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January 21, 2011

Mailbag: Which first-year coach started best?

A good first year for a coach can signal that great success is to come.

Or not.

Larry Coker won a national championship in his first year as coach at Miami. Five years later, he was fired.

But a bad first season doesn't mean the future can't be bright, either.

Florida State went 5-6 in 1976, its first season under Bobby Bowden. The next season, the Seminoles posted 10 wins. Eventually, they won two national championships and posted 14 consecutive top-five finishes.

The lesson is that early success or early struggles can be misleading. Victories aren't the only way to measure the progress a first-year coach makes.

With that in mind, it raises the question of what first-year coaches oversaw teams that made significant improvement in 2010. That's a topic to be addressed in this week's mailbag.

Got a question? Click here to send it to Olin's Mailbag


Turning it around

Tennessee did great for a young team with a rookie coach, but who was the best rookie coach in 2010 in terms of turning his team in the right direction?
Kevin in Paris, Tenn.

There were 23 coaches in their first season, and five guided their teams to better records than they had in 2009. That quintet: Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Virginia's Mike London, Louisville's Charlie Strong and Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart.

On paper, Fisher had the most success. FSU finished 7-6 in 2009, then went 10-4 this season. The Seminoles finished first in the ACC Atlantic Division and won the Chick-fil-A Bowl over South Carolina.

First impressions
Here's a look at how programs under first-year coaches in 2010 fared compared to '09:
CoachSchool20102009Net wins
Jimbo FisherFlorida State10-47-6+3
Charlie StrongLouisville7-64-8+3
Brian KellyNotre Dame8-56-6+2
Willie TaggartWestern Kentucky2-100-12+2
Sonny DykesLouisiana Tech5-74-8+1
Mike LondonVirginia4-83-9+1
Skip HoltzUSF8-58-50
Robbie CaldwellVanderbilt2-102-100
Lane KiffinUSC8-59-4-1
Tommy TubervilleTexas Tech8-59-4-1
Joker PhillipsKentucky6-77-6-1
Derek DooleyTennessee6-77-6-1
Todd BerryLa.-Monroe5-76-6-1
Larry PorterMemphis1-112-10-1
Mike MacIntyreSan Jose State1-122-10-1
Ruffin McNeillEast Carolina6-79-5-3
Doc HollidayMarshall5-77-6-2
Turner GillKansas3-95-7-2
Rob IanelloAkron1-113-9-2
Jeff QuinnBuffalo2-105-7-3
Bobby HauckUNLV2-115-7-3
Butch JonesCincinnati4-812-1-8
Dan EnosCentral Michigan3-912-2-9
Strong also led his team to a three-win improvement, to seven victories. Kelly and Taggart led their teams to two-win improvements, while Virginia improved by a win under London.

Generally, first-year coaches are taking over programs that are in disarray or facing a decline. Maybe the preceding coach was fired because he couldn't attract substantial talent to win. Or perhaps the previous coach was successful, but left the program after star players had completed eligibility. Rarely does a new coach step into a great situation.

Just 10 of this past season's first-year coaches took over programs that managed winning records in '09.

Frankly, Strong's first-year performance was as good -- or better -- as anybody's. Louisville hadn't been to a bowl in three seasons, and in '09, the Cardinals allowed seven opponents to score at least 30 points. This past season, the Cardinals surrendered more than 24 points just twice, and five of their six losses were by seven or fewer points. They ended their bowl drought and defeated Southern Miss in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.

Derek Dooley's performance was sound even though Tennessee actually lost one more game than it did in '09. The Volunteers didn't post any upsets, but they won their last four games to gain bowl eligibility. They were blown out on occasion, but played strong first halves against Oregon and Alabama before depth became an issue.

They also came tantalizingly close to beating LSU during the regular season and North Carolina in the Music City Bowl; the Vols started six freshmen and five sophomores in the Music City Bowl.

So, while Dooley did not have as much bottom-line success as Fisher and Strong, he may have done just as much to re-establish his program.

We know what first-year coaches had the most wins in 2010. We have to wait another season or two before we truly know who did the best job in getting their programs headed in the right direction.


Doing it with defense

Notre Dame landed Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams to start 2011 on the defensive side of the ball. If the Irish hold on to Stephon Tuitt, it appears they are building a high-caliber defense. Do you see big improvement for the Irish defense? They made big strides in the final five games this season.
Mike in South Bend, Ind.

Tuitt, a five-star defensive end from Monroe, Ga., decommitted from Notre Dame and pledged to Georgia Tech on Tuesday. He then re-committed to the Irish on Wednesday. With or without Tuitt, coach Brian Kelly still is on the verge of landing a stellar recruiting class. Currently, the Irish recruiting class ranks seventh in the nation.

The class includes Williams, a five-star defensive end, and Lynch, a four-star prospect, both of whom are already enrolled. Their arrival will help the Irish defense, which significantly improved during the season, stay on an upswing.

