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Musings From Arledge: Playoffs, Elite Coaches, Reggie The Receiver

Why isn’t the Pac 12 pushing for an 8-team playoff? For those who loved the old bowl system, it’s dead. There’s no bringing it back. The only post-season games that matter, even to college football fanatics, are the college football playoff games. And at this point, the Pac 12 is having a difficult time sneaking into the party. An 8-team playoff that guarantees a spot to every major conference winner solves at least one problem facing the Pac 12.

It also means that programs like USC, who don’t schedule Wofford or Mercer, can play a difficult non-conference schedule without worrying that the schedule will hurt its playoff chances. In fact, an expanded playoff with automatic bids to conference winners will encourage teams to play difficult non-conference games. Those games are good for recruiting, great for building fan excitement, useful to motivate players during offseason workouts. There’s a lot of upside if you don’t have to worry that a loss will end your season. (And, I suppose, if you don’t end up on the wrong side of 52-6.)

I know Larry Scott is busy and all; you know, increasing the opulence of Pac 12 headquarters–the conference Taj Mahal won’t build itself!–and, like OJ looking for the “real killers,” continuing his search for investors who will pay many hundreds of millions for a conference network that few people can watch and even fewer people want to watch. But he might want to give an expanded playoff some thought. Unless he’s fine watching the Pac 12 slide further into irrelevance.


I’m tired of talking about Clay Helton. I can’t avoid it entirely so long as he is the head coach of the USC football team and I write for a USC football website. But until he says or does something, I’ve said all I have to say.

That preface is necessary because this next topic arose out of a lengthy and interesting exchange between Zitorocks and uscvball that concerned Clay Helton, Nick Saban, and how long it takes a head coach to become a great head coach. I want to look into the issue they were discussing, but with a slightly different emphasis, and I intend to stay away from the continuing debate over Clay Helton (Is it still continuing?).

The question I want to answer is: If you hire a top-notch head coach, how long will it take that coach to turn your program around? And I’ll spend a little time on a related question: What does early success tell you about a head coach’s future? I think there are some very clear conclusions we can reach. If people want to apply those conclusions to specific individuals — Clay Helton, Chip Kelly, Tom Herman, and others – I will not stop them.

Before jumping into the data, a quick note on picking coaches for this analysis. I did not cherry pick coaches, or at least I tried not to. But I was less interested in coaches who took over programs at the top, coaches like John Robinson, Jimmy Johnson, or Tom Osborne, because they don’t allow you to answer the question I’m asking.

Let’s jump into the data:

Urban Meyer

With Urban, we have three different programs to look at.

First, Utah, where Meyer went 10-2 in his first year and 12-0 in his second, after following a pretty well-respected coach who was only 88-63 over 13 seasons.

At Florida, Meyer went 13-1 in year two. (His predecessor was 24-15 over his three seasons.)

At OSU, Meyer went 12-0 in his first year after interim coach Luke Fickell went 6-7. (The program was very solid before Fickell, however, so Fickell’s down year may not have been a sign of a deteriorated program.)

Verdict: immediate and substantial improvement.

Bob Stoops

Stoops replaced John Blake at OU. Blake had been 3-8, 4-8, and 5-6 in his three years. Stoops went 13-0 and won the national title in his second year.

Verdict: immediate and substantial improvement.

Lou Holtz

Lou Holtz gives us data from four major programs.

At North Carolina State, Holtz took over a program that had won only three games in each of the prior three seasons. Holtz won 8 in his first year and 9 in each of the next two.

At Arkansas, Holtz went 11-0 in his first year after replacing a respected coach who was probably past his best days and had only won 60% of his games over the previous five seasons.

At ND, Holtz replaced Gerry Faust, who had won 53% of his games over the previous five seasons. Holtz went 12-0 with a national title in year three.

At South Carolina, Holtz took over for a coach who had gone 1-10 in his last season. Holtz went 0-11 in his first. But then 8-4 in his second. I’m not sure this was prime Lou Holtz, but still you saw dramatic improvement.

Verdict: immediate and substantial improvement.

Pete Carroll

We don’t need to spend a lot of time on this. He replaced a .500 coach. He had a .500 season and then went 11-2, 12-1, 13-0 in the next three (and finishing in the top four in each of the four after that).

Verdict: immediate and substantial improvement.

(John McKay and John Robinson were also excellent by year three. Of course, Robinson was maintaining, not building, and that’s not the same thing.)

Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly is not a great coach. But he is a solid one, and he’s the pattern that Lynn Swann pointed to for USC’s own rebuild. So he’s worth a look.

In Notre Dame’s last three years before Kelly, the Irish were 6-6, 7-6, and 3-9. Kelly’s teams show marginal improvement in the first two years (8-5 both years) and then Kelly has a 12-0 regular season in his third. (Before Alabama embarrassed them in the title game.)

(Notre Dame’s history shows a series of coaches who quickly turn the program around. Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian turned the Irish around very quickly with national titles in year three.)

Verdict: substantial improvement in short order.

Chris Petersen

Is Petersen an elite coach? I don’t know. He went 13-0 at Boise in his first year, but he was taking over an established program, which makes that feat less important here.

Then, taking over for everybody’s favorite party boy and unsuccessful litigant, Petersen won 12 games and was in the playoff in year three.

Verdict: real improvement by year three, but not as dramatic as most of the coaches above.

What about coaches who didn’t take over a blue-blood program? Let’s look at four that built programs from scratch:

Joe Paterno

Paterno took the job with Penn State coming off 6-4 and 5-5 campaigns. He went 5-5 in his first year, 8-2-1 in his second, and 11-0 in years three and four.

Verdict: substantial improvement in short order.

Bobby Bowden

Bowden is an interesting case. At West Virginia, the program should no real improvement after he took over (although it did drop significantly after he left).

At Florida State, however, you see the usual pattern. Florida State was 0-11, 1-10, and 3-8 in the years before Bowden arrived. Bowden went 5-6 in his first year. Then he went 10-2, 8-3, and 11-1 in the next three.

Verdict: at West Virginia, treaded water. At Florida State, substantial improvement in short order.

Howard Schnellenberger

When Schnellenberger arrived at Miami, the program was a dumpster fire. It had no history of success, and in the 10 years before he arrived, Miami had eight losing seasons.

Schnellenberger went 5-6 in his first season but then had back-to-back 9-win seasons after that, and won a national title in his fifth season. He then left and allowed Jimmy Johnson and others to continue the dominance.

Verdict: Significant improvement by year two.

Bill Snyder

Maybe the greatest college coach of all time. And, no, I’m not joking. No coach has ever taken over a bigger grease fire than Bill Snyder. For all the discussion here about how difficult Clay had it when he took over at USC, on this we should all agree: Bill Snyder had it worse. Much, much worse. Coaches who take over the Washington Generals inherit a better winning tradition than K State had. K State was on a 27-game losing streak, it had only four winning seasons in its last 52, and the program had won only 69 games in the 27 years before Bill Snyder arrived on campus. K State was the worst program in the country. Rice fans made fun of K State. K State made the Kardashians look talented. It was grim.

Snyder more than tripled the output of his predecessors, winning 215 games in his 27 seasons at K State with a .647 winning percentage. (For comparison purposes only, Clay Helton is at .650 at USC.)

How long did it take Snyder to make a difference? Year three, when he went 7-4, K State’s best record in 40 years.

Verdict: immediate and substantial improvement.

How about the counter examples to the analysis above?

Dabo Swinney

Dabo is generally seen as a lesson in the need for patience. Maybe, but I’m not sure. In the 15 years before Dabo arrived, Clemson averaged about 7.5 wins per season. In Dabo’s first full season, Clemson won 9. Then they fell back to 6 in year two. Then Dabo won 10, 11, and 11 before launching Clemson football in the stratosphere. By year three, then, Dabo was already hitting double-digit wins and from there was winning about three games more per season than the program’s historical baseline. (Then he really blew up….)

Verdict: substantial improvement in short order.

Frank Beamer

I’m not sure if Frank Beamer is an elite coach, but I think he’s the best argument for patience. Beamer’s teams were terrible for his first six seasons before he hit his stride. He fielded some very good teams and had an overall winning percentage of .663 (compared to his predecessor’s .622).

Digging in, though, there is more to the story with Beamer’s slow start. Beamer’s first season was 1987, and at the conclusion of that first season, Virginia Tech was put on probation with scholarship reductions because of misdeeds by his predecessor. It’s hard to know whether Beamer would have had success earlier without those sanctions.

Verdict: Beamer was a good coach, probably not a great one, and in his case, the school’s patience was rewarded.

