Revisit: Grading the 2015 Offseason Coaching Changes
By Allen Mattie
Three years ago I wrote a fairly controversial article listing out 14 of the 15 NCAA Football Head Coaching hires (Central Michigan hadn’t hired John Bonamego at the time of publishing – who I probably would have given a C- grade too). Today, three seasons later, it’s time to revisit where we stand. I got some right and I got some wrong. That said, the ones I got right, I really got right (see the last two sentences of the Mike Riley grade) and the ones I got wrong, I wiffed hard on (see Tom Herman).
*Note – The 2017 Grade is a depiction of ALL 3 SEASONS, not where they stand right this second as coaches.
See the Original Write Up Here.
Buffalo – Lance Leipold of Wisconsin Whitewater
2015 Grade: A
2015 Assessment: Records don’t always tell the story, however in 8 seasons as the top man for the Warhawks Leipold went an astonishing 109-6 including 6 NCAA Division III National Championships and one other national championship runner up. Why is this an “A” grade and not some other bigger name hiring? Because Leipold has shown that he can win with limited resources.
2017 Grade: C-
2017 Assessment: Leipold gets a C- grade here because as I mentioned before records don’t always tell the story. 2015 ended with promise with a 5-7 record including a closely fought game with Penn State in which the Nitty Lions needed two 4th quarter scores to pull away 27-14 and 41-17 lambasting of Frank Solich’s perennial MAC contenders Ohio. The Bulls regressed to 2-10 during the 2016 season which included at blowout loss 38-0 against PJ Fleck’s Western Michigan on national TV. 2017 saw Leipold’s Bulls lose 6 of their first 9 games but bounced back to win the last three and become bowl eligible, although they were somehow not selected for a bowl game. The highlight of the 2017 season came in a 7 overtime loss to Western Michigan 71-68 in a game that broke the combined NCAA scoring record.
Oregon State – Gary Andersen of Wisconsin
2015 Grade: A-
2015 Assessment: How do you get a coach that just finished a season at 10-3? Apparently you get him by having lower admission standards. Gary Andersen was thought be an up and coming head coach at Utah State prior to taking over a very good Wisconsin Badgers team. However, Andersen’s frustration with the universities high academic standards forced the coach to head back toward his western roots to Corvallis, Oregon. Many believe, including this author, that he is a major upgrade over his predecessor.
2017 Grade: F
2017 Assessment: There’s really not much good here to talk about. Anderson’s teams finished 2-10, 4-8, and 1-5 before he chose to forego 12 million dollars in salary to walk away from Corvallis. ‘Walk away’ is putting it nicely as Anderson essentially put his entire team and coaching staff on blast when text messages between he and a local reporter were made public. Only one of Andersen’s recruiting classes broke the Top 40 (2016 – 40th) and as a result of his departure Oregon State’s 2018 class currently ranks 99th. The good news for Oregon State fans is that Anderson was hired this week to become the Associate Head Coach (and rumored Head Coach in Waiting) at Utah so OSU fans may get a chance for a little payback. That is, in about 5 years from now when they recover from the absolute mess Anderson left the program in.
SMU – Chad Morris, Offensive Coordinator for Clemson
2015 Grade: A-
2015 Assessment: Morris was a very well respected high school head coach before Todd Graham hired him as the Tulsa Offensive Coordinator. Morris gets back to his Texas roots and should make instant inroads in the local recruiting scene. While it may take some time for Morris to fully establish his system at SMU his coaching ability should bring the Mustangs back to at least relevancy.
2017 Grade: B+
2017 Assessment: Sure, Morris isn’t the SMU coach anymore but during his three seasons at SMU the Mustangs improved every season (2-10, 5-7, and 7-5 with a Frisco Bowl bid) and he absolutely made instant recruiting inroads in the state of Texas. How much did Morris leverage his Texas recruiting ties? Well, enough that his first two entire classes where from the state of Texas – the only school to do so. His final class (2018) had 20 commits at the time of his departure and only 1 recruit was from outside the state of Texas. I’m not sure if Morris is worth the 6 years 21 million dollar contract Arkansas gave him but for SMU, he was worth just about every penny.
Florida – Jim McElwain of Colorado State
2015 Grade: A-
2015 Assessment: McElwain may not have been the biggest splash hire, but he does bring a sound offensive scheme to the Gators. While his offense is predominantly run first he does mix in enough elements of the passing game to be effective (See Garrett Grayson and Rashard Higgins in 2014 for example). McElwain is a decent, not great, recruiter, but Florida has a knack of selling itself, so that will not be an issue. It’s the Gators. While the hiring of McElwain was a good hire, he has always surrounded himself with good coaches and if he can keep them together Florida should be on the track to be competing with Missouri for SEC East dominance.
