How long does it take to build a college football champion? The numbers say three years.
By Bill Roth
During the last few weeks, I’ve been discussing a theory shared by some administrators and college football observers that basically states that in today’s landscape, if a new college head coach doesn’t win a conference championship within his first three years, he probably won’t win one … ever.
That theory flies in opposition to a long-held belief that in football, because of roster sizes, it takes a coach five or more years to ‘build’ or ‘mold’ a program. The numbers, however, show the opposite.
And by ‘new,’ we mean coaches hired since 1997, which excludes just four coaches: Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, Michigan’s Lloyd Carr, Florida’s Steve Spurrier, and Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer. It does however include Purdue’s Joe Tiller and Illinois’ Ron Turner who were hired in the Big Ten prior to the ’97 season and won titles in that league.
Here’s the bottom line: Since 2000, only nine times has a new coach won his first league title after coaching more than three seasons. That’s nine out of 90 conference champions. (Five conferences multiplied by 18 years equals 90 different conference champions since 2000. And only nine times out of 90 years did a coach win his first title after coaching more than three seasons.)
Last year, three Power-5 head coaches won league titles within the first three years at their current programs: Kirby Smart of Georgia (2nd year), Clay Helton of USC (2nd year) and Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma (1st year.)
In 2016, Chris Petersen of Washington (2nd year) and James Franklin of Penn State (2nd year) turned programs around quickly. Washington won the Pac-12 and made the College Football Playoff while PSU overcame scholarship limits to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl.
If we go back to the start of the 2000 season and look at the league champion in each of the Power 5 conferences, a clear trend can be seen. Coaches who win, do so right away—by their third season.
Some coaches, like Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have done this twice, and at different schools. Meyer won the SEC in his second year at Florida (2006) and the Big Ten in his third year at Ohio State (2014). Saban won the SEC in his second season at LSU (2001) and his third season at Alabama (2009).
In the ACC, Dabo Swinney of Clemson and Jimbo Fisher at FSU won league titles in their third seasons. Paul Johnson won at Georgia Tech in his second. Ralph Freidgen won the ACC in his first year at Maryland.
In the SEC, it’s even more eye-opening. Mark Richt, Meyer, Gene Chizik, Gus Malzhan, Smart and Saban all won SEC titles within their first three seasons, and Saban did it at both LSU and ‘Bama.
Are there outliers here? Sure. It took Mack Brown eight years before he won a Big 12 title at Texas. And it took Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy seven years before he won his first conference title. The seven others are highlighted in blue in the chart. NOTE: Gary Patterson won his first CUSA title in his third year at TCU, and won four Mountain West Conference titles before TCU joined the Big 12.
In the modern-era of college football, where the top players leave early for the NFL and kids are more prepared to play as freshman than ever, the data is clear. If a coach doesn’t win his conference within his first three years, there’s a 90-percent chance he won’t ever win one.
“I think there are two main reasons this is happening,” SEC Network broadcaster and hall of fame college football writer Tony Barnhart told me. “First, when a new coach comes in, he’s a fresh voice. There’s enthusiasm. There’s something new and different that invigorates kids. Secondly, top players leave early for the NFL, so you only have them for a couple of years. You can turn it quickly.”
Some coaches hired for the 2015 season have already won league titles. UGa’s Smart, USC’s Clay Helton, and UCF’s Scott Frost have already won conference championships.
Others like Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente and Miami’s Mark Richt have come close. Both have played in the ACC title game and came up short to Clemson. Both of those programs seem to be on the upswing and both appear to be loaded for the 2019 season. This year will be the third for both Fuente and Richt.
Conventional wisdom says it takes five years to build a program. The data, however, shows the true window is a quick 36 months, especially at a traditional power like a USC or Florida.
“For years, you’d say it takes five years,” Barnhart told me. “You spend the first year changing your culture and years two and three recruiting and redshirting kids and load-up for year five. But now, it’s happening fast.”
It sure is. When it comes to building a championship team in today’s college environment, three is the new five.