Ranking the best college football head coaching changes in 2014-2015

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Harbaugh's Hiring A Big Moment For Michigan



The coaching carousel is always a fun ride in the days following the conclusion of the regular season when teams fire their underachieving coach and fan bases are filled with optimism that the new coach will fulfill their wildest hopes and dreams.

Sometimes the moves are a mere formality like the case with Michigan and Brady Hoke who was left twisting in the wind for the better part of the 2014 season before hearing his fate three days after a 5-7 season came to an end. And sometimes the coaching carousel takes a spin or two before the end of the year like we saw with Kansas firing Charlie Weis and Florida terminating Will Muschamp.

Coaching rumors are every bit as wild as trade rumors in the pro sports and like we saw with Nick Saban last year when Texas coveted the Alabama head coach and this year we saw former San Francisco 49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh as the object of his alma mater's affection.

Harbaugh was hired to take over for Hoke at his alma mater where he started at quarterback for three years under Hall of Fame coach Bo Schembechler and headlines the list of 14 college football coaching changes at the FBS level.

But was he the best hire?

Let's take a look at the 14 coaches in new places and rank them according to the best hire in both the short and long-term. Three of the 14 new coaches were features in my preseason look at assistant coaches destined for a head coaching job. Next year could see a few more from that list hired in the 2015-2016 coaching carousel.

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Ranking the best college football head coaching changes in 2014-2015

14) Tony Sanchez

Head Coach, UNLV Rebels

You have to admire the bold decision from UNLV to hire Tony Sanchez, 40, from Bishop Gorman high school in Las Vegas to be the head coach of the Rebels despite no college coaching experience.

“In Las Vegas and as a Las Vegan, we aren’t afraid to take a very bold and unconventional approach when responding to challenges,” UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said. “We aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.”

The status quo needed to be challenged considering UNLV only has four winning seasons in the last 28 years and went 15-49 in the last five years under previous head coach Bobby Hauck who resigned after a 2-11 record in 2014.

Hiring a coach with zero college coaching experience certainly comes with some risk, but why not take that risk on Sanchez who went 85-5 in his six years at Bishop Gorman and won a Nevada state championship in all six seasons there. Plus, Sanchez showed the ability to develop talent by sending 25 players to major college football.

Sanchez is the fourth head coach to make the jump from the prep to the college ranks, joining North Texas’ Todd Dodge, Notre Dame’s Gerry Faust and Iowa’s Bob Commings. The trio combined for a 54-100-1 record in 14 seasons.

“As far as people questioning my ability to do the job, it’s understandable; it hasn’t been done many times in college to know whether or not it really works. I think when people see the staff we bring in, the energy we have, the way we do things, people will be very confident in our ability to move forward with this program.” — Sanchez on making the leap from high school to UNLV, via ESPN.

I love the thought process from UNLV to think outside the box and try something new and Sanchez’s local ties should help in raising excitement as well as dollars for the program to upgrade facilities. His relationships with local high school coaches should be a significant advantage for recruiting as well.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

13) Neal Brown

Head Coach, Troy Trojans

Neal Brown replaced Larry Blakeney who retired after 24 years at Troy and becomes the second youngest head coach in the FBS at 34 years old. Brown returns to Troy where he worked from 2006-2009, including becoming college football’s youngest offensive coordinator in 2008 after Tony Franklin for Auburn.

During his first tenure at Troy the team won four Sun Belt conference titles in a five-year span. Brown left Troy after the 2009 season when the Trojans offense finished third nationally to be the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech under Tommy Tuberville. In his first season with the Red Raiders, Brown’s offense ranked 15th in total offense and sixth in passing offense.

Brown later joined Mark Stoops’ staff at Kentucky where he was the offensive coordinator for the Wildcats and had an instant impact with an 11.3 point scoring boost and 69.3 more yards per game from the previous year.

I believe the hiring of Brown will get the student body and alumni excited for the program and will lead the program back to the winning ways he experienced as an assistant after a three-win season in 2014.

