Opinion: Coaching Changes Often Not for Better

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Copyright 2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Purely for the sake of discussion, let's say Mark Richt decides that the Gator Bowl against Nebraska will be his last game as Georgia's coach. Some Bulldogs backers --- perhaps not a majority, but surely more than a few --- would view this as an opportunity to land the coach who would win even bigger than Richt. But what are the chances Georgia would find such a man?

Not very good.

The case of Texas and outgoing Mack Brown set me to thinking about the likelihood of a school bettering its best coach of recent vintage. The belief here is that the rich-beyond-reason Longhorns will not improve on Brown. The belief is that the coach just nudged aside will be viewed most wistfully in Austin five years hence.

Another orange-wearing program bearing the initials "UT" ousted a coach of championship caliber in 2008. Five years later, Tennessee has managed one winning season under three different head coaches. The argument isn't that Phillip Fulmer deserved to stay --- like Brown at Texas, he'd reached the point of diminishing returns --- but that changing coaches is a two-step process. Dumping a guy is the easy half. Hiring somebody better is much harder.

We look toward Georgia's upcoming opponent. Tom Osborne stepped down in Lincoln after the 1997 season. Frank Solich, the former Cornhuskers fullback, was charged with replacing the irreplaceable. He didn't do badly. His second team went 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl. His fourth team went 11-2 and lost the BCS title game. His sixth team was his last. A new athletic director fired Solich and replaced him with Bill Callahan, who'd just taken the Raiders to the Super Bowl.

Callahan lasted four seasons, never winning more than nine games. He was replaced by irascible Bo Pelini, who has won 10 games three times but never a conference title in either the Big 12 or Big Ten. After the Cornhuskers lost to Iowa in their regular-season finale, Pelini dared his bosses to fire him. Surely they will soon.

If Solich wasn't quite Osborne (and he wasn't), Callahan and Pelini have proved they weren't even Solich. The next man through the door isn't always Mr. Right. As much as fans --- and presidents and athletic directors --- might believe that one hire will solve everything, not many schools ace that hire.

After Lou Holtz, it took Notre Dame four tries --- five, if you count the 3 1/2-day tenure of George O'Leary --- to find a coach capable of lifting the Irish back to the national championship game. Oklahoma needed three swings-and-misses --- the one bizarre season of Howard Schnellenberger included --- to get from Barry Switzer to Bob Stoops. Texas likewise required three swings to bridge the expanse from Darrell Royal to Brown.

Even esteemed Jeremy Foley needed a mulligan after Steve Spurrier left Florida for the Redskins. Ron Zook lasted 2 2/3 seasons before being canned. The next head Gator was Urban Meyer, who won two BCS titles before retiring to spend a couple of days with his family. After Meyer came Will Muschamp, whom Texas had designated Brown's heir apparent. After three seasons in Gainesville, all that's apparent is that Muschamp just oversaw Florida's first losing season since 1979 and owns a worse winning percentage than the Zooker.

We can make the argument that the two greatest coaches in collegiate history --- Paul W. Bryant and Nicholas L. Saban --- have graced Alabama. We also note that the Tide went through seven coaches --- Ray Perkins, Bill Curry, Gene Stallings, Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price (who never actually coached a Bama game) and Mike Shula --- to go from the Bear to the latest gold standard.

Even if a school succeeds in negotiating one succession, there's no guarantee it won't trip the next time. USC replaced John McKay, who won three national titles, with John Robinson, who won one. It took Troy 25 years to claim another, having run through Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, Robinson again and Paul Hackett before landing Pete Carroll.

Yes, some programs do hit the target. Jimbo Fisher, who was coach-in-waiting to Bobby Bowden, has lifted Florida State to the BCS title game in his fourth season. The opposing coach will be Gus Malzahn, who's in Year 1 as the head man at Auburn. (Then again, Gene Chizik led Auburn to a national championship in his Year 2 and wasn't around for Year 5. Was Chizik the right man, or just the man in place when Cam Newton took his talents to the Loveliest Village?)

Let's emphasize that the above examples are more anecdotal than numerically analytical. Still, they are striking --- and sobering. For the task of replacing a demonstrably successful coach, I'd set the odds of hiring someone as good at 1-in-3. As for finding an outright upgrade, I'd say it's closer to 1-in-10. After all, the only coaches who get to stick around long enough to wear out their welcome are, or at least were, darn fine coaches.


December 19, 2013
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