ATHENS – Bob Stoops thought he had prepared as well as he could to be a head coach. He had soaked in all that information he could working as an assistant for a great head coach. They had won a national championship, giving Stoops instant credibility at his new, high-profile job.
But there were still surprises.
“Yeah, the extent of decisions to be made. Meaning it was unending,” Stoops said this week in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You go from assistant coach, where you’re making a few decisions every day, to making a decision a minute as you go through the day. A little bit overwhelming, initially. Especially when you’re coming to a program where the expectations are high.”
That last part could be Kirby Smart talking. He’s hoping it turns out for him at Georgia like it did for Stoops at Oklahoma.
College football programs like to hire coaches from successful staffs. But how often does it happen that an assistant coach wins a national championship, leaves to become a head coach and wins his own another championship?
The last time it happened in a direct line was with Stoops, who was Florida’s defensive coordinator when it won a national title after the 1996 season. After a three-year run in Gainesville, Oklahoma hired Stoops, who had no previous head coaching experience. He led the Sooners to the national title two years later.
Stoops was able to win right away at Oklahoma for a number of reasons, but one may be the credibility that the national championship at Florida, under Steve Spurrier, gave him with both recruits and former players.
“I don’t think there’s any question, having come from Florida and having done so well as a program there, and all that it did, I believe the players trusted my judgment and what I said,” Stoops said, adding that bringing the strength and conditioning coach from Florida helped too.
In hiring Smart, Georgia is trying to do something that has worked at times, but isn’t always the obvious fix.
The game’s most successful coaches tended to make their own paths: Spurrier’s first national title as a player or coach was that 1996 season. Urban Meyer started as head coach at Bowling Green and worked his way up. Nick Saban started out as Toledo’s head coach and also worked in the NFL.
A few recent national championship head coaches did also win one as an assistant: Jimbo Fisher, prior to leading Florida State to the title two years ago, was the offensive coordinator at LSU when it won the BCS title in 2004. Fisher left two years later to be the offensive coordinator at Florida State, where he was named head coach-in-waiting a year later, taking over in 2010.
Gene Chizik went from defensive coordinator for Texas’ national championship team in 2005, then won another one as Auburn’s head coach in 2010. But in between Chizik was head coach at Iowa State for two years, going 5-19.
(In fact, Chizik’s record as a head coach in years he didn’t have Cam Newton is 24-38. Chizik is now defensive coordinator at North Carolina, the opponent in Smart’s Georgia head coaching debut.)
What’s certain is that coordinators on championship teams get jobs. When Saban won his first national title, the BCS in 2003, his defensive coordinator was Will Muschamp. Meyer’s coordinators at Florida included future head coaches Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong, who have had success but no championship appearances yet.
But there are signs that Saban’s coaching tree — and Meyer’s too — could be about to spring another Stoops or Fisher.
Tom Herman went from Meyer and Ohio State’s offensive coordinator to Houston last year, when in his head coaching debut he led the Cougars to a 13-1 record.
Jim McElwain went from Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, winning the 2011 title, to his head coaching debut at Colorado State. The Buffaloes went 4-8 in McElwain’s first year, then 8-6 and 10-2 before Florida hired him away. The Gators won the SEC East in McElwain’s first year.
So what are the chances Georgia’s move will pay off? Well it tried it once already — sort of.
This is actually the second time in three years Georgia has hired the defensive coordinator off the national champion. It was Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State after the 2013 season, and at least on the field he had two good years leading Georgia’s defense.
Now Pruitt is in Smart’s old job at Alabama, and Smart, after years of waiting for the right job, is bringing his four national championship rings to Georgia.
“I always tell myself if you win where you’re at, and you be where your feet are, you’ll be a lot more successful,” Smart said recently. “So we were fortunate enough to be successful, and opportunities came. That’s going to happen when you win.”
Stoops, who knows something about taking over a program with national championship expectations, was asked what advice he’d give 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.”