“Troy is that special place for us. It’s where I became a Division I football coach for the first time. It’s where Brooke and I moved when we first got married. It’s where our first child was born. It’s where I became the youngest offensive coordinator in the country. When I saw coach Blakeney step down, I knew I wanted this job.” — Brown on returning to Troy, via ESPN.

(AP Photo/James Crisp)

12) David Beaty

Head Coach, Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas hired Texas A&M wide receivers coach and former Jayhawks assistant David Beaty, 44, after firing Charlie Weis earlier in the year after going 6-22 at the helm. Beaty served two stints as an assistant in Lawrence, the first as wide receivers coach from 2008-2009 and later as co-offensive coordinator, receivers coach and recruiting coordinator in 2011. Since leaving Kansas he coached receivers for three years in College Station where he oversaw the development of Mike Evans who came to Texas A&M as a raw prospect but turned him into an All-American and the No. 7 pick in the 2014 draft.

Beaty has ties in Texas where he coached at four high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area before coaching under Todd Graham at Rice so his ability to find talent in the talent-rich state will be vital in the rebuilding effort at Kansas. He retained Clint Bowen who served as the interim head coach after Weis was terminated and that was his first or what Jayhawks fans hope is many more good moves to come. It is a tough place to win and win consistently, but give Beaty a couple of recruiting classes and he could have Kansas out of the Big 12 cellar and back in a bowl game.

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

11) Mike Bobo

Head Coach, Colorado State Rams

Mike Bobo left his job as the offensive coordinator at Georgia to replace Jim McElwain who took the head coaching job at Florida (more on that later) for his first head coaching opportunity at Colorado State. Bobo spend 14 years with the Bulldogs, including the last seven as the offensive coordinator.

During his tenure at Georgia he oversaw the development of Matthew Stafford who was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft in 2009 and Aaron Murray who is the SEC’s all-time leading passer. Bobo led Georgia to the No. 30 offense in 2014, 11 spots below Colorado State under McElwain. The last time the Rams hired an offensive coordinator from the SEC it worked out well with McElwain leaving Alabama, but Bobo has the propensity to make some (many) head-scratching calls in recent years, such as forgetting to hand the ball to Todd Gurley at the goal line in the South Carolina loss.

Losing record-breaking quarterback Garrett Grayson will be tough to overcome in his first year as will the departure of running back Dee Hart to the draft, but the return of one of the nation’s leading receivers, Rashard Higgins, gives Bobo a talented playmaker to work with. Now can he find a quarterback to develop like he did with Stafford and Murray?

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

10) Philip Montgomery

Head Coach, Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Philip Montgomery, 43, replaces Bill Blankenship who was fired after going 2-10 in 2014 and compiled a 24-27 record over four seasons. Montgomery comes from Baylor where he was the offensive coordinator on Art Briles’ staff since 2013 and served as the co-OC since 2008, coaching quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Bryce Petty.

Briles is one of the best head coaches in college and he’s been on his staff since 1997 when he joined the staff at Stephenville high school in Texas as a quarterbacks and running backs coach before following him to Houston and later Baylor. Montgomery has consistently fielded one of the best offenses in the FBS, including leading the nation with 48.2 points and 581.5 yards per game in 2014.

He was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant last year and now gets his chance to be a head coach at a program that made eight bowl games from 2004-2012, but has only won five games since winning Conference USA in 2012. “I’ve always wanted to be a head coach, but my family and I knew that it would take the right opportunity to get me to leave Waco. Tulsa is that special opportunity. There is a lot of work to get done and trust me, I’m already on it. Get ready for some fun, fast and physical football.” — Montgomery on leaving Baylor for Tulsa, via ESPN.

(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

9) Mike Riley

Head Coach, Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska fired Bo Pelini after a 9-3 season in his seventh year with the Cornhuskers where he compiled a 67-27 record, three seasons with 10 wins, four division titles and three bowl wins. He was fired more so because of his abrasive personality that didn’t mesh well with the administration so in comes Mike Reilly who is as nice of a man as any in college football.

