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Eight Under-the-Radar Coaching Jobs

Yesterday’s post on Louisville placed an emphasis on the coaching job Charlie Strong did last fall, if not over his first two seasons with the program altogether. Sometimes, as I noted, seven wins means more than just seven wins: Louisville matched its 2010 mark for victories, but doing so when given the team’s sour start and overwhelming youth makes another bowl trip quite the impressive feat for Strong and his staff. Praising Strong’s work in 2011 underscores the idea that the best coaching job in the country is often not done by the coach who wins a national title, or the coach who wins the SEC; often enough, the best coaching job is done by one who takes the youngest team in the country, one that started 2-4, and wins seven games.

Not to undermine Nick Saban’s work with Alabama, nor the job Les Miles did in leading L.S.U. to one of the finest regular seasons in college football history — Miles was the national coach of the year for a reason, though that award was bestowed prior to the start of B.C.S. play.

But the best coaching jobs typically fly under the radar, thanks to the lack of that eye-popping statistic: wins. Which is fair, but only to a degree. Miles did win six more games than did Strong and Louisville, though L.S.U. was as talented as any team in the country, if not more so. Alabama won the national title, but the same can be said of the Crimson Tide as is said of the Tigers.

There are exceptions, such as when the wins are there but don’t tell the whole story. Bill Snyder was recognized as a national coach of the year finalist not merely for winning 10 games — something three others Big 12 teams achieved in 2011 — but for doing so with a roster almost completely removed, in terms of overall talent, from those at L.S.U. and Alabama.

Here are eight under-the-radar coaching jobs from 2011, a list compiled with the following caveats: the coach cannot have led his team to a major bowl — which disqualifies Snyder, unfortunately — nor have won more than nine games. That also disqualifies Mike Gundy, who still gets little respect nationally, but Gundy and Oklahoma State most definitely did not fly under the radar in 2011.

James Franklin, Vanderbilt Winning six games at Vanderbilt isn’t easy, as countless coaches come and gone can attest, and it’s even harder in this new age of SEC dominance. Perhaps the Commodores’ saving grace was a down SEC East, though that ignores the fact that they pulled Arkansas and Alabama out of the West division. But six wins… this doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it’s typically long into an extended rebuilding project; Bobby Johnson won seven games in 2008, but that was seven years into his tenure. Franklin was lauded for his work in 2011, and rightfully so. He didn’t necessarily come in under the radar, like a few others, but the work — regardless of the sub-.500 record — demands to be recognized.

Greg Schiano, Rutgers Two things the Scarlet Knights did terribly in 201o: score points and get stops. Rutgers took a nice step forward in the former last fall, adding nearly a touchdown per game over its 2010 mark, but the real improvement came on the other side of the ball, where the Scarlet Knights led the Big East in total and scoring defense. What ensued was a largely unexpected nine-win finish, one that featured a pair of victories over 10-win teams and, in December, the program’s fifth straight bowl win. It wasn’t supposed to go this way for Schiano, as the Scarlet Knights entered the fall near the bottom of the preseason Big East poll. Thanks to this year’s 9-4 record, Schiano’s career mark moves back above .500 — after 11 years, he’s 68-67 with the Scarlet Knights.

Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky The Hilltoppers went 4-32 from 2008-10, a stretch that spanned the end of David Elson’s tenure and the program’s first season under Taggart. So when Western Kentucky won seven games in 2011, it was cause for celebration, eyebrow-raising and, believe it or not, zero national recognition. That the Hilltoppers were kept home from bowl play — but coach-less, sub-.500 U.C.L.A. was not — is the definition of injustice. The program takes solace in the fact that under Taggart, the Hilltoppers opened with four straight losses, including a disastrous home loss to Indiana State, but would lose only once the rest of the way, to L.S.U.

Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State Like Taggart, MacIntyre is taking on a massive rebuilding project with the Spartans. And like his compatriot at W.K.U., he struggled through a painful debut season: San Jose State went 1-12 in 2010, though the Spartans suffered five losses by a touchdown or less. The process continued last fall; while MacIntyre didn’t lead S.J.S.U. to a winning record, the program made clear progress in his second season. In early October, the Spartans won a road game for the first time since 2008. In the season finale, the Spartans beat Fresno State in Fresno for the time since 1987. Five of San Jose State’s seven losses came by 10 points or less, including three straight WAC losses by a combined 14 points. Sure, steady signs of progress.

Ron English, Eastern Michigan The Eagles won five games combined from 2008-10, and 43 overall from 1996-2010. So in the span of 12 games, English won more games than the program had won over the previous three years, and 14 percent as many games as the program had won over the previous 15 years. So that’s an accomplishment worth noting. Unfortunately, thanks to two wins over F.C.S. competition, E.M.U. needed to win seven games to reach bowl play. It nearly got there in November, losing to Ball State by two points and Kent State and Northern Illinois by six points. Unlike at any point in the program’s recent and not-so-recent past, you can say the following: Eastern Michigan has a bright future.

Gary Pinkel, Missouri The checklist of factors lying in Missouri’s path heading into the fall: a first-year starting quarterback, an offensive line in shambles and a defense facing substantial holes at defensive end, linebacker and in the secondary. Adding to this mess was the injury suffered by potential all-American running back Henry Josey, who tore his A.C.L. — among other tendons and ligaments — in a mid-November win over Texas. Yet Missouri persevered, surviving even the off-field drama following Pinkel’s November arrest on suspicion of D.W.I., to win at least eight games for the sixth consecutive season. The Tigers slid under the radar in a deep and dangerous Big 12, but their four losses came to the conference’s best: Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Baylor.

Pete Lembo, Ball State The program was only three years removed from its breakthrough under Brady Hoke, when it burst out of the chute with 12 straight wins, but it may as well have been a decade. Ball State, as coached by Stan Parrish — still wrapping my head around that hire — resembled nothing of the program as run by Hoke, which was dynamic on offense and stingy on defense. The light didn’t exactly turn on for the Cardinals in Lembo’s first season, to be fair: the run defense was absolutely atrocious, and the team as a whole allowed 112 more points than it scored. But that doesn’t reflect poorly on Lembo; in fact, that Ball State won six games — including a neutral site win over Indiana and a road win over Ohio — while puttering along on both sides of the ball makes his first season all the more impressive.

Charlie Strong, Louisville As mentioned yesterday, Strong overcame a sloppy start and his team’s rampant youth to lead Louisville back into bowl play, adding one win to its 2010 regular season win total, and coming within one victory of an Orange Bowl berth. The year seemed lost at the midway point, when the Cardinals capped the first half of the year with a 25-16 loss to Cincinnati — the loss would come back to haunt the Cardinals. But the regular season ended with five wins in six games, lifting Louisville into a date with N.C. State in the Belk Bowl. And then there’s the youth factor: a true freshman quarterback, three freshmen leading the way at receiver, freshmen on both lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. Seven wins, in this case, deserves a round of applause.

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  1. Adam Nettina says:

    Good list Paul, but where is Dave Christensen? Not sure how an 8-5 Wyoming team does not make it on your list, especially given the location of Laramie, and all the QB attrition they have had there. Not only that, but all regular season losses came to bowl bound teams (three on the road). Likewise, I’d add Sonny Dykes to that list as well. How interesting is it though, with maybe the exception of Wyoming and possibly Missouri (although I thought Franklin was average) that these “under the radar” jobs often lack in what we assume a traditional factor of success: dynamic, if not at least consistant, quarterback play?

    Does that speak better or worse for these coaches?

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