not going to get,” Muschamp says. “The worst thing you can do is waste time on a guy if you have no shot at a guy.”
D.J. Durkin was hired at Maryland on Dec. 2 at the start of the contact period and then moved quickly to make his first staff hires, two head coaches who had just been fired in Virginia’s Mike London and Syracuse’s Scott Shafer. The latter abruptly stepped down for personal reasons on April 1.
That was enough to give Durkin a fighting chance for a week or so on the road recruiting before filling out his staff during the dead period.
“I hired one or two guys right off the bat that I knew I wanted here and I knew could help in recruiting,” Durkin says. “It was, ‘We’ll go out and hold this together until we get to end of the contact period.’”
At Ball State, Mike Neu felt the time crunch more than most. Pete Lembo left unexpectedly to take an assistant coaching job at Maryland on Dec. 22. The Cardinals hired Neu, a New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach and former Ball State quarterback, on Jan. 7.
When the contact period started for Neu, he wanted to reach out to players who had already committed to Ball State, but 15 of 18 of them had already taken their official visits to Muncie — NCAA rules allow only one official visit to each school.
“The only way I was going to be able to see those kids was to travel to them,” Neu says.
Over two-and-a-half weeks, Neu traveled to Chicago, St. Louis and Baltimore, among other places, just to hold together a recruiting class.
ULM coach Matt Viator had no scrambling to do. There was nowhere to go when he was hired amid the dead period. Instead, he watched game and practice film from 2015, worked on his recruiting strategy and communicated with recruits the only permissible ways — through emails and social media and limited phone calls.
“We certainly filled the time,” says Viator, who was hired after spending 10 years as the head coach at McNeese State. “We were able to identify guys and find guys we could get on campus when we did go out.”
The long game is just as important as the first recruiting class
A coach’s first recruiting class, predictably, is a minefield of potential recruiting missteps.
Commitments and top targets from the last coaching staff change their minds or get poached by other teams. The new staff may be less enthusiastic about commitments to the previous staff, who might not fit a new style of play. New coaches may not have the full picture of needs.
“Any time you come in late, you can make a mistake because you’re trying to fill a recruiting class and ultimately you sign guys just to sign them,” Campbell says.
Part of Campbell’s strategy was to go after recruits he already knew — because three of them committed to him at Toledo.
While it’s understood that a coach’s first signing class with a school could be lacking or incomplete, that first class is critical, says Babers. By the time the first recruiting class comes of age, the new coach will be expected to have a finished product on the field.
“The key to who is going to be better or worse in the next few years is that scramble of what happened in your first class because those are going to be the seniors on your team, the juniors or on your team in 3-4 years,” says Babers, who has also been a head coach at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green.
And as new coaches are trying to cobble together their first class, they’re trying to lay the groundwork for the next one.
Justin Fuente is an Oklahoma native who was an assistant at TCU and head coach at Memphis. He did enough homework before he arrived at Virginia Tech to understand that the Hokies had fallen behind in recruiting the Virginia Beach/Tidewater area. His staff hit the clinic circuit in the spring in Richmond, Northern Virginia and the “757” Virginia Beach area.
“We really reached out to those people and put our own clinic on out there,” Fuente says. “I have a call list every day of guys I’m reaching out to either introduce myself to or talk about their kids.”
At Memphis, Mike Norvell has set up “socials” with high school coaches when they visit the campus. Norvell and his staff set up whiteboards around the facility so his assistants can talk ball with high school coaches and have a bite to eat (high school coaches, by NCAA rule, have to pay for their own food). “I’m not a huge clinic guy because I believe when you have a clinic, you go and hear what one guy wants to talk about for an hour,” says Norvell, the former Arizona State offensive coordinator. “When you have a social, it’s a lot more personal.”
Coaches have their staff planned before they’re hired
The old cliché about good athletic directors is that they constantly have the names of five coaches in mind just in case they have to replace their football coach unexpectedly.
Aspiring head coaches have a similar mental list for their first coaching staffs.
“When you’re on the road, or recruiting, or at clinics or watching practices at other institutions, you’re always evaluating people, evaluating how they coach a particular unit,” Toledo coach Jason Candle says.
Conversations can be explicit, or a potential assistant might not even know he’s on the mind of a future head coach.
