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Three keys for new head coaches

4/10/2013
Butch Jones, hired as Tennessee head coach in December, immediately made himself known. AP Photo/Wade Payne

The coach was a whirling dervish.

On the morning of March 17, Butch Jones got around the Bristol Motor Speedway faster than any NASCAR Sprint Cup car -- and they cover the half-mile oval in less than 15 seconds.

Officially, Tennessee's new head coach was there to serve as grand marshal for the Food City 500. In reality, he was there to introduce himself to the 100,000 fans at the racetrack located just a short drive north of Neyland Stadium. All morning long, he practically ran from appearance to appearance, an athletic department video crew breathlessly on his tail.

"Every morning when I wake up my first thought is, 'What can we do today to improve Tennessee football?'" the coach told me just a few moments before giving the command to start engines. "When I go to bed at night my last thought is, 'What can we do tomorrow?'"

There are 31 head coaches in new Football Bowl Subdivision jobs this spring. While each coach faces his own unique challenges, there are some tasks and goals that are universally shared.

Here's a look at three keys to success for new head coaches as they begin to reshape their programs.


1. Win over support staff

"I'm not talking about the coaching staff," Jones said with a laugh. "I brought those guys in here, so I would hope they're on board with the plan. No, I'm talking about the support staff. The folks who were here long before I got here, that built this place into the institution that it is."

He's referring to trainers, equipment staff, office managers, maintenance personnel and, yes, that video crew that was there to document his day at the racetrack. These are the people who might not have their picture in the program, but are the folks who make every athletic department tick.

At Tennessee, those people had felt a distancing from Phillip Fulmer. Then they never embraced Lane Kiffin because he never embraced them. When Derek Dooley arrived, the staff-coach relationship improved, but only slightly. Now all of that appears to be turning the corner with Jones, who was famously inclusive during his time at Cincinnati. He asks random staff members their opinions on ideas. Perhaps more importantly, he learns their names.

"You have to have everyone buy in," Jones said. "In the end, we're all recruiters. We all create buzz about a program. Not just the head coach. If everyone feels invested, like we're all really the team that we're supposed to be, you can't replace that."


2. Establish relationships with key alumni

Speaking of Kiffin, the people in Knoxville do give him credit for one smooth move during a year packed with missteps. It was Kiffin who reached out to estranged playing hero/dismissed coach Johnny Majors and welcomed him back into the program. Within days of taking the Tennessee job, Kiffin called Majors and told him he had a free pass to come and go as he pleased, mending a nearly two-decade rift between the school and the jilted legend.

Fans who are skeptical of a new coach relax when they see the new guy standing shoulder-to-shoulder with old, familiar faces. And every coach knows that having the old guard on his side can't hurt if the win-loss record hits a rough patch.

"That's the first thing I did when I got back on campus," former Syracuse coach Doug Marrone explained to me in August 2011. The former Orange lineman was starting his third season at Syracuse and as he talked he received pats on the back from a long line of fellow former players, all of whom he'd invited to practice. In January, he left Syracuse to take over the Buffalo Bills, having posted two bowl wins in three seasons before handing the reins over to defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.

"Not every school comes with the kind of football history that Syracuse has," Marrone said. "But when you do have it, that's the easiest pillar to stand back up. Turning around recruiting or changing an offense, that stuff can take years to fix. But you can re-establish ties to a program's past by spending a couple of days on the phone or scheduling a couple of rounds of golf."

"I look at the names attached to this program and it gives me chills," said new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops. "Bear Bryant, Coach [Howard] Schnellenberger, Babe Parilli, Tim Couch ... not finding a way to connect back to those roots would be crazy."


3. Understand the high school hierarchy

Embracing legends isn't just a college thing.

"Whenever you take a new job, you start asking for people to bring you lists," said Tommy Tuberville, who is taking over for Jones at Cincinnati after three years at Texas Tech. "To me, one of the most important lists is that kind of high school power rankings. Look at your recruiting base and highlight those schools that have always been good to your program and make sure those relationships are going to be OK."

Every state, especially one like football-crazed Ohio, has a pecking order of high school royalty and power, coaching family trees with branches that can't be ignored.

"You get in good with the handful of legends that have former assistants who have gone on to become head coaches at dozens of other high schools, and it's huge," said a new recruiting coordinator with an SEC program. "It's not unlike the mafia; you establish a relationship with the godfather, and all his followers will respect you because he respects you. And if you dis him, then he can guarantee they won't have anything to do with you."

As another recruiting coordinator explained it: "Some of these high school coaches have bigger egos than the college guys. And entire regions can sway on what they tell other coaches at meetings or breakfast or wherever. If my head coach takes five minutes to call a couple of those guys, it makes my life so much easier."

In January 2008, I was chatting with a group of coaches at powerhouse Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C. (notable alumni include Chris Leak, Hakeem Nicks and Mohamed Massaquoi). David Cutcliffe had been the head coach at Duke for less than a month and the coaches said, "We haven't seen a Duke coach down here in years. Now we can't get them off campus. All the Charlotte high schools are saying the same thing."

In '07, the 1-10 Blue Devils had two Charlotte-based players on their roster. Last season's team, which made the school's first bowl trip since 1994, had 10 Charlotteans.