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College football programs win because of their head football coach

Talent and scheme are vital, but it’s the head coach that matters most.

University of Miami Introduces Manny Diaz Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Miami Hurricanes have been in a constant state of rebuilding. Whether they’re the ‘Canes, The U, The New Miami or NFL U one constant has remained- Miami hasn’t done a lot of winning over the past 15 college football seasons. Much like the age old chicken and the egg question one must consider what wins football games: X’s and O’s (scheme) or Jimmy’s and Joe’s (talent)? I think it’s a different equation all together.

Ken Dorsey #11 Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Creating a winner

At the high school level, I’ve always preached that it takes three entities to establish a great program: administration, community, and parents. The administration has to hire and support the right head football coach, the community has to be patient and supportive, while the parents have to raise their kids properly and behave properly in order to create a true dynasty of a high school program. I’m starting to think that the requirements to build a winner at the college football level aren’t far off from those three needs.

In the world of college football, the administration has to hire the right program manager and then support their vision with the resources necessary to be a perennial top-8 program at the FBS level. Without time, money, assistant coaches and facilities- a program will fail. The community has to support the coach and show patience and open their wallets. Without financial support or a trust in the process- everything else is moot.

Dabo Swinney looked like a failure at Clemson until he didn’t. Jimbo Fisher at Florida State lost eight games in his first two seasons, and it took him five seasons to match that loss total once they started winning in Tallahassee. Manny Diaz wouldn’t have half the hype at TNM without the Indoor Practice Facility. Why does Oregon out-recruit Washington State even though Mike Leach hasn’t lost to the Ducks since 2014? Easy- Phil Knight’s money.

With that said, the administration has to hire the right program manager and at the college (and hell, let’s not be naive, at most high schools) level that requires someone that can work appropriately with administration, the community (read: boosters) and parents. Yes, parents. The parents are still the key ingredient because they produce the talent that shows up on campus and if the coaches and their staff fold to those wild-eyed types it can result in headaches via transfers, cancerous relationships spreading throughout your grandstands, and even NCAA sanctions.

Once that program builder is hired, and that person can be cut-throat and dry on the surface like Nick Saban, or awe-shucks and warm like Dabo Swinney, and supported- now the question is does scheme or talent matter more?

ACC Football Championship - Clemson v Miami Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The argument for talent

The argument for talent is pretty obvious, talent is rare and hard to overcome. Travel down to Miami-Dade to watch a high school football game and you’ll likely see bland offensive and defensive schemes equally matched up with undisciplined players. The football games themselves are often quite ugly to watch and even a bit plodding with the amount of procedure penalties on both sides. However, there’s no arguing the talent on the field down in South Florida. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and the Florida schools recruit the tri-county area for a reason, it’s a hotbed of future FBS and NFL talent.

SOTU’s Cam Underwood wrote a prolific set of pieces called “The Recruiting Rules” for a reason, bringing in top talent and balancing out the roster is vital for success at the Power 5 level. SB Nation’s Bud Elliott criss-crosses the United States every year to attend big time camps, combines and all-star games because who signs where means who wins national titles. I discussed the need for five-stars, too, and how important they will be to the success of the Miami Hurricanes in 2020 and beyond.

Remember those eight losses that Jimbo Fisher suffered in his first two seasons? In 2012, only one cycle before the Seminoles won their third National Championship, Fisher’s staff reeled in six five-star prospects including Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston. The 2013 ‘Noles were loaded with NFL talent, much like Miami’s 2001 title team, Ohio State’s 2002 team*, and the recruiting ranking legends at USC during their run with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. Six former five-star prospects started in this year’s Super Bowl and programs like FSU, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio state have been five-star rich during their national championship runs of late.

Why isn’t scheme the winning ingredient? Mostly because the majority of programs today are running similar offensive styles. Think about the Alabama and Clemson College Football Playoff National Championship Game- did the offenses look that different in that ball game? They might have performed differently but they did not look all that different. The NCAA offense is going to dabble in Air Raid concepts like 6, mesh, and cross while employing run-pass options, and read options.

University of Miami Introduces Manny Diaz Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The argument for scheme

If talent mattered then how do teams with vastly less talent seem to win big time football games? We can dip back into a game like the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Oklahoma and Boise State, Navy upsetting Notre Dame in 2007, 2009-2010, and 2016; or Central Florida knocking off Auburn and almost upsetting LSU in back-to-back bowl games. UCF hardly has a four-star prospect let alone a five-star but they managed to beat the Tigers who had a roster of future NFL players.

Some will say it is scheme. Navy’s flexbone triple option is hard to game plan and run a scout team for. It’s a physically brutal system built on cut blocks, misdirection, sleight of hand, and discipline. Think back to the commentary about the undisciplined high school programs down in South Florida- those same kids are at Notre Dame, Memphis, etc that have lost a lot of games to a Navy roster built up of the smarter, smaller, less talented but more disciplined future Marines.

What about innovators like Art Briles during his tenure at Baylor, Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Wazzu, Hal Mumme at Kentucky, or Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia? All of these coaches took a new and exciting (at least to us casual observers) scheme and tore through their much larger and better resourced rivals.

If talent mattered more than scheme wouldn’t Texas have dominated when they were cleaning up with top-rated recruiting classes rather than only winning one national title under Mack Brown?

Florida International v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images


There’s a reason only a handful of active head coaches have won a national championship at the FBS level- it’s because it takes the perfect mixture of those three entities to meet, boil up, and create the perfect scenario to dominate recruiting, allow those head ball coaches to hire schematic geniuses and pay them to stay, and keep all parties happy. The Dallas Cowboys couldn’t do it with Jimmy Johnson in the 90’s and the hiring of Barry Switzer led to a Super Bowl victory but eventually the downfall of the dynasty.

In the end the winning programs aren’t initially great because of talent or scheme- they’re great because the administration, community and parents are working in harmony to create the perfect situation for the head football coach that they hire. They support the coach, have patience with them, and create a winning opportunity, then that person doesn’t drop the ball when their time comes. Mike Shula didn’t have the same success at Alabama as Coach Saban and while Tommy Bowden had good seasons at Clemson he didn’t reach the pinnacle like Coach Swinney. Larry Coker inherited a winner and drove it into the ground.

Manny Diaz has inherited a good but not great Miami program- The New Miami will need talent and scheme, but it will even more-so need Diaz to pan out to be the program builder the ‘Canes need for long term success.