2012 ACC Coaches
The Hot Seat Factor
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Picture this. You’re a beleaguered athletic director with an opening at the top of the football organizational chart. Your checkbook is open, and your fan base is glaring at you with unwavering anticipation. Which of the
ACCs current head coaches would you put in charge of the program for the next five or so years? Knowing that your own job hangs in the balance, to which man would you entrust your future?
This is NOT necessarily a ranking of how good the head coaches are. This is a ranking based on who would be best to take over a program and build it up, so age is a major factor. A coach might be legendary, but he might not have another five years of greatness left. So with that in mind, who are the top candidates to run your program?
12. Frank Spaziani, Boston College
There are countless examples of crackerjack coordinators who don’t translate when promoted. Coach Spaz appears to be one of them. Boston College may not be a great place to attract talent or build a fan base, but Spaziani inherited a program with a very solid foundation. It’s also a program that he’d been working at for more than a decade, so there were few surprises on the Heights. In three years helming the Eagles, the coach is just a game over .500, and is clinging to his job entering the 2012 season. A year ago, he became the first BC head man since 1998 to fail to lead the program to the postseason.
Hot Seat Status: Win or else. Spaziani barely held on to his job at the conclusion of 2011, but won’t be so fortunate if the Eagles flail again on the field this fall.
11. David Cutcliffe, Duke
Right man. Wrong school. Over the past half-century, only one Blue Devils head coach—Steve Spurrier—left Durham with a winning record, testament to how tough it is to thrive here. Cutcliffe is a terrific teacher, especially of young quarterbacks, but in a decade as the head man at Ole Miss and Duke, his career mark is still below .500. And while he’s clearly had a positive impact on the Blue Devils since arriving in 2008, it’s often been in areas that don’t show up in the standings. It would have been nice to see what Cut was capable of achieving when not handling one of the toughest jobs in the SEC or ACC, but that opportunity may never come.
Hot Seat Status: It’s getting warmer, though Duke won’t do much better than Cutcliffe. That said, with Year 5 up next, he has to get the Devils to the postseason soon or the administration might have no choice.
10. Jim Grobe, Wake Forest
Vastly underrated, Grobe has done the improbable over the past decade, putting the Demon Deacons on the map in football. At a tiny, private school with a modest history in the sport, he’s the school’s first coach in more than six decades to fashion a winning career record. Under his guidance, Wake Forest has been to four bowl games in the past six years, capturing the 2006 ACC championship. Grobe simply does things right, eschewing shortcuts for a time-tested method to player development. He preaches discipline, fundamentals and a no-excuses approach to meeting individual and team goals. He basically builds from the bottom up in order to overcome a serious gap in recruiting advantages compared to the balance of the conference.
Hot Seat Status: Barring a prolonged meltdown, Wake Forest would be nuts to get rid of Grobe. On the verge of becoming an institution in Winston-Salem, he could go on to retire from the school.
9. Randy Edsall, Maryland
Will the real Randy Edsall please up? To Connecticut fans, he was a savior, the architect of the program’s rise out of I-AA obscurity and into the Big East Conference. He was nothing short of a miracle worker in Storrs, winning at least eight games in six of his final eight years, capped by a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010. At a basketball school with limited history in football. On a more granular level, Edsall and his staff perennially did a brilliant job of coaching up marginal recruits, helping make them NFL-ready. To Terps fans, though, he’s a pariah. Skeptical from the outset, they became downright surly after Maryland went 2-10 in 2011, while losing a spate of players to transfers. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. One rough year can’t possibly erase all of the good that the coach did for the Huskies.
Hot Seat Status: Edsall is already on probation in College Park, with his detractors preparing for a revolt if the situation worsens. If things unravel any further, he’ll be scooped up by another school in about five minutes.
8. Tom O’Brien, NC State
O’Brien is a terrific coach to keep a program on the tracks, but if raising the bar is the goal, looking elsewhere would be recommended. Over the past 15 years, 10 at Boston College and five at NC State, his teams have qualified for 11 postseason games, but have yet to play in a major bowl game or post a 10-win season. Ever. You’d think that at least once, O’Brien would put it all together and deliver a breakout campaign. The ex-Marine is a stern disciplinarian and an honorable face of a program, but he can also be a little too conservative offensively. Plus, at the age of 63, Raleigh might be the last stop of his coaching career.
Hot Seat Status: Lukewarm. While the Pack has played better of late, it wasn’t that long ago that O’Brien’s buns were getting toasty.
7. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
Would Beamer’s success in Blacksburg translate to another campus? We’ll never know. At Virginia Tech, though, he’s been nothing short of legendary, leading his Hokies to 19 consecutive bowl games, four ACC crowns and six BCS bowl appearances. A model of incredible consistency, his alma mater has won more games since 1995 than any other FBS program. He’s been overlooked and underrated throughout his career, yet always delivers results with a well-coached and fundamentally sound team. Hands down, he’s the ACC’s premier coach. For this exercise, though, age—66—and tenure with one program—a quarter-century—would be drawbacks when searching for a guy to lead a school for the next five years.
Hot Seat Status: Non-existent. Beamer is one of those rare coaches who’ll get a victory lap in his final year with the Hokies.
