VN: Charlie Strong and Baby Steps
by Bill Connelly
Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, Louisville fell behind Southern Miss, 14-0, in the first quarter before rallying for a fun 31-28 win. The victory gave the Cardinals a 7-6 record in Charlie Strong's first year as head coach, and it gave Louisville fans hope for the first time in about four seasons. It also provided vindication for those screaming for Strong to be given a shot at a top job.
At the time of his hire, Strong was 49 years old, having spent 11 seasons as the defensive coordinator of a BCS school (three at South Carolina, and eight at Florida under both Ron Zook and Urban Meyer). In 27 years as a football coach in one capacity or another, he had landed at Florida (four separate times), Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, and South Carolina. He had a picture-perfect resume, but it seemed to take forever for a team to give him a shot.
Naturally, and perhaps justifiably, many thought race was a driving factor in teams' reticence.
For black coaches in college football, progress has come and gone in fits and starts. Supposed prodigies from Dennis Green to Ron Prince have been given chances before they were ready (in John Blake's case, he was probably never going to be ready), while men like Strong, Bob Simmons and Sylvester Croom had to wait a longer-than-normal time to get a shot. Gauging success is difficult because of a ridiculously small sample size -- BCS conference teams have hired only 18 black coaches throughout history, three of whom were Tyrone Willingham -- but gauging progress is a bit more concrete. We will attempt to do both below.
This time last year, we all got to feel good for a job well done. Seven black coaches were given head coaching jobs at the FBS level -- Strong, Joker Phillips (Kentucky), Turner Gill (Kansas), and Mike London (Virginia) at the BCS level, with Ruffin McNeill (East Carolina), Larry Porter (Memphis), and Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky) at the non-BCS level.
Not all of them will succeed -- let's face it, most coaching hires are average at best, otherwise there wouldn't be so many coaching hires -- but the point was to get deserving candidates opportunities. While we wait to see if this group of black coaches can thrive more than the ones that came before them, let's see what statistics can tell us about how black coaches have done to date.
We'll start by looking at this year. Here are the men who led BCS teams into action this fall:
|Randy Shannon||Miami||2007||28-22||.560||Fired at end of 2010|
|Charlie Strong||Louisville||2010||7-6||.538||Won Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl Tuesday|
|Joker Phillips||Kentucky||2010||6-6||.500||Coaching in BBVA Compass Bowl Jan. 8|
That's a combined record of 48-51, though four of the five coaches were in their first years on the job.
Here is the roster at the non-BCS level:
|Kevin Sumlin||Houston||2008||23-16||.590||18 wins in first two seasons|
|Mike Haywood||Miami (Ohio)||2009||10-15||.400||Won MAC in second season, hired by Pittsburgh|
|DeWayne Walker||New Mexico State||2009||5-20||.200|
|Ron English||Eastern Michigan||2009||2-22||.083|
|Mike Locksley||New Mexico||2009||2-22||.083|
|Ruffin McNeill||East Carolina||2010||6-6||.500|
|Willie Taggart||Western Kentucky||2010||2-10||.167|
Kevin Sumlin looks, by all accounts, like a tremendous hire at Houston. His Cougars justifiably struggled this year because of turnover both in the booth (offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen left for Oklahoma State in the offseason) and on the field (star quarterback Case Keenum was lost for the season, then his backup fell as well), but his overall track is a good one. It is only a matter of time before he gets a job at the BCS level.
Meanwhile, Mike Haywood has already been promoted to Pittsburgh after a surprise MAC title at Miami (Ohio) this year. (Honestly, this might not be a good thing, as he has yet to prove he can truly build a program. Sometimes promotions that come too soon are curses in disguise.) McNeill did all right this season as he transitioned to a Mike Leachian system with Holtzian players, and the others on this list have struggled in almost dead-end positions. The combined record isn't good, but at these schools, Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno would struggle.
