clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Demise Of The "CEO Coach", And The Future of Texas Football

There's a trend in college football leadership and it's pointing in one direction...

Harry How


Coach Wonk is winning. And the Coach Administrator is reeling.

Blame the spread. Blame Dick Lebeau. Blame the near-instant cross-pollination of the NFL, college, and high school enabled by social media, where winning ideas spread through coaching clinics like pollen to pistils (or The Pistol), and successful rebels are feted instead of beaten down by the conformist culture of football coaches.

The most highly ranked and/or most resurgent programs in college football are being led by head coaches who serve as their own coordinator, or are as good or better at the job than the junior men they've tasked. Whatever their outward shell, these coaches are, at their core, football nerds. Many are among the best teachers in the game and most of them have invented actual stuff - new plays, philosophies, novel ways of thinking, now copied at every level of football.

Look at the current BCS players:

1. Notre Dame - Brian Kelly

One of the most respected general X&O coaches around. Started out as a DC and then earned his reputation as an offensive mind willing to push the envelope. Rare head coach who can offer substantive input on either side of the ball.

2. Alabama - Nick Saban

Defensive mastermind. Entire career grounded in X&Os, development, and organization.

3. Georgia - Mark Richt

Former Offensive Coordinator for Bobby Bowden for 7 years and spent a decade and half as a QB coach. In the early 2000s, Richt was considered a cutting edge spread coach (in the press, at least), but now more of an Administrator.

4. Florida - Will Muschamp

Saban pupil. Meteoric rise based on X&O facility.

**4. Ohio State - Urban Meyer**

Ohio State isn't included in the BCS for probation reasons, but Meyer merits obvious mention (Ohio State is #4 in the AP). Considered one of the early innovators of the run-spread-option offense.

5. Oregon - Chip Kelly

Considered one of the great innovators in the run-oriented spread. Concepts around pace pushing the boundaries of game tempo.

6. KSU - Bill Snyder

Long time OC for Hayden Fry at Iowa. Considered one of the best scouting minds in football. The Purple Wizard.

7. LSU - Les Miles

More of an Administrator type of coach, but Miles has coached a ton of positions at the NFL and college level, was a 3 year OC at Oklahoma State in the late 90s.

8. Stanford - David Shaw

Former Stanford OC grounded in Harbaugh ball and the power offense. X&O guy, son of NFL coach.

9. Texas A&M - Kevin Sumlin

Longtime former OC, early spread adopter, Malzahn confidant.

10. Florida State - Jimbo Fisher

Offensive coordinator for LSU and FSU from 2000-2010. Saban acolyte.

There's a pattern here.

Every one of these coaches was either a coordinator in the last two decades (meaning: they're current and grounded in the modern precepts of football) - even the more Administrator types (Miles, Richt) - most are considered the best in their profession. Most of these gentlemen could coordinate a college (or NFL) unit tomorrow. Of course, a coordinator becoming a head coach is nothing new. It's an expected rite of passage. But the ascendance of the innovator and the primacy of the X&O tactician may be.

The so-called CEO coach - the manager, the administrator, the avuncular program chieftain, the titular face of the program and a broader culture, the telegenic figurehead, the representation of our brand of by-God-football, is disappearing, squeezed out by mercenary experts, inventors, and hard-driving implementers.

Prometheus has broken his chains, strangled the eagle, and Zeus is on the run.

The CEO Head Coach

Despite my title, I hate the phrase "CEO coach." I prefer Administrator. Or whatever term you can come up with. I use CEO as shorthand reluctantly, because it's laden with baggage and bad assumptions. And there is this pesky fact: those multiple lines that go up to about a half dozen different offices over the head coach of football? And no, they really aren't analogous to the Board of Directors or stockholders.

Most head coaches aren't really CEO of anything.

On the inter-webs, the "CEO coach" is used both as praise and insult.

Some use it as a wreath. This man is no mere whistle - he's a titan of industry! A CEO! Jock-sniffing meets business press star-fucking.

For me it always conjures the hagiographic covers of business magazines - the CEO pictured with confident smirk and crossed arms, rolled up shirt-sleeves, loosened tie, popped top button, slightly disheveled $180 dress shirt - meant to convey that this Connecticut milquetoast is both street tough and has been up all night solving problems. For me, those covers usually signal the silent three year countdown on that CEO transforming the company stock into Confederate scrip and being discovered in a public park wearing a garter belt with a cucumber in his ass.

