Why we're going to get an all-time year of premature takes for first-year head coaches
Get ready for it. The premature takes about first-year head coaches will be coming in like piles of peanuts on a conveyer belt.
It’s pretty simple. We’ve got first-year coaches at respected Power 5 programs like USC, Miami (FL), Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Florida, LSU and Oregon. Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly and Mario Cristobal all left respected programs to chase a championship, and did so with extremely lucrative contracts waiting for them. They’re going to have targets on their backs.
What do all of those programs have in common? They played in a national championship in the 21st century. In other words, all of those fanbases have championship-level expectations.
In this Twitter age of takes, there will be plenty of premature ones made about the coaches leading those 7 programs.
Let’s dig into that word — “premature.”
If history tells us anything, it’s that there’s no correlation between Year 1 and a coach’s long-term future. Win improvement? Nah. If anything, there are probably more examples of coaches who flamed out after surpassing Year 1 expectations than the contrary.
Anybody claiming you need to win 8 or 9 games from the jump to become an elite coach is speaking in lazy generalities. A blind résumé is proof of that:
Coach “A” is Nick Saban. Coach “B” is Jim McElwain. Yeah. We know how that played out.
Now is the part of the column where I’m supposed to say “we mustn’t ever forget that Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe in Year 1.” Of course, mustn’t forget that Alabama was dealing with a mostly gutted roster with a fraction of the talent it has today while McElwain inherited a roster that ranked No. 15 in the 247sports talent composite index.
Online sports betting has come or is coming to a number of SEC states down south. Residents of states where legalized sports betting exists can bet on things like the Heisman race, SEC football games each week and more... all right from their mobile device.
Nobody inherits the exact same situation. Year 1 is when coaches have the least amount of roster control, even now with the freedom of the transfer portal.
Maybe a couple more of these are worth playing out. This is one of my personal favorites:
Coach “A” is Kirby Smart. Coach “B” is Dan Mullen. The former inherited a 10-win team and lost to Vandy at home in Year 1 while the latter inherited a 4-win team and led it to a New Year’s 6 Bowl victory. Did it matter in the end? Of course not.
Steve Sarkisian losing to Kansas in Year 1 doesn’t mean he’s doomed for failure. It means he suffered an embarrassing loss. Even if Sarkisian flames out after 3 years, we shouldn’t look back on that game and assumed that was the beginning of the end.
One more side-by-side should really drive this point home:
Coach “A” is Brady Hoke and Coach “B” is Pete Carroll. The former earned George Munger National Coach of the Year honors in Year 1 while the latter started off 0-4 against Power 5 opponents.
I know what you’re thinking — is being bad in Year 1 actually a positive then? I wouldn’t say that, either. We’d all agree that Jimbo Fisher, Ryan Day and Dabo Swinney are 3 of the best coaches on the planet. They improved their respective programs from the jump even though none of them had head coaching experience (that’s in reference to Fisher at Florida State). Some viewed that as a positive sign about their long-term futures.
But you really don’t know with Year 1 coaches, either good or bad. You can be encouraged by sneaky moves that a coach makes (I personally was a fan of Brent Venables keeping 4 members from the previous staff on board because it’s not like Oklahoma needed to clean house). You can sell yourself on a Year 1 coach after an upset win (I wrote some incredibly glowing things about Mullen after being at The Swamp for the upset of LSU back in 2018).
The biggest constant with evaluating Year 1 coaches is confirmation bias. It’s easy to poke fun at Texas for a 5-7 season with a Kansas loss because there’s an ongoing joke in the sport that no matter how much the Longhorns spend, they’re not going to be “back.” We’ll inevitably see some of that this year with the 2022 first-year coaches.
Riley and Kelly invited the 2 biggest targets on their backs. Both left comfortable, successful jobs to try and win a championship in a new region of the country. The fact that both made major moves in the transfer portal will only add to this notion that they should be competitive from the jump.
But let’s say Riley has an ideal Year 1 at USC. That is, a top-5 finish and a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. Wouldn’t that be a sign he’s destined for long-term success?
For those who answered “yes,” to that question, how quickly we forget about Kevin Sumlin. That’s exactly what he did in Year 1, and even in Year 2 when a banged up Johnny Manziel couldn’t lead A&M to more than 4 SEC wins, Sumlin getting a massive extension before he could entertain potential NFL head coaching offers was still considered a major priority. That Year 1 was still fresh, and Sumlin ultimately cashed in.
There should probably be a rule that athletic directors abide by with Year 1 coaches at season’s end. No extensions, no firings.
Around this time last year, a popular topic of conversation was Mullen finally getting his extension after Year 3 at Florida. Mind you, this was someone who became the first coach to ever win consecutive BCS/New Year’s 6 bowls to start off at a new school.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin took the rare conservative approach with Mullen because clearly, there was some doubt about his long-term future (Mullen’s off-the-field stubbornness probably contributed to that). Mullen got that extension before Year 4, Stricklin kept the buyout at $12 million. Smart move. In an era in which 8-figure buyouts are the new standard for Power 5 coaches, Florida actually avoided disaster by not overreacting to Mullen’s early success and upping the buyout to Gus Malzahn-like levels. By the way, Malzahn’s Year 1 of leading Auburn to a national runner-up season was rewarded with a significant raise and extension.
We could all learn something about not overreacting to instant success for coaches (myself included).
It’d be awfully difficult not to sip the Oregon Kool-Aid if Dan Lanning pulls a 2020 Mike Leach and beats the defending champs in the season opener. If Marcus Freeman stuns Ohio State in the Horseshoe to kick off 2022, you won’t be able to keep up with the takes anointing him the next great coach in college football just like we did with Charlie Weis when he led the Irish road wins against ranked Pitt and Michigan to start the 2005 season.
But maybe we should simply take a breath and listen when coaches step up to the postgame podium and fire off those clichés about “still having a lot of work to do.” They’re boring, but they’re right.
Those of us in the peanut gallery should take note.