When Do College Football Coaches Hit Their Recruiting Prime?

    How long does it take for college football coaches to peak on the recruiting trail? Our Andy Wittry found out.

    Recent history says that college football coaches are most likely to peak on the recruiting trail in Year Two of their tenures — that is unless they can reach Year Five and beyond at a school, which allows some long-tenured coaches to reach their recruiting “prime” in Year Five or Year Six.

    We analyzed 95 FBS coaches who were hired between 2011 and 2014, excluding only those coaches whose tenures couldn’t be examined due to unique circumstances, like Mike Haywood, who was hired by Pitt in December 2010 before getting arrested just over two weeks later, which led to his firing.

    UAB’s Bill Clark is another since the school shut down its football program in 2015 and 2016.

    Of the 95 coaches examined, 35 enrolled the highest-ranked recruiting class of their tenures heading into Year 2, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

    Year 2 is when a coach engages in his first “full” recruiting cycle since the college football coaching carousel typically runs from late November to mid-January, which overlaps with the Early Signing Period.

    Last year’s Early Signing Period was from Dec. 19-21, so some coaches were hired after a significant portion of the Division I-bound high school seniors had already signed their National Letter of Intent.

    Six of the coaches examined only spent one year at their respective schools, so their first recruiting classes were their best by default. That data wasn’t included in the overall results, which are broken down below.

    Year When Coach Enrolled Highest-Ranked Recruiting Class Number of Coaches
    1 11
    2 35
    3 17
    4 10
    5 10
    6 5
    7 1


    Of course, part of the reason why Year 2 is especially productive on the recruiting front is due to the short length of many coaches’ tenures:

    • 12 of the 95 coaches only spent two years at their respective schools
    • 14 had a three-year tenure
    • 18 had a four-year tenure


    That means more than half (50 of the 95 coaches) didn’t see a fifth year at the school that hired them either because they won at a level that allowed them to jump to a better job or because they got fired.

    But even among the 19 active FBS coaches who were hired from 2011 to 2014, Year Two proved to be the recruiting peak for six coaches, which is tied for the most in a given year along with Year Five.

    The full breakdown for those 19 head coaches is in the chart below.

    Year When Coach Enrolled Highest-Ranked Recruiting Class Number of Coaches Active Coaches Hired From 2011-2014
    1 0 N/A
    2 6 Gus Malzahn, David Shaw, Mark Stoops, Steve Addazio, Dave Clawson, Chuck Martin
    3 1 Rocky Long
    4 1 Mike Leach
    5 6 James Franklin, Chris Petersen, Derek Mason, Bob Davie, Blake Anderson, Chris Creighton
    6 5 Dave Doeren, Bryan Harsin, Jeff Monken, Skip Holtz, Craig Bohl
    7 0 N/A


    Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, Stanford’s David Shaw, Boston College’s Steve Addazio and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson each landed their best recruiting class in Year Two, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

    So did Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Will Muschamp at Florida and Jim Mora at UCLA, which means whether you’re a multiple national-title winning coach (Meyer), an SEC-winning coach (Malzahn), eternally 7-6 (Addazio) or a coach who’s ultimately fired before your school’s regular season finale (Mora), there’s a solid chance that your highest-rated recruiting class will come in your first full recruiting cycle in Year 2.

    [RELATED: Here’s How New Coaches Fared in Their First Recruiting Cycle]

    For the 89 coaches examined who spent at least two seasons at their respective schools, they enrolled a recruiting class in Year Two that ranked an average of 3.6 spots better than their predecessor’s final recruiting class.

    Coaches assemble their recruiting classes for Year Two during and right after Year One, so their vision — whether it has been or will ever be realized on the field — is still new and exciting.

    If your team is losing, you can downplay it by saying it’s still early in your tenure.

    If your team is winning already? Even better.

    49 of the 89 coaches examined who spent multiple years at their respective schools improved upon their predecessor’s last recruiting ranking by Year Two, most notably former Georgia Southern Coach Willie Fritz (50 spots – No. 85 in 2015 compared to No. 135 in 2013), Mora (38 spots – No. 7 in 2013 compared to No. 45 in 2011) and former Wisconsin Coach Gary Andersen (33 spots – No. 32 in 2014 compared to No. 65 in 2012).

    The same can’t be said for consistent improvement in recruiting in Year One.

    It’s more common for a school’s recruiting ranking to dip rather than improve in the first year of a new head coach’s tenure. 57 of the 95 coaches had a lower-ranked recruiting class in their first season compared to their predecessor’s final recruiting class. (Once again, refer to the timing of when coaches are hired in relation to the Early Signing Period.)

    For the 95 coaches examined, their schools’ recruiting class rankings in their first season ranked an average of 4.5 spots worse than the school’s recruiting class did the previous season.

    Here are the biggest improvements and drop-offs in a new coach’s first recruiting class’ ranking for coaches hired from 2011-14 compared to their predecessor’s final class.

    The biggest improvements:

    Coach School Season Improvement
    Gus Malzahn Arkansas State 2012 +54
    Willie Fritz Georgia Southern 2014 +39
    Mark Hudspeth Louisiana 2011 +31
    Todd Graham Arizona State 2012 +29
    Jim Mora UCLA 2012 +27


    The biggest drop-offs:

    Coach School Season Drop-Off
    Bob Diaco UConn 2014 -48
    Jim McElwain Colorado State 2012 -44
    Charlie Weis Kansas 2012 -41
    Bryan Harsin Arkansas State 2013 -36
    Ron Turner FIU 2013 -35


    In some cases, it takes until after a coach’s first recruiting class at a school has graduated until the coach lands the highest-rated recruiting class of his tenure.

    For coaches like Penn State’s James Franklin and Washington’s Chris Petersen, the improvement in their schools’ recruiting class rankings corresponded with improved play on the field.

    After the Nittany Lions went 7-6 in each of Franklin’s first two seasons, they won 11 games in both Year Three and Year Four. Franklin enrolled the No. 6 recruiting class in Year Five.

    Similarly, Washington went 8-6, then 7-6 in Petersen’s first two seasons. The Huskies won 12 games in 2016, making their first-ever College Football Playoff appearance, and they followed that up with a 10-3 campaign in Year Four. In Year Five and Year Six, Petersen enrolled the nation’s No. 16 recruiting class.

    And if you go through the list of coaches hired this offseason, which includes Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Miami’s Manny Diaz and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen, among many more, recent history says that roughly a third of them will enroll the best recruiting classes of their tenures in 2020.

    After that, their incoming talent might be good, but it won’t get any better.

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