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What really happens during bowl season’s college football coaching transitions


Ryan Silverfield hasn’t had much time to reflect on the past few weeks. He barely has had time to sleep.

In a rare moment, Memphis’ new head coach, who briefly served as interim head coach and technically remains Memphis’ offensive line coach, takes stock of a stretch he predictably calls a “whirlwind.” Silverfield, a longtime NFL and college assistant who last held the head-coaching role as a 23-year-old at Memorial Day High School in Savannah, Georgia, made his Memphis debut in a loss to No. 10 Penn State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

“It’s the biggest game in program history,” Silverfield told ESPN in the week before the game. “To be in the Cotton Bowl versus a national opponent like Penn State, it’s a heck of a way to start my career.”

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Stories like Silverfield’s are increasingly common, as coaching transitions impact or overshadow bowl games. The man who led Memphis to its milestone, Mike Norvell, left the day after the American Athletic Conference title game to become Florida State’s coach. Norvell scrambled to upgrade the Seminoles’ recruiting class before the early signing period. He also took Adam Fuller, Memphis’ talented first-year defensive coordinator, with him to Tallahassee.

After some initial uncertainty, it was determined Norvell would not coach Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.

“We’ve lost our offensive playcaller and we’ve lost our defensive playcaller, both to Florida State,” Silverfield said. “It’s not an easy transition, especially you go to early signing day in recruiting, you lose a week playing in the [conference] championship game, and now you’ve got to get ready and take care of your own players, make sure they’re doing right, and get ready for the Cotton Bowl.

“We’re excited. We’re going to do it the right way and hopefully move forward without skipping a beat.”

‘It’s not an ideal situation’

Moving forward is the only option during one of the more turbulent stretches on the college football calendar. Most head-coaching hires take place during the two weeks between rivalry weekend and the Heisman Trophy ceremony. In between, league championships are played and playoff/bowl matchups are finalized.

Coaching staffs are in flux. Some head coaches and assistants who take other jobs still work with their original teams through the bowls. Others leave for good and pluck assistants from their original teams for their new staffs, complicating bowl prep. Because some staffing decisions aren’t made until January, some assistants always enter bowl season unsure of where they’ll be working afterward.

At Florida State and Boston College, which both fired their head coaches and hired new coaches, assistants will coach the upcoming bowl games before scattering or returning to work for Norvell or new BC head coach Jeff Hafley. The new early signing day, which has become the true national signing day, falls a few days after the Heisman ceremony and complicates things even more.

“It used to be you would hit that period and you go, ‘OK, these guys aren’t signing till February, so we have some time to address some of that in January,'” SMU coach Sonny Dykes said. “But now with the early signing and the vast majority of the kids doing that, the transition of recruiting has to take place so quickly, or you can miss out on signing those kids.

“It’s not an ideal situation.”

After he was hired by Nebraska, Scott Frost and his UCF staff stayed on through a Peach Bowl win. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When Nebraska hired Scott Frost from UCF hours after the 2017 AAC title game, Frost and the entire Knights staff stayed on through the Peach Bowl. But that situation is rare, just like Frost bringing the whole staff with him to Nebraska.

“I don’t think any of us like the timing of it, with bowl games, potentially championship games and the recruiting, with the early signing period, the challenges that go with it,” said Texas Tech coach Matt Wells, who last year left a 10-2 Utah State team days after the Mountain West championship game. “All of us would desire to finish the season with the team that we started it with, and see it through to the end.”

Wells knew he couldn’t coach Utah State through the bowl, but tried to help as much as he could. He communicated with Aggies interim coach Frank Maile about the bowl preparation schedule. Although he brought offensive coordinator David Yost to Texas Tech, he sent Yost back for game planning, bowl practices and the game itself. Wells also let several graduate assistants he planned to bring to Lubbock stay with Utah State through the New Mexico Bowl.

“The added layer is it’s my alma mater, so I wanted to do right by them,” Wells said, “give them every chance they could to finish as high as we could in the polls, and that senior class, to be able to finish with 11 wins was going to be huge and something we had set out to do for a long time.”

Wells’ alternating “we” and “they” underscores the awkwardness for transitioning coaches. As Utah State pounded North Texas 52-13 in Albuquerque, Wells oversaw a major recruiting weekend at Texas Tech. A staff member had the game pulled up on a smartphone.

