Following the firing of Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M is in the market for a head coach. Outside of what happens on the field itself, a coaching hire is one of the most exciting times for any college football fanbase. It’s a time when hope spring eternal, because a new regime (and even the possibility of one) brings the optimism that everything your team hadn’t been able to do previously is now possible once again.
The job opening has been the talk of the college football media, with big names like Dabo Swinney, Deion Sanders and Urban Meyer making headlines. With the financial resources at A&M’s disposal (even after the buyout), everyone seems to be expecting A&M to make another big hire. But Texas A&M fans know better than anyone that there is no such thing as a “sure thing” in coaching hires. Because if there was, it sure seemed like Jimbo Fisher was it. A coach voluntarily leaving the school where he won a national title hadn’t happened in generations. You couldn’t have found a coach who had more skins on the wall outside of Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney. And there, I think, lies the flaw in logic for many fans as we evaluate head coaching candidates.
Too often, we judge candidates solely by what they have already accomplished. And on the surface, that seems like a logical way to go about things. But moreso than accomplishments, you need to make sure whoever you hire has the traits that will make him successful. Texas A&M Athletic Director Ross Bjork laid out the traits he is looking for in a new head coach in his Sunday press conference:
- A coach that has a program identity
- Great interpersonal skills
- Track record of player development
- Commitment to academics
- A recruiting machine
- Supreme organizational skills
- Culture of discipline
- A passion for the game
- Proven winner
- Strong leadership skills
- Involved in the community
- Knowledge of Xs and Os
- Someone that understands and also can capitalize in today’s modern college athletics
Notice that there was no mention of “must have won titles before,” of “previous head coaching experience” or “must come from a Power 5 school” or “will be a name that will excite our fanbase.” Because making the most highly publicized hire isn’t always the right one. While there are certainly very successful, very well-known coaches who possess all of these traits, there are also coaches who possess all of these traits who simply haven’t gotten their shot at the big time yet. And from a psychological/human nature aspect, you could make the argument that coaches who have not yet reached the mountaintop in their profession will be the ones who are most motivated to get there. Every great coach was at some point an up and comer who some fans didn’t think was “worthy” of being a head coach at the highest level yet.
Kirby Smart had never been a head coach before taking the job at Georgia. Dabo Swinney had never been a head coach before taking the job at Clemson. Ryan Day had never been a head coach before taking the job at Ohio State. Dan Lanning had never been a head coach before taking the job at Oregon.
Mike Norvell had never been a Power 5 head coach before taking the job at Florida State. The same is true for Kalen DeBoer at Washington, Jonathan Smith at Oregon State, Jed Fisch at Arizona, Josh Huepel at Tennesee, Lance Leipold at Kansas and Chris Klieman at Kansas State.
And hiring the more accomplished coach isn’t necessarily any more of a safe bet. Mario Cristobal was a big name hire at Miami and is 11-11 so far. Lincoln Riley’s USC team has lost 7 games in less than two years despite having the best QB in college football. If Brian Kelly’s LSU team loses to Texas A&M next Saturday they’ll finish this season with the same record.
The bottom line is that elite coaches can come from almost anywhere. Texas A&M has made the headline-grabbing hire before, but it’s been quite a while since they made the right one. In fact the Aggie’s last unquestionably successful head coach, R.C. Slocum, is also the last one we hired who had zero previous head coaching experience. So as this process unfolds, it’s important that A&M leadership focuses not on “what has this coach done elsewhere,” but rather “what are they capable of doing here?” Show me a coach who possesses all of the traits A&M is looking for in the leader of their football program, and I’ll show you a viable candidate.
Is that Jeff Traylor (UTSA)? Greg Schumann (DC at Georgia)? Willie Fritz (Tulane)? A&M interim head coach Elijah Robinson? I’m not here to tell you that these names (or any I haven’t mentioned) are surefire locks to succeed, but writing them off completely based solely on resume or name value would be a mistake.
To paraphrase the no-longer-a-candidate Dan Lanning: We aren’t fighting for clicks. We’re fighting for wins.