Coach today, gone tomorrow is the new gridiron normal
Long before Bill O’Brien came to Happy Valley – heck, long before Joe Paterno was unceremoniously chased away by a thankless Board of Trustees – there was one thing that many of us who follow sports for a living knew: Paterno would be the last of his kind at Penn State.
What I mean by that is – and O’Brien’s abrupt departure, lured by the scent of NFL money, proves it – that there will never again be a career football coach for the Nittany Lions.
In fact, I’ve long guessed, the folks who take the job now and forever will probably last only a few years each.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t schools that will show loyalty to their football coach, and vice versa. Frank Beamer, the best active example, just wrapped up his 27th season at Virginia Tech, with a 20-year bowl streak (appearances, that is; he’s just under .500 since the streak began in 1993).
Beamer is joined at the head table by three Football Bowl Subdivision coaches who began at their current college in the 1990s: Larry Blakeny, Troy, 1991; Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, 1999; and Kirk Ferentz, Iowa, 1999. There are five others who took their current job prior to 2005 – fewer than 10 in major college football with 10 or more years experience at the same school.
Out of the 125 FBS schools, a shorter lifespan on the sidelines is the norm. As the 2013 season wraps up, just four schools have a coach who has been on board since 2009, five seasons back. Another 10 began in 2010; 16 coaches were hired in the 2011 season. There were 52 college coaches at the end of 2013 who had just one or two years at their school – most of them one. In fact, nearly a quarter of the FBS schools had a first-year coach this year.
Those numbers are skewed somewhat by the 15 colleges that either have openings or have filled them – for example, we know it was at least 23, not 22 schools with a second-year coach this season because he just left for Houston.
Others have recently moved on – Kansas State’s Bill Snyder has 20 years at the school, but there was a four-year gap in his coaching stints there. And “Pistol” architect Chris Ault spent 28 years leading Nevada, albeit over three split terms.
The harsh reality of college football coaching is that there will be no more Bear Bryants, no more Bobby Bowdens, no more Joe Paternos – and all three of them pale in comparison to the real leaders in the sport. In fact, Paterno is only fourth on the all-time list for years coaching, although he stands out for staying at the same school, and in the highly competitive Division I, no less.
But if you want to talk about longevity, you have to put John Gagliardi at the top of the list – the veteran coach retired in 2012 after 60 years at Division III St. John’s. Amos Alonzo Stagg, whose career ended as an assistant to his son at the other end of U.S. 522 at Susquehanna University, had 57 years in the game as the head man. Eddie Robinson put in 55 years at Grambling, split into two terms, the latter a 51-year hitch.
Beamer and Blakeny would have to stay on the job another 20 or more years, into their 80s, to get an invite to this exclusive club.
Paterno? Just 46 years at the top, after 15 seasons as Rip Engle’s assistant.
And no one Penn State hires – not this year or next, not ever – is going to match that.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.