With the mutually agreed upon departure of former head coach Gary Andersen from Oregon State, a coaching search has ensued. So has a long list of names of prospects. And there has been a lot of conversation about style, as in offensive guy or defensive?
These are good points to ponder, and they point out the dilemma facing Oregon State. On the one hand, the coach search has to proceed quickly, with a new coach hopefully named in early December, just after the end of the regular season, and notably before most if not all the bowl games. With an early signing period in December, followed closely with the main signing date, salvaging anything in recruiting this year is an important issue for a program already behind most of the conference in terms of talent and depth. And with all members of the current staff gone as soon as the Civil War is over, there are no relationships left, so the new staff has to be in place as soon as possible to pick up whatever pieces they can.
The new coach and his staff can’t be one that runs off talent that isn’t theirs either. With a late start on recruiting, current players are going to not only still be around, they are going to have to be the core of the program for at least a couple of years, and key contributors for a couple more years.
The new coach has to be capable of melding multiple attitudes, and figuring out how to make best use of diverse available personalities is a must. This was a major tactical and philosophical error Andersen made.
If the “my way or the highway, total buyin is the only way” attitude is brought in, any coach exposing that approach may as well go down that highway right away, or they will find themselves going down the highway soon enough as well. The successful candidate must be able to sell his vision, but he can’t expect to compel its adoption.
But if anything has been learned from the Andersen era, its that Oregon State has to get this next hire right. Which means doing their due diligence, looking beyond just the plusses that various candidates offer, and not ignoring red flags.
The issue of offensive guy vs defensive guy is an interesting one, made moreso by the recent successes of most notably Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, but also new Oregon DC Jim Leavitt, who has head coaching experience, and Washington co-DC Jimmy Lake, who also happens to be one of the most effective recruiters out there.
But Andersen was a defensive guy, and there may need to be a change to the other side of the ball for palliative reasons, if nothing else. It’s also worth noting that most teams in the Pac-12, and in the west, for that matter, especially the successful ones, have an offensive-oriented head coach, usually with a solid DC to primarily handle that side of the equation, rather than the other way.
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is the notable exception, but the consistent issue with the Utes has tended to be with the offense generally, and the quarterback position in particular. Sound familiar, OSU fans?
As such, I’d be surprised, and concerned, with a hire of a defensive guy as the head coach.
That doesn’t mean an offensive only guy; a repeat of the Sonny Dykes debacle at Cal, where the Bear Raid offense had some success, but generally speaking, the Bears didn’t even field a defense, can’t even be a potential outcome.
The new head coach has to understand the realities of competing in the Pac-12, something Andersen severely underestimated. Athletic Director Scott Barnes will need to ask very pointed questions of candidates what their philosophy, and more specifically, what their system and schemes will be.
Andersen’s mantra was that players win games. That was a fundamental error, and when his coordinators tried to run high school schemes, it only underscored the problem. Its an approach that might work when you have largely superior talent than at least most of your opponents. It worked for Andersen at Utah State when he caught lightning in a bottle in a couple of outstanding players, and was trying to develop a roster that merely had to be better than the bottom half of the Mt. West.
It worked for a while at Wisconsin as well, where the Badgers were in the best shape roster wise of any program in the B1G Ten West. It became a problem though when Wisconsin ran into Ohio State though, and was a signal to Andersen that getting out of Madison might be in his best interest.
At Oregon State, the Beavers, however, are at a talent and depth disadvantage in nearly every game not against FCS opponents. And other than on an occasional basis, they will never be with any regularity in a superior position to their opponents.
That’s NOT a suggestion that Oregon State can’t recruit competitive talent, a narrative too often spun and spread, usually after a self-inflicted recruiting gaff resulted in the Beavers losing a high end prospect to a rival. More on that later, but an honest approach and a sound and coordinated recruiting strategy (for a change) can elevate the talent pool to the level where the Beavers are generally competitive with their conference peers most of the time.
But not appreciably better; that’s a challenge for even USC & Washington, and essentially everyone else recruits well enough to be competitive. Hard work alone won’t get it done either, because everyone else works hard too.
System and scheme, and game plans, play calling, and in game adjustments are what wins games. You have to have players capable of winning, but you win at the Pac-12 level based on sound fundamentals and solid scheme, the things that can differentiate between teams loaded with athleticism.
