Regrading the 2017-18 college football coaching carousel from Jimbo Fisher and Scott Frost to Dan Mullen

Regrading the 2017-18 college football coaching carousel from Jimbo Fisher and Scott Frost to Dan Mullen

One of the indisputable facts about sports is that we all want answers as soon as possible. When a team hires a coach or drafts a player, we need to know immediately if it was the correct decision. Nobody wants to wait the time required to get an honest answer; they just want an answer, and any will suffice.

Because of this, grading college football coaching hires is more of an art than a science. For instance, if I were to put on a blindfold and throw a dart at a dartboard, there would undoubtedly be science involved (velocity of the dart, launch angle, etc.), but the results of the throw shouldn’t be taken as an accurate assessment of my ability to hit the target. It’s more of an artistic statement about the futile nature of grading a hire immediately.

When we do it five years later, however, there’s far more science involved. The blindfold has been removed, and we have results on which to base our grades — grades that, well, I don’t want to spoil the outcomes too badly, but let’s just say there’s a reason I’m saying my grades for the 2017-18 college football coaching cycle were more art than science. Let’s just say they were hit and miss!

There were 20 coaches hired by FBS programs during that cycle. Of the 20, eight remain at their current job, four have moved on to new jobs and eight were fired. How many coaches who stayed or moved on to better jobs got “A” grades? More than the fired coaches did, but how many have lived up to those assessments? Let’s find out.

Coaches still in place

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

Record: 34-14 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (4), AP poll top-five finish (2020)

How’s it going? If you were to poll Texas A&M fans about Jimbo Fisher, the approval rating would be pretty high, but not as high as hoped. Fisher and the Aggies were close to a College Football Playoff berth in 2020 but have lost at least four games in every other season since he arrived in College Station. Still, the program is recruiting at an elite level, and now it just needs those recruiting wins to translate to more wins on the field. Another four-loss season could be bad for both parties. Grade: B+ | Original grade: A

Scott Frost, Nebraska

Record: 15-29 | Accomplishments: Greatest three-win team in college football history (2021)

How’s it going? Not well! Not only has Frost failed to live up to the expectations placed upon him when he was brought home from UCF, but he hasn’t come close. The Huskers haven’t reached a bowl game under Frost, and he enters the 2022 season on one of the hottest seats in the country. He’s following the Jim Harbaugh plan of taking a pay cut to buy himself another year, but while he doesn’t necessarily need the playoff berth Harbaugh earned with Michigan last season, if Nebraska fails to earn a bowl game bid again, not even a pay cut will save him in 2023. Grade: D | Original grade: A

Chip Kelly, UCLA

Record: 18-25 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (1)

How’s it going? It’s been a mixed bag for Kelly at UCLA. The first two seasons went poorly, as the Bruins finished 7-17 and never higher than third in the Pac-12 South. It was followed by a 3-4 record in 2020, but nothing that happened in the Pac-12 during the 2020 season should be held against anybody. Last season was the best yet for Kelly and the Bruins, as they improved to 8-4 overall and 6-3 in conference. Still, that’s not quite what UCLA was hoping for when it convinced Kelly to join them instead of Florida in 2018, and he’s not entering 2022 on the firmest of ground. Grade: C | Original grade: A+

Herm Edwards, Arizona State

Record: 25-18 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (3)

How’s it going? This one is complicated because you have to weigh the on-field results against what’s happening off the field. Then you have to compare the results with the expectations. I graded the Edwards hire an “F” at the time, so mine were clearly low. Edwards has surpassed them by far, but even so, he’s never won more than eight games in a season. In other words, his results haven’t been all that different than the coach he was hired to replace (Todd Graham). Edwards enters the 2022 season having to deal with NCAA difficulties and his players flocking to the transfer portal in droves, as there’s a lot of uncertainty around his future at the school. Grade: C- | Original grade: F

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

Record: 16-28 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (1)

How’s it going? While the overall record won’t wow you, Smith returned to his alma mater and inherited a program that isn’t known for being overly successful. After going 2-10 his first season, the program has improved in each season since (again, not counting 2020 because nothing in the Pac-12 in 2020 was sensible). The Beavers are coming off their first bowl appearance since 2013. There’s plenty of work to be done, but it’s hard to argue this isn’t going as well as could reasonably be expected. Grade: B+ | Original grade: C

Sean Lewis, Kent State

Record: 19-24 | Accomplishments: Division titles (1), bowl games (2)

How’s it going? Sean Lewis came to Kent State from Syracuse with plenty of experience in the MAC, having spent two seasons on Dino Babers’ staff at Bowling Green. The former Wisconsin tight end took over a program that had only one winning season (2012) since 2002, and after going 2-10 his first season, he’s gone 17-14 since. He’s led the program to two bowl games — giving it four in its history — and won the only bowl game in program history in 2019. Lewis is already third in program history in wins (19), and if he sticks around another couple of seasons, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be the winningest coach in program history. Can Kent State keep him around long enough to get there? Grade: A+ | Original grade: C+

Dana Dimel, UTEP

Record: 12-33 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (1)

