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Congratulations! You’re in Year Negative One

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The coaching jobs that deserve a little bit more patience from the start

Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

A few years ago on “Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody,” Bill Connelly and I started playing with the idea of linear time. Specifically, we were arguing that some programs with first-year coaching staffs needed a designation that would beg fans and boosters (and critics at large) for a greater patience than the usual concessions granted a team in “Year One.”

“Year Zero” was born out of the accepted idea that not all first seasons are remotely equal. Yet it’s hard to tack down a single metric that explains why. Maybe your new staff faces a ridiculous schedule in a particularly deep conference or division. Maybe your program has been historically underfunded and had no recruiting success. Maybe your roster was decimated via NCAA probation, or by hiring Bobby Petrino.

The necessity of a Year Zero can be readily apparent: 2019 Georgia Tech converting out of the triple and opening against Clemson? Easy.

But what about, say, 2018 Oregon State? The Beavers entered that year with a combined seven wins in their three previous seasons, and had withered in the shadows of Oregon, Washington, and even Wazzu.

New Beavers head coach Jonathan Smith’s team went 2-10 in his first year but jumped to 5-7 in 2019. If the Beavers were to get over the hump in 2020, their ‘18 campaign would serve as an excellent representation of a Year Zero: Expect nothing on the scoreboard or win column and allow for deep internal cleansing to reposition the foundation of the program.

The qualifiers for Year Zero vary, but there’s one consensus requirement: You have to be able to survive a Year Zero, weathering all-fronts anguish from your fan base, your media coverage, and your booster network. This consideration is either permanent or contextual: Programs like Notre Dame or Alabama or Michigan would never stomach a 3-9 campaign under any auspices, whereas an exhausted former national brand like Nebraska is willing to show patience, at least right now. (Granted, the Huskers were once a Notre Dame or Alabama or Michigan. Usually the perception of a program doesn’t change so dramatically over two decades. Nebraska screws this up. What else is new.)

What Does A Normal Year Zero Offseason Provide Teams?

In the wake of COVID-19 shutting down normal life, it’s important to know just how hamstrung an absence of meetings, practices and organized workouts over an entire offseason leaves a new staff. One first-year head coach explained it to me in two parts:

1. Recruiting future players

“The football is the last thing you worry about, unless you’re doing something that’s honestly different, and that’s not most of us. We like to think it is, but it isn’t. The recruiting is a way bigger deal.”

Coaches can’t see prospects in person right now, let alone meet with anyone in their communities (coaches, teachers, etc.). Most have cancelled their summer camps. Culturally we’re growing more and more comfortable with digital interfacing. But swapping in-person high school visits for Skype is driving anxiety for staffs, especially those trying to forge brand new relationships.

2. Recruiting existing players

By early May a new coaching staff would’ve had meetings with the existing roster through the entirety of Spring practice, plus strength and conditioning, plus generic personal interactions.

“We have no real means of evaluating their character or attitude or how they learn. So much of this is a relationship game. We don’t have those right now. It makes you feel like a fake if you’re representing and ordering around these kids that don’t know you.”

“Some of these kids I’ve spoken to one-on-one maybe one time,” the coach told me.

These are inarguable setbacks in communication and functionality. Moreover, these restrictions exacerbate the negatives that prompted us to create “Year Zero” in the first place. Accordingly, we need to create an additional layer of consideration for these staffs and programs.

Let’s make up some methodology!

In order to be eligible as Y-1, you must qualify for “Year Zero.” Because Year Zero demands a longview approach boosters accept, that eliminates both Ole Miss and Florida State right away. Those two schools just finished hire-fire cycles that scream impatience.

Next, let’s remove any new coaching staff with head coaches promoted from within (Memphis, Washington, Appalachian State) and head coaches with extensive knowledge of their new program from previous stints (Fresno State, Rutgers, San Diego State).

A Y-1 designation means flying totally blind, so if you held on to more than one on-field assistant from the previous staff (a few at Hawaii, a few at FAU, Missouri’s defensive staff), you’re out.

Next, ask yourself: Does your program really need the protection of a public designation imploring extra patience? Not if you’re a historically woebegone Group of Five school looking for yet another reboot. UNLV, New Mexico and UTSA, you’ve got long roads ahead, but everyone already knew that and no one expected anything but. You don’t need my help. Go with God.

That leaves us with a list of ten eligible schools, which feels like too many, Because I’m a little bit lazy and don’t want to have to publicly defend more than like… eight schools who end up dragging ass the next three seasons.

So: Washington State, former Mike Leach employer, seems very content to let another against-type character install another esoteric offense. They’ll be fine. Also let’s not give Michigan State any incentive to justify whatever the hell their offseason actually was. That story doesn’t feel completely told yet, does it?

