A weeklong grade book for the offseason coaching hires. Previusly: Grading the Up-and-Comers. Today: Small-school head coaches moving into their first big-time jobs.
KEVIN SUMLIN • Texas A&M
Age: 49 Alma Mater: Purdue.
Replacing: Mike Sherman, whose trajectory at A&M was the model for former NFL head coaches slumming it in their first college gig: Four years, zero conference championships, ending with a minor breakthrough (9-4 in 2010) immediately followed by a disappointing return to mediocrity. His final season began with the Aggies basking in a pending defection to the SEC and their highest expectations in a decade, and ended with Sherman being led to the guillotine on the heels of a 6-6 campaign defined by a string of blown opportunities, drawing the curtain on a near-perfect ode to mediocrity encompassing 25 wins and 25 losses over his entire tenure.
Previously On: If Sumlin knows anything, it's throwing the ball all over the field, all day long. He was wide receivers coach at his alma mater, Purdue, when Drew Brees ruled the skies there from 1998-2000. He was an offensive assistant at Oklahoma for Jason White's Heisman run in 2003, the Sooners' return to the BCS title game in 2004 and the beginning of Sam Bradford's emergence as a sharpshooting robot in 2007. For the last four years, he's overseen the a record-breaking barrage from the right arm of Case Keenum, who set Division I marks for total yards, passing yards, completions and touchdowns.
Best Resumé Line: Sumlin leaves Houston with the best winning percentage of any coach in school history (.672) and a single-season record for wins (12) under his belt. With Keenum at the controls, the Cougars led the nation in total and scoring offense last season for the second time in three years, after finishing second in total offense in Sumlin's first season, 2008. With Keenum sidelined for nearly all of 2010, the Cougars still averaged 38 points on 480 yards per game.
Biggest Drawback: Houston's version of the "Air Raid" struggled in its rare encounters with competent defenses, which brings us to the bigger questions about its transition to Texas A&M: a) How will Sumlin's offense fare without the most prolific quarterback in college football pulling the trigger? And b) How will it fare against the defenses in the Aggies' new conference, which has resisted the rise of up-tempo, spread passing attacks for more than a decade? No one has successfully imported a pass-first system in the SEC since Air Raid guru Hal Mumme was run out of Kentucky ten years ago.
Grade: B+. Texas A&M has already embraced the fast-break philosophy that overtook the Big 12 over the last decade, and Sumlin's arrival makes it official: When the Aggies touch down in the SEC this fall, they're coming out of the chute firing. There's just nothing to indicate how successful they're going to be.
LARRY FEDORA • North Carolina
Age: 49 Alma Mater: Austin College.
Replacing: Everett Withers, who was cast aside after serving the 2011 season as an interim placeholder for the abruptly ousted Butch Davis. As a result, UNC has effectively sacrificed two seasons to an ongoing NCAA investigation — 2010 was marked by a wave of suspensions that decimated the starting lineup — before formal sanctions have even been handed down.
Previously On: Fedora first made his name as an offensive coordinator at Florida under Ron Zook, and later at Oklahoma State under Mike Gundy, where he installed the balanced, high-octane spread offense that's made the Cowboys one of the most reliably prolific attacks in the country over the last five years. Four years in the top job at Southern Miss yielded four winning seasons, four bowl games and a Conference USA championship.
Best Resumé Line: Fedora's final season in Hattiesburg ranks among the best in USM history, ending with a conference title, a top-20 finish in the final polls and a school record for wins (12). The Golden Eagles' upset over No. 7 Houston in the C-USA Championship Game gave them their highest-ranked victim since a Brett Favre-led win over No. 6 Florida State in 1989.
Biggest Drawback: Winning records aside, Fedora's first three campaigns at Southern Miss were somewhat less inspiring, especially for a program that has traditionally prided itself on defense: The Eagles allowed at least 24 points per game all three years, and lost eight games in that span in which they scored at least twenty-eight.
Grade: B. Whatever else there is to say about Fedora, the man knows a window when he sees it: Southern Miss fans — no strangers to 7-5 records and bottom-rung bowl games — were beginning to get impatient with Fedora before last year's breakthrough, and generally don't view it as a sustainable leap for the program as a whole. On the same note, his best friend in Chapel Hill is time: The Tar Heels will likely be down a handful of scholarships and maybe a bowl game or two in Fedora's first two seasons, a readymade answer if things get off to a rocky start.
HUGH FREEZE • Ole Miss
Age: 42, though technically he can live forever inside his cryogenic suit. Alma Mater: Southern Miss.
Replacing: Houston Nutt, whose last season in Oxford played out as an extended funeral dirge. Ole Miss finished dead last in the conference in every major defensive category, next to last in every major offensive category, and managed a grand total of 13 points in its last three games after the axe fell on Nutt in early November. The Rebels were so pitiful at the end that LSU literally had to start kneeling out the clock with more than five minutes left to prevent running up the score even further in the most lopsided massacre in the 100-year history of the series.
Previously On: Freeze is still best known as Michael Oher's head coach at Memphis' Briarcrest Christian School from 2003-05, as depicted in the bestselling book/hit movie "The Blind Side," in which Freeze's character ("Coach Burt Cotton") is frequently upstaged in his duties by Sandra Bullock. In reality, Freeze won two state championships at Briarcrest and was Region 8-AA Coach of the Year five times. He joined Orgeron's staff at Ole Miss almost immediately after Oher signed with the Rebels in 2005 — prompting an NCAA investigation in the process — a leap that put him on the ladder: After the Orgeron regime was swept out in 2007, Freeze landed in Jackson, Tenn., as head coach at NAIA Lambuth, where he spent two successful seasons before moving on to Arkansas State as offensive coordinator in 2010. He was promoted to head coach a year later.
