First, of course, it's not literally accurate to say that he doesn't have head coaching experience, because he was a state championship head coach at the high school level in New Jersey. Of course, as ND football fans know, success at the high school level doesn't always translate into success at the college level.
Weis's most meaningful experience has been as a pro coordinator. Specifically, of course, he has been the offensive coordinator for two Super Bowl champion Patriots teams.
I thought it would be interesting to see how similarly credentialed coaches from the last decade or so had done in college. Specifically I looked for coaches without significant head coaching experience, but significant pro coordinating experience, to see how they had done at the college level.
So, this list didn't include guys like Paul Hackett (who was the head coach, fairing poorly, at Pitt for over three years) or Gary Crowton (who had three so-so years at Louisiana Tech). Nor did it include guys like Karl Dorrell who were only pro position coaches.
The result was a pretty interesting list, which I present alphabetically:
Croom was a longtime NFL assistant who spent four years as a coordinator, but never was a head coach. This year he took over at Mississippi State and Bulldogs showed some more fight. Their 3-8 record was a 1.5-game improvement over last year's dismal 2-10 campaign. Probably more tellingly, however, they were much more competitive. Last year they were a horrifying -246 on point differential and this year narrowed the gap to -107.
Davis, like Weis, had a high school head coaching job. He was hired onto Jimmy Johnson's staff at Oklahoma State and then followed him to Miami and then to the Dallas Cowboys, becoming the defensive coordinator for a Super Bowl team.
Davis then returned as the head coach at the University of Miami. He took over a messy situation as Dennis Erickson had left behind a trail of NCAA violations. Davis's 51-20 record at Miami is impressive, but more impressive is that he dug them out of a hole. Miami was 5-6 in his third year as probation took its toll, but Miami was 11-1 his last year and probably should've played in the national championship game. Instead they ripped apart Florida in the Sugar Bowl and finished #2. Davis departed for the NFL and his former OC Larry Coker guided the Canes to a national championship the next year.
Friedgen is another coach with a background something like Weis's. Friedgen was a longtime Bobby Ross assistant at his various stops and served as Ross's offensive coordinator for San Diego's 1994 Super Bowl team. Friedgen was later George O'Leary's offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech before landing the head coaching job at his alma mater Maryland.
Friedgen has been something of a miracle worker. Even with this year's subpar 5-6 season, Maryland has won 36 games in Friedgen's 4 years. Maryland won 37 games in the decade before he took over.
O'Leary, like Friedgen, came from the Bobby Ross family tree, where he was Ross's defensive coordinator in San Diego. O'Leary eventually became the head coach at Georgia Tech where he did a good job. O'Leary took over a very tough situation, becoming the coach midseason of a 1-7 squad. O'Leary coached the Jackets to losses in the final three games, but with his hands on the reins had Tech back on the plus side of the ledger at 6-5 the next year. Excluding those first three games, O'Leary compiled a nice 52-30 record at Georgia Tech before famously becoming the head coach for 6 days at Notre Dame.
Petrino, only 41, had a tremendous c.v. as an assistant before coming to Louisville. He was the offensive coordinator for Jacksonville under Coughlin and also had stops as an offensive assistant and coordinator at Auburn and earlier at Louisville.
Petrino's record at Louisville has been nothing short of spectacular. A good deal of the credit for getting Louisville up off the mat must go to John L. Smith, who is now Michigan State's coach. But Petrino has produced a monster at Louisville that is much better than any of Smith's teams.
Petrino took over a team from Smith that was 7-6 and a modest +55 on points for the season. Petrino's first year Louisville was 9-4 and +89. This year Louisville is 10-1 and an astonishing +357 on points. The Cardinals average over 50 points per game and only a heartbreaking 41-38 loss on the road to Miami kept them out of a BCS game.
Saban, like Weis, is from the Parcells-Belichick coaching family tree. Saban was the head coach for one year at Toledo (finishing 9-2) but his most meaningful experience was as Belichick's defensive coordinator at Cleveland.
Saban was hired as Michigan State's head coach after George Perles (for whom Saban had also served as an assistant) was fired at the close of the 1994 season. MSU was forced to officially forfeit all its 1994 and labored under scholarship reductions.
Saban managed to keep MSU on the right side of .500 his first four years before uncorking a Citrus Bowl championship team in 1999.
Saban was then hired at LSU where he produced instant results. He took over a squad that was 7-15 the two prior years and then went 8-4 his first year (going +85 on points after the team had gone -36 the year prior). Saban won the Peach and Sugar Bowls his first two years and won the BCS championship his fourth year. He leaves now for the Dolphins, but bequeaths a 9-2 team that is loaded with talent.
