Anatomy of a good coaching resume

Few would blame you if you have little interest in rehashing the South Carolina loss this weekend. Or in talking about the Georgia, UMass, or Florida games before that. And what is there to say about Tennessee being a 34-point underdog to Alabama this week?

With all that’s been happening, and with what appears to be more and more likely to happen, it got me thinking about the criteria used to evaluate coaches. For fans, a lot of it is just unadulterated emotion; this person is currently making us mad, and we believe this other person would make it all better.

An athletic director, though, isn’t likely to make important decisions based on his emotional state. He’ll develop the criteria he uses to make his own judgments and then use them to evaluate current coaches and, when the time comes, to evaluate candidates for vacancies.

The question then is this: What criteria should an athletic director use when making these decisions?

I. The lag measure: A consistent winning record

Winning within the rules has to be number one on the list. It’s the primary goal, the trophy you’re chasing. For anyone perhaps bristling at the idea that winning matters more than anything else on a college campus, that is not what I’m saying. I’m saying it is the primary responsibility for one of its key employees, namely the college football coach.

A University is a large institution with many goals, the most important of which is education. The institution, though, is made up of many different components, departments, and business units, each with its own limited purpose that makes a contribution to the overall goal. For example, campus security has little direct effect on education, but it is still integral to the efficient functioning of the institution. In other words, security provides an indirect contribution to the goal. The same goes for landscaping and maintenance, and marketing, and a host of other University groups that indirectly further the school’s primary purpose.

That includes the football program, too, and although the football program has several sub-purposes and sub-groups, the head football coach is charged with basically only one thing: winning within the rules.

Wins are easy to measure. You’re looking for a consistent track record of success. That could be some combination of a solid winning percentage over time and the number of pinnacles reached, such as Top 25 finishes, number of wins over rivals, division championships, conference championships, playoff appearances, national championship appearances, and national championship trophies. And it has to be consistent and sustained.

A quick word on fit and culture

To say that winning is number one on the list does not mean that it is elevated over the culture of the program. You want someone who accomplishes the goal of winning at the expected level and does so both within the rules and consistent with the culture of the program. That does not mean that every program has to do it the same way, but a wise athletic director will look for a candidate who is a naturally good fit for the school’s culture. If character, integrity, and other such virtues matter to the program, then the program should actively search for a candidate who can both win and mesh with the culture. I doubt BYU is hiring Bobby Petrino or Rick Pitino.

II. Lead measures

Winning is a “lag measure,” as it’s the main thing you’re trying to accomplish at the end of it all. “Lead measures,” on the other hand, are those things that generally have a direct impact the lag measures.

What are some lead measures for college football coaches? What things tend to produce wins within the rules and the culture of a program? Here are just a few of the most important ones:

A. Recruiting

It is well-established now that recruiting rankings matter. There have been numerous articles that show this to be true, including the Team Talent Rankings that we publish each year in our annual preseason magazine, Gameday on Rocky Top.

The main takeaway from that regular feature is this: With only two exceptions over the past 14 years, the national champion for any given season ranked somewhere in the Top 8 of our rolling, four-year aggregation of the annual recruiting rankings published by major recruiting services. The only two outliers were Cam Newton’s Auburn in 2010 and Clemson last year. Both were ranked #13, and both featured quarterbacks who went on to have some success in the NFL. Alabama, by the way, has been #1 in Team Talent Rankings every year since 2011, and they have been in the mix for a national championship every season during that span.

If you’re not convinced by that, check out SB Nation’s annual blue-chip ratio analysis, which concludes essentially the same thing but with a slightly different talent metric.

So, an athletic director would do well to have a good recruiter as his head coach. The key information to review would be something like the guy’s average recruiting class as a head coach, some custom metric like our Team Talent Rankings or SB Nation’s blue-chip ratio, or the number of Top 10 or Top 5 classes the coach has put together. The recruiting services also rank individual coaches by recruiting prowess, so that could serve as another point of reference for assistants.

B. Player development

Recruiting well is necessary to success in college football, but it is not sufficient. There are likely many reasons why talent alone is not enough – poor team chemistry, poor play-calling or schemes, poor coaching decisions – but one of the most common is lack of player development, which is the responsibility of both the player himself and the coach. A coach who can both persuade talented players to play for him and also improve them as players once they get on campus is extremely valuable.

Measuring a coach’s ability to take a player who is X good and make him X+Y good is difficult. Although not a perfect measure, looking at how many players the coach has sent to the NFL is at least some indication of possible proficiency in this area.

C. Team management

When I refer to “team management,” I mean basic management skills, both of players and staff.

Staff Management

I’m beginning to believe more and more that the quality of a head coach’s coordinators is an extremely undervalued factor in the head coach’s success. Having a highly-developed ability to identify, hire, train, and retain good coordinators and staff is key. How many times have we seen successful coaches undone by poor coordinator hires? Fulmer, Clawson. Dooley, Sunseri. There’s an argument for one happening right now.

And have we ever seen a coach be successful primarily because of his coordinators? Maybe Fulmer, with John Chavis and David Cutcliffe? Gene Chizik, with Gus Malzahn? Anyone else?

