By DJ Gallo
Bowl season is a time for the best college football teams to celebrate their successes. But for many losing programs, late December and early January is the time of year is spent looking for a new coach.
With the BCS’s 15-year rule atop college football about to close, let’s take a look back at the 10 worst head coach hires of the era – and see if we can learn anything from these disasters.
10. Lane Kiffin, Tennessee, 2008
“We have had unbelievable interest from great coaches. When it was all said and done, we felt like Lane Kiffin was a perfect fit for Tennessee. He has made a significant impression on me in the short time I have known him, and I know he will have the same effect on the entire Volunteer family in short order.” – Mike Hamilton, Tennessee’s Director of Athletics
If there was one thing Hamilton got right in hiring Lane Kiffin – and there was really only one thing – it’s that Kiffin truly had an “effect” on the “entire Volunteer family.” So much so that when Kiffin quit Tennessee after 14 months and an uninspiring 7-6 record for the USC job, riots broke out on campus.
Why Hamilton was originally so smitten with a 33 year-old coach who had just been fired by the Oakland Raiders after a 5-15 tenure is a mystery. Spotty track record of success? Check. Limited experience? Check. Arrogance? Check. What’s not to love? Hire this guy!
While Kiffin choosing to leave Tennessee for his “dream job” at USC was an obvious positive for the program in the long-run, never hiring him in the first place would have been better. I mean, it’s great to get rid of cancer. But it’s better to have never had it at all.
What did we learn? If someone is deemed to be too bad for even the Oakland Raiders, it’s probably wise not to hand your program over to him.
9. Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss, 2011
“We interviewed them all, did some more homework and prayed about the selection. Ellis Johnson emerged as the absolute best candidate to lead Southern Miss football at this time.” – Martha Saunders, Southern Miss school president
Whoa. Whoa. Let’s not pin this hire on God by saying you prayed about it. Hiring Ellis Johnson is not a decision an all-knowing being would make.
Southern Miss plucked Johnson from South Carolina in 2011 where he had been serving as Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator. But he had previous head coaching experience. He went 5-6 in one season at Gardner-Webb and 12-22 in three seasons at The Citadel for a 17-28 career mark. Sounds like a winner!
Today, Johnson’s career record is at 17-40 because he went 0-12 with the Golden Eagles. He was fired after just one season – a season in which he led Southern Miss to the only winless record in all of FBS. You have to try pretty hard to get fired after one year in college football. Usually the administration thinks: “We need to be patient and give him time to get his players and his system in place.” Not in this case. Southern Miss had seen all they cared to of Johnson’s system and they realized it was a disaster.
What did we learn? If a coach has been a loser at previous head coaching jobs, he is probably a loser.
8. Rob Ianello, Akron, 2009
“We are extremely excited to name Rob Ianello as our new head football coach. He demonstrated to us a clear plan on how to build a complete championship program.” – Tom Wistrcill, Akron’s athletics director
After Charlie Weis was canned by Notre Dame in 2009, Akron surveyed the wreckage and decided: “We must have Rob Ianello, Weis’ wide receivers coach, to lead our program!” And so they hired him. Two years later they fired him after a 2-22 record – the only wins coming over Buffalo and VMI. If you think that’s bad, try this: Wistrcill called Ianello with the news that he was out of a job while the coach was on the way to his mother’s funeral. Yeah. Really. Classy. Wistrcill deserved a 2-22 program.
What did we learn? Maybe don’t give a head coaching job to an assistant coach from a failed program.
7. Derek Dooley, Tennessee, 2009
“Derek is one of the bright young coaches in America. He understands our league and the competitive environment in which we compete.” – Mike Hamilton
Oh, Tennessee. Here you are again.
The big problem with Kiffin bolting Tennesse following the 2008-2009 season wasn’t losing Kiffin – history has proven that was a positive development for the Volunteers. The problem was that it left the program without a head coach in mid-January and behind in the hiring process. Tough spot aside, Hamilton only made matters worse for Tennesse by bringing in Dooley, who had just finished off a 4-8 season at Louisiana Tech – where he was only 17-22 overall in three seasons. About the only thing Dooley had going for him was his last name thanks to his coaching legend father.
Unfortunately, it was Derek and not Vince Dooley who coached Tennessee, and he coached them to a 15-21 record in three seasons — including 0-7 in the SEC in 2012 — before getting fired. It got so bad for Dooley in Tennessee that his mother resorted to defending him on radio shows. You know you’re in trouble when your mom is your only supporter.
What did we learn? Just because a guy’s dad was a good coach doesn’t mean he is a good coach.
6. Greg Robinson, Syracuse, 2005
“We didn’t want someone that was just going to be competitive with the rest of the coaches in the Big East. We wanted someone special. This is going to be a lot of fun, and we’re going to have a blast doing this together.” – Daryl Gross, Syracuse’s athletics director
Greg Robinson wasn’t competitive with the coaches in the Big East. He wasn’t competitive with coaches anywhere. In four years at Syracuse, the former NFL defensive coordinator was 10-37 – with the only two 10-loss seasons in Syracuse history — and 3-25 in the Big East. As you may remember, the Big East wasn’t known as a college football power. If the Big East was the kids the power conferences bullied, Robinson’s Syracuse teams were the kids those bullied kids then shoved in a locker.
But Robinson went out in style. In his final press conference before he was fired, Robinson read “The Little Engine That Could” and then said: “I still think I can.” He’s alone in that belief.
What did we learn? Don’t hire Greg Robinson. (This is a lesson Michigan and Texas unfortunately learned too late.)
