If there is anything that Big East football fans are familiar with, it's the coaching carousel. Every team in the Big East except Rutgers has made at least one coaching change in the past three seasons. With that in mind, I was having a discussion with another SB Nation writer yesterday about coaching searches and just how difficult they can be on an athletic department. There are a number of factors to consider when hiring a coach, some the school and the coach can control. Others are beyond anyone's control and can't lead to the demise of everyone involved. If the last decade has taught Big East football fans anything, it's that all football coaching hires are an enormous risk, so schools might as well be bold in their selections.
The Danger of Leaving for Other Jobs
For Big East schools, the constant danger in hiring coaches is the prospect of the successful ones leaving for greener pastures. Since the league was gutted and reconstituted in 2005, only Rich Rodriguez has stayed at the school he led to a Big East title for more than one season. Rich Rodriguez led the Mountaineers to the 2005 conference title and was a runner up in 2006, only to leave for Michigan in 2007 after winning the Big East again. In 2006, Bobby Petrino led Louisville to the Big East title and an Orange Bowl victory, then promptly left for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. Brian Kelly led Cincinnati to back to back Big East titles in 2008 and 2009 before leaving for the Notre Dame head coaching position. And last season, Randy Edsall completed his building job by leading UConn from I-AA/FCS football to a Big East title only to leave for Maryland. This coaching turnover has been the single biggest factor in Big East football's much publicized struggles and is always in the back of fans' minds when their coach begins to have a little bit of success.
In-House Loyalty Isn't Enough
One method of dealing with the risk of a coach leaving is to hire someone that, at least on the surface, is loyal to the school. The hope being that the allure of bigger jobs will be tempered by personal affection for the school. West Virginia thought it had this in Rodriguez. It tried to obtain it when Bill Stewart was retained and made Rodriguez's permanent replacement. Pittsburgh thought it had a loyal lifer in hiring ex-NFL head coach Dave Wannstedt to be its head coach. The problem for the Pitt and West Virginia hires is, the coaches certainly had the loyalty, they just couldn't produce to the level of the overachievers that bolted. It's entirely possible that, for the most part, the very thing that drives coaches to be great is the thing that drives them from job to job. We're likely past the era of coaches staying in one place for too long. The Jim Tressel's and the Bob Stoops' of the coaching world are the exception that proves the rule. Coaches are always on the move. If you have a coach with no desire to look elsewhere, you might just have a coach with no other options.
Looked Right at the Time
Another risk in hiring a head coach is the sad case of fool's gold. The Big East has certainly had its share of coaches that looked like they would be excellent fits going in, only to have them crash and burn spectacularly. Syracuse thought a defensive minded coach with boatloads of experience in the NFL and at major college stops like Texas would do wonders for its flagging football program. Unfortunately, Greg Robinson turned out to be one of the nation's worst head coaches in recent memory and is now the punchline of almost any joke about defensive football. Robinson came to his initial press conference wearing his Super Bowl ring from his time as an NFL assistant coach. He left Syracuse without ever going to a bowl game. Steve Kragthorpe was universally lauded as a fantastic hire to replace Bobby Petrino at Louisville in 2007. Kragthorpe, like Robinson, had experience as a coordinator in college and as a position coach in the NFL, and had even resucitated the moribund Tulsa program in his four years as head coach. He looked like a sure thing to keep Louisville's success rolling, and even had a hint of the loyalty that athletic director Tom Jurich was looking for in the wake of Petrino's constantly wandering eye. Instead, Kragthorpe never had the buy in of the team he inherited, could never retain assistants, couldn't recruit out of his native region, and was fired after three bowl-less seasons.
Off the Field Issues
The last risk that has bit Big East coaching hires has been the dreaded off the field embarrassing scandals. Jim Leavitt was the only coach the USF football program had ever known. Having led the team from its days of only practicing, Leavitt was a fixture in Tampa. What cost Leavitt his job? Allegedly striking a player in the locker room in a heated moment. Pittsburgh thought it had Wannstedt's replacement in Mike Haywood. Haywood had just finished a remarkable turn around of MIami (OH) and was poised to bring that discipline and energy to Pittsburgh. Instead, he never coached a game after a domestic violence incident with the mother of his child. West Virginia hired Dana Holgorsen to be its head coach in waiting, only to have him be escorted out of a casino by security for his unruly behavior. Holgorsen wasn't charged with any crimes and has since said he's learned he must walk a more fine line. Still, the fear will now always be there that he has trouble waiting around every corner that could keep him from being the next innovator at West Virginia like Rodriguez was before him.
Might as Well Be Bold
With the risks involved in hiring coaches, what should an athletic director do? Be bold. The reality of coaching today is that your coach could be gone in a moment's notice. Urban Meyer resigned (twice) at the height of his success at Florida for personal reasons. Spurrier left the same position for the NFL a decade prior. Tennessee lost a coach to USC. Nick Saban left LSU for the NFL. West Virginia had a West Virginia man in Rodriguez and Stewart both. It didn't help one stay or the other be successful. If these places can't keep coaches, who can? Athletic directors should embrace the instability of having a football coach and go for the bold hire. If you can get a quirky, eccentric guy like Holgorsen and to a lesser extent Todd Graham, take him. If you want an aggressive guy with no ties to the region and no head coaching experience, but you believe in him personally, you take him (Charlie Strong). There's no sense in being safe when risk is the only certainty.