CEO coach is also used as a criticism - a mocking of incapacity. Well, our coach can't really do anything about our struggling defense or offense. He's a CEO coach. Maybe we can bring in a consultant or something. If the head football coach can't diagnose or correct a problem on his immediate staff and yet we refer to him as a "CEO coach", you've got there what scientists call a contradiction.

Second disclaimer: In what will be an ultimately fruitless, proactive effort to prevent the discussion sparked by this topic from descending into rapid caricature of Asperger-tinged X&O nerds vs. Glad-Handing Dolts - it's important to note that I am describing competencies. Not personalities. Or capacities. And all head coaches know football. The question is depth and currency.

Competencies are not all-or-nothing. Most of us think in simple dualisms - if a coach is good at Xs and Os, they must be narrowly focused and incapable of seeing the big picture; conversely, if a coach has a high EQ and considerable polish, then they must be shallow frauds completely reliant on their assistants to explain to them what's happening on the field.

It doesn't work that way. Except when it does.

Nick Saban is a X and O leading light who runs a much tighter and efficient organizational ship than classic "CEO coach" Mack Brown. There are plenty of Administrator types who know a ton of football, but choose to focus their efforts elsewhere; just as there are as many innovators who are delightful personalities and kick-ass motivators as there are awkward social mutants.

The defense of the Administrator or CEO coach is straightforward enough. College football is about much more than Xs and Os. It's also about bringing together squabbling alumni, placating donors, organizing, recruiting, juggling egos and budgets, kissing babies, following rules (or not following them in clever ways), and creating a successful long-term culture. This is true. And no program will succeed without finding some way to master those elements.

The easiest way to ease many of those tasks is to win on the field.

In fact, the necessary precondition for all of those elements even mattering is winning on the field. Or, if you're in a rebuild mode, the promise of winning. So what helps you to win? The off-the-field competencies are all means to that end. They are not ends in and of themselves, no matter how much they spark warm fuzzies in your fan base or stock your roster with talent.

You'd better coach 'em up.

Why the X&O head coach?

The advantages of a X&O head coach in a game apace with change who can get down and dirty on the dry erase board are found primarily in two areas:

1. Quality control.

A gifted schematic coach usually has an understanding of cause and effect that his peers do not. At both unit and position levels. They are not reliant on the offensive coordinator's tortured explanations for why the players are the sole cause for a 3 point, 112 yard effort. They can see plainly when the OL coach has no idea how to teach a protection. They know what good looks like and they're able to enforce staff accountability at all levels. That's important even when you make good hires, but it's vital when you slip up and make a bad hire.

Similarly, even at the level of recruiting, S&C, diet, or academic counseling, you're more likely to have a specific vision of what you want from your football team when you have a specific vision of what you want on the field.

There's awareness and there's knowing. X&O coaches KNOW. They usually fall for other reasons.

2. Head coach as extra coordinator.

The NCAA limits the number of bodies on a coaching staff. It's a true zero sum game, no matter how much Nick Saban tries to game the system. If the head man can pitch in at key moments or plant an important seed, that's a significant tactical advantage. You have three coordinator level coaches on your staff.


For all of his sophistication, the Administrator Head Coach without real X and O facility or a naturally analytical mindset is utterly dependent on the hires he makes and, without any really useful way to evaluate them beyond basic outcomes data (scores, points allowed, wins, losses), isn't operating at much more of a level of sophistication than you or me.

Granted, broader management is a key skill and those who are focused only on their narrow field of arcane specialty will find their time as head coach short and unfulfilling, but as I cautioned above, capacities and competencies are not always tied in neat packages.

Similarly, the forward thinker of one generation (Bobby Bowden) can quickly become a calcified relic if unwilling to change their ways and - more commonly - fall into nepotism and surround themselves with remoras and yes-men. That's why it's important to never define the program as your head coach, no matter how much the machine he commands and the media tries to make him so.


The particular genius of Mack Brown (and many successful Administrator coaches) is that he has defined the position of head coach at Texas in such a way that even his critics are forced into thought patterns that necessitate that his future replacement must fill his psycho-social shoes as small town mayor and the head of the Longhorn Chamber of Commerce in addition to head coach of a football team. It winnows down the list of acceptable candidates from pages to lines and suggests that anything people-related (recruiting, television, alumni relations) will come crashing down without his magic touch.

Probably not. And we know that because of the the Texas coaching legend that just passed, who had a very different approach to the job. The truth is that any coach who wins at Texas will find themselves used as the template for future hires - whether the no-nonsense, disciplined, down-to-earth Darrell Royal to the warm, coalition-building, political genius of Mack Brown.

Just win. You'll be amazed how quickly fans fit the job to the man rather than ask the man to become their vision of the job.