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February 9, 2007

Coaching Blackjack: Who has a winning hand?

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As a frequent visitor of blackjack tables, the idea for a theme occurred when the count of new Division I football coaches reached 21.

Like every new coach, each hand is a potential winner. So, it seemed like a good idea to use blackjack as formula for a creative ranking system.

Double down on a coach that is expected to win immediately. Stand pat with a coach that figures to be successful, but might not be a big winner early. Take a hit on a coach that might take a few hits.

Getting a proven coach that inherits talented players is like getting an ace as an up card. But whether the players he inherits can adjust and perform in his system is the hole card. The odds might be good, but it remains uncertain until actually played.

It was a perfect metaphor. That is, until a recount revealed there were actually 22 new coaches - then 23 after Army's Bobby Ross retired. That spawned a sick feeling kind of like when you draw a face card after hitting on 13.

Alas, the theme didn't work.

Or did it? On second thought, it worked after all. So often when I'm counting on 21, I seem to inevitably end up with 22 or 23 while floundering at the tables.

Here is a look at the 23 coaches taking over different programs and how I would play their hands.

College Coaching Blackjack: Double down
Dennis Erickson, Arizona State
In 18 seasons as a collegiate head coach, Erickson has a 148-65-1 record. He won national championships at Miami in 1989 and 1991. He had an 11-1 finish at Oregon State in 2000 and a 9-3 record in 1988 at Washington State. That win total was the Cougars' highest in more than a half century. Erickson has endured only three losing seasons at the collegiate level. He inherits a team that returns every player who started the last five games of last season. Arizona State also has All-America candidates in tackle Brandon Rodd, center Mike Pollak, tailback Ryan Torain and safety Josh Barrett. The Sun Devils also play in Tempe eight times next season, including games against USC, California, Oregon State and Arizona.
Jeff Jagodzinski, Boston College
The basic elements for a championship team are a good, experienced quarterback and a solid defense. That's why Jagodzinski should be an immediate winner at B.C. Not only is he taking over a program that went 10-3 last season, but the Eagles also return quarterback Matt Ryan and nine starters on a defense which ranked 14th nationally in points allowed. Two of Boston College's losses last season were by a combined five points, and the other was by a touchdown. Ryan, who ranked 10th in the nation in passing last season, will also have top receiver Kevin Challenger, top rusher L.V. Whitworth and three offensive linemen including All-America candidate Gosder Cherilus back next season. Jagodzinski knows what to do with offensive talent. He returns to the college game after most recently serving as offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers. He was the offensive coordinator at Boston College in 1997 and 1998 when the Eagles averaged more than 400 yards per game. If Jagodzinski can go unscathed through the first three games which includes a home game against North Carolina State and former B.C. coach Tom O'Brien the Eagles could be in for another big year.
Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville
He turned around a Tulsa program that had won just two games in two seasons. When he left, Kragthorpe won a conference championship and appeared in three bowl games. He figures to be more successful with an already established team. Like his predecessor Bobby Petrino, Kragthorpe's forte is offense. He has coached quarterbacks at the NFL level, and his teams at Tulsa scored at least 30 points 29 times. He'll have more talent with which to work at Louisville, including quarterback Brian Brohm and receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia. Since 2002, Louisville's highest rated recruiting class ranked No. 34. This year's group was ranked 42nd by Rivals.com, but Kragthorpe landed three-star running back Victor Anderson and five-star defensive back Woodny Turenne.
Nick Saban, Alabama
The schedule is a grind. The Tide will face Arkansas, Georgia and Florida State in consecutive weeks in September. However, 'Bama will be much better equipped for the rigors of the SEC under Saban, who won a national championship at LSU in 2003. With nine returning starters on offense - including quarterback John Parker Wilson and offensive tackle Andre Smith - Alabama should improve significantly on that side of the ball. Meanwhile, cornerback Simeon Castille and linebacker Prince Hall both all-conference caliber players head a group of five returning starters on defense. Despite a late start, Saban's recruiting class finished at No. 10 in the nation by Rivals.com. Saban landed 10 four-star recruits, including running back Demetrius Goode.
Randy Shannon, Miami
