MORGANTOWN – Long, long ago there was a wonderful football coach at Clemson by the name of Frank Howard, who took what was a football program draped in obscurity and built it into national prominence.
Howard, however, was known as much for his sense of humor as he was coaching ability.
Most famous, perhaps, was his explanation of how he retired after 30 years for health reasons.
But often in his countrified style of talking Howard mixed facts with his humor, which led him to a description of how good a coach Alabama’s Bear Bryant was.
You see, football teams are about as good as their coaches and today in the Big 12 there is a coaching renaissance underway. You may ask, why are we revisiting this today?
Well, it has to do with West Virginia’s football coaching renaissance.
Headed in Oklahoma by Lincoln Riley, there seems to be a number of coaches with the promise to rebuild football programs of note. Brown is among that group, as is Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Kansas State’s Chris Klieman, and even Kansas’s 60-year-old retreat Les Miles, who has dusted off the National Championship trophy he won at LSU and is quickly reshaping the hapless Kansas program.
What effect has this had on the Big 12? Well, Riley already has felt it, being upset with his No. 5 Sooners two weeks ago by Klieman’s Kansas State team.
“There is a lot of respect for this league right now,” Riley said during Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call. “Anyone can beat anybody.”
“There are no easy outs in this league. The last few year there have been some, but not now,” Lincoln said.
And that means coaching is the No. 1 factor in having success in college football.
I can hear you screaming about talent, but this isn’t the professional ranks with a draft. A team’s success grows out of its recruiting and that goes back to the head coach.
Look at it this way. People would look at Urban Meyer in recent years and say “anyone can win at Ohio State.” But Urban Meyer won at Utah and at Florida, too.
The same goes for Nick Saban, who won at Michigan State and LSU before Alabama.
True, they know how to coach and their schemes are solid, but have the ability to get the best players, teach them the right way to play the game, put them in position to succeed and turn them loose.
There are, of course, good coaches who reach a level of success but can’t go beyond it.
The one who comes most readily to mind is Rich Rodriguez, who came home to West Virginia and built a unique power that nearly played for a national championship.
But he lost the biggest game of his life and then could not win at Michigan and Arizona, facing a tougher challenge than winning in the Big East.
This past week we had Neal Brown against Matt Rhule facing each other with almost identical resumes, having built winners from scratch at Troy and Temple, suffering losing seasons as built from the ground up, first introducing a culture, then turning it into a football team.
Rhule beat Brown in this first meeting they had, 17-14, even though his team was undefeated and ranked No. 12 in the nation, but you can lay that on being in his third season of recruiting and culture building while Brown has just begun.
This week, Brown faces another of those new Big 12 coaches trying to prove themselves at a higher level in Matt Wells of Texas Tech.
Wells was hired as Kliff Kingsbury’s replacement after his firing by Texas Tech. Wells had coached six years at Utah State, winning 9 or 10 games three times and splitting four bowl games.
Each is in his first Big 12 season, each has three wins and each has commented that they need to learn to win, putting themselves in position to win late on numerous occasions but not yet having the experience or talent to pull it off.
It is an intriguing Saturday Noon match up at Milan Puskar Stadium that will be shown on ESPN2.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel