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TGS SPECIAL REPORT ...FIRST-YEAR COACHES TO WATCH!

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

One of our recurring features in TGS Football is a look at College Football’s “Coaches on the Hot Seat,” which we plan to highlight in an upcoming issue. Throughout the years we have often found this a useful exercise for a variety of reasons, mainly as it often helps identify trouble spots before the situations can deteriorate

Though, on other occasions, teams have rallied around their under-fire coaches and unfurled extended positive streaks to help save their boss. In truth, however, almost every coach not named Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney enters the new season on a potential hot seat, as all it takes in many venues is one “down” year to get the war drums beating. Closer to midseason, however, the “hot seat list” develops a bit more definition, and we’ll jump in as the new campaign is allowed to ferment a bit more.

At the same time, we have often looked at first-year coaches and tried to project any positive (or negative) impacts that might accompany their new assignment. We have found through the years that waiting a couple of weeks to see how the new season is evolving might offer a better chance to evaluate specific spots to watch with the new coaches, as given the many changes that often accompany those coaching switches, such projections tend to be harder to quantify before a new season begins.

Indeed, we have seen countless examples of new coaches turning around bad situations as soon almost as soon as they arrive...and within a couple of weeks the upgrade can be apparent. It’s not always reflected in bowl trips or a move into the national rankings; after all, many of the first-year coaches are inheriting difficult situations that require a full rebuild. And, trust us, many of these hires have failed across the decades. Throughout the years, however, we have also witnessed some real, and sometimes dramatic, turnarounds directly related to the new coach.

And quality coaches can indeed make an immediate positive impact. One of those was Lou Holtz taking over at Minnesota in 1984, in what seemed a very curious move away from Arkansas, where Holtz had often flourished since his hire in 1977 (which we’ll get to in a moment). Whether Holtz was fired or resigned under pressure after chafing with AD Frank Broyles (also his predecessor as coach) remains a bit of a mystery; officially, it was announced the Holtz had resigned on December 19, 1983 because, as Broyles put it, Holtz was “tired and burned out.” Though some sources, including those as quoted in the Dallas Times Herald, said Broyles had instead fired Holtz by telephone the day before (December 18), having grown tired of Lou’s repeated threats to resign. The storyline had plenty of other palace intrigue, including some surprise dismissals by Holtz of assistants prior to his departure, and a commercial that Holtz had taped in support of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, whom Holtz knew from his days at NC State, and accompanying political controversies (note this sort of sports/political hot potato was already happening in the 80s, long before today!).

Holtz, however, was not burned out, as he shortly thereafter inked a deal with the Golden Gophers, sidestepping questions about what happened at Fayetteville, and the reported clashes with Broyles. “One answer leads to another question and pretty soon you’re into some things that are better off unsaid,” Holtz said when asked to comment upon his exit from the Razorbacks. “Forget about Lou Holtz ever being at Arkansas. That’s in the past. Here I am (at Minnesota).”

What Holtz inherited in Minneapolis was one of the worst Big Ten teams of the TGS era...including the many wretched Northwestern entries of the same generation. Under HC Joe Salem, things unraveled quickly for the 1983 Golden Gophers after their narrow 21-17 win in the opener vs. a poor Rice side. But it was the following carnage that numbed; ten straight losses, including a legendary 84-13 annihilation by Tom Osborne’s Nebraska when the Huskers held the ball for only 21 minutes, forever challenging the importance of time-of-possession stats. There was also a 69-18 loss to Ohio State, plus further humiliations vs. Michigan and Iowa by a combined 119-20. Dave McClain’s Wisconsin also rolled, 56-17, and even Dennis Green's lowly Northwestern of the era beat the Gophers by a 19-8 count. In the 10-game skid that lasted until the end of the season, the only cover came when +8 against Sam Wyche’s very subpar Indiana in a 38-31 loss. Salem was predictably pink-slipped at the conclusion of the campaign, and Holtz inherited what could charitably be described as a hot mess.

Almost immediately in the subsequent 1984, however, Holtz had the Gophers at least back to respectability. The Holtz Gophers beat the same Rice in the opener as they did in ‘83, but many cringed at the following game on the schedule: the return match vs. Nebraska, this time in Lincoln. Which seemed a frightening prospect; many onlookers, recalling the slaughter of the previous year in the Metrodome, could only say a prayer for Minnesota, reckoning the 39-point spread wasn’t high enough. The previous five series meetings (including 84-13) had seen the Huskers win by an aggregate 270-27.

