Ranking The First Year Coaches

    By Rich Cirminiello Twenty head coaches made their debuts at college campuses across the country in 2014. And while the results were predictably uneven as

    January 16, 2015

    By Rich Cirminiello

    Twenty head coaches made their debuts at college campuses across the country in 2014. And while the results were predictably uneven as rebuilding projects ensued, there were high-points among the rookies. Half of the first-timers reached the .500 mark, with one, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, guiding his team to a New Year’s Six bowl victory. 

    The challenges for each of the newcomers were similar—begin revising the culture in a new position and often on a completely unfamiliar terrain. Oh, and if you can help ignite fan interest, and keep the turnstiles churning, that’d be much appreciated, too. Although a few coaches made immediate splashes, the majority are still in the embryonic stages of long-term plans that may not be fully executed for another couple of years. 

    Quick, lock this guy down with a long-term extension 

    1. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
    It is never easy succeeding a coaching legend. Er, at least that’s typically the case. 

    The post-Chris Petersen era at Boise State looked an awful lot like the actual Chris Petersen era at Boise State. Double-digit wins. Conference title. Fiesta Bowl victory. Check, check, check. After a couple of early stumbles and a crushing season-ending ankle injury to WR Matt Miller, the 12-2 Broncos rallied for nine straight wins, capped by a Fiesta Bowl upset of Arizona in Glendale. Harsin is about to become the latest Coach Pete or Coach Hawkins or Coach Koetter, an up-and-comer who perennially fields offers from much bigger programs. 

    2. Willie Fritz , Georgia Southern 
    Fritz and his Eagles soared below the radar until it became impossible not to take notice of their improbable 2014 ascent. 

    Picked eighth in the preseason Sun Belt poll, Georgia Southern would go on to sweep the conference schedule in its debut season playing at the FBS level. The Eagles put early scares into the ACC’s Georgia Tech and NC State, losing by just five combined points, while unleashing a relentless ground-based attack that was No. 3 nationally in yards per play. A provision for transitional programs was the only thing that kept GSU from competing in its first-ever bowl game. 

    3. Jeff Brohm , Western Kentucky 
    Brohm has something special brewing at Western Kentucky. Now, it’s up to the Toppers to keep the young coach on staff for as long as possible. 

    Brohm furthered what mentor Bobby Petrino started, leading the program to eight wins and a Bahamas Bowl victory over Central Michigan. And the Hilltoppers did it with flash, averaging 44 points behind a balanced and explosive offense. In a microcosm of the season, WKU needed all 67 points on Nov. 28 to become the only team to defeat Marshall in 2014. 

    4. Bobby Petrino , Louisville 
    Sure, the campus was familiar, but Petrino faced a handful of changes and unique dynamics in his return to Louisville. 

    Considering the rigors of competing in a tougher league, the ACC, while needing to start three different would-be successors to Teddy Bridgewater, Petrino did well to finish 9-4. The Cards remained ranked for much of the season by leaning a little harder on the D as rookies Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin took snaps for injured Will Gardner. Best of all, though, it was a boring year off the field for Petrino, sans any drama or rumors of a new coaching destination. 

    You had one year … you made the most of it 

    5. Bill Clark, UAB 
    Clark lasted only one season in Birmingham, yet it wasn’t a firing or a promotion that ended his stay with the Blazers. 

    In one of the stranger developments of 2014, UAB shut the doors on the football program, the first major school to do so since Pacific in 1995. And in an ironic twist, the move by the administration came just as the Blazers were turning the corner, finishing at .500 for the first time in a decade. Clark and his staff did a remarkable job in such a short period of time, including scoring more points against Mississippi State than any other team last year. 

    The ground floor is down … now go build on it 

    6. Steve Sarkisian, USC
    There were ups. There were downs. There was, Trojan fans hope, a foundation that was laid, both on the field and on the recruiting trail. 

