Regrading the 2016-17 college football coaching carousel from Lincoln Riley and Ed Orgeron to Tom Herman

Grading coaching hires is an inexact science in the heat of the moment, and nothing brings that to light more than going back in time to review an entire coaching carousel and see how the coaches — and our expectations — have changed over time. If you go back four years in the cycle, Tom Herman was the biggest star on the market, seemingly having his choice between Texas and LSU.

Four years later, Herman has been replaced at Texas, while Ed Orgeron — promoted from interim to full-time coach at LSU — has a national championship on his mantle. 

Time has now allowed for us to judge whether or not the hires from the 2016-17 cycle were successful. By going back four years, that allows us to consider each of these coaches with perspective. They’ve had four seasons to install their plans, recruit their own players and have the program poised for a fifth year that will be all attributed completely to their tenure. 

Of course, not all coaches make it to a fifth year, and some end up leaving for another job before turning the corner at the conclusion of that fourth season. But what makes the 2016-17 cycle so unique is both how many of those hires are still in place (considering the quick trigger on coaches in the modern era) and how much those coaches have accomplished in their time at their jobs.

The 2017-18 cycle saw multiple Power Five coaches lose their jobs after Year 3, so in comparison, the 2016-17 cycle looks like one of the best of the decade. This group includes a national championship-winning coach, five coaches who have won conference championships and nine coaches who won a conference coach of the year award. 

A few notes before we begin our analysis with the coaches still in place at the job they were hired to in 2016-17.

Jamey Chadwell is not entering Year 5 because 2017 was a full season of him coaching in an interim role; however, because he returned to the head job in 2019, we’ve included him in this group. Orgeron, as mentioned before, is grouped in as a 2016-17 hire but he retains the wins he recorded as an interim coach during the 2016 season. Finally, Randy Edsall has a long history at UConn that makes this far from Year 5; however, it’s also not Year 5 of this second stint because the Huskies sat out the 2020 season. Still, he was hired to replace Bob Diaco in the 2016-17 cycle, so he’s in on this list.

Let’s take a look at grades for the coaches still in place, those who have moved on to other jobs and the group that was fired or resigned from their positions. Original grades listed below refer to our staff grades after the 2016-17 coaching cycle.

Coaches still in place Justin Wilcox, Cal

Record: 21-21 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2)

How’s it going? The strength of Cal’s defense under Wilcox is credited to the leadership of the longtime defensive coordinator, and the biggest question for whether the Bears can take the next step comes back to finding success on offense. The trajectory is good, and Wilcox’s time has to be viewed as a success, but now the stylistic opposite of his predecessor Sonny Dykes needs to find some scoring to keep things moving forward. Grade: B |  Original grade: B

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

Record: 35-14 | Accomplishments: AAC championship (2020), AAC East title (2019), bowl games (2), AP Top 25 finishes (3), AAC Coach of the Year (2018, 2020)

How’s it going? Fantastic. Cincinnati fans have to love everything about the way that Fickell has gone about his business returning the Bearcats to the top of the college football. Winning at levels that haven’t been seen since Brian Kelly is worth celebrating, but the fact that Fickell seems to be very picky about his next job means he could keep this thing rolling for longer than most Group of Five coaches who win with as much consistency. Grade: A+ | Original grade: C+

Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina

Record: 19-17 | Accomplishments: Sun Belt championship (2020), bowl game (2020), Sun Belt Coach of the Year (2020)

How’s it going? Like we mentioned earlier, this isn’t Year 5 for Chadwell, but his willingness to step up as Joe Moglia needed time away for health reasons and ability to keep the program on track in the full transition to Sun Belt membership means he’s going to be an important piece of Coastal Carolina’s story. At the moment, it’s going very well for Chadwell, making what happens next for both coach and program among the most interesting questions for this 2016-17 group moving forward. Grade: B+ | Original grade: n/a

Randy Edsall, UConn 

Record: 6-30 | Accomplishments: New York Times’ “national champion” (2020)

How’s it going? It’s complicated. It won’t be until the Huskies return to action that we can really get a read on the health of the program after an entire year off as it transitions into its independent status. Bringing back Edsall hasn’t restored the glory of his Big East run, so now it’s a matter of whether the team can be competitive in its return to independence. Grade: D | Original grade: D

Butch Davis, FIU

Record: 23-21 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (3)

How’s it going? Things don’t feel great after an 0-5 showing in 2020 that made the success of 17 wins in the first two seasons of Davis’ tenure feel awfully distant. But coaches everywhere are going to get an opportunity to right the ship because of the unprecedented obstacles they faced in fielding winning football in 2020, and Davis is included in this group. Grade: B- | Original grade: D

Shawn Elliott, Georgia State 

Record: 22-25 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (3)

