The 2011 First-Year Head Coaches
Ranking the new guys
2010 First-Year Coach Rankings
2009 First-Year Coach Rankings
2008 First-Year Coach Rankings
2007 First-Year Coach Rankings
More than 20 head coaches made their debuts at campuses across the country in 2011. While the results were predictably uneven, it was generally a positive year for the rookies. Well over half piloted their teams to the postseason, with three appearing in BCS bowl games. The challenges for each of the newcomers were similar—hit the ground running in a new position and often on a completely unfamiliar campus. Oh, and if you can help ignite fan interest, and keep the turnstiles moving, that’d be swell, too. While the majority of coaches made good first impressions last fall, a handful of others are already trying to do damage control before Signing Day and the start of another spring session.
Quick, get this guy a long-term extension
1. Brady Hoke, Michigan
How good has Hoke been lately? Over the last four seasons, he’s been named conference coach of the year in three different leagues. At this level, that’s an unforeseen level of consistency and versatility. No one expects him to be anywhere but the Big Ten for some time, especially after transforming a floundering Wolverines program into 10 wins and a completely unexpected berth in the Sugar Bowl. Hoke attracted the right assistants, and in warp speed eradicated the culture of losing that had permeated Rich Rodriguez’s tenure in Ann Arbor. Imagine what the coach will do once he can dig his heels in and get a couple of his recruiting classes on campus.
2. Hugh Freeze, Arkansas State
Just two years ago, Freeze was the head coach of Lambuth of the NAIA. Next fall, he’ll be at the helm of an SEC program. The 42-year-old used his lone season as the Red Wolves head coach as a launching pad to Ole Miss and an enormous increase in salary. He led Arkansas State to an improbable 10-2 record, a Sun Belt Conference championship and a spot opposite Northern Illinois in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Fueled by an offense that smashed a handful of school records, Freeze engineered the program’s first winning record since 1995, and its most wins in a quarter-century.
3. Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette
Hudspeth’s first season in Lafayette was nothing south of remarkable. He and his staff took over a team that went 3-9 a year ago and was picked to finish in the Sun Belt basement, yet transformed it into a nine-win squad. It was UL-Lafayette’s most regular-season wins since QB Jake Delhomme was a rookie in 1993, capped by a New Orleans Bowl upset of San Diego State in the school’s first postseason game in 41 years at the FBS level. The Ragin’ Cajuns have Hudspeth for at least one more season, but he’ll be tough to contain if he keeps up this pace.
4. James Franklin, Vanderbilt
The Commodores have been to four bowl games in their history. The fifth, the New Year’s Eve Liberty Bowl with Cincinnati, took Franklin just one year to achieve. While Vanderbilt’s 6-6 record reeks of mediocrity to some, it’s downright impressive for a school that went 2-10 just a year ago. Plus, peeled beneath the layers of that .500 mark were close calls with Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee that could have easily gone in the other direction. Sensing that it has a keeper, the University made a commitment to Franklin in early December by extending his contract and increasing his compensation.
5. Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois
Doeren actually already received his extension—and a $49,000 raise—on Dec. 22, a thank you from the administration for guiding the Huskies to their first MAC championship in 28 years. Northern Illinois will do whatever it can in order to keep one of the game’s bright young coaches from bolting to a more prominent and better paying position down the road. Sitting at 10-3, with the GoDaddy.com Bowl still left to be played, the program showed a penchant for winning close games in the pivotal second half of the season.
The ground floor is down … now go build on it
6. David Shaw, Stanford
Shaw was handed the keys to a sports car, and has pretty much kept it on the track. Did he help elevate the Cardinal in the aftermath of the Jim Harbaugh era? Not quite, but don’t underestimate the difficulty of taking the baton from a coach credited with being the architect of a program’s turnaround. Shaw would have challenged Hoke for the top overall spot had Stanford not been schooled by Oregon at home on Nov. 12, a game that cost it a shot at a Pac-12 title. A degree of redemption can be had on Jan. 2 in the Fiesta Bowl meeting with Oklahoma State. We’ll know a lot more about Shaw in 2012, when some of Harbaugh’s key parts are no longer on the Farm.
