STARKVILLE — Home is foreign concept for college football assistant coaches.
Mississippi State University defensive line coach David Turner describes his 28-year career, which includes stops at 12 schools, as the life of a traveling gypsy family.
As he returns to MSU with his wife, Yvette and daughters Bianca and Alexyia for his second stint at MSU, he said he is excited about the support he has received, but he knows public sentiment can turn quickly.
“I’ve had more people tell me, ‘Welcome back home,’ and I don’t sometimes know if that’s good or bad,” Turner said. “Out of all of the spots, this has probably been the most comfortable spots for me and my family, so I’m probably as close to being at home here at MSU than anywhere else.”
But Turner knows the comfort level an assistant coach and his family have at one school can change in less than a season. Turner’s resume is just one example of how many times assistant coaches can change jobs and cities in their career. Since 2009, Southeastern Conference members have changed coordinators an average of every two and a half seasons. In that time, the University of Mississippi and Texas A&M University have had four offensive coordinators. MSU coach Dan Mullen has had four defensive coordinators, which ties him with the number of defensive staff changes at the University of Tennessee.
Mullen hasn’t had a defensive coordinator for more than two years since he became the Bulldogs’ coach in 2009. MSU has lost Carl Torbush, Manny Diaz, and Chris Wilson to similar jobs at other Bowl Championship Series schools.
“When you’re having success, opportunities for guys are going to come up in their futures to go do things,” Mullen said July 17 at SEC Media Days. “It’s not always great as a head coach for us because you love the continuity in your staff.”
On the other side of the ball, Mullen has retained Les Koenning as his offensive coordinator, and even though the two men have at times flip-flopped on the play-calling duties, both have said the long-term development has been good for both sides.
“I think you know philosophically it is that match,” Mullen said. “I’m more of an offensive-minded head coach and a quarterback-oriented head coach, so you have to have somebody in that position you’re going to meld well with.”
Mullen said the personality mix between a coach and his assistants is a underplayed aspect to keeping staffs together for several years.
“I think Les and I have a good relationship in that we’re a good fit together,” Mullen said. “We’re not the same because that probably wouldn’t work. We’re not completely different. That probably wouldn’t work. I think we’re just a nice combination. That certainly helps. I’m the same with a lot of our other offensive coaches.”
As much continuity Mullen has kept with Koenning, the Bulldogs’ fifth-year coach has had to make several changes at wide receiver coach. Mark Hudspeth left MSU to take the job as head coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Angelo Mirando was forced to step down from his job at MSU after he ignored NCAA violations in the recruitment of defensive back Will Redmond.
“I think we get lost sometimes in coaching, but what I do is look at them and I tell them we might not be able to pay you what other schools in this league pay everybody,” Mullen said. “To me it’s about a quality of life here, and I want our coaches to have a good quality of life because I know they’re probably going to say that already because of how much time we put in.”
In 2012, The Knight Commission published a report that said in the past decade about one in 10 universities at the major college level replaced their head football coaches annually for performance-related reasons. The same study suggested replacements don’t tend to make underperforming teams much better, and frequently make them worse. If the head coaches aren’t having success, that means even less job security for their assistant coaches.
The University of Houston finished 5-7 in 2012 after firing its offensive coordinator after one game. The University of Wisconsin fired its offensive line coach and finished 7-5. The Badgers reached the Big Ten Conference title game only because NCAA penalties left Ohio State University and Penn State University ineligible.
“For every team that does better following a change, there is another that sees a dip in performance,” said E. Scott Adler, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado and the lead author of the Knight Commission study. “Moreover, there is just as much volatility in win/loss records of teams that do and do not replace their coaches.”
Tennessee decided last year to cancel the $18 million transfer the athletics department had pledged to academics and used the funds to cover the $5 million severance package for replacing football coach Derek Dooley and the reported $4 million in severance for Dooley’s assistant coaches. Months later, Auburn University agreed to pay $11 million to buy out the contracts for football coach Gene Chizik and his assistant coaches.
“Our findings have important practical implications for the high-stakes environment that is contemporary college football,” Adler said. “When a college football team’s performance is disappointing, the first and often only remedy administrators, fans, and sports writers turn to is firing the coach. This is usually an expensive approach to solving the problem. Despite the fanfare that often accompanies the hiring of a new coach, our research demonstrates that at least with respect to on-field performance, coach replacement can be expected to be, at best, a break-even antidote.”
Since 2009, only three SEC schools have had the same coordinator on one side of the ball: Koenning at MSU and the University of Alabama and LSU (defensive coordinators Kirby Smart and John Chavis).
Those schools have averaged 8.06 wins per season. The group each man coaches also has ranked in the top half of the conference in total yards.
“I need someone who understands and knows what to expect, what we’re comfortable with in the type of defense we run,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I want great defense. I want somebody that has that kind of experience in this league.”
MSU has tried to counter the volatile nature of being an assistant coach by creating a family atmosphere. On the first week of August, Mullen spoke to his staff in a early morning meeting and asked each of his assistants with school-aged children to drive those kids to school on the first day. It was a order MSU’s new wide receiver Billy Gonzales didn’t expect, but it meant something to him and his children, Cole and Caylynn. Gonzales was shocked “at the big picture aspect” Mullen after having worked with him at the University of Utah and Bowling Green State University.
“I don’t want our kids to look back and say, ‘Hey, my dad was never around,’ ” Mullen said. “During the season, if there is a big Little League game or rec league games that you as a dad can show up for, we need to promote doing that. I think that’s helped with keeping coaches here because they can look and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I can be a football coach, but I can also can be a husband and a father here as well and live that sort of lifestyle.’ “