Boston College coach Frank Spaziani and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney are both in their first full seasons as head coach. Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson is in his second. So is David Cutcliffe at Duke. Miami coach Randy Shannon is wrapping up his third, as are Tom O’Brien and Butch Davis, who, considering the transition in the league, seem like longtime neighbors at their respective schools after just three seasons.
That’s more than half the conference that has made a head-coaching change in the past three seasons, and there could be as many as three more at the end of this year, though it’s more likely there will be one or two. While coaching carousels have become more common as the pressure and paydays to win have increased, the ACC seems to have dealt with an unusual amount of turnover in recent years, and it’s a trend that’s likely to continue if high-ranking officials at Virginia, Maryland and Florida State decide it’s time for a change.
The least likely early exit would be Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, as his $4 million buyout would put the athletic department in a serious bind, and possibly cause the elimination of some nonrevenue sports. FSU coach Bobby Bowden has indicated he’d like to return, but he and Virginia coach Al Groh might not have a choice.
The lack of staff stability is one of the most glaring yet overlooked reasons as to why the conference has struggled to develop much consistency. It affects recruiting, it affects in-house relationships, and it affects Saturdays. The one program that has been the ACC’s rock since it joined the league has been Virginia Tech, and it’s no coincidence considering the tenure Frank Beamer has held and the loyalty his assistants have to him. The same can be said at Wake Forest, where Jim Grobe has turned down more lucrative offers because unless his whole staff goes, he stays.
Different coaches bring different philosophies and different schemes, which makes what Johnson has done at Georgia Tech in just two seasons even more impressive. The same can be said for Boston College, where Spaziani, Jeff Jagodzinski and O’Brien have all had an opportunity to put their stamp on the program while still managing to contend for the ACC title.
What the ACC needs now is for those programs to do what’s necessary to keep those coaches in place to help build their programs and develop identities. It’s starting to happen at Miami, but with two new coordinators and a young roster that still needs more time to develop. Progress is also evident at Duke, which is still in the midst of its most successful season since 1994. Mission accomplished for Swinney and Spaziani, who have both put their programs in a neck-and-neck race for the Atlantic Division. Davis is on the right path at North Carolina, where recruiting is going well and he’s in a position to increase the win total again. And O’Brien is a proven veteran with a winning record who still needs more time.
But change -- wanted or not -- continues to be imminent in this league. The new offensive scheme at Virginia didn’t work. The coach-in-waiting plans at Florida State and Maryland are backfiring. For better or for worse, it’s time for those programs to follow their counterparts and decide which direction they want to go. Because right now, the rest of the conference has a one-to-three year head start.