On Dec. 3, 2017, Arizona State formally announced its hiring of Herm Edwards as the Sun Devils’ new head football coach. The text of its standard press release was anything but standard:
The department’s New Leadership Model will be similar to an NFL approach using a general manager structure. It’s a collaborative approach to managing the ASU football program that includes sport and administrative divisions, which will operate as distinct, but collective units focused on elevating all aspects of Sun Devil Football. This structure will allow the department to form a multi-layered method to the talent evaluation and recruiting processes, increase its emphasis on both student-athlete and coach development and retention, and provide a boost in resource allocation and generation.
Obscured under that corporate p.r. gobbeldygook — “New Leadership Model” quickly became a catchphrase on Twitter — was a new take on an old idea. Under Edwards’ direction, the offensive coordinator would lead the offense, the defensive coordinator would lead the defense, and the head coach would be the CEO of the entire program.
For decades, the typical career path for aspiring head coaches has been this: start as a GA, graduate to position coach, succeed in that and become a coordinator, succeed there and become a head coach. This process has identified scores of successful head coaches, but it’s also a laboratory-perfect breeding ground for the Peter principle, explained as: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
In short, becoming a skillful caller developer of game plans and caller of plays doesn’t necessarily make you an effective head coach, because the head coach and the coordinator have different jobs.
Like Arizona State, a handful of high-profile schools have skipped this model and opted for the CEO model, where the head coach is not just the Chief Executive Officer of the football program, but the Chief Energy Officer, the Chief Encouragement Officer, the Chief Enrollment Officer and the Chief Environment Officer. (Environment in this case being a synonym for culture… I stretched the bit too far, didn’t I?)
You already know one: Clemson, where AD Terry Don Phillips famously recognized leader-of-men qualities in his wide receivers coach, then hired coordinators to run their respective side of the ball.
This strain of head coaches reached its zenith on Saturday, when PJ Fleck — who’s never spent a day of his life as a coordinator — led Minnesota to a monumental win over No. 4 Penn State in the afternoon and Ed Orgeron — ditto — led LSU past No. 3 Alabama.
Swinney, Fleck and Orgeron are laser-focused on recruiting, on culture, on their team’s mindset, on serving as the public face of their football program and all the thousand other intangible things a head coach must worry about beyond Xs and Os. It doesn’t mean they’re disassociated from the schemes their teams run — you won’t find Ed Orgeron kicked back in a recliner during an LSU practice — but they view the program from a 30,000-foot view, because that’s the job of a head coach.
Also, it doesn’t hurt that all three — let’s throw Herm back in here and make it four — have outsized personalities. (Those are far from the only successful head coaches who have, ah, overcome their little-to-no experience as coordinators. Urban Meyer never spent a day as a coordinator. Neither did Jim Harbaugh. Mario Cristobal spent two as a co-coordinator.)
To be clear, the CEO model doesn’t work for everybody. Lincoln Riley, for instance, would be a fool to hand offensive coordinator duties over to someone else, since there’s no one out there better at running an offense than he is. Identifying successful head coaching prospects is hard, because winning in college football is hard. No method is going to hit 100 percent of the time.
But a review of the most recent AP poll, which has LSU at No. 1, Clemson at No. 3, and Minnesota No. 7 should give any AD with a head coaching vacancy pause. The head job isn’t about calling plays, it’s about leading people, and leadership qualities know no job title.