When Scottie Montgomery left his role as Duke’s offensive coordinator to coach at East Carolina, he needed someone he could trust to run an offense while he took over as a program CEO. His top candidate was someone he remembered watching on film of Marshall with another coaching staff years ago. When Montgomery became a head coach, he called Tony Peterson, who had since moved from Marshall to Louisiana Tech, to run his offense at East Carolina.
“You have a lot of football relationships that people will never know, whether you’ve prepared against them somewhere along the line or you’ve watched a tape six years ago that they were great on and then you reach out to them,” Montgomery says. “You just start to build a list of people you want to talk to.”
Even the best intentions and plans don’t guarantee a staff will work out.
Muschamp’s first staff at Florida in 2011 included two eventual head coaches (Durkin at Maryland and Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons), but his offensive coordinator hire of Charlie Weis was a blunder from which Muschamp’s offenses never recovered. Two other offensive assistants from his first staff didn’t make it to their second season with the Gators.
When Muschamp got a second chance to hire his first coaching staff at South Carolina, he started with Kurt Roper, his final offensive coordinator at Florida. Muschamp went so far to say that he felt if he hired Roper in 2011, he’d still be at Florida.
“I felt like I tried to fit a square peg into a round hole.” Muschamp says. “We tried to go too far away, which set us back further, in my opinion, offensively.”
At Minnesota, Tracy Claeys also had to make a key organizational decision. Under predecessor Jerry Kill, quarterback coach Jim Zebrowski and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover split coordinator duties with Kill having the final say.
Claeys, who had been Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, didn’t feel comfortable in that structure, so he parted with Zebrowski and Limegrover and hired a traditional offensive coordinator, Jay Johnson from UL Lafayette.
“I think that one guy needs to be in charge on one side of the ball,” Claeys says. “(The previous arrangement) worked well because coach was the in-between. He spent most of his time in the meetings and was on the headset and knew what was going on.”
The most important hire isn’t who you’d think
Coaches can torpedo their own tenures with the wrong coordinator hire or an assistant who doesn’t mesh with the rest of the staff or a lack of assistants who can recruit to the school. But a coordinator or ace recruiter isn’t necessarily the most important hire to some new coaches.
When Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash started to talk to Rutgers about the Scarlet Knights’ head coaching job, his next conversation was with Ohio State’s assistant strength & conditioning coach Kenny Parker. Without Parker as his head strength and conditioning coach, Ash wasn’t going anywhere.
“It was the biggest (hire), to be honest with you,” Ash says. “If he said no way, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It was that important.”
Rutgers agreed and paid Parker more than anyone on Ash’s staff other than the coordinators and more than twice as much as his predecessors. Strength coaches often have more hands-on time with players, particularly during the summer. Even veteran coaches grant them a status as important as coordinators. For a first-year coach, being able to implement a conditioning program without a lot of discussion or meetings can be critical.
“I asked him how are you going to train them; he said like we do here [at Ohio State],” Ash says. “It was a done deal”
The first team gets left behind
If a new coaching hire is all about getting excited for the future and breaking with the past, the present gets left behind.
First-time head coaches — at least in the 2016 class — overwhelmingly said they haven’t been able to make enough time to work with their own players in their first few months on the job.
“I wish I had more time to spend with our players right now,” Ash says. “Those coach-player relationships that you used to have, when you become a head coach, those become hard to build.”
Different coaches had different ways of finally carving out the time to connect with players beyond just learning names, position and jersey numbers.
At Syracuse, Babers says he usually waits until after spring practice to set up one-on-one interviews with his team. Neu at Ball State waited until after spring ball, too, only having one-on-one conversations if it involved pressing academic matters. Campbell used a more immediate strategy. Before recruiting, he arranged one-on-one interviews with each of his players for three days.
“Sometimes you can go too fast in this thing instead of really getting a great plan and trying to execute,” Campbell says. “The first time I actually left to go on the road was the second week because it was important for me to get to know our kids and get to know what’s going on in this program before even going out to talk about what our vision for this program would be.”
Attrition is not a bad word
New coaches may have to wait to get to know their players, but if some aren’t adjusting to the change quickly, sometimes it’s best just to let them go.
Now at Texas State, Everett Withers is a head coach for the third time in his career, arriving in San Marcos after two seasons at James Madison. He was also an interim coach at North Carolina after Butch Davis was fired in 2011. But he’s also been around the block at Ohio State, Louisville, Texas and Minnesota.
