When Chris Ash was announced as the head coach his message was clear:
“Moving forward, I have a message for fans, supporters, administrators, players, basically anybody that loves this program: We need to create some positive energy around this program. It's going to take an extreme amount of work. It's going to take a lot of the right people going in the same direction. Organizational alignment here in this athletic department and in this football program is going to be essential to our success.”
Excitement was abundant amongst the RU faithful with the announcement of Head Coach Chris Ash, he said all the rights things, an impressive resume, endorsement from Urban Meyer, and a National Championship ring as co-defensive coordinator for the ‘14 Ohio State Buckeyes. Urban Meyer was not the only esteemed coach to endorse Coach Ash:
"Chris did a great job for us at Wisconsin and has been successful at every stop he's made as an assistant. I was always impressed with his preparation and the way he motivated his players. He's ready to be a head coach. I think Chris is a great fit for Rutgers and I'm happy to have him as a head coach in our league."
- Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin Director of Athletics
"Very excited for Chris and the opportunity he has at Rutgers and in the Big Ten Conference. He's got all the tools to lead a program and has certainly earned it. As a first-year head coach I'll be there to help him in any way, but my guess is he'll do just fine."
- Bret Bielema, Arkansas Head Coach
"I'm very excited for both Chris and Rutgers. As long as I've been coaching college football, we've had a special relationship - talking defense, talking motivation and talking the game of life. I have the greatest respect for him as a teacher, coach and person, and knew it was just a matter of time before he became a head coach. I can't wait to see what he can do."
- Dave Doeren, NC State Head Coach
"It was only a matter of time before Chris got an opportunity to lead a program. He has a plan that he has been working on since he started coaching in 1995 at Drake University. He has been under some tremendous coaches. He will have great success at Rutgers."
- Charlie Partridge, Florida Atlantic Head Coach
"There are certain guys you can tell right away that have it, and Chris Ash is a guy that fits into that category. At every stop along the way, Chris has been a successful recruiter, even at places where he didn’t have the type of resources he inherits at Rutgers. Chris has a genuine way of connecting on the recruiting trail that few can match. Recruits and their families love his passion, charisma and integrity. High School coaches like how he can talk Xs and Os. With Chris, it’s not fake or forced. It’s not a sale’s pitch. It’s real."
- Jeremy Crabtree, ESPN Recruiting Nation, Senior Writer
"Chris was on the fast track to be a head coach when I hired him. I knew it wouldn't take long because he has great knowledge of the game, he's a good teacher and tireless recruiter. A great hire for Rutgers!"
- Chuck Long, former San Diego State head coach and current Big Ten Network analyst
So here we are a year later and Rutgers Football will need to beat #9 ranked Penn State (8-2; 6-1) and Maryland (5-5; 2-5) to match last year’s record on paper. Some fans seem confused and frustrated by this year’s results thus far, but before we pass judgement let’s take a look at the stats of other coaches who have been given the difficult task of rebuilding a football program. The data suggests the third year is the typical time-frame for a program turnaround, a term Bill Connelly refers to as “Third Year Hope”:
If something big is going to happen, the odds are good that it will have happened by the end of a head coach's third year on the job.
Since 2006, 46 teams have improved by at least 14 adjusted points per game (per S&P+) from one year to the next. That's about four to five big leaps per season for the entire country. From this group of 46, 36 were led by coaches that were either in their first (10), second (13), or third (13) years.
By your third year on the job, the program is mostly yours. Sure, there are some fourth- or fifth-year guys who were recruited by your predecessor, but the depth chart is mostly filled with guys you signed. Plus, you've got the lay of the land by now -- you've got a decent read on your conference foes, you know which boosters you have to most obsessively placate, etc.
As Rutgers fans we witnessed this first-hand under Greg Schiano. Prior to Schiano’s arrival the Scarlet Knights were 40-80 from 1990 - 2000, including a winless season in ‘97 and a one win season in ‘99. The Scarlet Knights averaged three wins per season. Schiano took the job in 2001 and went 2-9 on the season, but how? He was a first class defensive coordinator at Miami, a program that finished the 2000 season ranked #2 in the polls after winning the Sugar Bowl, including an impressive win over Rutgers 64-6. 2002 did not get better for Schiano, in fact it was worse going 1-11, but in year three things slowly started to turnaround as the Scarlet Knights went 5-7 in ‘03. The Scarlet Knights registered their first winning season under Schiano in ‘05 going 7-5, and then we all know what happened in ‘06. Of course only one example does not define a trend so let’s look across the college landscape and analyze head coach changes and their results within the first few years.
Kirk Ferentz (Iowa): After the Hawkeyes went 3-8 in ‘98, Ferentz was hired in ‘99 to turn around a struggling Iowa program. They got off to a rough start, but things turned around in year three; 1999 (1-10), 2000 (3-9), 2001 (7-5), 2002 (11-2).
Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State): Mike Gundy took over the program in 2005 and similar to most first year coaches he suffered his share of setbacks, but things rebounded relatively quickly; 2005 (4-7), 2006 (7-6), 2007 (7-6), 2008 (9-4). After breaking out in year three the Cowboys started rolling winning another 9 games in 2009 followed by 11 and 12 wins respectively in 2010 and 2011.
Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern): Pat Fitzgerald took over the program in 2006 and went 4-8 in his first year, but things turned around quickly for the Wildcats; 2007 (6-6), 2008 (9-4), 2009 (8-5).
Mark Dantonio (Michigan State): It’s difficult to remember a time when the Spartans were not a top notch program, but the Spartans had their share of troubles like most programs. From 2000 - 2006 the Spartans went 38-45. Dantonio’s success was almost immediate, but after year three the Spartans became a top notch program with much success; 2007 (7-6), 2008 (9-4), 2009 (6-7), 2010 (11-2), 2011 (11-3).
Bill Snyder (Kansas State): Bill Snyder took over the Kansas State program in 2009 and the Wildcats got off to a relatively slow start before they started rolling; 2009 (6-6), 2010 (7-6), 2011 (10-3), 2012 (11-2).
Anyone starting to notice a pattern here? If you are still not convinced let’s continue further.
Mike Leach (Washington State): Mike Leach took over the Cougar’s in 2012 and brought with him the air raid offense that has continued to leave defenses perplexed. Prior to Mike Leach the Cougars went 20-53 from 2006-2011. The struggles continued under Leach’s first few years; 2012 (3-9), 2013 (6-7), 2014 (3-9), 2015 (9-4). I know, I know, the breakthrough occurred in year four, my apologies. If it makes a difference the Cougars are currently ranked #20 with an 8-2 record.
Sonny Dykes (California): Dykes took over the Golden Bears in 2013 after they went 3-9 in 2012. Dykes struggled mightily in his first year, but surprise surprise, year three things seem to have turned around; 2013 (1-11), 2014 (5-7), 2015 (8-5).
Bret Bielema (Arkansas): Taking over an SEC program is a difficult task and Bielema’s Razorback’s struggled his first year on the job; 2013 (3-9), 2014 (7-6), 2015 (8-5).
I can certainly understand everyone’s frustrations with this year’s results, but based on past precedent it is very rare for a new coach to come into a struggling program and turn things around day 1, let alone YEAR 2. A total rebuild is exactly that, a TOTAL rebuild. While I may be disappointed with this year’s results, I look forward to the future and trust the process.