With spring football beginning on campuses around the country this month, six 30-something coaches are getting their first crack at running a program. That doesn’t include Willie Taggart – he’ll be 37 when South Florida kicks off next fall and it will be head coaching job No. 2 for him.
It seems that when schools are searching for a leader these days, they are more willing to trust somebody young.
“If you’re great at your job, it’s only fair that you move up quickly,” said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was 33 when he was hired by his alma mater in December.
Hiring a coach who still looks a lot like his college yearbook photo has happened in the past. Bear Bryant was 31 when he got his first job at Maryland in 1944. But in recent years it’s become more common.
When Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was hired to be the head coach at his alma mater in 2006, after Randy Walker had died of a heart attack, he was 31 years old. That made him the youngest coach in major college football by five years – and that season started with a total of just six head coaches in their 30s.
Fitzgerald, 38, will enter the 2013 season as one of 10 head coaches in their 30s, including three younger than 35. Two others, Matt Wells, who is in his first season at Utah State, and Garrick McGee, in his second year at UAB, turn 40 this offseason.
Kingsbury, the former Red Raiders quarterback and Texas A&M offensive coordinator, will be 34 by the time the season kicks off, which is only good for third youngest coach in the country.
In January, Western Michigan made 32-year-old P.J. Fleck the youngest coach in FBS, taking the that title away from Toledo’s Matt Campbell, who is exactly one year older than Fleck (a Kaneland and Northern Illinois graduate) and already has been running the Rockets for more than a season.
Sports attorneys Russ Campbell and Patrick Strong of Balch Sports represent new Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin (fourth youngest at 36) and McGee, who turns 40 in April, along with 23 other football coaches.
Campbell and Strong hesitate to call this uptick in the hiring of younger coaches a trend. Every situation is different. But they have identified a few reasons why younger coaches might be getting more opportunities.
Thanks to increased coverage and new media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, it is easier for a good assistant coach to get noticed.
“Decision-makers can get to know these coaches before they ever sit down with them,” Campbell and Strong wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “This has accelerated the opportunity for younger coaches to become a known personality.”
Kingsbury, who tutored Case Keenum at Houston and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at A&M, and Harsin, who spent 10 seasons at Boise State – his alma mater – and two at Texas, have been rising star offensive coordinators. They bring a buzz with them to their new jobs and the hope that they could be college football’s next offensive genius, like Mike Leach, who coached Kingsbury at Tech, or Gus Malzahn, whom Harsin is replacing at Arkansas State.
Kingsbury had the added benefit, like Fitzgerald at Northwestern, of being part of the family at Texas Tech. If Tommy Tuberville hadn’t left Lubbock to take the Cincinnati job, Kingsbury would likely still be at A&M with Johnny Football.
“It had to be Texas Tech at this point,” Kingsbury said.
Matt Rhule, 38, had a similar situation with Temple. Rhule spent last season as an assistant with the New York Giants, but before that he had worked with the Owls for seven years, helping Al Golden revive a program that had been in the doldrums.
Rhule was perfectly content in the NFL, but when Steve Addazio left Temple for Boston College, things changed. Rhule’s wife still worked at Temple.
“While I don’t have 50 years of coaching experience, I came in with Temple experience,” he said.
Taggart – the new South Florida coach – was 34 when he took over at his alma mater, Western Kentucky, back in 2009.
THE PROCESS HAS CHANGED
Back in the day, athletic directors were often former coaches. Now the people running athletic programs are more likely to have a business background than a sports resume. Also, most schools use consultants and search firms to identify candidates.
“These are factors that have moved coaching searches away from the notion that a young coach has to bide his time and more towards the notion of ‘he’s either got it or he doesn’t, regardless of age,’ ” Campbell and Strong wrote.
When Tim Beckman left Toledo for Illinois after the 2011 regular season, Matt Campbell, who became the Rockets’ offensive coordinator when he was 29, was the obvious choice to take over.
Fleck has been zooming through the coaching ranks since being hired by his alma mater, Northern Illinois, in 2007 – which was his plan. His “bucket list” included being the youngest head football coach in the country.
“Somehow, some way. I knew what I had to do to get there,” he said.
Fleck followed Greg Schiano from Rutgers to the NFL, and after one season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ receiver coach, he was able to cross that item off the list.
Campbell and Strong work with clients to prepare for interviews.
“If a well-prepared young coach goes up against an unprepared seasoned coach, the lack-of-experience factor is neutralized a bit,” they wrote.
In the case of new Nevada coach Brian Polian, 38, experience really wasn’t a problem. The son of former NFL general manager Bill Polian, who built Super Bowl teams with Buffalo and Indianapolis, has been working in football since he was 10.
“When most kids are working at a putt-putt or mowing lawns,” he said, “I was working as a go-fer for the coaches of the Buffalo Bills.”
Polian interviewed for the Stanford job after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL in January 2011. The Cardinal hired David Shaw, who was 38 at the time.
After being a serious candidate for other head coaching jobs this past season, Polian couldn’t help but feel that he was overdue.
“All of sudden this Nevada thing popped out of thin air,” he said.
Polian replaced Hall of Famer Chris Ault, who retired in December.
Fitzgerald’s advice to his friend Polian and any other young coach is to realize age doesn’t matter and that no amount of experience as an assistant can truly prepare a coach for his first time calling the shots.
“You don’t understand it,” he said, “until you sit in this chair.”