In recent years, all of the talk in college football has centered around defense. The three BCS national championships Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have managed to win under a defense-oriented play system have led the battle cry of college football enthusiasts declaring that a strong defense is the most certain way to win games. While few offenses have been able to manage Alabama’s defense since 2009, one thing is certain: The tides are changing.
Like anything else, college football is cyclical. A good defense can only survive until a better offense arises to beat it. If head coaching hirings at the BCS level are any indication, that day is approaching.
16 new head coaches took the helms of BCS teams this season. Of those 16, only six have no experience coaching offensive positions (Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen, Syracuse’s Scott Shafer, North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, Cincinnati’s Tommy Tuberville and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema).
With 62.5-percent of BCS head coaching hires this year holding extensive offensive experience, one must question what’s motivating these hires. Texas A&M’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Jake Spavital, has an idea of what’s leading the trend. ”If you look back through the 1990s and 2000s, a lot of the head coaches who were getting jobs were defensive minded guys. Now, you’re finding these offenses that are high-scoring, explosive and fun to watch. In turn, what you’re seeing, is a lot more offensive coaches becoming head coaches,” Spavital said.
Spavital, who in his young career has coached three NFL starting quarterbacks (Case Keenum, Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith) and now serves as Johnny Manziel’s quarterback coach at Texas A&M, is quick to point out the role that the cyclical nature of college football plays in hiring decisions. ”Everything in college football comes full-circle. College football is in a time right now where offenses are very hard to stop. It’s going to get to a point where defenses start learning to defend against those offenses, and those coaches will start having success on the hiring scene,” Spavital explained.
What’s notable about this year’s offensive-minded head coach hirings, is the coaches’ ties to the quarterback position. Four of this year’s new BCS head coaches previously served as a quarterbacks coach. Additionally, while never holding the title of quarterbacks coach, new Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and new Boston College head coach Steve Addazio, as offensive coordinators at Auburn and Florida, respectively, led Cam Newton and Tim Tebow to Heisman Trophy winning seasons. Along with providing keys to beat solid defenses, the lure of the Heisman Trophy may be one factor drawing athletics directors to hire offensive minded coaches.
College football fans know that offensive players are more likely to win the Heisman Trophy than defensive players. In fact, only one true defensive player has ever been named a Heisman Trophy winner, Michigan’s Charles Woodson. While offensive players have a clearer path to the podium at the Heisman Trophy announcement ceremony, quarterbacks seem to navigate the route most frequently. Since 2000, only one non-quarterback has won the Heisman Trophy. This streak by quarterbacks has not only led the winners to NFL careers, but has generated significant streams of revenue for their universities. For instance, Baylor University pegged the economic impact of Robert Griffin III winning the Heisman Trophy in 2011 at $250 million.
Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks not only bring value to their institutions, but to the coaches who prepare them for competition on the field. Along with Malzahn and Addazio, new Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury coached a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback (Manziel) prior to being named head coach this season. In these men, athletics directors not only see the possibility of being able to outsmart defenses like Alabama’s, but also possibly cultivating a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback who can create an indirect economic impact for the athletics department and university.
The tide of college football is changing and the change is being driven by offensive minded head coaches. So long as college football exists, the trend-setting cycle of hiring either offensive minded or defensive minded coaches will remain, because as Spavital says, “You’re still putting eleven guys on the field, and at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do.” For now, though, offensive minded coaches will be the winners of the cycle. That is, until college football’s next coaching generation maps out the defenses to stop the explosive offenses being built.