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Gauging the Success Rate of College Football Head Coaches Who Are Also Alumni

Laken Litman
Gauging the Success Rate of College Football Head Coaches Who Are Also Alumni

When Jim Harbaugh came home to Michigan, he told stories of sitting in Bo Schembechler’s office with his feet propped up on his desk. When Scott Frost came home to Nebraska, Cornhuskers fans broke the spring game attendance record. When Kirby Smart came home to Georgia, he reminisced about meeting his wife in Athens, dating her in Athens and then getting married in Athens.

Most college football coaches have a special place in their hearts for coming “home” and taking the top jobs at their alma maters. What could be better? There’s the instant feeling of security and stability; familiarity when it comes to expectations, academic standards, recruiting and the administration; and the comfort of knowing your way around campus. Still, things don’t always go according to plan. Some coaches get hired back by their alma maters only to move on to bigger jobs, others get there and don’t meet their alma mater’s expectations to set up an awkward split, and some find a job along the way up the ladder that they decide they like a little better.

While it can certainly be a valuable asset, alumni status doesn’t always equal success. Entering 2019, 15 FBS schools are coached by an alum; five finished in the AP Top 25 last season.

It’s one of the more high risk/high reward opportunities in the college football coaching carousel. Here’s a look at all the coaches currently coaching, recently fired or retired or ones who have spurned their alma maters.


Current coaches at their alma mater


Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Not every school can hope to replicate Harbaugh’s homecoming, where a coach has so much love and affection for his school. At his introductory press conference in December 2014, Harbaugh said coaching Michigan had always been his dream job.

“There have been times in my life where I’ve thought and dreamed about it,” Harbaugh said. “Now it’s time to live it. I’ve thought about being coach at Michigan, my dad coached at Michigan. That was something I really looked up to and wanted to emulate from the time I was a youngster.”

Harbaugh was hailed as Michigan’s savior after the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke years, a home run hire who would return the program to greatness. In four seasons though, Harbaugh’s program hasn’t beaten Ohio State, won the Big Ten or reached the College Football Playoff. One advantage to being an alum, especially one with Harbaugh’s résumé, is having a long leash.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

He hasn’t always had a mullet, but Gundy has spent more than half his life at Oklahoma State, either as a quarterback or a coach. Gundy became the program’s all-time leading passer as the Cowboys’ QB from 1986 to ’89, only to have his records eventually broken by his own future players, first Brandon Weeden and then Mason Rudolph.

Since Gundy became head coach in 2005, the Pokes have only had one losing season (his first) and gone to 13 bowl games in 14 years. And although Gundy’s name annually appears in coaching searches, he has stuck around in Stillwater.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

You have to be pretty content in your current job to turn down the Green Bay Packers, which is what Fitzgerald did this winter when his old boss, former Northwestern athletic director and current Green Bay president Mike Murphy, showed interest in bringing him to Wisconsin to coach Aaron Rodgers.

Through his enthusiasm and passion for all things Northwestern, the former Wildcats linebacker has built his alma mater into a consistent winner in the Big Ten. Last season he led the program to its first-ever Big Ten West Division title with an appearance in the conference championship game. Fitz was named consensus Big Ten Head Coach of the Year and was a finalist for the Dodd Trophy. He’s the closest thing there is to a lock to never take another job, unless he succeeds Jim Phillips as athletic director some day.

Scott Frost, Nebraska

As a senior in 1997, Frost quarterbacked the Huskers to a perfect 13–0 season. That year, Nebraska demolished Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, and Frost became the first quarterback in program history to pass for 1,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards. Two decades later, Frost returned to Lincoln, entrusted with turning a program in disarray around.

Nebraska fans are anxiously waiting for their team to look like it did back when Frost ran the offense—or at least like Frost’s dangerous UCF squads—but it was going to take time. After a Week 3 loss to Troy, Frost told SI’s Andy Staples that “This could get worse before it gets better,” and sure enough, Nebraska started 0–6 before rallying to finish 4–8. Fans will give him the benefit of the doubt, but eventually they’ll want to see some results.

Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez called Chryst first when Gary Andersen abruptly bolted for Oregon State in 2014. Chryst, a Madison native who played quarterback for the Badgers from 1986 to ’88, joked during his introductory press conference that he asked his mother, “Are you sure you want us back?”

In four years, Chryst has led the Badgers to three 10-win seasons and two New Year’s Six bowl games. Wisconsin was a sleeper pick to make the playoff last year but fell well short of expectations, finishing 8–5 with a win over Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl.

For Chryst, coming home to coach was a dream scenario. He had previously been a Badgers assistant from 2005 to ’11, helping lead the program to two Rose Bowls, and was offensive coordinator in 2011 when Wisconsin had the sixth-best scoring offense, averaging 44.1 points per game behind quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball.

“It’s really special,” he said in 2014. “I grew up in Madison. As early as I can remember, Badger football was part of [my] life.”

