College football programs draw coaches from many different places. There are the conventional routes, like poaching a sitting FBS coach or hiring a coordinator. Schools have gotten a little creative in recent years, like Texas Tech hiring Baylor assistant coach Joey McGuire or Arkansas hiring Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman. There was also North Carolina running back Mack Brown, who was 68 when the Tar Heels rehired him. But it’s been four coaching cycles since an FBS team last hired a coach directly from a lower level.
After the 2018 regular season, three were hired: East Carolina (Mike Houston, from then-FCS James Madison), Kansas State (Chris Klieman, from North Dakota State) and Charlotte (Will Healy, from Austin Peay ). Klieman’s hiring was undeniably a success, though it certainly raised eyebrows at the time as he followed the legendary Bill Snyder. The 55-year-old has been steady for the Wildcats and kept them in Big 12 contention. Houston went 7–5 in 2021 and is 6–3 in ’22. Healy couldn’t deliver in the win column and was fired with four games left in ’22. The question as the coaching cycle heats up is will an FBS program get a look at the FCS level this year, even though the sport’s highest level has never looked different?
Think how seismic it would be if one of the blue bloods hired an FCS coach today. That’s exactly what happened in 2001 when Jim Tressel was recruited to Ohio State from Youngstown State (then Division I-AA). The Buckeyes were in bad shape after going 6-6 in 1999 (the program’s third record at or below .500 since ’47) and 8-4 in 2000. John Cooper left the program far from the bonds of his era Woody Hayes In 1988 when he was hired, but he was 2-10-1 against the hated Michigan, and that cardinal sin doomed his tenure.
So Ohio State looked in-state to a former assistant coach who had left the program to take a $2,000 pay cut and was coaching Youngstown State in 1985. All Tressel’s Penguins had done was win four national titles and play in two more league matches. His success in Columbus was almost immediate, winning the national championship in 2002 and playing in back-to-back title games in ’06 and ’07. But does Tressel think anyone can make the same move he did?
“I think it should be a perfect storm,” says Tressel, now president at Youngstown State. “Because there’s so much media attention for pizzazz. And I always tell our people here, whether we’re hiring a dean or a counselor or whatever, I don’t want to win the press conference. I want to win the game. And I don’t care how it sounds on the street. But let someone come here who can actually win for us. And it would take that kind of thinking. Because right now, I think people are so stuck what will this recruitment sound like?“
Tressel is quick to point out that he’s not the only FCS coach to come up and have huge success. Frank Beamer went from Murray State to Virginia Tech in 1986 and became a beacon of stability. He also pointed to “the young fellow at Kansas State” who is “doing well.” What both men have in common is dominating at the FCS level before moving up. Kliman coached North Dakota State to four national championships in five years.
Before Kleiman moved to K-State, an FCS coach hadn’t moved to a Power 5 since Jim Harbaugh went from San Diego to Stanford, largely selling decision makers as the maniacal recruiter he could handle the task of the cross nation to go after the type of athlete who was Pac-12 caliber and could get into the school. But Tressel came up in an FBS that was just more picturesque than the pseudo-pro game it is today. For example, current Youngstown State coach Doug Phillips makes $250,000 a year. If Ohio wide receivers coach Brian Hartline had made the same move Tressel did in 1986, he would have cost himself $700,000.
Money matters even more because the programs an FCS coach would likely jump to are in the Group of 5. Budget difficulties are everywhere in the G5 as teams try to compete in an increasingly professional landscape.
“There are Nick Sabans in the world that bring incredible value and now they’ve even brought incredible value from a stability standpoint because basically the offense is his, the defense is his, and special teams is his, so no matter who he’s in there tuning in, it’s his. things,” says Healy. “That’s why he’s probably the best to ever do it. But for me, I can hire coaches who can call plays better than me. I can hire really good coaches who can help schematically and recruit, do all those things.
“Where I felt like I put value was wrapping a city around an athletic program and being able to go and raise money where I could hire coaches and be able to go and raise money where we could operate the way we needed to operate in that championship. he never wavered from it.”
Healy was hired by Charlotte after three seasons at Austin Peay where he went 0–11, 8–4 and 5–6 in back-to-back years. The 49ers initially tried to recruit Houston, who decided at the 11th hour to go to ECU. Charlotte has only been an FBS program since 2015, when the first coach in the program’s modern history, Brad Lambert, brought them up from a two-year stint as an FCS independent. The program has moved on quickly and is headed from Conference USA to the American ’23.
