The Best and Worst College Incumbents
December 15, 2011 by Kevin Beane • Print Story •
As the college football coaching carousel continues to spin, spin, spin, it's time to reflect on those that have not — yet — been sent off the reservation or have taken their playbook to a higher-profile school:
Here are the best coaches that have not been tabbed — yet — to a move to a more illustrious program.
Art Briles, Baylor
Remember when Baylor was the joke of college football? Seems like a distant memory now, doesn't it?
It's not just the Heisman-winning exploits of Robert Griffin, who would have gotten my vote if I had one. It's that Briles has taken a team that not only was the laughingstock of college football, but in a state that's very competitive in recruiting. Despite these handicaps, Briles has raised the Bears profile from 4 wins his first two seasons (still not bad by Baylor standards) to 7 last year and 9 this year, in perhaps the toughest top-to-bottom league in the country, where everyone but Kansas has shown themselves capable of beating anyone else.
Ron English, Eastern Michigan
There is perhaps no school in the country with the deck stacked against it more than EMU. Not only do the Eagles suffer from the lack of fan interest and the interminable struggle for funding that plague a lot of MAC schools, but English has an extra chip on his shoulder — he has to try to keep his team competitive and try to raise interest in the program in the same county as the University of Michigan. How do you suppose, say, Central Florida would do if it was in Gainesville?
But English, a Michigan man himself, has gotten the Eagles to their first six win season since 1995. It may not seem like much, but consider that three of their four MAC losses were by six points or less. Perhaps Eagles fans should be grateful they weren't a tad luckier — it's hard to imagine English still at the school if they had gone 7-1 in the MAC. The performance netted English MAC Coach of the Year honors.
Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech
Quick! Without looking, who won the WAC this year? It wasn't Fresno State. It wasn't Hawaii. Not Nevada, either. It was Louisiana Tech, a game clear of the field, for the first time in 10 years.
The man behind the success came in with a pretty impressive pedigree in assistant's stints at Texas Tech and Arizona, where he won the All-American Football Foundation's Mike Campbell Top Assistant Award. What he did when he took over is simply produce results on the field: an improvement from 4-8 to 5-7 in his first year, and a big jump to 8-4 this year. He's got a stern test in his bowl game — TCU — and if he comes out on the winning end, expect the phone to start ringing.
Dave Christensen, Wyoming
Unlike the other coaches on this list, Christensen's star hasn't risen steadily. After getting Wyoming to 7-6 in his first season at the helm in 2009, he took a big step back in 2010, going 3-9.
This year? 8-4, but more importantly, 5-2 in the Mountain West — their first season with so many conference victories since 1998.
Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky
This has got to be the most impressive in-season turnaround in recent college football history.
On October 1st, the Hilltoppers sat at 0-4, including a thumping at the hands of Division 1-AA Indiana State. They were widely regarded as the worst team in Division 1-A.
The rest of the season? 7-1 — and that "1" was a loss to LSU, a game that they were in until late in the third quarter. Now, WKU is widely regarded as the most snubbed team when bowl invitations were passed out, while 6-7 UCLA gets special dispensation from the NCAA to participate in a bowl. College football is just so fair, isn't it?
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the "you're still here?" category of coaches lucky to still have their jobs.
Skip Holtz, South Florida
The Big East is very, very bad, and if you are the worst of the bad (well, Syracuse was also 1-7, but they had a slightly better 2010 than USF), then that really doesn't speak well for the job you're doing. And it's a job that started with a lot of promise, on the heels of a bowl win and an opening day victory over Notre Dame that would, after beating up suspect competition, bring them to No. 14 in the polls. In fact, that Notre Dame victory would be one of just two wins over BCS schools. Holtz is the anti-Willie Taggart.
Frank Spaziani, Boston College
On the heels of 12 straight bowl seasons, wow did the Eagles lay a stinker this year. They started off 0-3 against the Murderer's Row of Northwestern, Central Florida, and Duke. Things did get slightly better as the year went on, but the problem is the only victory that's semi-respectable was at Miami. The other wins were against 1-AA UMass and two schools that had their own problems with ghastly results this year: Maryland and North Carolina State.
Mike Price, UTEP
I always enjoy watching UTEP play at home, because the Sun Bowl offers some beautiful views of the hilly, rugged surroundings.
Too bad I can't give equal praise to what I see on the field. Price was quite a "name" hire back in 2004, coming off monstrous success at Washington State, and he was even hired by mighty Alabama as their head coach before some transgressions with a prostitute ended his tenure in Tuscaloosa before it began. Price finished 8-4 in each of his first two seasons in charge of the Miners. They have zero winning records since then and have been completely overrun by Houston and Tulsa in Conference USA West. It's safe to say that the Miners breakthrough is not going to come under Price.
Robb Akey, Idaho
In five seasons at the helm, Akey hasn't produced a single winning record in conference, and this year, with the WAC heavyweights either already gone or with one foot out the door, the Vandals finished 1-6 in the conference, alone in the basement. They used to be hot rivals with Boise State and now they may never be on the same footing ever again (to be fair, this problem started well before Akey's tenure began). With three finishes of eighth or worse in five years in one of the worst conferences in Division 1-A, it's amazing he is still the head coach at Idaho.
Paul Rhoads, Iowa State
What annoys me about Rhoads is his entire resume, it seems, is predicated on upsets, and boy did he get a doozy of one this year over Oklahoma State. But the reason those are such upsets is because the Cyclones never reliably take care of business in their other games; Rhoades has yet to eclipse three conference wins during his tenure, and Iowa State hasn't had a record better than 7-5 since 2000.