What does history tell us to expect from first-time head coaches Kliff Kingsbury and Sean Kugler?
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Two of the biggest storylines we’re sure to hear (and you’ll most certainly read about here on TexasFootball.com) over and over are the new coaches at Texas Tech and UTEP. Kliff Kingsbury is taking over in Lubbock, while Sean Kugler is taking the reins in El Paso. There are obvious similarities that tie these two situations together – like, for example, they’re football coaches in Texas – but one stands out above them all:
For both Kingsbury and Kugler, this will be their first head coaching job at any level.
It’s a daunting task for sure, but the administrations at Texas Tech and UTEP wouldn’t be putting them in charge if they didn’t think they were capable of handling the culture shock of moving from assistant to head coach.
Plus: this obviously happens a lot. Schools hire guys who have never been a head coach all the time.
And, of course, it’s happened at every Texas FBS school: all ten of them (can’t include Texas State and UTSA, since their FBS status has lasted just one year) have hired a head coach for his first head coaching job.
How did it work out? What does history say that we can expect for Kingsbury and Kugler?
I went back through each of the 10 FBS programs (that are older than one year, sorry UTSA and Texas State fans) to find the last time that they hired a coach for his first head coaching job, and how they fared in their first season. The results were mixed.
Baylor: Kevin Steele, 1999
After a pair of 2-9 seasons from Dave Roberts, the Bears hired Kevin Steele, a defensive whiz who had worked at Tennessee, New Mexico State, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and – when the Bears hired him – the Carolina Panthers. The hope: turn around a program that hadn’t been to a bowl in three years. But Steele struggled in his first year, going just 1-10 with the Bears in 1999. It was the beginning of a largely unsuccessful four-year stint for Steele at Baylor, going 9-36 from 1999-2002. Steele was fired in the middle of the 2002 season, finished out the season, and has since taken back to the assistant’s route, most recently as Clemson’s defensive coordinator.
Houston: Tony Levine
Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Levine took over the Cougars from his special teams/tight ends/outside wide receivers coach position after Kevin Sumlin was hired away by Texas A&M. Prior to that, he was an assistant for the Carolina Panthers, Louisville, Louisiana Tech, Auburn and Texas State. But 2012 was his first year as a head coach, and it wasn’t great, starting with an upset loss to Texas State and ending with a 5-7 record.
North Texas: Darrell Dickey, 1998
It’s kind of hard to believe now that Darrell Dickey – he of nine seasons and four bowls, the second-winningest coach in North Texas history – had never been a head coach before coming to Denton. But alas, it’s true: Dickey had held assistant’s positions at SMU, UTEP, LSU, Mississippi State, Memphis and Texas A&M, but wasn’t a head coach until the Mean Green tabbed him from his spot at SMU’s offensive coordinator. The first year was…less than ideal, going just 3-8 in the process.
Rice: Fred Goldsmith, 1989
Something had to change for the Owls following a disastrous 1988 season that saw them finish 0-11, and that change came in the form of Fred Goldsmith, who came over from his post as the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator of Arkansas. He gave Rice some improvement – they finished 2-8-1 in 1989 – and actually won the Sports Illustrated National NCAA Football Coach of the Year award in 1992, guiding the Owls to their first winning season in almost 30 years. But the overall product was only OK, going 22-31-1 in five years before taking over at Duke for five more years.
SMU: Phil Bennett, 2008
Baylor’s current defensive coordinator got his first head coaching job when SMU hired him away from his job as Kansas State’s defensive coordinator. Before that, he’d held the defensive coordinator job at TCU, Texas A&M, LSU, Purdue and Iowa State. But it didn’t translate over to success as a head coach, as Bennett couldn’t turn around the flailing Ponies program, going 3-9 in his first season and just 18-52 in six seasons on Mockingbird Lane. Since then, he’s been the defensive coordinator for Pittsburgh and, most recently (and currently), Baylor.
Texas: Ed Price, 1951
It’s been quite a while since the Longhorns had a rookie head coach, as you have to go all the way back to 1951 and the promotion of Ed Price from assistant to head coach following the resignation of Blair Cherry. Price took over a good situation and carried it forward, guiding the Longhorns to a 7-3 mark in his first season as the head coach. He helped them win two Southwest Conference titles in 1952 and 1953, but things went south from there, and he finished with just a 33-27-1 record in six years as head coach.
Texas A&M: R.C. Slocum, 1989
It’s hard to believe now, but the winningest (and probably most revered) coach in Texas A&M history…had never held a head coaching gig before coming to College Station. But when Slocum was promoted from his spot as defensive coordinator following the resignation of Jackie Sherrill, he suddenly was tasked with continuing the Aggies’ momentum while dealing with the NCAA probation left behind by the Sherrill era. The first year, though, it’s hard to argue was anything other than a success, as Slocum guided the Aggies to an 8-4 record and a Sun Bowl berth. From there, the rest is history, as he accumulated a 123-47-2 record over a sparkling 14-year career.
TCU: Gary Patterson, 2000
Yes, one of the names you always hear with regards to coaching vacancies was, in fact, a fresh-faced rookie head coach for the Horned Frogs when he was promoted from his defensive coordinator position in 2000. Before that, he was defensive coordinator at New Mexico and held all sorts of defensive-minded assistant coach jobs at Navy, Utah State, Sonoma State, Pittsburg State, Cal Lutheran, UC Davis and Tennessee Tech. But he really hit his stride when he got the head coaching job in Fort Worth, taking over for Dennis Franchione when he left to become Alabama’s head coach. The first year wasn’t great – just 6-6 – but since then, he’s become TCU’s winningest coach, accumulating a 116-36 record and taking the Horned Frogs to two BCS bowls.
Texas Tech: Rex Dockery, 1978
“But Tepper,” you may be saying, “what about Mike Leach? He wasn’t a head coach before he came to Lubbock!” But you’d be wrong! Because in truly Mike Leach fashion, the Pirate was, in fact, the head coach of the Pori Bears in the European Football League in 1989. Yep. Mike Leach coached a Finnish team. Which means that before the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury, the last rookie head coach for the Red Raiders was Rex Dockery, who was promoted from his offensive coordinator spot when Steve Sloan left for Ole Miss. Dockery’s time in Lubbock was brief – just three seasons, with a 15-16 record – but the first year was his best, going 7-4 in that time. After that, Dockery took the job at Memphis State, where he spent three largely unsuccessful seasons.
UTEP: Gary Nord, 2000
Sorry, coach Kugler, but you’re not even the first rookie UTEP coach in this century! Gary Nord was the offensive coordinator for the Miners after a long, varied journey as an assistant coach, and replaced Charlie Bailey in 2000 for his first head coaching gig. How did it go? Great at the start! Nord led the Miners to an 8-4 record and a Humanitarian Bowl berth – UTEP’s first bowl berth since 1988. But from there, the bottom fell out, and three two-win seasons later, Nord was out.
So, what does this say for Kliff Kingsbury and Sean Kugler as they take over at Texas Tech and UTEP, respectively? Well, the last rookie head coaches at the 10 FBS programs in Texas compiled a combined 50-63-1 record in their first seasons, but they were also split down the middle – five sub-.500 first seasons, five seasons of .500 or better.
What does it mean? Nobody really knows. We have no idea how Kingsbury and Kugler will adjust to the head coaching game. But it sure should be fun to watch.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.