It is easy to focus on the head coach as the source and center of a program’s problems, if for no other reason than the simple fact that the head coach is responsible for what happens under his watch.
Recruiting, player development, cultivating good relationships with in-state high school coaches and university boosters — these are parts of the job for the modern college football head coach.
Hiring the right staff — perhaps not the scheme one wants, but certainly the scheme one needs, relative to personnel — is crucial to a head coach’s success. If you’re not sure about this point, consider the very smart head coaches who are failing across the country.
Kliff Kingsbury is a brilliant offensive strategist, but he hasn’t hired the right defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, and his program is struggling. Tommy Tuberville achieved richly as a head coach at Auburn, and Mark Stoops was an outstanding defensive coordinator at Florida State and would almost certainly thrive in that role should he get fired at Kentucky. Yet, at their current coaching stops in Cincinnati and Kentucky, Tubs and Stoops have failed to find the right coordinators for their respective offenses.
Dabo Swinney might be less of a tactician than the men named above, but he hired Brent Venables as his defensive coordinator. Clemson doesn’t hemorrhage points the way it used to against the best offenses in the country. The Tigers are tougher, more airtight, and less prone to that “one bad day at the office” which used to sink their ACC season.
This is the challenge of the modern head coach — not to figure everything out on his own, but to put the right people around him so that he can see and manage the big picture. Head coaches don’t have to be X-and-O geniuses; they do have to hire the right coordinators… right, Les Miles?
This is what Kirby Smart is realizing in his first year as an SEC head coach at Georgia.
The enormity of the lesson is impossible to escape after Saturday’s brutal and bitter 17-16 home-field loss to Vanderbilt.
Jim Chaney deserved to be an offensive coordinator wherever he wanted 10 years ago.
Chaney was the offensive coordinator at Purdue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when head coach Joe Tiller devised the “basketball on grass” offense which catapulted the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl (the 2000 season against the Washington Huskies). Chaney implemented Tiller’s vision with great success. The head coach found a coordinator he could trust, a man who could develop Drew Brees into a great college quarterback who was evidently and unmistakably prepared for the NFL.
Chaney wrote his ticket as a coordinator and a player-development guru. After his stay at Purdue ran its course, he spent a few years as an NFL position coach. Then, in 2009, he joined Derek Dooley’s staff at Tennessee, dipping his toes into SEC waters as an offensive coordinator after his lengthy run under Tiller at both Wyoming and Purdue.
Chaney certainly earned that opportunity… but that was seven years ago. Clearly, Chaney was new to the SEC, but what was also new about that Tennessee offensive coordinator job is that Tiller was no longer his boss. Tiller cultivated Chaney as a coordinator and brought out the best in his talents. Chaney had to prove to the SEC that he could stand on his own.
Here we are in 2016, and the verdict could not be less favorable.
Chaney’s four years at Tennessee did nothing to move the Vols forward. He then bounced to Arkansas in 2013, where a familiar face from the Big Ten — Bret Bielema — remembered Chaney’s play-calling acumen with Purdue. (Bielema was defensive coordinator at Wisconsin in the last two seasons Chaney called plays for Purdue.)
Chaney did not enable Arkansas to achieve the transformation the program hoped for.
Chaney left the SEC to ply his trade at Pittsburgh last season. The Panthers weren’t terrible, but they weren’t great. Given that head coach Pat Narduzzi was in his first season, Chaney shouldn’t have been expected to hit the sweet spot right away. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter was that in seven seasons as an offensive coordinator without Tiller as his boss — six of those seasons spent in the SEC — Jim Chaney hadn’t achieved anything of note.
The coach who deserved big-time gigs in the profession in 2005 had not made good on those opportunities.
Kirby Smart — knowing he had Jacob Eason in his sights at Georgia — hired Chaney anyway.
It seems hard to deny that if Georgia is going to become a next-level program once again, Smart’s most important decision in year one of his reign is not a player-based decision or a recruiting philosophy decision; it’s the choice of offensive coordinator.
The concept is relatively simple: Jacob Eason is a Cadillac recruit, a quarterback with evident skill and potential. Only the best coordinators in the profession should be considered for the role of cultivating Eason’s talents at Georgia. Yes, Chaney did develop Drew Brees into a top-tier quarterback, but the college football world is still waiting for the follow-up.
Consider, briefly, the case of Scot Loeffler, one of the worst coordinators in the FBS. He served as a grad assistant at Michigan when Tom Brady played at the school. Loeffler was Lloyd Carr’s quarterback coach when John Navarre and Chad Henne made Rose Bowl appearances. Loeffler earned the right to become a coordinator, but what did he do with those chances in recent years? Nothing good.
Chaney occupies a very similar position, his career having acquired a very similar trajectory. Smart made a 2016 decision based on a 2005 college football landscape. If he wants to fix Georgia — at least on offense — he needs a coordinator who is far better, far sharper, far more ascendant in a present-moment context.
Jim Chaney deserved top-tier jobs a decade ago or even in 2009 with Tennessee. He doesn’t deserve the same benefit of the doubt at Georgia in 2016.
The sooner Kirby Smart realizes this, the sooner Georgia can move forward and improve.