You don’t need me to tell you that Mike Norvell did an incredible job as football coach at the University of Memphis. He won more than twice as many games as he lost, he went to bowl games in each of his four seasons, he recruited the heck out of the region, and this year he guided the team to a dozen wins for the first time in school history while getting Memphis football on prime time network television.
And now he’s gone: Over the weekend, Norvell announced that he was going to become the next head coach at Florida State University, a once-powerful Power 5 program that has the resources to be great, but hasn’t been good for a few years.
While Memphis fans weren’t thrilled to see Norvell walk, they understood. Norvell did virtually all he could do here in the 901. Even if Memphis had gone 13-0, it wouldn’t have been enough to get into the mix for the college football playoff, thanks to the current Power/Group of Five structures. Norvell wanted to compete for a championship, and he would never be able to do that at Memphis.
So Norvell has decamped to the Sunshine State, and now Memphis athletic director Laird Veatch, which is actually his name, has to hire a new coach. Which is where the drama can begin.
Hiring a college football coach is like playing the lottery: You either win big or go home broke. When it doesn’t work, it takes two or three years to recover, as you have to re-recruit and fill the cupboard with players who can play in a new system. But when it works right, everyone ends up benefitting from the union.
The real question is what type of coach you’re going to hire and in which direction you want to take your program. I’ve put together a handy cheat sheet of the different types of coaches that Mr. Veatch will have to sift through…
This is the coach who’s never worn a pair of sweats or coach’s shorts. He has a process that he believes in, fully. He surrounds himself with motivational sayings and believes that they actually work. He sets up a top-down organization and then sits atop the organizational chart, delegates responsibility and makes sure everything runs smoothly. Nick Saban has pioneered bringing the board room into the locker room, and younger coaches like PJ Fleck (and his ties) seem to be trying to replicate the master.
He’s not really known for specializing in any one thing, other than working hard. He clocks in and never clocks out, sleeping on the couch in his office and existing on energy drinks and fiber-rich snacks. He may not be the most talented coach, but he’s not going to be outworked when it comes to recruiting or breaking down film.
The Aloof Genius
A huge part of being a modern college football coach is selling your program, to recruits and alums and boosters and even the various committees that control your team’s fate. Unless you’re the complete opposite: Someone who has horrible people skills but is such a great coach that it doesn’t matter. Think Mike Leach or Chip Kelly, the beautiful minds who figure out how to do things differently, even if they aren’t all that great at explaining how or why they do what they do.
The guy who has won big at a smaller program, gone as far as he can go, and has nowhere else to go but elsewhere. He has a transferrable algorithm that is hopefully scalable from program to program. This is basically what happened to Norvell, as well as coaches like Scott Frost (UCF to Nebraska) and Scott Satterfield (App State to Cincy). The problem for Memphis is that unless they can somehow move from the Group of Five to the Power Five, it’s probably going to happen again.
The Problem Child
Some coaches are just too cool for their own good. They’re undeniably talented as a coach, but their coaching ability doesn’t always cover for their lack of other skills. Maybe they think they can get away with more than can get away with, or their ego writes checks that their W/L record can’t cover. From Bobby Petrino to Lane Kiffin to Hugh Freeze, we’ve seen this type before. And usually we see them at Ole Miss.
The is the coach, usually an alumni of said school, brought in to make sure the wheels don’t fall off in times of trouble. He’s a steadying hand, mostly, who recruits competently and does his best to be equanimous at all times. He’ll do his best for the team but at the end of the day he honestly wants what’s best for the University. Former Ole Miss coach Matt Luke is a good example here.
The Extension Cord
Sometimes a head coach leaves, and the school decides their best course of action is to look for continuity. They want to keep the same staff in place, run the same system, and at the very least try to replicate what was working before, and in a best-case scenario expand on what was working. Ohio State did this with Ryan Day, promoting a career assistant coach to the top job, and watching as he’s gone 13-0 this season as the boss man.
The Wild Card
Some coaches don’t seem to be playing with a full deck. Kansas coach Les Miles is the most successful modern example of this coach, eating grass and gambling on fourth down and along the way winning a national title at LSU in 2007. This type of coach probably has some history as a strength coach or a line coach, someone who collides heads frequently. Sam Pittman, the newly-hired coach at Arkansas, seems to fit this bill, running around screaming “Yessir!”
Of course, current LSU coach Ed Orgeron is another Wild Card, a friendly lunatic who failed in previous jobs and all of a sudden has found ultimate success in LSU this season.