Nick Saban

So this brings us to Nick Saban, the reason for this analysis in the first place. Saban gives us data from four programs, and in three of those cases, you see what you’d expect to see.

At Toledo, Saban followed a coach who had won 3, 6, and 6 games, and Saban went 9-2 in his first year. And left immediately.

At LSU, Saban inherited a program that had been 54-58 over the previous 10 years. He goes 48-17 in five years with a co-national title. He won 10 games in year two and 13 in year four. Again, immediate and drastic improvement.

At these stops, Saban was consistent with what you see from the other great coaches.

Which leaves us with the mystery of Michigan State, where Saban’s teams were mediocre for four years before winning 9 games in his fifth season, which allowed him to bolt to LSU. Why did Saban struggle at Michigan State? I don’t know. The program getting hit with sanctions at the beginning of his second year probably didn’t help much. That may explain all of it.

Why do I let him off the hook int his way? Because of what we know about Saban. He was already a football genius at Michigan State. Before taking over the Michigan State job, he had already established himself as an elite X’s and O’s guy on the defensive side of the ball. When Bill Belichick went to Cleveland, he hired Saban as his defensive coordinator. That should tell us something. And, as you might expect with those two coaches on the same staff, the defense there got better dramatically. Saban had already had success at Toledo. He had worked under a genius in Bill Belichick. And Saban himself was a brilliant football mind. His track record before and after MSU is probably enough to establish that his delay in getting Michigan State better probably was due to sanctions.

If sanctions don’t explain the delay, maybe he had not yet developed sufficient people skills to make it work, as it appears practically everybody at Michigan State hated him.

Verdict: immediate and substantial improvement three times; one outlier.

Some conclusions:

First, successful coaches are almost always successful fast. If your program is not on sound footing by year three, your coach is probably not going to be an elite coach. This is especially true at a blue-blood program, where the successful coaches almost always achieve the turnaround in year two or three.

“The new-coach trajectory of a brief adjustment period followed by team buy-in seems to be the best formula for success. It is close to a fact of life that college football coaches who win a national title do so in their first few years. Since 2000, every title but two has been won by a coach in his second, third or fourth year with his team — or by a coach who has already done so with the same team. The same can be said of the head coaches for most runners-up.”

Second, first seasons are irrelevant. Almost all of the legendary coaches above struggled in their first years. First year records simply don’t count.

In fact, they don’t count either way. A bad first season doesn’t tell us anything about future success. But successful first seasons don’t either. Many coaches have had early success only to fall apart. Larry Smith did at USC (for three years). Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis gave Irish fans early hope before collapsing. Mark Helfrich continued Chip Kelly’s success for two years (11-2 and 13-2 with a national title game loss) before the program died under his watch.

And let’s not forget the poster boy for this principle, Larry Coker, who took over a loaded Miami team and helped kill the program by year six.

(I apologize for using the term “loaded” to describe the Miami team that Larry Coker took over. Miami was loaded the way Cindy Crawford was “pretty” or the Rockefeller family was “well off.” It’s almost writing malpractice to use that adjective here, but I’m not sure the English language has a term to describe just how absurdly talented that Miami squad was. The fourth-best running back on that team, Najeh Davenport, played for seven years in the NFL. The third-best running back on that team went to the Pro Bowl multiple times. So did the third-best safety. In fact, that Miami squad had as many Pro Bowl players as the 2018 New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, and Kansas City Chiefs. Combined. Neil Callaway and I could have coached that squad to 9 or 10 wins.)


August 28, 2004

USC at Virginia Tech

This game was officially at a neutral site. But to those of us who attended, it was one of the better home-field advantages I’ve seen for a USC opponent. There was nothing easy about this one. Virginia Tech was a good football team, finishing 10-2 in the regular season, winning the ACC, and losing a very tight game to undefeated Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. And at this point in the season, USC’s offensive line, and the Trojans were trying to replace Mike Williams (unexpectedly) with green wideouts.

Two things stand out from this game: the versatility of Reggie Bush and the genius of Norm Chow. USC never did get much of a ground game going, finishing with only 101 yards rushing. But Norm used Reggie in the passing game beautifully, as Reggie finished with 127 yards receiving and three TD’s. It was a great example of how a top-notch offensive coordinator adjusts his game plan and play calling. USC had only 8 catches for 97 yards by the young wideouts and 9 for 163 by Reggie and the fullbacks.

Thanks, Norm.

Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.

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