The 40-year-old Shannon has a dynamic personality, and should quickly return the Hurricanes program to national prominence. Shannon proved himself with six exceptional seasons as a defensive coordinator. In those seasons the Hurricanes ranked among the nation's top 10 in total defense five times. Even last season - when Miami struggled to a 7-6 finish - the Hurricanes only allowed 255.54 yards per game. A native of Miami, Shannon has won national championships with the Hurricanes as a player and assistant coach. He knows the area, understands the culture and can restore the Miami attitude. Shannon has 17 starters returning, headed up by potential All-Americans Calais Campbell at defensive end and Kenny Phillips at safety. Also, Miami's last four recruiting classes ranked among the nation's top 22.This year's class is anchored by five-star running back Graig Cooper.
College Coaching Blackjack: Stay with him
Tim Brewster, Minnesota
OK, so Brewster has never before been a head coach. Neither had Bob Stoops until Oklahoma hired him in 1999. That obviously worked out just fine for OU. That doesn't suggest Brewster will have the same success at Minnesota that Stoops has had at Oklahoma, but he shouldn't be discounted either. Brewster has coached in the NFL at San Diego and Denver, but he's more experienced on the collegiate level. Brewster worked under Mack Brown at North Carolina and Texas, and developed a reputation as one of the nation's best recruiters. He was instrumental in recruiting Vince Young to Texas. Considering Minnesota's last four recruiting classes were ranked 55th or lower by Rivals.com, Brewster's recruiting expertise figures to eventually help the Gophers improve. This year's class ranked 57th. Brewster also has an advantage in that he's not taking over a poor program. Minnesota posted 10 wins in 2003 and returns 16 starters from last season's team that squandered a big lead in an Insight Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
Butch Davis, North Carolina
By posting double-digit victory totals three times in five seasons, Mack Brown proved the right coach can win big at North Carolina - even in football. Butch Davis figures to be the right coach for the Tar Heels at this time. He's been on Super Bowl championship teams as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys and national championship teams as an assistant coach at Miami. He went 51-20 as a head coach at Miami, even though the program was on NCAA probation that cost 31 scholarships. Still, in his final season there the Hurricanes finished 11-1 and were ranked No. 2 in the country. The next season his successor Larry Coker coached Miami to a national championship. The Tar Heels obviously aren't ready to win at that level after posting a 3-9 record in 2006, but Davis has receiver Hakeem Nicks and guard Charlston Gray among seven offensive starters. Davis can build his defense around linebacker Durell Mapp, cornerback Jermaine Strong and defensive tackle Kyndraus Guy. He also hauled in five-star defensive tackle Marvin Austin and five-star receiver Dwight Jones in a solid recruiting class that ranked 16th in the country.
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Last season Cincinnati won six of its last eight regular season games, which included an upset of then No. 7 Rutgers. In 2004, the Bearcats won five of their last six, including the Fort Worth Bowl. The point is that Cincinnati improved as the season progressed in two of three seasons under Dantonio. No major college football team in America needs to develop that ability more than Michigan State. The Spartans lost four of their last five in 2004, lost six of their last seven in 2005 and eight of their last nine in 2006. Michigan State loses quarterback Drew Stanton and a bunch of receivers, but talent might not be as big an issue as coaching leadership. Dantonio's track record indicates he can provide that.
Todd Graham, Tulsa
In his first season as head coach at Rice Graham directed the Owls to their first bowl appearance since 1961. Consider that he did it with a team that had just one victory in 2005. Additionally, he inherited a team recruited for Ken Hatfield's run-oriented offensive system, yet Rice passed for 214.1 yards per game. Graham, who was defensive coordinator for three seasons at Tulsa under Steve Kragthorpe, takes over a team that returns four offensive starters. Quarterback Paul Smith and six defensive starters should help Graham continue the success Tulsa had under Kragthorpe.
Butch Jones, Central Michigan
The biggest question facing the 39-year-old Jones is how he will perform in his first year as a head coach. He seems to have a lot going for him as he tries to build on the solid foundation that Brian Kelly left. Jones is a Michigan native, so he's familiar with the recruiting landscape. He was successful in three years as an offensive coordinator at Central Michigan, and he spent two seasons at West Virginia working under Rich Rodriguez. But Jones' greatest asset is the fact that seven starters return on offense and defense from a MAC champion that went 10-4. That list includes quarterback Dan Lefevour, running back Ontario Sneed and wide receiver Bryan Anderson, who set a school record with 73 receptions last season.
Brian Kelly, Cincinnati
