FOOTBALL: Turnarounds usually don't take so long

The debate began to rage from that very first blowout loss to Miami in the Swamp and continued right up to a humbling defeat in Starkville, Mississippi. In fact, it really never ended; it just became irrelevant. Some said Ron Zook needed time to recruit his players and implement his system at Florida and that he should not be held accountable for losses in the first few years. Others said he was taking over a top program and should be expected to win from the very beginning.

That argument is now moot as far as Zook and the Gators are concerned, but it is still very relevant for Florida fans everywhere. The school has a new coach and the same high expectations. So the question remains: How much time does Urban Meyer need to install his system? Should he be held accountable right away for every loss? Or should Gator fans give him time?

To best answer any such question it is best to look at history and the answer is that both sides in the Ron Zook argument were partly right and partly wrong. History shows that championship coaches do indeed need time to implement their system when starting at a new school, but that they need a lot less time than many believe, usually only one season, two at the most. After that, they tend to have their teams playing at the highest level, and this tends to be true whether they inherited a talented squad or one that is struggling.

Take the example of Jimmy Johnson. He left Oklahoma to coach Miami before the 1984 season. The Hurricanes were the defending national champions and had a lot of their team coming back, including quarterback Bernie Kosar. But Johnson, one of the great football coaches of our generation, stumbled to an 8-5 record. After Miami lost its first game of the next season to Florida, Johnson's teams went a combined 44-3 and won the National Championship during his fourth year. Clearly, despite inheriting a talented team, Johnson needed a year and a game to get his system in place. He lost fewer games his last four seasons combined than he did in his first year.

Another good example is Gene Stallings. Alabama won the SEC title in 1989, but Tide fans were disenchanted with Bill Curry, and he left for Kentucky. Stallings led the defending SEC Champs to a 7-5 record. Then, after losing their second game of the following season (also to Florida), Alabama won their next 31 games, including the 1992 National Championship. Stallings, like Johnson, needed that year to implement his system and then blew right through the competition.

And the trend is the same for coaches who inherit losing programs. Pete Carroll was hired to take over a program at Southern Cal that was floundering under Paul Hackett, having gone 5-7 the previous season. During Carroll's first campaign, he improved USC's record by all of one game, going 6-6. The next season, USC started 3-2 and then won out to finish 11-2. After the fifth game of that second year USC has gone 33-1 and won the last two National Championships.

The interesting thing about these examples, and many others, is that while it typically takes a championship coach a year, or two at the most, to implement their system, those coaches almost all have their teams playing championship quality football by their third season.

The table below lists every coach that has won a National Championship over the past 20 seasons. The table omits coaches who were promoted from within a program, since they aren't implementing a new system and don't need the transition time. This eliminates Lloyd Carr, Larry Coker, Phil Fulmer, Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer.

The table lists fourteen different coaches. The first column shows the record each coach's school achieved during the year before he was hired. The next four columns show the records during that coach's first four seasons. The last column shows the number of seasons that elapsed before that coach won a National Championship.

Coach

School

Prior

Year

Year as Coach

Years

to NC

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

Paterno

PSU

5-5

5-5

8-2-1

11-0

11-0

17

Johnson

Mia

11-1*

8-5

10-2

11-1

12-0*

4

Holtz

ND

5-6

5-6

8-4

12-0*

12-1

3

Erickson

Mia

11-1

11-1*

10-2

12-0*

11-1

1

McCartney

Colo

3-8

2-8-1

4-7

1-10

7-5

9

Ross

GT

5-5-1

2-9

3-8

7-4

11-0-1*

4

James

Wash

5-6

6-5

5-6

8-4

7-4

17

Stallings

Bama

10-2

7-5

11-1

13-0*

10-3

3

Bowden

FSU

3-8

5-6

10-2

8-3

11-1

18

Spurrier

UF

7-5

9-2

10-2

9-4

10-2-1

7

Stoops

Okl

5-6

7-5

13-0*

11-2

12-2

2

Tressell

OSU

8-4

7-5

14-0*

11-2

8-4

2

Saban

LSU

3-8

8-4

10-3

8-5

13-1*

4

Carroll

USC

5-7

6-6

11-2

12-1*

12-0*

3

Average Wins

6.1

6.2

9.1

9.6

10.4

* - won National Championship

 

Notice that only one coach, Dennis Erickson at Miami, led his team to 10 wins or more his first season, and only one other, Steve Spurrier, led his team to 9 wins. All the other coaches struggled their first year, with six of 14 failing to even post a winning record, and eight of 14 failing to improve over the record from the prior season. Imagine that! Of the last 14 National Championship coaches, 57 percent failed to improve upon their predecessor's record their first year out. In fact, the only one to show an improvement of more than two victories was Nick Saban at LSU.

The story changes dramatically, however, during the second season. By then, nine of the 14 coaches have their teams winning at least 10 games, and of the other five, only Don James of Washington failed to improve on his first season's record. During the third season, eight of the 14 coaches won 10 games, and 11 of 14 had posted a 10-win season at some point in his first three years. Furthermore, only one coach had fewer wins in his third season than in either his first year or his predecessor's last season. That coach is Bill McCartney of Colorado, who is the outlier in this survey. He took over a moribund program and performed poorly for several years, before winning one-half of a split championship in 1990.

Overall, these championship coaches averaged 6.2 wins during their first season, which was essentially unchanged from an average of 6.1 wins the year before their arrival. In the second season, however, the average jumps by nearly three wins and continues to climb thereafter. In addition, these coaches tended to win their first National Championship pretty quickly as nine of the 14, or 64%, won one within their first four years.

So, what does this information mean for Gator fans? Florida believes it has hired itself a championship quality coach in Urban Meyer, and I for one agree that's likely the case. We also have a supremely talented team coming back for the 2005 season. Gator fans have every expectation that the marriage of Urban Meyer's coaching abilities with the ample skills of our players will produce a great season.

But, Gator fans also need to realize that 2005 will be a season of transition. While it is possible that Meyer's Gators will play like Spurrier's 1990 team or Erickson's 1987 team at Miami, it is more likely that they will play like Jimmy Johnson's 1984 Miami team or Gene Stallings' 1990 Alabama team. The good news is that regardless of how 2005 turns out, if Urban Meyer is the coach we all think he is, 2006 and 2007 should be seasons to remember.

Gator fans won't have to wait long to find out whether they've got the right coach, but they may have to wait more than one year.


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