May 25, 2024

College football coaching carousel: What recent hiring trends could tell us about new coaches in 2024 season


When power conference athletic directors are in the process of hiring a new football coach, they’re essentially faced with two decisions: either take a swing at upside and identify an up-and-coming assistant or head coach at a lower level, or pay big money to lure a sitting coach with a comfortable job at one of the nation’s premier leagues. Available resources play a huge a factor in the final call, but we’ve seen some schools pull off major coups in recent years. 

The 2021-22 cycle saw three coaches with job security at major power conference schools, two of which had led their programs to College Football Playoff appearances (Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly), leave for new jobs. The 2023-24 carousel broke that mark with four coaches moving from Power Four school to Power Four school. 

As a quick recap of the movement: Alabama hired Washington’s Kalen DeBoer to replace Nick Saban; Washington filled its vacancy with Arizona’s Jedd Fisch; Texas A&M lured Mike Elko away from Duke after the expensive firing of Jimbo Fisher; and Michigan State was able to pull Jonathan Smith away from his alma mater at Oregon State

There were even more — what we’d call for this article’s purposes — “upside swings” (i.e. hiring/promoting assistant coaches or Group of Five head coaches): 

It’s hard to predict success, no matter the coach’s previous location. Of the two categories we’ve sorted coaches into since the 2021-22 cycle — “Upside swings” and “Power conference to Power conference” — the winning percentages are almost identical. 

Upside swings

196-157

55.5%

Power conference to power conference

64-51

55.7%

Obviously, the sample size with former assistants and Group of Five coaches is larger and the hit rate is arguably more impressive, especially when you factor in initial contract numbers and relative expectations. But when you zoom in even further on the data from the last two coaching cycles and the ensuing seasons on the field, there are some interesting trends we can pull out and apply to the 2024 hires to sort of set the tone for their first year. 

Upside swings 

Recruiters win: Turns out, talent acquisition is very important when it comes to winning in college football. It’s certainly one of the primary factors that programs should consider when hiring a new coach, especially if they’re targeting assistants. 

Just look at the immediate success of Oregon coach Dan Lanning. During his stint at Georgia, in which he served as outside linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator, he was responsible for bringing in some of the most notable talent that went on to transform Georgia into the defensive Death Star it is today. Nolan Smith, a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and Nakobe Dean, who won the 2021 Butkus Award as the best linebacker in the sport, spring to mind. Lanning is now 22-5 in two seasons at Oregon, and the Ducks are recruiting at a ridiculous level both through the high school ranks and the transfer portal. 

Texas Tech’s Joey McGuire is another great example. Though he may not have hauled in as many blue-chip prospects, McGuire established himself as one of Baylor’s best evaluators and closers on the recruiting trail as an assistant from 2017-21. His deep ties to the state of Texas as a former head coach at Cedar Hill High School certainly help. 

McGuire’s 15-11 record through two seasons is the best start for a Texas Tech coach since Steve Sloan, who had 16 wins from 1975-76. In 2022, he became the first Texas Tech coach to beat Oklahoma and Texas in the same season and posted the program’s first winning conference record since 2009. On the recruiting front? The Red Raiders have signed five of the 20 highest-rated prospects in program history (according to the 247Sports Composite) through two full recruiting cycles under McGuire. 

This bodes well for Syracuse and Fran Brown. Though he’s never been a coordinator at the power conference level, his recruiting bona fides are arguably more impressive than any other hire during the 2023-24 cycle. He was named 247Sports National Recruiter of the Year in 2024 after netting two five-stars and five top-100 prospects for Georgia’s top-rated recruiting class. His impact is already being felt at Syracuse as the Orange boast an impressive 17-player transfer class headlined by former Ohio State starting quarterback Kyle McCord

Also keep an eye on new UCLA coach DeShaun Foster, who had a knack for identifying running back talent with the Bruins, and Michigan coach Sherrone Moore, the primary recruiter for stars like Daxton Hill and J.J. McCarthy during his time as an assistant with the Wolverines. 

Group of Five hires hit the ground running: Over the past two coaching cycles, former Group of Five coaches are 43-24 in their first season at the power conference level. All five that fit into that category — Florida’s Billy Napier, Alabama’s DeBoer, TCU’s Sonny Dykes, Auburn’s Hugh Freeze and Wisconsin’s Luke Fickell — made it to at least a bowl game in their inaugural season. 

