Succession struggles: How the 'next man up' has fared when a college football legend steps down

Washington's Kalen DeBoer will reportedly follow Nick Saban at Alabama.

The former Huskies coach will be tasked with succeeding someone who has a strong argument to be considered the greatest coach of all time. Saban's teams won seven national championships, and his teams at Alabama won more than 87% of their games.

Over the past 30 years, other college football programs have needed to replace their legendary coaches, and it has proven incredibly difficult to maintain a level of national championship success. Here are six recent coaching transitions — including two involving Urban Meyer — at major powers across college football.

Kalen DeBoer was the Washington Huskies head coach for two seasons and went 25-3 in his time there. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)
Kalen DeBoer was the Washington Huskies head coach for two seasons and went 25-3 in his time there. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

Nebraska: Tom Osborne to Frank Solich (1998)

Osborne’s final season came as Nebraska ended 1997 at 13-0 and capped it with an Orange Bowl win. It was the third time Nebraska finished the season undefeated in Osborne’s final four years, and the Cornhuskers claimed a split national championship. Nebraska went 255-49-3 in Osborne’s tenure as its triple-option offense ran roughshod over the Big Eight.

Osborne was replaced by Frank Solich after Solich spent 15 seasons as Nebraska’s running backs coach and led the team to a 12-1 season in his second year in charge. Nebraska won at least 10 games in both 2000 and 2001 but went 7-7 in 2002. That year marked the first time in nearly 350 weeks that the Cornhuskers weren’t ranked in the AP Top 25.

Nebraska made an athletic director change ahead of the 2003 season, and the Huskers started 5-0. However, Nebraska went 4-3 over the final seven games of the regular season, and Solich was fired after a 9-3 campaign.

The Cornhuskers have just three 10-win seasons since Solich was fired and haven’t made a bowl game since 2016.

Florida State: Bobby Bowden to Jimbo Fisher (2010)

Bowden came to Florida State ahead of the 1976 season after six seasons at West Virginia. He turned the Seminoles into a powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s as FSU won at least 10 games in 14 straight seasons from 1987 to 2000 and won national titles in 1993 and 1999.

A 10-win season in 2003 was Bowden’s last with the Seminoles. FSU slowly declined during the 2000s and posted three seven-win seasons in Bowden’s final four seasons with the program. In 2007, Florida State announced that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher would take over whenever Bowden retired, and Bowden’s departure came at the end of the 2009 season.

Fisher immediately boosted FSU back to the heights it had reached years before. The Seminoles went 10-4 in his first season and won at least 10 games in five straight seasons from 2012 to '16. That stretch included a national title after the 2013 season in the final year of the BCS.

Things went south for Fisher after 2016, however. Florida State struggled in 2017 after QB Deondre Francois was injured in the first game of the season, and Fisher saw the allure of Texas A&M. He resigned on Dec. 1, 2017, as the Seminoles were 5-6, to become Texas A&M’s head coach.

USC: Pete Carroll to Lane Kiffin (2010)

Carroll left USC for the Seattle Seahawks after the 2009 season. The Trojans went 9-4 in Carroll’s final season after seven straight seasons with 11 or more wins, a stretch that included 34 consecutive wins and a national title in 2004.

Carroll also left as USC was about to face NCAA sanctions. In February 2009, Carroll and other officials met with the NCAA’s committee on infractions. In June 2010 — approximately six months after Carroll officially left — USC was hit with a two-year bowl ban and serious scholarship reductions for improper benefits that Reggie Bush received while he was a member of the football program.

Kiffin, a former USC assistant under Carroll, was hired days after Carroll left following his first season at Tennessee. USC went 8-5 in Kiffin’s first season and then improved to 10-2 in 2011, though the team was in its second year of the postseason ban.

That 10-win season was the highlight of Kiffin’s tenure as the Trojans’ head coach. USC slumped to a 7-6 season in 2012, and Kiffin was infamously fired five games into the 2013 season. After USC arrived back from a loss to Arizona State, Kiffin was called off the team bus and informed by athletic director Pat Haden at the airport that he was no longer the team’s coach.

Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin roamed the sidelines at USC together. Kiffin didn't find the success that Carroll did during his time in Los Angeles. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Florida: Urban Meyer to Will Muschamp (2011)

Meyer’s tenures at Florida and Ohio State aren’t nearly as long as those of the other hugely successful coaches on this list. But his teams’ excellence meant his successors had massive shoes to fill.