In fact, the inheritance of unfavorable situations has been an ongoing trend with black coaches. They have been forced to seize whatever opportunities they can get, and it's destroyed a few resumes.
Below is a look at every black coach hired at a BCS-level school. After the basics (name, school, years, record), the terms in the table are as follows:
- 5 Yrs. Before: This is a given school's average percentile performance in terms of S&P+ (or Est. S&P+ for seasons before 2005) for the five years before the coach was hired. S&P+ and Est. S&P+ are adjusted for the level of opponent, so they tell us more than pure W-L record.
- 2 Yrs. Before: This is the school's average percentile performance for the two years before the hire. This tells you how much momentum a program had (or, more likely, did not have) when the coach inherited the job.
- Avg. Percentile Performance: This is the average S&P+/Est. S&P+ percentile performance the team registered while the coach had the given job.
- 1-5 Yrs. After: This is the average S&P+/Est. S&P+ percentile performance the team managed after the given coach's departure. It is five years for most coaches, three years for Karl Dorrell (who left UCLA after the 2007 season), and two years for the last three names on the list.
For this table, coaches who were still active in 2010 were not observed; the goal was both a before and after look.
|James Caldwell||Wake Forest||1992-00||26-63||.292||.320||.215||.282||.512|
|Bob Simmons||Oklahoma State||1995-00||29-37-1||.440||.307||.329||.477||.621|
|Bobby Williams||Michigan State||1999-02||16-17||.485||.768||.826||.646||.652|
|Tyrone Willingham||Notre Dame||2002-04||21-15||.583||.757||.751||.771||.639|
|Sylvester Croom||Mississippi State||2004-08||11-37||.356||.548||.274||.338||.729|
|Ron Prince||Kansas State||2006-08||28-22||.459||.815||.615||.510||.308|
|MEDIAN (Non-BCS Coaches)
As a frame of reference, the median "5 Yrs. Before" finish of 0.632 equates to an S&P+ ranking of 44th, the "2 Yrs. Before" median of 0.540 equates to 55th, and the average performance of 0.494 equates to 61st. On average, teams that hired the coaches above were somewhere between "tumble" and "tailspin," and while coaches like Simmons, Willingham (at Stanford), and Croom were able to right the ship, they were still not in position to thrive.
Whereas Gus Malzahn can turn down Vandy, in part (probably) because it's a coaching graveyard, in the name of progress it doesn't appear that black coaches are as likely to turn these spots down. Of the 13 names above, five were at Northwestern, Stanford, and Wake Forest -- "smart kid" schools with little history. Big-name schools are more likely to hire coaches who have already established themselves, and they are less likely to take chances with their hire.
The mid-major level has seen much of the same. Of the 18 coaches hired at a non-BCS school, two were at Eastern Michigan (Ron Cooper and Ron English), two at New Mexico State (Tony Samuel and DeWayne Walker), and other low-caliber schools like Temple (Ron Dickerson), San Jose State (Fitzgerald Hill), Louisiana-Lafayette (Jerry Baldwin), Ohio (Cleve Bryant), and Buffalo (Turner Gill). Those schools are resume killers (to say the least, they are not working with the same amount of resources as others). It is both telling and predictable that only one of the mid-major black coaches (Cooper) got a shot at a better job (Louisville, which in the mid-1990s wasn't as much better as we would now think) down the line.
Not until John Blake was hired at Oklahoma did a black coach get an opportunity at a historical power with solid infrastructure. And Blake was nowhere near ready.
To make progress, you sometimes have to take chances. As it pertains to black coaches, that has occasionally meant hiring coaches before they have the level of experience that usually results in success. Below, we will look at the "pedigrees" of the black coaches hired at BCS jobs. It tells only part of the story to look simply at years of experience, so with a crude scoring system, we will try to look at the quality of experience as well.
