Ranking The 2008 Rookie Head Coaches
Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt
Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt
Posted Jan 22, 2009

Which head coaches did the best and worst jobs in the first years at their respective schools? From Houston Nutt at Ole Miss to some huge names at the bottom, Richard Cirminiello breaks down the 2008 rookie head coaches.

Ranking The 2008 Rookie Coaches

How did the new guys do?

By Richard Cirminiello 

- Ranking The 2006 Rookie Head Coaches

- Ranking The 2007 Rookie Head Coaches

Eighteen head coaches made their debuts at campuses across the country in 2008. Although the results were mixed, with two rookies finishing the season ranked in the Top 25 and more than half 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 Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez and Texas A&M’s Mike Sherman, are already scrambling for answers before the start of another session of spring practices.

Reranking The 2007 Rookie Head Coaches
How'd they do after year two?
(In parentheses ... where they ranked after year one.)

1. Brian Kelly, Cincinnati (1)
Nick Saban, Alabama (11)
3. Mark Dantonio, MSU (6)
4. Jeff Jagodzinski, BC (4)*
Todd Graham, Tulsa (7)
6. David Bailiff, Rice (16)
7. Troy Calhoun, Air Force (3)
Butch Davis, N. Carolina (13)
9. Butch Jones, Central Mich (8)
Randy Shannon, Miami (23)
11. Derek Dooley, La Tech (10)
Dennis Erickson, ASU (2)
13. Tom O'Brien, NC State (12)
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford (9)
Tim Brewster, Minn. (22)
Steve Kragthorpe, Louis. (24)
Bill Lynch, Indiana (5)
Mario Cristobal, FIU (20)
Neil Callaway, UAB (17)
Bob Toledo, Tulane (15)
Gene Chizik, Iowa State (14)*
Robb Akey, Idaho (19)
23. Todd Dodge, UNT (21)
Stan Brock, Army (18)*

*No longer with the program

Quick, get this guy an extension

1. Houston Nutt, Ole Miss – An SEC retread? Uh, no. It’s taken Nutt less than a year to turn around a Rebel program that had completely lost its way under Ed Orgeron. In the four seasons prior to his arrival, Ole Miss had won just 14 games. In 2008, the Rebs went 9-4, including a win over national champion Florida and a 47-34 victory over then-No. 8 Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Ole Miss closed the season on a six-game winning streak and an improbable No. 14 in the final AP poll, concrete evidence that Nutt was far from finished when he got the boot from Arkansas a year ago.  

2. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech – If 2008 is a fair barometer, the option most certainly can work in a major conference. Johnson exceeded all expectations in his first year at Tech, inheriting a bunch of misfits for his style of offense, and quickly transforming them into one of the nation’s most potent ground games. The Jackets were in contention for the Coastal Division all season, and beat rival Georgia for the first time in seven years, a huge feather in Johnson’s cap. If he can win nine games with Chan Gailey’s recruits, there’s a sense around Atlanta that the best is yet to come for Tech.

Bo Pelini, Nebraska – Nebraska is all about the championships. And while the Huskers didn’t win one in 2008, they took a firm step in that direction by capping a nine-win season with a come-from-behind Gator Bowl defeat of Clemson. Call it the foundation on which future teams will be built. Without a preponderance of top-tier talent, Pelini shook off a three-game, mid-season losing streak to lead Nebraska to a nifty 6-1 finish. That momentum plus the experience of being a head coach for the first time is capable of propelling Pelini to new heights in a suddenly wide-open Big 12 North.   

4. Steve Fairchild, Colorado State – To fully appreciate what Fairchild accomplished in his debut season, it’s important to remember where the program was when he arrived. The Rams had gotten stale under Sonny Lubick this decade, slipping below .500 in each of the last two seasons. So, when a new staff took over, expectations were modest, to say the least. However, rather than wallowing at the bottom of the Mountain West, as many expected, Fairchild began to restore some of the pride that evaporated in Fort Collins, leading the program to its first winning season since 2003 and first bowl victory since 2001.
Kevin Sumlin, Houston – When hired, Sumlin vowed to take what Art Briles had accomplished and go a few steps further. So far, so good. After sputtering out of the gate, the Cougars began to gel, winning seven of their final nine games, including a bowl game for the first time in 28 years. As expected, the catalyst for the in-season turnaround was a high-octane offense that ranked among the nation’s top 10 in scoring and total yards. Many of the key components of that attack return in 2009, making Sumlin’s goal of a BCS bowl berth a little more attainable.          

6. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy – The Midshipmen wouldn’t be the same without Paul Johnson, right? At least for one year, that was not the case. Niumatalolo was successful in keeping Navy on the winning path, guiding the academy to its sixth straight bowl game, despite not having the services of QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada for much of the year. The highlights were winning another Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and beating Rutgers and Wake Forest. Niumatalolo’s eight wins were the most by a first-year Middie coach since 1926, earning him a contract extension at the end of the season.

You made nice progress…now build on it

7. Art Briles, Baylor – Wins and losses are not the only measures of success, especially at a perennial doormat, like Baylor. The Bears made undeniable strides under Briles, even in a year when they won just four games. What the standings won’t reveal is that the school scored its most points since 1994, and came within a play or two of upsetting Connecticut, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas Tech. And all with true freshman Robert Johnson calling signals and quickly becoming the face of a resurgence in Waco. 