But I don’t think he’ll experience the same type of on-field success as Pelini did in his seven years at Nebraska when his teams were ranked in the final top 25 in six of his seven seasons. Nebraska’s firing of Pelini made it clear that winning nine or 10 games every season is not good enough and as great of a person as Reilly is he only has one nine-win season, one bowl win and ended the season ranked in the top 25 just once in the last six years.

Reilly went 5-7 in his last year at Oregon State and his 2-7 record in the Pac-12 was the worst since his first year in 1997. That’s not exactly the trend you want to see when making a new hire. If there’s a silver lining it is that Riley will have a more manageable time recruiting athletes to Lincoln than he did Corvalis, but this hire was more about bringing in a guy who won’t ruffle the feathers of athletic director Shawn Eichorst than an upgrade over Pelini.

(Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

8) Lance Leipold

Head Coach, Buffalo Bulls

Lance Leipold was hired to replace Jeff Quinn who was fired after four-plus seasons and takes over a Buffalo team who went 5-6 in 2014, one year after going 8-5 with future No. 5 pick in the NFL Draft, Khalil Mack.

The 50-year-old Leipold spent the last coaching at his alma mater, Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he won six Division III championships and compiled a 109-6 record. Leipold was the fastest to get to 100 career wins than any coach on any level in NCAA history. I love the hire of Leipold who is a proven winner and applaud Buffalo for taking a shot on a coach from the Division III level and hope it will be a sign of things to come for smaller FBS programs.

Leipold also has experience as an assistant at Nebraska under Frank Solich so he’s got experience at a major program with major expectations, so I don’t think he’ll be in over his head by any stretch at Buffalo.  Give him a couple of years and I think he can turn this MAC program around and compete for seven and eight win seasons.


(AP Photo/Don Petersen)

7) Paul Chryst

Head Coach, Wisconsin Badgers

Paul Chryst, 49, returns to his alma mater and where he was the offensive coordinator from 2005-2011 under Barry Alvarez for one year and later Bret Bielema after three seasons at Pittsburgh. Chryst replaces Gary Andersen who left after two seasons with Wisconsin to seek a better lifestyle fit for he and his family at Oregon State.

Chryst went 19-19 overall record and a 10-13 mark in the Panthers last season in the Big East and first two in the ACC. Chryst led Pitt to three straight bowl games and led one of the better run games in 2014 with James Conner leading the offensive attack and that style should play very well with the Badgers. Pitt had the nation’s No. 16 rushing offense with 249.46 yards per game and averaged 31.8 points per game and Wisconsin fans should expect to see the same offense they saw from 2005-2011 when Wisconsin set the record for scoring average and most points in 2005 and was largely responsible for Rose Bowl appearances in his last two seasons in Madison.

Helping him hit the ground running will be the familiarity with the program and where to find the players to fit his system at the surrounding high schools in the state. Expect two-three more wins than per season than he had at Pitt so long as he can find a quarterback to run his offense.

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

6) Gary Andersen

Head Coach, Oregon State Beavers

The departure of Gary Andersen from Wisconsin came out of left field just as it did when Bret Bielema left the Badgers after three straight Rose Bowls to take the job at Arkansas. Andersen, 50, led the Badgers to the Big Ten Championship Game after winning the West division and left for the Oregon State job four days after losing to Ohio State. 

Andersen won 19 games in his two seasons in Madison and appeared in a conference championship game while coaching a Heisman finalist in Melvin Gordon, but his preference to move his family west was the primary reason for leaving Wisconsin. Andersen is a Utah native and coached in the state for all but two years from 1994-2011 so the move to the Pacific Northwest should result in he and his family feeling more comfortable, and you can’t put a price on peace of mind. Plus, he also happens to be a helluva coach with a career record of 49-38, but over the last four years is 30-9, dating back to his last year at Utah State.

He is part of the Urban Meyer coaching tree from their time together at Utah who he will now compete against in the Pac-12 and his ties to the West Coast should give him an advantage on the recruiting trail. Oregon State is a tough place to win consistently and he’s replacing the winningest coach in school history in Mike Riley, so he’ll have his work cut out for him.

But I’m a believer he’ll have the Beavers winning 7-8 games a season very soon. One element that makes Andersen such a great coach that won’t show up in recruiting rankings or the box score is character and the values he tries to impose on his players. Don’t discount that fact helping Oregon State rebound after a trying season.