But possibly the single biggest key to finding the right next guy will be finding out who his guys, his staff will be. And it can’t be generalities, the infamous “good guys who work hard”; it has to be very specifically who, and how they will be organized.
It was glaringly obvious from early on that a number of Andersen’s assistants were in over their heads, and the problems never got addressed. That became obvious when things deteriorated to the irreparable state the staff currently is in.
Further, when changes occurred, such as when Kalani Sitake left for BYU, attempts were made to change the defensive structure without regard to the fit of the existing players, both on the team and those recruited.
Whomever the next head coach is, and no matter how good or experienced he is, cannot resort to on the job training of coordinators, play callers, and key position coaches, like, say, the quarterback coach.
There has to be a system and scheme that is well above the high school level, and it has to be suited to the players who will have to run it.
The makeup of the staff is not just a Gary Andersen issue either. Much of the criticism of the end of the Mike Riley era centered around issues with Riley’s assistants as well. Nor is it a football only issue, though the football staff is the largest sport staff in the athletic department, and has the most pieces that must be the right ones. The Craig Robinson regime ended early in significant part because of issues where Robinson struggled and didn’t have strong enough support on staff.
Oregon State has seen the staffing issue become a regime ending issue multiple times recently, and so there is no excuse for not recognizing the magnitude of this aspect of the hiring process.
And recruiting has to get more savvy.
Coaches have to be current social media smart, and engaged. This is a deal breaker for every prospective member of the staff.
They also have to be coordinated, so that the mixed messages and communications confusion that plagued the current staff doesn’t happen.
And they have to be realistic. One of the most telling tales to come out of the collapse of the current staff was when a legit top prospect, one who had multiple offers from top tier programs, explained that when he visited Oregon State, the main thing the staff tried to sell the program on was facilities, and every other program this player had offers from had better facilities.
Oregon State has to finish the Reser remodel sooner than later, but even more importantly, the program can not try to sell its weaknesses as its strength, and expect prospects on a level to objectively compare with other programs to not cross Corvallis off their list then and there.
The program can not believe their own current marketing campaigns, nor expect others to believe them either.
Every member of the staff has to do their homework better as well, making sure they understand the interests of their top prospects, and connect with them. And they have to do a better job of talent evaluation. The current staff had far too many misses, ones that stunned even the players’ high school coaches in some cases, and ones that missed the capabilities of players who promptly transferred elsewhere and had success.
All these issues are the responsibility of the head coach, but can’t be managed exclusively by him. It’s one argument against anyone who hasn’t ever been a head coach at some level, which would be a concern for some popular possibilities, like former Oregon State quarterback and current Washington Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith.
Smith has spent a lot of time on quality staffs at Montana, Boise State, and now with the Huskies, and seen a lot about how a solid staff is put together. But doing it the first time is another matter, especially at this level. Further, Smith is not a person with an outgoing, engaging personality, at least as we have seen so far, something that is helpful to a head coach, who will be in the eye of the media and the public.
That’s why current California OC Beau Baldwin is an especially attractive prospect. He’s popular with a variety of northwest fan bases who have seen him beat multiple Pac-12 teams, Oregon State included, and also come very close against several others, and he’s very familiar with the situation in the northwest and across the conference. And HC experience that correlated with success at both Division II Central Washington and FBS Eastern Washington gives him a stronger resume than had he only ever been a coordinator. Plus, Baldwin and Barnes have shared time at EWU.
It also elevates the relative attractiveness of existing Group of 5 head coaches compared to anyone who has only coordinated.
Oregon State can’t afford a mistake, but a good hire could be a long-term hire as well, which is the single largest negative about current San Diego State head coach Rocky Long, who was also the Beavers’ defensive coordinator for 6 years in the 90’s. Long won the Mt. West with the Aztecs last year, and has them in the top 20, with a win over Stanford earlier this season. But at age 67, its unlikely he would be a long term solution regardless of how successful he might be at some point in the near future.
The lack of head coaching experience didn’t handicap Chip Kelly, and things might work out for Justin Wilcox at California as well. But those seem more the exception than the rule, and Oregon State can’t afford to have their next coaching hire fail, so any hire that is much of a reach could be too much of a reach.
The next 60 days are going to be the most pressure-packed ones of Scott Barnes’ life, never mind his career.
(Photo by Andy Wooldridge)