What makes a successful college football coaching hire? 4 key traits

Every coaching hire is made with the best of intentions.

Millions of dollars and hours of brainpower are spent seeking the best fit for a specific program, with the process very often entailing outside search firms.

In the end, the hiring decision comes down to a simple question: Is this the coach most capable of meeting our unique standard for success — whether that’s winning a national championship, competing for a conference championship or simply improving upon his immediate predecessor?

‘Every coaching search is different,’ said Duke athletics director Nina King, who last December hired Mike Elko, the ACC coach of the year after winning eight games in his debut. ‘We needed somebody that was a winner and a builder, that could come in and kind of get Duke football going again.’

Yet time and time again, Power Five programs swing and miss on this crucial hire.

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The coaching landscape has changed dramatically since 2018, when the creation of the transfer portal added a new layer of difficulty and urgency to the tasks of recruiting and player retention. Another wrinkle, the advent of legislation related to name, image and likeness, has added a second complication into the mix.

There were 43 different hires made on the Power Five level from 2018-21, including seven programs that made multiple hires during this cycle: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida State, Kansas, Mississippi State and Tennessee.

Nineteen of these 43 hires (44.2%) can be classified as ‘hits,’ by virtue of matching or exceeding the admittedly subjective standard for success heading into their tenures. For example, Mike Norvell’s stint at Florida State earns a successful grade at 17-16 overall because he inherited a program that had gone 18-20 in the previous three seasons and improved significantly this season. 

This group of effective Power Five hires is highlighted by some of the biggest names in the sport, including several who have won conference championships or reached the College Football Playoff in Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal and Kansas State’s Chris Klieman.

That leaves more than half of the hires during this time period as ‘misses,’ a group that counts recently fired coaches such as Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins. In contrast to Norvell, Jimbo Fisher falls into the miss group despite his 39-21 mark at Texas A&M, since his tenure has fallen short of the championship-or-bust expectations that came with his arrival.

To evaluate what makes or breaks a Power Five hire during this new era, USA TODAY Sports assessed the backgrounds of all 43 hires to find what common traits separate successful coaching tenures from those that miss the mark.

Focusing on these traits can help Power Five athletics departments with the daunting task of culling through the list of coaches to find the right fit at the right time — all while possibly competing with another program for the same pool of candidates.

‘You’re moving at just a frantic pace because others are going through searches at the same time, trying to get this done really quickly and hold onto recruits, and it’s all kind of a crazy blur,’ King said.

Safer to bet on experience

The average age of the 43 new Power Five hires from 2018-21 is 48.2 years old, with none older than North Carolina’s Mack Brown, 68 when he was hired in 2019, and none younger than Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz, 37 when he was tapped in 2020. A majority of these coaches, 23, were over 45 years old when hired.

The success rate of this older group gives the over-45 crowd a slight edge. Of these 23 hires, 11 earned passing grades (47.8%), including Brown, Lance Leipold, Chip Kelly and Mike Leach. Six coaches have reached at least one New Year’s Six bowl: Brown (2021 Orange Bowl), Mel Tucker (2021 Peach Bowl), Cristobal (2020 Fiesta Bowl and 2021 Rose Bowl), Dan Mullen (2018 Peach Bowl, 2019 Orange Bowl and 2020 Cotton Bowl), Jimbo Fisher (2021 Orange Bowl) and Klieman (2022 Sugar Bowl).

Eight of the 20 under-45 coaches have been successful, led by Day, Heupel, Norvell and Lane Kiffin. This group has a higher winning percentage than the older coaches: the 45-and-under crop is a combined 334-311 (55.1%) to a combined 415-411 (50.2%) for the over-45 class. 

But that record is inflated dramatically by Day, who is 42-5 since becoming Ohio State’s permanent head coach before the 2019 season. The younger group’s overall record drops to 292-306 (48.8%) if you remove Day from the equation; he also accounts for five of the group’s combined eight New Year’s Six or College Football Playoff appearances.

Power Five beats Group of Five

Experience in the Power Five, whether as a coordinator or position coach, has paid off more than hires from the Group of Five level.

Five of the 13 coaching hires (38.5%) from outside the Power Five leagues have been successful. Norvell has Florida State on course for the ACC championship as he wraps up his third season. Leipold has Kansas back in the postseason for the first time since 2008. The one Championship Subdivision hire currently working in the Power Five, former North Dakota State coach Klieman, has won at least eight games in three of four seasons at Kansas State and just earned the program’s first conference championship since 2012.

This group also features some notable flops, including Nebraska’s Scott Frost, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich and Arkansas’ Chad Morris. 