7. Steve Addazio, Temple
Addazio fit right in at Temple, taking what Al Golden built and adding a new story to it. The Owls won nine games, including a bowl game for just the second time in program history. They bludgeoned Maryland, 38-7, at the end of September, and nearly shocked Penn State in a 14-10 heartbreaker. Don’t underestimate what Addazio accomplished in his first year—just because a coach inherits talent does not mean it’s a slam dunk he can duplicate the results of his successor. In fact, in the case of Golden, Addazio had some enormous shoes to fill.
8. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia
Holgorsen’s maiden voyage as the captain of the Mountaineers’ ship has brought mixed reviews. Yes, he won a share of the Big East title to earn a spot in the Orange Bowl, after unexpectedly taking over the team from Bill Stewart in June. Yet, West Virginia also lost to a pair of inferior teams, Syracuse and Louisville, and probably wouldn’t have won the league had Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros not been lost for the regular season on Nov. 12. Holgorsen can make a case for a higher ranking by beating Clemson on Jan. 4.
9. Bill Blankenship, Tulsa
Blankenship did a solid job of maintaining Todd Graham’s success, guiding the Golden Hurricane to eight wins and an Armed Forces date with BYU. The coach and his staff succeeded in keeping the offense on the rails even after losing its most lethal weapon, WR Damaris Johnson, to a suspension before the season began. Although quality wins were scarce, there was no shame in any of Tulsa’s losses. The team fell to four highly ranked opponents, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State and Houston.
10. Rocky Long, San Diego State
At 8-5, San Diego State won just one fewer game than in 2010, yet wasn’t quite as competitive or dangerous as a year ago. Last fall, the Aztecs’ four losses were by an average of four points, and they routed Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. This fall? They dropped three Mountain West games, including to Wyoming, and were upset in the New Orleans Bowl by Louisiana-Lafayette. It’ll be interesting to see if Long can maintain what Brady Hoke built as key veterans like QB Ryan Lindley and LB Miles Burris start to peel off.
11. Pete Lembo, Ball State
After just one season, Lembo has Ball State ahead of schedule, and pointed in the right direction. By going 6-6, the Cardinals equaled their win total of the last two seasons combined, showing signs of emerging from the post-Brady Hoke doldrums. Included in the program’s six victories were wins over in-state Indiana of the Big Ten and an Ohio team that would go on to finish 10-4. Lembo employed a gaggle of kids in 2011, such as rookie RB Jahwan Edwards and LB Aaron Morris, good news for sustaining the fast start.
12. Dan McCarney, North Texas
In Denton, progress is measured a little differently than it is at other schools in Texas. Despite finishing 5-7, there’s a feeling that McCarney finally has the Mean Green pointing in the right direction. Those five wins were the school’s most since 2004, capped by its first season-ending win in nine years. What won’t show in the standings is that North Texas established a new record for attendance, meaning the players aren’t the only people buying into McCarney’s philosophy and passion for the game.
You got ambushed, but better days lay ahead
13. Al Golden, Miami
Golden needs an asterisk placed next to his first season in South Florida. The Hurricanes split a dozen games, suffering tough losses to Maryland, Virginia and Boston College along the way. However, the coach unknowingly stepped into a minefield when he took this job, inheriting a program that was being investigated by the NCAA for major rules violations. The season began with suspensions and a dark cloud hovering over Coral Gables. It ended with Golden receiving a four-year contract extension, and vowing to build Miami back to prominence, brick by brick.
