CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nary an introduction had to be made among ACC head coaches this offseason, the first time in a decade without any get-to-know-you moments. For a league that needs to keep building on its newfound momentum, the consistency in its coaching ranks is a boon that has come at the right time.
Increased investment in football programs across the league has played a major role in the shift. That, in turn, has led to increased success, which not only makes it more appealing to stay in the league but also attracts high-quality coaches.
We turn to last season for proof. Established, winning coaches like Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) and Mark Richt (Miami) joined the league, along with rising stars Dino Babers (Syracuse) and Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech). Add them to a roster that includes Florida State's Jimbo Fisher (eight seasons), Clemson's Dabo Swinney (10 seasons), Duke's David Cutcliffe (10 seasons), Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson (10 seasons) and Louisville's Bobby Petrino (eight total seasons) and you have a head-coach group that top to bottom is as good as any in the country.
The 14 returning ACC head coaches have a combined 139 years' experience. Eight have coached at their respective schools for five years or more. It is not hard to draw a direct line between that stability and the surge in on-field success, turning the ACC into a destination conference.
When ACC coaches gush about the status of their league, they no longer just talk about players.
"I think it's an unbelievable group of coaches, a bunch of winners," Swinney said.
That has not gone unnoticed. When commissioner John Swofford greeted the Atlantic Division coaches at the start of ACC Kickoff on Thursday, he told them, "It's nice to have everybody back." He will say the same to the Coastal Division coaches Friday.
"Our schools are making good hires," Swofford said. "Maybe there's a better understanding that building programs takes time. I think there's an understanding on the coaches' part that this is as good a conference as there is in the country to be a head coach, that you can accomplish just about anything you want to accomplish coming from this league and that there's a lot of stability with the conference."
To help explain the transformation, we should start with Swinney. When he was tabbed as interim coach in 2008, Clemson, like the ACC, was mired in mediocrity. He spoke then about his bold vision for the future, about turning Clemson into a national force. To do it, he would need not only to become a recruiting power, he would need a major investment in the football program as a whole.
During his time as head coach, Clemson has built an indoor football facility and a new $50 million football operations facility and has also paid Swinney's assistants well, doling out some of the top contracts for coordinators in the country. As the wins piled up, Clemson rewarded Swinney, too. He now is in the $4 million-per-year salary club, one that also includes Fisher, Petrino and Richt.
Clemson, as it turns out, is now a destination job. So is Florida State, where Fisher has also spearheaded investments in the football program, including upgrades and renovations to Doak Campbell Stadium, coaches' offices, meeting rooms and the locker room. FSU also boasts a new indoor facility, and plans are in the works for a new football operations center.
"You're 9-3 in bowl games. You're winning nonconference games. So you're saying, 'Wait a minute, this league is as good as anybody, why do I got to go anywhere else?'" Fisher said. "Football is extremely important. What you're seeing ... the success, the salaries and the commitment the league and the schools are making to football and to say 'We want to be great, we want to win national championships,' people see that."
Stability at both Clemson and Florida State has obviously helped the league, as Swinney and Fisher are among just four active head coaches with national championships to their names. Bringing Petrino back has also helped Louisville, a place he has vowed to stay until he retires. Cutcliffe considers Duke his last job before he retires; same goes for Johnson at Georgia Tech. Four of these five coaches have competed in the ACC title game. There is no reason to believe Richt wants to coach anywhere besides his alma mater. Fuente has spoken at length about his respect and admiration for former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who spent 29 years as the Hokies' head coach.
How long leaguewide stability lasts is an open question. Boston College's Steve Addazio and NC State's Dave Doeren face crucial seasons at their schools. Whenever Alabama's Nick Saban retires, would Fisher or Swinney get a call? Hypotheticals for sure, but any college football observer has learned to never rule out coaches moving on to other jobs.
For now, the present dictates this is the best group of head coaches the ACC has ever had. Its recent success is proof.