Healy played to his personal strengths when he took the job, and then everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a difficult 2020 season that saw the 49ers cancel seven straight games. Then the era of NIL began.
“The original job was the job I had at Austin Peay on a different scale. The job has changed a lot since then [creation of the] gate and NIL,” says Healy. “The $2.5 to $3 million a year that you need to make up the difference in terms of budget also has to go to the players. I mean, you’re $3 million off an operating budget in Conference USA, and now you’re $6 million off.
These are issues that all Team 5 coaches have to deal with, and Healy was clear that he knows he didn’t win enough. But it shows that when it doesn’t work, the same things that can sink an FCS coach can sink seasoned veteran coaches.
“There are more good coaches than good jobs,” says Tressel.
Player acquisition and development is what sets some of the next most likely FCS-to-FBS players apart. As USF looks to replace coach Jeff Scott, FAMU’s Willie Simmons will likely be on their radar, just as he was for FIU in its most recent coaching search as a Florida native. At some point, Jackson State’s Deion Sanders can step up to the next level. He said 60 minutes:
“I should have fun [Power 5 job offers] … Yeah, I should have fun with it. Straight up. I’d be a fool not to.”
Those Power 5 offers are indeed expected to keep coming after Sanders entered the search process in TCU’s last cycle. Maybe it’s just one of those perfect storm cases that Tressel mentioned as someone who can recruit and navigate the NIL era. It might even end up being a gateway package with highly touted freshman DB Travis Hunter and his son, QB Shedeur Sanders. But he’s also not terribly representative of FCS coaches who have been largely written off as a force of nature personality-wise, whose individual quirks would overshadow the reputations of even most FBS programs. But Sanders is more than the hype, as those around him point to his organization and ability to function as a modern CEO coach. His Tigers went 11–2 in 2021 and started the ’22 season 8–0.
Similarly undefeated are the Holy Cross Crusaders, at 9-0 after a 10-3 2021 season. They are coached by Bob Chesney, who has now won at three levels of college football with a conference championship at Salve Regina (Division III) and two at Assumption (D-II); He has now captured his fourth Patriot League title with Holy Cross.
A key to player development for Chesney is a focus on special teams—similar to Beamer’s trademark Beamer Ball. At Assumption, kicker Cole Tracy graduated and transferred to LSU, where he became a second-team All-American. And running back Deonte Harty set the NCAA record (regardless of division) for touchdown returns by a specialist. He is now a contributor for the Saints after entering the NFL undrafted. Chesney brought the mentality to Holy Cross, which is second in the FBS in blocked kicks and punts and has now beaten an FBS team in back-to-back years (UConn in 2021, Buffalo in ’22).
“It’s not just an insult. it’s not just defense. it’s a little bit of everybody,” says Chesney. “And honestly, maybe the most important thing for special teams, the fundamentals they’re going to learn. The basics of blocking, the fundamentals of unblocking. Corners, pursuit, just overall toughness. And then, speed and aggression.”
The team’s punters eat first, which is a hallmark of other programs that pride themselves on this phase of the game – like Urban Meyer’s Florida and Ohio State teams. Starters also play special teams, and how a player will factor into one of the special teams units depends on how Holy Cross recruits athletes.
There’s more to an athlete’s makeup than just the physical, and as college athletes raise mental health concerns at an increased rate since the pandemic began, Chesney’s program is trying to address that issue with what he calls a “mental health coach.” strength’ of the team, sports. psychologist Trevor Cote, who works in the school’s counseling center helping athletes. Chesney will consult with Cote himself and have him speak to the team during camp and the season. It changed how the Crusaders handled situations beyond wins and losses and what happens during games, like dealing with injured players and helping them feel like they’re still a part of the program even if they’re not contributing on match days.
Chesney draws media attention to himself by nature, saying he’s still comfortable with that part of the job. He likely won’t make a Tressel-sized jump, but he could be one of several FCS coaches this cycle who could be under consideration for a step up.
More College Football Coverage:
• Tulane’s near-miraculous turnaround almost didn’t happen
• The most jaded fan bases in college football
• Sanders Lobby for Jackson State FBS Bowl Berth