6. Larry Fedora, North Carolina
The curtain is about to be pulled back on Fedora, who’ll be facing the stiffest challenge of his coaching career. He was modestly successful in four years at Southern Miss, parlaying last year’s 12-2 mark and Conference USA championship into a significant promotion to the ACC. One of the games bright young offensive minds brings to Chapel Hill the most innovative playbook that the locals have ever seen. Excitement follows Fedora wherever he lands. Heavily-sanctioned Carolina, though, will be his decisive assignment. Piling up the numbers and playing in mediocre bowl games won’t cut it. No, he was hired to bring a league title to a school that hasn’t captured one since 1980.
Hot Seat Status: Check back in two years. Fedora gets an early pass, especially since his debut will be saddled with NCAA baggage.
5. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
There are mixed feelings regarding Swinney at Clemson. On the one hand, he’s the head coach of the reigning ACC champs, and an outstanding procurer of talent. On the other, he’s just 29-19 overall in three-plus seasons, and he’s not among the league’s best in-game managers. Oh, and then there’s the issue of last year’s finish, a 2-4 close capped by the 70-33 Orange Bowl debacle. The youthful energy that Swinney brings to Clemson is somewhat offset by concerns within the fan base that he might be in over his head at a big-time program. To his credit, he’s surrounded himself with two solid coordinators, Chad Morris and Brent Venables, who can make a coach look better.
Hot Seat Status: Much safer than a year ago, but he’s not out of the woods. If Clemson underachieves, a la 2010, he’ll be back under the microscope entering 2013.
4. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
The biggest knock on Johnson is that he comes prepackaged with the triple-option offense, which is going to turn off some schools and some recruits. His results, though, stand on their own. Whether it’s been Georgia Southern, Navy or Georgia Tech, the guy has always won a ton of games, and vexed defenses with his system. In fact, in 15 seasons as a head coach, his teams have finished below .500 just twice. In only his second year on the Flats, the Yellow Jackets represented the ACC in the Orange Bowl as conference champs. His system may be an acquired taste, but it still works in an age of spread offenses and freewheeling passing games. Johnson has yet to touch a program he’s been unable to elevate, making him an appealing candidate for openings.
Hot Seat Status: While Johnson is on solid footing, he doesn’t quite have the key to the city. He’s 0-4 in bowl games, 1-3 versus Georgia and just 15-14 since the tail end of the 2009 season.
3. Mike London, Virginia
London may be just two years into his Cavaliers tenure, but he’s already one of the rising young stars of the coaching ranks. Practically overnight, he’s infused new life into a program that had been wallowing under Al Groh. He’s a terrific recruiter, a must to be successful at this level, quickly earns the respect of his players and is an outstanding defensive tactician. The fact that Virginia was in the 2011 Coastal Division hunt until the final weekend of the regular season had an awful lot to do with London’s ability to maximize the talent around him. At the age of 51, he’s in his coaching prime, and has already won a national championship while at Richmond. At the current pace, he’ll perennially be on AD’s short lists of coaching candidates.
Hot Seat Status: At least for the next few years, if London leaves Charlottesville, it’ll be his decision, not the administration’s. Virginia’s biggest concern will be keeping him on the payroll.
2. Al Golden, Miami
Golden surely lost some followers a year ago, which is too bad. Not long ago, he was one of the up-and-comers in the ranks, which should not change because he grabbed the reigns of an overrated Miami program that was besieged with scandal and NCAA scrutiny. Jumping the gun on Golden is a huge mistake. He’s the same guy who did the impossible for five years in Philly, guiding perennial doormat Temple to back-to-back winning seasons. The Owls’ bowl win in 2011 and subsequent invitation to return to the Big East had the previous regime’s fingerprint all over them. The guy can spot talent, coach it up and make sure that it never becomes complacent or veers off course. He’s a tireless worker, who at the age of 42 has the full tank of gas needed to be a 12-months-a year head coach.
Hot Seat Status: Golden inherited a tough situation, but at Miami patience will be exercised for only so long. After going 6-6, he needs to raise the bar before seriously contending for an ACC title in 2013 in order to keep critics from chirping. It should surprise no one if he’s still in South Florida five years from now.
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
While the return to glory of the Seminoles has taken a little longer than hoped, it’s way too early to become frustrated with Fisher. Yeah, Florida State is still waiting to capture its first ACC championship since 2005, but patience is recommended because the program has found the right man to lead it back up the mountain. Fisher has a high ceiling in the profession, and at 46, still in the early stages of his evolution on the sidelines. In terms of X’s and O’s, he does a nice job with the offense, while delegating to the defensive staff without any ego. During the offseason, he’s brought more structure and accountability to the ‘Noles. On Signing Day, few are better. Fisher has procured the necessary talent in Tallahassee. Now he has to go out and parlay those players into titles.
Hot Seat Status: The Seminoles have their man, but Fisher is in no position to get complacent. His 2011 team was a big disappointment, playing in the Champs Sports Bowl in a year that talk of a National Championship run swirled in the air. There’ll be increased hand-wringing if he doesn’t win the ACC in 2012.