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The Coaching Carousel: An ATVS Guide to Hiring College Football Head Coaches

Well, they say timing is everything in life, don't they? Procrastinate writing the head coaching portion of your coach hiring guide (read part 1 here), and suddenly Florida gives you a hire to talk about.

How convenient.

Part 2: Hiring Head Coaches

An athletic director should approach hiring a head coach the same way you would hope people approach most major transactions. Carefully and with a full self-awareness of the situation.

Before you start thinking about evaluating potential coaches, you need to evaluate the job you are offering them. Is your program elite? Is it a second-tier school? Are there the ingredients to move up with the right head coach? Are you a stepping-stone school? What are your program's strengths and weaknesses? Assets and liabilities?

Every job is different, and every coach is different. And not every coach can be successful in every situation - it's important that the strengths and weaknesses of the coach and the job match up. Sometimes coaches that would succeed (or have previously succeeded) at a number of other places, fail at specific jobs. And if a university doesn't understand these things themselves, chances are they won't find a coach who does, either.

I'm talking about the things that separate the tiers of programs. Money, facilities and talent base.




Raise your hand if you've ever thought that being rich would be awesome just so you could swim in a giant pool of money. All you people with your hands down are liars.

These two go hand in hand. We'd all like to think that there's more to what makes a great program, but, really, money is the first and most important ingredient. The first domino that sets up the rest.

Want to hire the best coaches? They cost money. Want to have top-of-the-line facilities to help attract players? Construction ain't cheap. Money is the most important asset to have because it can help cover for the lack of the other two.

The University of Oregon is a great example of this. The state itself doesn't exactly produce great talent, and while the West Coast as a region does, you compete with USC, the rest of the PAC -10, Boise State (who can clearly offer a lot more these days than just blue turf) and every other team with a national recruiting presence for that talent. So what did Oregon do? Build stuff like this:

You make your campus a more enticing destination, and suddenly recruits from places like Texas or Florida don't mind that long trip to the Pacific Northwest so much.

We talk about an arms race in how new weight rooms, locker rooms, indoor practice facilities and fancy academic centers for athletes, but the truth is, that's what it is. If the other school has it, you have to have it. These things may not matter to every recruit, but they'll matter some, and at the elite level, those few players are the difference. And this is doubly true if you're not smack dab in the middle of Texas or Florida, where the coaches can throw a rock out their window and hit a four-star recruit, which is why schools like Oregon, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Arkansas have all made major facilities investments in recent years. Hell, why do you think one of the first major projects Nick Saban undertook was getting LSU's Cox Communications Academic Center for Athletes built?

With the right coach and the proper commitment and support to maintaining your football stadium and facilities, you can build a successful program anywhere.*

But we're back to the self-awareness part. Do you have the money to play with the big boys in college football? Are you willing to spend it? If you don't have it, could that change one day if the right coach got things rolling and could drum up booster support? The answers to these will help tell you what coaches will have a real interest in working for you, and in some cases, how long you might be able to keep them interested.**

*The University of Miami is a great example. Despite being in the middle of the most talent-rich recruiting territory in the country, they haven't re-invested in their football program in decades. And that's shown in each of their last two coaching searches.

**If you're the athletic director at a non-AQ school, it's important to realize that the chances of any successful coach moving on to a bigger school are high. Forward-thinking AD's at schools like Boise State (at least, early on in the program's history) and Houston have been smart enough to realize this, and don't let it stop them from hiring quality young coaches who are more likely to move on.


This depends on the school and the state, obviously, and the immediate competition. LSU, of course, doesn't have any in-state competition, but it is a factor in varying degrees at other jobs.

Schools recruit locally, regionally and nationally and the order of priority depends on the talent base. We all know that Louisiana produces some top-quality talent and LSU's never had much in-state competition, so every recruiting class starts there. But for all that quality, the quantity is genrally lacking year-in and year-out, especially at positions like linebacker and offensive line. To fill those needs, LSU coaches traditionally move on to the immediate region. The I-10 corridor, Texas, Florida, Georgia and the rest of the southeast. The national recruiting is generally the third and lowest priority, as pulling kids from extreme long distances is a rarity, and coaches have limited time to allocate. You can't spend too much time chasing the big star from California to the point that you ignore closer prospects. Distance is almost always one of the biggest determining factors in recruiting.

Other schools that have similar priorities are usually the big state schools in states with great talent bases - Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, etc...When the in-state talent is down, so will the recruiting. Of course, big population centers like Florida, Texas and California have so many prospects that quality and quantity are regular, even with multiple BCS conference schools (and there's usually enough that a few that get away to out-of-state powers). A school like UF or FSU has enough in-state quality, that they can venture across the border only when necessary.

But in other schools in other states, the local/regional/national order may be different based on population or competition. Take Tennessee, for example. The Volunteers aren't exactly in the middle of a talent-rich state, so they usually prioritize the immediate region - Georgia, the Carolinas and the Gulf States and even national recruits. And when you think of star players from UT, you think of guys from around the southeast like Peyton Manning from Louisiana (or Janzen Jackson currently), Albert Haynesworth from South Carolina or Jamal Lewis from Georgia. Plus you have guys like Robert Meachem from Oklahoma, Erik Ainge from Utah or Casey Clausen from California.