Meyer was hired at Florida after a 12-0 season at Utah in 2004. The Gators went 13-1 and won the BCS championship game in his second season with a quarterback duo of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow.

Tebow won the Heisman in 2007 as Florida went 9-4, and the Gators got back to the top of college football again in 2008 with another 13-1 season and a national championship.

Florida went 13-1 and won the Sugar Bowl in 2009 before slumping to an 8-5 season in 2010. The 2010 season came after Meyer took a leave of absence following the 2009 campaign before returning in March. In December 2010, Meyer announced that he was retiring from coaching due to health and family reasons.

Muschamp was Texas’ defensive coordinator in 2010 and was hired by the Gators to take over a program that reportedly had a toxic locker room under Meyer. Florida went 7-6 in Muschamp’s first season in 2011 before going 11-2 in 2012.

That 11-2 season was as good as it was going to get for Muschamp in Gainesville. Florida went 4-8 in 2013 and 6-5 in 2014 before he stepped down at the end of the season.

Penn State: Joe Paterno to Tom Bradley to Bill O’Brien (2011-12)

Paterno’s career ended nine games into the 2011 season amid the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for Penn State, was arrested on Nov. 5, 2011, and charged with 52 counts of child sexual abuse dating to when he was on Penn State’s coaching staff.

As it became clear that Paterno had notified his immediate superior about accusations against Sandusky — something he was required to do by law — but did not go to police, the school’s board of trustees ultimately decided to void Paterno’s contract on Nov. 9, hours after he said he was going to retire at the end of the season. Paterno finished his career with a record of 409-136-3, and the Nittany Lions were 8-1 at the time of his firing.

Assistant coach Tom Bradley took over for the rest of 2011 as Penn State lost two of its final three regular-season games and fell to Houston in the Ticket City Bowl.

After the season, Penn State hired New England Patriots assistant Bill O’Brien as he navigated through a postseason ban and scholarship reductions from the NCAA because of the Sandusky scandal. Penn State went 8-4 and 7-5 in O’Brien’s two seasons with the team before he was hired by the Houston Texans as their head coach. O’Brien was replaced by current Penn State coach James Franklin.

Ryan Day has hand plenty of success at Ohio State after taking over for Urban Meyer, but he hasn't won a title. (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Ryan Day has had plenty of success at Ohio State after taking over for Urban Meyer, but he hasn't won a title. (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Ohio State: Meyer to Ryan Day (2019)

Meyer took over Ohio State in 2012 after a year off from coaching as the Buckeyes were led in 2011 by interim coach Luke Fickell following the resignation of Jim Tressel and an NCAA investigation into improper benefits received by players.

The Buckeyes went 12-0 in Meyer’s first season with the team, despite being ineligible for a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions, and they won the national title after the 2014 season as Ezekiel Elliott ran wild in the first College Football Playoff.

Ohio State made the playoff once more after the 2016 season but suffered an embarrassing 31-0 loss to Clemson. In the summer of 2018, Meyer was placed on administrative leave after a discovery that he knew of domestic abuse allegations against an assistant coach. Meyer was suspended for the first three games of the season, and offensive coordinator Ryan Day was the team’s interim coach.

The Buckeyes went 12-1 in 2018, and Meyer announced in December that he would retire a second time for health reasons.

Since taking over for Meyer on a permanent basis, Day has gone 56-8 and led Ohio State to three College Football Playoff appearances. However, much to the chagrin of Ohio State fans, the Buckeyes have gone 1-3 in those three postseasons and have lost three consecutive games to Michigan after Meyer never lost to Michigan and Ohio State beat Michigan eight times in a row from 2012 to 2019.

Alabama: Nick Saban to Kalen DeBoer (2024)

Saban retired Wednesday with six national titles in 17 years at Alabama. In addition to winning 87% of his games with Alabama, Saban has a winning percentage greater than 80% including his time at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU.

DeBoer's winning percentage as a head coach is incredibly strong, too. He has been a head coach at the FBS level for only four seasons, but in that span his teams are 37-9. Washington was 25-3 the past two seasons after hiring DeBoer, and he went an astonishing 67-3 as the coach of NAIA Sioux Falls.

Will DeBoer be able to replicate Saban's success? That's like asking someone to correctly predict the next day's lottery numbers. Still, it's clear that DeBoer's teams have been big winners throughout his career.