“I really think we did it right this time” — Tillman Feritta, Chairman, University of Houston, after announcing Ohio State assistant coach Tom Herman as UH’s head football coach.
That’s what they all say. We did it right.
A school desperate for a turnaround of its football program hires the shiny assistant coach, who has just helped another school win a national championship. The assistant rides in for rescue, usually carrying the same blueprint his head coach, just used for winning a national championship.
But did the school really do it right hiring him? Does the blueprint translate to the new school?
Pat Dye, an assistant coach for Alabama’s 1973 UPI national champions, wasn’t sure himself. He abruptly stopped his interview at East Carolina in January, 1974, and declared to the ECU search committee, “I don’t have any idea if I can be a head coach, or not. We’ll find out.”
Four decades later, Dye said, “I was telling the truth. I didn’t know. I was an assistant coach for nine years.”
So while Georgia fans want Kirby Smart to light the way, just as Ole Miss fans wanted David Cutcliffe (Tennessee) to immediately light the way, South Carolina fans wanted Brad Scott (Florida State) to light the way, Ole Miss fans wanted Ed Orgeron (Southern Cal) to light the way, and Florida fans wanted Will Muschamp (LSU) to light the way, the assistant coach’s lantern can flicker out. The way can remain dark.
This is a college football tradition, of course. The assistant coach is trading in his capital on a promise. It’s been going on for years.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it is a failure.
It looks like a gem of a hire and then….
In 1961, Alabama won the first of its six national championships under coach Bear Bryant. It was an 11-0 team and Bryant had credibility, thus anyone who worked for Bryant had credibility. Kentucky saw the Bama success and hired a Bryant assistant coach, Charlie Bradshaw, to be the head coach.
UK wanted what Bama had: a tough culture, and then wins.
By many accounts, that first season under Bradshaw at Kentucky in 1962, was ugly.
Bradshaw, no longer the dutiful assistant, but the man in charge, ripped a page from Bryant’s culture-training playbook of the Junction Boys, the epic10-day stint in the heat by Texas A&M players in 1954. Bradshaw was just as merciless on the UK players as Bryant was on the A&M’s players, except, Bradshaw’s culture-shock coaching — to remake the players into Gladiators — lasted longer than the 10 days Bryant tyrannized his players.
Kentucky started with 88 players and finished the first season under Bradshaw with 30. Bradshaw worked his players without restraint, and then worked then some more.
The Wildcats were 3-5-2. The 30 remaining players were nicknamed “The Thin Thirty.” You find quotes about how brutal the training was, but you can find a quote here and there from a player who said the experience steeled him for life.
Kentucky got better in Bradshaw’s first three years with assistant coaches Leeman Bennett and Chuck Knox, who would later become NFL head coaches. The Wildcats defeated No. 1 Ole Miss in 1964 and rose to No. 5 nationally, but a lack of depth and key injuries ruined seasons in 1964 and 1965.
“Charlie came in with the idea of promoting toughness, and we ended up running off a lot of kids, which I don’t think any of us are proud of now,” Bennett said. “People expected us to be Alabama. The toughness that was taken to the practice field everybody said ‘That’s the way Alabama did it,’ so that’s the way we should do it.
“We ended up instilling a toughness at Kentucky, but we also ended up making some major mistakes.”
Bennett, whose Gritz Blitz defense instilled an aggressive culture with the Atlanta Falcons, has some advice for the assistant coach who gets to sit in the big chair as head coach.
“I think it’s important that the new guy who comes in has to be himself, he can’t be somebody else, he’s got to coach within himself and teach within himself, promote his ideas and what’s inside of him,” said Bennett, who was a significant help to Atlanta in building the prominence of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“They always expect you to come in and wave a magic wand. Any time a new coach comes in from successful program they expect him to have all the answers.”
Bradshaw’s last season was 1968 and at the end of his regime, Kentucky was still a basketball school. Bradshaw, who died in 1999, did not have all the answers. It can be tough to find the assistant coach who does.
