Grading all 27 of college football's first-year coaches

Twenty-seven of the 130 teams at the top level of college football had new coaches in 2019. Some, like Louisville’s Scott Satterfield and Ohio State’s Ryan Day, had awesome first seasons. Others, like Houston’s Dana Holgorsen and Miami’s Manny Diaz, had debut years at their schools that they’d like to forget.

Here are our grades for all 27 of the coaches who were in their roles for the first time in 2019.

AAC

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East Carolina: Mike Houston

2018 record (Coach: Scottie Montgomery): 3-9

2019 record: 4-8

After a highly successful three-year run at James Madison, Mike Houston started his ECU career 3-2, but the Pirates really struggled in AAC play — especially on defense. The Pirates were sixth in the conference in total offense but lost three of four in November despite averaging 37.3 points per game.

Grade: C

It was not a great year for Dana Holgorsen. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
It was not a great year for Dana Holgorsen. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Houston: Dana Holgorsen

2018 record (Major Applewhite): 8-5

2019 record: 4-8

Dana Holgorsen certainly took an unconventional approach at Houston, the school with a president that famously said it fires coaches who go 8-4. UH opened the year 1-3 before Holgorsen opted to redshirt many of his best players in an effort to have a big 2020. We’ll see if it pays off. 

Grade: D

Temple: Rod Carey

2018 record (Geoff Collins): 8-5

2019 record: 8-4

Temple was in the mix for the AAC East title until the second-to-last week of the season. Rod Carey carried on the strong foundation built by Matt Rhule and maintained by Geoff Collins and should have the Owls in the upper tier of the division moving forward — as long as his staff keeps developing unheralded recruits into capable AAC starters. 

Grade: B+

ACC

Georgia Tech: Geoff Collins

2018 record (Paul Johnson): 7-6

2019 record: 3-9

Yeah, Georgia Tech won four fewer games in 2019 than it did a year ago. But a lot of regression was expected as Collins took over a team that was built for Johnson’s triple-option offense. The highlight of the season was a win over Miami, but back-to-back losses to The Citadel and Temple showed just how much work Collins has to do at Tech. 

Grade: C

Louisville: Scott Satterfield

2018 record (Bobby Petrino): 2-10

2019 record: 7-5

Satterfield’s Louisville turnaround may be the best first-year Power Five coaching performance outside of Ryan Day at Ohio State. The Cardinals beat Wake Forest on the road and beat eventual ACC Coastal champion Virginia at home. They did get run over by Kentucky on Saturday but a five-game improvement after the trainwreck that was 2018 is deserving of plaudits even if the defense still needs a lot of work.

Grade: A

Miami head coach Manny Diaz went 6-6 in his first season. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
Miami head coach Manny Diaz went 6-6 in his first season. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Miami: Manny Diaz

2018 record (Mark Richt): 7-6

2019 record: 6-6

Miami can match last season’s disappointing record with a bowl game win. And you can argue that 2019 has been more disappointing than 2018. Diaz’s first year in charge of his hometown team was ugly to start and even uglier to finish. Miami won three straight games to pull to 6-4 before an embarrassing 30-24 loss to Florida International at Marlins Park in the penultimate week of the season and a 27-17 loss Saturday to a Duke team that had already eliminated from a bowl. Diaz enters 2020 needing a quick turnaround.

Grade: D-

North Carolina: Mack Brown

2018 record (Larry Fedora): 2-9

2019 record: 6-6

It made sense for North Carolina to fire Larry Fedora after he went 5-18 in 2017 and 2018. It didn’t make much sense at the time for the school to hire Brown to come back 22 years after he left for Texas. Well, it’s worked out pretty well. Brown is taking the team to a bowl game for the first time since 2016. In addition to beating Miami, Brown’s team also won games against South Carolina, Duke and NC State. Oh, UNC is also the team that’s come the closest to beating Clemson.

Grade: B

Big 12

Kansas: Les Miles

2018 record (David Beaty): 3-9

2019 record: 3-9

Kansas won just six games in four years under David Beaty, so Les Miles at least brought some excitement to Lawrence. The Jayhawks managed to upset Boston College and Texas Tech and raised their competitive level. That’s a start. 

Grade: B-

Kansas State's first year under Chris Klieman exceeded a lot of expectations. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas State's first year under Chris Klieman exceeded a lot of expectations. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Kansas State: Chris Klieman

2018 record (Bill Snyder): 5-7

2019 record: 8-4

It’s never easy replacing a legend, but Chris Klieman did about as well as any K-State fan could have hoped in Year 1. He brought a sense of optimism back to Manhattan with a tough, consistently competitive brand of football. His team even upset mighty Oklahoma. 

