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Hiring a Lower-Division Coach: Poor Choice, or Just the Unknown?

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An argument from Saturday turns into an actual post on Monday. Who knew?

Before we get started on this week's festivities: GET HYPE, YO. The above video entertainment provided via YouTube by our spiritual lords and masters at K-State Athletics Communications. It's Monday. You need all the positive energy you can get.

Derek's post from Saturday caused a wee bit of controversy. Nothing too heated, nobody was assaulted in the streets, nobody's calling him a big dummy... well, someone did, but it was on Facebook so it doesn't count.

But a discussion did arise over whether it would have been entirely imprudent of John Currie (or any other Division I FBS athletic director, especially a P5 AD) to give Bob Stitt a chance last year. That argument was based on the idea that being a winning head coach at the Division II level doesn't prove you can win in FBS, up against the counter-argument that good coaches are good coaches and the real issue is that an FBS athletic director is going to be reluctant to hire a lower-level coach because if it doesn't work out he's going to be blamed for failing while not following the usual script. (Failing while doing the same thing everyone else would do, see, is more acceptable.)

First, let's be clear: obviously, Bill Snyder is still the head coach of the Kansas State Wildcats, isn't planning to step down just yet, and we're perfectly content for him to stay there as long as he is (a) capable and (b) willing. So the question of hiring Stitt last winter is a moot point, although I'd have been tickled to death if someone had gotten the bright idea to hire him as offensive coordinator. (No offense intended to coaches Dimel and Miller; this isn't about the job they're doing but playing game theory for the future.) But that does bring up the question of whether hiring Stitt would be feasible after this season, and if Stitt succeeds at Montana this year (and continues to do so as long as he's there), it's impossible to argue against his suitability as a candidate for a big-time job going forward. See Kelly, Chip.

But the idea that a coach has to move up and prove himself from one level to the next is absurd. A supporting argument, which we acknowledge as somewhat valid in theory, was put forth by catbacker98 that Bobby Wallace, former and current head coach at the University of North Alabama, proves the point because he went to Temple and Temple didn't start winning.

There's a trap here, though. Being a big winner at certain D-II schools is like being really good at adding single-digit numbers together in your head. North Alabama, Valdosta State, Northwest Missouri State, Pittsburg State... You have to be a complete and utter tool to not win at those places, because their names themselves are a recruiting tool; they've all gone through a succession of highly-successful head coaches. A player who knows that he's a D-II player (or even a borderline FCS guy) is going to listen to those schools when they call, because they are programs now, not just the success story of one particularly great and loyal coach. Colorado State-Pueblo, Bloomsburg, Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth; all of these are examples of the latter, and we should also note that Grand Valley has slipped a lot since Brian Kelly left. Recruits may not be Nobel Laureate-level geniuses, but they know when a new coach is inheriting a program and when the program was the guy who just left. So while Wallace is and has been a success at North Alabama, we can't really ascribe it all just to his ability as a coach. But even then, there's another issue entirely.

Wallace went to Temple -- which is like the exact opposite of a great program. Absolutely nobody had been a winning football coach at Temple for more than two years before the arrival of Al Golden, one of the hottest young FBS assistants on the landscape. I mean that literally: nobody. I don't think Urban Meyer could have won at Temple in 2002. Here's the most hilarious part, though:

Even though he's perceived as having failed there, Wallace was better at Temple than the two guys that preceded him, and no worse than the third.

Here's the thing. You almost can't even count Wallace's final three seasons at Temple, because when it came to recruiting he'd been placed in an untenable position: Temple was being thrown out of the Big East, largely because nobody would go see them play and the university administration didn't appear to care in the slightest. "Hey, would you like to come play for me at a school which won't even be in a conference in a year?" How can anyone succeed under that gun?

  • Wallace at Temple, 1998-2002: 16-40
  • Ron Dickerson at Temple, 1993-1997: 8-47
  • Jerry Berndt at Temple, 1989-1992: 11-33 (and that included a 7-4 season, OMG)
  • Bruce Arians at Temple, 1983-1988: 27-39 (*21-39 after vacated wins)

Yes, that Bruce Arians. The one with a 21-11 record as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, of all teams. Even he couldn't win at Temple, and he's proven he can in in the National. Football. League.

Wallace didn't fail at Temple. It's not that Wallace wasn't up to the task at Temple. It's that Temple failed Wallace, just like they'd failed every poor SOB to walk into that office for the previous 30 years. They finally succeeded when Al Golden came in and Bill Snyder-ed them: he said, "You want me to take this job, you are going to give this program the support it needs."

So now, having dispensed with Bobby Wallace as a rational argument against an FBS school hiring a D-II head coach straight off the boat, let's throw out some other examples -- all of which are just off the top of my head, with some fact-checking to make sure I wasn't misremembering anything.

Dennis Franchione did spend two years in I-AA between Pitt State and actually winning football games at NEW MEXICO... but his record at Texas State was only 13-9. New Mexico? Three winning seasons and a bowl game, hired away by TCU. Took TCU from the dumpster to a 10-1 season, at which time he earned the job at Alabama, which he QUIT after going 10-3 to move to A&M, at which point his hubris got the better of him. Suffice to to say that Franchione's record at Pittsburg State was perfectly solid evidence of his ability to coach at the highest levels.

Brian Kelly: straight from Grand Valley to Central Michigan, which he took to a 9-4 season and a bowl game in his third year before being hired away by Cincinnati. Central Michigan hadn't won 7 games in a season for over a decade. Brian Kelly was an unqualified success.

