Les Miles' hire of Cam Cameron as LSU offensive coordinator in 2013 was met with disdain. The two had gotten to know each other on Bo Schembechler's Michigan staff in the 1980s, and Cameron returned to the college ranks after spending 11 seasons in the NFL.
In 10 seasons as an NFL coordinator, Cameron's offenses had only once finished in the bottom half of the league in offensive DVOA. And in his first year in Baton Rouge, with Zach Mettenberger throwing to Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr., LSU improved from 36th to 14th in Off. S&P+.
Beginning in 2014, however, LSU's personnel didn't match Cameron's preferences. With the departure of Mettenberger, Randle, and Beckham, experience was at a minimum. Sophomore dual-threat quarterback Anthony Jennings took over and threw almost exclusively to freshmen and sophomores, and LSU dropped back to 38th in S&P+.
In 2015, LSU's offense was fantastic for half of the season, good enough to finish 12th in Off. S&P+ overall. But a massive funk (LSU averaged 16.5 points per game during a 1-3 November) nearly got Miles fired.
Two more miserable performances -- a 16-14 loss to Wisconsin and an 18-13 loss to Auburn -- finished the job in 2016. After going 47-9 from 2010 through part of 2014, Miles' tenure ends with his Tigers having won only 16 of his last 26.
Whether Miles should or shouldn’t have been let go*, he was. And offensive struggles will be regarded as the primary reason. Cameron is probably shouldering too much of the blame, but no matter what, he struggled to maintain a level that LSU’s recruiting suggests he should have.
In this way, Miles has been done in by something that has been the doom of many successful coaches: coordinator hires.
Georgia’s Mark Richt lost successful offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, replaced him with Brian Schottenheimer, and was unemployed within the year.
Fifteen years earlier, Bobby Bowden picked his son Jeff to replace Richt. FSU had averaged 38.1 points per game and 10.9 wins per season with Richt’s offense. Those fell to 29.5 and 8.5, respectively.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly lost defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in 2014. The Irish had finished fourth, 17th, and fourth in Def. S&P+ in Diaco’s first three seasons; under new DC Brian VanGorder, Notre Dame finished 43rd in 2014 and 35th in 2015. It’s early, but the Irish are thus far 78th in 2016. VanGorder is out after a 1-3 2016 start.
In nine seasons as an NFL coordinator, Schottenheimer (once Cameron’s quarterbacks coach at San Diego) had only twice produced an offense that ranked better than 21st out of 32 in Offensive DVOA.
VanGorder was trickier to evaluate. In four years as Richt’s coordinator at Georgia (2001-04), his defenses never allowed more than 20 points per game, and in four years as DC of the Atlanta Falcons, his defenses improved each year. His lone Auburn defense wasn’t very good (56th in Def. S&P+ in 2012), but it was better than the one before it (62nd in 2011). Still, his acumen did not fit in South Bend.
So to help out good head coaches who might soon find themselves in ignominy because of a hire, let’s try to figure out a few guidelines for whom one should and should not pick.
Over the past five seasons, 29 schools have at least once finished in the top 10 in Off. S&P+, and 29 have done the same on defense. The offenses were led by 40 different offensive coordinators or co-coordinators, the defenses by 34.
So what can we glean from the names on that list of 74 coordinators? There are a couple of obvious trends.
Rule 1: Don’t look for NFL experience.
Of the 40 coordinators with recent top-10 offenses, only nine had any experience at the NFL level. Only four of 40 had been in the pros for more than three years. Two of these four (Pep Hamilton, Mike Bloomgren) were hired by Stanford, so I guess the corollary should be: “Don’t worry about NFL experience ... unless you’re David Shaw.”
On the defensive side, the percentages are similar. Of the 34 coordinators with recent top-10 defenses, only eight had NFL experience, and only four had more than three years in the NFL: Vance Bedford (2014 Texas, six years), Dan Quinn (2012 Florida, 10 years), Todd Grantham (2011 Georgia, 11 years), and Clancy Pendergast (2013 USC, 15 years).
Successful NFL-to-college transitions are the exception, not the rule. And most of the men with NFL teams on the résumé had returned to the college ranks for at least a couple of years before landing the coordinator job in question.
A friend who covers Notre Dame told me he was wary of VanGorder because of how many times the word “exotic” was used to describe his scheme. “Exotic” can work at the pro level, when you’ve got infinite practice time. At the college level, where practice is limited and player experience is drastically low, this is harder to pull off. Even Nick Saban has had to simplify his schemes in the face of faster tempo and more flexible offenses.
A familiar complaint about VanGorder’s defensive personnel was that they were thinking instead of reacting. That’s not the first time someone’s said that of a defense led by a former NFL coach.
Rule 2: Do look for previous coordinator experience, and look at your own staff first.
Of the 40 offensive coordinators, 28 had previous coordinator experience at the college or pro level, and 12 of the remaining, 10 had been promoted from within on that staff.
The two others: Jake Spavital (2013 Texas A&M) and Kevin Johns (2013 Indiana). But in both of those cases, the assistants’ head coaches were successful former coordinators with whom they had experience. Spavital had ties with both Kevin Sumlin’s style of offense and with Sumlin (he was a GA at Houston under Sumlin in 2009), and Johns had experience with IU head coach Kevin Wilson.
(Jeff Bowden is one obvious exception to this rule, so if you’re related to the guy you want to promote, think twice.)
Again, it’s the same story on defense; 23 of 34 successful defensive coordinators had previous college or pro coordinator experience, and of the 11 who didn’t, nine were promoted from within.
The other two were Jeremy Pruitt (2013 Florida State), who had spent six years under Nick Saban, and Jason Jones (2014 Ole Miss), who is generally considered the No. 2 of the co-coordinators, behind Dave Wommack (who did have coordinator experience).
* I could still make the long-term case for keeping Miles. As frustrating as last November and this September have been, this is still a program that has won at least eight games in each of his 11 full seasons and probably would have done the same in 2016. With his three top-five finishes, he is tied with 1958 national champion Paul Dietzel for the most in school history. With his 11 seasons of eight or more wins, he is tied with Charles McClendon.
With its recruiting base and rabid fan support, we assume LSU should always be awesome. But Miles' sustainability was unique.
Still, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. Nick Saban’s success has made all SEC fan bases and administrators crazy, and when you’re paid as much as Miles was, the bar gets set awfully high. While long-term stability is preferable, boosters and alums can dictate your short-term cash flow, and when they’re miserable, the athletic director probably is, too.