2017 Grade: C
2017 Assessment: Florida fans are hard to impress – let’s just start there. How you fire a guy that wins the SEC East in his first two years (10-4 and 9-4) and finishes with #14 and #9 recruiting classes is tough to understand. McElwain’s first season started off with a bang at 10-1 including a 38-10 win over then #3 Ole Miss all while overcoming the suspension of his starting QB but sputtered toward the end of the season with losses to Florida State at home, to Alabama in the SEC Championship, and to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. The 2016 season saw Florida lose to Tennessee in a game where they blew a 21-point lead as the Vols scored 38 unanswered points before the Gators could stop the bleeding, lose to Arkansas on the road and lose at Florida State before getting blown out by Alabama in the SEC Championship. 2017 started with McElwain’s 2nd loss to Michigan, a cancelled game, and a thrilling last second victory over Tennessee, however McElwain was let go after back to back home losses to LSU and Texas A&M by a combined total of 3 points. All in all, McElwain gets a D+ because, well, he was fired but he gets the bump up to C because given the fact that Florida “thankfully moved on” from Chip Kelly (yeah right) and “hit a home run” with Dan Mullen (yeah right) Florida might have been better off with McElwain. Three years from now Florida realistically could be looking for a new coach. I’m thinking Billy Napier is the next Scott Frost.
Pittsburgh – Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator at Michigan State
2015 Grade: B
2015 Assessment: Every year there’s a decent sized mid-western head coaching job open, and Narduzzi’s name seems to be brought up. This year the Pitt Panther’s job seemed like the right fit for Narduzzi and his family. While he may be a defensive wizard he’s also a very good recruiter and talent evaluator; two skills that he’ll need. Fortunately for him his predecessor didn’t leave the cupboard completely bare and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Narduzzi has Pitt in contention for divisional championships within 5 years.
2017 Grade: C
2017 Assessment: Narduzzi career almost got derailed right from the get go narrowly beating Youngstown State and their first-year head coach Bo Pelini 45-37. After that Pitt went on to win 5 out their next 6 but ended the season losing 4 out of their last 6 games. Narduzzi got it done on the recruiting trail as well finishing with the 29th best class. 2016 had its highs (wins over Penn State and #3 Clemson on the road) and its lows (1-point loss at UNC and blown out at Miami) and Pitt’s recruiting class slipped to #38. 2017 may put Narduzzi squarely on the 2018 hot seat considering Pitt missed a bowl finishing at 5-7, however Pitt’s season finale did see them upset #2 Miami 24-14. Once again, Pitt is slipping in the recruiting ranks and currently sits at the #49th ranked recruiting class.
Nebraska – Mike Riley of Oregon State
2015 Grade: B-
2015 Assessment: No one expected Riley to leave Oregon State for a 2nd time and on the 4th of December when he was announced as the next Nebraska Head Coach many people were left scratching their heads. While Riley’s record may not be the best (93-80 overall and 58-63 in conference) no once can discredit his ability to run a clean program. He brings a very blue collar approach to Nebraska football that may not always show in the wins column. Unless something major changes we see Riley being here for no more than 3 seasons before retiring. Scott Frost anyone?
2017 Grade: C-
2017 Assessment: We knew OMR (Old Man Riley) was in trouble when he opened up his Nebraska career with a home hail marry loss to BYU. In fact that I wasn’t even sure if he’d make it to year two after losing to Illinois and Purdue and finishing the regular season 5-7 but Riley does what Riley does and at the conclusion of his first regular season he brought in a Top 25 recruiting class which hadn’t been done in the two season prior to his arrival and he did beat UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. Compound his 2015 post season/off season with the beginning of the 2016 season that saw Nebraska beat Oregon in non-conference and a 7-0 start with a #7 ranking and people around Lincoln started to wonder where to place Riley’s statue…. and then reality struck. At first, an overtime loss on the road at #11 Wisconsin wasn’t thought to be terribly bad but a 62-3 beat down of the #9 Huskers at the hands of #6 Ohio State had many wondering if Riley was in over his head. Nebraska would go on to split their last 4 games and finish with the #24 class in the country. Enter Bob Diaco…… and welcome to 4-8. 2017 wasn’t your run of the mill 4-8 season though; in fact Nebraska easily could have lost to Arkansas State and Purdue to finish at 2-10. On September 22nd 2017 when Nebraska fired Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst everyone knew Riley’s days where numbered. The good news story here is that Riley is back at Oregon State for a 3rd time although it’s as an Assistant to a Head Coach who’s 26 years younger than him. Riley has literally been coaching longer than his new head coach has been alive – 4 years longer to be exact.
