Ranking The 2007 Rookie Head Coaches
Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly
Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly
Posted Jan 23, 2008

Which head coaches did the best and worst jobs in the first years at their schools? From Cincinnati's Brian Kelly to Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe, Richard Cirminiello breaks down the new 2007 coaches.

Ranking The 2007 Rookie Coaches

How did the new guys do?

By Richard Cirminiello 

- Ranking The 2006 Rookie Head Coaches

Two dozen head coaches made their debuts at campuses across the country in 2007.  Although the results were mixed, with three rookies finishing the season ranked in the Top 25 and nine participating in a bowl game, the challenges were similar; win in a new town with someone else’s recruits.  Oh, and if you can generate more fan interest and move the turnstiles, that’d be nice as well.  While a handful of coaches have made strong early impressions in their first year on the job, others, such as Louisville’s Steve Kragthorpe, are already scrambling for answers before the start of another session of spring practices.

Quick, get this guy an extension

Brian Kelly, Cincinnati – Everywhere Kelly goes, he wins, including last year’s debut in the Queen City.  Taking over for Mark Dantonio and installing a very different offense, Kelly was the catalyst of Cincinnati’s first 10-win team since 1951, capped by a win over Southern Mississippi in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.  Even more impressive, the Bearcats went from being a national afterthought before the season to No. 17 in the final AP poll, the school’s first Top 25 finish in 120 years of playing football.  A no-nonsense coach, Kelly immediately left his mark on the program, helping turn Cincy into one of the Big East’s most prolific offenses and disruptive defenses.  Provided he sticks around long enough to coach a few of his recruiting classes, Kelly has the tools to win titles and get to BCS bowl games with this school.    

2. Dennis Erickson, Arizona State – From the moment Erickson arrived from the desert, the Sun Devils were never the same, playing with more confidence and swagger, especially late in games, than at any point during Dirk Koetter’s tenure.  Arizona State overshot preseason expectations, winning 10 games for the first time in 11 years, finishing tied with USC atop the Pac-10, and climbing as high as No. 6 in the country before losing to Oregon on Nov. 3.  No, the Sun Devils couldn’t handle their toughest opponents in 2007, including the Trojans and Texas in the Holiday Bowl, but the positive shift in the program was undeniable, and largely due to the presence of Erickson in Tempe.       

Troy Calhoun, Air Force – While the cupboard wasn’t empty when Calhoun arrived from the NFL, he did take over a program that had won just four games in each of the last two seasons.  He was also replacing Fisher DeBerry, a fading head coach, but a legend in these parts, nonetheless.  All Calhoun did in his first head job was pilot the Air Force to a 9-4 record and an improbable bowl game with Cal.  Along the way, the Falcons upended Utah, TCU, and Notre Dame for the first time since 1963.  For his role in turning around a program that was on life support, Calhoun was named Mountain West Coach of the Year, while earning a raise and a contract extension earlier this month.

Jeff Jagodzinski, Boston College – Sure, Jagodzinski inherited a veteran-laden club with a superb quarterback, but history shows that that guarantees nothing.  He took over a team that was on the periphery of the Top 25 before the season, and led it to 11 wins for the first time in 67 years, an ACC Atlantic Division title, and a No. 10 ranking in the final AP poll.  There were rookie mistakes along the way, but by and large, Jagodzinski had the good sense to let his playmakers make plays, while not tinkering too much with what worked when Tom O’Brien was in charge.  How well he performs without QB Matt Ryan will be a closely-watched development around the Heights beginning in 2008.        

5. Bill Lynch, Indiana – As if starting a new job isn’t tough enough, Lynch had to succeed on an interim basis Terry Hoeppner, who succumbed to brain cancer before the start of the season.  With no blueprint how to handle such a difficult situation, he guided the Hoosiers to their first bowl game since 1993, fulfilling Hoeppner’s dream of playing in a 13th game.  Yeah, Indiana bombed in the Insight Bowl, losing 49-33 to Oklahoma State, but by that point, Lynch had already succeeded in landing a four-year contract through the 2011 season.  Can he continue to lead IU up the ladder, or will the magic run out when the emotion runs dry?  Lynch earned a chance to answer that question with last year’s results.     

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State – The Spartans’ seven wins were a high-water mark since 2003, but a bowl invitation told only part of the story in 2007.  Michigan State became the physical program that Dantonio desires, running the ball with authority, never losing a game by more than a touchdown, and playing very well in November, a nagging problem in East Lansing.  The defense made some strides and the offense scored a school-record 430 points, more positive signs that the Spartans are slowly emerging from their slumber.  In less than a year, Dantonio succeeded in improving the climate around the program, while guiding it to a postseason game, just the kind of start he was after.     