Notre Dame has a good defense returning in 2011, led by linebacker Manti Te'o, an All-American candidate, and defensive backs Harrison Smith and Gary Gray. The Irish did have some defensive problems at times last season, but they were excellent in the last five games, as you mentioned.

Although Tulsa scored 28 points in an upset, Notre Dame's defense allowed just one touchdown in that game. One was scored on a punt return and another on an interception return. In fact, the Irish allowed just two offensive touchdowns in their final four regular-season games. Aside from Tulsa's, USC managed a touchdown on Mitch Mustain's 1-yard quarterback sneak. That came on fourth down after USC had taken possession on Notre Dame's 2 following a fumble.

In the Sun Bowl the Irish allowed two touchdowns to Miami, but both were scored in the fourth quarter, after the Irish had taken a 30-3 lead.

Some will argue Notre Dame didn't face challenging offenses down the stretch, and there is some validity in that. Utah struggled offensively in the last month of the season. Army ranked 93rd in total offense despite playing six FBS teams that ranked 65th or worse in total defense. USC was playing without starting quarterback Matt Barkley. Nevertheless, Notre Dame's defense got better as the season progressed.

Notre Dame hasn't fielded an exceptional defense since 2002 when the Irish were ranked 13th in the nation.

If those returning starters continue to improve, some newcomers make an impact and a potentially thin secondary avoids injuries, next season's defense should be Notre Dame's best since '02.


Second-year success

After seeing Gene Chizik guide Auburn to a BCS national championship in just his second season there as head coach, I thought back to the image of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops accomplishing the same feat 10 years ago. That thought, in turn, got me thinking about the remarkable string of second-year championship coaches over the past decade. Four of the 10 national champions were led by second-year coaches who came from other programs. We have seen coaches win it all with teams composed primarily of players recruited by different coaching staffs. And all five of those champions were from programs that could be described as "rebuilding" when they made the coaching hires. Are we just observing a remarkable coincidence, or are there more substantive reasons for this pattern? Do you see the pattern continuing in the near future? A certain "Golden" team fits the profile for 2012.
Chris in Houston

Oklahoma's Stoops, Auburn's Chizik, Ohio State's Jim Tressel and Florida's Urban Meyer won BCS national championships in their second season on the job. Nick Saban didn't win a national title in his second season at Alabama, but the Crimson Tide did go undefeated through the regular season in '08.

If it had happened two or even three times, that may be dismissed as a remarkable coincidence. But four? There has to be some connection.

The biggest connection? They're all at historically elite programs.

Oklahoma, Ohio State, Florida and Auburn always attract high-level talent. For whatever reason -- maybe a disorganized previous coaching staff or players not developing or maturing -- those programs had underachieved before the new coach took over.

A program can be rejuvenated by a dynamic coach. And when that coach brings in more talented players, the reversal of fortune can be almost automatic.

Chizik brought in Cameron Newton and Nick Fairley, who were junior college transfers. Stoops recruited quarterback Josh Heupel from Snow College, and he led the Sooners to their 2000 national title. Jim Tressel brought in freshman running back Maurice Clarett, who made an enormous impact on the Buckeyes national championship run in 2002. Meyer signed junior college safety Reggie Nelson in 2005, then brought in Utah transfer Ryan Smith at cornerback and freshman Percy Harvin at wide receiver in '06; all three played huge roles on the '06 title team, which also received solid play from freshman quarterback Tim Tebow.

So, in the future, look out for second-year coaches at historically prominent programs who can recruit elite players. And, yes, Miami's Al Golden would be a coach to keep a close eye on. Florida and Michigan are other "elite" programs that hired new coaches this offseason.


Next step?

What are the chances that Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert drastically improves with the hire of offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin?
Eric in Wichita, Kan.

Harsin served as Boise State's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator the past five seasons, meaning he worked directly with Broncos star quarterback Kellen Moore.

Some will wonder how much influence Harsin had on Moore's development because Broncos coach Chris Petersen's background is on offense, too. Still, Harsin surely had a role in Moore's success, and he figures to bring fresh ideas and approaches to Texas.

Regardless of his position coach, there's a good chance Gilbert would improve dramatically anyway. Gilbert will be a junior next season, and it's quite common for quarterbacks to make a significant leap in performance in their junior seasons.

Gilbert passed for a respectable 2,744 yards in 2010. The problem was he also threw 17 interceptions; five of the interceptions were thrown in the red zone. Gilbert also lost five fumbles, including one at Texas A&M's 8 when the Longhorns were threatening to take an early 14-0 lead.

If Gilbert learns from his mistakes, makes better decisions and dramatically reduces his turnovers, he could become an elite quarterback. He'll be helped considerably if Harsin can find a way to boost the Longhorns' running game.


Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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