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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Trending Young, But Old Guard Still Reigns

What does a football coach have in common with fine wine, real estate holdings, antiques and scotch? Like that quartet — but not necessarily always, as a disclaimer — a coach gets better with age. As our first piece of evidence, check out how Tom Coughlin, 65, led the Giants to a second Super Bowl win in five years over the Patriots, who were in turn led by Bill Belichick, 59. Bruce Feldman did the calculations shortly after the Giants’ win was in the books: the average age of the head coach or manager of the last five major North American sports champions is… 62. It’s in that 62nd year that an American is first eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, albeit at a slightly reduced rate than one would receive had he or she waited until 66 or 67, depending on your year and date of birth. Let’s get back on track.

Coaching isn’t an old man’s profession, but rather an experienced man’s profession. It takes time to make the requisite steps up the ladder: Coughlin, for example, didn’t become a head coach until he was 45; didn’t get his first N.F.L. head coaching job until he was 49; and didn’t find his voice — less abrasive, more flexible — until he was 60, give or take a year.

This is true in the N.F.L., as we saw last night, and it’s true in the F.B.S., especially when it comes to B.C.S. success. In the 14-year history of the B.C.S., only four national championships have been won by coaches still in their 40s: Phil Fulmer in early 1999, Bob Stoops in 2001, Urban Meyer in 2007 and 2009 and Gene Chizik in 2011.

Stoops was well ahead of the curve. He was only 40 when the Sooners beat Florida State, Cinderella-like, to win the program’s first national title since 1985. Meyer was 42 in 2007, when he won his first national championship at Florida, and 44 when he repeated that feat two years later. Fulmer was 48 when he led Tennessee past the Seminoles in the first B.C.S.-sponsored national championship game; Chizik was 49 when Auburn sneaked past Oregon last January.

With that quartet included in the mix — and counting Meyer twice — the average age of a national title-winning head coach in the B.C.S. era is exactly 52. If we take those four coaches out, the average age moves up to 56.1, thanks in some part to Bobby Bowden, who was 70 when the Seminoles won the 2000 title game against Virginia Tech.

But things are changing, especially in the college game. More and more B.C.S. conference programs are taking fliers on younger, less experienced coaches — going for potential, perhaps, over years spent building a resume. The average age of the 10 head coaches who reached a B.C.S. bowl last month was 49.2, with 39-year-old David Shaw and 40-year-old Dana Holgorsen balancing out Nick Saban, 60, and Les Miles, 58.

The success these younger coaches have experienced — and this goes back to Meyer, one would think, who was clearly ready for a major opportunity at a young age — has B.C.S. conference programs more willing to take that chance, much like Clemson did with Dabo Swinney or West Virginia did with Holgorsen.

Non-B.C.S. conference programs have long been willing to forego years of experience for the chance at catching lightning in a bottle. Just over the most recent hiring cycle, for example, Memphis tabbed former T.C.U. co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente, 35. Toledo trumped that move by promoting Matt Campbell, 32, from within the staff as Tim Beckman’s successor. A year ago, Louisiana-Lafayette hired then-42-year-old Mark Hudspeth; Northern Illinois hired Dave Doeren, then 39; and Ball State tapped Pete Lembo, also 39.

Are hiring practices changing? Yes, and for one simple reason: Non-B.C.S. conference programs are hiring younger, and as a result, B.C.S. conference programs are hiring successful non-B.C.S. conference head coaches younger. Al Golden may have been only 41 when Miami (Fla.) made him the pick last winter, but despite his relative youth, Golden had been a head coach on the F.B.S. level since 2006.

The average age of the 10 head coaches who led teams into B.C.S. play in January backs up that idea. But what about a national championship — does a head coach need to try and fail, hitting a coaching roadblock, before winning a title? If not a roadblock, does it take years of seasoning before a coach has the breadth of knowledge needed to survive the regular season and a conference championship game before taking on the nation’s best in a B.C.S. National Championship Game?

Here’s one reason why the younger guard, like a Holgorsen, won’t join Meyer and Stoops as a head coach to win a national title in his low 40s: Nick Saban, Les Miles and rest of the gang, the old guard, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. When it comes to B.C.S. conference head coaches who won at least 10 games during the 2011 season, there were nearly as many over 60, five, as there were under 45, seven.

For now, the 40-something head coach needs to get past the 60-something head coach — Saban, most notably — who runs college football. If getting to the top of mountain doesn’t take an advanced coaching degree, getting to the top of the mountain and staying there takes the sort of knowledge that only comes with experience. Like a bottle of scotch, the old guard only gets better.

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