Ranking the First Year Head Coaches

Posted Jan 16, 2007

Which head coaches did the best and worst jobs in the first years at their schools? From Wisconsin's Bret Bielema to San Diego State's Chuck Long, Richard Cirminiello breaks down the new 2006 coaches.

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Unlike other rookie head coaches, Chris Petersen didn't turn dust into gold at Boise State in 2006 because it wasn't necessary. His predecessors, Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins, had already created a mini- juggernaut that had won 73 games in the seven years before he took control of the Broncos. What Petersen did, however, was elevate the program to a new level of achievement and notoriety last fall, leading it to a 13-0 mark and a memorable upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl that'll pay dividends to the university for many years to come. An offensive wunderkind long before he replaced Hawkins, he's a master at coaching up quarterbacks and devising inventive schemes that get the most out of his eclectic and sometimes undersized talent base. That was never more evident than on New Years' night, when Petersen put on a coaching clinic versus Bob Stoops and the Sooner D, digging deep into his playbook in order to pull out a scintillating 45-44 win in overtime. Get ready for his name to be associated with every major opening beginning with the next cycle of the coaching carousel. Petersen loves Idaho, but with his stock soaring, it won't be easy—or cheap—keeping him in the WAC.

2. Bret Bielema , Wisconsin (12-1) – In any other year, Bielema is the undisputed Rookie of the Year for seamlessly guiding Wisconsin to its first 12-win season and a top five ranking the year after school patriarch Barry Alvarez retired. Looking at home as a Big Ten boss, the nation's second youngest head coach made Alvarez look like a genius for handing him the job a full season before it became official. Relying on the same formula of mental toughness in close games, a strong running game and an even stronger defense that's worked for years in Madison, Bielema copped conference Coach of the Year honors and a trip to the Capital One Bowl. With 18 starters returning in 2007, forget any notion that he's going to be a one-year wonder.

3. Todd Graham, Rice (7-6) – This past season, Graham faced too many obstacles to mention for a first-time head coach. There was a non-conference schedule that guaranteed an 0-4 start, a transition from the wishbone to the spread, the in-season death of a player and the loss of starting QB Chase Clement for nearly half the season…all at a school that won one game in 2005 and had been floundering for years. Yet, somehow last month, Rice was in a bowl, something that hadn't been uttered outside of a Chinese restaurant in 45 years. Despite an obvious shortage of talent compared to the rest of Conference USA, Graham got the Owls to buy into his system, producing seven wins like a prestidigitator. Of course, it's the coach's incredibly auspicious debut, which makes it so hard for the program to bid him adieu. Just 48 hours after receiving a contract extension to coach Rice through 2012, Graham accepted a hefty pay raise to replace Steve Kragthorpe at Tulsa.

4. Ron Prince, Kansas State (7-6) – In 2006, Prince achieved one of the cardinal rules of replacing a legend—start fast. Folks around the program certainly haven't forgotten Bill Snyder, but an unexpectedly strong showing by the young Wildcats grew the new coach's support base and kept the naysayers silent for the time being. Kansas State broke in a ton of fresh faces last fall, including freshmen Josh Freeman and Leon Patton in the backfield, yet still finished second in the Big 12 North and went bowling for the first time in three years. The ‘Cats' 45-42 defeat of Texas on Nov. 11 was a springboard game for the program and one of the biggest upsets of the past season. In a year filled with player and coach defections, Prince has been a steadfast rock, laying the foundation for the post-Snyder era in Manhattan.

5. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee State (7-6) – Picked to finish near the Sun Belt basement before the season began, Stockstill coached up the Blue Raiders to their best season since 2001 and a school-first bowl invitation. An attention to detail and an experienced staff helped Middle Tennessee State overcome an unforgiving schedule and a severe lack of depth on both sides of the ball. After years of teasing observers and falling short of expectations under Andy McCollum, the program had a breakthrough with Stockstill, which will pay dividends for at least the next few seasons. Realizing it had landed a true program-builder, the administration awarded the coach with a contract extension before the Motor City Bowl.

6. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (4-8) – To suggest that Fitzgerald inherited a difficult situation in his first year at the helm would be a gross understatement. Just a week after his friend and mentor Randy Walker died of a heart attack on June 29, he became the nation's youngest head coach of a team going through some serious growing pains of its own. Faced with a baptism under fire, Fitzgerald did about as well as could be expected, losing a couple of games he shouldn't have, yet showing progress as the season headed into the final leg. He's a crackerjack recruiter with sizable upside as a head coach now that the underclassmen are a year older and the hellish fire drill of a first season is behind him.

7. Dennis Erickson, Idaho (4-8) – Not long ago, Erickson professed that he'd be at Idaho for the next ten years. He lasted ten months, spurning the Vandals in December for a return to the Pac-10. During that brief tenure, Erickson did a few good things, highlighted by a rare three-game winning streak, which had the locals thinking bowl eligibility before a season-ending collapse. The offensive attack, which was supposed to get a jolt from the new staff, sputtered hideously down the stretch and averaged just seven points and 135 yards over the final four games. For a brief moment, Erickson raised the excitement level around campus, but his legacy at Idaho will be that he used Moscow as a stepping to Tempe.

8. Turner Gill, Buffalo (2-10) – Sure, the Bull record was once again dreadful, but you've got to really peel a few layers off the onion to properly judge Gill, who took over a program that was clinically dead when he arrived. The former Heisman finalist at Nebraska has been around winning programs forever, but recognizes that patience needs to be exercised, especially by the fans, the local media and the administration. There were hints of progress in 2006, including more competitive outcomes and more points on offense, but Gill's biggest contribution in year one was the relative buzz he created at a school that previously received zero coverage outside the region.

9. Al Golden, Temple (1-11) – Considering the dire state of the Temple football program when he took it over, expectations were extremely conservative for Golden in his rookie season. He and the Owls met those expectations in 2006, hitting the high note just once when they stunned Bowling Green to snap a 20-game losing streak. If you want to gauge Golden properly, however, forget the wins and losses for a few years and concentrate on the level of talent he attracts to Philadelphia and how competitive the program can be as the newest member of the Mid-American Conference. Temple's staring up at Mt. Everest these days, but administrators are no less confident today than they were a year ago that Golden will be their sherpa.

10. Chuck Long, San Diego State (3-9) – When he was hired to replace Tom Craft, Long stated in no uncertain terms that San Diego State can begin winning Mountain West championships immediately. Uhh, maybe next year. It was a very trying year for Long and the Aztecs, which not only never competed for a league title, but also lost to I-AA Cal-Poly and got humiliated by TCU, 52-0, in one of the worst losses in school history. Every program has injuries, but losing promising QB Kevin O'Connell in the opener and 17 other players to surgery was too much for a San Diego State squad that was already pretty thin in the areas of depth and talent. Long gets a mulligan in his first year, but will get an earful from Aztec fans if the team isn't in the hunt for bowl eligibility in 2007.

11. Dan Hawkins, Colorado (2-10) – In an odd sort of symmetry, current Boise State coach Chris Petersen tops this list, while Hawkins, Petersen's old boss with the Broncos, pulls up the rear. Of course, it's just one season, but right now, leaving Boise for Boulder looks like a career miscalculation by the Hawk. Few observers thought a rebuilding Colorado team would challenge in the Big 12 North, but even fewer figured it would win just two games. After getting pounded by Nebraska in the finale, Hawkins gave the program a failing grade for the season. Who would argue after the Buffs lost to Montana State, Colorado State and Baylor in the first half of the year alone? In Hawkins' defense, he didn't inherit the right quarterback to run his offense and the upcoming recruiting is expected to generate favorable reviews. It better because the big catch of last year's off-season can really use a little momentum.