Fewer schools hiring alums as coaches

At his introductory news conference at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh recounted a story of legendary Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler catching a young Harbaugh in his office chair with his feet propped up on the desk.

In late December, Harbaugh sat in Schembechler's chair again after he agreed to take over as the head football coach at Michigan, the school where his father Jack once coached under Schembechler and where Jim had already been a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1986.

"There have been times in my life where I've thought and dreamed about it," Harbaugh said shortly after leaving the San Francisco 49ers to become Michigan's coach and potential program savior. "Now it's time to live it. I've thought about being coach at Michigan, my dad coached at Michigan. That was something I really looked up to and wanted to emulate from the time I was a youngster."

Certainly many major-college coaches share such affections for their alma maters, but Harbaugh's "Michigan Man" story is far from common these days. Alumni status is still a valuable asset during a coaching search, but it is apparently not as important as it might have been a few decades ago.

Out of the 34 FBS head coaching hires over the past two offseasons, only four went to alums of the various institutions: Michigan picked Harbaugh, Wisconsin selected Paul Chryst, Boise State hired Bryan Harsin and Central Michigan choose John Bonamego.

That more or less resembles the hiring trends in the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame) programs in which alums fill just seven of the 65 head coaching positions: Harbaugh, Chryst, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Stanford's David Shaw, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury. In 1990, 11 Power 5 teams were coached by alums.

Further, it is obviously unnecessary in order to enjoy success at the highest level. Of the teams ranked in last season's final Associated Press Top 25, only Harsin's Boise State club was coached by an alum. By comparison, six teams from the final poll of 1990 had an alum head coach.

But is this trend a mere coincidence or have attitudes toward hiring alums changed?

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity -- who has worked as an administrator with alum and non-alum head football coaches at both Georgia and Florida -- believes it's coincidental.

"I'd think a lot of administrators would love that combination because of the link back," McGarity said. "I do think there's something unique and special about alumni coming back to be a coach at any level because there's just a level of passion, there's a level of understanding of the culture. It's like coming home.

"So I think when all those things align, I think it's probably the ultimate experience. But that's not the norm anymore just due to circumstances. I don't think it's anything intentional."

However, the numbers have changed more in McGarity's conference, the SEC, than in any other Power 5 league.

In 1990, six of the 10 SEC schools (prior to South Carolina and Arkansas joining in 1992 and Texas A&M and Missouri in 2012) had alums as head coaches.

In 2015, the SEC does not have a single alum head coach and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier (Florida) is the only one who even attended an SEC school.

LSU coach Les Miles -- as much of a "Michigan Man" as you'd ever care to meet -- said it usually isn't as simple as a coach dropping everything to take a job at his alma mater. The right combination of timing and circumstances must exist for such a move to make sense, and that hasn't happened in the numerous times Miles' name popped up during coaching searches at Michigan.

"It matches up many times and I think it's ideal. I think it's where a coach wants to be," Miles said. "And sometimes timing never works. It never works, and that's just the way it is. I can tell you this: The loyalty to your school is a forever thing. It just never goes away. But to think that the timing of the entry to the school, where the opportunity would meet you in your professional timeframe, really it's very difficult to do."

And among Miles' fellow SEC coaches, it's apparent that winning trumps everything these days -- even loyalty to the men who played at good ol' State U.

There was a time when a connection to Bear Bryant was a near necessity to even gain consideration as a head coaching candidate at Alabama. But Kent State grad Nick Saban might have put the "Bear's Boys" requirement to rest for good by winning more consistently thus far at Alabama than did Bryant himself.

Review the SEC's roster of head coaches and it's apparent that a big-school degree is no predictor of future coaching success. The coaches who met in last season's SEC championship game, Saban and Missouri's Gary Pinkel, both attended Kent State. Auburn's Gus Malzahn attended Henderson State. Mississippi State's Dan Mullen went to Ursinus College, an NCAA Division III school in Pennsylvania. Tennessee's Butch Jones graduated from Division II Ferris State.

"We've got some of the best coaching in the country in the SEC right now going on," said Johnny Majors, who left Pittsburgh after winning the 1976 national championship to take over a rebuilding project at his alma mater, Tennessee, where he had been the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1956.

Majors is an example of the good and the bad that can accompany an alum's return as head coach. He acknowledged that he probably felt more pressure to succeed because of his university ties, but still accepted the job despite having just led Pitt to an undefeated season.

"I think you put some more extra pressure on yourself going back to your alma mater and I think people expect more, particularly when you've had success prior to your going there," Majors said. "Expectations are very high, and that was the hardest decision I've ever had to make because I was leaving the No. 1 team in the country and we had it going."

Majors said Tennessee fans "supported me very strongly" even when the Vols endured some rocky seasons early in his tenure. By the mid-1980s, though, he had built Tennessee into a winning program and helped the Vols finish in the top 15 in six of his final eight seasons.

His tenure ended with a bitter split after Majors experienced health issues in 1992, opening the door for the university administration to make assistant Phil Fulmer the Vols' full-time head coach.

"The only negative thing from that experience was the administration that turned on me after we had the three best years of my career in '89, '90 and '91," Majors said.

Coaching changes are rarely seamless, and they can be even messier when a university alum is involved. It happened at Georgia with Ray Goff, at Notre Dame with Charlie Weis and at Alabama with Mike Shula.

But when it goes well, it can go extremely well.

Bryant turned Alabama into a football powerhouse when he returned to his alma mater in 1958. Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy at Florida in 1966, turned the Gators from college football's sleeping giant to one of the sport's most dominant programs in the 1990s. Now Michigan hopes Harbaugh can help restore the glory to a program that has won more games than any major program, but went just 20-18 over the past three seasons under Brady Hoke.

No doubt Harbaugh's NFL coaching resume and college success at San Diego and Stanford have Michigan fans confident he can build a winning program. But it's his status as a former Wolverines star that pushes their optimism over the top.

That's how it goes when alums answer their alma mater's call.

"The Steve Spurrier dynamic at Florida was I just think the ultimate experience," said McGarity, who was Florida's associate athletic director for nearly all of Spurrier's tenure as the Gators' head coach. "There you had a player that won the Heisman Trophy, was beloved as a student-athlete, beloved as a coach. It's just special about a guy that excelled in play, that's where he met his wife -- he met Jerri there -- and I just think when those things align, it creates a really special dynamic if you can be at your alma mater and get things done.

"But that's the exception and not the rule."