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Was Hiring Lake Always Going to be a Mistake?

A look at how the most successful programs have found their head coaches and whether prior P5 experience was necessary

Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl - Washington v Boise State Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Right now, with the sky 100% falling on the UW football program, it’s certainly easy to think so. I’ve seen a number of comments on the boards asking why the program hired Lake in the first place. “Why didn’t they hire an experienced coach? This is the University of Washington! We’re not a stepping stone for untried assistants trying to make their name and then move on elsewhere! A real football program would never hire someone like this! (also, PS - FIRE EVERYONE!!!)”

That sounds good on the face of it: find someone who’s already made a name for themselves and go get them. Of course, if someone is already being successful as a head coach somewhere else, that does make it somewhat more difficult to woo them to your school. Not impossible; it obviously happens. But the whole thing got me thinking: Is it really true? Do real football programs, successful ones, ones with strength, tradition, and quality, always hire experienced head coaches?

Let’s look at the successful football programs right now; that is, the current AP Top 25. Where did their coaches come from and how much experience did they have when they got their current job.

The table below lists the current Top 25 in order along with their current coach, their most recent prior role before being hired and where, along with their record as coaches in Power 5 (P5), Group of 5 (G5), lower-division 4-year schools (FCS or Division II or III), or NFL teams. The final two columns list their total head coaching wins prior to taking their current job and then their win total including only P5 and NFL jobs.

Top 25 Coaches and Previous Head Coaching Experience

School Coach Prior Role At Prior P5 Prior G5 Prior Low Prior NFL Wins NFL/P5 Wins
School Coach Prior Role At Prior P5 Prior G5 Prior Low Prior NFL Wins NFL/P5 Wins
Alabama Nick Saban head coach NFL (Miami) 76-34-1 9-2 none 15-17 100 76
Georgia Kirby Smart DC Alabama none none none none 0 0
Oklahoma Lincoln Riley OC Oklahoma none none none none 0 0
Oregon Mario Cristobal OC Oregon none 27-47 none none 27 0
Iowa Kirk Ferentz OC NFL (Baltimore) none none 12-21 none 12 0
Clemson Dabo Swinney OC Clemson none none none none 0 0
Texas A&M Jimbo Fisher head coach Florida State 83-23 none none none 83 83
Cincinnati Luke Fickell DC Ohio State 6-6 none none none 6 6
Ohio State Ryan Day OC Ohio State none none none none 0 0
Penn State James Franklin head coach Vanderbilt 24-15 none none none 24 24
Florida Dan Mullen head coach Mississippi State 69-46 none none none 69 69
Notre Dame Brian Kelly head coach Cincinnati none 53-22 118-35-2 none 171 0
UCLA Chip Kelly TV analyst ESPN 46-7 none none 28-35 74 74
Iowa State Matt Campbell head coach Toledo none 35-15 none none 35 35
Virginia Tech Justin Fuente head coach Memphis none 26-23 none none 26 26
Coastal Carolina Jamey Chadwell OC Coastal Carolina none none 60-35 none 60 0
Mississippi Lane Kiffin head coach Florida Atlantic 35-21 26-13 none 5-15 66 40
Wisconsin Paul Chryst head coach Pittsburgh 19-19 none none none 19 19
Arizona State Herm Edwards TV analyst ESPN none none none 52-60 52 52
Arkansas Sam Pittman OL coach Georgia none none none none 0 0
North Carolina Mack Brown TV analyst ESPN 229-95-1 11-23 6-5 none 246 229
Auburn Bryan Harsin head coach Boise State none 78-24 none none 78 0
Brigham Young Kalani Siitake DC Oregon State none none none none 0 0
Miami Manny Diaz DC Miami (Temple HC for 2 weeks) none none none none 0 0
Michigan Jim Harbaugh head coach NFL (SF 49ers) 29-21 none 29-6 49-22-1 107 78

So to address the key question, let’s look at them one at a time:

1. How Often Do Top 25 Programs Hire Existing Head Coaches?

Of the 25 coaches with teams currently in the Top 25, 11 were hired away from other head coaching jobs, 11 were assistant coaches (all but one an OC or DC), and 3 were hired out of the TV studio (Chip Kelly, Herm Edwards, and Mack Brown). In terms of direct hires of head coaches from somewhere else to become a head coach for you, fewer than half (44%) of the current Top 25 coaches got their current jobs that way.

Okay, but that just refers to someone’s most recent job. No one would argue that guys like Kelly and Brown didn’t have excellent college head coaching resumes despite being hired from TV. Edwards? Ehhhh... 8 years as an NFL coach, yes, but a losing record in the regular season and only 1 playoff win. Still, that’s 8 years as a head coach, so that counts for something.

Plus, lots of assistants may have been head coaches at some point in the past. When Steve Sarkisian was hired as the new coach at Texas this year, sure he was most recently the OC at Alabama, but we’re very familiar with his previous head coaching stints.

