10. Mark Whipple: Massachusetts
Mark Whipple’s return to the Minutemen after 11 years is obviously highlighted by a drastic change in the dynamics of the program since he left it in 2003: They’re in FBS now. And they have been 1-11 each of the past two seasons, they’re first two in Division 1A. But when Whipple took over in 1998 the program had gone 2-9 the year before, and he turned it around immediately to go 12-3. Whipple also comes back to UMASS with more NFL experience working with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Cleveland Browns. For UMASS’s level, there may be some growing pains, but he could have them back to winning again very soon.
9. Dave Clawson: Wake Forest
After a debacle at Tennessee when he first entered FBS as an offensive coordinator in 2008, then struggling for his first three years at Wake Forest, Dave Clawson seemed like a coach not cut out for this level of football. But if you looked at his track record at the lower level while at Richmond and at Fordham before that, it clearly shows that his teams take time to adjust to his systems. He went 0-11 and then 3-8 his first two years at Fordham and then 3-8 his first year at Richmond, but he left those programs with 9, 10, and 11-win seasons, which is exactly what he did at Bowling Green. Expect the same at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons will probably have a rough first two years, but long-term, playing in a mediocre ACC, they could return to a 10-win team.
8. Dino Babers: Bowling Green
If you’re looking for a coach who has paid his dues as an assistant, patiently waited for a head coaching job, and then proved his ability immediately when he got his first opportunity, Dino Babers is your guy. After nearly 30 years as an assistant at Hawaii, Arizona State, Baylor, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Arizona, Texas A&M, Northern Arizona, UNLV, San Diego State, and Purdue, his reward for all of those years is a job at a mid-major program replacing the winningest coach in that programs history but was also 2-9 for two straight years be he got there: Eastern Illinois, where he worked as an assistant in 1987. All he did was deliver a 7-5 season his first year and a 12-2 season his next year. Now, he’s a Bowling Green, and his track record and experience should be beneficial, especially at a program that’s in much better shape than the previous program was when he took over.
7. Willie Fritz: Georgia Southern
A proven winner at the lower level of college football, Willie Fritz is the perfect candidate to lead the Eagles through their first year in FBS. There should be some growing pains for a while, and he should have some job security for a few years, but his work at Central Missouri, where he went 97-47, and Sam Houston State, where he went to two straight FCS National Title games, show his ability to rebuild programs. He should have a very good understanding of the Eagles’ situation, and it should work out very well for Georgia Southern in the future. Also, entering a weak conference such as the Sun Belt, where there are already multiple FCS teams entering, should bode well for them as well. There may not be even growing pains. If things go right, the Eagles could see success this year.
6. Bobby Petrino- Louisville
Bobby Petrino is probably the most sure bet of any coach on this list to be successful, and as far as X’s and O’s go, he is probably the smartest person on the board too. But he fell to sixth on this list because there are so many red lights with him, and I don’t simply mean who he’s with on a motorcycle. Most importantly, what proof do we have that he won’t bail on the Louisville Cardinals again? He tried to leave them multiple times the last time he was coaching there, then he jumped to the NFL, left there before finishing a season to go to Arkansas, had the controversy at Arkansas, took a year off, then spent a year at Western Kentucky before going back to Louisville. This is a guy that you can’t trust to stick around, and if he plans to he is somebody who will bring some type of distraction to the program that could get him fire. Petrino still makes this list, though, because however long he is at Louisville, his track record shows he will definitely be successful. Also, thanks to what Charlie Strong did and the move to the ACC, Louisville is a little bit more of a destination job than it was when he left it after 2006. Maybe that, along with Petrino’s increased level of appreciation for simply being back in college football, will be enough for him to stick around this time. But for now, we are too unsure of that to put him in the top 5.
5. Chris Petersen-Washington
The second-winningest active coach in college football finally caved. It seems like Chris Petersen had been the hottest coaching candidate for the last six years, but he never left Boise State. And then Washington came calling. Petersen’s track record with the Broncos obviously hints that he’ll be a great coach, but there’s also an eye test with him. Watching Boise State games the past few years has been exciting mainly because he takes these quarterbacks with no arm strength or athletic ability and makes them look NFL ready. Peterson’s track record at developing quarterbacks and making winners and leaders out of them is one of the best. None of those guys were ever good enough to play in the NFL, but Petersen made them look NFL-ready every week. He should be able to do the same at Washington. One red flag, though, is recruiting. The Huskies’ class is currently not in the top 60 on Rivals, and to compete in the Pac 12 they’ll have to do better than that. We all know Petersen can coach, and when you’re at a mid-major level where the competition is equally mediocre, that’s enough to win. In big-time college football, though, he’ll have to recruit, and the uncertainty there is why he fell to fifth on this list.
