On Saturday in Tucson, Arizona was determined to blow a 19-point lead, and Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils let it happen.
Arizona State won, 41-40, making Edwards 7-5 in his Tempe debut. The Sun Devils are almost exactly where they were projected to be by S&P+ — they were 57th in the preseason and are 53rd now — but 10 of their 12 opponents underachieved, and their five projected wins turned into seven.
It was far from an amazing season in the desert, but it wasn’t the disaster that some feared when Edwards was hired a year ago.
Seeing this, North Carolina decided, hey, if aging CEO coaches are going to be the new thing in college football, why not snatch up the original aging CEO coach?
Mack Brown spent most of the last five seasons proving why he’s no longer a football coach (though Texas fans would argue it’s more like the last eight).
After retiring as Texas’ head coach following the 2013 season, he ended up as an ESPN analyst. He was charming and natural on television, and he always seemed like he was enjoying himself — easily requirement No. 1 for a color commentator to be listenable.
But his analysis generally centered around saying the word “momentum” a lot, and he made clear that, as a coach, he was happy to leave the tactical talk to other coaches.
Brown was the prototype for the coach-turned-analyst. He was good at saying nothing of interest and always backing up fellow coaches. In fact, just about the only coach he didn’t readily back up was his Texas successor, Charlie Strong. When Strong won just 16 games in three seasons, Brown was quick to assure anyone who would listen that it wasn’t his fault Strong was struggling. I guess that was a sign that Brown never gave up on the idea of coaching more.
Despite still recruiting well, Brown averaged just 7.5 wins per year over his last four seasons in Austin.
Following an appearance in 2009’s BCS championship game, the Longhorns collapsed to 5-7 in 2010. Brown openly talked about being burned out and not getting over the national title game loss, and he attempted to re-energize his program by bringing in young coordinators, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and Mississippi State’s Manny Diaz.
Diaz’s defense surged to seventh in Def. S&P+ in 2011 before tumbling to 40th in 2012. Harsin’s (and co-coordinator Major Applewhite’s) offense lumbered through 2011 before rising to 12th in Off. S&P+ in 2012. Harsin left to take the Arkansas State head coaching job in 2013, and the offense bombed again, and at the first sign of defensive trouble that fall, Diaz went overboard as Brown’s old coordinator, Greg Robinson, came out of retirement.
UT fell to 37th in S&P+ and 8-5 overall in 2013, and Brown begrudgingly stepped aside. He had lost his fastball.
Harsin has since won 10-plus games four times in five years as Boise State head coach, and Diaz is fielding his best defense yet in year three as Miami’s coordinator, but they couldn’t save him in Austin.
Mind you, this was all before Brown spent five years away from the game.
When Arizona State hired Edwards last December, it came in a hail of MBA speak about “New Leadership Models.” In the school’s statement, athletic director Ray Anderson said, “In the spirit of innovation, our vision for this program is to have a head coach who serves as a CEO and is the central leader with a collaborative staff around him that will elevate the performance of players and coaches on the field, in the classroom and in our community. Equally important, the head coach will be a dynamic and tireless recruiter.”
Granted, there was a bit of irony when, after Anderson announced that coach retention and development was a major goal of the “multi-layered model” and that he wanted both of departed coach Todd Graham’s coordinators to remain in their roles, they both left.
But to Edwards’ credit, he made solid hires. Former San Diego State assistant Danny Gonzales hasn’t found much traction defensively, but he was an attractive hire on paper. And under Danny Likens’ leadership, the offense has held steady. ASU was 35th in Off. S&P+ and 105th in Def. S&P+ last season; this year, the Sun Devils are 32nd and 92nd, respectively.
While fulfilling the “dynamic and tireless recruiter” role, Edwards and his staff closed well in 2018’s recruiting class, taking what looked like a disastrous haul and salvaging a top-40 class. They will have to do that again, with the current class just barely lingering in the top 50 at the moment.
One year into Edwards’ tenure, you can see whatever you want to see. His first season was far from a disaster — something you can’t say about rival Arizona’s first year with Kevin Sumlin (whom, it should be noted, many of us thought ASU should have hired instead) — and that alone says something.
Still, Edwards inherited a 7-5 team and went 7-5 with it. Under his guidance, ASU’s offense and defense were basically the same as they were last year — and that was with a senior quarterback (Manny Wilkins) and an NFL early entry at WR (N’Keal Harry). At this moment, recruiting, the area in which he was supposed to drastically exceed Graham’s efforts, is either at or behind Graham’s baseline.
Exceeding low initial expectations is nice, but Edwards isn’t much better a long-term bet than he was a year ago. He’s still got loads to prove. He could still thrive, but he’s given no reason to assume he will.
It’s a bit alarming, then, that Edwards’ “success” is pretty much the only case you can make for Brown back in Chapel Hill.
When Edwards was hired a year ago, I put myself through a thought exercise. My go-to line with coaching hires is that they are a massive crapshoot — that any hire can work and any hire can fail. After my initial revulsion at Anderson’s jargon and his quick firing of a 7-5 coach to replace him with a total mystery (who ended up being a 7-5 coach), I attempted to talk myself into the hire. After all, any hire can work, right?
My main ammo for positivity was ... Mack Brown.
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.
[...] 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.
Brown’s only three years older than Edwards, and while a five-year hiatus is suboptimal (as is the way his Texas tenure finished), it’s still half as long as Edwards had been out of coaching. If Edwards isn’t a disaster, why would we think Brown will be, right?
Still, this hire is just ... lazy, isn’t it?
What’s supposed to be the ceiling here? He averaged 7.5 wins per year over his last four years at Texas, and that was with top-10 recruiting classes. At UNC, it’ll be an achievement to land top-20 classes. The assumption seems to be that his success will hinge on hiring energetic assistants to carry a load, but that didn’t save him at UT.
(As for the ever-so-hopeful rumors that he’ll bring recently fired Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury aboard as his offensive coordinator, let’s just say that if UNC’s the best offer Kingsbury gets, his agent needs to find a new line of work.)
If Brown hires good assistants and can seal the deal with recruits, he can get UNC back to at least the seven- or eight-win level. Since the Tar Heels won the division lottery and ended up in the ACC Coastal instead of Clemson’s ACC Atlantic, maybe the ceiling’s even higher. After all, fired predecessor Larry Fedora won 11 games just three years ago.
Still, with Edwards, Les Miles (Kansas), and Brown landing Power 5 jobs, it’s starting to feel that as the NFL gets more experimental in coach hiring, college football is going in the opposite direction.
Mid-major standout coaches like Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield and Troy’s Neal Brown are still in the Sun Belt while Brown walks down from the press box. This is not a happy trend when it comes to keeping major college football interesting.
Thirty years ago, UNC hired a charismatic 36-year-old named Mack Brown, a Florida State grad and one-time Oklahoma offensive coordinator. Brown was an exciting recruiter and had just taken Tulane to its first bowl in seven years. Within six years, he’d unleash a run of success that UNC hadn’t seen in 50 years and hasn’t seen since.
Instead of finding the next Brown, though, UNC just decided to hire the old one again. Maybe it works out in the short-term, as he schmoozes boosters and wrangles money and initial energy. But there’s no long-term plan when you hire a 67-year-old retiree.