Being a “CEO” coach is sort of the equivalent of being a “game manager” quarterback in that it’s viewed as a bit of an insult when it shouldn’t be. Both get too little credit for managing the group. It’s an incredibly important skill. Doing it well can get you places, and making one key mistake can undo it all in a hurry.

Player Management

Similarly, the ability to manage players well is probably undervalued. It has to be a challenge to out-woo rival schools for elite high school players and then “de-recruit” them once they get to campus without losing your credibility.

There’s also likely an underappreciated difference between managing mid-level players — like those at non-Power 5 schools — and rosters full of blue chip recruits. The latter is one of the things that made NBA coach Phil Jackson so good for the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. The man knew how to manage egos and get them working together. This may also be something that explains the difference between the success Butch Jones had at Central Michigan and Cincinnati and the struggles he has had at Tennessee.

III. Media savvy

This one is weird. It should first be noted that it is secondary to everything else. If a coach is succeeding at everything else, then he doesn’t need to be a media darling. See Saban, Nick; Belichick, Bill.

And if a coach struggles after his honeymoon with fans is over, then nothing he can say to the media will help.

But what being media savvy can do for a coach is buy time, which is an incredibly precious commodity for coaches in an age of impatience.

So, those are the things I think an athletic director should be looking closely at when evaluating current coaches or coaching candidates. What do you think? Are we looking at the right things?


  1. I wonder if you could measure player development using historical data re: the draft rate or position of players based on their recruiting rankings.

    I think the first one would be easier…on average, X% of 5* players get drafted, and Coach Y has seen Z% of his 5* player get drafted, etc. For the non-Saban coaches, there might be a sample size issue, but it could give you some idea of whether or not players get “coached up” beyond the level that their high school talent rating would suggest.

  2. One coach that comes to mind that runs an extremely clean program is Mark Richt. I know he’s in his second year at his alma mater Miami and doing very well. I want a coach that knows the road to Atlanta, Mark certainly does as he took Georgia to the SEC Championship 5 times and won the Championship twice. Miami is paying him $4 million a year.

    If we can’t score a home run big name coach that has a great winning record and runs a clean program, two coordinators I would go after for Head Coach are Jeremy Pruitt at Bama and Jim Chaney at Georgia.

    • Aw man I would love it if we could pull Richt from Miami. I’ve always admired him and thought UGA was foolish to let him go (granted things look good for them right now, but Richt’s been there too. We’ll see if Smart can close…)
      I don’t think that there’s any way we’d be able to get him away from his alma mater, doing as well as he is. He’s going to have such a long leash there compared to the climate in Knoxville. And the ACC is a more hospitable environment than the SEC, especially at Tennessee with their annual match up vs Bama.
      Unless Richt wants some revenge opportunities, I doubt he’d ditch his newly claimed gig with his alma mater.

      • Richt won 10 games a year almost every year, I would be satisfied with that in any coach that we are able to bring in.
        No way he will leave the ACC if his team continues to take down the top teams each week, he could have them heading towards a big January bowl game.

    • We’ve been down the Saban assistant route, and it didn’t end well. Chaney is 55 with exactly one game of head coaching experience: the Kentucky game in 2012 after Dooley had been fired.

      I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about potential replacements with one of my coworkers, lol. Once Kelly says no, the list of P5 coaches that mixes success, experience, and a potential willingness to move is pretty thin. I won’t list them all, but I’d expect all of the following names to at least get a mention: Doeren (NC State), Leach (Wazzu), Petrino (ugh), etc.

      After that, you’re on guys with thin resumes (Matt Campbell at Iowa State, Jeff Brohm at Purdue, Mike Norvell at Memphis).

      I’d probably vote for any of those guys over Pruitt or Chaney 😛

    • I love Richt, but I think he’d be a long shot. Seems like a loyal guy, too, who would have a hard time moving at this point. I also love Jim Chaney, but I wonder if he’s just a lifer at coordinator.

  3. one weird intangible that gets at a combination of culture, recruiting, and media savvy: coalition building. can a coach bring people together in different facets of the program and for different goals? a coalition of donors for major facility upgrades, a group of upperclassmen to handle a behind the scenes situation off the field, a staff that might need help getting along, etc.

  4. Something about Chris Peterson

    Doubt he would be interested being a West Coast Coach and he has a long term contract, but he fits all of the criteria. Recruiting may be a challenge at first, but I think he could adapt.

    If we couldn’t get him, maybe the coach currently at Boise State. He has done a nice job.

    Not a fan of someone who was here before. Feel that is a legacy vote that skews the decision.

  5. I was talking to a good friend last night who is a Notre Dame alum. I was dumbfounded to hear him talk about what it took to get them back on track because it is what exactly needs to happen here.
    First, the AD told Brian to get rid of his Defensive Coordinator DURING last season(or lose his job). That needs to happen with our Offensive Coordinator and D-Line coach immediately. It did not save ND’s season, but they began to show improvement for the rest of the season. During the offseason the AD allowed Brian Kelly to get a great DC from Wake Forest and kept the interim in an advisory role.

    Second, this season,Brian Kelly took big steps back and stopped micromanaging and took more of a CEO approach. In other words he is allowing his coordinators to coordinate.

    If we keep Butch, our AD needs to help him clean the slate, and get him to loosen his grip on the coordinators now.

    Hopefully the decision has been made on whether we are keeping him or not and the wheels are in motion for our next move.

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