While never threatening to win, the Holtz Gophers were hardly embarrassed, either, even holding the mighty Huskers, who entered that afternoon as the top-ranked team in the nation, to a scoreless tie after the first quarter. Eventually, Nebraska would wear down Minnesota, but the Gophers would score on a 63-yard pass from QB Ricky Foggie to RB Valdez Baylor, and when looking up at the scoreboard when the clock expired, it was not at all like the 84-13 the previous season. Sure, it was 38-7 Nebraska, but it was an easy Gophers cover. Thanks to Holtz, it wasn’t the same Minnesota as 1983, and the result hardly dulled Lou’s sense of humor.

When asked if he wanted to build a program at Minnesota as good as Nebraska’s, Holtz wisecracked in his familiar manner. “Heck, no,” said Lou. “I want to build a better one.”

By midseason, Holtz, with wins over Indiana and a major upset at Wisconsin, had steered the Gophers to a 3-3 SU mark and 5-1 against the spread, and talk of a possible bowl trip within a pleasantly surprised fan base. Injuries and attrition started to wear at Minnesota during the second half of the campaign, but the Gophers still played Northwestern and Michigan State close down the stretch, failed to cover at Michigan by only one point, and closed the season with a rousing 23-17 upset in the Floyd of Rosedale battle vs. Hayden Fry's powerful Iowa, a 19-point favorite that had laid a 61-10 beating on the Joe Salem Gophers the year before. And, by the next season in 1985, Holtz had Minnesota into a bowl game before leaving for Notre Dame.

The bottom line is that a quality coach can make a difference in as little as one season; once the old regime is ousted after an especially miserable run, it's best to put memories of those performances in the rear-view mirror. In retrospect, Minnesota's immediate upgrade for Holtz was not a big surprise, especially as the preceding ‘83 disaster was an aberration; few teams have ever performed worse in the Big Ten. Especailly as Holtz had immediately forged another turnaround (albeit in a better situation) at Arkansas in the aforementioned 1977, recording an 11-1 mark with a stunner over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, which had already marked Lou as turnaround specialist.

(Ed. note: We must mention that Holtz is the perfect centerpiece for this story, and are obligated to note a few of the other chapters he authored, first establishing his quick-fix credentials at NC State. Where, after propping up WiIliam & Mary, he took over a Wolfpack side that finished 3-8 in 1971, and immediately prompted a dramatic upgrade to 8-3-1 and a Peach Bowl romp in '72 past West Virginia, the first of four straight NCS bowl trips for Lou, who was unfortunately a fish out of water in his next adventure and lone NFL season with the Jets in '76. After working his aforementioned magic at Arkansas in 1977, Holtz would later turn around Notre Dame after the Gerry Faust fiasco, with the Irish back up to speed by his second year, the same timeframe it later took Holtz at South Carolina, where after an early struggle in 1999 had the Gamecocks into a bowl and beating Ohio State in his second season of 2000). 

Top-tier coaches had been doing the same in new jobs for years preceding the Holtz revival of the Gophers, too. Longtime UCLA fans will recall the immediate upgrade the Bruins made in 1965 under Tommy Prothro, hired away from Oregon State, where he had just taken the Beavers to the Rose Bowl. Inheriting perhaps the softest defense in the country (and one that had allowed the most points in the land the preceding 1964) from predecessor Bill Barnes, many scribes of the day believed Prothro would face gale-force headwinds at his new assignment in Westwood, where he had served as an assistant for legendary Red Sanders a decade earlier. “Tommy Prothro did not come to UCLA to lose,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “but he’ll learn.”

In a call we had a few years ago with Terry Donahue (who passed away on July 4 of this year), an undersized defensive lineman and the quintessential “gutty little Bruin” of the mid 60s and eventually the head coach at his alma mater from 1976-95, he related what “Camp Prothro” was like in 1965. “Coach broke down our fundamentals completely,” said Donahue, “and told us he was going to make us even worse than we were before...but promised we would get better, if we stuck to the plan. He spent spring and most of the early fall practices simply teaching us new footwork. He completely rebuilt our fundamental base before even worrying about game films or opponents.”

Unlike Prothro’s first year at Oregon State, when, according the coach, almost half of his team quit during the season, hardly anyone apparently minded in Westwood. Only one boy left the team; at UCLA, desperate for a winner, the attitude was make us as you please...just make us good.

