College football programs attract coaches from many different places. There are the conventional routes, like poaching a sitting FBS trainer or staying with a temp or hiring a coordinator. Schools have gotten a bit creative over the past few years, like Texas Tech hiring Baylor assistant coach Joey McGuire or Arkansas hiring Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman. There was also North Carolina returning with Mack Brown, who was 68 when the Tar Heels signed him for the second time. But it’s been four training cycles since the last time an FBS team hired a coach directly from a lower level.
After the 2018 regular season, three were hired: East Carolina (Mike Houston, of then FCS James Madison), Kansas State (Chris Klieman, of North Dakota State) and Charlotte (Will Healy, of Austin Peay). Hiring Klieman was unquestionably a success, although it certainly raised eyebrows at the time as he trailed legend Bill Snyder. The 55-year-old kept the Wildcats stable and kept them in the hunt for the Big 12. Houston went 7–5 in 2021 and 6–3 in 22. Healy was unable to deliver in the win column and was fired with four games left in 22. As the training cycle heats up, the question is whether an FBS program will look at the FCS level this year, even if the top level of the sport never looked different?
Consider how seismic it would be if one of the bluest of the Blue Bloods hired an FCS coach today. That’s exactly what happened in 2001 when Jim Tressel was hired by Ohio State from (then Division I-AA) Youngstown State. The Buckeyes were in their version of a bad run after going 6–6 in 1999 (the program’s third .500 or less record since 1947) and 8–4 in 2000. John Cooper distanced the program from its ties to the Woody Hayes era in 1988 when he was hired, but he was 2-10-1 against the hated Michigan, and that cardinal sin damned his tenure.
So Ohio State turned to a former assistant coach who left the program to take a $2,000 pay cut and coach Youngstown State in 1985. All the Tressel Penguins had fact was to win four national titles and play two more league games. His success in Columbus was almost immediate, winning the national championship in 2002 and making back-to-back title matches in 2006 and 2007. But does Tressel think anyone can make the same move as him?
“I think it should be a perfect storm,” says Tressel, now Youngstown State Chairman. “Because there’s so much media attention on spiciness. And I always say to our people here, whether we’re hiring a dean or a provost or whatever, I don’t want to win the press conference. I want to win the game. And I don’t care what it’s like coming in. But let’s get somebody here who can really win for us. And it would take that kind of thinking. Because right now, I think the people are so caught up in what will this job look like?”
Tressel does not hesitate to point out that he is not the only FCS coach to have progressed and to have immense success. Frank Beamer moved from Murray State to Virginia Tech in 1986 and became a beacon of stability. He also pointed to “the young man from Kansas State” who is “doing well.” The thing that unites the two men is dominating at FCS level before moving up. Klieman coached North Dakota State to four national championships in five years.
Prior to Kleiman’s move to K-State, an FCS coach hadn’t moved to the Power 5 since Jim Harbaugh went from San Diego to Stanford, largely selling decision makers on being the maniacally capable scout. to handle the task of criss-crossing the nation hunting the type of athlete who was both Pac-12 caliber and could get into school. But Tressel moved on to an FBS that was simply more quaint compared to the pseudo-professional game it is today. For example, current Youngstown State coach Doug Phillips earns $250,000 a year. If Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline made the same move as Tressel did in 1986, it would cost him $700,000.
Money is all the more important since the programs an FCS coach would most likely jump to are Group 5. Budget cuts are all over the G5 as teams try to compete in an increasingly professionalized landscape.
“There’s Nick Sabans in the world who brings incredible value and has even brought incredible value from a stability perspective because basically attack is his, defense is his and special teams are his own, so whoever coordinates it is his stuff,” Healy says. “That’s why he might be the best to ever do it. But for me, I can hire coaches who can call games better than me. I can hire really good positional coaches who can help schematically and recruit, do all of those things.
“Where I felt like I brought value was having a city around a sports program and being able to fundraise where I could keep coaches and being able to fundraise where we could function the way we needed to function in this league and I never deviated from that.