Matt Luke, Ole Miss

The former Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator, who played center for the Rebels in the late ’90s, was elevated to interim head coach in the wake of the Hugh Freeze scandal and promoted to full-time coach at the end of the 2017 season. Luke inherited a program with NCAA sanctions, including scholarship reductions and a 2018 bowl ban, and he has taken it upon himself to bring Ole Miss back to a competitive level. When the Rebels season ended last fall, Luke was emotional discussing the future of the program.

“Every time I walk on that field, I expect to win,” he told reporters. “I know exactly what it takes to get us out of this. When I came here in 1995, we were on probation. I was a team captain in ’97 and ’98 when we were coming out of it. I know what it takes to turn programs around. When I went to Tennessee in 2006, I was part of a turnaround there. I went to Duke in 2008 and I was part of one of the biggest turnarounds in college football. And then we did it again here in 2012.”

With the sanctions and bowl bans behind the program, the assessment of Luke begins in earnest this fall.

Kirby Smart, Georgia

After his alma mater finally pried him away from Nick Saban’s Alabama coaching staff, Smart said during his introductory press conference he’d “thought about this day all my life.” He had been courted by other top programs but never left Tuscaloosa until this particular opportunity was available. Since moving to Athens in 2015, Smart has run the Bulldogs just like Saban runs the Tide and has become one of the more successful alum head coaches. In three years, UGA has appeared in two SEC championship games, a College Football Playoff, and a national title game.

David Shaw, Stanford

Shaw played wide receiver at Stanford from 1991 to ’94, catching 57 passes for 664 yards and five touchdowns. Since being elevated to replace Jim Harbaugh, he has become the winningest coach in program history with an 82–26 record, including three Pac-12 titles and two Rose Bowls.

He’s the embodiment of his program, with an understanding of his players’ rigorous academic responsibilities and has a natural way of bonding with his players. He loves his school—he proposed to his wife outside of Stanford’s Memorial Church—and said early on in his tenure that he’s “yet to find a better job than right here at Stanford.” Eight years later, that’s still true for Shaw.

Barry Odom, Missouri

Odom returned to Mizzou, where he starred as a linebacker in the late 1990s, to be Gary Pinkel’s defensive coordinator in the final season before Pinkel retired. He was elevated to the top job at a turbulent time for the program, but his teams have been written off multiple times only to spring surprise turnarounds on an unsuspecting SEC. Odom’s fiery press conference comments amid the Tigers’ 1–5 start in 2017 proved to be a turning point: Led by an explosive offense, Mizzou won its final six games to earn a trip to the Texas Bowl. Last fall, the Tigers were a few bad bounces and close calls (specfically against South Carolina, Kentucky and Oklahoma State) from finishing with double digit wins.

Odom doesn’t have the national profile of many of his counterparts on opposing sidelines—USA Today’s 2018 salary database indicated he was the lowest-paid head football coach at the SEC’s 13 public schools until a December 2018 extension bumped him up the list—but he has proven to be the right man at the right time for Missouri. With the Tigers facing a bowl ban and NCAA sanctions this season, he has another challenge in front of him.

Kalani Sitake, BYU

It was easy to spot Sitake, the former Cougars fullback, as he chest-bumped players and danced in the locker room after BYU pulled the first big upset of the 2018 college football season, going to Camp Randall Stadium in Week 3 and beating then No. 6 Wisconsin 24–21. It was a monumental victory for the program and for Sitake.

In his three years as head coach, Sitake has led the Cougars to a 20–19 record and two bowl victories. The 2017 season saw a concerning dip caused in part by a rash of injuries, but last year}s impressive victories indicate the program may be moving in the right direction.

Bryan Harsin, Boise State

Harsin, who played quarterback for the Broncos from 1995 to ’99, has done an admirable job maintaining the program that Chris Petersen built. Since becoming head coach in 2014, Harsin has led the Broncos to a 52–15 record with bowl appearances each season (even though the 2018 First Responders Bowl was called due to inclement weather).

The Broncos were 92–12 in eight years under Petersen, who is now entering his sixth year at Washington, but it’s probably not fair to hold Harsin to that standard.

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State

When Smith was hired away from Washington’s offensive staff after Gary Andersen’s messy exit from Corvallis, Beavers fans began reminiscing about the time he quarterbacked Oregon State to a 41–9 drubbing of Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, which was followed by a No. 4 ranking in the final AP poll. It may be awhile before OSU is dismantling powerhouses like that again, and this is Smith’s first head coaching job. But his familiarity with the program and university has given the fan base hope in a Pac-12 that’s up for grabs.

Nick Rolovich, Hawaii

Rolovich broke 19 school passing records in two years playing for June Jones and his quarterback-friendly offense at Hawaii. After getting off to a sluggish start running more of a balanced offense at his alma mater, Rolovich has channeled his former coach and installed the Run and Shoot, which has reaped dividends after some growing pains. The Rainbow Warriors went 8–6 last season, which was their most wins since 2010.

