Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Who *Should* the Huskers Hire?

September 13, 2022

It’s crazy how quickly “the book” can form when it comes to college football coaching vacancies. A job comes open, and, boom, there are instantly lists of candidates any school could consider. The primary requirement to get on the lists is, obviously, to be really good at coaching football. If a guy is only kind of good, but has a history with the school, region or conference, maybe he can get listed, too.

And that’s all fine. There typically aren’t a lot of out-of-left-field hires in this sport. Most coaches who land jobs were probably on some list for that job somewhere. (Notable exception: Mike Riley, 2015.) Coming up with names Nebraska could hire isn’t hard.

But who should the Huskers hire? That’s the (multi-)million dollar question, and it’s not an easy one to answer. We won’t answer it here. Maybe, however, we can at least advance the conversation by mostly ignoring some of the typical list fodder.

Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts has the benefit of two-plus months to really consider what this program needs, but at his press conference earlier this week he seemed to already have a pretty good idea. He said he’s looking for a coach who can produce “a team that represents the values of Nebraskans—be tough, win the line of scrimmage, do the fundamental things that teams need to do to win games.”

Alberts listed a lot of other traits, too. If I had to reduce it all down, it feels fair to say that Nebraska needs a coach that can maximize his team’s effort and execution each time out. All programs want that—that, in my mind, is what good coaching is—but at Nebraska, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, it might be especially true.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s the most fundamental thing you can measure when trying to determine successful coaching. Now we just need a way to measure it.

Here’s one way: McIllece Sports has made a strong effort, and one that’s free for anyone to use, to measure coaching ability. There are a lot of detailed ratings available in its database, but the catch-all number is Standardized Wins (StdWins):

This StdWin number estimates how many wins (or losses) the coach contributed that season, adjusted by recruiting level and strength of schedule. Theoretically, if all the coaches on a team had a StdWin = 0.0, then their expected record versus teams with equal talent and coaching would be 6-6 over 12 games, or a .500 record overall. Standardizing by recruiting and strength of schedule puts all coaches on a level playing field.

Now, with any number or model, there are almost never any magic bullets, no single stat that says, “Well, clearly this is the guy to pick.” But running coaches through this filter is interesting in what it reveals.

We can use a more basic measure as supporting evidence here—record against the spread. It doesn’t have anything to do with gambling in this context, but the point spread makes every game close to a 50-50 proposition. Everyone knew Alabama would beat Utah State in Week 1, but could the Tide win by 40? It did, a fairly reliable indication that Alabama played pretty well that day. Think of the ATS numbers as a check on Standardized Wins.

This list will focus only on those two results. This is a results-driven business after all.

This list will not focus on fit or familiarity with Nebraska. Not that those things can’t be important, they’re just probably not more important than finding a coach who can maximize his team’s output as often as possible.

To set the scale here, since 2007 Nick Saban has averaged +2.0 StdWins per year at Alabama. On average, given the Tide’s talent and schedule, Saban’s coaching ability earns Alabama another two wins per year based on the McIllece model. That’s probably about as good as it gets. Saban is 114-93-2 against the spread (.551). The scale there is roughly .600 at the very top and .400 at the bottom over a long enough span.

On a local level, Bo Pelini was +1.2 StdWins per year (.527 ATS) over seven seasons at Nebraska. Scott Frost, from 2018 to 2021, was -1.7 (.447 ATS), and, not coincidentally, the Huskers are in the market for a new head coach.

I applied my own plausibility filter here. Billy Napier looks like a great coach, +2.2 StdWins per year (.574 ATS) over four seasons at Louisiana, but he’s not picking up the phone to leave Florida in year one if Nebraska calls. These have to be coaches the Huskers could conceivably have a shot at.

But remember, the goal is to move further away from could and incrementally closer to should.

That’s the setup, sorry it took so long, now onto the list, which appears in order of most Standardized Wins per year.

(Note: The McIllece database dates back to 2005 and includes only FBS coaching jobs.)

Chris Petersen, Fox Sports | +2.3 StdWin/year, 98-88-1 (.541) ATS

Based purely on results, there might not be a better coach feasibly available. Over 14 seasons at Boise State and Washington, Petersen’s teams consistently exceeded expectations. He only had one year, his first at Washington, with a negative StdWin total. That said, Petersen very publicly walked away from coaching while things were still pretty good in Seattle.

Chris Peterson’s Standardized Wins by year.

Chris Kleiman, Kansas State | +2.1, 24-13-1 (.649)

Kleiman did what you’re supposed to do at North Dakota State—win titles—and his Kansas State tenure so far has been better than it may at first look. Since 2019, Kleiman’s first year in Manhattan, the Wildcats have a .649 winning percentage against the spread, third nationally. It’s contemporaries over that span? Other programs who maximize what they have—Oklahoma State (.667 ATS), Minnesota (.656), Air Force (.636) and Kentucky (.632).

Jeff Brohm, Purdue | +1.7, 63-45-4 (.580)

This one comes with an important caveat: The bulk of Brohm’s positive StdWins average came over three seasons at Western Kentucky. Over the previous five seasons at Purdue, that number comes down to +0.3, still positive but lacks a lot of the “wow” factor. Also, would he leave one West Division job for another? Might be straining the plausibility filter. Maybe.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State | +1.6, 119-89-6 (.572)

Cringe if you like—results, results, results. Gundy has looked around plenty over the years, and had opportunities, but chose to stick in Stillwater each time. Oklahoma State’s record against the spread since 2005 is third-best nationally.

Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina | +1.4, 22-16-1 (.579)

Smaller sample size—just three full seasons as an FBS head coach—but Chadwell’s Chanticleers tend to maximize most of the time. The offense is fun and, for now, still innovative. On an individual play level, Chadwell has gotten his highest marks in quarterback play, wide receiver play and, perhaps surprisingly, o-line play in the run game.

Mike Leach, Mississippi State | +1.3, 140-116-3 (.546)

Cringe, again, if you like—results, results, results. Leach’s offense is, perhaps, an odd fit for the burly Big Ten. Maybe that’s the most intriguing thing about it—aside from consistently producing teams that exceed reasonable expectations.

Jeff Monken, Army | +1.3, 50-52-1 (.490)

It took Monken about three seasons to get things going at Army, but over the past four seasons the Black Knights have posted a positive StdWins number each year. The against the spread record certainly stands out. That might reflect a ball-control offense ending up in a few more close games than usual, but it’s worth noting.

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Urban Meyer after Ohio State’s 2018 win over Nebraska. Photo by Ryan Loco

Urban Meyer, Fox Sports | +1.3, 125-90-2 (.581)

For a guy with three national titles, I expected his StdWins average to be higher. Then again, nobody cares if you’re winning national titles, which seems to be the motto behind any Meyer tenure. I don’t see this happening at Nebraska. He’s just here so I don’t get (verbally) fined (on Twitter).

Troy Calhoun, Air Force | +1.1, 96-87-2 (.525)

As evidenced by the difference in Calhoun’s career ATS record (since 2007) at Air Force and the past four seasons (see Kleiman section above), the Falcons are on a pretty good run. Calhoun runs the option at Air Force basically because you have to; doesn’t mean it would have to be that way in Lincoln. Same might go for Monken.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati | +0.9, 35-30-0 (.539)

It’s possible he had one of his worst nights as a coach at Memorial Stadium, the Huskers’ big rally for a 34-27 win during Fickell’s year as interim coach at Ohio State. Only one way to vanquish those memories—start winning at Memorial Stadium.

Kalen DeBoer, Washington | +0.9, 11-8-0 (.579)

The FBS sample size is small here, but there still might be a lot to like. DeBoer went 3-3 in his first year at Fresno State (-0.8 StdWin) and 9-3 last season (+2.5), but he was pretty strong as an offensive coordinator and won three NAIA national titles at his alma mater, Sioux Falls. Might be a tough pull given DeBoer just got his big gig at Washington, but he is a small-town, South Dakota native, so maybe Nebraska could try and play the closer-to-home card. And the Big Ten-being-part-of-the-Power-2 card.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State | +0.8, 78-54-2 (.589)

Campbell will be at or near the top of any list involving Nebraska, and the results mostly back it up though maybe his StdWins number isn’t quite as strong as his reputation would make it seem. That said, Campbell teams have been particularly strong with the quarterback passing game, running back run game and o-line run game. Sound like offense in the Big Ten to you?

Kilane Sitake, BYU | +0.6, 50-29-0 (.633)

I understand all of the reasons Sitake might seem like an odd fit. However, since 2016, his ATS record lands among a bunch of teams you’d be happy to be associated with: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State Oklahoma and Georgia at the top. Appalachian State, Boise State, Notre Dame, Central Florida and Wisconsin after that.

Blake Anderson, Utah State | +0.4, 56-46-0 (.549)

Utah State is probably going to be really bad this year. The Aggies are one of the least experienced teams in the country and just lost to Weber State. That said, Anderson put together a solid track record of playing well at Arkansas State, and really did it in his first year at Utah State (+2.6 last year). We’re getting down to the more minimal maximizers at this point.

Dave Doeren, North Carolina State | +0.3, 79-74-2 (.510)

Expectations were sky-high for North Carolina State entering 2022 and the Wolfpack barely escaped East Carolina in the opener. Bears watching as Doren’s StdWins and ATS numbers are slightly positive, they don’t exactly blow you away.

Mickey Joseph, Nebraska | +0.1, NA

This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison with the rest of the list, but McIllece does provide StdWins numbers for assistants and Joseph’s was positive during a season at Louisiana Tech and five at LSU. He has nine games to show it could be even higher as a head coach.

Matt Ruhle’s Standardized Wins as a college coach.

Matt Ruhle, Carolina (NFL) | -0.1, 55-35-1 (.610)

A strange one. Ruhle’s StdWins average over stints at Temple and Baylor isn’t as high as you’d expect for how many games those teams won. His ATS number was. The big question here might be how realistically available Ruhle even is.

Lance Leipold, Kansas | -0.1, 48-35-0 (.578)

I see a lot of reasons to like Leipold, reasons that I’ve already said I’m not including here. So, based on StdWins, there’s reason to pause and do some additional exploration, though Leipold’s teams have been about as strong as you’d hope against the spread.

That’s not every coach worth considering, of course. There’s an ocean of assistants out there who have strong résumés––though that might not be Alberts’ preferred route––and Nebraska should have enough time to check any of them out if it wants to look beyond current or past head coaches.

We’ll keep updating as things progress, but if a name you expected to see isn’t here, or a new one emerges, you can always peruse the McIllece database any time you want. (I recommend it.) And, with some sorting, you can find ATS records here.

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