Examining the effect of coaching transitions

I've been thinking a lot lately about coaching transitions and how they affect a team. It's a topical issue in the Big East, given that three of the league's eight teams have new men in charge this season. Cincinnati and South Florida are particularly interesting test cases since both have a lot of talent and potential, yet each club must successfully navigate the transition.

It's generally assumed that a team goes through some bumps in the road after a coaching change. But is that really true? I thought I'd examine the 10 most recent coaching transitions at Big East schools to see if we can glean any knowledge from the past.

2009: Doug Marrone, Syracuse

Team he inherited: 3-9

First season record: 4-8

The record didn't show vast improvement, but you be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't think Marrone's first club played harder and executed better than the previous year's team. Included in the record were good wins over bowl teams Northwestern and Rutgers. Most importantly, Marrone injected hope in a program that hadn't had much for awhile.

2008: Bill Stewart, West Virginia

Team he inherited: 11-2, Fiesta Bowl champions

First season record: 9-4, won Meineke Car Care Bowl

This was a fairly smooth transition, as Stewart had been a longtime assistant with the Mountaineers (and indeed deserves a heaping amount of credit for that Fiesta Bowl win, when he was interim coach). Since getting the job full time, he's gone 18-8 while trying to update the Mountaineers' offense. West Virginia fans may see that record as disappointing, but Stewart kept the program from falling off and has the team positioned for big things in the next couple of seasons.

2007: Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville

Team he inherited: 12-1, Orange Bowl champions

First season record: 6-6, missed postseason

Here is perhaps the cautionary tale of coaching changes. Louisville was on top of the Big East, had a slew of starters returning and high hopes for the Kragthorpe era after the success he had at Tulsa. For reasons that have never fully been explained, Kragthorpe and the Cardinals just didn't mesh, and he was fired after three bowl-less seasons.

2007: Brian Kelly, Cincinnati

Team he inherited: 8-5, won International Bowl

First season record: 10-3, won Papajohns.com Bowl

If Kragthorpe is the poster child for coaching transition problems, Kelly is the shining beacon for optimism in such situations. He actually took over in time to win the International Bowl after Mark Dantonio left, and then took Cincinnati to bigger things the next year, including a Top 20 ranking. And he did it while changing from a power, running-based offense to a spread while using Dantonio's personnel. No wonder Kelly won the first of his three straight Big East coach of the year awards for this work.

2005: Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh

Team he inherited: 8-4, lost Fiesta Bowl

First season record: 5-6

Wannstedt took over a team that won the Big East in arguably the worst year in the history of the league and then got blown out in a BCS game. Still, it took some time for him to switch from the NFL to college and implement his system. After three years of missing the postseason, he has guided the Panthers to 19 wins in the past two seasons.

2005: Greg Robinson, Syracuse

Team he inherited: 6-6, lost in Champs Sports Bowl

First season record: 1-10

The one guy who makes Kragthorpe's transition look smooth. Robinson's first year was an utter disaster. So was his whole four-year tenure, really.

2004: Mark Dantonio, Cincinnati

Team he inherited: 5-7

First season record: 7-5, won Fort Worth Bowl

Dantonio had Cincinnati playing around the same level at which it hovered in previous seasons under Rick Minter. He led the Bearcats to their first bowl win since 1997 and had the program ready to enter the Big East.

2003: Bobby Petrino, Louisville

Team he inherited: 7-6, lost GMAC Bowl

First season record: 9-4, lost GMAC Bowl

John L. Smith threw a lit match on a wooden bridge on his way out of Louisville, as his departure for Michigan State leaked out during the team's bowl game and he made critical comments about the fans before he left. Petrino erased those memories by bringing immediate excitement with his high-powered offense. Even though his first season ended in the same place, Petrino would win 32 games the next three seasons before bolting for the Atlanta Falcons.

2001: Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia

Team he inherited: 7-5, won Music City Bowl

First season record: 3-8

Rodriguez's first season in Morgantown wasn't smooth, as he took over from longtime coach Don Nehlen and tried to install his new spread-option offense. His only victories in Year One were Ohio, Kent State and Rutgers. But after that bumpy first year, West Virginia never won fewer than eight games under Rich Rod, and his last three years were one of the best stretches in school history.

2001: Greg Schiano, Rutgers

Team he inherited: 3-8

First season record: 2-7

Schiano didn't exactly light the world on fire early on in Piscataway, but he was inheriting a mess of a program that needed a serious rebuilding effort. He won only three games his first two years, but eventually Schiano turned Rutgers into a respectable Big East contender and now a perennial bowl team.


What do we learn from this? Add them all up, and the 10 coaching changes resulted in 14 fewer victories from the previous year's staff. But much of that stat comes from the horrendous debuts by Robinson and Kragthorpe.

Four of the 10 first-year coaches improved on the previous season, while Schiano's first year wasn't much different than what he inherited. The history shows that it's hard to make a huge leap under a new coach, as no team improved by more than two victories after the transition. Many other factors are at play as well, including the fit between coach and school and the personnel and situation left behind by the previous coach.

Of the three new coaches in the Big East this year -- Skip Holtz, Butch Jones and Charlie Strong -- who do you think will have the biggest immediate impact?