Nobody saw Purdue coming in 2017. How could anyone have? The Boilermakers were very much at the bottom of the college football barrel when new head coach Jeff Brohm took over in December of 2016.
During Darrell Hazell’s disastrous four-year tenure, the only program to win fewer games than Purdue was Kansas. The Boilermakers went 9-39 between 2013 and 2016, four of those wins coming against FCS opponents. All anyone could really prove about Purdue upon Brohm’s arrival was that it was probably better than Indiana State. Hazell had gone 2-0 against the Sycamores.
Brohm arrived fresh off back-to-back conference titles at Western Kentucky. Coaching colleagues told him not to take the Purdue job, but he did and nearly matched Hazell’s win total over four seasons in one as the Boilermakers went 7-6, beating Iowa and Missouri and winning a de facto playoff game for bowl eligibility over in-state rival Indiana at the end of the regular season. Brohm’s slogan, plastered all over West Lafayette, was simple: Let’s Play Football.
It had been a long time since Purdue had.
Nobody saw Nebraska’s start to the Scott Frost era in 2018 coming either. Patience was, of course, going to be needed. But 0-2 after a cancellation and home games against Colorado and Troy? Those were some of the wins even cautious Husker fans were willing to pencil in. Then utter destruction at Michigan? A loss, at least, was easier to see coming in the offseason, but still the wrong result at a tough time.
Even Frost was left saying this week that the turnaround of Nebraska football wasn’t happening “as quickly” as he would like.
That makes for an interesting, big-picture conflict on Saturday. On one sideline you will have a coach who has earned the smart-guy imprimatur and engineered a quick turnaround at a place where you’d least expect it. On the other sideline you will have a coach who has earned the smart-guy imprimatur, too, but is looking at a longer rebuild at a place where a quick turnaround probably was expected.
The expectation, even if it was dulled somewhat in Year 1, wasn’t just based on Nebraska’s historical clout, but Frost’s history with the program and his own impressive résumé. He inherited an 0-12 team at UCF on Dec. 1, 2015. On Dec. 2, 2017, 732 days later, the Knights were 12-0, conference champions headed to the Peach Bowl and Frost was on a flight to Lincoln late that night to be introduced as Nebraska’s new head coach on Day 733. He revived the Knights’ program under the slogan UCFast and it happened that way.
So why hasn’t “Red Burned Brighter” so far for the Huskers? I feel like we’ve examined every possible explanation and dissected every sound bite over the course of three weeks with no real answers.
But here’s a working theory: College football is a sport dominated by a rigid hierarchy. Over time, Alabama is Alabama and Indiana is Indiana. Occasionally those class lines get blurred over a short span, but things almost always snap back into focus. This provides all sorts of advantages for the programs at the top and those advantages tend to keep them at the top.
Those advantages don’t seem to apply, however, to rebuilds, particularly in Year 1. It matters long term, but not right away.
Between 2007 and 2017, including coaches that were in place in 2007 (so, Frank Beamer is in there, for example), 59 previous head coaches took a new Power 5 head coaching job. That’s the situation Frost and Brohm were in at their current jobs. (Note: That removes coordinators becoming head coaches for the first time.)
Those coaches collectively came in with a career winning percentage of .630. At the end of 2017, or the end of their tenure at their Power 5 school, their winning percentage in the new job dropped to .601. That’s across all Power 5s, but how does it line up with college football’s existing power structure?
About like you’d expect. New head coaches at one of the 10 winningest all-time programs came in with a winning percentage of .642 and, at the end of 2017 or end of tenure, left the new job at .739 (+.097). At programs 11-through-20 things fall to nearly even, from .658 when hired to .647 at the end (-.011). A similar thing is happening at the bottom of the Power 5 pile. Coaches hired at one of the 10 worst programs came in at .594 and finished at .429 (-.165). Look at the next 10 programs from the bottom and things get a little better, .604 to .484 (-.120).
|P5 GROUP*||WIN% AT TIME OF HIRE||WIN% AT NEW JOB||CHANGE|
* based on all-time winning percentage
Long term it matters where a coach is hired, which is no great revelation. But gaining entry to the college football aristocracy has comparatively less value right away.
Take that same group of new head coaches from before and look just at what they did in Year 1. On average, the first-year head coach barely improved at all over the previous season. For the entire group, it was an inherited win percentage of .472 and a Year 1 percentage of .481. Land at a premier program and a coach has a slightly better shot at greater immediate success with a Year-1-to-Year-0 difference at a top-20 program of .066 (.602 – .537). At the bottom it’s the opposite, a difference of -.075 (.307 – .381).
|P5 GROUP||YEAR 1 WIN%||PREV YEAR WIN%||CHANGE|
But here’s what’s interesting about Year 1s. Coaches in the top 11-to-20 range (.095 change) have fared better than coaches at a top-10 all-time program (.034). Coaches in the bottom 10 (-.039 change) have fared better, while still not well, than coaches at the bottom 11-to-20 programs (-.097).
Which brings us back to Nebraska, Purdue and this Saturday. If you look to the sidelines and wonder why the Boilermakers took off running almost instantly under Brohm while the Huskers are still trying to take their first fledgling steps under Frost, here’s what I think it could be (and given all of the variables at play it is very much just a theory): Expectations are a hurdle right away but also allow for the resources that lead to long-term success.
Expectations at a place like Nebraska (top 10 all-time winning percentage) are slightly different than at Washington (top 20), but they’re significantly different than at Purdue (bottom 20), and Purdue fans are entitled to have slightly increased expectations over their counterparts at Wake Forest (bottom 10). Over the past decade of Power 5 hires, that’s how the new hires have worked out as a whole –– coaches at top 10 programs fare better at coaches at the next 10 most winningest programs and on down the line.
But it’s not what’s happening right away. Coaches in Year 1 at the bottom 10 programs, those with the least expectations of all historically, have had less negative change than those at the programs that are just a little bit better. Coaches at a top 10 program have fared slightly worse in Year 1 than those coaches that are one rung down the expectations ladder.
All coaches still try to climb that ladder, of course, for what it means over time. Overall it’s better to be at Florida State than Arizona State, which is better than North Carolina State, which is better than Oregon State.
It’s a class system every college football fan is familiar with, but it might not be as rigid for a new coach in Year 1. That’s not meant as an explanation for Nebraska’s 0-3 start under favored son Scott Frost. There are so many factors at play that I can’t even feel certain it’s reality. It is merely a theory.
But as I think back to driving through Big Ten country last fall and seeing those simple Purdue billboards –– “Let’s Play Football” –– it feels more and more like a luxury programs at the top don’t have.
At places like Nebraska and Alabama and Michigan, it’s almost never just about football. The shadows of the past are the classic blessing and curse. Historical football powers are big, unwieldy and, yes, powerful machines, but they require constant upkeep and every fraction off from optimal performance feels like a calamity.
As I think about it now, this is maybe the only luxury those programs don't have. It's easier for a program to outrun its history than catch up to it.
At least for a little while, but the machines tend to start running again.