Houston – Tom Herman, Ohio State Offensive Coordinator
2015 Grade: C+
2015 Assessment: Herman has risen up the college coaching ranks quickly, never staying at the same job for more than 3 seasons. Everywhere Herman has coached he’s produced either Offensive All Americans, Offensive All Conference, or school record breakers. In Houston he gets perhaps the most talent concentrated location outside of Dallas and Los Angeles to recruit, and he’s known to be an outstanding recruiter. Herman reminds us of Art Briles or Kevin Sumlin.
2017 Grade: A+
2017 Assessment: All along we’ve been grading everyone on their last three years (or in some cases – two and some change) but Herman only gets the grade on two years because that’s how good of a coach at Houston he was. Before we get too crazy we should probably point out that Herman replaced Tony Levine who’s currently doing really good things at Purdue as the OC and it should be noted that Levine did a fantastic job in three seasons building a competitive roster. Herman hired the right guys as his coordinators (Todd Orlando and Major Applewhite) and inherited a JR and SR laden team which saw them finish 13-1 including wins over Louisville, Navy, and #9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Herman almost jumped ship after one season when LSU came calling and allegedly verbally agreed to become LSU head coach but in the 11th hour but chose to stick it out at Houston which if you remember made for a wild Thanksgiving weekend. Herman parlayed his 2015 success into the beginning of the 2016 season with a upset of #3 Oklahoma on national TV and would get all the way up to a #6 ranking before losing 3 of their next 7 games. Two days after losing to Memphis in the season finale, Herman was announced as the new Head Coach at the University of Texas.
Michigan – Jim Harbaugh of San Francisco (NFL)
2015 Grade: C
2015 Assessment: Harbaugh is a great coach, there’s not a doubt about that. However, he’s a pro coach not a college coach. His overall record at Stanford was 29-21, and outside on one really good year, his teams were average at best. At the college level Harbaugh success will be about who he surrounds himself with (and if we were grading incoming coaching staff’s Michigan might be an A-). As a coach and as a recruiter Harbaugh is not much more than above average or average. Will he do good at Michigan? Possibly. Will Michigan eclipse Ohio State? Probably not. Will Michigan get on Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin’s level? Probably.
2017 Grade: B-
2017 Assessment: Ok here we go – the proverbial elephant in the room. First off, many people think I graded Harbaugh as a C+ three years ago. I didn’t – I graded him as a C and I stick by that grade but let’s talk about one thing I got totally wrong – he’s a pretty good recruiter. In his three seasons at Michigan he has been so good at recruiting that the NCAA had to create language in the rulebook indirectly because of him – *cough *cough specifically because of him (the Satellite Camps restrictions and limitations). Shockingly he’s been able to relate to recruits and younger players seem to gravitate to his coaching style and persona which has probably been one of his biggest recruiting assets. Harbaugh’s first season opened up with a road loss at Utah but Michigan went on to beat everyone except for the two most important teams they play annually, Michigan State and Ohio State which were both home losses. They did bounce back and beat the breaks off of Florida in the Citrus Bowl though. Couple that win with a final ranking of #4 in the recruiting rankings and Michigan went into the 2016 season with tons of momentum which led to 9 straight wins including a big win over #8 Wisconsin….. then the wheels seemingly fell off when Wilton Speight broke his collar bone in a loss on the road to an unranked Iowa. Michigan closed out the season with losses in 2 out of the next 3 games (Florida State and Ohio State) but both loses where by a combined total of 4 points. Had Speight been healthy one has to think that they win at least one of those two. Michigan again finished with the #4 ranked recruiting class and with a healthy Speight back in the mix hopes ran very high in Ann Arbor heading into the 2017 season accentuated by a #11 preseason ranking. Michigan won all the games they were supposed to win however they seemed to drop all the important games (Michigan State and Ohio State at home and Penn State and Wisconsin on the road). 2017 ended on a sour note for the Wolverines with a 26-17 loss to South Carolina in the Outback bowl. On paper Harbaugh’s team was clearly superior to the Gamecocks which led Harbaugh to come under pressure for his perceived inability to “win the big games”.
