Grading sub-FBS coaching hires

Photo courtesy WT Athletics

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This year’s coaching carousel was the busiest in the five years I have spent covering the sub-FBS ranks for Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. When the 2023 season begins, it will mark the beginning of a new era for 10 teams in Texas. In other words, that’s a whopping 28.6 percent of the 35 active sub-FBS football programs with a new head coach. Add in UTRGV hiring a coach to start its football program, and there were 11 new hires overall. 

The question I receive the most during the offseason is regarding my thoughts on the new coaches. Each new hire brings a period of optimism to the fan base of that school, while fans of opposing schools ponder how the new regimes will work in the conference.

Each grade is based on how the new coach fits with their new program, the excitement of the fan base and athletes around the hire, assistant coaches hired thus far, the support each coach will receive from the administration, and the coach’s chance to succeed at their new school.

Josh Lynn, West Texas A&M 

Grade: A+

Buffs fans have been clamoring for a return to the glory days under Don Carthel and wanted someone with ties to the Carthel era. Director of Athletics Michael McBroom interviewed some candidates with ties to the most successful era in school history before hiring a coach without any ties to the university.

Ultimately, the only thing the Buffs faithful truly care about is winning football games, and Josh Lynn knows how to win. Lynn built Lone Star Conference rival Eastern New Mexico into a perennial winner, and every coach across the league dreaded playing against his triple-option offense. Combine his ability to win with the best facilities in NCAA Division II, and you have the recipe for success. 

Braxton Harris, Houston Christian

Grade: A

Braxton Harris knows how to recruit. He proved that at Campbell when he helped the Camels secure some of the best FCS recruiting classes each year as recruiting coordinator. He also knows how to build a program, as evidenced by how he turned a downtrodden Howard Payne program into a team that continued to succeed under Jason Bachtel.

Harris and Bachtel join forces at HCU, and success could soon follow. What the Huskies lack in facilities, Harris believes he can keep enough kids at home to build a winner. His vision was key to HCU claiming one of the top recruiting classes in FCS this year in two short months. Harris also loaded his staff with ties to Texas high school football, which has recently been a recipe for success.

Clint Killough, UIW

Grade: A

The last two head coaches at UIW have led the program to its best seasons in history and have moved on to become head coaches at FBS schools in Texas. That’s a high bar, but if anyone can continue the Cardinals' unprecedented success, it’s Clint Killough. 

The young head coach has wisdom beyond his 29 years and understands the importance of building relationships and the core of the program with Texas high school football talent. UIW is also where quarterbacks can quickly shine in a dynamic offense, making the university a top target for many transfers. UIW lost a lot of top players, but a return to the playoffs is not out of the equation in 2023.

Tony Joe White, Austin College

Grade: A

Discussion around the future of Birmingham-Southern existence as a university combined with an opening in Sherman gave the Austin College administration a chance to make a great hire, and they didn’t miss with the addition of Tony Joe White. The Kangaroos are a program trying to find a way to be solid academically and win on the football field.

White fits that profile and is familiar with the area after spending part of his collegiate days as quarterback for Texas A&M-Commerce. The Kangaroos have recently upgraded their athletic facilities, which will help White’s coaching staff in recruiting. White built BSC into a playoff contender and should thrive at AC when they transition to the SCAC in the near future.

Travis Bush, UT Rio Grande Valley

Grade: A – 

UTRGV needed to find the perfect fit to begin its football program. The perfect fit was someone from the area with experience in college football and who has experienced what it takes to start a football program from the ground up. Enter Travis Bush, who recruited current UTRGV Vice President and Director of Athletics Chasse Conque in high school.

Bush saw first-hand how to build a program from scratch under Larry Coker at UTSA. The excitement around the RGV to the prospect of college football in 2025 is palpable, but recent history indicates the program's first years will be difficult. The administration seems ready to give Bush every opportunity to succeed, which will take a ton of patience during the program's first years, with wins possibly few and far between.

Kevin Bachtel, Howard Payne

Grade: A –

The Yellow Jackets didn’t need to look very far or toward a different genealogy tree to find their replacement for Jason Bachtel, who departed to become the offensive coordinator at Houston Christian. Defensive coordinator Kevin Bachtel was the obvious choice for the administration to continue the rise of HPU’s football program.

