Good right away? A look at how championship-winning head coaches have fared in their first years

Nick Saban-Kirby Smart-Brant Sanderlin
Nick Saban (left) only went 7-6 his first season at Alabama, but that was a slight improvement.

ATHENS — Minutes after a disappointing regular season was capped by a stunning home loss, Georgia center Brandon Kublanow did what he has for months now: Stood up for first-year head coach Kirby Smart.

“Coach Smart’s got great plans for this place,” said Kublanow, a senior who won’t be around to see those plans. “I believe in him. I think everyone believes in him. There’s a great future for Georgia.”

That may be true. And if Smart does turn things around and wins an SEC championship, he will buck a trend.

Head coaches whose team’s record worsens in their debuts don’t tend to go on to win titles. In fact, since the SEC expanded in 1992, only twice has the conference title has been won by a coach who went backwards in his first year at that school. And only once in the past 25 years has a national title been won by a coach who slid in his first year.

Georgia went 10-3 last year. Smart has guided Georgia to a 7-5 season, pending the bowl game. So he’s guaranteed to be at least two games worse, albeit against a schedule that was only slightly tougher (six 2016 opponents had winning records, compared to five last year.)

It’s by any measure an unexpected season, though it comes with caveats: Georgia started a freshman quarterback for all but one game, only has four senior starters, and doesn’t have any surefire first-round picks.

On the other hand, it does have veteran star-power on offense (tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and receiver Isaiah McKenzie) and a talented, though young, defense.

It’s often pointed out that Nick Saban, with Smart as an assistant coach, went 7-6 in his first year at Alabama in 2007. But Saban also inherited a team that went 6-7 the year before.

Saban also improved things his first year at every previous stop: Toledo went from six wins to nine in Saban’s first year as a head coach, Michigan State went from five wins to six wins in Saban’s first year, and LSU went from two wins before Saban arrived, to eight wins in 2000.

Bob Stoops also improved Oklahoma in his first season. (GETTY IMAGES).

SEC championship-winning coaches who improved the team in their first year: Gus Malzahn (from 3-9 to 12-2 and an SEC title in his first year at Auburn), Urban Meyer (two more wins his first year at Florida), Tommy Tuberville (two more wins his first year at Auburn), Phillip Fulmer (one more win in his first full year as Tennessee’s head coach), and Steve Spurrier (two more wins in his Florida debut year).

There are two exceptions, both Alabama head coaches. One ended well, the other did not.

Gene Stallings, who was an experienced head coach, took over an Alabama team in 1990 that had gone 10-2 the previous year. The Crimson Tide slid to 7-5 in Stallings’ first year, but went on to win the national title two years later.

Alabama went 10-3 in 1996, and then Stallings retired. His replacement, Mike DuBose, went 4-7 his first year. Two years later the Crimson Tide won the SEC championship, though DuBose was fired after the next year.

The last national championship-winning coach to lose more games his first year was Jim Tressel, who inherited an eight-win team at Ohio State, and won seven games in his first year. Then Tressel went unbeaten and won the national championship in Year 2.

Jimbo Fisher won three more games when he took over at Florida State. Mack Brown improved Texas by five wins. Pete Carroll improved Southern California by one win. Meyer improved Ohio State by one win.

The coach whose resume’ is the most analogous to Smart is Bob Stoops, who was also a career assistant with national championship rings when he took over Oklahoma in 1999. And Stoops went 7-5 in his first year, then in his second year went 13-0 and won the national championship.

However, Stoops took over an Oklahoma team that went 5-6 the year before he arrived. He improved the win total by two.

Stoops, speaking last spring, was asked what advice he had for Smart.

“Trust yourself, and trust your own instincts,” Stoops said. “You can only be who you are. Just stick to what’s worked for you in the past, and trust your own judgment.”

 

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