Dye was the linebackers coach for Alabama’s 1973 team. He did not go into his interview at ECU selling a dream. The fan base, he said, takes care of that.
“Me being at Alabama probably gave them a false impression of what was going to happen,” Dye said. “When I showed up it wasn’t building a culture as much as it was going out and building a weight room and building up facilities. There was a different challenge there.”
Dye wondered aloud if he could be a head coach and he proved over time that he was a really good one. He had a Hall of Fame coaching career at East Carolina, Wyoming, and Auburn.
Dye, who played football at UGA from 1958-60 and was a two-time All-American, has no doubts about Smart as a head coach. “He’s got it,” Dye said. “He’ll do a good job there. He has recruited the state, he’s familiar with the high school coaches, and he’s got knowledge of the game.
“I knew the game, but I didn’t know if I could go from being an assistant coach to head coach.”
So how did things work out for Dye in his first head coaching job at East Carolina? He was 48-18-1 in six seasons at ECU. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
Houston went 13-1 this season with Tom Herman, who was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State when it won the 2014 national championship. So far, so good.
But Herman was cautious when he got the job.
“(Houston) screams the ability to go win championships. Now, that needs to be tempered a little bit because any time you make change there is going to be some uncomfortability and some adjustment,” Herman said after he was hired. “There will be some bumps in the road; that I can promise you. I do feel like the pieces are in place here to compete for a championship.”
Smart’s picture could be placed alongside Herman’s words. UGA is all those things, and more, that Herman said Houston was: a gold mine.
So plucking the assistant coach from a national title team can really work. The assistant coach, who was one of the wheels for the national championship program, can hold the wheel and steer on his own.
- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was the defensive coordinator of Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team. He stayed with the Buckeyes one more season in 2003, and went to the University of Cincinnati as head coach for the 2004 season. The Bearcats were a modest 19-17 in three seasons, but Dantonio showed enough at a mid-major program to get a job in the Big Ten.
- John Robinson was an assistant coach in 1974 for the last of four national titles won by Southern Cal under head coach John McKay. Robinson went to the Raiders in 1975 and then came back to USC when McKay left for the NFL. Robinson won a national title in 1978 at SC.
- Jim McElwain left Alabama after a 2011 national title and went to Colorado State. The Rams were 10-2 in 2014 and McElwain was then hired by Florida.
It can happen the other way around, of course. Craig Fertig was an assistant for John McKay when the USC Trojans won titles in 1967 and 1972. Fertig was hired by Oregon State and in four seasons (1976-79) he went 10-34-1 and was fired.
There are more recent — and more public — examples of assistant coaches with national championship programs that turned out to be mistakes as head coaches. Just look at the wilt on the Pete Carroll coaching tree from USC.
- Lane Kiffin bombed with the Oakland Raiders, attempted to remake the University of Tennessee, and left the Vols in shambles for USC, and then got fired at USC.
- Steve Sarkasian, another Carroll disciple, flamed out at USC this past fall because of substance abuse issues. Sarkasian was a head coach at Washington, but he first made his name as a high-profile assistant coach with Carroll.
- Will Muschamp came to Florida with impeccable credentials as an assistant coach, helping LSU to a title, and then aiding in Texas’ championship game appearance in 2009. But when Muschamp went 10-13 in his last two years at Florida, he was fired.
There is so much money in college football the head coach who falters will be doomed to an early dismissal. And waiting the next block over will be the assistant coach who has a hand on a national championship trophy.
A partial list of assistants hired from championship teams
Charlie Bradshaw Alabama 1961 champs Kentucky (new team)
Lou Holtz Ohio State 1968 William & Mary
Bill Mallory Ohio State 1968 Miami of Ohio
Craig Fertig USC 1975 Oregon State
Gerry DiNardo Colorado 1990 Vanderbilt
Keith Gilbertson Washington 1991 Cal
David Cutcliffe Tennessee 1998 Mississippi
Bo Pellini LSU 2007 Nebraska
Dan Mullen Florida 2008 Mississippi St
Jim McElwain Alabama 2011 Colorado St
Tom Herman Ohio State 2014 Houston