When Justin Fuente first interviewed for a rather dumbfounding job title — head football coach, Virginia Tech — he had a simple and direct question for Whit Babcock, the Hokies’ athletic director: “Why on earth would I want to follow Frank Beamer?”
In a profession often laced with borderline insanity, that’s the sane way of thinking. When Beamer retired following the 2015 season, his 29th at his alma mater, someone not only had to replace him but had to live up to what he did, which was essentially rolling out a map and placing a giant burnt orange thumbtack on Blacksburg, Va., so the sporting public knew it existed. When a coach comes not just to shape a program but to define it, best of luck to the sap who follows him.
“I didn’t know for sure how it would go,” Fuente said. “But I believed Whit, everything about how he described Coach Beamer. He painted a very realistic picture of how it would be.”
On Sunday night, Beamer will serve as the Hokies’ honorary captain for their season opener at FedEx Field. His counterpart for West Virginia will be Don Nehlen, who coached the Mountaineers for 21 seasons, setting the standard for what’s possible in Morgantown.
Fuente is Beamer’s replacement, and he’s coming off a 10-win season in his Blacksburg debut. Dana Holgorsen is the replacement for Nehlen’s replacement’s replacement, and he’s coming off his second 10-win season in six years leading the Mountaineers.
Honorary captains, that’s a ceremonial step for sure, a nod to two men who, once upon a time, put these rural Mid-Atlantic programs into games that were, essentially, for the national title.
Following people like that? From Austin to Tuscaloosa, Ala., Norman, Okla., to L.A., that’s enough to make you think twice.
“When you’re following the guy that just gets out, sometimes there’s some sensitivity,” said former Texas coach Mack Brown, who knows something about legends. “You’re coaching his players. Following someone that’s really successful that left on their own terms — that’s tough. There’s absolutely no doubt it’s easier when there’s years between.”
Relevant point: Brown returned Texas to national prominence — and won a national title — during his 16-year run in Austin. His successor, Charlie Strong, was fired after three straight losing seasons.
We are in an era when the opportunities to follow such iconic coaches are fewer and fewer — because there are fewer and fewer iconic coaches to replace. The reasons shape the sport. Those coaches from the past, the heroes with bronze statues outside the stadiums, set expectations that can be unrealistic to repeat. The growth of the game — and by game, we mean “industry” — has led to insane salaries not just for head coaches but for their assistants. And if a school and its boosters are paying millions for a CEO and his underlings, there is a natural impulse to grow impatient.
Quick, who’s the longest-tenured Division I college football coach entering this season? Think about it a minute.
Bob Stoops retired at Oklahoma this spring. Les Miles was fired at LSU last fall. The past decade has seen the loss of mainstays Beamer, Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Joe Paterno at Penn State, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, even regional quasi-icons such as Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee. Pete Carroll left USC for the pros. Jim Harbaugh left Stanford for the pros — then resurfaced at Michigan. Urban Meyer left Florida for some personal downtime — then resurfaced at Ohio State.
The turnover in these jobs — jobs that men such as Paterno and Bowden and Beamer and Nehlen once owned for decades — is stunning. There are 130 programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, what Bowden and Beamer might have called Division I-A. This fall, 22 of them will be filled by coaches in their first seasons. Last year, 27 of them were new.
So with the season to start in earnest this weekend, nearly 38 percent — more than one in three — haven’t coached more than a season’s worth of games at their current stop. In the Southeastern Conference, supposedly the best that there is, 11 of the 14 coaches have four seasons or fewer at their current schools.
Welcome to campus. Please, sign your very lucrative contract — and this three-month lease, which might be renewable.
Think that churn is mostly at the Western Michigans and East Carolinas of the world? Nope. Texas and Oklahoma, Mississippi and Oregon, they’re just four of the 21 programs in the “Power Five” conferences that welcomed a new coach either this season or last. That, too, approaches one in three.
So can’t quite place the longest-tenured current coach?
That would be Kirk Ferentz, who arrived at Iowa in 1999. Yes, Bill Snyder is entering his 26th season at Kansas State. But Snyder took three seasons off a decade ago and then returned to his old job. Either way, couldn’t Ferentz walk down Madison Avenue waving an “I’m Kirk Ferentz” sign and not be noticed?
The iconic who remain? That, of course, depends on how you define “iconic” for these purposes. But let’s start with the idea that a coach must be recognizable outside his immediate geographic area and to sports fans who might not be the hardcore, tailgating-at-dawn college football cognoscenti.
Nick Saban counts. He has won four national championships in his 11 seasons at Alabama, which are added on to the national title he won at LSU. Though he took over a quarter century after the legendary Bear Bryant retired (talk about defining a program) and 15 years after the Crimson Tide won a title under Gene Stallings, he has come to be viewed as a standard-bearer and a savior at Alabama.
Meyer may count because even though he is entering just his sixth season at Ohio State, his record is remarkable — 61-6 with one national title for the Buckeyes, to go on top of two national titles in six seasons at Florida. Harbaugh may have worked his way into that class through his clever use of media, the fact that — at Michigan — he’s coaching the school for which he played quarterback, a résumé that includes coaching in a Super Bowl in the pros and the fact that his first two seasons produced the first back-to-back 10-win campaigns for the Wolverines since 2003-04.
But after that, where do you turn? Dabo Swinney at Clemson because of the most recent national title? This will be just his 10th year as a head coach. Washington’s Chris Petersen? His status is really rooted elsewhere, in the work he did at Boise State. Gary Patterson at Texas Christian? He’s second to Ferentz in tenure (taking his job in 2000) and successfully ushered a program from the WAC to the Big 12 — but if he walked down Madison Avenue carrying a sign blaring “I’m Gary Patterson,” someone might approach him and ask, “Hey, aren’t you Kirk Ferentz?”
The concerns that Fuente had in following Beamer are legitimate. Brown, when he took the Texas job before the 1998 season, was presented with another issue: The Longhorns’ glory days were long ago, the three national titles Darrell Royal won in 1963, 1969 and 1970. Yet Royal had been all but exiled from the Texas program by Brown’s predecessors.
“I felt, ‘It’s not my place to put Coach Royal’s picture in the closet,’ ” Brown said. “He made Texas what it was.”
He made Texas what it was, just like Beamer made Virginia Tech what it was, like Nehlen made West Virginia what it was, like Bowden and the other legends made their programs, their schools — in some cases, their states — what they were. Following men such as those can be thankless and fraught.
But if coaches such as Fuente aren’t willing to ask the question, “Why on earth would I want to follow Coach X,” and then decide they want to anyway, what chance does college football have of developing another set of coaches that define their schools, that determine how this era of their sport will be remembered?
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