Shula had been an Alabama player and served as Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator in the late 1990's. He then was the Dolphins' quarterback coach before taking over the Tide two seasons ago.
To say that Shula inherited a tough situation was something of an understatement. Like many of the other programs, Bama has been under the watch of the NCAA. Alabama had hired Mike Price who was the coach through spring football, but was fired after Strippergate, so Shula took the team in the fall without even the benefit of coaching them through spring practice.
Shula coached Alabama to a 4-9 record his first season, though it wasn't quite as bad as the record would indicate. Bama was only -2 on points for that year and played Oklahoma very tough, losing 20-13. Alabama also suffered heartbreak losses to Arkansas, Northern Illinois, Tennessee, Auburn and Hawaii, making them 0-6 in games decided by 8 points or fewer.
This year Alabama was 6-5 and a robust +110 on points and played both Auburn and Tennessee very tough. Alabama would be in a bowl but for the NCAA sanctions.
Turner did serve for one year as the head coach of San Jose State (where they were a respectable 7-4) but was mostly a career assistant, including four years as the Bears' offensive coordinator before getting the Illinois head job.
Turner took over a very tough situation at Illinois where the Illini were 2-9 the prior year under Lou Tepper. Turner suffered through a miserable 0-11 year his first year but then made progress to 3-8 his second year.
His third year Illinois was a robust 8-4 and +113 on points. Illinois had a hard luck 5-6 fourth year (losing by a combined 7 points to Ohio State and Michigan) before winning the Big 10 his fifth year. Illinois lost to LSU in the Sugar Bowl 47-34 (the Rose Bowl was hijacked so the BCS could put on the mismatch between Miami and Nebraska). Turner skidded after that, however, and didn't have another winning season and was fired in favor of Ron Zook after this season.
Zook had been Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida, though if one recalls Nebraska's 62-point Fiesta Bowl demolition of Zook's defense, it's not too hard to understand why some UF fans were calling for Zook's ouster before he even started.
Zook had been the defensive coordinator for New Orleans, however, before he became a surprise pick at the coach to replace Spurrier. Zook proved the truth of the old adage that "you want to follow the guy who followed the legend."
Zook, however, probably shouldn't be counted as an abject failure. His first year UF was 8-5 and +57 on points, the next year UF was 8-5 and +119 on points and this year UF was 7-4 and + 146 on points. Florida this year lost to Tennessee by 2, LSU by 3 and Mississippi State and Georgia by 7 (the latter game coming the week his firing was announced).
None of this is to suggest that Zook (now the Illinois head coach) is a great head coach. But, note that Willingham at ND was 21-15 and +18 on points over three years, while Zook was 23-14 and + 322 on points over his stretch.
Collectively, the track record of these coaches is good. Saban, Petrino, Friedgen and Davis are all recognized as being in the upper echelon of their profession.
It's a little early to say on Shula and Croom, but Alabama and Mississippi State certainly was an improved squads this year.
O'Leary's name is unfortunately associated with the fiasco surrounding his hiring at ND, but it shouldn't overshadow that he was a quite successful coach at Georgia Tech.
he closest things to failures in this group are Turner and Zook, but even then much can be said on their behalf. Turner took Illinois to their first conference championship in decades, though he may not have been able to recruit effectively enough. Turner is, however, still widely regarded as an excellent offensive football coach.
Zook proved to be an excellent recruiter at Florida and UF was showing improvement, though they were maddeningly inconsistent in their play.
Another note here as well: None of these coaches has a track record an assistant that rivals Weis's. Probably the closest one in this department is Butch Davis, who was the Super Bowl defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, though just once – and he didn't spend as much time at the coordinator level as has Weis.
Friedgen and O'Leary were both part of the Super Bowl staff of Bobby Ross in San Diego, though San Diego was crushed in that Super Bowl by San Francisco. Ross, though a fine coach, certainly is not in Belichick's league.
Saban, like Weis, is from the Belichick family tree, though from the less-successful Cleveland incarnation of it.
Shula was part of Tampa Bay's offensive staff in the late 1990's when they had some tremendously unexciting offenses. Zook was never regarded as a defensive wizard while he was in the NFL (or at UF for that matter). Turner was and is a respected coach, but certainly was not regarded as being in Weis's league coming into a college head coaching job.
There's much reason for optimism about this hire.