This may seem a little high for a coach entering his first year in FBS, but look at Craig Bohl’s track record. It’s probably the strongest of any coach on here albeit at a lower level, which is the only reason he isn’t at the top. It’s nearly a sure bet he’ll succeed at Wyoming. In 11 years of coaching at North Dakota State, he has a 104-32 record and just finished leading them to three straight national titles, including a 15-0 season in 2013. This happened despite the fact that the Bison only began play in Division 1 in 2004, and then they moved into the Missouri Valley Conference in 2008. While overseeing both moves, Bohl only had one losing season there, so he is already familiar with coaching against increasing competition and succeeding. That will bode well for his move into Division 1 coaching the Cowboys. Also, having played at Nebraska, Bohl should be familiar with the Wyoming area. With a 5-7 record in 2013, Wyoming is not far away from more success, and with division rival and powerhouse Boise State losing Chris Peterson, there is a hole for the top dog in the Mountain West. Could Wyoming take that spot in the future? With Bohl at the helm, it’s very possible.
3. Charlie Strong- Texas
A few months ago, when the hire first happened, Charlie Strong would’ve been at the top of his list. But it’s hard to ignore the rocky start he’s had with recruiting in Austin so far. This is supposed to be the easiest place in the country to recruit talent, but the Longhorns’ 2015 class currently is not even in the top 30. Of course there’s plenty of time for that to change, but with the amount of talent in Texas and the profile of the school, couple with Strong’s recent success, that’s a major red flag. However, there’s no doubt that Charlie Strong is a great coach, and what he did at Louisville was very impressive. People can bring up the schedule, but look at where the Cardinals were before he got there. Also, the win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl two years ago is nothing to thumb your nose at. The guy clearly is a great defensive coach and know how to motivate players, and the criticism he has received for his speeches at press conferences and various functions means absolutely nothing to me. Speeches don’t win football games, great coaching and recruiting do. Strong is definitely a great coach. Can he recruit though? It’s not looking great so far, but maybe things will change.
2. Steve Sarkisian-USC
What Steve Sarkisian did at Washington the past five years was nothing short of remarkable. He inherited a team that was winless in 2008 and took them to 5-7 in 2009 before leading them to four straight bowl games. The cupboard is much more stocked now than it was when he took over. Now at USC, he should have the same success in a place where you can recruit a lot better talent. Like Strong, though, Sarkisian hasn’t recruited as well as he should at USC so far. While they have a top 20 class, unlike Texas, USC should be able to have a top 10 class every single year and be in the top 10 for every class 365 days out of the year. It’s too easy to recruit there. I have no doubt about Sarkisian’s coaching ability, and he’ll get talent in the program. That’s enough to assure successful, winning seasons with the Trojans. But this is USC, where Pac 12 championships are expected every year, and competing for national championships should be a given. Can he achieve that level of success? His career so far suggests he can, but it’s a wait and see situation.
1. James Franklin-Penn State
This was always a sure top 5 hire, but James Franklin’s recruiting at Penn State so far is enough to push him to the top. A school that was on the brink of falling off the face of the earth two short years ago now currently has the fifth ranked recruiting class on Rivals and looks like it will return to its glory days very quickly. True, Bill O’Brien did a remarkable coaching job there, which has allowed the Nittany Lions to become a little bit more of an attractive place than it was when the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the NCAA punishment initially happened. But to recruit the way Franklin has done so far is still incredibly impressive. And recruiting is not the only reason he deserves to be at the top of this list. There has been a saying in SEC country for a long time that Vanderbilt is a place no coach should go because it’s impossible to win at. Not only are you trying to succeed in football at a small academic school, you have to do it in the toughest conference in the country. How can a school like that consistently post six wins when half their schedule every years is against Top 25 teams and at least another three games are against teams that are good enough to be in the Top 25? Well, James Franklin not only accomplished the impossible. He exceeded the expectations of even Commodores fans. After a 7-6 year to start, which seemed impossible enough, he managed to take them 9-4 for two straight years and finish in the Top 25. He also beat Tennessee twice, something that hasn’t been done since anybody reading this blog was alive. Doing what he did at Vanderbilt is the hardest thing to do in college football by far. But he did it, and now he’s at Penn State, where it’s much easier to win. With his ability to coach, run a program, and recruit, Penn State will almost certainly return to a powerhouse program in the future. This is a sure hire.
Tags: Bobby Petrino Bowling Green Falcons Charlie Strong Chris Petersen College Football Craig Bohl Dave Clawson Dino Babers FBS FCS Feature Georgia Southern Eagles James Franklin Louisville Cardinals Mark Whipple Massachusetts Minutemen Penn State Nittany Lions Steve Sarkisian Texas Longhorns USC Trojans Wake Forest Demon Deacons Washington Huskies Willie Fritz Wyoming Cowboys