Friday, July 17, 2009

Buyer Beware: Unproven Head Coaches in the SEC

Recently, there was an article in the Clarion-Ledger by Kyle Veasey in which he writes about a few of the reasons behind Mississippi State's hiring of Dan Mullen. The most important of the reasons discussed in the article was State athletic director Greg Byrne's desire to have an vastly improved and much more entertaining brand of football on offense. And who could blame him after watching just one game of the Bulldogs' offense led by the mastermind that was Sylvester Croom. Speaking of what he was looking for on offense, Byrne said, "We wanted to be unique. We wanted to be something that our kids and our fan base would be excited to be a part of." It was only later that he mentioned what he was looking for in an actual coach. He said, "We wanted to find the right fit for Mississippi State. Now, we were definitely interested in finding someone who had a very good offensive pedigree. And one that we felt would be able to highlight an area that we felt like we needed improvement."

Even in mentioning the type of coach for which he was looking, Byrne still emphasized the idea of innovative, exciting offense and not proven results. Now, I bring this up because that sounded vaguely familiar to something I remember hearing in December of 2004. Ole Miss had just fired David Cutcliffe and was in the beginning stages of a coaching search. If you remember, Cutcliffe's lazy approach to recruiting had essentially given Ole Miss three years of self-imposed probation, the first of which was finally felt in 2004 and would be much worse in 2005. Among his other faults, Cutcliffe often appeared to be one of the least energized and dynamic coaches in the country, while remaining one of the most stubborn. His refusal to change on many fronts ultimately led to his firing.

So when Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone and then Chancellor Robert Khayat set out to find his replacement, the things they emphasized that they wanted most in the next coach were all of the major attributes Cutcliffe was missing: Passion for recruiting, dynamic, energetic and an openness to change. They also mentioned they wanted a proven head coach, which we know now they did not find (note: I tried to find the transcript from this press conference, but NO COPY EXISTS ANYWHERE. It's like the two of them set out to erase any record that at one point, they belived Ed Orgeron met their qualifications to coach Ole Miss. Don't tell me Robert Khayat wasn't one powerful son of a bitch. That old man conquered the Internet.). Instead of finding a guy with proven results, they went with some abstract qualifications (like, say, a "national title" in recruiting) and made what had to be one of the top three worst hires in the history of the SEC.

Compare the qualifications they listed for the eventual Ed Orgeron hire to what they wanted for his replacement. Pete Boone said, "Fairly simple. I would like to find a proven SEC head coach. It's as simple as that." That qualification led them to Houston Nutt, who had obviously proven himself at Arkansas, and whose hire cannot be accurately measured in terms of "percentage better than the Ed Orgeron hire" (if someone could mathematically figure out that formula I would be impressed). Now, I'm not saying that Dan Mullen is going to be the next Ed Orgeron. One would think that to be impossible. Seriously, 10-25 and 3-21 in SEC play in three years is almost unbelievable. But, looking back at SEC coaching hires since 1992, history does not bode well for Dan Mullen.

I decided to look up the records of unproven (and by unproven I mean those with no collegiate head coaching experience) coaches taking over programs that had struggled in the years previous to their arrivals and were not in what I would call good situations. They were dealing some combination of recent losing seasons, history of losing, lack of talent, probation, a divided fan base or poor facilities (I'm sure you can come up with more, but these were some of the bigger issues facing each of these schools). I also took a look at coaches with college head coaching experience who took over these programs to find out the difference between the two. What I discovered was, that for the most part, if you haven't been a head coach before and you're coming into a bad situation, expect to lose big.

First, the unproven coaches who took over schools in bad situations.

-In 1995, Tommy Tuberville took over an Ole Miss program nearly destroyed by probation and in the previous two seasons had gone a combined 8-14 (and one of those years involved the "coaching" of one Joe Lee Dunn, which was probably the darkest year in Ole Miss football history). In four seasons, Tuberville put together a 25-20 record while operating with nearly 25 less scholarships than most of the competition. However, while I think he pulled off one of the greatest coaching performances in college football history (considering the circumstances), it should be noted he compiled only a 12-20 conference record.

-Sylvester Croom began coaching a Mississippi State team that was just awful in Jackie Sherrill's last three years (7-27) and was also hit with NCAA probation, although not as severe as Ole Miss'. In five seasons, which most State fans will tell you was two season too long, Croom had a 21-38 record and a 10-30 mark in the SEC.

-At South Carolina, Brad Scott took over for Sparky Woods, who, in five years in Columbia, had a 24-28-3 record. Scott, also in five years, went 23-32-1 and 12-27-1 in the SEC.

-Guy Morriss replaced Hal Mumme at Kentucky in 2001. While Mumme did get Kentucky to two bowls, he left them with a healthy does of probation as well. He finished his time at Kentucky with a 20-26 and a 10-22 SEC record. Morriss managed to go 9-14 and 4-12 in the SEC, but did get the Wildcats to a bowl in his second year.

-Here's our first debatable situation: Ed Orgeron taking over for the fired David Cutcliffe. As I mentioned above, Cutcliffe's lazy recruiting efforts had essentially given Ole Miss a dose of self-imposed probation (I tried to research this and use what I remembered, but to the best of my knowledge, of the signees from 2002-2004, 45 of 61 made it to campus. And of those, maybe half actually contributed). His replacement was walking into an SEC team with no depth, not much talent and not a single competent quarterback on campus. Granted, this situation was not nearly as bad as the one Tubberville came into, but it wasn't very good. As we know, Orgeron went a spectacularly bad 10-25 and 3-21 in the SEC.