The "points" are established as follows:
- Assistant at non-BCS level school: one point per year
- Assistant at BCS level school: 1.5 points
- Assistant on NFL team: 1.5 points
- Coordinator at non-BCS level school: 2 points
- Coordinator at BCS level school: 3 points
- Head Coach at non-BCS level school: 4 points
- Head Coach at NFL or BCS level school: 6 points
In no way is success measured here. That's an all together different discussion. The rationale behind this is to see who has put in the years and who hasn't.
As for the points system itself, we could debate the point values all day. I hemmed and hawed about the NFL points for quite a while, and there is a solid case to be made that years of NFL experience should be worth twice what I assigned them here. But the point isn't to create the perfect scale of experience -- that is an impossible task anyway. The goal here is simply to give us a more telling measure than just years of experience. Years as a graduate assistant or high school coach are not counted below, though we could debate that, too.
Another disclaimer: Resumes and years of experience are approximate. It depends on what information I could find either on a team's website or, out of necessity, Wikipedia. Wikipedia is typically reliable for information like this, unless you were looking at Steve Addazio's page yesterday and thinking he was already the new Offensive Line Coach at Texas.
With the mountains of disclaimers out of the way, let's take a look at the data.
|Name||Hiring School (Year)
||Age at Hire||Est. Yrs. of
|Dennis Green||Northwestern (1981)||31||7||10.0|
|John Blake||Oklahoma (1996)||34||9||12.5|
|Francis Peay||Northwestern (1986)||41||11||16.5|
|James Caldwell||Wake Forest (1992)||36||15||21.0|
|Bobby Williams||Michigan State (1999)||40||17||22.0|
|Ron Prince||Kansas State (2006)||36||13||23.0|
|Tyrone Willingham||Stanford (1995)||41||16||23.5|
|Bob Simmons||Oklahoma State (1995)||47||19||26.5|
|Karl Dorrell||UCLA (2003)||39||13||26.5|
|Randy Shannon||Miami (2007)||40||15||31.5|
|Mike London||Virginia (2010)||49||22||36.5|
|Turner Gill||Kansas (2010)||47||19||38.0|
|Joker Phillips||Kentucky (2010)||46||20||39.0|
|Sylvester Croom||Mississippi State (2004)||49||28||42.0|
|Dennis Green||Stanford (1989)||39||15||44.5|
|Charlie Strong||Louisville (2010)||49||24||51.5|
|Tyrone Willingham||Notre Dame (2002)||48||23||65.5|
|Tyrone Willingham||Washington (2005)||51||26||83.5|
|MEDIAN (Current BCS Coaches)||46.0||20.0||42.0|
|MEDIAN (Non-BCS Black Hires)||40.0||13.5||21.5|
In general, with Charlie Strong being the most clear exception, black coaches hired to BCS jobs tend to have less experience, both in terms of years and "points," than the average BCS coach at the time of hire. In the name of progress, this is to be expected. But in the end, the rush does few favors to the coaches involved. The six least experienced coaches on the list had very little success overall, even the ones who inherited recent winners.
The point values here are interesting. The average BCS coach has averaged 2.1 "points" per season in his career at the time of his hire; the average black BCS coach has averaged just 1.8. It isn't a huge difference, but it does hint at the fact that, at least in recent decades, it was more difficult for black coaches to get better jobs -- BCS assistant jobs instead of non-BCS, coordinators instead of position coaches, etc. That could be, in turn, making it more difficult for them to have built a quality resume later on in their career.
Charlie Strong's 24 years of experience and 51.5 "points" put him squarely in the middle of the BCS pack with the likes of LSU's Les Miles (23 years, 57.0 points at the time of his hire), Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (22, 53.5), Colorado's Dan Hawkins (17, 51.0), Purdue's Danny Hope (24, 48.5) and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher (20, 47.5). With quality job performance and high visibility at Florida, he possibly should have gotten a BCS job earlier than he did, but his level of experience wasn't a complete outlier.