Grade: A

Texas Tech: Matt Wells

2018 record (Kliff Kingsbury): 5-7

2019 record: 4-8

The Red Raiders lost six of seven Big 12 games down the stretch, though four of those losses came by a possession or less. It was more of the same we saw in years past: second-best Big 12 offense, worst Big 12 defense. Matt Wells might have more work to do than he realized when he arrived in Lubbock. 

Grade: C

West Virginia: Neal Brown

2018 record (Dana Holgorsen): 8-4

2019 record: 5-7

WVU was always expected to take a step back this year, and Neal Brown’s team had nice wins over Kansas State and TCU down the stretch. Brown started the year with Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall at QB, but played Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege the last three games, preserving his redshirt. Doege looks like the QB of the future in Morgantown. 

Grade: B

Big Ten

Maryland: Mike Locksley

2018 record (Matt Canada*): 5-7

2019 record: 3-9

Locksley seemed like a natural fit to dig Maryland out of the mess left behind by D.J. Durkin and the tragic death of Jordan McNair. The Terps started the year 3-2, but were one of the worst teams in the country from there, losing seven straight. Locksley was supposed to land the top local recruits, but hasn’t landed a commitment from any of the top 20 players in the state. Yikes. 

Grade: D

*Interim

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 30: Head Football Coach Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes before a college football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Ann Arbor, MI. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 30: Head Football Coach Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes before a college football game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Ann Arbor, MI. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

Ohio State: Ryan Day

2018 record (Urban Meyer): 13-1

2019 record: 12-0

Ryan Day inherited a gold mine of talent from Urban Meyer, but the nonstop drama that came with Meyer has gone by the wayside (other than weekly visits from FOX). The Buckeyes look better than ever and are a lock for the College Football Playoff. 

Grade: A

C-USA

Charlotte: Will Healy

2018 record (Brad Lambert): 5-7

2019 record: 7-5

Will Healy got a historically downtrodden Austin Peay program to go 8-4, so it shouldn’t surprise people he got Charlotte to its first-ever bowl game. The 49ers’ cupboard wasn’t completely bare after a 5-7 record in 2018, but Healy brought some much-needed new energy to the program, and the team responded by winning five straight entering the Bahamas Bowl. 

Grade: A

Western Kentucky: Tyson Helton

2018 record (Mike Sanford): 3-9

2019 record: 8-4

WKU went back to the Jeff Brohm tree with Tyson Helton, and it paid off in Year 1 with one of the more impressive turnarounds in the country. The Hilltoppers shook off a Week 1 loss to FCS Central Arkansas by going 6-2 in C-USA play. WKU allowed just 20.1 points per game — second-best in the conference.

Grade: A

Independents

Hugh Freeze's return to college football has been a successful one. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
Hugh Freeze's return to college football has been a successful one. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Liberty: Hugh Freeze

2018 record (Turner Gill): 6-6

2019 record: 7-5

Hugh Freeze shook off a scary (and unintentionally amusing) situation with his back early in the year to get Liberty to a bowl game for the first time. The Flames didn’t exactly play the toughest schedule — they lost to Rutgers — but it’s still a nice accomplishment to go to a bowl in their first year as a full FBS member. 

Grade: B+

UMass: Walt Bell

2018 record (Mark Whipple): 4-8

2019 record: 1-11

Last month, UMass was apparently down to between 40 and 50 healthy scholarship players, so it’s no wonder why the team struggled so much more than usual. The Minutemen were horrendous on defense, allowing an average of 561.2 yards and 52.7 points per game. Both were the worst in the country by a considerable margin. 

Grade: D

MAC

Akron: Tom Arth

2018 record (Terry Bowden): 4-8

2019 record: 0-12

Uh, well, Akron was the only team that didn’t win a game in 2019. The Zips’ closest brush with victory came in a 20-17 loss to Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 20. Ten of the 12 losses were by 11 points or more. It’s hard to win at Akron — an eight-win season in 2015 is the best in program history. Arth learned that firsthand in 2019.