-And although it probably shouldn't count, Vanderbilt had two unproven coaches start their careers in really bad spots. Rod Dowhower (does anyone even remotely remember this guy?) picked up the pieces after Gerry DiNardo (10-26) went to LSU and crapped out a 4-18 and 1-15 mark in the SEC in two season. Then the brains at Vandy decided to go with another untested coach in Woody Widenhofer, who, in five season, went 15-40 and 4-36 in the SEC.

Tallying up those less than impressive records, there was one guy who managed to have a winning record. Tommy Tuberville, who still had a losing record in the conference.

The final damage: 107-187-1 (.363)
SEC record: 46-161-1 (.221)

Now, the experienced coaches taking over schools in bad situations.

-Terry Bowden took over at Auburn for Pat Dye, who managed to get the team placed on probation and compile a 10-11-1 and a 4-9-1 SEC record in his last two years. Bowden, whose first two teams were ineligible for postseason play, had a 47-17-1 and a 30-14-1 SEC record in six seasons.

-Danny Ford became head coach at Arkansas after three disastrous years under Jack Crowe and Joe Kines, who combined to go 12-21-1 and 3-4-1 in the SEC (Kines coached Arkansas' only season in the SEC before Ford). In five seasons, Ford went 26-30-1 and 16-23-1 in the SEC.

-Although technically Jackie Sherrill was hired in 1991, I'm going to throw him in here (it's all my damn research so I'll do as I please and you'll like it). Sherrill took the place of Rocky Felker, who compiled a 21-34 and a 5-28 SEC record in five years, and in 13 seasons went 75-75-2 and 43-59-1 in the SEC.

-Lou Holtz took over for the failed Brad Scott era (see record above) and in six years at South Carolina had a 33-37 and a 19-29 SEC mark.

-I once scissor kicked Lou Holtz in the throat. Just kidding. Wanted to see if anyone was still reading. But I would enjoy doing that.

-Houston Nutt replaced Danny Ford at Arkansas, and in 10 years went 75-48 and 42-38 in the SEC.

-Houston Nutt also replaced Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and in his first season put togther a 9-4 and a 5-3 SEC record.

-Although this next guy is debatable, I'm including him here. Bobby Petrino walked into a job that was surely not as bad off as some of the others listed here, but it certainly wasn't ideal. There was no question the talent level was running dry at certain positions in Houston Nutt's final year. And when the big guys, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, left, coupled with not much remaining on defense, this wasn't a great job in the coaching world. Throw in the very public and disastrous divorce between Houston Nutt and the school and fan base, and I would consider times not to be so good at Arkansas. In his first year at Arkansas, Petrino compiled a 5-7 and a 2-6 SEC record.

-Gerry DiNardo, who sucked at Vanderbilt, went to LSU to replace Curley Hallman, who was 16-28 and had an SEC record of 10-21. Somehow DiNardo would go 33-24-1 and 19-20-1 in the SEC.

-Steve Spurrier took over for Lou Holtz at South Carolina (see record above), who was just 16-19 in his last three years in Columbia. Spurrier has gone 28-22 and 15-17 in the SEC.

-And Rich Brooks, even though Guy Morriss had a winning record the previous year, came to Kentucky with the school starting to feel the pains of probation and having a coach running away as fast as he could. Brooks has gone 32-41 and 13-35 in the SEC. Although, in the last three years, Kentucky has not only gone to bowl games, they've won them.

-Again, although I'm not sure it should count, Bobby Johnson stepped into the vortex of losing that is Vanderbilt and has put together a 27-56 and a 12-44 SEC record. And it should be noted, much to my dismay, he did get them into and won a bowl game last year.

So, after all that, obviously there's a little more success when someone who at least has a clue takes over.

Final record: 410-339-4 (.544)
SEC record: 226-272-3 (.451)

If you're scoring at home, it's .544 for the proven coaches and .363 for the unproven (.451 to .221 in SEC play). Of course, it seems logical those with head coaching experience will have better records because, like most anything, if you've done it before you tend to be better than someone who hasn't. And there are some other factors for attracting coaches I didn't consider, like resources, a commitment to football from the administration and prestige of the job, but I'm not sure exactly how to measure those (That means schools in really bad situations would certainly have a harder time hiring a coach who has head coaching experience.). But the difference in the numbers between the two groups is pretty strong (through some of my own mathematical skill, I estimated that an experienced coach coming into a bad coaching situation is worth roughly 2-3 more wins per season than an inexperienced one).

As these numbers show, Dan Mullen will most certainly struggle in his first two, possibly three years. It's possible he could have some success, after all even Sylvester Croom fell ass-backwards into an eight win season, but any sort of sustained success seems doubtful. Even Tommy Tuberville, who is the standard bearer in the SEC for unproven coaches, only had one season in which he won at least eight games and never won more than six in his other three seasons at Ole Miss. And, of course, as soon as he got his chance to move into a better situation, he left. I assume Greg Byrne knows he's rolling the dice with Dan Mullen, but I'm not sure he understands how long the odds facing him are.

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