College football coaching searches turn toward offensive masterminds

Danny Johnston/Associated Press - Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson was named Arkansas State’s new head coach earlier this month. “We wanted this guy for his offense,” said Chuck Welch, president of the Arkansas State University System.

Chuck Welch, president of the Arkansas State University System, stood at a podium last week for a news conference that has become something of an annual tradition in Jonesboro, Ark.

He was introducing Blake Anderson, the program’s fifth football coach in as many years.

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Welch began by telling reporters about how the former North Carolina offensive coordinator had convinced him he didn’t have his eyes on another job and that the contract he signed reflected that belief (he’ll owe the school $3 million if he leaves in the first two years).

It didn’t take long, though, for Welch to reveal why Arkansas State had initially become enamored with Anderson.

“Who am I kidding,” he said with a laugh. “We wanted this guy for his offense.”

With increasing frequency, that logic has become the norm when administrators conduct a college football coaching search.

Of the 123 Football Bowl Subdivision programs with head coaches as of Friday, less than 30 percent feature a head coach whose previous experience was strictly on the defensive side of the ball.

About 57 percent have strictly offensive backgrounds, a trend that has increased in recent years along with the proliferation of the spread offense.

Since 2008, 44 of the 66 FBS head coach hirings have been from the offensive side of the ball.

Only the Big Ten and Mountain West have more head coaches with defensive backgrounds than not.

For some, the reasons behind the trend extend beyond the football field and offer a glimpse into the changing dynamics within college athletic departments.

“Rarely today is there an athletic director with a football background,” said former Virginia coach Al Groh, who rose through the coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball. “They go for the statistics, and they’re sensitive to the fan base. They’re basically the leaders of the fan club. If you have all that sparkle at the beginning, everybody looks good. But when it doesn’t work out, it’s the coach’s fault.”

To others, it’s simply a reflection of the way the game is being played.

“I think offenses have passed the defenses lately,” said Daniel Parker, the vice president of Parker Executive Search, which helps schools identify coaching candidates. “That doesn’t mean the defenses won’t catch up, but the scheming and maybe some of the rules in college football and pro football have been in favor of the offensive side of the ball. . . . Right now, offenses are dynamic, and you can look at how the spread has taken over.”

This does not mean defensive-minded coaches can’t be successful anymore. Former Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas, who runs the consulting firm Neinas Sports Services, pointed to Alabama Coach Nick Saban. He has won three of the past four BCS national championships, and in Neinas’s experience the “number one priority in hiring a coach is his leadership.”

To that point, four of the past five winners of the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach, have been defensive coordinators. A look at the winning percentages of FBS head coaches hired over the past five years also revealed little difference between those with an expertise on offense (.522) or defense (.527).

But there are plenty of coaching searches in which offense, more than just wins and losses, was the driving force.

“When push comes to shove, to know that you can have an exciting brand of football out there . . . that will get the benefit of the doubt as far as what you want to do in a hiring decision,” said Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne, who hired offensive guru Rich Rodriguez in 2011.

When Byrne was Mississippi State’s athletic director, a five-year study revealed the Bulldogs ranked 118th out of 119 FBS teams in total offense.

So he set out to hire someone who could “put the ball in the end zone” and settled on then-Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, one of the coaches behind quarterback Tim Tebow’s record-setting Heisman Trophy campaign in 2008.

“Oftentimes the offensive side of the ball is something that the fans look at from an entertainment standpoint,” Byrne said. “They like the high-powered offenses, and if you’re struggling in that manner, that may be more of a priority for you on the search.

“The spread is an exciting brand of football, and I think it’s able to, depending on where you are and who you can recruit, level the playing field at times, and it’s an attractive brand of football to recruits, fans, television, and it’s kind of a fast-break offense. People enjoy that no matter the sport.”

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is all too familiar with this reality. A Broyles Award winner in 2006, Foster’s name has been bandied about for head coach openings every offseason for close to a decade. But he claims to have been “a true finalist” for only two jobs — Virginia in 2000, when the Cavaliers hired Groh, and Clemson in 2008, when the Tigers retained interim head coach Dabo Swinney.

During interviews with potential employers, Foster often points out the discipline and fundamentals needed on defense because “that’s what a program should be about.” Thus far, it has been to no avail.

“I know administrators. They want to see the stadiums filled, a lot of excitement, and you can still bring that as a defensive-minded coach,” Foster said. “Getting an offense that’s exciting, I understand that completely, but . . . don’t shut us out.”

 
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