Grade: D

Bowling Green: Scot Loeffler

2018 record (Mike Jinks): 3-9

2019 record: 3-9

Bowling Green’s defense improved slightly in 2019 but the offense regressed mightily under the former Boston College offensive coordinator. The Falcons averaged 16 points per game, (eight points fewer than in 2018) and 4.6 yards per play, down from 5.2 in 2018. The culprit was a rushing offense that didn’t improve despite a big switch in offensive schemes. 

Grade: C-

Central Michigan improved by seven games in Jim McElwain's first season. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Central Michigan improved by seven games in Jim McElwain's first season. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Central Michigan: Jim McElwain

2018 record (Jon Bonamego): 1-11

2019 record: 8-4

The seven-game leap the Chippewas made in the win column is the biggest year-over-year improvement for any first-year head coach. And Florida fans may be surprised to know that it’s due to CMU’s offense. The Chips averaged 15 points per game in 2018 and that total jumped to nearly 33 in 2019 thanks to the dynamic rushing duo of Kobe Lewis and Jonathan Ward. The two backs have combined for over 2,000 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns.

Grade: A

Northern Illinois: Thomas Hammock

2018 record (Rod Carey): 8-6

2019 record: 5-7

NIU overperformed in 2018 as it finished two games above .500 despite getting outscored by its opponents. It’s not terribly surprising the Huskies’ win total regressed in 2019. But NIU gave up more points than it did a year ago and a defense that gave up 4.8 yards a play in 2018 gave up 6.2 yards per play in 2019, with no corresponding improvement from the offense despite Hammock’s previous offensive coaching experience.

Grade: C

Mountain West

Utah State: Gary Andersen

2018 record (Matt Wells): 11-2

2019 record: 7-5

Andersen came back to Utah State to replace Wells, who left for Texas Tech. With just two starters coming back on offense, some regression was expected. But damn, that regression hit hard. After averaging 47.5 points a game in 2018, the Aggies have averaged just 28.2 in 2019. The defense is giving up a touchdown more per game than it did in 2018 as well. Crazily enough, a win in a bowl game would make 2019 the second-best of Andersen’s five total seasons at the school. 

Grade: C-

Mel Tucker and Colorado got their fifth win of the season with a home upset of Washington. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Mel Tucker and Colorado got their fifth win of the season with a home upset of Washington. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Pac-12

Colorado: Mel Tucker

2018 record (Mike MacIntyre): 5-7

2019 record: 5-7

Congratulations for keeping the streak alive, Mel. The 2019 season is the third straight 5-7 season for the Buffaloes and the seventh time in the last 20 years that Colorado has finished a season with seven losses. The offense wasn’t as good as it was in 2018 despite the returns of Steven Montez and Laviska Shenault, and the defense was slightly worse in Tucker’s first season than it was in MacIntyre’s last.

Grade: C

Sun Belt

Appalachian State: Eliah Drinkwitz

2018 record (Scott Satterfield): 11-2

2019 record: 11-1

There isn’t much room for improvement on a 11-2 season but Drinkwitz’s first year in Boone has gone swimmingly with wins over both North Carolina and South Carolina. The offense is averaging 39 points a game and the Mountaineer defense gives up less than 20 per game. The only blemish is a Halloween home loss to Georgia Southern in miserable conditions. Had App State won that game, the Mountaineers would have had a real shot at the Cotton Bowl. 

Grade: A

Coastal Carolina: Jamey Chadwell

2018 record (Joe Moglia): 5-7

2019 record: 5-7

Coastal is on the cusp of the first bowl berth in program history. The Chanticleers beat Kansas on the road in Week 2 and also beat UMass. But two three-game losing streaks in Sun Belt play ensured that Coastal would finish at 5-7 again. 

Grade: B-

Texas State: Jake Spavital

2018 record (Everett Withers): 3-9

2019 record: 3-9

The Bobcats returned 19 starters and didn’t improve a lick in Spavital’s first season. An offense that struggled in 2018 struggled again in 2019, ranking 122nd in points per game. The defense got worse too. Texas State did beat Georgia State though. That’s about it for highlights. The other two wins came over Nicholls State and a South Alabama team that won one game. 

Grade: C-

Troy: Chip Lindsey

2018 record (Neal Brown): 10-3

2019 record: 5-7

A streak of three straight seasons of 10 or more wins came to a screeching halt. A defense that returned six starters gave up 35 points per game in 2019 and ranked 116th in the country. Troy was 22nd in the country in 2018. Needing a win over the last two weeks of the season against either Louisiana and App State to secure bowl eligibility, Troy was instead outscored 101-16.

Grade: C-

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