Nearly two dozen head coaches made their debuts at campuses across the country in 2009. Although the results were predictably uneven, with just two rookies, Oregon's Chip Kelly and Clemson's Dabo Swinney, finishing ranked in the Top 25, and less 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 swell too. While a handful of coaches have made strong early impressions in their first year on the job, many others are already scrambling for answers before the start of another session of spring practices in two months.
Quick, get this guy a long-term extension
1. Chip Kelly, Oregon
Kelly earned the equivalent of about three seasons of experience in just a single year. Not only did he have to replace long-time Duck head coach Mike Bellotti just before spring, but he also opened with a devastating loss at Boise State that might have derailed other rookies. Not Kelly. He rallied the troops before a promising season slipped away, leading Oregon to its first Pac-10 championship and Rose Bowl since 1994. Sure, there's room for growth and he got out coached in Pasadena, but in less than a year as the boss, he's flashed signs of being a keeper in Eugene.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
The Tigers had never won the ACC Atlantic. Swinney altered history in his first season as the full-time coach, earning some conference Coach of the Year consideration. Yes, he inherited talent on both sides of the line, but unlike old boss Tommy Bowden, he transformed it into fulfilled expectations and a strong middle of the year. After looking like same old Clemson with a 2-3 start, the program ran off six straight wins to take the division crown. Swinney averted an ugly finish by beating Kentucky in the Music City Bowl following losses to South Carolina and Georgia Tech.
3. Steve Sarkisian, Washington
Sarkisian won five games in 2009, but it wasn't your ordinary five-win season. Let's not forget that this program was winless and in complete disarray under Tyrone Willingham a year ago. Sarkisian's presence was felt immediately, as the Huskies hung with LSU in the opener and shocked USC a couple weeks later. Yeah, there was some tough sledding after the Trojan upset, but if the finish is any indication, this is just the beginning of an uptick for the program. U-Dub bounced Wazzu in the Apple Cup, routed Cal, and then learned that star QB Jake Locker was putting off the NFL for one more year in Seattle.
4. Paul Rhoads, Iowa State
Rhoads inherited a team that won two games a year ago and was riding a 10-game losing streak. To the native of Iowa, however, it was a dream job. And that passion rubbed off on the Cyclones from the moment he stepped foot in Ames. Although it sure wasn't pretty at times, Rhoads somehow milked seven wins out of an average collection of talent, including an Insight Bowl squeaker over Minnesota. Sans any star power or offensive firepower, he got every ounce of production that he could from the players, the sign of a good motivator.
5. Frank Spaziani, Boston College
The good soldier on Tom O'Brien's staff for so long, Spaziani finally got his chance to lead a team after Jeff Jagodzinski was dumped. Undeterred by mounting hurdles, like losing All-American LB Mark Herzlich to cancer and needing to scour the Major League farm system for a quarterback, he guided the Eagles to an 11th consecutive bowl game. By going 8-5 and finishing second to Clemson in the ACC Atlantic, he did a remarkably good job of keeping Boston College from veering off course. Spaziani's debut makes you wonder why he didn't get the nod when O'Brien left for N.C. State three years ago.
6. Gene Chizik, Auburn
Considering the circumstances that surrounded Chizik's hiring away from Iowa State, he did a sound job in his debut on the Plains. By piecing together a terrific staff and having success on the recruiting trail, he allayed some concerns about the future direction of the program. Although Auburn finished in a three-way tie in the SEC West basement, it also returned to the postseason, capping an eight-win year with a wild, overtime defeat of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. It's a start for a coach who has the added pressure of residing in the same state as the national champs.
7. Dave Christensen, Wyoming
In the four seasons prior to Christensen's arrival, the Cowboys didn't play in a bowl game or finish above .500. In his debut, the program achieved both, including a season-ending upset of Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. With a limited offense and true freshmen Austyn Carta-Samuels and Alvester Alexander manning the backfield, Wyoming found a way to win those games that were within its grasp. Once Christensen is able to light a fire under the offense, his forte, the program will be in a much better position to compete with the Mountain West elite.
