Sunday, December 14, 2008

Think before you hire

With the coaching carousel spinning as fast as it ever has, something that's been bothering me is the continuous desire of upper-echelon college programs to bring in former NFL coaches.

Much has been made of the lack of success college coaches such as Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban had in the NFL, but I think it's equally relevant to note the struggles of those going the opposite direction, such as Charlie Weis and Bill Callahan.

Look at a list of the top college coaches in the country and you'll notice a theme. Bob Stoops. Jim Tressel. Pete Carroll. Nick Saban. Urban Meyer. Mack Brown. Les Miles. And so on ...

What do they have in common? Every coach on that list honed his skills on a college staff. Carroll spent a chunk of his career in the NFL before coming back to college and finding success, but I think it's safe to say that he represents the exception rather than the norm.

There have been various opinions thrown out as to why Weis and Callahan weren't able to make the transition from pro to college head coach, but the answer (to me, anyway) seems simple: They simply didn't have the experience with the most basic tasks required of a college football coach.

Weis had never worked a day on a college staff when he was hired by Notre Dame, and Callahan's only experience was very early on in his career, when he worked as an offensive line coach for a few years before moving on to the NFL.

What made the two of them successful in the NFL was their ability to develop offensive schemes -- X's and O's, basically. But in college, game-planning simply can't be your primary focus. I think that the problem Weis and Callahan ran into was that once they were put in a situation that required them to find and develop talent for their systems -- not just refine it -- they weren't sure how to get those kids from Point A to Point B, because their careers had been spent taking men from Point M to Point Z.

That's not to say that a coach groomed in the NFL can't be successful, of course. But if the person you're bringing in doesn't have the experience or understanding to build a program from scratch and build players from scratch, it's just not going to be a successful tenure.

While I hate to single out a school still basking in the glory of a recent hiring, I think that you're going to see this situation rear its head at Syracuse in the near future. The Orange went the NFL route, of course, and recently announced the hiring of former Syracuse player and current Saints offensive coordinator Doug Marrone to replace the recently fired Greg Robinson.

Marrone does have some college background, primarily as an offensive line coach at various schools, but I'm concerned about any hire that meets the following two conditions:

1) The guy has never been a head coach
2) The guy spent the last several years in the NFL

I have a hard time looking at Marrone and seeing how he's going to turn a horrid Syracuse program back into a winner when he has no recent experience recruiting and no experience whatsoever running an entire team.

If I'm the Syracuse AD and I'm looking for someone to essentially rebuild my program, I'm targeting someone who's demonstrated the ability to do just that -- someone like Brian Kelly at Cincinnati (although Syracuse would be a lateral move at this point), Turner Gill at Buffalo or another program "architect."

Syracuse supposedly had interest in Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly early on in the search process, but that was quickly taken care of when Kelly signed a coach-in-waiting deal with the Ducks. They also apparently took a shot at East Carolina's Lou Holtz, but that was ultimately unsuccessful. The odd thing is that the coaching search seemed to be on the right track, but once the AD struck out on Kelly and Holtz, he moved on to someone who fit none of the criteria he appeared to be using at the start.

I hope for Syracuse's sake that Marrone bucks the trend and brings the Orange back to relevancy, but based on the results of guys like Weis and Callahan -- who had more impressive track records and stepped into much better coaching situations than Marrone -- it's hard to expect that from him.

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