The first few months of a new job, though, are generally the same. “We’ve named it ‘The Purge.’ It’s been called ‘The Cleanse,’” Withers says.
Whatever particular name he uses, the message is the same: Not everyone is going to be on board with the coaching transition, and that’s OK.
“You’re better off that he goes,” Withers says. “You’re going to lose one guy and probably gain five guys in your program who realize that guy wasn’t that valuable anyway.”
At Tulane, Willie Fritz has his own cleverly named system to figure out who is welcoming change and who is resisting. He’s installed a competition called “Making Waves” that’s similar to programs he’s used at Central Missouri, Sam Houston State and Georgia Southern.
He set up six teams led by two seniors each who draft their own teammates for a competition based on “accountability, dependability in the classroom, off the field, in the weight room.” Winning teams get better meals. Losing teams do extra running. Individual results are public for all to see.
“You find out guys who I like to refer to as ‘list’ guys,” Fritz says. “They’re always on a list, whether it’s skipping reps in the weight room or being late to class or missing a tutoring appointment. Whatever it is, they’re on that list.”
New coaches need to become an expert on the school … or find one fast
Recruiting may be all about relationships, but it’s also about knowledge. When a recruit’s parents ask about a major or a prospect wants to know what he’s going to do on Friday and Saturday nights, a coach needs to be ready with an answer.
“When you’re trying to sell a place, you need to know about the place,” says ULM’s Viator. “We were trying to learn that on the fly, too.”
Viator tried to learn as much as he could but leaned heavily on director of football operations Phil Shaw, who had been in that role since 2011. During Q&A periods with recruits and families, he deferred to Shaw on any questions on degree programs or campus life.
“I didn’t go many places or do much without him there,” Viator says.
At Bowling Green, Jinks said he brought in a man he calls “Mr. BG” to talk to his staff. Jinks had spent his coaching career in Texas high schools and at Texas Tech, and much of his staff has a similar background. Van Wright, the assistant to the Vice Provost, was born in Bowling Green, Ohio, graduated from Bowling Green High and — you guessed it — graduated from Bowling Green in 1977.
“He laid it all out there,” Jinks says. “You try to take as many notes as you can.”
Norvell estimates that he’s met with more than 50 people who are involved with working in some capacity with Memphis football players — people who work in the student services, housing or counseling offices.
Campbell talks about “unifying” the vision for the football program and building relationships that were distant from the previous coaching staff.
“When there’s a breakdown in those areas, that’s when issues can occur,” Campbell says. “There are a lot of areas that touch Division I football programs on a day-in, day-out basis.”
And those are meetings just from within the university.
Claeys has served as interim head coach at various points of his career as Kill left Minnesota to deal with health issues. Even that experience didn’t fully prepare him from demands of his time from various alumni and community groups. It’s speaking engagements, promoting an issue, raising money, sending items to raffles and so on.
“You could do four events every day and still not cover everybody,” Claeys says.
New coaches are living the vagabond life
As families finish up school years, the first few months on the job resemble the bachelor life for a coach.
Muschamp had an apartment in downtown Columbia, S.C., in his first few weeks on the job. Viator spent a few weeks in a ULM dormitory. Even Montgomery, who took a job 100 miles away, spent many of his early days commuting from Duke in Durham to East Carolina in Greenville.
Not that these new coaches would enjoy the home life at this point anyway.
“One of the toughest things about taking a new job is that you’re not around your family because they’re back selling a house and all that,” Fritz says. “One of the good things is that you’re not around your family. You’re able to devote a bunch of time to the new job.”
The buck stops here
For the former assistants and coordinators, one of the toughest adjustments to the big chair is being the guy with all the answers. For the first time in their careers, some of them are delegating work on a grand scale.
“You’ve got to prioritize the tasks you have every day,” Durkin says. “There’s no way you can tackle them all. If you spread yourself too thin or you’re doing things out of order, you’re going to screwed up.”
Candle knew his way around Toledo when he was promoted to replace Campbell. He knew better than most new coaches what made the Rockets a successful program. Suddenly, though, he wasn’t the one making suggestions to better the program. He was the one expected to make the decisions on recruiting, staffing, branding and everything else.
“It’s one of those things where you prepare, prepare, prepare,” Candle says. “Until you get into the chair you don’t know what you’re really getting into.”