As many in the BYU fanbase start to contemplate joining the #FireBronco movement, the difficulty of the BYU coaching position becomes a major talking point. If you have somebody who can do a B, B+ caliber job, and the job is nearly impossible, is it worth blowing everything up to try and find an A caliber guy? In February, David Cutliffe of Duke called BYU the "toughest job in America". Recently, others in the BYU media universe have floated that idea as well. Given BYU's unique place, both as an institution, and in college football, that's not a silly idea on the surface.
Is BYU really the hardest jobthough? Let's take a closer look at both what makes a coaching job difficult, and who some of the other possible candidates for toughest job in the sport might be ,
I'm evaluating the difficulty of a potential coaching job on the following factors:
1) Proximity to potential recruits. Even if you're a bad team, if you're located in South Florida, you're awfully close to a lot of FBS level football talent, and it's a lot easier to convince a kid to join a school 30 minutes away than 3,000 miles away. Likewise, if you're in Idaho, or share a state that doesn't produce many kids, you're already at a big disadvantage.
2) Talent Gap on the schedule. If you're in the MAC, you probably have a small budget and you're struggling to bring in five star recruits. The good news is, so is virtually everybody else in the MAC. Relative parity in terms of resources makes it easier for a struggling team to catch up. If you're a team full of two and three stars and you're stuck playing Texas and Oklahoma every year? That's a much tougher situation.
3) Tradition. If a school has been successful before, especially recently, it's easier to pitch to both recruits, and potential assistant coaches, that it can be successful again. Programs that have had long periods without success, or perhaps no success at all, are at a bigger disadvantage.
4) Recruitment restrictions. Does the school have academic requirements that significantly outstrip the NCAA minimums? Is there a restrictive campus honor code? Is the school limited in their ability to take JUCOs? Some schools have more flexibility than others in who they can go after.
5) Other potential extenuating circumstances. Is this program caught in conference realignment hell? Is their budget situation tenuous? Do they not have any fans? Do they not have a stadium?
With that being said, let's first take a look at BYU, and then some other schools in FBS
1) Proximity to potential recruits: Not very good! High school football in the state of Utah is improving, but the amount of high end talent that the state produces is small, AND the Cougars have to share it with Utah, and a suddenly resurgent Utah State program. When Utah produces a high four-star level talent, they also have to worry about Pac-12 or Big Ten schools coming in to poach. BYU's neighboring states (Idaho, Arizona, Colorado) also don't produce many kids, forcing the school to go to California, Washington, Texas, and elsewhere.
2) Talent Gap. It's growing, and will continue to be an issue as long as BYU is an independent, but it isn't large enough to prevent them from being a regular bowl team. Over the last four years, BYU's recruited at a high two star level, and on this year's schedule, they only face three teams that have superior talent on paper (and for what it's worth, BYU beat both Texas and Virginia). Even with this year considered a down year for BYU scheduling, the Cougars typically have at least 6-7 games against squads recruiting worse than them, occasionally substantially so. While that gap is likely preventing them from seriously competing for playoff bids or NYE bowls, it's not so deep as to prevent them from being a good, regular bowl team.
3) Tradition. BYU doesn't have great recent history of being an elite team, but it's been nothing if not a consistently good one. BYU has made nine bowl games in a row (most elite programs can't say that), and will probably make a tenth this season. They've made at least one appearance in the AP Poll for six of the last nine years. They have a national title. They have a Heisman trophy. They've put people in the NFL. People know that teams can at least be good, perhaps very good, at BYU.
4) Recruitment restrictions. Very strong. BYU's academic requirements for football recruits are above the NCAA minimum, but they're also not very different from those used by many Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 schools. They're not as stringent as say, Northwestern or Duke. The catch, of course, is the Honor Code. No sex. No booze. No...uh...beards. Having to take religious curriculum. While I think that the impact of this is a little overstated (there are Honor Code compliant individuals on every high level football team in the country), combined with the academics, and other aspects, it does present a significant challenge
5) Other extenuating circumstances. There are things that really work in BYU's favor, and things that don't. On the one hand, BYU has a big (and gorgeous) stadium. It has an ESPN contract. It has a large and passionate fanbase. Their association with the LDS Church gives the program a connection to fans all over the world, and if there is an athlete outside of BYU's footprint who happens to be LDS, the program has at least a puncher's chance at him.
On the other hand, that association can be a lightning rod during recruiting. BYU as a campus is a unique place that very much isn't for everybody, and the racial, theological, political and demographic makeup of the school and the surrounding community is going to be a turnoff for some prospective athletes, even among LDS prospects. A lack of conference affiliation probably doesn't help, and having to factor in a large number of returned missionaries makes roster management at BYU a huge challenge. The uncertainty that comes from athletes and missionary service probably isn't replicated anywhere else.