The Year Negative One Schools

South Florida

There might not be a greater disconnect between expectations and reality in college football, save for maybe Nebraska, than USF. USF is in Florida! But USF is not an easy job.

Again, USF is not an easy job.

Hey: USF is not an easy job.

The Jim Leavitt days are far behind them, and if you look around campus it certainly feels like they haven’t made any changes since they won nine games in 2006 and ‘07. Money is tight. The facilities are bad by any standard. There is no stadium, nor is there a reasonable plan for one in the near future.

“But hey, you’re in Florida, football talent is everywhere so just go fart out 9 wins!” The reality is that everyone in the sport recruits the Bulls’ zip code, and rival UCF has outspent or outbuilt the Bulls in every meaningful off-field comparison.

Jeff Scott needs time for installs and player evaluations and recruiting and team chemistry building and all that, but above all else, USF football needs an overhaul of perception. If an additional year of publicly agreed upon foundational work and no expectations can help, I’ll be glad to.

Old Dominion

Ricky Rahne is another first year coach, but unlike Scott, a native Floridian, the former Penn State OC is unaffiliated with his new area. Rahen and a group of former PSU assistants are tasked with rebuilding an ODU program that arrived to FBS winning games in a seemingly effortless manner.

This spring a rival coach told me that, more than anything schematically, ODU has to recruit its local area aggressively and backstop the roster using the Baltimore/Washington area. COVID-19 has restricted on-campus organizing, but it’s also shut down the chance for young, new-to-town recruiters to build pipeline relationships in places like The Tidewater region of Virginia. ODU is supposed to be a stay-at-home option. That approach works best when community relationships are especially strong.

Boston College

OK, so basically everything I just said about Rahne and Old Dominion, except the “good recruiting area” part, and also you’re in a division with Clemson and Florida State.

When I asked other coaches about Jeff Hafley, their praise centered on his ability to “clear the mechanism” for Ohio State’s defense as co-coordinator and Put Talented Players In Position To Make Plays.

That’s coachspeak for: he simplified his scheme so one of the most talented rosters in the sport could go a-murderin’ with minimal hesitation. BC sure would seem to be the antithesis of that approach, because they are in no way now or ever Ohio State. And you have to recruit high school football players to Massachusetts and you haven’t been able to meet any of them in person. Good luck.

Colorado State

Out of a finalist pool organized by Urban Meyer (naturally), Steve Addazio was considered by many to be a courtesy interview. Now it’s his job, and not much about that makes sense. Where is he going to recruit? He couldn’t close the talent gap for Boston College in the ACC, and Mike Bobo couldn’t make it work importing Southern players to Fort Collins. What system is he going to run? CSU’s roster is the opposite of BC’s smashy, run-first fullback-y stuff.

It’s extremely hard to see this fit working, now or ever, COVID or no. But let’s support this union long enough for Steve to make a series of ill-advised yet wonderfully earnest promotional videos, most likely with a live mascot this time.

Colorado

I’m breaking my own rule here because Karl Dorrell retained four of Mel Tucker’s assistants (including defensive coordinator Tyson Summers), but I’m making the exception because:

  1. Colorado
  2. Had to hire a football coach on Feb. 22
  3. To replace a one-and-done head coach
  4. And their new coach lost six games a season four of his five years at UCLA
  5. Also this former UCLA coach isn’t Jim Mora Jr., who could at least recruit

Baylor

I know this was considered a good hire. I know Dave Aranda is a really, really smart coordinator. I also know he seems against type for every personality trait of the modern CEO extrovert head coach. “Baylor football head coach” measures to be more “rowdy cowboy drilling into the asteroid” and less “NASA mathematician telling him which way to point the bit.”

Also: Matt Rhule might be an even better coach than we know.

Mississippi State

I have no idea if Leach’s flavor of Air Raid will work in the SEC. It would be pretty fun if it did!

But I do know that Leach only won 12 games in his first three years in Pullman. And his record at Texas Tech after two seasons was 14-11 with seven conference wins. Joe Moorhead was just fired from State for a 14-12 record with seven conference wins.

If anything, Mississippi State doesn’t qualify for Year -1 because their fan base won’t tolerate seven-win seasons, let alone a Year Zero. But that’s exactly the timeframe they’re going to need in order for Leach to develop personnel for the toughest division in college football.

Leach’s first Wazzu team finished 2012 109th in time of possession. But in an Air Raid, who cares, right? Except the Cougs also finished 2012 108th in points per game and 109th in yards per play. One can confidently assume the typical Mississippi State roster is more talented than Wazzu. So too can you assume that the SEC West defenses are superior to the Pac-12’s.

It’s a good thing this offense only takes three days to install.

Arkansas

This is a program that’s lost 28 games in three years.

It might look as bad or worse before it looks better.

That statement has been written about Arkansas football before.

I’m sorry.