College football programs are trending toward younger hires

  • This Nov. 1, 2016 photo shows Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Ball State in Muncie, Ind. When searching for a new head football coach, schools have been showing more willingness to hire an up-and-comer like P.J. Fleck, rather than a veteran with a long track record of success. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) Michael Conroy

  • Houston Coach Tom Herman is the kind of up-and-coming candidate colleges are looking for to fill football head coaching vacancies. AP

Associated Press
Published: 11/8/2016 7:38:56 PM

When searching for a new head football coach, schools have been showing a greater desire to hire an up-and-comer, like Tom Herman or P.J. Fleck, rather than a veteran with a long record of success, such as Les Miles.

The average age of the head coaches hired by FBS teams last season was 43.2 years old, the youngest in the past six years. Eight of the 26 new hires were under 40 when they accepted the job.

In 2010 and 2011, the average age of the 48 coaches hired by FBS schools was a touch over 47, including eight under the age of 40.

People in the business of hiring coaches are hesitant to call anything a trend, since each school comes to the marketplace with different needs and criteria. But the current climate favors coaches like Western Michigan’s 35-year-old Fleck and Houston’s 41-year-old Herman over a potential Hall of Famer such as Miles. The 62-year-old former LSU coach won 77 percent of his games and a national title in 11-plus seasons with the Tigers before being fired in September.

Potential is often more appealing to those hiring a coach than an extensive resume, according to Daniel Parker, the vice president and managing director of sports for Parker Executive Search, based in Atlanta. Parker helps programs identify coaching candidates and hire them.

“Bringing in somebody that’s got a lot of energy, that’s going to change the program, recruit really well, work really hard, that does something for the fan base. It re-energizes the athletics department. Re-energizes the fans,” Parker said.

Miles told Sports Illustrated last week he has “10 or 12 years left in me.” An out-of-date offense was a big part of why Miles was ousted, but he says he is willing to change and evolve his philosophies.

Recent history suggests the demand for Miles could be limited.

In 2010 and ‘11, four coaches who were at least 60 were hired by FBS teams, two each season. Since, Mike Riley, who went from Oregon State to Nebraska after the 2014 season, is the only 60-or-older coach to be hired as an FBS head coach.

“I think it’s going to be up to Les as to what he’s interested in doing,” said Jed Hughes, who works for executive search firm Korn Ferry. “He’s been at a powerful school. Does he think he wants to be at that level or will he be satisfied with something a little less that would allow him to stay in a Power Five school but not have the same kind of aura and tradition that LSU did?”

Mack Brown was 62 when he was pushed out at Texas after the 2013 season. He also has Hall of Fame-worthy credentials, but his last few years with the Longhorns when he went 30-21 overshadowed his string of nine straight double-digit victory seasons and a national title at Texas. Former coaches such as Brown and Phillip Fulmer, who was fired by Tennessee after the 2008 season at age 58, end up being defined by their awkward exits instead of their long runs of success. Fans rarely want the coach some other school just discarded.

Brown said he still has not ruled out coaching again, but he is not actively pursuing jobs.

“I do think so many of the athletic directors and presidents have to listen to their boosters, and a lot of their boosters want whatever the hot name is not only this year but this week,” Brown said.

The job of major college football coach is increasingly becoming a 365-day per year gig. Recruiting never really takes a break. Recently proposed NCAA reforms to the recruiting calendar were made to acknowledge that schools are routinely offering scholarships to high schoolers well before their senior seasons.

“I remember specifically one (older coach) said, ‘Don’t hire me,’” Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said. “Meaning, don’t hire someone of my age because I can’t handle the 24/7 business of college football.”

The last hiring cycle also had the highest percentage of college coordinators and assistants with no head-coaching experience to become head coaches at Power Five schools since 2010.

Five of the 12 Power Five openings went to assistants and none was older than 43. Most notably, Georgia hired 40-year-old Kirby Smart, the former longtime Alabama defensive coordinator and Georgia alum.

, and USC promoted former Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton, 43, after he served as interim coach.

The allure for programs is in potentially finding a coach to define the program long term. Bob Stoops was a 39-year-old defensive coordinator when Oklahoma hired him in 1999, and Mark Richt was 41 with no head-coaching experience when he became Georgia’s coach in 2001.

Hughes said being a head coach has become more complicated since then because of the size and scope of the most prominent programs.

“I would make the argument that a Power Five high-profile program, hiring an assistant coach that’s not a proven head coach is a major risk,” Hughes said.

Rick Chryst, the brother of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and former Mid-American Conference commissioner, said hiring younger head coaches is a byproduct of a different trend: Less patience by schools in a rush for success.

“You got some really good coaches who have cycled through once and are young enough to have another head job in them,” Chryst said.

One bad stint as a head coach is often hard to overcome.

“I had an AD tell me it’s all about brokering hope,” said former Colorado and Boise State coach Dan Hawkins, who is working for ESPN and about to turn 56. “If you go hire a guy that’s never been a head coach, he is a blank slate. So the fans and the media are all enamored with that.”

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