Five of these former Group of Five head coaches never served as a full-time coach in the Power Five. Two, Leipold and Klieman, had extensive lower-level experience; they are the latest successful Power Five head coaches who worked up the coaching ladder from a lower division, following former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and former Texas A&M and Alabama coach Dennis Franchione.

Three others struggled in the transition: Scott Satterfield went 25-24 at Louisville before leaving for Cincinnati, while Rolovich and Texas Tech’s Matt Wells failed to get out of year two and year three, respectively. 

In comparison, half of the 20 coaches hired away from Power Five programs hit the mark, including eight of the 14 (57.1%) hired when serving as coordinators or position coaches. The two assistants promoted to head coach without holding a coordinator job have done well: Sam Pittman has reached bowl games in two of his three seasons at Arkansas, including one Top 25 finish, and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer has won 15 games in two years after spending the previous three seasons as Oklahoma’s tight ends coach.

But be wary of hiring Power Five head coaches

The track record during this four-year span of Power Five head coaches hired by other Power Five programs is spotty, however, illustrating how an approach that works at one school might not work at another.

None of the six coaches who meet this criteria could be deemed an obvious success; even the two coaches who passed the hit-or-miss test have been solid, but not superb. The four whose tenures have fallen short of expectations:

Fisher has had one terrific season, in 2020, three years with at least eight wins and this season’s collapse to five wins and out of bowl play.
Mullen sent three teams into the New Year’s Six at Florida but struggled in recruiting and in keeping pace with Georgia, eventually costing him his job after four seasons.
Fisher’s predecessor at Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin, won just nine games in two-plus seasons at Arizona.
Willie Taggart seemed like a no-brainer hire at Florida State after one season at Oregon, but his tenure stumbled out of the gate with a prime-time loss to Virginia Tech and never recovered, leading the Seminoles to make a coaching change late in his second year. 

And then the two successful hires:

Leach has done good work at Mississippi State, including this year’s eight-win finish that saw the Bulldogs spend roughly a third of the regular season in the Top 25.
Mel Tucker’s tenure at Michigan State is deemed a success by virtue of last year’s 11-2 finish and New Year’s Six bid. But he’s sandwiched that breakthrough with two disappointing years, including a five-win finish this season defined in large part by the Spartans’ loss to Michigan and postgame meltdown.

For those teams competing at the highest level of the FBS, hiring candidates who had previously been a full-time Power Five head coach hasn’t been a guarantee of future success. Just five of the 16 coaches who have led teams into the College Football Playoff during the format’s existence fit that criteria: Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Ed Orgeron, Jim Harbaugh and Sonny Dykes. In other words, over two-thirds of playoff head coaches had never been the permanent head coach of another Power Five program.

Offense over defense

There is an undeniable correlation between success and a coach’s specific area of expertise: offense or defense. Regardless of age, experience level or previous stop, head coaches with an offensive background have fared dramatically better than defensive-minded head coaches across every Power Five conference.

Of the 10 hires of defensive coaches, just three have hit the mark: Baylor’s Dave Aranda, Klieman and Michigan State’s Tucker. (Tucker is the only coach between 2018-21 to have been hired by two different Power Five programs, with Colorado the other.)

And of this group, four have already been fired — Georgia Tech’s Collins, Miami’s Manny Diaz, Washington’s Jimmy Lake and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt — and just one, Klieman, posted a winning record this season.

More specifically, Aranda is the only one of the six coaches whose most recent position was as a Power Five defensive coordinator to have a successful run as head coach.

Conversely, there have been 28 hires of coaches with an offensive background, a reflection of college football’s evolution into an offense-driven sport. Fourteen of these hires have worked out, including seven coaches with teams currently ranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll: Day, Heupel, Norvell, Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith, Kelly, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian and Leach.

The remaining five hires between 2018-21 might be classified as ‘career head coaches’ without a current area of specific expertise. Of this small group, Brown and Illinois’ Bret Bielema have succeeded, Arizona State’s Herm Edwards and Kansas’ Les Miles have already been fired, and Greg Schiano has struggled to get Rutgers off the ground three seasons into his second tenure with the program.

Prior connection to program an obvious plus

Bringing along some sort of prior connection to the program — as a player, graduate assistant, permanent assistant, coordinator or head coach — has a clearly positive association with a strong tenure.

Twenty-eight of the hires during this four-year span had no links to the program before being hired, with only 11 members of this group (39.3%) panning out. Meanwhile, eight of the 15 coaches with prior experience at the program (53.3%) have been successful, as have half of the four coaches promoted to head coach from within the staff.

There is no correlation between success and the recency of that previous experience with the program. Beamer last worked at South Carolina in 2010 before being hired in 2021. Jonathan Smith played quarterback at Oregon State from 1998-2001 and spent 2002-03 as one of the school’s graduate assistants. But Day and Cristobal were moved up from offensive coordinator at Ohio State and Oregon, respectively.

