In Defense of Hiring a Young Defensive Coordinator

nick_howellThere is a hot seat in Provo, and BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall is sharing it with his young and inexperienced Defensive Coordinator Nick Howell. There was little outrage at the DC promotion given to Howell this season–he’s been working with the defense since 2007 and most felt he was doing a good job and deserved the promotion. However, as he has guided the defense to a very underwhelming 2014 campaign there are certainly now fan rumblings calling for his dismissal. These voices of dissent have pointed out that Howell is very young (he’s now 35), had no prior D1 coaching experience, didn’t even have a winning record as a High School head coach at Ben Lomond, and didn’t play a single down of collegiate or professional football. I say those are all dumb arguments.

Just to be clear, I am not defending Bronco’s decision to hire Nick Howell nor am I saying that hiring young assistant coaches is a great idea. I am saying that there is certainly precedent for hiring young (and inexperienced) coaches, and sometimes those decisions work out for the best.

Coaches Don’t Need Playing Experience

Nick Howell has been criticized for rising in the ranks so quickly despite never even playing football professionally. This is one criticism that has little footing. The most successful head coach in the NFL right now is New England’s Bill Belichick, who played at D3 Washington & Jefferson College and never played professionally. Packers coach Mike McCarthy played at Baker University an NAIA school in Kansas while Steelers coach Mike Tomlin played at D 1-AA William & Mary. Indeed, in the NFL only 19 percent (6/32) of the head coaches ever played football professionally, and that trend is similar in the college ranks. While other sports expect coaches to have considerable playing experience, head football coaches are needed to act more like CEOs, being able to delegate and manage effectively. Their assistants also need not rely on playing experience (although it certainly helps), but benefit from being hip with the youngsters as they focus on other coaching responsibilities.

The value of youth

Youth can actually be a real asset in college football coaching. There is a trend in college football for hiring younger and younger football coaches. An argument can be made that youth helps in recruiting top talent. Also, young coaches are more likely to understand how to navigate social media which is growing increasingly important in recruiting. Finally, young coaches often have the ability to pump energy into tired programs. All of these reasons have resulted in hiring more and more young (and inexperienced) coaches.

So there are young coaches in college football. Indeed, at least three HEAD football coaches at the FBS level are Nick Howell’s age or younger (P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan; Matt Campbell, Toledo; Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech). ranks the 40 best defensive coordinators in College Football. Five of the current top 25 are under the age of 40.

Notable young defensive coordinators include:

  • Will Muschamp, who was the DC for LSU in 2001 (age 30), the Miami Dolphins in 2005 (34), Auburn in 2006 (35) and became Florida’s head coach in 2011 (age 40).
  • Dave Aranda. who is the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. He was 37 when he was hired by Gary Anderson in 2013. He had three years of DC experience at the D1 level prior to his hire at Wisconsin.
  • Tyrone Nix was promoted to DC at Southern Miss in 2001 (age 29) and later worked as DC for Ole Miss. He’s currently the DC for Middle Tennessee.
  • Matt Eberflus has been the linebacker’s coach for the Dallas Cowboys since 2011. Prior to working at the pro ranks he was the DC at Missouri (2001-08, age 31)
  • Manny Diaz has been a Defensive Coordinator since 2006 (age 32) at Middle Tennessee. He was the DC at Mississippi State (2010), Texas (2011-13), and is currently at Louisiana Tech
  • Brent Venables was hired as the DC at Oklahoma in 2004 at the age of 33. He was co-DC two years before that and is the current DC at Clemson.

There are at least EIGHT coordinators in the NFL under the age of 40: Adam Gase (Broncos OC, age 35), Pep Hamilton (Colts OC, 39), Matt Patricia (Patriots DC, 39), Jedd Fisch (Jaguars OC, 35), Kyle Shanahan (Redskins OC, 34), Brian Schottenheimer (Rams OC, 40), Dowell Loggains (Titans OC, 33), Nathaniel Hackett (Bills OC, 34).

Feeling Pressure and Being Micro-Managed

Being a young coordinator is difficult enough, but being a coach for a program like BYU brings its own unique set of challenges. In addition to dealing the recruiting nuances that come with having LDS players that serve missions, non-LDS players that are willing to give a private religious institution a try, and married players (some who have kids) that have complicated lives to balance; coaches at BYU have to deal with a passionate fan base that compares every year to 1984, has strong opinions about Independence vs. Conference affiliation, and wants the best coaches out there, despite there being very few LDS coaches.

All of those factors add up to a lot of pressure, and who feels the most pressure? The head coach, of course. So when BYU started losing Bronco pulled the reigns away from Howell and took over the Defensive Coordinator responsibilities himself once again. That lasted for one whole week and then Howell was given back control of his defense. With the musical chairs (and all the injuries) Is it any wonder that the defense has performed inconsistently?

So… if you want to throw BM and Nick Howell under the bus, go right ahead. But do it for what is happening on the field, not their pedigree. Then again, you might feel that Howell shows promise and should be given a fair shake. There are still two games left to play this season… is the jury still out on Howell or are you ready to send him packing?

Related Articles