My response was simple. How many of those coaches were still on the job four years later? How many of the teams they inherited were actually talented?
Before we take a look at those coaches who have accomplished the task, and very well I might add, let's (briefly) take a look at the new guy and his cast of performers. Unlike Ron Zook, Brad Scott, and Rockey Felker, Meyer has been a head coach. Urban Meyer has done this twice before, at Bowling Green and Utah. He has taken two programs, where recruits were previously taking their letters and using them as drink coasters and turned them into winners. He not only won right away, but he entirely changed the way people looked at these football programs.
Furthermore, his returning cast includes four seniors on the offensive front, a veteran quarterback, several big play receivers, the entire defensive front, playmakers at linebacker and in the secondary, and an outstanding punter.
Additionally, many of Florida's players have been through coaching changes before. They've listened and watched the clock as time ran out on the much beleaguered Ron Zook. That is an important part of the equation.
"I've been through this twice now," Florida center Mike Degory said shrugging his shoulders. "Coach Spurrier was the coach who recruited me. He left and Coach Zook came in. There are a lot of us who have been through this before. I hate to say that you get used to it, but you take it and just move on. Experiencing this before better prepared me though."
The comments of Louisiana State senior running back Joseph Addai are in some ways a stark contrast to those made by Degory.
"It was strange," Addai said. "Me, I've never been through a change. But, I think it's going to work because everybody's adapting to Coach (Les) Miles. I think that's really going to help us in the future, because what he does is real positive and he has plans for us. We really have to start from day one to work hard….We think they're both (Nick Saban and Miles) pretty similar."
Terry Bowden, the roaming gnome, took an Auburn program that had finished poorly in Pat Dye's final two seasons (10-11-1) and promptly ran the table (11-0) with them. Obviously, the rally around the NCAA sanctions aided the War Eagles cause, but Bowden beat both Alabama and Florida, the two teams that played for the SEC Championship in Birmingham.
In the summer of 1996, Dye told me that Bowden would fall flat on his face, because he couldn't recruit and generally didn't know what the hell he was doing. Dye said that Bowden's success could be simply traced to one element: he did it with my players. At the time I thought that was probably a major case of sour grapes, but the old coach proved to be correct.
Bowden took every piece of coaching data from that old coach at Florida State, a group of talented players, and won. A core group of veterans including offensive linemen Wayne Gandy and Anthony Redman, quarterback Stan White, running back James Bostic, receiver Frank Sanders, defensive backs Brian Robinson, Calvin Jackson and Chris Shelling, and punter Terry Daniel helped pave the way.
Steve Spurrier, who had led Duke to an Atlantic Coast title one year earlier, led the Gators to the best record in the SEC (9-2, 6-1), including a 17-13 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa that he said was the turning point in the Florida program.
Spurrier utilized several outstanding veterans that Galen Hall had brought to Florida. Defensive stars Huey Richardson, Will White, Jerry Odom, Godfrey Miles, Jimmy Spencer, Richard Fain, Brad Culpepper, just to name a few. Offensively, Kirk Kirkpatrick, Ernie Mills, Chris Bromley, and Dexter McNabb blended oh so nicely with emerging young stars Shane Matthews and Errict Rhett.
Nick Saban put Lansing, Michigan in his rear view mirror and took prosperous LSU to an 8-4 record in 2000. The Bayou Bengals were just one year removed from Gerry DiNardo's horrifying 3-8 record that included a 31-5 loss to Kentucky in 1999.
Saban said at the time that he expected the Tigers to be competitive from the start because of some very talented players who were strong leaders. He was right. Super soph linebackers Trev Faulk and Bradie James teamed with veterans Howard Green, Ryan Clark, Muskingam Barnes The Tigers were led offensively by veteran quarterbacks Josh Booty and Rohan Davey, senior offensive linemen Louis Williams and Brandon Winey, receivers Josh Reed and Jerel Myers, running backs LaBrandon Toefield and Dominick Davis, and senior tight end Robert Royal.
Arkansas 1977 and 1998
The Razorbacks have had two coaches lead the Hogs from ruins to riches. The first was Lou Holtz. The magician took over for the legendary Frank Broyles, who could only guide his beloved Arkansas to a 5-5 record in his swan song season. Holtz found the secret formula to motivate the likes of veteran kicker Steve Little, quarterback Ron Calcagni, offensive lineman Leotis Harris, defensive linemen Dan Hampton and Jimmy Walker, and running back Ben Cowins. The Hogs (11-1) suffered their only loss (13-9) to powerful Texas in a Southwest Conference struggle.
Twenty-one years later, Houston Nutt took over for embroiled Danny Ford and led the Hogs (9-3) to a first place tie in an admittedly weak Western Division. Arkansas' two regular season losses, 28-24 to eventual national champion Tennessee and 22-21 to Western Division co-champ Mississippi State. It was quite a rebound for a team that had compiled a 4-7 record just one year earlier.
For every major success story there are half a dozen failures and an untold number of average first year starts. But, for those coaches that have the experience and talent on hand, the potential for a highly successful first year campaign is attainable. Bowden aside, most are highly regarded in many circles. Spurrier, Holtz, and Saban have each won a national championship. There is no without question that they'll be held in high esteem for their overall success. Nutt doesn't have the resume of the aforementioned, but he is still in high demand by many athletic directors.
These four programs had successful campaigns with these first year coaches. There is no question that failure is an option. It's always an option. But, with the proper amount of talent, schedule, and leadership, so is ultimate success. I surmise that Florida has as much talent as any of these squads.
Two-time National Coach of the Year Urban Meyer might just pick up the hardware again in December. Meyer is batting .500 for the award for goodness sakes. If he hit anything resembling that clip while with the Braves, he'd have been standing alongside Wade Boggs last week in Cooperstown, while John Schuerholz negotiated a Cryogeny contract with Shelley.
Then again, if Meyer is as successful as Bowden or Spurrier were in their inaugural SEC campaigns, the BullGators might take Schuerholz' place in those negotiations.