(AP Photo/Anne Peteson)

5) Jim McElwain

Head Coach, Florida Gators

Jim McElwain returns to the SEC where he was the offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-2011, winning two national championships, and leaves after a 10-2 season at Colorado State that saw him win the WAC Coach of the Year award. McElwain replaced Will Muschamp who went 28-21 in four seasons at Florida, but his last two seasons saw him go 10-13 overall and 7-9 in the SEC.

Colorado State set a number of program records in 2014 with McElwain leading the Rams to the No. 19 offense and an average of 33.9 points per game, so the fans in The Swamp should rejoice at the promise of a potent passing attack under his watch. Florida’s got talent on defense and a pair of rising sophomore quarterbacks in Treon Harris who finished the year as the starter and former top recruit Will Grier to compete for the job after Muschamp’s teams were an exercise in futility when the offense was on the field.

Kelvin Taylor and Demarcus Robinson give McElwain two talented players who have potential that needs tapping into, but can be the pair of weapons he had in Dee Hart and Rashard Higgins at CSU. His track record speaks for itself and former Alabama quarterback and current SEC Network analyst, Greg McElroy thinks Florida fans should be awfully optimistic about the hire and thinks he’ll be a hit in Gainesville.   

The state of Florida is annually stocked with some of the best high school talent in the nation and attracting players to the SEC with a pair of championship rings should be an easier sell than it was at Colorado State. The SEC east is there for the taking and I think he’s going to take it within the next two seasons.

(AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

4) Chad Morris

Head Coach, SMU Mustangs

Chad Morris, 46, is back in his home state of Texas where he made a name for himself as one of the best high school coaches in the state, compiling a 169-38 record over 16 seasons, including back-to-back 16-0 seasons at Lake Travis before embarking on a college coaching career.

Morris was the co-offensive coordinator on Todd Graham’s staff at Tulsa before joining Dabo Swinney’s staff at Clemson where the program went 42-11 in his time and sent offensive players, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Ellington and Tajh Boyd to the NFL.

He faces a difficult rebuilding effort at SMU after June Jones resigned after two games en route to a 0-11 start before winning the season finale at Connecticut. Finding a quarterback is priority No. 1 and helping his efforts in that is the relationships he has with high school coaches in the state and Dallas-Fort Worth area that is annually chock full of talent.

“That’s top on our list in recruiting. That’s top on our list in development in the spring. And that’ll be the same thing next year as we talk. There are some great players right here underneath our own wing span, within a quarter of a tank of gas drive. We’re just going to make it real hard for these guys to leave here. We’re not going to play second fiddle to anybody.” — Morris on recruiting the talent-rich state of Texas, via ESPN.

He’ll be successful at SMU. He just needs a little time to get his players on board and make it a place in-state recruits will want to play at, and his up-tempo and successful offense will do that. Don’t expect a miraculous turnaround from 1-11 to 11-1 overnight though, but don’t tell Morris that as he’s setting his sights high.

How’s that for bold?

If you don’t take a job with that being the goal then you’re set up to fail. This is Chad Morris at the core and for the first time in a long time, SMU has reason for optimism because of him.


(AP Photo/LM Otero)

3) Tom Herman

Head Coach, Houston Cougars

Tom Herman, 39, replaces Tony Levine who went 21-17 at Houston, including bowl appearances the past two seasons, and a 7-5 finish in 2014. Herman has been pulling double-duty since he was named the head coach of the Cougars as he’s still the offensive coordinator for Ohio State who finish their season in the National Championship Game against Oregon.

Herman won the Broyles Award as the nation’s best assistant coach in 2014 after leading the Buckeyes to the No. 5 scoring offense in the nation despite losing two-time Big Ten player of the year, Braxton Miller less than two weeks before the season opener. He developed redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett into a Buckeye and Big Ten record holder as Ohio State played for the Big Ten Championship Game.

