Dan Quinn, Brent Pease, Joker Phillips, D.J. Durkin.
Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Greg Mattison.
Kirby Smart, David Cutcliffe, John Chavis, DJ Eliot, Mark Helfrich.
When you look at the teams that filled the top bowl games this year, and the BCS champions of the recent past, you see all of them are led by dynamic coaches and top-notch players. It takes a special coach to lead a program to the top, someone who can strike the right balance between motivator, teacher, and recruiter. The talent level of the players is obviously a huge piece of the puzzle, and coaches need to go out and recruit players who have the capability of greatness, and then coach them in to their natural gifts.
But as we watch the head coaches get doused in Gatorade, and future NFL players dominate the field, let's not overlook the assistant coaches who play a large part in the success of a program, especially on the highest stage.
The unsung leaders
You probably recognize many the coaches listed at the top. Several of them are head coaches now, and Florida just got their doors blown off by one team led by one of them. (Thanks, Charlie.) While the head coach sets the tone in a program, the coaches hired to come in and hold up the standard of excellence may collectively play as large a role as the head coach himself. Many times, when you see the downturn of a program, it's directly related to key assistants moving on and taking a head coaching position.
Florida saw it with Mullen and Strong, with Mullen's departure leaving Florida's offense hamstrung in 2009 and Strong's departure leaving Florida's defense rudderless in 2010. Tennessee lost Cutcliffe after their championship in 1998 and hasn't played for another since. Malzahn was arguably more important than the Gene Chizik at Auburn in 2010, and has now replaced him. Smart and Helfrich were on the radar as potential head coaches and, especially with Helfrich's rise to Chip Kelly's old chair, seem to have been the next in line at dynastic programs.
But that's part of the game: Head coaches at BCS conference schools rarely leave, but assistant coaches often leave to be a coordinator at a higher-profile school, as Pease did with his move from Boise State to Florida, Eliot did when moving from defensive line coach at FSU to DC at Kentucky, or jump to the pros, like Quinn. The coordinator who stays put for nearly a decade, like Strong did, or for life, like Florida State's Mickey Andrews, is rare, and may only get rarer.
One thing that could stem that tide? The coaching arms race has extended to coordinators, with two making over a million dollars per year in 2012 (Monte Kiffin at USC, Chad Morris at Clemson), and several over $700,000. In fact, since 2009, assistant coach pay has risen at a slightly higher pace than head coach pay (29% to 21%).
For head coaches, the stakes are higher than ever before, and the window for success grows ever smaller. With scores of players on the roster and scores more to be recruited, it's a lot to handle. A head coach has to be able to trust his assistants to carry out the teaching of attitude and pace he has set for the team.
And we could argue that some assistant coaches actually do more coaching than the head coach: As jobs become more general, you have to more to oversee, and thus find yourself pulled in more directions. In a business, the employee building the specific parts of the engine has more to do with the car than the CEO. Both are crucial.
Special assistant coaches matter
Look at all of the SEC champions from the conference's seven-year run, and you'll see assistant coaches who have gone on to be successful head coaches: Florida's Strong and Mullen (and, heck, Steve Addazio's gotten two head coaching jobs), LSU's Bo Pelini, Auburn's Malzahn. To go even further back, Nick Saban's 2003 LSU team had three future head coaches as assistant coaches: Will Muschamp, Jimbo Fisher, and Derek Dooley. The prolonged success of a team is usually accompanied by the persistent presence of at least one truly great assistant coach, e.g. Andrews at FSU, Bud Foster at Virginia Tech, Strong at Florida, and, currently, Smart at Alabama.
Though Smart has not yet taken a head coaching job, he has been an important part of Alabama's success, and is likely waiting for a very high-profile job to come open. On the ESPN set after the BCS National Championship Game, Urban Meyer made the observation that Saban's staff has stayed largely intact, a remarkable feat in this era of professional ambition, and one probably tinged with the jealousy of a guy who had a shot to win three titles in four years before Saban did if only his staff had stayed together.
Let's talk about recruiting, too. Yes, head coaches come in to the homes of four- and five-star recruits to make their pitch. If you've seen The Blind Side, you've watched a pretty accurate portrayal of the head coach's pitch to a top athlete. What isn't shown is there is normally an assistant with him, and it's the player's coordinator or position coach. Assistant coaches play a huge role in recruiting, because players know that's who they will be coached and developed by during their college career.
There is strength in the commitment a player shows to his coordinator, or position coach. Did you see the line of Florida players waiting to shake Strong's hand after that Sugar Bowl butt-whipping? Then you saw a glimpse of what makes assistant coaches so special.
Does Florida have the right mix?
I do believe Will Muschamp has collected a special group of assistant coaches. Quinn, Pease, Durkin and now Joker Phillips have all proven themselves to be exceptional. Though Quinn is now back in the NFL, he was at the helm one of the top defenses in the country for the past two seasons, and played a big role in developing top recruits in to top talent (not always a given). Though the speed of Durkin's hire suggests the Gators were primarily concerned with stability and keeping a top recruiting class together, a closer analysis of Durkin's résumé shows that the Gators had one of the nation's hottest young assistants already on their staff.
Joker Phillips has been a vital part of the Gators' recent recruiting push, including snagging top receiver DeMarcus Robinson. Having a former SEC head coach as a position coach can only help the development at what has been a disappointing group since 2009. Pease's fingerprints are all over the Gators' offensive improvement throughout the season, and his ability to make scoring drives out of thin air, especially because it appeared Florida was loath to throw the ball forward, was impressive. I believe will continue to show his worth in the coming years, especially once he gets his own recruits on the field.
Will one, two or all three coaches eventually become head coaches? Probably, it's an expected part of the process now, and something to be prepared for, not scared of.
Head coaches go from group to group, room to room, and meeting to meeting. Assistant coaches have a niche, a smaller family, and a specific voice. They share the vision of the head coach and speak it in to the lives of their players. They are an indispensable part of the growth, development, and success of a big-time college football program.
And if you don't have good to great ones, you're probably not going to play for titles.