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Why defensive coaches aren't landing top jobs

4/27/2015
Of the 14 FBS head coaches hired this offseason, only Pitt's Pat Narduzzi had a defensive background. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Once the dust and dollars settled, and the SEC coordinator swap meet ended in February, Kevin Steele noticed something.

There were eight new defensive coordinators in the league; four of them had made moves within the conference: Steele (Alabama to LSU), Will Muschamp (Florida to Auburn), John Chavis (LSU to Texas A&M) and Geoff Collins (Mississippi State to Florida).

It had been an unprecedented shuffle, resulting in big-splash hires and salaries.

Things were quieter in SEC offensive circles with just two coordinator changes. Vanderbilt fired coordinator Karl Dorrell after a 3-9 season. But Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo landed the head-coaching job at Colorado State.

"The eight defensive coaches who changed," Steele said, "none of them became head coaches."

The pattern isn’t confined to the SEC. Of the 14 FBS schools that hired new head coaches this winter, only Pittsburgh appointed a defensive assistant in Pat Narduzzi, who had been Michigan State’s defensive coordinator. In contrast, six offensive assistants landed head-coaching positions.

Seven schools hired sitting head coaches -- or, in Jim Harbaugh’s case, a recently released NFL coach -- and five of the hires had offense-heavy backgrounds. UNLV hired longtime high school coach Tony Sanchez, who had coached both offense and defense in the prep ranks. Gary Andersen, who left Wisconsin for Oregon State, is the only first-year coach with deep roots on defense. The four highest-profile schools making hires -- Florida, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin -- replaced defense-oriented coaches with offense-oriented coaches.

"Offense is en vogue now, and the people that do the hiring, that’s the thing that they look for,” Steele said. "To excite the fan base, [you hire] the guy who’s got 570 yards a game and scoring 42 points a game."

The most recent cycle adds to a pattern of offense-driven hires around college football. Research published last summer that examined the previous seven hiring cycles showed 71 percent of FBS coaches hired had backgrounds in offense.

Offense is powering college football, and defensive coaches seeking top jobs must be aware of possible blackouts.

"I had no idea I was the only one," Narduzzi said, before adding, "Offenses fill the stands."

Coaches and agents both identified declining attendance around college football as the biggest driver for offensive hires. Engaging fans is paramount, and offense sells. It's especially critical for Group of 5 schools, which are likelier to hire assistants for head-coaching positions.

Narduzzi only has been at Pitt for four months, but he can identify the "two heroes" on his team: All-America running back James Conner, the reigning ACC player of the year, and wide receiver Tyler Boyd, a first-team All-ACC selection.

"Those are the guys people see in the end zone at the end of a play,” Narduzzi said. "It's all about the stats, and the stats are all about the offense and not about the defense. So fans connect with the people making big plays."

Manny Diaz, on his second stint as Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator after coordinator stints at Louisiana Tech, Texas and Middle Tennessee, thinks the fan connection to offense is deeper than the numbers.

"When people watch and their team has the ball, they feel like that is a representation of them,” Diaz said. "When the other team has the ball, they feel like they’re watching the other team, even though their defense is out there, too. That’s why in a spring game, people clap when the offense catches a pass, even though they caught the ball against their own defense.

"So if we are stroking somebody on defense and holding them to very few points but can’t score points on offense, as a fan, you generally feel inept.”

So do athletic directors. Agents say Muschamp’s recent run as Florida’s coach, where he delivered his typical elite defenses but anemic offenses, has made athletic directors leery about hiring defensive assistants. (Muschamp was Texas’ defensive coordinator before landing the Florida job.)

There’s a similar concern about Derek Mason, who produced top defenses at Stanford but whose first Vanderbilt team finished 116th nationally in scoring and 122nd in yards.

“They feel safer hiring an offensive coordinator,” said an agent who represents both offensive and defensive coaches, "because when the ADs get in hot water, it’s because they’re losing games scoring seven points, scoring 10 points. If they’re losing games 38-35, it’s, 'Hey, we’ll get 'em next year.' Fans are going to continue coming to the games, even if they’re 4-4.

"But if they’re 4-4 and they’re scoring seven points a game, people are going to throw in the towel."

"Football is just so cyclical, it's crazy. You hear about ADs all the time, 'Well, he really wanted an offensive guy,' but to me, the good ones who make great decisions pick the right person for the right fit."

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema

Another agent representing coaches on both sides of the ball said athletic directors typically enter coaching searches with a desired profile, often someone with offensive roots. Defensive coaches enter interviews with "more to prove" and must not only sell themselves, but their vision for the offense.

"Defensive guys are trench guys," UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure said. "It’s harder to get noticed as a defensive guy. But it’s been that way for a long time. Offensive guys ... generate more enthusiasm, more fan interest, marketing, all those things."

Narduzzi recently learned a local bank will donate $125 to charity for every Pitt first down this season. When he asked whether a similar donation would be made for every three-and-out the Panthers’ defense forces, he was told it hadn’t been considered.

“It’s a great idea, first downs are great, but we also want to stop the sticks on the other end," Narduzzi said. "And it’s worth more money, too. They say defense wins championships.”

Defensive coaches do, too. Alabama's Nick Saban, a four-time national champion, has roots on defense. So does Oklahoma's Bob Stoops (one national title and eight league titles), Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (consecutive top-5 finishes) and others.

The most accomplished football coach on the planet, the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, was a longtime NFL defensive assistant. So was Pete Carroll, who dominated the college game at USC before returning to the NFL, where he won a Super Bowl two years ago.

While the last college hiring cycle leaned toward offense, six of the seven NFL coaches hired this past winter have defensive backgrounds. Four were defensive assistants last season.

"The NFL is probably more defense-conscious," said an agent who represents coaches at both levels.

Could college football eventually warm up to more defensive coaches? About the only certainty is nothing stays the same for very long.

"Football is just so cyclical, it's crazy," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "You hear about ADs all the time, 'Well, he really wanted an offensive guy,' but to me, the good ones who make great decisions pick the right person for the right fit."

There could be hope for defensive assistants seeking higher-profile jobs. An offensive coordinator hasn't landed a Power 5 head-coaching job in the past two cycles, while two defensive coordinators, Narduzzi and Mason, have been hired.

But the Muschamp situation has shortened the leash, and defensive coordinators around the country should be rooting for both Narduzzi and Mason.

"A lot of defensive coaches aren’t getting their shake," Narduzzi said. "I'm glad I got an opportunity here, and we'll make the best of it."