Kelly is so good he's already led the Bearcats to a bowl victory. Kelly took over at Cincinnati on Dec. 3 after Mark Dantonio left for Michigan State. Kelly then directed the Bearcats to a 27-24 victory over Western Michigan in the International Bowl. More victories even in bowl games figure to follow. You've got to like Kelly's resume, which includes two Division II national championships at Grand Valley State and an outstanding reconstruction project at Central Michigan. Prior to Kelly's arrival, Central Michigan had endured eight losing seasons in nine years. Three years after he took over, the Chippewas went 10-4 and won the Mid-American Conference championship. Expect Kelly to upgrade the Bearcats' offense, which ranked 82nd nationally in scoring last season. When he took over at Central Michigan the Chippeawas ranked 79th in scoring offense. Three years later they ranked 23rd. The offensive boost might not take long, either. Seven offensive and eight defensive starters return, so Kelly has good material with which to work.
Tom O'Brien, N.C. State
The Wolfpack will win under O'Brien, the question is how soon. O'Brien took over a struggling Boston College program 11 years ago and led the Eagles to eight consecutive bowl appearances. Despite last season's 3-9 finish, the rebuilding project at N.C. State doesn't seem nearly as daunting as the one he had at Chestnut Hill. First of all, the Carolinas offer a better area from which to recruit. O'Brien did an admirable job accumulating talent at BC, which in 2004 had a class that was rated No. 24 in the nation by Rivals.com. Defensive tackle DeMario Pressley, tight end Anthony Hill and receiver/kick returner Darrell Blackman head a list of 13 returning starters at N.C. State. That might seem like a good news/bad news joke because those starters managed just three victories last season, but seven of those losses were by eight or fewer points. The additional experience - combined with O'Brien's track record - suggests the Wolfpack could have a quick reversal of fortune and be a factor in the ACC race.
College Coaching Blackjack: Take a hit
Robb Akey, Idaho
The Vandals have been losing football coaches faster than football games, so Akey - who pledges he's in it for the long haul - should have the luxury of a patient administration. Idaho has hired four coaches in five years and hasn't posted a winning season since 1999. One drawback is that the Vandals must recruit against Boise State and Pac-10 member Washington State, which is just 8 miles west. Previously the defensive coordinator at Washington State, Akey has indicated he'll continue the one-back offense used by his predecessor, Dennis Erickson, and intends to throw the ball frequently.
David Bailiff, Rice
It's not unusual for successful football coaches at the Division I-AA level to make the step up and have continued success in Division I. But frankly, most of them bring with them than Bailiff, who was 21-15 and had just one winning season in three years at Division II Texas State. There was even a cloud of doubt stemming from the 11-3 season in 2005. Bailiff chose to run out the final 90 seconds of regulation in a semifinal playoff game against Northern Iowa. His team then lost at home in overtime. However, Bailiff did build some solid defensive units as defensive coordinator at TCU in 2002 and 2003.
Stan Brock, Army
Coaching the Black Knights, who haven't managed a winning season since 1996, requires patience. Brock started his NFL career toiling away on some awful New Orleans Saints teams, so he knows how to play the waiting game. Brock eventually reached the playoffs with the Saints and the Super Bowl with the San Diego Chargers, so he knows the virtue of perseverance. His three years as Army's line coach will be beneficial. He inherits 12 returning starters, six on each side of the ball. Army hasn't posted more than four wins since '96, which shows the big man is facing a big job.
Troy Calhoun, Air Force
Following the most successful football coach in school history is rarely an enviable position. Just ask Ron Zook, who followed Steve Spurrier at Florida, or Ray Perkins, who followed Bear Bryant at Alabama. Calhoun moves into that role as the successor to Fisher DeBerry, the most successful coach in Air Force history. DeBerry's legacy is the least of Calhoun's concerns. Air Force ranked 69th in total offense last season and was 118th (out of 119) in passing offense. Calhoun presided over solid offensive teams as offensive coordinator at Ohio University and Wake Forest before moving to the NFL in 2003. Last season he served as offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans, who in one year under his guidance showed slight improvement from the previous season. Calhoun figures to implement a different offense than DeBerry's option scheme, but getting the players to make it successful will be a challenge. Calhoun's first recruiting class was ranked 108th by Rivals.com.
Neil Callaway, Alabama-Birmingham
UAB has had only three winning seasons and has never posted more than seven victories in its 11 seasons in Division I-A. However, Callaway has the benefit of having worked under some very successful head coaches, including Auburn's Pat Dye and Georgia's Mark Richt. Opening the season with road games against Michigan State and Florida State won't help his cause.