7. Todd Graham, Tulsa – In a season that was labeled by many to be a rebuilding year, the Hurricane delivered 10 wins, the most lopsided victory in bowl history, and a Conference USA West division title.  Graham’s defense badly, a factor in all four losses, but his foresight to hire offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn ended up saving the season.  Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense carried Tulsa all year, leading the nation in total offense and averaging more than 40 points a game.  To some, Graham was a step down from Steve Kragthorpe, but after one year, the Hurricane is thinking it may have traded up on the sidelines.    
8. Butch Jones, Central Michigan – A complete unknown when he was hired away from West Virginia, Jones began making a name for himself in his first season in Mt. Pleasant.  Considered an also-ran in the MAC West and saddled with a 1-3 start, the Chippewas finished the regular season 7-2 before losing to Purdue in the Motor City Bowl.  They won the MAC Championship for a second straight, squashing the notion that the program would sink without head coach Brian Kelly and key parts on both lines.  Jones turned loose QB Dan LeFevour and the league’s top-scoring offense, nearly parlaying them into the head job in Morgantown after Rich Rodriguez resigned.      

You made some progress…now build on it

9. Jim Harbaugh, Stanford – Beating No. 2 USC alone would have been enough to land Harbaugh in the top half of this list.  However, the Cardinal also topped Arizona and rival Cal, unexpectedly climbing out of the Pac-10 cellar and creating a positive buzz around The Farm.  Stanford cleared some hurdles in 2007, getting much tougher on defense and gradually changing the culture on a campus that’s grown accustomed to losing.  Oh, the losses still came, four in-a-row at one point, but Harbaugh ushered in a clearer mindset and a new energy that was absent under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris.  Now he has to raise the overall talent level in Palo Alto to inch closer to being a factor when bowl bids are dished out each December.        

10. Derek Dooley, Louisiana Tech – In towns, such as Ruston, La., success is measured a little differently than in other places in the country.  Yes, the Bulldogs only went 5-7, but that was two games better than a year ago and good enough for a fourth place tie in the WAC.  Tech finished the year 4-3, played for bowl eligibility in the finale, and came closer than anyone to beating Hawaii in the regular season, dropping a heartbreaker, 45-44.  Interest in the program is up, as is the level of talent thanks to better recruiting and a few imports from the SEC.  A Nick Saban disciple, Dooley has a bright future as a head coach, and with one winning season, will be hotter than an eight-digit bowl payout for athletic directors.     

11. Nick Saban, Alabama – By the end of October, Saban was a coaching god, having led an average Tide team to a 6-2 mark, a blowout of Tennessee, and an unexpected spot in the Top 25.  By the end Of November, however, Saban was an overpaid nomad that couldn’t solve Auburn or the riddle that is Louisiana-Monroe football.  Expect hyperbole when it comes to Saban, one of the real lightning rod coaches in all of America.  For a time, it looked as if ‘Bama was going to author one of the red-letter stories of 2007 before reality and a lack of offensive execution set in.  The Tide did close with an Independence Bowl win over Colorado, looking to be on track after just one season with Saban in Tuscaloosa.

12. Tom O’Brien, NC State – The Wolfpack season was headed toward a complete disaster by mid-October, but the program did the improbable, reeling off four straight wins and playing for bowl eligibility in November.  Although State blew a shot at that bonus game, the second-half rally was a good sign for a school that had a dearth of talent compared to the rest of the league after injuries mounted and enough reasons to pack it in after an ugly 1-5 start.  Remember, O’Brien lost seven games in his first two seasons with Boston College before reeling off eight consecutive winning seasons and seven bowl wins in-a-row.  North Carolina State is banking on the coach to navigate a similar path in Raleigh.        

13. Butch Davis, North Carolina – To evaluate Davis properly in his first season in Chapel Hill, you’ve got to look past the 4-8 record, and measure some of the less tangible gains that’ll pay dividends down the road.  The Tar Heels were far more competitive than in recent years, increased the talent level everywhere, found a quarterback in T.J. Yates, and made more noise on a national level.  Nine of Carolina’s games were decided by seven points or less, including six losses, but once the players learn how to win a few more nail-biters, the program will be a bona fide threat in the ACC.  Although there were overtures from other schools, Davis appears committed to the Tar Heels, good news for a rising program that played 28 freshmen in 2007.   

14. Gene Chizik, Iowa State – A winner everywhere he’s been as a defensive coordinator, last season had to be a sobering experience for Chizik.  The Cyclones were abysmal in the early going, losing to Kent State and Northern Iowa in the first two weeks, and winning just once in eight tries.  However, Iowa State never quit on the staff, playing Oklahoma and Missouri tough, and beating Kansas State and Colorado in successive weeks in November.  A lack of speed, poor tackling and not enough playmakers sunk the ‘Clones, but a strong finish and the play of a couple of freshmen, QB Austen Arnaud and RB Alexander Robinson, gave the program a shot in the arm heading into the offseason.        

We knew your team would be bad…it was

15. Bob Toledo, Tulane – Although the Green Wave was an identical 4-8 from last season, it did make modest strides, scoring more points and yielding fewer than in 2006.  Plus, the program got better as the season wound down, finishing 3-3 and in a respectable third place tie in Conference USA West.  Out of junior Anthony Scelfo and sophomore Kevin Moore, Toledo has to coach up one of his quarterbacks, especially since star RB Matt Forte has exhausted his eligibility.  The coach also has to get his kids to step up late in games after they dropped three by five points or less in 2007.        