How’s it going? Pretty good! After really struggling in 2018, the Panthers have found a steady level of competitiveness here in the last two years with 4-4 conference records in both 2019 and 2020. Georgia State has only played in four bowl games in its short FBS history, but Elliott has been the coach for three of them and has the program’s only two bowl victories. Grade: B | Original grade: D

Tom Allen, Indiana 

Record: 24-22 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2), AP Top 25 finish (2020), Big Ten Coach of the Year (2020) 

How’s it going? Not only does Indiana have a coach who has led the first eight-win team since 1993 and guided the program to the highest single-week AP Top 25 ranking since 1992, but it’s got a leader who has helped establish a brand and culture that has invigorated the Hoosiers fan base. Though his coaching resume is long with experience at every level, Allen is only 51 and seems entrenched in remaking the image of his alma mater. Grade: A | Original grade: C-

Ed Orgeron, LSU 

Record: 45-14 | Accomplishments: College Football Playoff National Championship (2019), SEC championship (2019), bowl games (4), AP Top 25 finishes (4), SEC Coach of the Year (2019)

How’s it going? We’ve got our Power Five coach rankings coming out next week, and I can’t wait to see where Coach O lands in the composite voting. The title year sent his stock soaring, but the fall from 15-0 to 5-5 was dizzying in terms of trying to take stock of where LSU sits heading into Orgeron’s fifth full season. Ultimately, Orgeron and LSU deserve the same opportunities in 2021 to show that 2020 was not what this program is or where the floor should be for the ultra-talented Tigers. Grade: A- | Original grade: C

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota 

Record: 26-19 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2), AP Top 25 finish (2019), Big Ten Coach of the Year (2019)

How’s it going? So far, Fleck has delivered the same kind program-building trajectory that led Western Michigan all the way to the New Year’s Six, and thus, Minnesota fans are more than happy with the hire. The Golden Gophers took some steps back in 2020, but a review of the participation chart shows widespread absences during the hastily-executed Big Ten season that make the losses seem much more palatable. As long as players continue to buy in on rowing the boat, Fleck will be competitive for top 25 finishes and regular bowl appearances. Grade: B+ | Original grade: B+

Jay Norvell, Nevada

Record: 25-22 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (3)

How’s it going? Great. Three straight seasons with seven regular season wins, including a 7-2 record during the challenging 2020 season that included his best conference record yet in the Mountain West (6-2). If we’re looking at Group of Five coaches trying to decide whether they’re trending more towards getting hired elsewhere or fired, Norvell is absolutely near the the front of the line for a move up before he’s going to show up on any hot seat list. Grade: B | Original grade: D

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma 

Record: 45-8 | Accomplishments: College Football Playoff appearances (2017-19), Big 12 championships (2017-20), AP Top 25 finishes (4), Big 12 Coach of the Year (2018)

How’s it going? Unquestionably the most successful hire of the cycle, Riley enters Year 5 with as much pressure and intrigue as a coach on the hot seat. Not that falling short of expectations would lead to any kind of job security questions, but after missing the College Football Playoff for the first time, we’re talking not only about a return to the playoff for the Sooners but the next step in reaching the national championship game for the first time. Grade: A+ | Original grade: n/a (hired in June)

Jeff Brohm, Purdue 

Record: 19-25 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2) 

How’s it going? After winning the Old Oaken Bucket in Year 1 with bowl eligibility on the line and then taking down a No. 2-ranked Ohio State in Year 2, the trajectory suggested better results than what we’ve seen in 2019 and 2020. This is a program that has decimated by injuries at key positions, and there’s enough explanations in the details to bring context to the 6-12 record that has followed. After all, Purdue was one of just two teams to beat Iowa in 2020 and had no losses by more than 10 points. The competitiveness was still there, but the results just weren’t matched to expectations. Grade: B- | Original grade: B

Brent Brennan, San Jose State 

Record: 15-30 | Accomplishments: Mountain West championship (2020), bowl game (2020), AP Top 25 finish (2020), Mountain West Coach of the Year (2020)

How’s it going? Unquestionably good. If you were a San Jose State fan during the coaching searches of 2020-21, you might have even wondered if it was too good. Brennan’s success with the Spartans bringing home their first outright conference title since 1990 was more than a story of road warriors forced to relocate from home because of COVID-19 restrictions. It was the final stage of the lose big, lose small, win small, win big life cycle. Grade: B | Original grade: C

Tim Lester, Western Michigan 

Record: 24-20 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2) 

How’s it going? It’s been a fairly consistent start for Lester at his alma mater with the Broncos carrying an 18-12 record in MAC play over the last four years that includes three straight runner-up finishes in the MAC West. Grade: B | Original grade: n/a

Coaches hired away Matt Rhule, Baylor 

Record: 19-20 (3 seasons) | Accomplishments: Big 12 championship appearance (2019), bowl games (2), AP Top 25 finish (2019), Big 12 Coach of the Year (2019)