And good the ‘65 Bruins were, shockingly so, dealing with a schedule so brutal that eight of the ten teams on the slate would be ranked during the course of the season (!), with an astounding five games against teams in the final top ten! After an honorable loss in the opener at Michigan State against a Spartan team that was better than anyone expected, and soon moved to the top of the polls, the upgrade became noticeable.  Prothro's troops hinted at an upgrade in the second game when, as 10-point underdogs,  they upset Rip Engle's Penn State on the road.  But eyes really began to open after the next game against punishing Syracuse on the night of October 9 at the L.A. Coliseum, after the Dodgers had beaten the Twins in Game 3 of the World Series just up the Harbor Freeway earlier that day (and forced NBC to alter its plan of televising the Bruins and Orangemen, originally scheduled for the same afternoon, to a national audience; NBC instead offered a regional TV date to the Bruins for a November game at Stanford). The 5-point favorite Cuse, featuring HB Floyd Little and a soph FB named Larry Csonka (not a bad backfield pair, eh?), had manhandled UCLA the previous three seasons, and in fact had held the Bruins to minus rush yardage in all four meetings since Ben Schwartzwalder’s 1959 national champs won 36-8 at the Coliseum. But on this autumn night in L.A., the Prothro Bruins cruised to a 24-14 win, ahead 14-0 after their first two offensive plays (a 27-yard TD run by soph QB Gary Beban, hinting at greater things to come, and on the next possession a 79-yard TD strike from Beban to end Kurt Altenberg on the first play) and in control throughout.

By the end of that magical ‘65 season, the Bruins recorded other upsets vs. both USC in an AAWU showdown, and Michigan State in the Rose Bowl rematch, and finished number four in the final AP poll. Safe to say none of that would have happened had Bill Barnes stayed as coach; it was a Prothro production all of the way.

So, each autumn we try to look for the next Lou Holtz Minnesota 1984, or Tommy Prothro UCLA 1965. Last year, we saw a few such breakthroughs (Greg Schiano, back for a second tour of duty at Rutgers, and Sam Pittman proving an immediate upgrade at Arkansas, two that immediately come to mind.) We also think there might be a handful of potential candidates, listed below, to watch this season.


KANSAS (Les Miles out, Lance Leipold in)... This was a late move by the Jayhawks, who pushed out Miles in early March after revelations surfaced of past transgressions. Which suited many KU backers, who in the first place had openly questioned the Miles hire two years earlier, and probably felt vindicated when both the coach and AD Jeff Long were forced out. Miles had recorded an 0-10 mark in the Covid season of 2020 amid observations from many Big 12 onlookers that “The Hat” was intent on buying an extra year of support from administrators by effectively “tanking” the campaign, with a newcomer class solely consisting of incoming freshmen. Which sounded good to the uninitiated, but serious observers were not convinced, as Miles could have looked for more immediate help from the juco and transfer ranks to at least make the product more competitive as the rebuild continued. (Ed. note basketball: Lute Olson inherited a similar bad situation at Arizona upon his hire in 1983, and decided that adding some jucos to get the program competitive while he set about building a longer-term base, rather than going full frosh right off the bat, was a proper way to proceed, and Olson indeed got the Wildcats to the Big Dance in his second season). But Miles never had the talent he had won with before at Oklahoma State and LSU (from where he was fired in 2016) and was hardly trying in Lawrence. Enter Leipold, who has won big in previous career stops, Geno Auriemma-like at Wisconsin-Whitewater where he went 109-6 and won six D-III title in eight years, and resurrecting Buffalo, 24-10 the past three seasons and bowl wins in each. Already Leipold has broken the long losing streak with a win in the opener over South Dakota, and was making a fist of it vs. ranked Coastal Carolina well into the second half before finally succumbing 49-22, pushing the spread decision in the process. Last week's heavy loss to Baylor continued a decade-long series trend, but there are some green shoots on the landscape, such as just one giveaway in three weeks, suggesting some spread covers (of which Leipold still seeks in his job) are to come.   KU is at least coming closer to passing the eye-test thus far, mostly playing with spark not seen from the Miles team last year, and we suspect the Jayhawks will wind up providing decent value this season, even if a return to bowl action is probably still at least a year or two down the road.