16. David Bailiff, Rice – Bailiff walked into a tough situation, succeeding a coach that just took the Owls to their first bowl game in four decades.  Rice was good in 2006, winning seven games, but it also caught plenty of breaks, something the new staff was unable to recapture last fall.  The Owls opened with a loss to Nicholls State out of the FCS, a harbinger of things to come in a season that got away from them in October.  The biggest indictment of Bailiff, a defensive coach, in his first season was that his defense showed no improvement as the season wore on, finishing 118th nationally in total and scoring defense. 

17. Neil Callaway, UAB – With so many freshmen and sophomores dotting the two-deep, it was back to square one for the Blazers, which bowled as recently as 2004.  Callaway, fully aware of the hurdles he faced, did about as well as can be expected, milking two wins out of his kids, and nearly shocking Florida State and Mississippi State in the first half of the year.  Although a few more wins would have been nice to carry into the spring, last season was more about building a foundation and getting reps for the next generation of Blazers.        

Stan Brock, Army – Brock essentially met expectations in 2007, leading the Black Knights to a second straight 3-9 record, and their 11th straight losing season.  Oh, and there was also a sixth loss in-a-row to Navy, 38-3, the longest skid by either Academy in the 118-year history of the series.  Obviously noticing the success that the Middies and Air Force have had using the option over the years, Brock is strongly considering splicing it into his playbook next season.  A visit from Rhode Island and a miraculous comeback against Tulane got the Cadets to 3-3, but they failed to win a game over the final two months of the season.    

Robb Akey, Idaho – The Vandals regressed in Akey’s first season as a head coach, winning three fewer games than a year ago and suffering double-digit losses for the third time this decade.  After just getting by Cal-Poly on Sept. 8, it was all downhill for Idaho, which ended the season on a deflating 10-game losing streak.  In Akey’s defense, he did inherit an awful situation that forced him to jettison 19 players from the program that were deemed to have eligibility or character issues.  The obvious lack of depth in Moscow was something that plagued the coach and his staff throughout the season. 

Mario Cristobal, Florida International – The Panthers were expected to be one of the nation’s worst programs in 2007, so a 1-11 record isn’t exactly an indictment of the job done by Cristobal.  He played a ton of underclassmen, hoping they’ll form the foundation of a more competitive Sun Belt team in two or three years.  Hey, at least the Panthers beat North Texas in the regular season finale, snapping a 23-game losing streak and carrying a much-needed one-game winning streak into the offseason.

21. Todd Dodge, North Texas – Dodge’s incredible run as a high school coach in Texas may carry over to the college ranks, but it’s going to take time; probably a little more time than most expected.  The Mean Green struggled to compete in most games, winning just two and laboring to pick up the nuances of Dodge’s free-wheeling passing attack.  In the coach’s defense, North Texas spent most of the year with a true freshman, Giovanni Vizza, taking snaps, and was saddled with the nation’s weakest defense.    

The honeymoon is already over

Tim Brewster, Minnesota – Last season was not supposed to be a complete rebuilding year for the Gophers; it just looked that way from the opener with Bowling Green to the finale with Wisconsin.  The same school that went to seven bowl games in the last eight years under Glen Mason managed just one win under Brewster, reaching a low point for the program in the last quarter-century.  The Gophers were close on a lot of Saturdays, but moral victories did little to compensate for losses to Florida Atlantic and North Dakota State or an 0-8 mark in Big Ten play.  Ever the optimist and a crackerjack recruiter, Brewster needs to make good on his promise to upgrade the talent at Minnesota.  And fast.

23. Randy Shannon, Miami – No matter what’s happened the last few years, this is still Miami, a school that’s not supposed to lose to North Carolina.  Or North Carolina State.  Or Virginia, 48-0, when the university and the city are saying farewell to the Orange Bowl.  Despite having enough returning talent to win eight games, the Canes went 5-7, slipping below .500 and missing the postseason for the first time since 1997.  The defense, Shannon’s baby, allowed its most points per game since 1970, another sign that a return to glory will take longer than most expected.  Badly outcoached at times, Shannon and his renovated staff are counting on a knockout recruiting class to ignite the floundering program.  

24. Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville – No coach in America did less with more in 2007 than Kragthorpe, who inherited a top 10 team with a star quarterback, and promptly guided it to a 6-6 record and a bowl-less postseason.  From losses to Syracuse and Kentucky to a close call with Middle Tennessee State, little went as planned for the Cardinals, which suddenly couldn’t tackle and weren’t so scary on offense.  Save for the surprising win over Rutgers in the finale, Louisville lacked emotion and execution, a stark contrast from the days when Bobby Petrino was on the sidelines.  Kragthorpe has shaken up his staff in an effort to ensure last year was an aberration.  It better be, or else his stay in the ‘Ville will be a short one.