Of course, of the five coaches just compared to Strong, three (Miles, Dantonio, and Hawkins) had stocked their resumes with previous head coaching experience. Only Maryland's Ralph Friedgen could top Strong in terms of years of experience as a coordinator (14) without landing a head coaching gig. Fisher and Georgia's Mark Richt both had 11 years in the bag when they got their shot, while Boston College's Frank Spaziani and Kansas State's Bill Snyder each had 10.
(It is interesting to realize that Snyder had to wait that long for a shot, given both how successful he was in his first go-round at Kansas State and how long he has now been around.)
Obviously you don't have to be a black coach to be promoted to a head coaching job earlier than normal. Lane Kiffin is in his third head coaching job, and he's still only 35 years old.
So far this December, we have seen two more black coaches get "called up," so to speak. James Franklin was hired at Vanderbilt after 16 years and 30 points on the resume. Meanwhile, Colorado hired alum Jon Embree to follow Hawkins. He had compiled 17 years and 25.5 points of experience, though his point total would be more impressive if I had applied more points to NFL coaching experience.
With Franklin and Embree now hired, what other black assistants either might soon have the requisite experience, or have it already? Obviously you can rack up experience in lots of different ways, not just from being a coordinator, but there are enough black coaches in the ranks now that it's hard to collect all of the information. Plus, most new hires are drawn from the "college assistant" pool than anywhere else. So we will limit this list to men who started 2010 as coordinators at FBS schools. (Full list found in this .pdf file. I couldn't find dates of birth for all of them, so I had to estimate some ages based on graduation year or whatever other information was available.)
|Name||2010 School||Age||Est. Yrs. of
|Don Treadwell||Michigan State||51||25||50.0|
|Everett Withers||North Carolina||47||23||38.0|
|Tyrone Nix||Ole Miss||38||16||32.0|
|Darryl Jackson||Florida Atlantic||42||23||28.0|
|Lorenzo Ward||South Carolina||39||17||27.5|
|Chris Wilson||Mississippi State||42||17||26.5|
There were a total of 33 black coordinators at the FBS level this year, and one has to assume that number will continue to rise as coaching trees fill out and the importance of previous problematic decades is phased out. Above are the 20 coaches with the most "points" of experience.
The quality on the above list is mixed. Hill was just fired as BYU's defensive coordinator, and Wyatt struggled to push the right buttons this season as Kansas' offensive co-coordinator. But two names are particularly interesting: Treadwell has spent a good portion of his career as a protege to Mark Dantonio, and Michigan State was 2-0 this season when Dantonio was out and Treadwell was serving as interim head coach. His level of experience is very comparable to that of Charlie Strong, and he has been increasingly successful in recent seasons.
Another name to watch could be Vance Bedford, Strong's defensive coordinator at Louisville. The Cardinals' defense improved from 85th to 55th in Def. S&P+ in his first year on the job, and one way to garner attention as a young coach is to serve on the staff of another hot coach who is in the spotlight himself.
Both Bedford and Treadwell have been around a long time, as has Michigan's Calvin Magee. Younger guys like Mississippi State's Chris Wilson or Texas Tech's James Willis (just seven years of experience and 11.0 points after time in the NFL) could be interesting candidates down the line as well, as could any number of NFL assistants and head coaches at lower-level colleges. The pool of strong candidates grows every year.
[UPDATE, 12/27: Willis is no longer with Texas Tech, having departed after discussions to join Will Muschamp's Florida staff.]
Two steps forward, one step back. Rarely is progress smooth and linear. In the short term, we still see black coaches struggling with the same experience issue that any coaches do (you need experience, but you sometimes can't get solid experience unless ... you have experience), and we still see schools sometimes cutting corners in the name of progress. Sometimes coaches have been hired before they are truly prepared to succeed, and other times coaches have said yes to resume-killing jobs because, frankly, who knows when you may get another opportunity? As time unfolds, and experience builds, this will become almost a non-issue. But when you're in the middle of a period of progress, it never goes quite as fast as you expect or want it to.