Late in 2015, the AAC experienced a small shakeup when the 9-4 Memphis Tigers had to replace head coach Justin Fuente after he accepted the head coaching job at Virginia Tech. What Fuente had done building Memphis into a mid-major competitor and grooming quarterback Paxton Lynch caught a lot of eyes. Late in 2016 the league has been rocked harder by the losses of Tom Herman, Matt Rhule, and Willie Taggart from Houston (2015 champs), Temple (2016 champs), and South Florida (2017 favorites) in order to fill vacancies at Texas, Baylor, and Oregon.
Perhaps next year it’ll be Chad Morris (SMU) that’ll get called up to take a big job (Texas A&M?), Philip Montgomery (Tulsa), Willie Fritz (Tulane), or Ken Niumatololo (Navy). In 2018 perhaps some big teams will have seen enough from Mike Norvell (Memphis) or Scott Frost (UCF). The fact of the matter is, the AAC has become the number one recruiting ground for Power 5 coaches. If you’re a fan of a big time program that’s currently struggling, you might as well be watching AAC football because not only is it a fun league, but it may also be the current home of your next head coach.
If you’re the fan of a big time program that’s currently thriving, this is where you can expect your top assistants to land when they depart for a chance to be the head coach.
Now why would this be? There have been several reasons that coaches have used programs in this league to launch their careers and why more coaches will come from these ranks in the future.
Reason no. 1: Undersized, mobile QBs
I was already reasonably confident that Charlie would lose his job and be replaced by Tom Herman as early as January of 2015. Why? Because Strong’s program lacked a proven quarterback and it wasn’t clear if there was one on the horizon to get his team going before the make or break third season while Herman was heading to Houston where they already had Greg Ward, Jr ready to go.
Coaches’ careers depend heavily on quarterback play, one moment they are regarded as geniuses and the next they are has-beens, but perhaps all that has changed is whether they have a QB that can make off schedule plays with his legs.
The biggest market inefficiency in college football right now is the undersized, dual-threat QB and these guys are ever so common in the AAC. Just take a look for yourself:
Phillip Walker had more modest rushing numbers than Flowers or Ward, but his ability to scramble for time was also the reason Temple ranked 30th nationally on passing downs and were able to win the league despite ranking only 64th in offensive S&P. Walker’s improvisations and Rhule’s defense were a nasty combo in 2016.
To their credit, the recruiting services identified each of these three guys as solid players with three-star rankings, but bigger programs passed due to their lack of size. You know what’s worth a whole lot more in a college quarterback than a few extra inches to see the field from the pocket and throw from a high arm slot? The ability to make plays with your legs and do unexpected things in the moment that defensive coordinators can’t plan for and the ability to add a +1 advantage in the run game.
Given how difficult QB eval is and how many undersized, scrappy, and athletic quarterbacks come out of high school every year it’s hard to see this well drying up anytime soon.
Reason no. 2: Growing markets
College football is a booming industry. It’s likely to eventually see a malinvestment/liquidation phase but right now programs like Houston and Cincinnati see every reason to boost up their football programs as a means to brand their school for applicants, engage their local communities, and invigorate their alumni to become boosters and school benefactors.
The AAC programs are largely what you could call “new money” schools that haven’t historically invested much into their college football budgets, but that’s changing. Houston made major investments with Tom Herman at the helm, Cincinnati is renovating their stadium, and all of these schools are updating their facilities and willingly taking on up and coming coaches they know might leave.
SMU was a historical power but received NCAA’s “death penalty” and have only recently begun to seriously reinvest in their athletics programs. The AAC schools are largely located in populous metro areas in an era when a college education is becoming increasingly necessary to compete in the modern job market.
Nearly all of these schools are in densely populated areas and have at least the theoretical potential to increase their student bodies, alumni base, and share of the regions’ football interest.
Reason no. 3: Power 5 talent pools
If you take a look at the table above you’ll notice something about rather distinctive about the AAC. Namely, it’s geographic footprint overlaps with some of the most fertile recruiting territories within the Big 12, SEC, ACC, and Big 10 conferences.
If a head coach takes a job at USF, he’ll be recruiting the second tier talents within the same region as SEC East programs with some overlap between targets. If that same coach were to take a job anywhere in the SEC East (or in the instance of South Florida, arguably anywhere in the country) he’d already have relationships built with key coaches and figures in that region to help him continue to recruit there. The same is true for Central Florida.
Temple and Cincinnati are located near two of the biggest B1G recruiting territories, Navy is in another although they are unique and can/must recruit nationally. Houston and SMU are located in the two biggest areas for Big 12 recruiting, Memphis and Tulane are in two key areas for SEC West recruiting.
So head coaches at these programs have a chance to recruit talent from the most talent-rich regions in the country, potentially pick off a blue-chipper or fight off an out of state program for a coveted three-star, and establish themselves in the key recruiting territories of college football. You see why these jobs would be appealing for up and coming coaches beyond the “I’ll have a chance to run the show” rationale?
Reason no. 4: Competition level
Because so much of the same promise exists within all of these schools, virtually all of them are competing in the arms race to be the first to seize a big share of their respective regions, so all of them are hiring up and coming coaches.
Consequently, the AAC is a hotbed of tactical innovation and hard-working staffs doing all they can to best each other and prove their worth to the bigger programs that are mining the region for coaching talent.
It’s hard to win the AAC at any school, every program has a lot of potential and they’re all vacillating between being in year three or so under the direction of a hotshot young coach or starting over after the last hire moved on to bigger and better things.
The league has only had its current East/West split and conference championship game for two seasons, which produced a Houston championship in 2015 (over Temple) and a Temple championship in 2016 (over Navy). The West division featured four teams with winning conference records in 2016, it’s such a competitive league that there’s really no telling who will win it next year (although my money’s on South Florida with Quinton Flowers back).
If a coach wins in this league, he’s proven that he can recruit an important region with a lot of talent, marshall some fairly substantial resources as a head coach, and defeat other top young coaching staffs. It’s the ultimate proving ground for up and comers that are looking to prove their bonafides as head coaches in order to move up to the big leagues and it’ll probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.