Later he was forced to replace Barrett who broke his ankle in the season finale against Michigan and showed no drop off as third-string quarterback Cardale Jones led Ohio State to 59 points and later a win against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Ohio State has gone 37-3 in the last three years with Herman running the offense and takes over a program with a winning history that has launched the careers of Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin in recent years.

Herman’s first four coaching stops were in the Lone Star State at Texas, Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice, so he knows the lay of the land and how important football is in the state and where to find recruits with his history of recruiting across the state.

Herman is also literally a genius as a Mensa member and should have Houston competing for AAC titles right away.

(Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)

2) Pat Narduzzi

Head Coach, Pittsburgh Panthers

Pat Narduzzi, 48, left Michigan State where he was the defensive coordinator since 2007 to replace Paul Chryst for his first head coaching job. He won the Broyles Award in 2013 after the Spartans had the No. 2 defense and No. 3 scoring defense and a Rose Bowl win that saw Michigan State end the year ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Narduzzi was born in Connecticut, played linebacker at Rhode Island from 1987-1989 and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, an hour northwest of Pittsburgh and the closest FBS school to where he was raised.

In effect, this is home for Narduzzi whose father coached at Youngstown State from 1975 to ’85 and has the ideal personality and coaching style that is a perfect for Pitt.

“When somebody plays the University of Pittsburgh, they’re going to know they were in a brawl,” he said at his introductory press conference.

Michigan State has fielded one of the better defenses during Narduzzi’s tenure with the 2013 Rose Bowl team and could have had a head coaching job earlier in his career, but that never materialized and that’s good news for Pitt and for Narduzzi.

“I knew this was the place,” he said. “This is a place I wanted to go after and I wanted the job. … “You can win a national championship here. This is a place I want to be for a long time if they let me.” Narduzzi on why Pitt was the job for him, via ESPN.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

1) Jim Harbaugh

Head Coach, Michigan Wolverines
 

Jim Harbaugh, 51, is a no-brainer as the best of the college football coaching hires and the Michigan Wolverines will soon be back competing for Big Ten championships and national titles. Harbaugh replaces Brady Hoke who was 31-20 in four years in Ann Arbor, but only 12-13 in the last two years, including a 6-10 mark in conference play.

Harbaugh returns to his alma mater where he started at quarterback the last three years of his career, including winning the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and a third place finish in the Heisman as a senior after an 11-2 record. One of those wins was a 26-24 road win at Ohio State which he guaranteed would be a Michigan win.

“Throughout my life, I have dreamed of coaching at the University of Michigan,” Harbaugh said at his introductory news conference. “Now I have the honor to live it.”

“Top to bottom, Michigan is about excellence, is about greatness, and you have my pledge that I will carry forward the tradition of excellence of the University of Michigan football program.” — Harbaugh at his introductory press conference, via ESPN.

He brings that same confidence and often times brash style to the sidelines as a head coach who has had success on the FCS level with a 29-6 record in three years at San Diego, at the FBS level with 29-21 record in four seasons at Stanford and a 44-19-1 record in four years with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL.

The guy has been a winner everywhere he’s been, whether as a player or a coach and now he’s going home where he will be treated with the respect he didn’t think he received with the 49ers. And I think he’s going to have much more fun at Michigan than it appeared during his largely successful four-year run at San Francisco where he went to three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl.

“I know Michigan football. I believe in Michigan football. That will not be a hard job. … There are no turnarounds at Michigan. This is greatness.”

Don’t you want to run through a brick wall if you’re a Michigan player or sign with Michigan if you’re a recruit after hearing that?

I don’t care if he has a prickly personality and has rubbed some people wrong in the past. In fact, I think that drives him to be as successful as he’s been in the past and no other fan base will recognize that better than the 100,000-plus who will sellout the Big House every home game with Harbaugh in his khakis on the sideline.

Harbaugh says there are no turnarounds at Michigan, but the program needs to better and he understands that.

The Wolverines are 1-10 in the last 11 against rival Ohio State and Michigan State has passed them in recent years, but look for that to even out over the next few seasons as Harbaugh develops the top recruits Hoke couldn’t while bringing in his own.

There’s no denying Michigan has work to do and there’s no better man coach than Harbaugh to put that work in.

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
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