During the month of October, we looked at the different types of Mountain West recruits. Today, we feature a similar article with the different types of Mountain West coaches. Similar to the last one, this article is by no means an exhaustive list but rather something to highlight types of coaches the conference often seems to get, as well as what their area of focus may be or what qualities they possess.
It is important to remember there is no perfect coach, especially at the Mountain West level, where salary budgets are a real concern. This limits options and forces programs to prioritize certain factors over others when making a coaching hire. Two of the most common factors would be 1) Stability vs. Effectiveness and 2) Recruiting vs. Coaching.
For the purposes of this article, stability means how long a coach stays and also how long they can keep the core of their assistants from year to year. Is it better for a coach to be a perennial bowl team but rarely, if ever, compete for a conference championship or instead win championships and big bowl games but leave for another job after only two or three seasons? Some Mountain West teams have had to evaluate that in recent years, with Colorado State and Wyoming being two examples of programs that were in similar situations and made different decisions (fire and keep their coach, respectively). There is no right or wrong answer necessarily; this is more to illustrate what MWC programs have to consider when trying to win while attempting to sustain some level of success and relevancy.
The second factor is the balance of a strong recruiting coach, and a strong tactician of a coach comes into play. These terms are more straightforward but refer to a coach’s ability to attract the best talent (or best talent for their system) into the program and their ability to effectively use that talent in games and make decisions during games to maximize their chances to win. Of course, all coaches possess both of these skills; otherwise, they wouldn’t be strong candidates to be head coaches. However, it is common for a coach to be noticeably better in one area than the other. And if they are strong in both in-game coaching and recruiting, they are not very likely to last as a Group of 5 coach before getting lots of P5 offers. Due to this, schools have to choose one trait to be valued above the other, or at least be aware of what is being prioritized and what may be lacking. The previous coach at Boise State, for example, was labeled as a strong recruiter but arguably only above-average when it comes to coaching during a game. UNLV’s current coach carried the same label from his time at Oregon.
On the other end of the spectrum, Fresno State went to consecutive conference championships without the benefit of many high-level recruits. Instead, their coaching staff developed their talent and used strong coaching to succeed. Similarly, teams like Air Force, Hawaii, San Jose State, and Utah State have all used scheming ability and put players in positions to succeed in their recent winning seasons. Again, the point of this is not to describe one coach or program as a one-trick pony but instead to highlight there are different qualities that can explain why a team is how they are.
This category is most if not all coaching hires, but some don’t meet other criteria for the other listed categories, and some are more extreme examples of this than others. Programs often attempt to copy success in the college football world, trying to pluck assistants from successful coaching trees in hopes of getting some of that success for themselves. This is why Nick Saban has so many former assistants who are now head coaches. Many coordinators have goals of one day being head coaches. Some wait for specific opportunities, and others are content taking the first opportunity that comes their way. Hiring a popular coordinator from a successful team can be risky because they are figuring things out as a head coach for the first time while learning to juggle the additional non-coaching responsibilities that come with running a program. But it usually leads to success, as the new head coach brings their skills and level of expertise to transform a program over their first few years at the helm.
Examples: Mike Bobo, Kalen DeBoer, Jay Norvell (Nevada), Brian Polian, Marcus Arroyo, Gary Andersen (round one)
This is, in many ways, the complete opposite of the category above. Rather than an up-and-coming first-time head coach entering the ranks of the Mountain West, this category is filled with coaches who have recently been fired. Usually, they were dismissed from their previous jobs for ineffectiveness but sometimes off the field trouble as well, and are looking for a landing spot to get back on track. Sometimes coaches view this as a short turnaround until a bigger gig opens up (think of Lane Kiffin at FAU), and sometimes coaches decide they are better suited to remain in a smaller program where they can be more successful. Or, in some cases, they don’t get another opportunity. Coaches in this grouping have a proven track record of success, at least at one time, and usually are motivated to show they can still lead a program to victory. However, schools may not want to absorb the baggage they carry, and there is a risk that they may not be able to rediscover the magic they once had.
Examples: Steve Addazio, Todd Graham, Bob Davie, Brady Hoke (kind of), Gary Andersen (round two)
Lower Level Success Stories:
These are the coaches who have a track record of head coaching success, which can sometimes make them a safer bet compared to the category above, where many hires are first-time head coaches. Instead, the risk involves how they will fair with an increase in the level of competition. Being a successful head coach at the FCS or high school level is not an automatic indicator for success at the G5 level. Just like success at the G5 level doesn’t mean coaches will maintain the same level of winning when they go to a P5 school, as some former Mountain West coaches have discovered. With that being said, the moves are usually still worth taking a chance. Usually, they can take the core of their coaching staff with them, and everyone gets a substantial pay bump. They can employ the same offensive and defensive schemes with the idea that the roster and recruiting classes will make the schemes even more effective.
Examples Tony Sanchez, Blake Anderson, Craig Bohl
These are the coaches who have strong ties to the program of which they are named head coach. They likely played for the program back in their college football days. Or else they were a long-time assistant coach for the program, gaining popularity from the players, fanbase, and administration during their time there. These types of coaches know the program well and understand the expectations placed upon them when they come aboard. Sometimes there is a hometown discount for their salary. There is often an emotional investment made by all parties. These coaches may get a longer leash when it comes to their failures, but on the other hand, there is often more expected of them compared to their colleagues with no ties to the program.
Examples: Troy Calhoun, Andy Avalos, Bryan Harsin, Jeff Tedford, Nick Rolovich, Danny Gonzales, Ken Wilson, Rocky Long (New Mexico), Brent Brennan, Matt Wells
As can be seen above, most of the recent head coaches in the Mountain West fall into one of these four categories. Perhaps it is not too surprising that the most hires and certainly some of the hires who stay the longest are people who have direct ties to the program, either as a former coach or former player, or both. It is also important to point out that successes and failures, both temporary and sustained, can come from any of these categories. There is no one formula or strategy to hiring a successful coach. However, Mountain West schools seem to pull from these categories when conducting their coaching searches. It will be interesting to see if the same schools prioritize the same factors or hire the same types of coaches in future searches. Another aspect to watch is whether all teams in the conference adopt certain trends over others, depending on how tenures go with coaches from a particular category.