2. Have Top 25 Coaches Been “Big-Time” Head Coaches Before?

This is a much more interesting question, and answering it has several layers:

  • 7 never had been head coaches at any level
  • 1 was an interim coach for 1 season (Luke Fickell, when Jim Tressel was suspended) but otherwise was never a head coach with a team of his own
  • 5 had head coaching experience, but never at Power 5 school
  • 12 had previous Power 5 coaching experience

That’s fewer than half of the current Top 25 coaches that ever had run their own Power 5 program prior to taking their current job. Fewer than half that had “big-time college coaching experience.” Of those 12 with previous P5 head coaching history, only 4 were directly hired from one P5 head coaching job to another: Jimbo Fisher, Dan Mullen, James Franklin, and Paul Chryst.

3. How Much Prior Head Coaching Success Do Top 25 Coaches Usually Have?

There’s obviously a big difference between someone like Luke Fickell (a 6-7 record in his one season as interim coach at Ohio State) or Paul Chryst (19-19 at Pitt) on one hand and Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, or Chip Kelly. That’s not even counting the King of the Statistical Outliers, Mack Brown, who racked up 229 P5 WINS before returning to UNC a few years ago. which is more than the #2, 3, and 4 coaches in terms of prior P5 wins combined.

Average P5/NFL Coaching Wins: 32.4

Average P5/NFL Coaching Wins (excluding Mack Brown): 24.2

Statistical outliers do have a tendency to distort the mean. Setting Mack Brown aside, a retired all-timer who came back for one last ride at his prior school (Barry Alvarez and Bill Snyder might have tipped the scales in a similar way in years past), the other 24 Top 25 coaches averaged 24.2 prior wins at the P5/NFL level before taking their current jobs.

When you have statistical outliers, though, sometimes a median value can be more instructive, showing who’s in the top half of your sample and who’s in the bottom half. For this group of Top 25 coaches, what was that middle value for prior “big-time” wins?

Median P5/NFL Coaching Wins: 6

That’s right, six. Our friend Luke Fickell is the exact midpoint (which kinda fits, given that he’s the one guy who was kinda/sorta a P5 head coach but not really). The 12 coaches with more than him range from Chryst’s 19 wins at Pitt to Mack Brown’s 229 at UNC and Texas.

The other 12 Top 25 coaches combined for ZERO wins at the P5/NFL level prior to taking their current jobs.

4. Hey, What About Lower-Division Head Coaching Experience?

This is a valid question. Just because a coach hasn’t gotten it done at a major school doesn’t mean they haven’t gotten it done anywhere. We hired Don James from Kent State (G5) and Chris Petersen from Boise State (G5). Ohio State hired Jim Tressel from Youngstown State (FCS). Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh from San Diego (Division II).

[Note: The waters are a little muddied when arguing with people about coaches having “big-time” head coaching experience, of course; there are still some Husky fans upset about Chris Petersen’s “small-time Mountain West attitude” and its implied deleterious effects on the football program. Whether a coach’s prior success at smaller schools should or shouldn’t count for anything in whether we think they’re any good as a head-coaching candidate at a “big-time” school is thus the subject of ongoing debate.]

For the sake of analysis, we’ll entertain the comparison of head coaches with Group of 5 or lower-division experience. Note that experience does not necessarily mean success. Mario Cristobal was 27-47 at Florida Atlantic and Kirk Ferentz was 12-21 at FCS Maine. Heck, outlier king Mack Brown was 11-23 at G5 Tulane and 6-5 at FCS Applachian State in addition to his P5 record. He actually has an outlier prince in smaller-school success, however, joined by Brian Kelly of Notre Dame, who was 53-22 at G5 Cincinnati and Central Michigan and a heroic 118-35-2 at Division II Grand Valley State.

Average Total Coaching Wins: 50.2

Average Total Coaching Wins (excluding Mack Brown): 42.0

Average Total Coaching Wins (excluding Mack Brown & Brian Kelly): 36.4

Saban and Harbaugh are the only other two coaches with 100+ total prior wins, but it’s not quite fair to just exclude the very top because they are so extreme. If you take off the two bottom coaches, you still land around 40 wins, but as before the median value is instructive and useful.

Median Total Coaching Wins: 27

Amusingly, Cristobal is the median coach when it comes to prior coaching wins, including all levels, 12 above him (including guys with resumes as long as your arm like Brown, Kelly, and Saban) and 12 below him, like 8 guys who had never been full-time head coaches. That’s a third of the coaches currently leading Top 25 programs who had never really been in charge of their own program.

5. Okay, How Are Those Inexperienced Guys Doing?

Pretty well, actually. Obviously they’re in the Top 25 right now, but that’s just 2 games into the season. That could change. The numbers below look at the full sweep of their tenures with their current teams that hired them knowing that they had ZERO real experience running their own teams. They are listed in order of how long they’ve been on the job at their current school. These 8 represent a third of the current Top 25 coaches, and none of them thus far has a losing career record as a head coach.