The foundation is set …now go build on it
8. Lane Kiffin, Tennessee
Kiffin certainly made a lot of headlines in 2009, but it wasn't always for his success on the field. Now he'll be known as a one-and-doner in Knoxville, and if he crashes and burns at USC and Derek Dooley becomes a legend, this might be one of the most interesting quick tenures of any coach ever.
Ever quotable and a magnet for controversy, he quickly became known as one of the more notorious head coaches in the country. He also made some positive strides on the field and in the living rooms of high-profile recruits. The Volunteers improved by two wins over Phil Fulmer's final season in Knoxville, nearly bumping off eventual national champ Alabama, and made marked improvement on offense. The first year was just a staging area for Kiffin, who won't start getting graded more harshly until later this fall … in Los Angeles.
9. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Snyder's return to the sidelines after a three-year hiatus came with mixed reviews. The Wildcats were able to conceal obvious weaknesses, especially in the passing game, with a soft schedule, beating Tennessee Tech and just getting by UMass in September. However, they also improved as the season progressed and, miraculously, would have won the Big 12 North by beating Nebraska in Lincoln in the regular season finale. Had Snyder pulled that off, he'd have been deservedly hailed as a genius. After finishing 117th nationally a year ago, the defense made a quantum leap under Chris Cosh, a Snyder appointee.
10. Danny Hope, Purdue
The Boilermakers may have only gone 5-7, but drill down and you'll notice that they were so close to being one of the feel-good stories of the Big Ten in 2009. Purdue lost five games by a touchdown or less, including nail-biters with Oregon, Notre Dame, and Michigan State. Hope used an upset of league champ Ohio State on Oct. 17 to set off a promising 4-2 finish that should begin paying dividends in 2010. Fans of the program had to like that the coach made the most of a limited, youthful roster and had his kids fighting through adversity until the regular season finale with Indiana.
11. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Understanding the size of the mountain that needs to be climbed in Starkville, Mullen got off to a nice start in his first season. He led the Bulldogs to five wins, its third highest total of the decade, and finished a respectable 3-5 in the SEC. The team set the tone for 2010 by whipping Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, 41-27, its rivalry game and de facto postseason game. If Mullen can go 5-7 with a marginal collection of talent, the future figures to be bright once he gets his type of offensive playmakers on campus.
12. Dave Clawson, Bowling Green
The Falcons took a small step in the right direction under Clawson, going perfect in November to finish a game out of first in the MAC West and earn a Humanitarian Bowl invite. Bowling Green lost that game to Idaho, 43-42, but to no fault of the offense. The offensive attack, which benefited the most from his arrival, scored at least 30 points in eight of the final nine games. He maximized the talents of WR Freddie Barnes, who set the NCAA single-season record for receptions, and deserved plenty of credit for the continued evolution of QB Tyler Sheehan.
You were under .500, but better days lay ahead
13. Doug Marrone, Syracuse
No one expected an overnight transformation in Upstate New York, so forget the overall record. The Orange improved by a game over Greg Robinson's final year, by the way. Despite having a turnstile on the roster and a former Duke point guard playing quarterback, the team was noticeably more competitive and much tougher to penetrate on defense. Marrone clearly needs to upgrade the talent level up and down the depth chart. If he can do that, there's a feeling around Syracuse that the school finally has the right man to bring it back to respectability.
14. Gary Andersen, Utah State
Even at 4-8, the Aggies' most wins since 2002, it was clear this was a better football team under Andersen than it was at any point with Brent Guy at the helm. The defense got lit up like Times Square, a major project for the staff, but the offense kept Utah State in plenty of games. With QB Diondre Borel and RB Robert Turbin in the backfield, the Aggies ranked No. 12 nationally in total offense, hanging with the likes of Utah, Texas A&M, BYU, Nevada, and Fresno State, and closing the year with a win over bowl-bound Idaho. If Andersen can get the kids to pull out a few of those toss-up games, the postseason could be in his future.