Temping in the Big East served you well
14. Todd Graham, Pittsburgh
Few coaches have ever turned mediocrity into a promotion faster than Graham. The Panthers won just half of their dozen games during the regular season, yet the coach was still able to parlay it into a better opportunity in Tempe. Pitt struggled to adjust to his new system, flailing on offense, and beating just a single team, Louisville, that participated in the postseason. Graham will need to make this move work because the quick exit has cast him as a villain and a symbol of phoniness, in and outside of Pitt circles.
You’ve got time … you’ll need it
15. Darrell Hazell, Kent State
It would easy to pan a third straight 5-7 season as the same old Golden Flashes. However, the most recent edition appears to have a little more promise and potential than predecessor Doug Martin’s teams. Hazell wasn’t blessed with an abundance of talent, especially on offense, but that couldn’t keep his team from operating with a no-quit attitude down the stretch. After getting out of the gate slowly, Kent State captured four consecutive wins in the second half, and played the finale with an opportunity to become bowl-eligible.
16. Jerry Kill, Minnesota
It was a humbling year for Kill—on and away from the field. Not only did his Golden Gophers go 3-9, but his health problems continued with an on-field seizure at the end of a Week 2 loss to New Mexico State. Minnesota did bring it until the final whistle, a trademark of Kill’s squads, capturing Floyd of Rosedale and knocking off Illinois in the final month. No one doubts that his kids will be well-coached, disciplined and hard-working. A higher degree of competitiveness, though, will hinge on his ability to raise the overall talent level.
Year Two is suddenly very important for you
17. Jon Embree, Colorado
Little was expected from Embree. And little was received. The former Buffaloes player walked into a very difficult situation in Boulder. Not only was his initial Colorado team marginally talented, but it was also beginning its first season in a new league, the Pac-12. There were growth pains, such as a seven-game losing streak, but there was progress as well. The Buffs improved down the stretch, beating Arizona, 48-29, on Nov. 12, and beating Utah in Salt Lake City to snap a 23-game road losing streak.
18. Paul Pasqualoni, Connecticut
Pasqualoni’s first Connecticut team was eerily similar to his last couple of Syracuse squads. In other words, it was too inept to compete consistently in the conference. The coach took over a squad that won the Big East in 2010, and played in the Fiesta Bowl, and promptly veered the Huskies completely out of the postseason picture. Connecticut failed to win consecutive games all year, losing non-conference games to Vanderbilt, Iowa State and Western Michigan, heightening concerns that Pasqualoni’s best days are becoming tough to see in the rear view mirror.
Print out boarding passes … the honeymoon is over
19. Will Muschamp, Florida
Muschamp learned a lot in his first season as a head coach. Gators fans learned that they weren’t particularly enamored with the selection for Urban Meyer’s successor. No, Florida wasn’t supposed to capture the SEC in 2011, but 6-6? Unacceptable. Unable to make strides offensively, the program lost six of its final seven games with FBS opponents, norming a paltry 19 points during that dreadful stretch. Muschamp must replace offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, which could wind up being addition through subtraction, and deliver enough Signing Day wins to mollify the critics until 2012 begins.
20. Kevin Wilson, Indiana
Yeah, it’s Bloomington, where they bowl about once a generation, but Wilson actually succeeded in lowering the bar at IU. He inherited a 5-7 team, yet the Hoosiers were the only program from a BCS conference that failed to beat another FBS squad, even falling to North Texas and Ball State. The staff desperately needs to upgrade the talent everywhere, especially on defense, which makes the de-commit of blue-chip QB Gunner Kiel painful on a multitude of different levels.
21. Randy Edsall, Maryland
Edsall is this year’s unanimous recipient of the Mike Locksley Award for dreadful first impressions. Somewhere Ralph Friedgen is chuckling uncontrollably. Considering the success Edsall enjoyed at Connecticut, coaching in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, this season’s face-plant was a little hard to see coming. Not only did the coach transform a 9-4 overachiever into a 2-10 disaster, but he alienated a swath of players, 20 of whom have bolted in the past year. A microcosm for the problems in College Park: last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year, QB Danny O’Brien, regressed under Edsall’s watch.