Sam Pittman (Arkansas, 2nd): 7-7 (0-1 bowls)

*Manny Diaz (Miami, 3rd): 16-12 (0-2 bowls)

Ryan Day (Ohio State, 3rd): 25-4 (1-2 bowls, 1-2 CFP)

**Luke Fickell (Cincinnati, 5th): 39-14 (2-2 bowls)

Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma, 5th): 49-8 (1-3 bowls, 0-3 CFP)

Kalani Sitake (BYU, 6th): 42-26 (3-1 bowls)

Kirby Smart (Georgia, 6th): 56-14 (4-2 bowls, 1-1 CFP)

Dabo Swinney (Clemson, 13th): 142-35 (10-7 bowls, 6-4 CFP, 2 national championships)

* Manny Diaz actually was named the head coach at Temple in December 2018 but quit 2 weeks later to go coach Miami.

** Fickell was an interim during the fall 2011 season but never was in charge of the program.

6. But What About Jimmy Lake? He’s CLEARLY no Dabo Swinney!

He almost certainly isn’t. Most coaches aren’t. Swinney didn’t set the world on fire when he first took over either. A half-year as the interim coach in 2008 was okay but nothing special. Good enough to get him the full-time job, probably based at least in part on his rep as a recruiter. 2009 was good but they were 6-7 in 2010 and Swinney’s doubters who criticized his hiring in the first place were out in full force. Of course, in 2011 everything started to click, winning the ACC title and going to the Orange Bowl and kicking recruiting up to top 10 levels, and the rest is (recent) history.

[NOTE: It’s ironic to think that both Clemson (2010) and Ohio State (2011) have had losing records more recently than Washington has - hopefully that doesn’t change this year, though early returns are not promising.]

This article is by no means an exhaustive list of all P5 head coaches hired without prior HC experience. It’s more of a look at a snapshot in time, and it’s a demonstration of a couple of things:

- Guys hired as head coaches are often not currently working as head coaches elsewhere. It’s about a 50/50 proposition as to whether you’re poaching someone else’s head guy or elevating an assistant (or reaching for an inactive coach).

- It’s not unusual for teams to hire new coaches that have little or no major college head coaching experience. This is true even at “big-time” programs, like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, and Georgia. While clearly a step below that, Miami, BYU, Arkansas, and Cincinnati aren’t exactly chopped liver in terms of college football history and legacy either, and they’ve gone the inexperienced route.

- It’s not unusual for low/no-experience first-time head-coaching hires to be successful in their very first P5 head coaching jobs, and in some cases extremely successful. Chip Kelly had never been a head coach at any level before he got elevated from OC and went an absurd 46-7 in four seasons at Oregon. Chris Petersen had never been a head coach at any level before he got elevated from OC and went a ridiculous 92-12 at Boise State, and had never coached at the P5 level before racking up a 55-26 record at UW (his winning percentage of .679 is just a touch below Don James’ .708 [not including forfeits].

None of that means that Jimmy Lake is the answer as the UW head football coach.

Maybe he is. As I said above, the early returns are not promising. He’s 6 games into his head coaching career, which on one level is too early to make an absolute determination, but just about all of the visible trend lines are pointing down. He could still pull it out. Do a Dabo, so to speak. Or a DJ. Don James went 5-6 his second season at UW, 3-4 at home. It was his only losing year here, but when he started the next season 1-3 he was on the hot seat before he put together his first Rose Bowl run. DJ and Dabo both took tough losses like we did with Michigan where they just got boat-raced, though neither had a loss like Montana.

Right now it doesn’t look good. The offense looks awful and slow and predictable. The defense looks... decent I think, but lacking fire and playmaking ability, and clearly able to get worn down. The lines seem soft, in a baffling turnabout from both their recruiting rankings and their returning experience and size. Still, maybe the team can get it together and surprise us.

Time will tell whether Lake and the people that he’s hired are the right guys for the job. The thing that is clearly wrong, though, is the supposition that somehow hiring Lake was a mistake on the face of it because he lacked big-time (or any) head coaching experience. There are plenty of examples that demonstrate that it’s a pretty reasonable gamble with a solid chance of success, and probably no riskier than hiring an outside head coach or someone else’s assistant. Designating an “associate head coach” or “coach in waiting” for a rising assistant who shows talent, potential, and fire to become the new hotness is working out just fine for Ohio State and Oklahoma and Georgia. The process is not the problem.

It’s the product. Hiring Lake may prove to be a mistake because he turns out to not have what it takes to make it, not because it was a priori a mistake due to his lack of experience. If he fails (or continues the trajectory of failure that seemingly already has begun), it’ll be he failed on his own merits and on the merits of those he surrounded himself with. If UW moves on from Lake and his assistants sooner or later, I don’t mind them getting another rising assistant without P5 head coaching experience as the coach. As someone who values stability, I think I’d feel more comfortable with someone who has a track record, but I’ve seen it happen often enough to know that it can happen. It’s less important that it be the experienced coach than that it is the right coach.

As always, Go Huskies!