How’s it going? Context is important here. A 12-33 record in four seasons would be disastrous in most places, but few FBS jobs are more difficult than UTEP. After going 2-22 in his first two seasons, Dimel’s Miners have gone 10-11 since 2020 and are coming off their first winning season and bowl appearance since 2014. If the Miners get back to a bowl game in 2023, it’ll be the first time they’ve done so in consecutive seasons since 2004-05. Grade: B | Original grade: C

Mike Bloomgren, Rice

Record: 11-31 | Accomplishments: Beat a ranked Marshall in 2020

How’s it going? Not as well as initially hoped. I was a big fan of the Bloomgren hire because I thought his experience at Stanford would come in handy running a football program at a school like Rice. Unfortunately, while there have been steady improvements each season, last year’s 4-8 record is still the best of Bloomgren’s four seasons. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been the case had the 2020 season not been played during a pandemic, but you have to wonder how patient Rice will continue to be. Grade: C- | Original grade: A-

Coaches who were hired away

Mario Cristobal, Oregon

Record: 35-13 | Accomplishments: Pac-12 championships (2), Pac-12 North championships (3), bowl games (4), 2019 Pac-12 Coach of the Year

How’s it going? When Cristobal replaced Willie Taggart after a season as offensive coordinator, I wrote, “it’s a hire that makes sense” but that “it still isn’t one that’s very exciting.” Well, once Oregon fans saw the recruits Cristobal began bringing to Eugene, it got a lot more exciting. Cristobal brought an SEC-like recruiting mentality to the Pac-12 that set the program in a direction to separate itself from its rivals. The results indicate that it was pretty effective! In fact, it might’ve been too effective because following a third straight Pac-12 North title, Cristobal’s alma mater came calling and asked him to return home and do the same for them. Now he’ll be bringing the same approach to Miami. Grade: A | Original grade: C+

Billy Napier, Louisiana

Record: 40-12 | Accomplishments: Sun Belt titles (2), Sun Belt West titles (4), bowl games (4), 2019 & 2021 Sun Belt Coach of the Year

How’s it going? The Napier hire made plenty of sense at the time, and it went better than Cajuns fans could’ve hoped. Napier had spent time under Nick Saban at Alabama and Dabo Swinney at Clemson. He was working as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator at the time of the hire, and the only reason I gave the hire a “B” was that he didn’t have head-coaching experience yet. He has plenty of it now, as Napier’s Louisiana program was the best in the Sun Belt during his tenure as it climbed the ranks in the Group of Five. It was enough to grab the attention of Florida, which lured him away this offseason in the hopes he can do the same thing for a Gators program stuck in neutral. Grade: A+ | Original grade: B

Sonny Dykes, SMU

Record: 30-18 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (4)

How’s it going? While Dykes had some success in his four seasons at Cal, returning to Texas always made sense, given his history and family name. While his four seasons at SMU didn’t include any division or conference titles, his .625 winning percentage in four years is the fourth-highest of any SMU coach to last at least 20 games. The highlight was SMU’s 10-win season in 2019, its first 10-win season since 1984 when the program was handing out gold Trans-Ams, but odds are Dykes won’t be remembered fondly by most SMU fans. That’s what happens when you leave for a rival like Dykes has done by going to TCU. Grade: B | Original grade: C

Josh Heupel, UCF

Record: 28-8 | Accomplishments: Conference title (1), bowl games (3), 2018 FWAA First-Year Coach of the Year

How’s it going? Heupel started in the unenviable position of replacing Scott Frost at UCF, but he did pretty well, all things considered. Any UCF fan who believed the program would be able to keep rolling off undefeated seasons and major bowl berths was asking too much, but gripes about the team regressing each season are justified. After going 12-1 and winning the American in Heupel’s first season, the Knights went 10-3 in 2019 and were 6-4 in 2020 before Heupel left to join his former athletic director Danny White at Tennessee. Grade: B | Original grade: C-

Coaches who were fired or resigned

Dan Mullen, Florida

Record: 34-15 | Accomplishments: SEC East titles (1), New Year’s Six bowl games (3), bowl games (4)

How’s it going? It depends on who you ask. The Mullen hire made plenty of sense. He was the school’s offensive coordinator when it won national titles under Urban Meyer. He was ultra-successful at Mississippi State, a program that’s proven to be one of the toughest places to win in the SEC. The problem is that what Mullen was able to do at Mississippi State to win games wasn’t enough to win as many games as Florida desired. After going 21-5 in his first two seasons, the Gators slipped to 13-10 the next two, and Mullen didn’t show much desire to recruit at the level of rival Georgia. That was the final straw, and he was fired before the end of the 2021 season. While it’s seen as a disappointing tenure, Mullen’s winning percentage of .694 at Florida is still the fifth-highest in program history and was a significant improvement over Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp. Grade: B- | Original grade: A

Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee

Record: 16-19 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2 … kinda)