Tim Lester, Western Michigan

It’s hard to follow in the footsteps of P.J. Fleck, but Lester is trying. Lester, a former four-year starter at quarterback in Kalamazoo from 1996 to ’99 who set 17 program and MAC records, inherited a program that Fleck led the Broncos to a historic 13–1 record and a Cotton Bowl appearance before leaving for Minnesota. Lester has won six and seven games in his first two seasons, but this is his dream job and his goal is to lead his alma mater back to the top of the MAC.

Jeff Tedford, Fresno State

Fresno State’s hiring of Tedford wasn’t met with a ton of buzz, but the former longtime Cal coach and record-setting Bulldogs quarterback has turned his alma mater around in record time, posting consecutive 10-win seasons and back-to-back bowl wins.

Troy Calhoun, Air Force

In 12 seasons at his alma mater, Calhoun has posted an 87–67 record. He won at least eight games in each of his first four seasons, then posted two 10-win seasons after a brief dip into mediocrity, but there’s uncertainty now after the Falcons have finished 5–7 in each of the past two years. Calhoun is reportedly growing unpopular with fans, and he refuses to explain how he plans to fix the program.


Coaches who recently retired from or were fired by their alma mater


Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

Kingsbury, who played quarterback for Texas Tech from 1999 to 2002 under Mike Leach, was fired after a third consecutive losing season last fall, leaving many to wonder what might have been if his tenure with the Red Raiders had changed course at any number of moments. With a freshman walk-on Baker Mayfield playing ahead of Davis Webb, the Red Raiders jumped out to a 7–0 start and a top 10 ranking, then lost their next five games and later lost Mayfield to Oklahoma.

Here lies the perfect example of risk when hiring a popular alum with a star-studded resume. Before becoming Tech’s head coach, Kingsbury had successful stints as the offensive coordinator at Houston and Texas A&M, where he coached Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel, respectively. Things are going fine for Kingsbury now though—after a brief stopover as USC’s offensive coordinator, he was singled out in the NFL head coaching carousel and eventually scooped up by the Cardinals, who could equip him with a QB that fits his system if they use the first pick of this year’s NFL draft on Kyler Murray.

Mark Richt, Miami

Richt, 58, abruptly retired after compiling a 26–13 record over three seasons at his alma mater, leaving Miami scrambling to lure DC Manny Diaz back from the Temple head coaching job he had just accepted.

“My love for The U is simply great,” Richt said in a statement after stepping down. “My true desire is for our football program to return to greatness, and while terribly difficult, I feel that stepping down is in the best interest of the program.”

Richt played quarterback for the Hurricanes in the early ’80s, backing up Jim Kelly. After being forced out at Georgia after 15 seasons, Richt’s return to South Florida started out promising, as the Canes finished 9–4 in 2016 and then started 10–0 in ’17. Last year, fans criticized Richt for rotating quarterbacks with limited success through a 7–6 season.


Coaches who recently left their alma mater


Jeff Brohm, Purdue

Louisville may have been a perfect fit for Brohm, who is from there and played quarterback there. Once Bobby Petrino was fired, Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra made a beeline for Brohm, but two years into an encouraging turnaround at Purdue, the timing wasn’t right. Brohm said at the time that it was a “very difficult and emotional decision for me and my family. We are extremely happy at Purdue and thankful for the opportunity to lead this program.”

The Boilermakers pulled the upset of the 2018 season, crushing Ohio State 49–20, and have reached consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2011–12. Brohm can always go home (unless, of course, Scott Satterfield never leaves), but he made the difficult decision to keep building a program at Purdue.

Scott Satterfield, Louisville

You can’t blame Satterfield for wanting to advance his career and maybe win a national title some day. After leading Appalachian State to an 11–2 record and a Sun Belt title in 2018, Satterfield left his alma mater for Louisville. He grew up outside of Raleigh, played quarterback for the Mountaineers in the ’90s, and as the head coach since 2013 had shepherded App State through its FBS transition, but Satterfield had professional goals, too.

“What else can you accomplish there?” Satterfield said of Appalachian State at his introductory press conference as Cardinals head coach. “I want to compete for national championships one day. That’s what we’re going to be gunning for. To be able to come and coach at this kind of university to compete for championships, I can’t turn that down at this point in my career. This is what we’ve been shooting for.”

Matt Wells, left Utah State for Texas Tech

At his introductory press conference in Lubbock, Matt Wells fought back tears talking about leaving Utah State. That’s where he’d spent much of his life as a player and a coach. “We left a phenomenal program, one that we built for a long time at Utah State,” Wells said in a shaky voice. “It was a tough—to be real honest—a tough and emotional decision for me. And a lot of that was because of the layer that, that was my school and I was an alumni there.”

Wells, a former Utah State quarterback, said it was always going to take somewhere special for him to leave. After the three straight losing seasons that led to the firing of Kingsbury, Tech is in need of something new and fresh. Wells, meanwhile, just led the Aggies to an 11–2 finish and a bowl win over North Texas to cap a slow build of the program he inherited from Gary Andersen. Now he will get his chance to prove himself at a Power 5 school.