    Talent won’t be a concern, and depth worries will subside with each passing year. Still, should a program this gifted be beaten by Boston College and blown out by UCLA? USC must also learn to finish after losing games to Arizona State and Utah in the final 10 seconds. On a bright note, the Trojans did defeat Stanford, Arizona in Tucson, Notre Dame by five touchdowns and Nebraska in a Holiday Bowl shootout. Next fall will be key for Sark, who’ll be expected to bring at least some Pac-12 South hardware back to Heritage Hall. 

    7. Dino Babers, Bowling Green
    The rollercoaster ride that was Babers’ debut season with the Falcons ended with a victory over South Alabama and a Camellia Bowl Trophy. 

    The good news in 2014 was that Bowling Green won eight games for a third straight year and appeared in a second-straight MAC title game, despite losing star QB Matt Johnson on opening day. The concerns, though, surround a defense that needs to be retooled in time for next year to match an offense that’ll again be high-powered under the stewardship of Babers. 

    8. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
    Just like Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin before him, Anderson guided the Red Wolves to a winning season capped by a GoDaddy Bowl berth. Unlike his predecessors, Anderson is buying, not renting, in Jonesboro. 

    Arkansas State lost its bowl game to Toledo to finish 7-6, but a rare brush with sideline stability will somewhat soothe the pain of Sunday night’s 63-44 loss in Mobile. While Anderson and his staff of assistants will need to address the drippy defense this offseason, an offense that returns everyone should keep the program in the Sun Belt Conference hunt in 2015. 

    9. Chris Petersen , Washington 
    The final results weren’t commensurate with the talent in Seattle. And for that, much of the blame must fall on the new coaching staff. 

    The Huskies boasted three All-Americans on defense, so it’s not as if Steve Sarkisian left the cabinets bare when he took the USC job. However, Petersen’s first offense lacked pop and consistency, resulting in a middling 8-6 mark. Washington went 0-5 versus ranked teams, and played poorly in a 30-22 loss to .500 Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl. It’s just one year, but the theory that Boise State coaches don’t flourish outside of Boise grew a little in 2014. 

    10. James Franklin , Penn State
    As much as any coach on this list, Franklin inherited a tough situation flush with unique obstacles and barriers to success. That the Lions finished above .500 is a small victory for a staff committed to patience and a long-term vision. 

    When Franklin arrived from Vanderbilt, Penn State was still smarting from scholarship reductions and a postseason ban. The ban was lifted in September, creating an opening for the Lions to beat Boston College in a Pinstripe Bowl thriller. But 7-6 PSU remains shorthanded, especially along the O-line, which stifled the development of franchise QB Christian Hackenberg. After leaning heavily on the D, Franklin must coach up Hackenberg and the rest of a sputtering offense in 2015. 

    11. Charlie Strong , Texas
    The ground floor is down, even if Longhorn fans got a little queasy reaching this point of the year. 

    Texas had more ups and downs than a Windstorm rollercoaster, riding out the challenges of a banged-up O-line and the career-ending concussions of David Ash. Depending on your angle, the ‘Horns are either the team that routed Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State in succession or the one that closed with lopsided losses to TCU and Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. Yeah, Texas finished below .500 for the second time in the last four years, but it’s hard to be too tough on Strong, whose debut was largely about cleaning house, changing the culture and instilling toughness back into the program. 

    You’ve got time … you’ll need it 

    12. Mark Whipple , Massachusetts
    Right man for the job. 

    Whipple is uniquely qualified to breathe life into the Minutemen, which he’s already done once before in Amherst. UMass has been fighting an uphill battle since moving from the FCS to the FBS, exacerbated by a pink slip from the MAC, which becomes effective following the 2015 season. Still, the program won three games, more than the last two seasons combined, and more than doubled its scoring average from the previous year. The future is murky, but Whipple is poised to guide UMass through the fog. 