15. Brady Hoke, San Diego State
While the Aztecs moved a few steps forward in Hoke's first season, a couple of late-game collapses prevented substantially better returns. San Diego State was two games better than 2008, but a four-game, season-ending losing streak and disastrous fourth quarters against Wyoming and UNLV will be the haunting memories of November. Hoke assembled a quality, veteran staff, which fueled progress on both offense and defense, and an overall more physical personality. If he can keep his coaches from straying, the potential exists for the program to end its decade-long bowl drought sooner than later.
16. Rich Ellerson, Army
Resurrecting Army is a tall order for Ellerson, especially in an era when Navy and Air Force are going bowling every year. Well, at least he's off to a nice start. The Black Knights won five games and came within an upset of the Mids from earning a postseason bid for the first time since 1996. They also shocked Vanderbilt on Oct. 10 behind the play of the defense and held Navy to just 17 points, its lowest point total in the series in eight years. It's a start for Ellerson, who still has a long way to go at West Point.
17. Tim Beckman, Toledo
Beckman's first attempt to guide the Rockets beyond mediocrity came up a little flat. Toledo went 5-7 for the third time in the last four years, closing with four losses in the final five games. He was hired to fix the defense, but it's going to take more time and an infusion of talent, especially on the first line of defense. The Rockets yielded a whopping 37 points a game, which placed the bar a little too high for an offense that had punch, but was too careless with the ball. The program did abuse Colorado on national TV in September, the pinnacle of the season.
You've got time … you'll need it
18. DeWayne Walker, New Mexico State
Walker realized he was inheriting a complete overhaul when he replaced Hal Mumme a year ago. The talent was tissue thin and the systems were completely different, so a 3-10 mark and collapse over the final two months should surprise no one. Hidden deep beneath the rubble was a team that started playing with better fundamentals and a far more physical bent on offense and defense. Before a lack of depth caught up with the Aggies, they actually started the year 3-3, including surprising wins over Utah State and New Mexico.
19. Mike Haywood, Miami University
The Redhawks' recent malaise continued in 2009, with no end in sight. This program, which played in back-to-back MAC championships in 2003 and 2004, has now lost at least 10 games in three of the last four years. Haywood wasn't going to change that trend in his first season, nor was he expected to that quickly. Miami avoided a winless season by upsetting Toledo on Halloween, but otherwise, the year was marked by an inability to generate anything on the ground, stop the other team's running game, or put many points on the board. Things became a little more tolerable as the season wound down, so there's that to take into the offseason.
20. Ron English, Eastern Michigan
Only two teams in the country were winless in 2009. The Eagles were one of them. There's no quick fix in Ypsilanti, where the local team hasn't finished above since 1995. English has a proven track record as an assistant, but you won't know it until Eastern Michigan can start bridging the talent gap on the rest of the MAC. A year after going 3-9 and showing a little spark with the ball, the Eagles couldn't overcome a season-ending injury to underrated QB Andy Schmitt, finishing last in the league in total offense and total defense.
21. Stan Parrish, Ball State
Hey, no one expected a repeat of a year ago, but when you inherit a 12-win team, 2-10 is nowhere near meeting expectations. Although the Cardinals played much better toward the end of the disappointing season, it wasn't nearly enough to overcome a hideous 0-7 start that included losses to North Texas, New Hampshire, and Army. With the higher expectations from the tail end of the Brady Hoke era and the awful start from Parrish, he better turn things around quickly if he plans to make this more than a two-year tenure in Muncie.
22. Mike Locksley, New Mexico
Let's take the body count here. Locksley was on the sidelines for the Lobos' worst season in more than two decades, lost to rival New Mexico State, and made more headlines for an altercation with one of his assistants than anything else. Other than the 29-27 win over Colorado State on Nov. 21, there was absolutely nothing to feel good about last fall in Albuquerque. Although no one in the administration is ready to cut and run, Locksley has already squandered a lot of his goodwill after just one season on the job.
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