Best Resumé Line: Freeze's 10-2 debut at ASU may stand as the best season in school history: Following early losses at Illinois and Virginia Tech, the Red Wolves ripped off a nine-game winning streak, ran the table in Sun Belt play and became the first SBC team to crack 10 wins in a season since the league formed in 2001. This by the lowest-paid head coach in the country, at a program that had produced exactly one winning season (6-5 in 1995) since moving up to the I-A level 19 years ago.
Biggest Drawback: Freeze comes in hot on the heels of a Sun Belt championship in his only season as a Division I head coach. The other head coaches in the SEC West? Nick Saban, Les Miles, Bobby Petrino, Gene Chizik and Dan Mullen have combined for five national championships, a dozen BCS bowl games, three seasons as head coaches in the NFL and ever-escalating salaries in the tens of millions. But hey, everybody's gotta start somewhere.
Grade: B—. Relative inexperience notwithstanding, Freeze is a Mississippi native who's spent his entire career within a few hours of Oxford. He knows the region, and he knows how to sell it. He'll certainly be considered more likable and trustworthy than his predecessor. Most importantly, he'll have the benefit of patience that comes with low expectations.
TIM BECKMAN • Illinois
Age: 47 Alma Mater: University of Findlay (Ohio).
Replacing: The perennially embattled Ron Zook, who finally caught the axe after barely surviving calls for his head in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In seven years, Zook's teams were 18-38 in Big Ten games, finished either in last place or within a game of last place three times and produced one (1) winning record in conference play, in 2007, a short-lived "breakthrough" he was able to ride for four more years.
Previously On: Beckman's resumé is a case study in climbing the ladder: Six years as an assistant at Western Carolina → Two years as a coordinator at Elon → Seven years as a coordinator at Bowling Green (two of them under first-time head coach Urban Meyer) → Two years as a position coach on Jim Tressel's staff at Ohio State → Two years as a coordinator at Oklahoma State → Three years as a head coach in the MAC → Head coaching gig in the Big Ten. That's about as by-the-book as it gets, man.
Best Resumé Line: Beckman has previous Big Ten experience, and his first head coaching gig yielded a winning record over three seasons, including a 15-6 mark in MAC games (14-2 in 2010-11). Last year, Toledo led the league in scoring and total offense, finishing among the top 10 nationally at 42 points on 481 yards per game.
Biggest Drawback: For a defensive coach, Beckman's teams haven't been very defensive: None of his defenses at Toledo or Oklahoma State finished in the top 50 nationally in yards or points allowed, or in the top half of their own conference.
Grade: C+. There's nothing bad to say about Beckman, necessarily, and no reason to think he's going to go anywhere if he succeeds. But there's certainly nothing on his resumé to inspire Illini fans that their traditionally middling program is going to break the historical mold, either. By all accounts, first-year athletic director Mike Thomas only turned to Beckman after being turned down by at least two of his top targets, Kevin Sumlin and Cincinnati's Butch Jones, and possibly Larry Fedora, as well. By contrast, Beckman is tapioca pudding.
TODD GRAHAM • Arizona State
Age: 47 Alma Mater: East Central (Okla.) University.
Replacing: Dennis Erickson, whose distinguished career ended with a five-game slide into oblivion. Coming into 2011, the Devils returned virtually the entire starting lineup from 2010 and were tabbed as the chic pick to win the Pac-12 South — a path they seemed to be on during a 6-2 start, before embarking on their annual descent in November. With their latest collapse, the Devils have endured at least one four-game skid in three of the last four seasons, and failed to produce a winning record in any of them.
Previously On: Graham spent the first decade-plus of his career bouncing around high schools in Oklahoma and Texas, and the last decade taking his act from one "dream" job to the next. In six years as a D-I head coach at Rice, Tulsa and Pittsburgh, he's 49-29 with just one losing season.
Best Resumé Line: At Tulsa, Graham's teams won 10 games, took at least a share of the Conference USA West title and went to a bowl game in three of his four years as head coach, easily the best four-year run at Tulsa in 60 years, if not ever. In his last season there, 2010, the Hurricane bounced back from a losing campaign in 2009 with a return to the top 10 nationally in both total and scoring offense, an upset win at Notre Dame and a seven-game winning streak to close the year, capped by a 62-35 rout over heavily favored Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl.
Biggest Drawback: Graham has never won big — zero conference championships on the college level as a head coach or an assistant — but if he somehow does at ASU, don't expect him to hang around long enough to build on the success. The controversial move from Pittsburgh to Arizona State was Graham's fourth in six years since accepting the top job at Rice in 2006, and left the Panthers scrambling for their fourth head coach in a little over one year since they ditched Dave Wannstedt in December 2010. The abrupt defection cost his new employer $1 million and made Graham look like a sleazeball, but neither of those facts stopped him.
Grade: C—. In a little more than two weeks in December, Arizona State a) Blew its shot at its first choice to replace Dennis Erickson, b) Awkwardly pulled the plug on another candidate at the last second and c) Settled for an opportunistic journeyman who just turned a mediocre 7-5 team into a mediocre 6-6 team in his most lucrative, high-profile position to date. I hope all you human resources managers were taking notes.