Gene Chizik, Iowa State
As defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas, Chizik went two seasons (2004 and 2005) without losing and was part of a national championship with the Longhorns. During those years he supervised the nation's No. 1 scoring defense at Auburn in 2004 and the No. 8 scoring defense at Texas in 2005. The nagging question, though, is whether Chizik will have the ability to attract higher-quality athletes to Ames. Last season, Texas' pass defense ranked 99th in the nation - just two places ahead of Iowa State's - and Chizik doesn't figure to have the same caliber of athletes with which to work. Iowa State's recruiting class ranked 59th by Rivals.com. The Cyclones start the 2007 with three consecutive home games, including a clash with state rival Iowa on Sept. 15. However, Chizik's first-year success likely will be determined during a five-week stretch when the Cyclones face Nebraska, Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri in succession.
Mario Cristobal, Florida International
No coach faces a bigger challenge than Cristobal, who takes over a program coming off a winless season and whose players started the infamous brawl with Miami. Cristobal's age he's 36 figures to be his greatest asset as he tries to win at a program which has managed just 15 victories in its five-year history. He'll need all the youthful exuberance and optimism he can muster. Cristobal is a Miami native, was an All-Big East offensive lineman at the University of Miami and most recently was the offensive line coach for the Hurricanes. He's familiar with what it takes to build a successful team. The first ingredient is talented players, and he'll face an uphill battle trying to recruit with in-state powers Miami, Florida and Florida State landing much of the Sunshine State's talent. Cristobal's eye for identifying diamonds in the rough will certainly be tested.
Todd Dodge, North Texas
Dodge, whose Southlake (Texas) Carroll teams went 79-1 and won four state championships over the last five years, was one of the nation's most successful high school football coaches. But then so was Gerry Faust, who failed at Notre Dame after winning 174 games at Moeller High School in Cincinnati. The main difference is North Texas doesn't come under as much scrutiny as a storied program like Notre Dame. That means Dodge figures to have a better chance to be successful. He served as offensive coordinator at North Texas in 1992 and 1993, and in that time the Mean Green averaged 348 yards and 26 touchdowns. Dodge's predecessor, Darrell Dickey, fielded four consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship teams from 2001 to 2004, but went 3-9 in 2006. If Dodge improves on that North Texas will likely be a stepping stone to a higher-profile program.
Derek Dooley, Louisiana Tech
A first-time head coach, Dooley excelled as an assistant coach at LSU under Nick Saban. Dooley was recruiting coordinator from 2000 to 2003 when LSU stockpiled most of the talented players that won the 2003 national championship. Dooley is back in the college game after two seasons as tight ends coach under Saban with the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Louisiana Tech's last three recruiting classes were ranked no higher than 77th by Rivals.com and its 2007 class ranked 90th. Jack Bicknell, Dooley's predecessor, had a 43-52 record in eight seasons and was 7-4 just two years ago. It will be difficult for Dooley to significantly improve on that, but if he does he won't be in Ruston for long.
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford
Too bad Harbaugh, who had a successful 15-year career as an NFL quarterback, can't play for Stanford. The Cardinal hasn't managed a winning record in five seasons since Tyrone Willingham left for Notre Dame. Harbaugh brings impressive credentials to Palo Alto, including a Super Bowl appearance as Oakland Raiders quarterback coach in 2003 and a 29-6 record and two Mid-Major national championships in three seasons at Division I-AA University of San Diego. There aren't a bunch of starters returning six on offense, five on defense but maybe that's a good thing. The Cardinal struggled to a 1-11 finish in 2006. Harbaugh's first Stanford recruiting class, which includes 10 three-star players and a four-star quarterback in Kellen Kiilsgaard, is ranked 52nd by Rivals.com.
Bob Toledo, Tulane
The 60-year-old Toledo has been successful as an offensive coordinator and had a decent run as a head coach at UCLA. He went 49-32 in seven seasons from 1996 to 2002. However, his defenses were often average at best. UCLA ranked 52nd, 92nd and 107th in total defense in three of his last four years there. That doesn't bode well at Tulane, which desperately needs to improve after finishing 108th nationally in total defense last season. Toledo will have eight starters back on defense, but Tulane's academic requirements limit the ability to recruit. Still, there is hope. Tulane has had some successful coaches in the past, including Larry Smith (9-3 in 1979) and Tommy Bowden, who went 12-0 in 1998.



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