How’s it going? Considering the carnival atmosphere of the coaching search that found him, Tennessee hiring Jeremy Pruitt seemed like a win at the time. He had been the defensive coordinator at Alabama and was an adept recruiter. Unfortunately, whether it’s on Pruitt or others, a hiring made amid a circus seemed doomed from the start. After going 5-7 in 2018, the Vols began 2019 with home losses to BYU and Georgia State. While they recovered to finish 8-5 and get to a bowl game, it always felt like some in Knoxville were determined to get Pruitt out of town. They succeeded after the 2020 season when they learned of recruiting violations the school discovered on its own. Grade: F | Original grade: B

Willie Taggart, Florida State

Record: 9-12 | Accomplishments: Beat a ranked Boston College

How’s it going? This went poorly in a hurry, which came as a major surprise to me because I gave the hire an “A” thinking it made plenty of sense. After a rough end to Jimbo Fisher’s tenure, Florida State needed a coach to get the program back on track, and Taggart seemed the logical choice. He’d pulled off rebuilds at Western Kentucky and South Florida, was a Florida native and recruited the state well. None of that mattered as much as I thought. The Seminoles went 5-7 in Taggart’s first season with losses to all of its most direct competitors and rivals. They missed a bowl game for the first time since 1981, and Taggart was fired nine games into his second season when the team looked in danger of missing another. Taggart is now at Florida Atlantic. Grade: F | Original grade: A

Chad Morris, Arkansas

Record: 4-18 | Accomplishments: None that are nice

How’s it going? Like Willie Taggart, Chad Morris was fired during his second season on the job, spawning many columns wondering if schools weren’t giving coaches enough time. Considering Morris’ Hogs teams were 4-18 overall and 0-14 in the SEC, most Arkansas fans would counter he was allowed too much. While Morris must take his share of the blame, I don’t put the entirety of the blame on him. Arkansas had gone from a spread coach in Bobby Petrino to a classic pro-style coach in Bret Bielema and then back to a spread coach in Morris. Basically, as soon as Bielema had overturned the roster to fit his style, he was shown the door and Morris had to overturn the roster again. He never had the chance to do so. Morris spent a season at Auburn before returning to his roots and taking over Texas high school powerhouse Allen High School. Grade: F | Original grade: B+

Matt Luke, Ole Miss

Record: 15-21 | Accomplishments: Won the 2017 Egg Bowl

How’s it going? It’s a hire that felt doomed from the start. Luke was named the program’s interim coach for the 2017 season after Hugh Freeze was forced to resign after using a school-issued phone to call an escort service a little over a month before the season started. The Rebels were also dealing with the possibility of NCAA sanctions, so when they beat Mississippi State to end the season at 6-6 (they self-imposed a bowl ban), Luke had the interim tag removed. Still, it always felt like a stopgap until a sexier option came along, and after Luke went 9-15 and 3-13 in the SEC the next two years, that sexier option was Lane Kiffin. Luke won a national title as Georgia’s assistant head coach and offensive line coach in 2021. Grade: C- | Original grade: C

Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State

Record: 14-12 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2), 2-0 in the Egg Bowl

How’s it going? This was a hire I loved but failed to look at the whole picture. Purely as a football coach, Moorhead made plenty of sense. He’s an innovative offensive mind hired to replace somebody who had an incredible run of success at Mississippi State, thanks to his offensive acumen. The problem was I overlooked the fit too easily, and it can be argued both Moorhead and Mississippi State did the same. Moorhead had never coached football south of the Mason-Dixon line, and it felt like a fish-out-of-water situation from the start. While the results weren’t awful — the Bulldogs went to bowl games in both seasons and beat Ole Miss twice — a third season didn’t seem desirable to either party. Moorhead went to Oregon to be Mario Cristobal’s offensive coordinator for two seasons and is now set to begin his first season as Akron’s coach in 2022. Grade: C+ | Original grade: A

Steve Campbell, South Alabama

Record: 9-26 | Accomplishments: None

How’s it going? South Alabama was hoping Steve Campbell would be able to use the experience that saw him win a D-II national title at Delta State, a JUCO title at Mississippi Gulf Coast and a conference title at Central Arkansas to help jump start a South Alabama program that hadn’t been able to do much but tread water since moving to the FBS level in 2012. He didn’t. An upset win over Arkansas State to end 2019 provided hope going into 2020, but the Jaguars went 4-7 and Campbell was let go following a 29-0 home loss to Troy to finish the season. Grade: D | Original grade: B

Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern

Record: 28-21 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (3)

How’s it going? Things started well for Lunsford in Statesboro. He replaced the unpopular Tyson Summers during the 2017 season and brought back the option offense before having the interim tag removed following the season. The Eagles went 10-3 in Lunsford’s first full season, ending the year with a Camellia Bowl win, but took a step back the following two seasons. The Eagles started 2021 with a five-point win over Gardner-Webb before a 32-point loss to FAU, a 35-point loss to Arkansas and an eight-point loss to Louisiana. The Louisiana loss was the last one for Lunsford, as he was fired and replaced by Kevin Whitley. The Eagles finished the season 3-9 and Lunsford is now an assistant on Willie Taggart’s staff at FAU. Grade: C+ | Original grade: C+


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