8. David Cutcliffe, Duke – After just one year of Cutcliffe calling the shots, the difference in the play of the Blue Devils was palpable. The execution was crisper, the mistakes were less frequent, and the offense scored more points than any Duke team had in the last 13 years. The team’s four victories matched the total from the previous four seasons combined, and included an ACC win for the first time in almost four years. Cutcliffe has helped give the Blue Devils an injection of hope and improved talent, which have been missing since the Steve Spurrier days two decades ago.   

9. Larry Fedora, Southern Miss – It took more than half the season, but once the Eagles fully bought into Fedora’s system and philosophy, they really began to roll. Southern Miss won its final four games to become bowl-eligible, capping the year with a fifth win in-a-row in the New Orleans Bowl. The offense set all kinds of single-season school records, including total yards and passing yards, and came within four points of the scoring record set more than half a century ago. Best of all, the Eagles did their damage with a redshirt freshman at quarterback and a true freshman catching many of his passes.

10. Jerry Kill, Northern Illinois – Being picked to finish near the bottom of the MAC before the season began did nothing to derail the Huskies’ drive toward a postseason. One of the most improbable teams to earn a bowl berth, Northern Illinois won the games it was supposed to, overachieving behind the play of the league’s stingiest defense and a redshirt freshman quarterback. While a trip to Shreveport to play in the Independence Bowl might seem like a punishment for many schools, it was a watershed moment for a Huskie team that wasn’t supposed to play beyond Thanksgiving.

11. Greg McMackin, Hawaii – Think back to where the Warriors were a year ago. In the span of two chaotic weeks, they’d been embarrassed on a national level in the Sugar Bowl, lost the architect of the program to SMU, parted ways with a Heisman-contending quarterback, and were losing receivers early to the NFL. The job of bailing water out of the wa'a belonged to McMackin, who last held a head job 35 years ago at Aloha High School. All things considered, he did a nice job. After starting out 1-3, Hawaii rallied for seven wins and a third straight bowl invite.

You were over .500, but it didn’t feel like it

12. Bill Stewart, West Virginia – So far, Stewart has failed to answer his legion of critics, who labeled his hiring as a knee-jerk reaction to a tremendous Fiesta Bowl upset. In his first season, the Mountaineers lost their swagger and a lot of the offensive production that made them so scary under Rich Rodriguez. The optimist will suggest that nine wins in a transition year isn’t so shabby. The realist, however, will point out that you can’t go to the Continental Tire Bowl or finish on the fringe of the Top 25 in Pat White’s final season in Morgantown.

You were under .500, but better days lay ahead

13. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas – It was an odd year in Fayetteville, filled with a fair amount of high points and forgettable moments. The same Hogs that needed to rally to beat Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe actually knocked off Auburn, Tulsa, and LSU in a momentum-building second half. That’s bound to happen when the players don’t quite fit the system and underclassmen dot the two-deep. Still, there’s a feeling of optimism surrounding the program heading into 2009. The last four losses were only by 20 points combined, and coveted QB Ryan Mallett is eligible after transferring from Michigan.

14. Rick Neuheisel, UCLA – Rick Neuheisel is a coach. He is not a magician. The latter would have been needed to get much more than four wins out of this UCLA team. The Bruins simply didn’t have enough talent, especially on offense, to contend for bowl eligibility. An upgrade at quarterback and along the offensive line, in particular, is paramount to closing the gap on the likes of USC, Oregon, and Cal. It’s a good thing Neuheisel has a track record as a recruiter because his next order of business is to raise the talent level in Westwood.

June Jones, SMU – Rather than playing for an extra win or two in the present, Jones completely broke down the Mustangs in 2008 with an eye toward the future. He handed the keys to his run-and-shoot offense to a true freshman, and came down hard on those who didn’t follow the rules. What the 1-11 record didn’t reveal was that SMU became more competitive and comfortable in the system as the season went on. In fact, four of the team’s final seven losses were by a touchdown or less. It’s not much, but it is something to build on in 2009.  

Grab your passport …the honeymoon is already over

16. Mike Sherman, Texas A&M – This looked like a strange hire a year ago. Still does. The Aggies pulled up the rear in a Big 12 South that still claims Baylor as one of its members, and dropped their final three games by an average score of 52-19. The program instituted a youth movement, using more than a dozen freshmen throughout the four-win season, which ought to start paying more dividends beginning in 2009. It better because Aggie fans have grown increasingly impatient with a program that’s missed the postseason four times this decade, and keeps falling further behind in the state pecking order.

17. Paul Wulff, Washington State – Things weren’t just bad in Pullman. They were hide-the-women-and-children bad. The Cougars never stood a chance, arguably authoring the worst season in Pac-10 history. Beating Washington in the Apple Cup helped, but couldn’t gloss over finishing 118th nationally in both scoring offense and defense, and 2-11 overall. While it didn’t help losing quarterbacks like they were baby teeth, there’s no excusing a six-game stretch that saw five points opponents ring up at least 58 points. Even in the Eastern Washington days, Wulff-coached teams rarely played much defense, something that needs to be addressed in a hurry.

18. Rich Rodriguez, Michigan – A dip was expected, yes, but this? Totally unacceptable. Beyond the culture shock that came with a new staff and a new offense, Wolverine fans were forced to endure a 3-9 disaster, the worst campaign in the school’s storied history. It was under Rodriguez’s watch that Michigan squandered long winning streaks versus Michigan State, Penn State, and the Mid-American Conference, and went without a bowl game for the first time since 1974. It all adds up to a sense of desperation to win more games in 2009 and cultivate the right mix of talent to run the spread offense in Ann Arbor.