Taking the head coaching plunge

When Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was Boston College's secondary coach in 2001, he watched a few of his former colleagues accept new coaching positions.

Al Golden, now head coach at Miami, was hired as Virginia's defensive coordinator. Mike London, now head coach at Virginia, left BC to become the Cavaliers' defensive line coach.

At the ripe age of 35, Shoop worried he was being left behind in a fast-moving profession.

So when Columbia University inquired about Shoop's interest in becoming its head coach in 2003, Shoop jumped at taking over the FCS program. Never mind that the Lions had been one of the worst programs in the Ivy League, failing to produce a winning season in the previous six years.

It was a head-coaching position, and that's what mattered to Shoop at the time.

"When I look back at it, I think about then and now," Shoop said. "I was at two different places in my life. When I took the job at Columbia, I'd been at Boston College for four years. I was on a hard charge and wasn't afraid of the challenge."

The Lions went 7-23 in Shoop's first three seasons and the school fired him. Columbia hasn't been any better without him, going 20-60 over the past eight seasons, including a 0-10 record last season.

Shoop's road back to FBS football was a long one. He spent the 2006 season as Massachusetts' secondary coach, and then spent four years as William & Mary's defensive coordinator. Penn State coach James Franklin took a chance in hiring Shoop as his defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt in 2011, and Shoop produced three straight FBS top-25 defenses. He followed Franklin to Penn State in January.

"It took me five years to get back to the [FBS] level," Shoop said. "Every time I talked to a search firm or a school about a position, the first thing they asked me about was Columbia. I'm not stupid. But I always think you learn from your mistakes and don't make them twice. I learned a lot from that situation, and I know I'd be a much better head coach if presented with another opportunity."

It's the quandary many highly regarded coordinators and mid-major head coaches face every offseason in college football: whether to remain at the school where they've been successful or take a head-coaching position, even if it might not be most ideal situation.

In recent history, there's a long list of men who flourished as coordinators and then flopped as head coaches. Auburn's Ellis Johnson is one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the country, after a 40-year career that also includes stops at Alabama, Clemson, Mississippi State and South Carolina. After Johnson left the Gamecocks to become Southern Miss head coach in 2012, he was fired after going 0-12 in his first season.

Former Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill turned woebegone Buffalo into a solid program in four seasons from 2006 to 2009, but then went 5-19 in two seasons at Kansas. After the Jayhawks fired him, Gill had to settle for a coaching position at FCS Liberty University. Charlie Weis helped the New England Patriots win three Super Bowl championships as their offensive coordinator, but he's 39-47 in eight seasons as a head coach at Notre Dame and Kansas.

But for every Mike Locksley and Ron Prince, there's an Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly. Meyer won big at Bowling Green and Utah, schools that had seldom won anything, before guiding Florida to two BCS national championships. Kelly built successful programs at Division II Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before he was named Notre Dame's coach.

So when is the right time for a coordinator to make a move? And what's the correct path?

"I really don't know the answer, to be honest with you," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "I think you just know when you know it's time to do it. I don't think you try to force it -- to where you want to be a head coach so bad that you'll jump at anything."

Bobo, who has coached quarterbacks at his alma mater for the past 14 seasons and directed UGA's offense since 2007, has had opportunities to leave. His name was connected to head-coaching positions at Southern Miss and Georgia Southern, and Virginia Tech tried to hire him as its offensive coordinator in 2013.

Bobo said he and his family are so emotionally attached to UGA that it would take the perfect situation to pry him out of Athens.

"[UGA coach] Mark Richt says if you want another job or a better job, apply enthusiasm to the one you have," Bobo said. "Ever since I heard him say that, it's the approach I've taken."

That seems to be the same approach for high-profile coordinators such as Clemson's Chad Morris, Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi and Alabama's Kirby Smart. They've had opportunities to leave for head-coaching positions, but have been patient and selective. Of course, they can afford to be choosy because they're three of the country's highest-paid assistants. Smart and Morris are scheduled to make $1.3 million this coming season; Narduzzi's pay was recently increased to more than $900,000 per season.

There's no reason for them to run out the door.

"You have to decide if you really want to be a head coach, if you really like the job you have, if you want to become the next $1 million coordinator, or if you want to go to the NFL," Shoop said. "It's about a fit."

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops waited more than 20 years to become a head coach. He coached defensive backs at schools such as South Florida, Wyoming, Houston and Miami before becoming defensive coordinator at Arizona and Florida State. After transforming the Seminoles into one of the country's most menacing defenses, he was hired as Kentucky's head coach before the 2013 season. The Wildcats went 2-10 in his first season.

"I just thought it was time," Stoops said. "I thought I was prepared to do it. I was never one of those guys in a huge hurry to be a head coach. I wanted to be a head coach when the timing was right, in the right situation and I felt like Kentucky was the right time and the right place."

Stoops said it helped that his brothers forged their paths to becoming head coaches before he did. Bob Stoops was a well-respected defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Florida before he was named Oklahoma's coach in 1999. Mike Stoops was OU's defensive coordinator for five seasons before he was named Arizona's coach in 2004. Mike Stoops had a 41-50 record in seven-plus seasons before he was fired after a 1-5 start in 2011. He returned to OU as defensive coordinator in 2012.

"It helped a great deal for me," Mark Stoops said. "Number one, it slowed me from just feeling like I had to be a head coach. I had some opportunities to be a head coach. I knew the obstacles that go along with being a head coach. I saw it firsthand with Bob and Mike. That's why I was very cautious and very selective."

Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who replaced Frankin at Vanderbilt, always knew he wanted to be a college head coach. When Mason left his job as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive backs coach to join Stanford's staff in 2010, he put a five-year plan in place to reaching that goal.

Mason said former NFL coach Willie Shaw, the father of Stanford coach David Shaw, helped him formulate his career path.

"Willie was always a big influence on me," Mason said. "He talked to me about making sure that you know and understand where you want to go. For a long time, I just worked to be a good coach. But at some point, you start to look at the leadership piece and start to realize that as you grow. You realize what your goals are and really start to focus in on them."

Others, such as Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster and former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, never found better jobs than the ones they had.

Oregon's Don Pellum spent more than two decades as an assistant coach until he was promoted to defensive coordinator this year.

"At a certain point, if you want to be a coordinator or head coach, you have to hop on that train," Pellum said. "I just made a decision that I'm in a great place. Oregon has been a great place."