It has been a whirlwind of “WHAAAT?” in the days following Arizona State’s decision to fire Todd Graham after a 7-5 rebound season. That decision was questionable in and of itself, considering how rarely firing a winning coach actually works out how you want it to. But things have only gotten weirder since.
First came athletic director Ray Anderson’s odd proclamation that he would look for a coach who would keep Graham’s coordinators, Billy Napier and Phil Bennett. Graham hired those coordinators. And one could ask ... if they’re so good, why not hire one of them as head coach? Napier has Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney on his résumé, after all.
It just kept getting stranger.
Anderson, a former agent, quickly pursued Herm Edwards, a former client of his. Edwards hasn’t coached a team since 2008, when he was fired as head coach by the Kansas City Chiefs. He was 20 games under .500 as an NFL coach and hasn’t coached in college since a three-year stint as San Jose State defensive backs coach ended in 1989. He has spent most of the last decade as a yeller on ESPN.
There was no market for Edwards as a coach, so Anderson’s wooing ended successfully. Edwards was announced as ASU’s head coach on Sunday.
And then it got even stranger.
The school released a masterful press release that featured just about every corporate buzzword imaginable (really, the only miss was forgetting to use “synergy”) and appeared to suggest Edwards was going to serve as CEO, recruiter, and chief motivator, and everybody else was going to actually coach the players he recruits.
Then Edwards was actually introduced. And it got weirder still.
His agent — the current one, not the old one who now serves as his boss — told the crowd that Edwards will “will put a lot of points on the scoreboard of life,” and Edwards appeared to screw up Arizona State’s nickname and say, evidently with a straight face, "We don't huddle anymore in our society. That's the problem with it, to be honest."
Viscerally, I hate this hire.
It triggered me in a specific way, combining a lot of what I dislike about college sports — athletic directors making decisions without the big picture in mind, ADs getting distracted by NFL experience, etc. — and a lot of buzzwordy nonsense I grew to loathe when going through MBA school.
Mind you, it’s going to be fascinating. But I usually think from a fan perspective, and I’m mortified for ASU fans right now.
One of my mantras, however, is that any hire can succeed and any hire can fail, no matter our impressions.
So much depends on culture, the availability of talent, boosters’ willingness to sign on, etc. So no matter how much I hate this hire, it could work. Stranger things have happened in this silly sport. (Not many stranger things, mind you.) So here’s a thought experiment.
What do I have to do to talk myself into Herm Edwards becoming successful?
I can spin just about anything positively, so it’s time to see if I can spin this.
Let’s go to another line from Edwards’ Monday presser: "This is where you have to learn how to delegate — that's what good CEOs do."
Not every good head coach is a master tactician. Not every master tactician makes a good head coach. The job is so unique, you never know how someone will handle it until they get the chance.
Granted, we have a decent idea of Edwards’ managerial tenets because he was a head coach for eight years. He came up under Marty Schottenheimer and Tony Dungy and coached like them: When in doubt, go conservative.
That produced a few good seasons — 10-6 with the Jets in 2001 and 2004, 9-7 with the Chiefs in 2006 — and some stodgy game plans. In his last good year (2006), Kansas City’s Larry Johnson carried the ball 416 times. It’s the only time in the last 15 years that a back has crossed the 400-carry mark. The Chiefs eked out a playoff bid and gained 141 total yards in a 23-8 loss to the Colts. That this was the first game I thought of was both unfair and fitting.
Edwards was known as much for his speaking as his coaching. He is a paid motivational speaker, and the idea is obviously that he’ll be a recruiter first and a tactician last.
And while the amount of corporate speak emanating from Tempe has been horrifying, the idea of a CEO head coach is anything but new.
Mack Brown won a national title, after all.
If you listen to Brown on ESPN telecasts, you get a vision of how he coached. He’s big into words like “momentum,” he’s charming as hell, and he doesn’t appear particularly tactical. In his two years as an offensive coordinator at Iowa State, the Cyclones’ average ranking was 74th in scoring offense. His only Oklahoma offense in 1984 ranked 34th — 29th the year before him and 11th the year after him.
Still, he was a massive success as a head coach. Tulane was averaging three wins per season when he took over, and he had the Green Wave in a bowl by year three. North Carolina was a perpetual five-win team, and he had the Tar Heels at six in year three and 10 in year six, then ripped off back-to-back top-10 finishes.
At Texas, he became the most dynamic recruiter in the country and ripped off 11 top-15 finishes in his first 12 years. The Horns hadn’t finished higher than 12th in the 14 years before he arrived.
He brought in the talent, and his coaches coached it. He was what Arizona State is attempting to pull off.
Of course, Brown had a track record before UNC. He had been a college coach for 15 years.
Edwards hasn’t been a coach for nearly a decade. We don’t know how well he will recruit — all we know about him is that he can talk.
While it’s possible to sign No. 1 classes at Texas, the best class ASU has signed in the last 15 years, per Rivals, ranked 20th in the country. That was Graham’s 2015 class, signed after back-to-back 10-win seasons. ASU’s average class ranking: 33.1.
If Edwards signs a class ranked in the teens, it’ll be impressive. And after that, we can find out if the CEO head coach’s charges can maximize top-20 production.
That was regarded as Brown’s biggest weakness, after all.
Yeah, I tried. I still don’t like this hire.
This feels a lot more like hiring 2017 Mack Brown — after a trail-off at Texas and a few years in an ESPN booth — than hiring mid-1990s Mack Brown.
I always appreciate when schools take unique approaches. At ASU, you have to do something different to beat schools like USC, which will always have history and resources you don’t.
This just isn’t really the “different” I had in mind.