    13. Dave Clawson , Wake Forest
    Clawson inherited an unmitigated reclamation project in Winston-Salem, so anything less than an incomplete is just not fair at this stage of the grading process. 

    Is it any wonder the 3-9 Deacons were among the feeblest offensive attacks in the country? They went with a true freshman quarterback, John Wolford, and the supporting and team strength wasn’t close to ACC-caliber. The defense kept Wake Forest competitive every so often, and a Nov. 22 overtime upset of Virginia Tech could provide a mini-boost into the 2015 season. 

    14. Craig Bohl , Wyoming
    Bohl started quickly in Laramie. And then reality set in. 

    The Cowboys began the year 3-1, including a loss at Oregon and an upset of an Air Force team that would finish the season 10-3. But inconsistency behind center and a lack of defensive speed caught up with Wyoming once the calendar page flipped to October. The Cowboys won just once over the final eight games, but the backfield duo of Shaun Wick and Brian Hill equals hope for the future. 

    15. Chuck Martin , Miami U. 
    Yeah, it’s a painstakingly slow process, but the Red Hawks are clearly moving in the right direction under Martin. 

    Winless in 2013, Miami won a pair of games over UMass and Kent State. Plus, its games were far more competitive, thanks to an offense that evolved from 10 points per game a year ago to 22 points per game in 2014. Martin took a $200,000 pay cut to leave Notre Dame for Miami, so he’s banking on turning around a sagging program that’s had one winning season since 2006. 

    16. Jeff Monken , Army 
    Two wins in 2012. Three wins in 2013. This past season, 4-8. At this rate, the Black Knights will be bowl-eligible in 2016. 

    While Monken is pleased with the foundation he’s laying on the Hudson, there can never be peace in the offseason when Army loses to its two main rivals, Air Force, 23-6, and Navy, 17-10. The Black Knights were competitive against the Midshipmen, but a 13th loss in a row in college football’s most storied rivalry solidified their spot as the Fredo of the service academy family. 

    17. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
    Creighton has one of the toughest jobs in the country, and the sorry 2014 to back it up. 

    It was business as usual in Ypsilanti, as the Eagles dropped 10 games for the fifth time in the last six years. And most of the games were blowouts, with the defense routinely getting shredded. However, Creighton, who has thrived everywhere he’s been, has started to gradually alter the culture at EMU. And in true freshmen QB Reggie Bell, he has a young quarterback he can build around in the coming years. 

    18. Charlie Partridge, Florida Atlantic 
    So close. Yet, so far from being the kind of program Partridge is looking to develop in Boca Raton. 

    The Owls won half as many games as they did a year earlier, slipping from 6-6 in 2013 to 3-9 this past season. Four of those defeats were by no more than a field goal, and the 2015 squad will be saddled with a five-game losing streak. While Florida Atlantic was dangerous at home, it was winless on the road, and must fix a shaky defense this offseason. 

    Print out boarding passes … the honeymoon is already over 

    19. Bob Diaco, Connecticut
    The Huskies were supposed to be bad, but not quite this bad. 

    While it’s no surprise that Diaco inherited a rotten situation, with a ton of rebuilding ahead, the first 10-loss season since 1977 means the road to respectability is even rockier than anticipated. UConn did shock defending American champion UCF on Nov. 1, but it dropped every other game with an FBS opponent. And closing the year with a home loss to winless SMU was an especially troubling way to enter the offseason for the ever-upbeat Diaco. 

    20. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
    James Franklin is a tough act to follow. But Mason did absolutely nothing to carve out his own niche in Nashville … or make the locals forget the former boss. 

    The tone was immediately set for the Commodores on opening night, a 37-7 home loss to Temple. And things never improved for the program, which had gotten accustomed to bowl games and nine-win seasons. Mason has already begun to clean house, firing both coordinators shortly after going 3-9 and winless on SEC play. 

    In 2018, this hire will be graded … B 


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