Conclusion: This is a hard job, but the right coach can turn some of these disadvantages into advantages, and there are harder ones.
Okay. So what about the most obvious answer for toughest jobs?
1) Proximity to potential recruits. Completely moot. The recruiting restrictions are so severe for these schools that all three must recruit nationally. Not because their #brand allows them to, but because they couldn't even fill out a team if they stuck to their own geographic region.
2) Talent Gap. Could not be more stark. thanks to the heavy recruiting restrictions, the service academies are functionally shut out of the mainstream recruiting landscape. Army has only a tiny handful of three star guys on the entire roster, and most of the lines are totally unranked. Air Force had the 109th ranked recruiting class in 2014. Army was 127th. Navy was 129th. There are FCS programs that are doing better, recruiting wise, on paper, and it means that the service schools will have inferior talent to virtually every single FBS program they face.
3) Tradition. Sure, when you look at the history of college football, these programs have it in spades. Navy has been a bowl team every year but one since 2003, and will be again this season, thanks to an excellent run of coaches. Air Force struggled last year, but made bowls six years in a row. Army has mostly sucked over the last twenty years, but their role in college football history is very strong.
Most of these teams are making their living from using their schematic advantages over other bad teams. Army has finished in the AP Top 25 once since 1959. Navy only once since 1964. Air Force did it four times since 1971, most recently in 1998. But if you're going to play football at one of these schools, you're not going there to win big awards or play in the NFL.
4) Recruitment restrictions. Highest in college football, and it isn't even close. My friend and colleague Kevin Trahan wrote a really good article on how recruiting works at these schools, but here is the basic gist:
- Academics. At Air Force, prospective players need to have at least a 3.5 high school GPA, a 25 on the ACT in all subjects, and a minimum of a 1200 two-part SAT score. Requirements are similarly rigorous at the other service academies. Lt. Col. Gaylord Greene, who works in admissions at Army, said coaches will often encourage recruits to take more core courses, since the school requires more of them for entry than most others do.
- Height and weight requirements. They differ slightly by academy, but at Air Force, a 6'4 applicant cannot weigh more than 221 pounds for admission -- and must also not weigh more than that upon graduation. In some cases at the academies, athletes can be over the height or weight limits but must still adhere to stringent body fat restrictions. This makes recruiting offensive linemen very difficult. "I'd love to have a bunch of 320-pound guys with good feet," Calhoun said. "We've never had a 285-pound kid, which is very small for a Division I offensive lineman. We usually average 255 pounds with our offensive line."
- Mandatory military service. Unlike players who sign a normal scholarship tender, athletes at the service academies sign on to serve in active military duty after college. As expected, that "is a turnoff for a lot of kids," according to new Army head coach Jeff Monken.
So basically, you add a tough honor code, impose strict physical requirements that cripple your ability to build a competitive line, AND perhaps the toughest academic benchmarks in FBS AND oh yeah you have to join the armed forces. Unparalleled in the sport.
5) Other extenuating circumstances. Sure, it's great that everybody has heard of the service academies, but that whole "you have to join the armed forces" bit afterwards can't be overstated as a potential deterrent. Plus, it's not like these schools are swimming in money for coaches or other bells and whistles. Given all of that, it's hard to imagine a harder coaching job in all of FBS.
1) Proximity to potential recruits. You could do worse. Campus is just outside of Detroit, and is a short drive from Toledo, and some of the more fertile recruiting grounds in Ohio. These areas are pretty much where every MAC and B1G team recruits though, so competition is fierce, especially as population continues to shift away from the midwest. EMU shares Michigan with two major programs, and two other MAC programs as well.
2) Talent Gap. So the nice thing about the MAC is that there aren't too many huge talent gaps throughout the conference. The exception might be at Eastern Michigan, which has been unable to secure their footing since they joined FBS back in the 1970s. A strong recruiter hustler might be able to cobble together some classes in the low 90s, but talent wise, EMU is probably closer to Navy than it is Toledo. Last year's class was ranked 120.
3) Tradition. Less than none. EMU has made one bowl in their entire history, and that was in 1987. They haven't finished with a winning record since 1995. They're just a shout away from one of the most historic football programs ever, Michigan, and are so starved for attention they turned their field gray.
4) Recruitment restrictions. Other than finding people who are actually interested in playing for Eastern Michigan, no.
5) Extenuating circumstances. You have a small program that has never been successful playing in the shadow of one of the most successful in history, all while fighting over a shrinking pool of recruits with everybody else in your conference. Seems at least as tough as BYU.