Hal Mumme wasn't great at Kentucky, but he was better there than the guy he replaced. And that guy was just some dude named Bill Curry, who when he left Alabama was only the best coach Bama had employed since the Bear.

Mark Hudspeth has done a pretty good job at Louisiana-Lafayette. Oh, look, he was at North Alabama before that, with a couple of years at Mississippi State in between. Not as Mississippi State's head coach, or even as their offensive coordinator. As their wide receivers coach.

Billy Brewer made Ole Miss relevant again in the 1980s. Before that he'd been at Southeastern Louisiana (D-II at the time) and Louisiana Tech (JUST moved up to I-AA at the time).

Darryl Rogers did a pretty good job at Michigan State before Arizona State hired him away. Before MSU, he'd posted a 22-8-3 record at San Jose State. The Spartans had hired him away from Fresno State, which at the time was basically D-II. (It was 1972, the year before the divisions were created.)

Don Faurot came straight to Missouri from what is now Truman State, and if that's not a #MicDrop on this list I don't know what is.

And then there's guys who succeeded at even lower levels.

Art Briles had only accumulated three years of collegiate coaching experience in his life, and that only as Texas Tech's running backs coach, before Houston hired him. Their decision was based almost entirely on his success at Stephenville.

We make lots of fun of Dan Hawkins, and that's okay because he utterly failed at Colorado. But it's worth remembering that he didn't fail before that. In 1997, he won the NAIA championship at Willamette, and left with a 40-11-1 record there. He spent three years as an assistant at Boise, and then took over as the head coach... and turned Boise into BOISE. Yeah, Boise had won 20 games the previous two years before he took over. Considering what happened to Dirk Koetter when he left for Arizona State, Hawkins may deserve much of the credit for THOSE, too; Hawkins was an integral part of Boise's rise to prominence from the very second he stepped on campus after leaving Willamette.

Again, that's all off the top of my head. Have there been failures? Sure. But I can only think of two of those off the top of my head:

Todd Dodge, who came straight to North Texas from Southlake Carroll, which is not a D-II school what with it being a high school and all.

Stan Parrish, who actually doesn't qualify under catbacker98's original criteria anyway because after he left Wabash he spent a year at Purdue as an assistant and two successful years as the head coach at Marshall before coming to Manhattan. So Parrish is actually an example of a guy who succeeded at a lower level, moved up to I-AA and still succeeded, then failed once thrust into the Big-Time football grinder. And, like Wallace, it's entirely possible that Parrish failed at K-State not because he couldn't coach but because he took a job at a schools where he had no support. (Although to be equally fair, his brief stint at Ball State after Brady Hoke left doesn't really help his case.)

The key thing you have to look at in these situations is the personality of the coach. How demanding will he be of the administration, of boosters, of the fanbase? Is he "just a coach"? In large part, that is the problem with coaches like Wallace and Parrish. They're just fine with the Xs and Os, but because they're uncomfortable with some of the other aspects of the profession they'll fail. You have to be able to demand support from the guys who hired you. You have to be able to point to things you have made or are making happen in order to produce recruits.

That's not a problem for Bob Stitt. Faced with a daunting task at Colorado Mines, a school where you can't even get in the door without a 29 ACT, Stitt took a look at what the school actually offered its students... and realized that Mines had a world-reknowned program in petroleum engineering. Then went to Texas, where that's sort of a big thing, and found football players who were interested in that. It's that sort of thinking that makes a coach succeed where he shouldn't, and that's precisely what Stitt did at Colorado Mines. He found a way to get what he needed, much like a certain other guy we're all sort of proud of here.

So if you're an athletic director and there's a coach from a lower division that has managed to get on your radar, that's the sort of thing you investigate. Not how he's winning on the field... but how he's winning off it.

The problem is not that FBS schools have been trying to promote lower-division coaches and failing.

It's that they have tried so rarely that we don't have solid data on whether it's a good move or not, and that's because whereas in the NFL it's head coaches who are risk-averse, in college it's athletic directors.

BracketCat continued plowing through the countdown as he begins to reach terminal velocity. Yesterday, his second #6 was freshman DB Jonathan Durham. And our staff finally picked K-State to win a Big 12 game in yesterday's Preseason Conditioning, wherein we picked Week Ten of the Big 12 schedule and previewed the Ivy League.

Yahoo's Pat Forde discusses just how unprecedented in the history of college football the recent overthrow of the mighty kingpins of the Big 12 really is.

Trevor Lowry at Rant Sports lists ten teams he thinks might somehow sneak into the College Football Playoff, and if you're wondering why I'd link a piece from Rant Sports your first guess is probably correct.

Cut Day: Forbes has an extensive list of everyone whacked from NFL rosters in the last week, including Daniel Thomas (Chicago). As for area small-college talent, the Chiefs also cut Emporia State TE Adam Schiltz, and Missouri S&T had two players survive this long only to be dispensed with: San Diego parted ways with OL Forestal Hickman, and Tennessee released CB Will Brown.

John Werner of the Waco Tribune writes about how Bill Snyder, at 75, is still able to relate to his players. What you may not notice right away because it's not part of the actual article is that the Waco paper has picked K-State to finish not seventh, not sixth, but fifth.

Finally, Shell Kapadia at ESPN on why the key to Tyler Lockett's NFL career will probably be not his speed or his agility but his vision.

Stay tuned later today as Pervis is planning to kick off our preseason reader picks poll and I'll have today's Preseason Conditioning, with our Week Eleven picks and my Colonial Athletic Association preview.