5. Lane Kiffin, USC, 2010
“I try to catch people right at the part of where they’re going to burst out, and I think he’s right on the cusp of becoming a great coach.” – Mike Garrett, USC’s athletics director
Remember all that stuff in the previous entry on Kiffin? The spotty track record of success? The limited experience? The arrogance? USC saw all that, a 7-6 record at Tennessee and a growing sense that Kiffin was a slimeball and thought: “Yeah, let’s get us some of that.”
Shockingly, that decision did not pan out and after three and a half unremarkable years at USC, Kiffin was out. Following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State, Kiffin was called off the team bus at LAX and fired. Unceremoniously firing Lane Kiffin: a dream job for many college football fans.
What did we learn? If someone is deemed to be too bad for even the Oakland Raiders … and he has a mediocre college coaching record … and possible character problems … it’s probably wise not to hand your program over to him.
4. Mike Locksley, New Mexico, 2008
“Make no mistake about it. This man was our No. 1 choice.” – Doug Krebs, New Mexico’s athletics director
If Mike Locksley was the Lobos’ No. 1 choice, one shudders to think of their No. 2 choice. Who could have been worse? An actual wolf? Local chemistry teacher Walter White?
New Mexico hired Locksley from Illinois, where he coordinated some mediocre offenses on some bad Ron Zook teams, partly because of his reputation as a “recruiter.” Unfortunately, even the greatest recruiter in the world would struggle to get a good player to agree to play for a program run by Mike Locksley.
Just weeks into his first season, Locksley was suspended for 10 days due to an altercation with an assistant. Those 10 Locksley-free days were the best it got for New Mexico during Locksley’s two-and-a-half seasons in Albuquerque. He was canned four games into the 2011 season after a loss to FCS Sam Houston State. His final record at the school was 2-26.
What did we learn? Same as with Ianello: Assistant coaches under failed head coaches are rarely great hires.
3. George O’Leary, Notre Dame, 2001
“[George O’Leary] knows what championship football is about.” – Kevin White, Notre Dame’s athletics director
In all fairness to White, he may have believed O’Leary knew what championship football is about because that claim may have been something O’Leary put on his fraudulent resume.
Five days after getting the Notre Dame job, O’Leary resigned after being forced to admit he had lied about his football and educational background on his resume. The lying aside, the O’Leary hiring wasn’t all that inspired to begin with for a program of Notre Dame’s supposed prestige. In more than seven seasons with Georgia Tech, he had one 10-win season. (That 10-win season is actually true. I looked it up and verified it.) If anything has helped O’Leary’s reputation over the long run, it’s probably Manti Te’o’s arrival at Notre Dame. Thanks to Te’o and Lennay Kekua, O’Leary’s story of his background isn’t even the biggest sham in program history anymore.
What did we learn? Trick plays? Good. Trick resumes? Not good.
2. Mike Haywood, Pitt, 2010
“From the first meeting with Michael Haywood … the qualities that he exhibited were absolutely in line with the values of this great university. He was the only candidate who was brought to campus and the only person offered the job.” – Steve Pederson, Pitt’s athletics director
Just 15 days after Pederson extolled Haywood’s character, discipline and values, the coach was arrested on a domestic violence charge. Hours later Pitt fired him. He never coached a game or ran a practice.
Pitt then apparently gave up on the idea of character altogether and hired Todd Graham, who left the program 11 months later for Arizona State – informing his players of his departure via text message.
What did we learn? It’s hard to run a college football program from behind bars.
1. Charlie Weis, Notre Dame, 2004
“Charlie is considered the most innovative and creative offensive coordinator in the NFL. He is a proud 1978 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. We are honored and proud to introduce the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame, Charlie Weis.” – Kevin White again
Most of the coaches on this list had a worse record than Charlie Weis. Most of them were fired sooner. And none of them made a BCS bowl game like Weis did with the Irish in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007.
So what sets Weis apart from the pack? He is – by far – the most expensive failure of the BCS era. And he got his windfall on the strength of dubious achievements.
See how White called Weis “the most innovative and creative offensive coordinator in the NFL”? The facts simply don’t bear that out. While the Patriots won Super Bowls during Weis’ time there, his offenses were merely average. Those titles were on the strength of the New England defense and clutch late-game play by Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri. Upon Weis’ departure, New England’s offense improved dramatically.
Yet Notre Dame gave Weis a six-year, $12 million contract. Then, after Notre Dame nearly beat USC in Weis’ sixth game on the job, they threw out that contract and extended Weis for 10 years and $30 to $40 million. Let’s go through that again: Notre Dame LOST a game to fall to 4-2 and decided to extend Weis for TEN YEARS.
A close loss to No. 1 USC was as good as it got for Weis. Coaching with Ty Willingham’s players, Weis made back-to-back BCS bowls and got crushed in both – including a 41-14 loss in the Sugar Bowl to LSU and JaMarcus Russell, which caused Russell’s draft stock to skyrocket, which in turn earned Russell one of the worst contracts in NFL history. Weis’ financial destruction across the football landscape was extensive.
In his final three seasons at Notre Dame, with his recruits and system fully in place, Notre Dame went 16-21. In his final season alone, he lost games to the likes of Rich Rodriguez, Dave Wannstedt, Randy Edsall and Navy. So much for the “decided schematic advantage” he promised when he got the job.
When Notre Dame finally and wisely canned Weis, they were still on the hook for millions. In fact, in 2012 when Brian Kelly coached the Irish to the BCS title game, Weis was still paid more that season by Notre Dame … while leading Kansas to a 1-11 record.
Pay like a champion.
What did we learn? Don’t give coaches huge contracts as a reward for losing. Genius, huh?
DJ Gallo is the founder of SportsPickle.com and has written for ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, The Onion and Comedy Central. He has appeared on SportsCenter, ESPNews, and G4 and is a frequent radio guest and published author. Follow him on Twitter at @DJGalloEtc, @sportspickle and @thatdjgallo.