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Coaching Search - Head Coaches vs. Coordinators

With Jim Mora off the table, it now appears (if rumors are to be believed) that Doug Nussmeier is next on the UW's list. This raises an interesting debate - is it better to target current head coaches? Is it "settling" to go after a coordinator? We take a look at the subject...

Jimbo Fisher has done pretty well as a first-time head coach
Jimbo Fisher has done pretty well as a first-time head coach
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hiring a head football coach is an inexact science. The frequency with which coaches are fired speaks to this. But are there ways to limit the risk by looking for certain traits or types of experience? As the Washington coaching search moves on from Jim Mora and rumors float that coordinators like Doug Nussmeier and Justin Wilcox might now become prime targets to become the next Husky head football coach, this subject takes on added significance for our community.

Some will argue that Woodward should be going after head coaches, and that targeting assistant coaches is a sign of settling. There is a certain logic to the idea that those with head coaching experience are preferable: they have experience dealing with the responsibilities involved in the being the top guy, and they have a track record in the form of their results. One certainly can't question the former, and the latter certainly carries some serious weight, though perhaps not as much as some might think.

What gets missed in that analysis is that what works at one location might not at another; as well, it can be difficult sometimes to parse out responsibility - did a coach succeed or fail because of his assistants? Did a coach succeed or fail because of the players he inherited?

Looking deeper at the philosophies, the "process" behind which a coach operates is important, because results can be subject to a certain amount of chance and factors outside a coach's control, especially when judging a brief career.

In the interests of adding some data to the debate about head coaches vs. coordinators as candidates, I thought I'd take a look at the BCS Top 25 standings and see what experience those coaches had prior to their current jobs. This is obviously not a highly scientific exercise, but it does provide a bit more information to chew on. Let's take a look:

  1. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher - Fisher was an OC at Flordia State under Bobby Bowden before being tapped to succeed him when Bowden (finally, reluctantly) retired.
  2. Ohio State: Urban Meyer - Meyer had spent 6 very successful years as a head coach at Florida (winning 2 NC's) before taking time off for health reasons, and prior to that he spent 2 seasons each at Utah and Bowling Green.
  3. Auburn: Gus Malzahn - Malzahn had 1 year as a head coach at Arkansas State, and before that had been the OC at Auburn for a few years (including their NC season).
  4. Alabama: Nick Saban - Saban was a bounce-back from the NFL after several successful years as a head coach at LSU (including his 1st NC), Michigan State and Toledo.
  5. Missouri: Gary Pinkel - Pinkel cut his teeth for 10 years as the head coach at Toledo prior to taking the Mizzou job.
  6. Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy - Gundy was the OC at Oklahoma State and was promoted when Les Miles left to take the LSU job.
  7. Stanford: David Shaw - Shaw was the OC at Stanford and was promoted when Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL.
  8. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier - Spurrier was a bounce-back from the NFL after several successful years as the head coach at Florida (including 1 NC) and at Duke.
  9. Baylor: Art Briles - Briles was the head coach at Houston for 5 years prior to taking the Baylor job.
  10. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio - Dantonio was the head coach at Cincinnati for 3 years prior to taking the Michigan State job.
  11. Arizona State: Todd Graham - Graham spent 1 season as the head coach at Pittsburgh prior to coming to Arizona State, and was the head man at Tulsa for 4 years and at Rice for 1 year prior to that.
  12. Oregon: Mark Helfrich - Helfrich was the OC at Oregon and was promoted when Chip Kelly left for the NFL.
  13. Clemson: Dabo Swinney - Swinney was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Clemson when Tommy Bowden resigned and was named interim coach to finish the 2008 season, and then was given the job outright at the conclusion of the season.
  14. Northern Illinois: Rod Carey - Carey was the OC at Northern Illinois and was promoted when Dave Doeren left to take the North Carolina State job.
  15. LSU: Les Miles - Miles spent 4 years as the head coach at Oklahoma State before coming to LSU.
  16. UCF: George O'Leary - O'Leary had spent 8 years as the head coach at Georgia Tech before taking the job at Notre Dame, only to lose that job before he coached a game due to lying on his resume. He then bounced back at UCF after spending 3 years as the DC for the Minnesota Vikings.
  17. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops - Stoops was the DC at Florida under Steve Spurrier and helped him win his NC there.
  18. UCLA: Jim L. Mora - Mora was an NFL bounce-back who had spent almost no time as a college assistant.
  19. Louisville: Charlie Strong - Strong was the DC at Florida under Urban Meyer and helped him win his 2 NC's.
  20. Duke: David Cutcliffe - Cutcliffe had spent 7 years as the head coach at Ole Miss before being fired, and was working as the OC at Tennessee when hired by Duke.
  21. Wisconsin: Gary Andersen - Andersen had spent 4 years as the head coach at Utah State and 1 year before that as the head coach at FCS Southern Utah before behind hired by Wisconsin.
  22. Georgia: Mark Richt - Richt had been the OC at Florida State under Bobby Bowden before being hired by Georgia.
  23. Fresno State: Tim DeRuyter - DeRuyter had been the DC at Texas A&M under Mike Sherman.
  24. Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin - Sumlin had spent 4 seasons as the head coach at Houston before being hired by the Aggies.
  25. Texas: Mack Brown - Brown had spent 10 seasons as the head coach at North Carolina, 3 seasons before that as the head coach at Tulane and prior to that 1 season as the head coach at FCS Appalachian State.

So what does that list tell us? If you're counting at home, that's 9 of the 25 positions that were filled by coordinators who had no prior head coaching experience, and 1 assistant coach with no coordinator experience. Of those ten assistants, six were direct promotions from their current school. And the other four were hires from highly successful programs. Interesting to note also that of those 10 assistants, 7 came from the offensive side of the ball.

Of the coaches with prior head coaching experience, 8 of the 15 had head coaching experience with BCS conference schools, while 6 only had experience at non-BCS schools. None of them came directly from an FCS school, and one was basically an NFL retread with virtually no prior college coaching experience. And most had at least 4 years of head coaching experience (Dantonio had 3; Malzahn had 1, but had been the OC recently at Auburn).

Again, this is far from a comprehensive list, but it does provide an interesting window into a current slice of successful coaches and their backgrounds. I do think it proves that going after a coordinator from a highly successful program - or promoting from within - is not necessarily a bad idea.

Let's hear from you - what's your preference for the next coach in terms of experience? Poll below: