Tuesday, June 25, 2024
spot_img

Group of Five coach rankings put spotlight on college football coaches undervalued in Power Four market

Jamey Chadwell was an institution in the state of South Carolina. Outside of a year sabbatical at Delta State, he served as head coach for 13 straight years at in-state institutions, winning at every level. In 2020, he swept national coach of the year honors after leading Coastal Carolina to an unprecedented 11-0 regular season. Had the 12-team College Football Playoff existed back then, the Chanticleers would have made the field.

Coincidentally, the head coaching job at the state’s flagship program, South Carolina, opened that very same year. Chadwell was barely considered. The job went to a tight ends coach, Shane Beamer, largely thanks to his SEC connections. Chadwell ultimately left for Liberty ahead of the 2023 season and made a New Year’s Six bowl in his first year. 

He ranks No. 1 in the 2024 CBS Sports Group of Five coach rankings.

Despite his wild success as a head coach and obvious connections in South Carolina, Chadwell’s ability was overlooked in favor of pedigree. Unfortunately, elitism on the part of power conference administrators is only growing as the divide between levels becomes more pronounced — and schools are only hurting themselves in the process. 

The stories continually get more frustrating. Jon Sumrall was a position coach at Kentucky before he left to take over a 5-7 Troy team. He went 23-4 in two seasons with two Sun Belt titles. Mississippi State opened, but the school opted to go with Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who had two years of primary play-calling experience. Outside of the two power conference bounce-backs, Jeff Tedford and Bronco Mendenhall, essentially every other top-10 Group of Five coach in the rankings have been glossed over for Power Four gigs. 

Kent State had two seasons above .500 in the 30 years before Sean Lewis arrived. He did it twice in five years. Lewis ultimately left to be an assistant at Colorado and leveraged it into the San Diego State job. Chris Creighton has reached six bowls in the last eight seasons at Eastern Michigan. The Eagles had just one such appearance in program history previously. Selling a legendary run at Eastern Michigan simply doesn’t have the same level of pop for administrators in 2024. It took a summer firing of Les Miles at Kansas for Lance Leipold to get a shot after an absurd 24-10, three-year stretch at Buffalo. 

Granted, there is some logic to it. Four of the top five coaches in our rankings are promoted assistants: Kirby Smart, Ryan Day, Dabo Swinney and Steve Sarkisian. Whiffing on a non-traditional hire can also get an administrator in hot water; look no further than the Bryan Harsin era at Auburn. Jeremy Pruitt struggling as an SEC assistant turned failed Tennessee coach doesn’t bring the same kind of heat. Still, it’s little excuse. 

Look across the sport, and many of the most overachieving programs in college football boast veterans. Kalen DeBoer led Washington to a title game after coaching Fresno State and NAIA Sioux Falls. Mike Norvell fixed Florida State after taking Memphis to a Cotton Bowl. The coaches on both sides of the Sunflower Showdown — Chris Klieman and Leipold — traveled from the small college ranks to building consistent Power Four winners. 

Even looking into the recent past, Nick Saban spent a year at Toledo before stops at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama. Urban Meyer built Bowling Green into a power. Reigning national championship-winning coach Jim Harbaugh fought his way from FCS San Diego to Michigan. 

“I used to sometimes think it was tougher for a guy to go down in levels than to go up,” Houston coach Willie Fritz told CBS Sports in January. “They’ve had a lot of things.”

Fritz rose all the way from junior college football to Cotton Bowl champion at Tulane. Finally, in his 32nd year as a head coach with six conference titles under his belt, Fritz takes over a power conference team. 

Of course, Group of Five fans may wonder why they should care. While coaches staying put can lead to consistency — and there’s been specific success with retreads like Barry Odom at UNLV and Jerry Kill at New Mexico State — it does severely impact attractiveness for talent when good coaches don’t earn promotions. 

Between 2011-13, Arkansas State produced coaches at Auburn (Gus Malzahn), Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze) and a return to Boise State (Bryan Harsin). Blake Anderson brought consistency, but eventually the talent pipeline slowed. The Red Wolves have not produced an NFL Draft pick since Ryan Carrethers in 2014. MAC coaches have gotten especially stuck. No coach has risen to the power conference level since Leipold in 2020. Before that, it was P.J. Fleck in 2016. In 2024, the MAC posted its worst showing at the NFL Draft since 1996 with only two selections. 

Perhaps even worse, multiple Group of Five coaches opted to follow Lewis’ lead and join Power Four staffs. At Alabama alone, Kane Wommack (South Alabama) and Mo Linguist (Buffalo) left head coaching jobs for assistant roles. Will Wommack improve dramatically as a coach at Alabama? Probably not, but Wommack hopes the flashy line item on his resume alone will do more for his career than actually coaching a 10-win football team. We’re closer to voting for prom kings than hiring ball coaches at this point. 

There is one new factor that could help: the expanded College Football Playoff. At least for the next two years, the top Group of Five champion is guaranteed a slot in the 12-team field. If the NCAA Tournament is any indication, simply showing up in the field can be a massive brand-building opportunity for coaches. And perhaps just as important, the guaranteed Group of Five slot ensures that multiple teams remain in the conversation late into November. Whenever the playoff is covered, so too will Boise State, or Tulane, or Appalachian State. 

And that brings us back to Chadwell. In 14 seasons as a head coach, Chadwell has a 111-58 record across levels. As a full-time coach at the FBS level, his record is a mind-boggling 49-14. One day, Chadwell will rise into a Power Four job. He will probably succeed. Maybe someday, Sumrall, Lewis or Jeff Traylor will, too. Fritz has his shot now. When it happens, college football will look around and wonder where these coaches came from. 

The number of quality head coaches at the Group of Five level is one of the greatest inefficiencies in college football in 2024. Eventually — like Kansas, Florida State and Washington before them — smart programs will take advantage. 

Related articles

Share article

Latest articles

Newsletter

Subscribe to stay updated.