1) Proximity to potential recruits. Terrible. Idaho produced only eight FBS prospects in 2014, and not a single bluechipper. Idaho signed one of them. There are only five this season, and Idaho might not get any. Bigger names are likely to go to Washington, BYU or Boise State. Idaho hits the JUCO circuit hard, and wracks up quite a bit of miles doing it.
2) Talent Gap More manageable now, assuming Idaho remains in the Sun Belt. The Georgia Southerns, Arkansas States and Georgia States may eventually widen their gap, given their favorable geography and history, but even though Idaho sits near the bottom of the Sun Belt rankings, it's not like the league invited Texas when nobody was looking.
3) Tradition. None. It has never, not once, been ranked in the AP. It has only made two bowl games (and hey, one of those was in 2009!). It has had three winning seasons since I was born in 1987. Their budget is one of the smallest in all of FBS. They've changed conference affiliations five times since 2000. Little has been stable about Idaho.
4) Recruiting restrictions. Only their geography and budget. Idaho is very active on the JUCO front.
5) Extenuating circumstances. Thanks to the death of the WAC, Idaho plays in a conference against schools thousands of miles away. It's tucked in a remote corner of the country with nearly zero recruits. Their team has been terrible for decades. While expectations may be low (6-6 would mean a contract extension), there aren't many places on paper that look like tougher rebuilding jobs than Idaho.
1) Proximity to potential recruits. Not great. Iowa's high schools don't produce many prospects, and the Cyclones share the state with Iowa, which tends to get the better ones. Iowa does have a community college powerhouse in Iowa Western, but they're not always able to get the best kids from that program either, who end up all over the country. The Great Plains areas and other parts of the Midwest are pretty slim pickings, but that is where Iowa State has to fish.
2) Talent Gap. Huge. Iowa State recruits near the bottom of the Big 12, and near the bottom of Power 5 conference generally, just about every year. That might not be an issue, but the Cyclones must face Texas and Oklahoma each year, both teams that are constantly stocked with blue clippers. They're also stuck with Oklahoma State, a program on the rise thanks to an influx in donor money and solid coaching, and Baylor, in a similar situation, not to mention TCU. Their schedule is going to be so tough every year that even if the program hits on multiple three stars, it will be very difficult for them to make up ground in the league.
3) Tradition. Not great. Iowa State has a great stadium and fans who really care, but there hasn't been much to get excited about on the football field. The Cyclones have ended the year ranked only twice in their entire history, and have won more than seven games just once since 1979, although they were a regular bowl participant under Dan McCarney.
4) Recruiting restrictions. Nothing significant.
5) Other extenuating circumstances. Nothing jumps out off the page, although the growth of programs like Baylor, TCU and potentially WVU should be especially alarming to Iowa State. The lack of a great location, money and tradition already stack the deck against Iowa State. Locked in games against schools blowing up on recruiting could make that rebuild impossible. Once Bill Synder retires, you can also say virtually the exact same thing about Kansas State as well.
1) Proximity to potential recruits. Poor. New England is a relatively weak area in terms of producing high school talent, and they share it with Boston College and UConn, not to mention Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan for more elite prospects. The state of Massachusetts looks to produce 13 FBS recruits this season. UMass will sign one. They were two for 20 last season.
2) Talent Gap. Similar to Eastern Michigan. They've been near the bottom of the MAC, and subsequently, of all FBS for the past few years, but the gap isn't so large between them and other MAC schools that good coaching and scheme can address it. The program is about to go independent though, and that gap could become dramatic and insurmountable in a hurry, depending on who UMass schedules.
3) Tradition. UMass was a successful program at the FCS level, but the move to FBS has been a total disaster. Forget bowls. Forget Top 25 rankings. Since UMass rejoined top level college football in 2012, this team has won four games, total. That's a 4-29 record. Combine that with the fact that the school's stadium situation is bizarre and that the faculty aren't crazy about high level football to begin with, and you have all the ingredients for a huge mess.
4) Recruiting restrictions. Nothing significant.
5) Other extenuating circumstances. UMass is about to not have a conference home, and forging the Independence path without a strong fanbase, record of success, TV contract, or anything else is a nearly impossible hustle. The program has been terrible at the FBS level, isn't in a place where they're likely to great talent any time soon, and will soon be traveling on even longer road trips. Building the team into respectability will be a massive undertaking.
Also considered: Duke, Indiana, New Mexico State, Appalachian State, Wyoming, Hawaii and Wake Forest. All of the following schools either have budget problems, huge talent gaps between them and conference foes, a lack of tradition, or terrible locations.
BYU is a tough job, but it's unique nature doesn't mean it is without advantages in the hands of a right coach. We can accurately describe the program without resorting to hyperbole. Even removing Army/Navy/Air Force, I think it would be hard to argue that BYU is the toughest job in the country.