In college football, perhaps more than any other sport, it can be difficult to know what to expect from a first-year head coach. They’re coaching players that the previous coaching staff recruited and isn’t always able to implement his “culture” within the program. It’s why college coaches usually get at least three or four seasons to prove themselves before finding themselves on the hot seat. Of course, there have been plenty of college coaches who hit the ground running and found success right away. Let’s take a look at the college football coaches who excelled in their first season at the helm.
5. Ryan Day, Ohio State (2019)
Day had three games as Ohio State’s interim head coach in 2018, but that hardly prepared him for the task of becoming the full-time head coach of the Buckeyes in 2019. Not only are there massive expectations in Columbus every season, but Day also had to follow in the footsteps of Urban Meyer. Will Muschamp struggled to follow up Meyer’s success at Florida years earlier, so there were some concerns about whether Day would be able to pick up where Meyer left off.
As it turned out, there was no drop-off from Meyer to Day in Year 1. The Buckeyes were undoubtedly one of the elite teams in the country in 2019, crushing just about every team they faced until coming up a little short in the College Football Playoff against Clemson in a game Ohio State probably should have won. Each of Ohio State’s 13 wins before that were decided by more than 10 points with an average margin of victory of 36 points, leaving little doubt that Day will be able to maintain the program’s recent dominance.
4. Chris Petersen, Boise State (2006)
This wasn’t exactly a case of beginner’s luck because Petersen went on to be one of the best college football coaches of the 2000’s and 2010’s at both Boise State and Washington. After spending five seasons as the offensive coordinator at Boise State, Petersen took over as the head coach of the Broncos after Dan Hawkins left for Colorado. He immediately took the program to new heights while simultaneously raising the bar for what teams outside the power conferences could achieve.
To be fair, Petersen didn’t exactly inherit a train wreck. He was the offensive coordinator for a program that had won at least a share of the WAC title in four straight seasons and went 9-4 in 2005. But Petersen guided the Broncos to a perfect 13-0 season and another conference title. Of course, the biggest game of that season was Boise’s 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. That was one of the most memorable bowl games in college football history, as Petersen had the gall to run the Statue of Liberty play on a 2-point conversion for the win.
3. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State (2017)
Tedford didn’t get a lot of attention for the job he did at Fresno State in 2017, in part because of the disappointing end to his stint as the Cal head coach. However, he pulled off an incredible one-season turnaround for a program that has become one of the best mid-majors in the country. During the 2016 season, the Bulldogs went 1-11 and winless in Mountain West play. Fresno State’s only win that season came early in the year against FCS opponent Sacramento State. It was an utter disaster that came on the heels of a disappointing 3-9 season the previous years.
But Tedford changed all of that in one season. From 1-11, Tedford led the Bulldogs to a 10-4 season in 2017. It’s worth noting that two of those losses came against Alabama and Washington, both powerhouse programs. Another one of Fresno’s losses was a 17-14 nail biter against Boise State in the Mountain West Championship Game after the Bulldogs won the West Division. Fresno State became the second program in college football history to lose 10 or more games one season and win at least 10 games the next season. The fact that they did so with a new head coach is astonishing.
2. Gus Malzahn, Auburn (2013)
In his first season as the Auburn head coach, all Malzahn did is lead the Tigers to the national championship game. Of course, he did so with a team that had gone 3-9 the previous season, including a 0-8 record inside the SEC. Auburn’s only wins that season came against Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, and Alabama A&M. The Tigers also suffered shutout losses to Georgia and Alabama, their two biggest rivals, losing by a combined 87-0, so Malzahn inherited a program with a lot of problems but not much patience after winning a national championship in 2010.
Of course, Malzahn was the offensive coordinator in 2010 when Cam Newton carried Auburn to a title. He also had a hand in recruiting many of the players in inherited when he became head coach in 2013. Nevertheless, after a winless SEC campaign the previous year, Malzahn guided the Tigers on a revenge tour that ended with an SEC championship, albeit with a little help from the Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the infamous “Kick-Six” win against Alabama. In the end, Auburn fell a little short in the title game against Florida State, but Malzahn’s first-year turnaround may have saved the Tigers from plummeting down the SEC hierarchy for years to come.
1. Terry Bowden, Auburn (1993)
Auburn has had great luck with coaches in their first year, as Bowden’s 1993 campaign with the Tigers was even more impressive than what Malzahn did 20 years later. Bowden had the difficult task of following legendary coach Pat Dye, who retired after the 1992 season. He also inherited a team that went 2-5-1 the previous season. On top of that, Auburn was on NCAA probation at the time, which meant fewer scholarships, a postseason ban, and no TV games for the Tigers. Needless to say, there were a lot of obstacles for Bowden to overcome that season.
Undeterred, Bowden led Auburn to an undefeated season in 1993. The Tigers went 11-0, including a win over Florida, who they would have played in the SEC Championship Game had they been eligible. The final AP poll ranked the Tigers at no. 4, although Auburn was the only undefeated team in college football that season. While the school doesn’t claim a championship, the National Champions Foundation did declare Auburn the national champion in 1993. Regardless of the technicalities, going 11-0 under the circumstances was an incredible accomplishment by Bowden in his first season at Auburn.