It was SEC week in Huskerland last week apparently. Thanks to a flight path connecting Nebraska and Mississippi, Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin had his name bounce around the twitterverse as a potential Huskers candidate.
Doesn’t matter if such a flight was for any of a hundred reasons other than connecting a place in need of a coach with a place that had one, these are coaching-search times and anything goes. Every idea has merit and is meritless at the same time.
So, what of Kiffin as a coach? The son of former Nebraska defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane was born in Lincoln, and that about concludes the section on his existing connections to Husker football.
He took over as the Oakland Raiders head coach in 2007 as a 31-year-old, and was quite famously fired a year later. He went back to college as the head coach at Tennessee and quite famously made all the other SEC coaches mad before leaving for USC after a season, where he was even more famously fired midway through his fourth season. That concludes Kiffin’s wunderkind years.
Rough as it was, it was nothing a stint with Nick Saban couldn’t fix. After coordinating some of the best offenses in college football (with the best talent in college football at his disposal), Kiffin sort of famously left Alabama to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic, and, after going 26-13 with the Owls over three seasons, the SEC was ready for him again. Entering last Saturday, Kiffin’s Rebels were 7-0—and he was 22-8 to that point in Oxford—but LSU knocked Mississippi from the ranks of the unbeaten.
The baseline expectation for me when considering coaches is pretty simple: Does he win more games than his talent, resources and schedule would theoretically produce on their own? Any coach can do that—Saban does it with the best talent and resources available even though there’s not a ton of room to go up—but not all coaches do. It’s not the whole game, but if a coach isn’t having a positive impact on the program’s baseline expectation it’s probably not worth worrying about fit or familiarity or anything else. You have to cross the maximizing threshold first. At least for me, but these are coaching-search times. Every idea has merit and is meritless at the same time.
How do you measure a coach’s impact? A quick and dirty way is simply to look at his record against the spread. A better way is probably to look for a metric like McIllece Sports’ Standardized Wins. (Full explanation here.) You need something that takes all of those factors above—talent, resources, schedule—into account and offers a individual baseline.
Kiffin, over 10-and-a-half seasons as an FBS head coach, does have a positive impact on his team in terms of wins and losses. Entering this 2022 season, his standardized wins per year was +0.48 (meaning his teams won about a half-game more per year than expected), solid but perhaps not as spectacular as three double-digit win seasons over the past five would have you believe. His against-the-spread record, including going 3-5 this year, sits at 69-66-1 (.511), squarely solid but not a lot more.
Things look a bit better if you just look at Kiffin’s numbers post-Alabama. Since 2017, his average standardized wins is +0.9 per season (now things are getting interesting) and his ATS winning percentage improves to .556, closer to the top of the coaching charts.
You also might have to do some parsing of the timeline with the other SEC name on Husker fans’ minds last week, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops. The Iowa alum and Youngstown, Ohio, native has the Wildcats at 5-2 in his 10th season with a high-profile opportunity against No. 3 Tennessee in Knoxville this week. The Vols opened as an 11-point favorite Sunday.
It took Stoops three seasons to get things turned around at Kentucky, which can happen at Kentucky. The Wildcat program he inherited went 13-24 over three seasons under Joker Phillips, each of those seasons slightly worse than the last. Stoops went 2-10, 5-7, 5-7 before breaking through with back-to-back 7-6 seasons in 2016 and 2017. Since then, Kentucky is 38-19 (.667) with a pair of double-digit win season and four consecutive bowl victories.
Overall, Stoops’ standardized wins average is -0.5 per season with an ATS record of 58-59-2 (.495), not what you want to see. But you can’t deny Stoops is on a pretty good four-year run. Since 2018, he’s averaging +0.55 standardized wins per year with an ATS record of 33-22-2 (.596), which is what you want to see.
This is why coaching hires are hard, there are just so many variables. In the cases of Kiffin or Stoops, do you give more weight to the whole résumé or to the part that most pertains to the game as it exists right now (but also paints each candidate in the best light)? There’s no easy answer.
Another question: In our presumed “Power 2” future, where the SEC and Big Ten have the most coins to use at the arcade by far, what’s the difference between a Kentucky, Ole Miss and Nebraska? Stoops already makes more than $6 million, Kiffin more than $7 million. The money seems to be available everywhere in those two conferences. You could argue, however, that even in a 12-team playoff era, Kentucky and Mississippi, based on program history, wouldn’t be on the shortlist of SEC contenders year in and year out even if we figure two or three teams are getting in each year.
But it’s also true that Nebraska hasn’t been on that shortlist in the Big Ten, which should probably also include two to three teams annually in a 12-team playoff, in more than a decade, though its history suggests it can be. If the money is basically the same and access to the future postseason is basically the same, how do you choose?
Do you give more weight to the whole résumé or the part that most pertains to the game now? Every idea has merit and is meritless at the same time.
Can an interim coach improve his odds of landing the full-time gig when his team is on a bye week? Maybe.
It definitely doesn’t hurt when the top-rated recruit in the state, Lincoln East athlete Malachi Coleman, says this after picking the hometown team: “Mickey’s going to be here, I know that. So that’s why I’m here.”
Obviously, it would be unwise to make a coaching hire based on the status of one recruit, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to see Mickey Joseph build this type of relationship with a prospect this quickly. Coleman chose Joseph and Nebraska over a final group that included Georgia, Oklahoma, USC, Mississippi, Michigan and Oregon.
Last week, my Mickey Meter was at a 25–30% chance of landing the full-time job. Let’s nudge that up to 27–32% (and if that seems low, see last week’s column).
BETTER THAN EXPECTED
I mentioned against-the-spread record as a quick check of how much a coach gets his team to over- or underperform relative to a standardized expectation. It’s not perfect, but it’s often the first thing I check (because it’s easily accessible) anytime it’s time to consider a coach.
Which teams and coaches are really hitting so far in 2022? The top six using Team Rankings numbers right now are:
- Willie Fritz and Tulane, 7-1 (career: 64-42, .607)
- Maurice Linguist and Buffalo, 6-1-1 (9-9-2, .500)
- Lance Leipold and Kansas, 6-1-1 (54-36-1, .599)
- Josh Heupel and Tennessee, 6-1 (29-27, .518)
- Dave Clawson and Wake Forest, 6-1 (95-73-2, .565)
- Dino Babers and Syracuse, 6-1 (58-41-3, .583)
Put a pin in Clawson. We’ll get to guys in the ACC eventually in this weekly column.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.