How’d it go? Too well, if you ask some Baylor fans. By the time Rhule was lining up opposite Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game, he had a Bears squad led by juniors and seniors that had been through the journey with him from one win to seven to 11 wins in 2019. Whether there was enough time to make a long-lasting impact on the program is yet to be seen, but Dave Aranda had plenty of reloading to do after Rhule’s exit. Rhule was hired as coach of the Carolina Panthers. Grade: A+ | Original grade: B

Lane Kiffin, FAU 

Record: 26-13 (3 seasons) | Accomplishments: Conference USA championships (2017, 2019), bowl games (2)

How’d it go? A philosophy of leading with offense worked great for the skill and team speed available to FAU with future pros like Devin Singletary and Harrison Bryant helping the Owls field a top-25 offense in all three years of Kiffin’s tenure. I wouldn’t consider Kiffin a program-changing hire, but it worked well enough for both school and coach to get the results they wanted. Kiffin was hired as coach of Ole Miss. Grade: B+ | Original grade: A-

Willie Taggart, Oregon

Record: 7-5 (1 season) | Accomplishments: Bowl game (2017) 

How’d it go? Poorly. And that’s looking exclusively through the lens of Oregon and not even considering the results at Florida State. Things had bottomed out under Mark Helfrich quickly, so rebuilding was going to be tough for anyone, but Taggart had an issue with players being hospitalized by offseason workouts in the first two months of being hired, turned in a sub-.500 record in conference play in his only season and split less than a calendar year after being hired when he was brought on as coach of Florida State. Grade: D | Original grade: A

Geoff Collins, Temple

Record: 15-10 (2 seasons) | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2) 

How’d it go? So well that Collins became the winningest coach in program history through two seasons before taking the job with Georgia Tech. A 50-42 loss at top-10 UCF was the only thing separating the Owls from a division title and AAC Championship Game appearance in 2018; otherwise, there might be some hardware associated with Collins’ time in Philadelphia. Collins was hired as coach of Georgia Tech. Grade: B+ | Original grade: B-

Coaches who were fired or resigned Jeff Tedford, Fresno State 

Record: 26-14 | Accomplishments: Mountain West championship (2018), Mountain West division title (2017-18), bowl games (2), AP Top 25 finish (2017), Mountain West Coach of the Year (2017)

How’d it go? Really well. The grouping here is unfortunate for Tedford because he resigned as a result of health issues after the 2019 season. The 12-win campaign in 2018 marked the winningest season in Fresno State history and the first final AP Top 25 finish since 2004. Grade: B+ | Original grade: C-

Major Applewhite, Houston

Record: 15-11 (2 seasons) | Accomplishments: Conference USA West title (2018), bowl games (2)

How’d it go? While the back-and-forth with Ed Oliver over who got to wear a jacket on the sideline will be remembered as a moment that Applewhite didn’t have the team’s support, I’ll argue that the 70-14 loss to Army West Point in the bowl game was the point of no return for Houston’s decision-makers. Army’s been good, but there’s no reason the Cougars should ever be as uncompetitive as they were on that day against the Black Knights. Grade: C- | Original grade: B+

Charlie Strong, South Florida

Record: 21-16 | Accomplishments: Bowl games (2)

How’d it go? Coming in on the heels of Taggart’s success with the Bulls, Strong landed in Tampa and rolled off a 10-win season in 2017 in what seemed to be a great spot for him to continue his coaching career after being let go by Texas. But things started to backslide quickly, and USF went 5-11 against conference opponents in its next two seasons before Strong was fired. Grade: C- | Original grade: A-

Tom Herman, Texas

Record: 32-18 (4 seasons) | Accomplishments: Big 12 championship appearance (2018), bowl games (4), AP Top 25 finishes (3)

How’d it go? The totality of 32 wins in four seasons with four bowl wins and three top-25 finishes would be plenty for most schools, but no matter how great things seemed after another Alamo Bowl win in December, the Longhorns decided to move on Herman once Steve Sarkisian was made available after the College Football Playoff semifinals. Though Texas decided to move on, I don’t think it was an unsuccessful tenure, considering Herman recruited at a high level, never finished with a losing record in conference play, beat Oklahoma (albeit only once) and made the Big 12 Championship Game. Grade: B- | Original grade: A

Mike Sanford Jr., Western Kentucky 

Record: 9-16 (2 seasons) | Accomplishments: Bowl game (2017)

How’d it go? Not well. The Hilltoppers were used to competing for conference championships and in two short seasons the school decided that Sanford was taking the program in the other direction. It’s not common to see such a short leash for someone in their first time ever as a coach, but the confidence was not high that Sanford could maintain the level of competitiveness set by his predecessor, Jeff Brohm. Grade: F | Original grade: B+

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