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Leftovers & Links: Track records of young, first-time head coaches, a la Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Marcus Freeman of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish talks with head coach Mike Gundy of the Oklahoma State Cowboys before the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cowboys defeated the Fighting Irish 37-35. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

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Marcus Freeman’s birthday was earlier this month, most notable in that it will change offseason headlines from “35-year-old first-time Notre Dame head coach” to “36-year-old …” and in that its timing does away with any “Happy birthday” fodder before late-October press conferences as was the norm during Brian Kelly’s 12 years in South Bend.

Freeman’s age is less a factor as a head coach than his inexperience in the position is, the latter arguably detectable during the second-half Irish faceplant in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, but because humans evolved to have 10 fingers on their hands, Freeman’s age will undoubtedly be discussed until he turns 40.

With that in mind, some outside help was sought in putting together a comprehensive list of hires of 30-somethings as head coaches since 2000. (That outside help is usually a bad influence, but sometimes the Split Zone Duo Discord yields helpful insights.)

There have been 28 instances — Freeman makes 29 — of Power Five teams hiring a head coach younger than 40 at the season’s start since 2000. That list includes Lane Kiffin twice, Matt Campbell and nearly a decade of Pat Fitzgerald, hired at 31 in 2006 at Northwestern. (That tally does not count the interim situation handled by Luke Fickell at Ohio State in 2011. It also does not include Kirby Smart’s hiring at Georgia in 2016, when he was 40, but that omission deserves acknowledgment these days.)

Of those 28, 21 of them were first-time head coaches, including the likes of Lincoln Riley, David Shaw and Dabo Swinney, all of whom will be on Notre Dame’s schedule in 2022. It does not include Kiffin, as he had already coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007 at 31, something that still defies comprehension. It does include Clark Lea’s one season at Vanderbilt, a note that emphasizes that these coaches are often in tough spots.

But they were not prohibitively tough spots. When taken collectively, those 21 coached their teams to essentially the same level as they had performed in the year prior.

Year before hires: 133-123, 0.520 winning percentage.First year: 135-130, 0.509 winning percentage.

Five of them lost at least two more games in their first season compared to the year prior, including Fitzgerald and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy. Seven of them won at least two more games, perhaps because they followed Tyrone Willingham at Washington or because Lea took over a truly dire program at his alma mater.

One notable exception to that trend stands out. Of those seven occasions of at least two wins in improvement, only two did so when taking over teams that were already better than .500. Swinney’s first year at Clemson jumped the Tigers from 7-6 to 9-5 and then there is Bret Bielema’s replacement of a legend at Wisconsin …

Barry Alvarez lasted 16 seasons leading the Badgers, becoming their all-time winningest coach by the time he stepped aside in 2005. Bielema had served as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator for all of two seasons, with no ties to the program before that. He took over a team that had just gone 10-3, hardly in need of massive changes.

In 2006, Bielema led the Badgers to a 12-1 season, though it ironically ended in a Citrus Bowl victory just as 2005 had. (Michigan beat Wisconsin in the regular season in 2006, and thus got the Rose Bowl bid when Ohio State went to the national championship game. Of those three Big Ten teams, only the Badgers won in January.)

Obviously, the sample size of one relatively new defensive coordinator taking over for a legend is too small a sample size to draw any conclusions, but the parallels to Freeman’s ascension at Notre Dame are too many to completely ignore.

The more notable sample size conclusion is that young, first-year head coaches have largely been able to maintain their program’s trendlines in their debut seasons across the last two decades.

The other notable realization from these names is that even the ones who initially failed were generally evaluated correctly by those who hired them. 12 of the 21 are still head coaches at the NFL or FBS levels, with six of them still in those original outposts. These coaches were seen as quite talented at a young age, and their lasting power reflects that. (It may also reflect the lack of originality in many hires, a shot that could be pointed at either Bielema at Illinois or Karl Dorrell at Colorado.)

Rich Rodriguez — 2001 — West Virginia — 7-5 to 3-8Mike Shula — 2003 — Alabama — 10-3 to 4-9Karl Dorrell — 2003 — UCLA — 8-5 to 6-7Mike Gundy — 2005 — Oklahoma State — 7-5 to 4-7Pat Fitzgerald — 2006 — Northwestern — 7-5 to 4-8

Bret Bielema — 2006 — Wisconsin — 10-3 to 12-1
Ron Prince — 2006 — Kansas State — 5-6 to 7-6
Dabo Swinney — 2009 — Clemson — 7-6 to 9-5Steve Sarkisian — 2009 — Washington — 0-12 to 5-7James Franklin — 2011 — Vanderbilt — 2-10 to 6-7D.J. Durkin — 2016 — Maryland — 3-9 to 6-7Clark Lea — 2021 — Vanderbilt — 0-9 to 2-10

Mike Leach — 2000 — Texas Tech
Dan Mullen — 2009 — Mississippi State
Will Muschamp — 2011 — FloridaDavid Shaw — 2011 — StanfordKliff Kingsbury — 2013 — Texas TechMark Helfrich — 2013 — OregonBarry Odom — 2016 — MissouriLincoln Riley — 2017 — OklahomaJonathan Smith — 2018 — Oregon State

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The requisite way-too-early top-25 rankings forecasting the 2022 preseason mostly have Notre Dame somewhere in the back half of the top 10, and they nearly unanimously had Ohio State at No. 2.

The last time the Irish opened the season with a top-10 matchup was 1990, when No. 1 Notre Dame beat No. 4 Michigan, 28-24, thanks to a touchdown pass from Rick Mirer to Adrian Jarrell with only 1:40 left on the clock. It would be the last night game in South Bend for 21 years.

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