SOUTH ALABAMA (Steve Campbell out, Kane Wommack in)... After failing to gain any traction the past three years with Campbell, including a late-season fade a year ago when the Jags looked like they might have a chance at a bowl before getting routed in four of their last five games, they’ve made a change in Mobile by enlisting young (33) up-and-comer Kane Wommack, most recently the defensive coordinator at Indiana, where he forged some nationally-ranked stop units with his Hoosiers, usually not found among the leaders in those sorts of categories. Though we are always a bit reluctant to jump on an early bandwagon with a first-time coach, Wommack already looks like he knows what he is doing, with the Jags off to an encouraging 3-0 start that included a thumping 31-7 win over Southern Miss and its new coach, Will Hall. Transfer QB Jake Bentley, previously at South Carolina and Utah, looks like a good early “get” for Wommack who has immediately plugged in a veteran QB while the rest of the roster gets refreshed. Early days to be sure, but an impressive beginning for Wommack in Mobile.

SOUTH CAROLINA (Will Muschamp/Mike Bobo out, Shane Beamer in)... Here’s another one of those situations where we are naturally wary about a first-time coach...even with a Hall of Fame coach as a dad. We’re talking about Shane Beamer, whose legendary dad Frank led Virginia Tech for 28 seasons, and had some folks in Blacksburg wanting the family thing to continue (though the anger at current HC Justin Fuente subsided a bit after wins the first two for the Hokies). The upbeat younger Beamer, however, has already impressed SEC sources as sort of an “anti-Will Muschamp," whose buttoned-down, corporate approach did not seem to play well in Columbia (or, for that matter, at previous stop Florida) before walking the plank late last season, and o.c. Mike Bobo working on an interim basis the rest of the way.. Beamer has already proven adept, adjusting to injuries thru two games and turning the QB job to Zeb Noland, who was on the staff as a graduate assistant coach but still had another year of eligibility to use after previous stops at Iowa State and North Dakota State, and became an early lifeline for Beamer, adjusting on the fly after an early injury to projected starter Luke Doty, who returned to active duty last Saturday at Georgia. Expectations are not high for the Gamecocks, but wins in their first two out of the gate have the win-starved fan base excited, and bettors have been rewarded with three spread Ws out of the chute after the Doty-engineered late score at Athens squeezed inside of a big number vs. Kirby Smart's second-ranked Bulldogs.  Just having a coach who gets his team to play with some spark after watching the too-many placid efforts of the Muschamp era is welcome news for Carolina’s support base.

UTAH STATE (Gary Andersen/Frank Maile out; Blake Anderson in)... The Utags’ descent into the abyss last season stunned as the program had gone “bowling” in the previous four and nine of ten seasons prior to 2020. The first of two those were with Gary Andersen before he left for Wisconsin in 2013, then continued for most of the next six years with Matt Wells before he moved to Texas Tech. The Utags then went the “Back to the Future” route with Andersen in 2019, but a late-season fade suggested something was amiss with Andersen, who subsequent to his previous departure from the Cache Valley had walked away from the Oregon State job midway in 2018, after a surprise abandonment of Wisconsin for Corvallis following the 2015 campaign. That was all a prequel to 2020, when an ugly 0-3 start in which Andersen seemed to completely lose interest, preceded his dismissal, with asst. Frank Maile taking over for the remainder of a depressing 1-5 mini-campaign. (Bizarrely, Andersen refused a buyout for the second time in his career after similarly requesting nothing from OSU, even though contractually entitled to settlements). With Andersen basically taking an on-the-job sabbatical early last season, the Utags played with no leadership or direction, which has seemed to change this fall with the hire of Blake Anderson, who had Arkansas State battling at or near the top of the Sun Belt for the previous six years. Anderson (with an “o”) made sure to bring QB Logan Bonner with him from Jonesboro, and was rewarded when the ex-Red Wolves pilot passed the Utags to wins in the first two games, coming back on both Pac-12 Washington State, and North Dakota. Then, perhaps the most impressive effort yet, a wild fightback win vs. Air Force at Falcon Stadium even when Bonner was KO'd and backup Andrew Peasley was called upon to complete the rally.  Meanwhile, WR Deven Thompkins leads the nation in receiving yards (454...55 more than anyone else!) The difference between Gary Andersen’s listless 2020 Utags and Blake Anderson’s feisty 2021 version seems to simply come down to the coach actually trying to win, as USU looks a good bet to return to bowl action.

There are a few others to which we are paying particular attention, including Tennessee (Josh Heupel in, Jeremy Pruitt out) and UL-Monroe (Terry Bowden in, Matt Viator out), both inheriting programs badly damaged by the preceding regimes. As soon as they or any other first-year mentors begin to make a serious impact, we’ll let you know during the course of the season.

As always, we’ll be watching!  


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