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Buyer beware: rebuilds aren't always guaranteed

Success in the MAC is often fleeting, leading to the inevitable rebuild.

Dino Babers leads BGSU Falcons
USA Today

Sustained success for a football program in the Mid-American Conference can be a daunting challenge.

Over the last three or four decades, nearly all 12 teams have had their own run of success in their respective divisions only to fall back to mediocrity or worse.

While there are a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to have prolonged success at a “mid-major” program, the biggest obstacle in the MAC seems to point to just one thing: coaching stability.

When a MAC school hires the right coach, and gives him enough time to recruit, implement his system and build the program, success can often follow.

Unfortunately, there is always something else that follows this success. Inevitably, the Power 5 conference schools come calling offering their head coaching job that comes with a lot more money, better facilities, increased visibility and a higher level of competition.

MAC head coaches moving on to “greener pastures” in just that past few years have included Dave Clawson (BGSU/Wake Forest), Dino Babers (BGSU/Syracuse), Matt Campbell (Toledo/Iowa State), P.J. Fleck (WMU/Minnesota), Darrell Hazell (Kent State/Purdue) and Dan Enos (CMU/Arkansas). Enos didn’t even leave for a head coaching position, moving on to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.

Such is life in the MAC. You can lose your head coach to an assistant position at a Power 5 school, where they’ll make more money than if they were still leading your program.

When MAC schools do have to replace a head coach after a period of success, they are always faced with the same dilemma: do they promote from within with someone who knows the system and players in the hopes to keep the momentum going? Or, do you go risk going outside to find an up-and-coming assistant coach at another school or a hot young head coach at an even smaller program?

We have seen both strategies work and fail at MAC programs. The one program that seems to have figured out the hire-from-within approach the last decade is the Toledo Rockets. When successful head coach Tim Beckman left for Illinois in 2011, the Rockets promoted assistant Campbell to head coach. After five very successful seasons, Campbell left for Iowa State in 2015. Again, Toledo stayed inhouse and promoted assistant Jason Candle to head coach.

Candle has gone 21-7 his first two years, leading the Rockets to back-to-back bowl appearances and was named the MAC Coach of the Year in 2017. Now skeptics will still wonder if Candle is just winning with the players Campbell recruited and will wait to see if he can sustain it. But if he does, how long before someone offers him a better job?

A school that has gone to the hire-from-outside route on multiple occasions recently is the Bowling Green Falcons. Clawson was given five years to build a winner at Bowling Green and he did just that in the fifth year of his contract, leading the Falcons to the 2013 MAC Championship.

After Clawson moved on to Wake Forest and the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Falcons chose Eastern Illinois head coach, Dino Babers to lead their program. Babers basically took Clawson’s players, implemented his fast-paced offensive system, and took the Falcons to back-to-back MAC Championship games, winning it all in 2015.

Babers parlayed those two successful years at Bowling Green into another ACC head coaching opportunity, this one with the Syracuse Orange. So, the Falcons had won two MAC Championships in three years with two different head coaches and yet again faced the challenge of finding someone to lead their program. A steep price for success.

The Falcons again elected to go outside and picked long-time Texas high school coach, Mike Jinks to become their next head coach. The choice was viewed as a gamble since Jinks had no prior college head coaching experience, and had only two years of college coaching experience as an assistant at Texas Tech.

By all accounts, Babers didn’t exactly knock it out of the park on recruiting during his brief stint at BGSU. And, most of the players that had produced those MAC championships in 2013 and 2015 had graduated. Jinks was left with a cupboard that was bare, a program in full rebuild mode, all the while he’s learning on the job how to be a college head coach and lead a program. Pretty tall order.

Jinks has gone 6-18 the first two years into his five-year contract and the Falcons have finished third and fifth in the MAC East division. On the bright side, he’s seems to have done well recruiting. His first two recruiting classes have both ranked in the top five in the MAC according to the recruiting services.

Will he get the chance to see those recruiting efforts turn into wins for the program? Most likely. Like most mid-major programs, Bowling Green doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to just buyout multiple years on a coach’s contract. Jinks will get at least a couple more years to try and right the ship in Bowling Green.

Interesting that Jinks has moved to shore-up his porous defense by hiring Carl Pelini as his new defensive coordinator this season. Pelini has prior head coaching experience with Florida Atlantic and as defensive coordinator at Nebraska. Could Jinks have hired his replacement if things don’t work out the next few years? Probably not. Remember, Bowling Green doesn’t hire from within.

And the MAC head coaching carousel continues to turn and turn and….