By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
A whole lot of things matter when a school is looking for a new head football coach. One factor that’s often overlooked – until it’s too late – is “fit.” Is a guy a good fit for that particular university?
This season we will very likely see another slew of head coach firings and hiring’s, especially among the marquee, “Power Five” schools. Before the season, the axe fell at Ole Miss. The Rebels will be looking for a permanent replacement for Hugh Freeze starting shortly after Thanksgiving. Same at Oregon State, where Gary Anderson bailed early in the season. Florida already dumped Jim McElwain (Exhibit A in the “bad fit” department) and Tennessee recently showed Butch Jones the back door. It’s not farfetched to expect job openings at places like Nebraska, Texas A&M, UCLA, Arkansas and perhaps Texas Tech, too.
And don’t forget, some major program may lose their head coach to another Power Five school, so they’ll be searching as well. You have to wonder about the health status of Bill Snyder at Kansas State and how much longer he’s going to want to coach the Wildcats. Barry Odom has probably saved his job at Missouri with a late season surge. Likewise with Todd Graham at Arizona State…and Rich Rodriquez can thank his lucky stars for the emergence of Khalil Tate at Arizona. Those schools are unlikely to make a change now.
With these early coaching changes, the rumor mill got a jump start this year. Pundits have been speculating of course – assuming they know what schools are looking for and what coaches are thinking and feeling about their futures. “That this guy needs to go here, and that guy should go there,” and so on. Many times they base their analysis on lazy notions like the worn out “local recruiting base” factor. In their mind, a coach should automatically want to go where there’s a nice population base and lots of players to recruit, or warm weather climate where recruits are also plentiful. That makes things easier, right?
By this rationale, Urban Meyer would have never left Florida and ended up at Ohio State. The state of Florida has so many high level recruits, Meyer should have given up on his long time desire to return to his home state and coach one of college football’s blue blood programs. If it was all about “local recruiting base” then Texas should never lose, right? Same with USC and UCLA. Heck, San Diego State should be a powerhouse in football. Miami should have never suffered a down slide, ever.
This notion just doesn’t mesh with reality. Since when are football coaches lazy and don’t want to recruit outside their own zip code? Maybe some of them actually don’t mind playing football in cold weather. Where they might want to raise their kids – real life things like that also factor in when a coach is choosing his place of employment.
The lazy, “recruiting base” narrative will taken to task again later this month when the regular season ends and poaching season begins. Expect one of the first moves to be Nebraska reaching down into the state of Florida and bringing home favorite son Scott Frost – currently the highly successful coach at Central Florida. Frost will return to the school and program he helped win a National Championship with as a player.
Pundits have long speculated that Frost would end up replacing McElwain at Florida…just because…well, it’s Florida. Why wouldn’t he? Look at all that local football talent! He doesn’t have to travel to recruit and he gets to stay in the warm weather.
Why wouldn’t he? Because Frost is more like Jim Harbaugh than Jim McElwain. Harbaugh was/is a “Michigan Man” and when the opportunity to return home presented itself, he jumped at it. Frost is a Cornhusker at heart. Since his NFL playing career ended, he’s coached at three different places, including a stint as defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa and offensive coordinator for Oregon. He’s well traveled and has no roots in Florida. His roots are in Wood River, Nebraska, where BOTH his parents were high school football coaches and where he began playing football, before going on to star for the legendary Tom Osborne, to whom he remains very close. Frost has called the Husker program his “dream job.”
This is called “a fit.” It’s about understanding and fitting in with the history and culture of a school and a football program. It’s understanding and managing expectations and being savvy with the fan base because of that familiarity. It’s about landing at a place you aren’t looking at as a stepping stone, rather as a place you’d like to coach at until you’re done coaching.
Should he go to Florida, Frost would be just another coach on the assembly line/perpetual hot seat – the same seat that became too hot for Meyer, despite winning a pair of national championships. At Nebraska, Frost would be the conquering hero with a whole lot more job security when he returns.
Similar scenarios have occurred in many other places. After he was fired at Georgia at the end of the 2015 season, Mark Richt returned to his alma mater, the University of Miami. It was another perfect fit, as we’ve seen by the Hurricane’s rise back to prominence. After letting go of Richt, Georgia turned to alum Kirby Smart to take over. That’s worked out pretty well, too. Paul Chryst played QB and was an assistant coach at Wisconsin for seven seasons before returning to take the head job in 2015. Wisconsin, Miami and Georgia are all in the hunt to be in the College Football Play-off this season.
“Fits” aren’t guaranteed to work of course. Nothing is. Rick Neuheisel seemed like a perfect fit at his alma mater, UCLA, but that didn’t pan out. The jury is still out on Ed Orgeron at LSU, Kalani Sitake at BYU and a few others. Maybe those will turn out to be productive fits, too.
Regardless, schools would be best served to keep in mind all factors – including a coach being the right “fit” when looking for someone to improve their football fortunes. Sometimes, like in the case of Harbaugh, it’s staring them in the face. Other times, it takes not being lazy.