Imagining the perfect coach

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
4:26
PM ET
ESPN.com senior national columnist Gene Wojciechowski asks a question many athletic directors -- and fans -- have been asking themselves over the past few weeks: What is a perfect coach?

Woj tries to come up with some ideas, and what he found is that many coaches have important elements of a perfect coach.

Here are five observations from the Pac-12:
  • The perfect coach is as good-natured as Oregon State's Mike Riley, who refuses to let the often cynical and harsh nature of his profession keep him from being -- and staying -- a genuinely nice guy.
  • The perfect coach has a sense of place -- like David Shaw, who finished high school near Palo Alto, played for Stanford, earned his degree from Stanford, was an offensive coordinator at Stanford (his dad was a former defensive coordinator on The Farm) and just completed an 11-1 regular season in his first season as Stanford's head coach.
  • The perfect coach is an innovator, such as Oregon's Chip Kelly, who won't be satisfied until the Ducks cause the play clock to explode.
  • The perfect coach can turn around a program like Jeff Tedford did at Cal (a .246 winning percentage in the previous five seasons before his arrival; a .627 winning percentage since) and Bob Stoops did at OU (Before: .410 winning percentage; after: .803).
  • The perfect coach learns from his mistakes, as USC's Lane Kiffin has.

All that said, Woj concludes: "The perfect coach … doesn't exist. And never will."

True. But the process of finding one has always fascinated me. If I had been an athletic director looking for a "perfect" coach, here's what I would have been asking, first and foremost.

What will his staff look like? This is the most underrated question of a coaching search. No head coach, no matter how good, does well with a mediocre or bad staff. And plenty of mediocre-to-bad head coaches do well with good staffs. It also says something important about a head coach if great assistants want to work for him. Smart assistants don't want to work for bad head coaches and they know through their networks who the good head coaches are. They want to go places where they sense success is coming in order to boost their own careers.

What's his recruiting aptitude? Not just in terms of recruiting rankings but in terms of backend -- read: NFL -- production? There are two stages to recruiting. One, can a coach bring in A-list recruiting talent? That's all those four- and five-star guys. It's nice to have a coach who can get lots of those. But there also this: How well does he evaluate? And how well does he develop talent? If a guy who regularly ranks 26-45 in the recruiting rankings rates 15-25 in terms of producing NFL draft picks, he's a better recruiter than the guy who regularly ranks in the top 10 in recruiting but falls short turning those guys into NFL players.

Is he organized? Just about every good head coach is organized. That sounds simple, eh? It's not. Some of the hot, young assistant coaches you always hear about are not organized. They are explosions of energy and charisma and can charm anyone, but they are not detail-oriented, linear thinkers. This is something I noticed about Kelly immediately at Oregon. He plans out his entire year. If you asked Kelly what he's doing on April 3, 2012, he can tell you.

How good are his social skills? There are plenty of good coaches who don't have good social skills. But it helps a lot to have them. It's a major benefit to have a coach who can talk to the media, to boosters and to administrators without building up ill will.

How does he react to failure? How does he react to success? Everyone loves the meteoric rise, but coaches who have been tested by adversity are more complete. And predictable. Further, there's something to be said for coaches of whom it can be said, "He's exactly the same guy," after a conference or national championship is won.

Does he fit here? Different schools have different cultures. Rich Rodriguez was not a good fit at Michigan. Jim Tressel would fail at USC. Kelly would be a much better fit at Florida than Auburn. I think the reason Chris Petersen keeps saying no to suitors is because he knows he's a great fit at Boise State and, so far, he hasn't felt he would be a good fit at places that pursued him.

What is his ultimate goal? This is a dangerous question because the goal is winning ASAP, not fretting about the long-term future. There are only 10 or so destination jobs in college football -- places where there really isn't a move up. If your school isn't one of them, you need to entertain potential reactions to best-case scenarios: What if this guy is gangbusters? Will he stay? Or does he bolt? There needs to be some forward thinking and a plan B. That involves lining up money to pay a guy who succeeds, as well as starting to visit the idea of who's next should he leave. That could specifically involve watching both coordinators very closely.

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