The biggest question surrounding the Kevin Bachtel era will be whether the offense can continue to produce as it has under former head coaches Braxton Harris and Jason Bachtel. The offense will be under the guidance of Brad Wilson, who returns to his alma mater and brings a quality resume with him from Sul Ross State.

Clint Dolezel, Texas A&M-Commerce

Grade: B+

It was a bit of a surprise when the Lions announced that David Bailiff would not return for 2023. After further investigation, there were rumors of the relationship between Bailiff and the administration heading south over resources for the football program during its transition to FCS. The University has also been dealing with an alumni base that feels the school is trying to distance itself from the past when it was East Texas State. A&M-Commerce needed someone to placate the fan base and work with the administration during the transition to NCAA Division I. They found that person in Clint Dolezel, who was the last quarterback during the ETSU days. 

Some question whether Dolezel will be successful in transitioning to the 11-man game from indoor football. I think the bigger question is if the Lions will win the Southland Conference title in 2023. Dolezel inherits one of the better defenses in FCS, and a conference title isn’t out of the question if the offense improves to at least average this year. However, I do think the transition has hurt recruiting the last two years, and Dolezel will need an understanding fan base for a few years.

Kris McCullough, UTPB

Grade: B+

The second head coach in UTPB program history also doubles as the youngest head coach in the country. There’s a reason Kris McCullough’s career path has been skyrocketing, the 27-year-old knows how to coach offense. As the assistant head coach at East Central in 2021, he helped lead the Tigers to a victory over a Tarleton team transitioning to FCS.

I’m excited about the future of the Falcons, and I think McCullough could be the guy to lead the program to new heights. But I also think Justin Carrigan could’ve been that guy if given a few more years. The problem is the donors are becoming impatient with a program it believes has plateaued. The reality is the LSC is a tough conference and a program in only its seventh year of existence that could’ve been 8-3 last year with better breaks late in games. I question how long McCullough has before the same donors become unhappy again.

Calvin Ruzicka, East Texas Baptist

Grade: B

A change in head coach is never easy for athletes. ETBU’s administration understood that and won over the locker room and many in the fan base when they promoted defensive coordinator Calvin Ruzicka to head coach. Ruzicka spent 17 years alongside current Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire at Cedar Hill and turned the ETBU defense into a solid unit over the last five years.

The issue facing Ruzicka is if the ETBU football program can compete with Mary Hardin-Baylor, Hardin-Simmons, and Howard Payne, which is the expectation of the alumni. Another issue facing ETBU and the American Southwest Conference is what happens in three years when only four teams remain in the conference. The last issue isn’t the responsibility of Ruzicka, but it could play a role in his success with the Tigers.

Marcos Hinojos, Wayland Baptist

Grade: C+

Marcos Hinojos was the right guy to hire at WBU. The players love him, and there is excitement around Plainview for the future of the football program. The problem at WBU doesn’t lie with Hinojos or the football program. What seems to cause the most angst around the university is the administration.

It’s not every day you find an NAIA school that has a faux account with the stated aim of “advocating for a change in leadership at WBU.” I have no idea if WBU’s administration is bad, but something seems off at times. Director of Athletics Jim Giacomazzi said they had more than 60 applicants, and he held interviews at the American Football Coaches Association convention to eventually find the best candidate in-house. I hope that Hinojos can turn the program into a challenger in the Sooner Athletic Conference, but that won’t be easy in the current environment at WBU.

Peter Rossomando, Lamar

Grade: C

It’s tough to find the right candidate for a head coach opening when the school uses a search firm. Hiring a search firm to find a head coach usually results in another coaching search in four to five years. Search firms don’t care about finding the person that fits inside Beaumont, and the Cardinals needed someone with ties to the area with this hire.

There is no question that Peter Rossomando has had success in his coaching career. In fact, his resume is impressive. But Lamar is a place where you need coaches on your staff with ties to Texas high school football, and only one coach, Cody Gipson, meets those criteria. Recruiting challenges and a roster undergoing its second head coaching change in four years make this a challenging job for Rossomando.

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