So with all that said let’s revisit the questions I posed from three years ago: Will he do good at Michigan? Yes, but the results are relative. Michigan seemingly has won most all the games they were supposed to win but he has a 1-5 record against Michigan State and Ohio State and is 1-2 in Bowl games. Will Michigan eclipse Ohio State? Outside of recruiting nothing points to Michigan even coming close to eclipsing Ohio State. In all honesty Penn State has probably closed the gap more so than Michigan. Will Michigan get on the level of Penn State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin? Harbaugh currently has a 4-4 record against those three schools so it’s safe to say Michigan is definitely on the same level and has certainly passed Michigan State. Harbaugh’s rival record and his bowl record earn him a C+ but his ability to continually recruit top classes bump him up to a B-.
Wisconsin – Paul Chryst of Pittsburgh
2015 Grade: C-
2015 Assessment: The second Gary Andersen left for Oregon State, most people thought that Chryst would be the next head coach. Chryst comes back to Madison after a short stint as the Pittsburgh Head Coach. With him Chryst brings the ‘run first’ old Big Ten mentality. Considering Chryst’s record at Pitt this may be one case where the staff may make the man. This hire could go either way, it could be a success much like Gary Andersen’s or it could be a massive failure. Something tells us that Barry Alverez will have a short(er) leash this go around.
2017 Grade: A
2017 Assessment: I will take this one squarely on the chin. I blew this grade badly. Gary Anderson didn’t necessarily leave the program in shambles but Chryst has won three straight bowl games and has played in two Big Ten Championship games pretty much in his own way and is sustaining success with his own recruits. I will say this though, Wisconsin plays in the West and Chryst typically has an easier road to the championship than say, Jim Harbaugh. However 5-1 against Iowa and Nebraska is a very good record against traditionally solid teams. Chryst has played an exceptional out of conference schedule and the Badgers have definitely held their own against the like of #3 Alabama, #5 LSU, and a surprisingly good FAU team and that’s not even counting his wins over USC, #12 Western Michigan, and #11 Miami in bowl games. 2017 could have been a season for the ages for the Badgers (12-0 headed into the Big 10 championship) but a loss to Ohio State derailed what would have been a shoo in for the CFB Playoffs which landed them in the Orange Bowl and meeting with Miami in Miami’s home stadium. Coming off a demoralizing loss to the Buckeyes, Chryst’s team could have easily just packed it in and looked toward 2018 and to start off the game that’s exactly what looked like was going to happen. That is, until Wisconsin dominated the Canes in the 2nd quarter and never looked back. The one dig on Chryst is that he’s never been able to land a solid recruiting class (#35, #35, and currently #33) which is why Chryst doesn’t get an A+ grade but he must be doing something right with nothing but 3 Star talent.
The Failing Grades
Colorado State – Mike Bobo
2015 Grade: F
2015 Assessment: Good coach, bad situation. CSU Should have went with Scott Frost
2017 Grade: C-
2017 Assessment: Bobo has been decent at CSU (21-18) but that might be more indicative of lack of resources and established recruiting footprint than being a bad X’s and O’s guy. Bobo is making strides and he’s probably about one or two 9 win season away from landing a much bigger job. That said, the going has been pretty rough so far.
Kansas – David Beaty
2015 Grade: F
2015 Assessment: Beaty may have been better off staying as an assistant at Texas A&M
2017 Grade: F
2017 Assessment: 3-33 in three season. Even though Beaty finally got the administration to throw some money at the Football Program, he probably won’t be around long enough to see the fruits of his labor.
Troy – Neal Brown
2015 Grade: F
2015 Assessment: It’s never easy replacing a legend.
2017 Grade: A
2017 Assessment: Another Grade I totally missed. Former Kentucky OC Brown is quietly putting together a monster program (10-3 and 11-2 with two bowl wins in the past two seasons).
Tulsa – Phillip Montgomery
2015 Grade: F
2015 Assessment: Talent rich environment, not enough to all go around though
2017 Grade: C
2017 Assessment: Heading into 2017 Montgomery was one of the ‘up and coming coaches’ to watch for but a regression from a 10-3 season to a 2-10 season didn’t do him any favors. Even after a 2-10 season, like Bobo he’s probably about one or two 9 win season away from landing a bigger job.
UNLV – Tony Sanchez
2015 Grade: F
2015 Assessment: Would have been much better off staying at Bishop Gorman High School
2017 Grade: D+
2017 Assessment: I still think Sanchez would have been better off staying at Bishop Gorman but Sanchez is making small strides at UNLV. If Sanchez can make it through a season or two he’ll get a major facilities bump when the Rebels transition over to the new Raiders Stadium – which is about 20 miles closer to campus than Sam Boyd Stadium.