Healy was hired by Charlotte after three seasons at Austin Peay where he went 0–11, 8–4 and 5–6 in consecutive years. The 49ers initially attempted to sign Houston, who decided in the 11th hour to move to ECU. Charlotte has been an FBS program since only 2015, when the program’s first coach in modern history, Brad Lambert, brought them up after a two-year stint as an FCS independent. The program has evolved rapidly and is heading from Conference USA to American in ’23.
Healy played to his personal strengths when he took the job, then everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a difficult 2020 season when the 49ers called off seven straight games. Then the NIL era began.
“The original job was the job I had at Austin Peay on a different scale. The craft has changed drastically since [creation of the] portal and NIL,” says Healy. “The $2.5-3 million a year that you have to make up from a budget standpoint also has to go to the players. I mean, you’ve got $3 million less on an operating budget at Conference USA, and now you’ve got $6 million less.
These are issues that all Group of 5 managers have to deal with, and Healy has made it clear he knows he hasn’t won enough. But it shows that when that doesn’t work, the same things that can sink an FCS coach can sink seasoned veteran coaches.
“There are more good coaches than good jobs,” says Tressel.
Acquiring and developing players is what sets some of the most likely next FCS to FBS movers apart. As USF looks to replace coach Jeff Scott, FAMU’s Willie Simmons will likely be on their radar, just as he was for FIU when it was last looking for a coach as a Florida native. At some point, Jackson State’s Deion Sanders could take it to the next level. He said 60 minutes:
“I’m going to have to entertain [Power 5 job offers] … Yes, I will have to entertain him. Directly. I would be silly not to.
These Power 5 deals should indeed continue to arrive after Sanders was involved in the search process at TCU’s last cycle. He might just be one of the perfect storm cases that Tressel mentioned as someone who can recruit and navigate the NIL era. It might even end up being a portal package with highly touted freshman DB Travis Hunter and his son, QB Shedeur Sanders. But he’s also not very representative of FCS coaches at large as a force of nature on a personality level whose individual stardom would eclipse the notoriety of most FBS programs. But Sanders is more than the hype, as those who have known him point to his organization and his ability to function as a modern CEO coach. His Tigers went 11–2 in 2021 and started the 22 season with 8–0.
Likewise, the Holy Cross Crusaders are undefeated, at 9-0 after a 10-3 2021 season. They are coached by Bob Chesney, who has now won at three levels of college football with a conference championship in Salve Regina (Division III ) and two in Assumption (D-II). He has now won his fourth Patriot League title with Holy Cross.
One of the keys to player development for Chesney is to focus on special teams – similar to Beamer’s Beamer Ball brand. At Assumption, kicker Cole Tracy graduated and transferred to LSU, where he became a second-team All-American. And returner Deonte Harty set the NCAA record (in any division) for touchdown returns by a specialist. He is now a contributor for the Saints after entering the NFL undrafted. Chesney brought the mindset to Holy Cross, which is second in the FBS in blocked kicks and punts and has now beaten an FBS team in consecutive years (UConn in 2021, Buffalo in 22) .
“It’s not just an offense; it’s not just defence; it’s kind of everyone,” Chesney says. “And honestly, probably the most important thing about special teams, the fundamentals that they will learn. The fundamentals of blocking, the fundamentals of getting out of a block. Angles, pursuit, just overall toughness. And then, speed and aggressiveness.
Special teams eat first, which is the hallmark of other programs that pride themselves on this phase of the game, such as Urban Meyer’s teams in Florida and Ohio State. Beginners also play on special teams, and how a player will factor into one of the special teams units affects how Holy Cross recruits athletes.
There’s more to an athlete’s makeup than just the physical, and as college athletes have been raising mental health issues at a high rate since the pandemic began, Chesney’s program is trying to address that issue with what he calls the team the ‘mental toughness coach’. psychologist Trevor Cote, who works at the school’s counseling center to help athletes. Chesney will consult Côté alone and bring him in to talk to the team during camp and in season. It changed the way the Crusaders handled situations beyond wins and losses and what happens during games, like how injured players are treated and help them feel like they’re still doing it. part of the program even if they do not contribute on match days.
Chesney bristles at the media attention on him by nature, saying he’s still comfortable with that part of the job. He probably won’t make a leap the size of Tressel, but could be one of several FCS coaches this cycle who could be considered for a step up.
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