Admittedly, DeBoer and Dykes are doing some heavy lifting here. Dykes spearheaded a miraculous run to the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2022, while DeBoer transformed 4-8 Washington into an 11-win team that finished the year ranked top-10 nationally for the first time since 2016. 

What happened after that first year is a mixed bag. Including Napier, DeBoer was the only of three former Group of Five coaches to improve on his win total from 2022-23. The Huskies went 14-1 amid a run to their first CFP National Championship appearance ever last season, while Napier and Dykes — who had to deal with several notable losses from that Cinderella team — combined for a 10-14 record. 

So, good things could be in store for Curt Cignetti at Indiana and Willie Fritz at Houston. Fritz is entering a wide open Big 12 after leading Tulane to back-to-back 11-win seasons, while Cignetti never won fewer than 11 games in a full 12-game season at James Madison. 

Power conference to power conference

Program builders exceed expectations: What do I mean by program builders? Louisville coach Jeff Brohm is an excellent example. In 2017, Brohm inherited a Purdue team fresh off four straight losing seasons and immediately won seven games and produced the Boilermakers’ first bowl win in six years. 

From there, Purdue went through some highs and lows while Brohm steadily molded the roster into his image. Then, in 2021, Brohm produced Purdue’s first nine-win season since 1998 by beating a hot Tennessee team in the Music City Bowl. He followed that up in 2022 by guiding the Boilermakers to their first Big Ten Championship Game appearance since 2000. 

Louisville identified Brohm’s success during the 2022-23 coaching carousel and went after him to replace Scott Satterfield. In his first season with the Cardinals, he went 10-4, finished runner-up behind Florida State in the ACC and gave Louisville its first ranking in the final AP Top 25 since 2016. This for a Louisville team that was picked to finish eighth in the conference in the ACC Preseason Media Poll. 

Washington’s Jedd Fisch and Michigan State’s Jonathan Smith fit that Brohm mold. Fisch won one game in his first season at Arizona (2021), improved to 5-7 in 2022 and just led the Wildcats to a 10-4 record, parlaying that into an opportunity with the Huskies and the Big Ten. 

A fellow Big Ten newcomer for the 2024 season, Smith embarked on an even slower but equally fruitful build at Oregon State. He had losing seasons in each of his first three years (2018-20) before breaking through in 2021 with a 7-6 showing. He raised the bar even further in 2022 with a 10-3 campaign, capped by a win against Florida in the Las Vegas bowl, and got the Beavers to 8-4 in 2023 prior to taking the Michigan State job. 

Strike while the iron is hot: College football always has been, and has become more so in recent years, a “what have you done for me lately” sport. As it turns out with these big-money hires, timing might just be everything. 

USC hired Lincoln Riley after a 2021 season in which he failed to win the Big 12 title and missed out on a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time since becoming a head coach in 2017. In his first season with the Trojans, Riley did produce a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Caleb Williams, but the on-field results didn’t necessarily reflect that; USC lost three games — the most losses in a single season (to that point) in Riley’s career — and fell in the Cotton Bowl against Tulane. 

Things got significantly worse in 2023. With Williams back to helm the offense, USC dropped to 8-5 and lost four conference games in its final season as a Pac-12 program. 

Mario Cristobal is a similar story. Oregon hit its zenith under Cristobal in 2019 when it went 12-2, won the Pac-12 and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks followed that up with another conference title during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Oregon won 10 games in 2021 and made it to a third straight Pac-12 Championship Game, but the Ducks lost two out of their last three contests — both to Utah — and Cristobal bolted to Miami before he could coach in an Alamo Bowl loss to Oklahoma. 

Miami is now 12-13 after two years of Cristobal. Its win total improved by two games from 2022-23, but the Hurricanes have posted an ACC record of 3-5 in consecutive seasons. 

As outlined above, Louisville’s hiring of Brohm is an example of good timing. He came to the Cardinals right after a surprising run to the Big Ten Championship Game. Most of the power conference programs that took a big swing this offseason got the timing right as well. 

Alabama hired DeBoer just days after he led Washington to the College Football Playoff National Championship. Fisch left for Washington after a 10-win season and Michigan State honed in on Smith after his 18 wins over the past two years. No telling how their new ventures will play out, but momentum is certainly on their side. 





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