And this experience alone doesn’t guarantee that things will go according to plan. A national championship-winning quarterback at Nebraska, Frost was the Cornhuskers’ obvious hire in 2018 but was unable to recapture even a facsimile of the program’s heyday. Mullen was a home-run hire on the back of his four-year run as Urban Meyer’s top offensive assistant with the Gators; his tenure started well and had strong moments but fell short of expectations.

Overall, however, this stretch of hires strongly indicates that if all things were equal between two candidates, the coach with some degree of a built-in familiarity with the program would be the smarter pick.

The four traits of the best hires

Looking at the broader takeaways from Power Five hires during this span yields four traits that bode well for a coach’s tenure:

The hire comes with multiple years of Power Five experience. With the exception of Klieman and Leipold, every successful coach hired from 2018-21 brought Power Five experience to his new position. Even those successful coaches hired away from the Group of Five were deeply familiar with the Power Five landscape: Kiffin was the head coach at Southern California and Tennessee, Norvell was the offensive coordinator at Arizona State, and Heupel was the coordinator at Oklahoma and Missouri.

The coach leans older, or at least above that 45-year-old benchmark. While age is not the determining factor — just look at Day, Smith, Beamer and others — the numbers favor the older crowd, following the obvious conclusion that more experience is better than, well, less.

He has a background on offense. There is no more obvious predictor than whether the coach arrives with an expertise on offense or defense.

He has some sort of prior acquaintance with the program, or at least within the conference. As outlined, more than half of the 15 coaches who previously worked at the program have put together winning tenures. That percentage increases when you include new hires who have spent time in the same conference. Of the 19 successful hires between 2018-21, a total of 13 (68.4%) meet this criteria.

Assessing the new hires for 2022 and 2023

Looking back at the first-year Power Five hires in 2022, seven of of the eight coaches to post a winning record during the regular season meet at least half of these four traits.

One coach checked all the boxes:

TCU’s Dykes, 53, brought along 15 years of Power Five experience, including seven years as an assistant at Texas Tech and four years as the head coach at California, and an extensive background on the offensive side of the ball. He has the Horned Frogs in the playoff in his debut.

Others came close:

Texas Tech’s Joey McGuire, 51, spent the previous five years as an assistant at Baylor, including one year as the Bears’ tight ends coach.
LSU coach Brian Kelly, 61, was previously the longtime head coach at Notre Dame.
Washington coach Kalen DeBoer, 48, was the offensive coordinator at Indiana in 2019.
Elko, 45, spent eight years as a Power Five assistant, including three seasons as the defensive coordinator at fellow ACC member Wake Forest.
While only 39, Southern California’s Lincoln Riley was Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator from 2015-16 and the head coach from 2017-21, compiling a 55-10 record before nearly leading the Trojans to the Pac-12 championship.
Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman, 36, was an assistant at Purdue from 2013-16 and was the defensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish in 2021 before being promoted. 

And one younger, defensive-minded coach bucks this trend:

Oregon’s Dan Lanning, 36, matches just one of these traits through his experience as Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2018-21.

Seven Power Five programs have filled openings during this current hiring cycle: Cincinnati (Scott Satterfield), Colorado (Deion Sanders), Georgia Tech (Brent Key), Auburn (Hugh Freeze), Wisconsin (Luke Fickell), Arizona State (Kenny Dillingham) and Nebraska (Matt Rhule).

Among this group, two cross all four of the traits that point to a successful tenure:

Freeze, 53, has SEC ties from his five-year stint as the head coach at Mississippi and is known for his work on offense, specifically in quarterback development.
Once a linebacker at Penn State, Rhule, 47, coached on the offensive side of the ball as an assistant at Temple and was Baylor’s head coach from 2018-20.

Another four hit on two or of the criteria:

Satterfield, 49, has a background on offense and four years of Power Five experience as Louisville’s head coach but has never worked in the Big 12, the Bearcats’ new conference beginning in 2023.
Fickell, also 49, spent 15 years as an Ohio State assistant and was the Buckeyes’ interim coach for the 2011 season but has a background on defense.
Key, 44, graduated from Georgia Tech and was promoted from his spot as the interim coach after spending the previous six years as the offensive line coach for the Yellow Jackets and Alabama.
Dillingham, at 32 the youngest head coach in the Power Five, has four years of Power Five offensive coordinator experience, including the 2022 season at Oregon.

And there’s the wild card in 55-year-old Sanders, a legendary NFL superstar and one of the most recognizable figures in the sport. But he’s spent just three seasons as a college coach at Jackson State of the FCS, making his tenure one of the most difficult to predict in recent FBS history.

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