Auburn is another school that has traditionally had to rely more on regional recruiting, due to the way Bama dominates within the state. South Carolina is another example, not due to a lack in-state talent, but the competition from Clemson, the North Carolina schools and other regional powers like Georgia and Tennessee.

This isn't meant to be a recruiting analysis, but as our own Paul Crew is fond of saying, talent makes coaches. And when a coach is at a job, he has to understand how he's going to assemble that talent. But the administrators at the school need to understand these things long before the hiring process starts if they're going to properly evaluate their options. When you see a coaching hire that is a bad fit, it's generally because the AD didn't understand what it takes to be successful at his university in the first place.


The actual process of hiring a head coach is generally pretty secretive, and changes slightly based on whether or not a school is replacing a coach that stepped down willingly or was fired. Most athletic directors usually have a "wish list" of sorts ready for emergencies, based on names that would fit for the job that they either know or think could possibly be interested. Remember that word, fit, because it's probably the biggest factor in who gets what job.

In the last decade, the process has changed. In the old days, especially for marquee jobs, you'd see the typical rush of interviews you might see for a high-profile job in any other field. Athletic directors at places like Michigan, Ohio State, USC and Notre Dame have found out in the last decade or so that the old way is dead. Sure, you might have a great job to offer, but that doesn't mean Coach John Doe is going to risk the good job he currently has at Big State U to put his name in the hat.

Oh sure, an AD will find out who's interested. Search firms, agents, friends of friends of business associates - they‘ll make sure that interest is passed on behind closed doors and away from listening ears. When LSU spoke with Nick Saban in December of 1999, it was set up through supporters in Memphis, Tenn., that did business with Jimmy Sexton - and the interview was conducted in Sexton's house. As much as kept from the public as possible (we just saw this play out at Florida, where nobody had Will Muschamp tied to the job). No pecking order, no interview list. If you want coach to talk to Coach Doe, it's going to be on his terms and it had better be hush-hush. Things can change slightly when you're talking about coaches from demonstrably smaller programs. Somebody from a MAC, Sun Belt or Conference USA school may be able to get away with public interest, but not a coach at another BCS school.

When these hires play out in public, schools get played. The coaches get nice new extensions from their current schools and the job in question is usually left holding the bag. We saw this at Tennessee last year, Michigan in 2007 and at Ohio State and USC in 2001. And in every case, the coach hired wound up being one of the last few names mentioned. And while Jim Tressel and Pete Carroll clearly worked out at the latter two schools (the jury is out on Derek Dooley at UT and Rich Rodriguez at Michigan is a whoooole other can of worms), no AD wants to be seen as having hired anything other than his first choice, and no coach wants to be thought of as anything other than that.

In fact, for high-level positions that involve candidates that already have high-level jobs, there's rarely even much of an interview, or even much of a list. There are targets, and those who reciprocate interest. If Jeremy Foley would have decided to go after somebody like Bob Stoops, you think he's going to "interview" for that job? Of course not. Foley knows Stoops. He knows his resume and he knows his style. And Stoops knows the landscape of the Florida job. The two sides either want each other enough to make the deal happen or they don't. This is the ideal for any top-shelf job hiring a new coach.

When there are interviews, they sort of work both ways. A coach will want to hear about resources and commitment. He'll want to know his budget for coaches, the state of facilities, long-term plans in that area, the state of the booster network, so on and so forth. The salary part comes later.

And here's where the "fit" comes into play.

That's what the interview or evaluation is primarily about. Athletic directors ask about how the coach in question views their school and the very things we talked about. Does that coach understand what it takes to be successful in this particular situation? Does he understand why the previous coach was or wasn't successful? What is his plan? What coaches can he hire (coaching relationships are huge in this area) and what are his recruiting connections in the area (or how fast can he make them)? How does he handle donor groups and booster clubs? It's different everywhere, and that's why not every coach is a fit at every job.

The Auburn hire of two years ago was a great example of this. Gene Chizik certainly didn't have as good a reputation as a name like Will Muschamp, and definitely couldn't match coaching records with Mike Leach or Turner Gill (whom Auburn was panned for turning away). But Chizik was able to do a better job of articulating what it takes to be successful at Auburn, which, as I previously stated, is a unique job compared to other SEC programs. He was able to explain why Tommy Tuberville couldn't sustain his success, and how he (Chizik) would get things back on track better than the other candidates, and that's why he got the job. That's what people mean when they talk about fit.

If you want an example of a bad fit, Michigan is a dictionary definition. After a coaching search that should forever serve as a guide on how not to replace a coach at a successful program, Bill Martin found Rich Rodriguez. Now, sure, Rodriguez was coming off leading West Virginia to its second BCS birth and was just a hair (thankfully for LSU) from playing for the national title, but he was a radical change from Lloyd Carr in every way. And we've seen just how un-prepared Michigan was for that sort of change in every negative story that's seeped out since that hiring. I won't recount the various stories for sake of brevity, but is been abundantly clear that Michigan never really wanted the radical sort of change Rodriguez offered, nor did they understand what such change really entailed.

Either way, the process now goes beyond simply making a wish list, checking it twice and setting up interviews. Both administrators and coaches enter these situations with their eyes open and their ears to the ground, and rarely is the search or interview process played out publicly. Whenever LSU find itself in this situation again, we should all hope Joe Alleva will act accordingly.