For some first-year college football coaches, the grace period isn’t very long
The question put to Kevin Sumlin was simple enough.
How does it feel to go winless in your first two games coaching Arizona?
His answer was just as simple.
“You know,” he told reporters, “it’s not good.”
If a rocky start has Sumlin feeling less than contented, he has some company.
More than a dozen major programs entered the college football season with new bosses on the sideline and, so far, the results have been mixed.
Some coaches, including Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State and Mario Cristobal at Oregon, charged out of the gate with consecutive victories. Things are looking just as promising for Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.
But two losses have taken the sizzle out of Sumlin’s debut in Tucson. Same for Chip Kelly at UCLA and Sonny Dykes at Southern Methodist.
At Florida State, the heat is on Willie Taggart, whose team snuck past FCS opponent Samford a week after dropping the season opener to Virginia Tech in an effort that could best be described as uneven.
“Come on, of course I understand that,” Taggart said when asked about fan dissapointment. “When you lose, everybody’s upset.”
Much of a first-year coach’s success — or, at least, his perceived success — depends on the caliber of team he inherits.
A 1-1 record looks pretty good for Jonathan Smith at Oregon State, which finished last season at 1-11. The same cannot be said for Dan Mullen, who has taken over at Florida.
Though the Gators had a losing record last fall, no one expected them to stumble against Kentucky last weekend. It marked their first loss to the Wildcats since 1986.
“We got punched in the face,” Mullen said.
The situation is considerably brighter at Texas A&M, which made the splashiest hire of the offseason, paying $75 million to lure Fisher away from Florida State.
The Aggies’ investment is already paying dividends.
After winning their season opener against Northwestern State, they played toe-to-toe with favored Clemson, losing 28-26 when a two-point conversion came up short at the end of the game.
“It hurts, there’s no doubt, because you see how close you were to playing with the No. 2 team in the country and we were right there playing with them,” Fisher said. “We’ll learn to get over that hump.”
Last winter’s other big move involved Scott Frost, who jumped from Central Florida to Nebraska, the school where he once played quarterback.
When thunderstorms got in the way of his debut against Akron, the game canceled because of severe weather, Frost mused: “We got all dressed up for nothing.”
Things didn’t go much better Saturday, his quarterback suffering a knee injury and the Cornhuskers losing to Colorado in the final minute.
“That’s the progression when you’re trying to get a team where you want to get it,” Frost said. “You’ve got to learn how to win the close games.”
The spotlight can be especially harsh in the college game. With players coming and going each season, coaches often serve as the face of the program. Plus, they might just be the highest-paid public employee in their state.
With teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the start of the season, Cristobal and Moorhead faced pressure to win immediately. Other undefeated newcomers include Josh Heupel, who replaced Frost at Central Florida, and a name that might surprise some people.
There was plenty skepticism when Arizona State hired Herm Edwards in December. The former NFL coach had spent the previous decade in the broadcast booth and hadn’t worked at the college level since the late 1980s.
Edwards did his best to ignore the doubters.
“I don’t know what happens in the outside world,” he said this summer. “I don’t read it, I don’t watch it. I’m a football coach.”
The Sun Devils started with a cakewalk against Texas San Antonio, then showed grit in upsetting No. 15 Michigan State at home. Edwards turned and walked away as his kicker lined up for the winning field goal on the game’s final play.
“I never watch the kicks,” he said. “I look at the crowd and if the crowd’s hollering, then we did good.”
The victory against a Big Ten Conference opponent surely bought Edwards some breathing room as his team heads into this weekend’s game at San Diego State. The situation will be more precarious for other new coaches needing a win.
UCLA is an early underdog — at the Rose Bowl, no less — against Fresno State. Arizona should catch a break with a home game against Southern Utah.
Florida is also favored to grab a victory against Colorado State.
Mullen has talked about his players facing a “reality check.” In words that could apply to a lot of programs with first-year coaches, he suggested that nobody should expect a quick fix.
“If you don’t like how things are, you’ve got to change,” he said. “Well, change is uncomfortable.”
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