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Making sense of why big-name coaches are off to disastrous starts in new jobs  8 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Chad Morris is wading carefully through a discussion of the trials and travails of his first season at Arkansas – the Razorbacks are 1-5 – when he is interrupted. Barry Lunney, the Razorbacks’ tight ends coach, appears at the glass doors to Morris’ office. He smiles and hands an iPhone to the head coach, who disappears into the hall to talk with an important recruit, Little Rock’s Hudson Henry.

Ten minutes later, Morris reappears. He hands the phone back to Lunney. They high-five. And let’s be clear: a commitment from the No. 1 tight end in the country as ranked by 247Sports is worth celebrating at any time, in any college football program. But when you’re in your first season, and you’ve won one game in six tries?

“It just reaffirms the course that we’re on, and to stay the course,” says Morris, who was prohibited by NCAA rules from specifically discussing the recruit – but Henry announced his decision Thursday.

Beaming over a victory that many will never see and pointing to a note atop his desk, Morris continues:

“I’ve got written right here: ‘Be present, not perfect.’ Stay the course. Be who you are. And then you get phone calls like this.”

And then you tally victories when you get them.

A coach’s first season is difficult, almost by definition. They usually inherit difficult situations. The exception is when a new hire takes a team to dramatic improvement. But at the midpoint of the season, several highly anticipated new hires are struggling – some far beyond what anyone would have predicted.

* Chip Kelly, who was easily considered the most sought-after coach on last year’s carousel, is winless in five games at UCLA.

* Scott Frost, Kelly’s former protégé, who returned home to Nebraska amid hopes he would restore the Huskers’ glory, is winless in five games, too. The Cornhuskers have equaled the worst start in the program's 129-year history.

* Willie Taggart is 3-3 at Florida State, which seems great by comparison to Kelly and Frost. But halfway through the season, the Seminoles are seen as one of the biggest disappointments in college football – and that was before blowing a 20-point lead to lose last Saturday at rival Miami.

Though the reasons varied, expectations for the new guys’ debut seasons were high at all three places. But perhaps they shouldn’t have been. Frost, Kelly and Morris took over programs that each had four wins in 2017. Taggart took over Florida State after the worst season since the end of the Bobby Bowden era.

None of the four programs were expected to do more than one thing: improve. Instead, their starts have been disastrous. On the Pac-12’s weekly teleconference last week, someone asked Kelly: What’s the hardest part of 0-4 right now?

“Our record,” Kelly said.

Anything beyond that?


After a 31-24 loss to Washington, the record is 0-5. In the spirit of dubious “first time since” notes, it’s the Bruins’ worst start to a season since 1943. And don’t try to tell Kelly things are getting better, that a very young team is showing improvement. He clearly believes they are, but in his postgame interview session after the loss to the Huskies, he made this point and then reiterated it:

“You’ve got to win, you know what I mean? We’re not into moral victories,” Kelly said. “We don’t go in and high-five each other and say, ‘Hey, that was close. Yay team!’” There’s a winner and a loser. … I’m not a guy that gets solace in, ‘We were close,’ you know what I mean?"

The struggles are exacerbated, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek says, because of our larger culture is increasingly geared toward instant gratification. Failure is magnified in some cases because once the coaches are hired, those first offseasons are filled with optimism, all possibility and potential. And then a very different reality sometimes sets in.

“I don’t know if anybody has any magic pixie dust that they can come in and sprinkle and make your program all of the sudden better,” he says.

Unlike some of his first-year peers, not much was expected from Oregon State (currently 1-5) in Jonathan Smith’s first season. But the former Washington assistant notes that a head-coaching change typically means wholesale changes to an entire staff. And he says he underestimated the difficulty of gaining the trust of players who were rocked in 2017 when Gary Andersen resigned during the middle of the season.

“I didn’t fully realize all these guys had been through,” Smith says. “I knew their coach had left, but some of these kids were recruited by (former coach) Mike Riley and so now I’m the fourth guy sitting in the head coach’s seat.”

The preseason hype about Kelly’s return to college football didn’t take into account the Bruins’ youth. Eleven true freshmen played in the season opener, a loss to Cincinnati, which was the first real sign this might be a very difficult season for the Bruins.

But it was at the same time an indication that the struggles of Year 1 were behind the Bearcats. Luke Fickell’s first team won four games in 2017. Cincinnati is 6-0 and looks very much like a legitimate contender in the American Athletic Conference.

“It’s easy to look at, ‘Well, we won four games,’” Fickell said. "The reality is we were one play from winning one game.”

Likewise, Texas struggled in Tom Herman’s first year. And it was especially difficult for Herman, considering in 2015, at Houston in his first year as a head coach, the Cougars went 13-1 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Herman says the ‘buy-in’ moment might have come in Week 2 when they beat Louisville.

He recalls asking the players in the locker room: “ ‘What more do you need now? You want me to schedule the Green Bay Packers?’ We had a lot of fence-riders, guys that were compliant, but, ‘I’m not really sure if I’m totally bought in yet.’”

By contrast, the moment might not have come last season until a win against Missouri in the Texas Bowl – which allowed the Longhorns to finish with a winning (7-6) record – that was finally the turning point as players moved from compliant to committed.

“Learning how to win is a real thing,” Herman says. “When you’ve got three straight losing seasons at Texas, it’s difficult to do that.”

Fast-forward to Year 2 – and, ahem, also past the season opener and that inexplicable loss, again, to Maryland. After a 48-45 win against rival Oklahoma, the Longhorns are 5-1 and look like a legitimate factor in the Big 12 race, if not quite a playoff contender.

“The biggest thing we did,” Herman says, “was resist the urge to panic as coaches and believe in the way we do things and believe in our culture – knowing that eventually, the tide will turn.”

Midway through Year 1, with varying prospects for immediate success, that’s what several first-year coaches say they’re doing. Frost, for example, can draw on the 2016 season, his first at UCF, when the Knights finished 6-7. And Morris can point back to his first year at SMU, when the Mustangs won their second game against North Texas – and then lost nine in a row, as a model of how to persevere.

“You’re gonna go through struggles,” Morris says. “It’s gonna reveal a lot about you and how much you’re willing to continue to work and push. And I know (how the fans feel). I hurt with ‘em and for ‘em. We all hurt. This whole building hurts. But we also know there are great things coming.”

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