“Watching your own team play on a phone that same day live is a very surreal feeling, kind of weird, to be honest,” said Wells, who initially planned to attend the bowl game but didn’t want to create a distraction for the players. “We were very busy, so you were kind of juggling a little bit, sneaking peeks here and there, watch a series here and there, in between campus tours.”

An awkward and confusing transition

The transition timing is tough on coaches who leave, but it also creates challenges for those who stay — and those essentially caught between two teams.

Temple coach Rod Carey can relate to Silverfield. Carey also made his head-coaching debut in a school’s highest-profile game, as he led Northern Illinois into the 2013 Orange Bowl against Florida State.

Previously NIU’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Carey landed the top job after a wild 48 hours that began with the Huskies winning the MAC championship on a Friday night in Detroit. The next morning, coach Dave Doeren informed the staff he was headed to NC State, and athletic director Jeff Compher tapped Carey as the likely successor.

Rod Carey was introduced as NIU’s head coach at a news conference, right before the team found out it would be headed to the Orange Bowl. Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Carey remembers staff members asking him about jobs even before he was offered the top job. The following day, Carey used Doeren’s agent to negotiate his contract — he didn’t have an agent before — and was introduced as head coach at a news conference, right before the team found out it would be headed to the Orange Bowl.

“I don’t have a speech, I don’t have anything,” said Carey, who remained the team’s playcaller and line coach. “There’s media people there, and our team’s there, and I forgot to thank my damn wife, that’s how unprepared I was. Right after that, Jeff goes, ‘Now we’re going to find out our bowl.’ They put the screen down and it’s ESPN and they announce us in the Orange Bowl, and the whole place went freaking crazy.”

Doeren hired four NIU assistants for his NC State staff, but all remained with NIU through the Orange Bowl. When Carey held recruiting meetings, the four coaches would leave the room, usually to call Doeren.

“It was really, really awkward,” Carey said, “not so much because they were recruiting the same kids as ours, but it was the next class and all the different things that go into that, the contacts of the coaches, where they’re going to be recruiting, and all those things. Now you have lines drawn.”

Barry Alvarez thought his Hall of Fame coaching career ended when he stepped down as Wisconsin’s coach after the 2005 season and became the school’s full-time athletic director. But when coach Bret Bielema left for Arkansas days after Wisconsin won the 2012 Big Ten title, Alvarez stepped in to coach the Badgers in the Rose Bowl. Two years later, Alvarez did it again for the Outback Bowl after coach Gary Andersen left for Oregon State days after Wisconsin’s loss in the Big Ten championship.

Alvarez felt reluctant to coach both times, mainly because he didn’t know the players as he would if he had coached them all season. He also hesitated in 2014 because of one player he knew well, safety Joe Ferguson, his grandson. Ultimately, the players’ desire to have him coach drew Alvarez back to the sideline.

“When the players asked me, I initially told them no, then I felt guilty again,” Alvarez recalled. “I called my grandson, asked him how he felt, was he OK with it? He said, ‘Grandpa, I think it would be great. As a matter of fact, I think we need a little swagger on the sideline.’

“I can do that. I don’t know if I can coach worth a damn, but I can give you that.”

Alvarez went 1-1 as an interim bowl coach, as Wisconsin fell to Stanford in the Rose but beat Auburn in the Outback. He split time overseeing the team and searching for the next coach. Overwhelming? Not for Alvarez, who, when asked if he would use a search firm to find Bielema’s successor, famously replied, “I won’t use a search committee. Most search committees use me.”

Dykes likely will never have a stranger experience as a head coach than the 2017 Frisco Bowl. SMU had hired him nine days prior. Like most new coaches in the era of the early signing day, Dykes met with the team and then went out recruiting and compiling his staff.

But after talking with athletic director Rick Hart and the SMU players, Dykes realized the team needed help. His predecessor Chad Morris had taken the offensive staff to Arkansas, leaving behind only some graduate assistants (receivers coach Justin Stepp ended up returning to work the bowl). Dykes volunteered to make his SMU debut right then and there.

“Rick was like, ‘Are you sure it’s something you want to do?'” Dykes said. “I felt like those guys needed a coach, and I was already hired. Why wouldn’t I do it? I’m in it with these guys. It may not be my team yet or whatever, but I said, ‘Look, I’m going to jump in with you guys, and you jump in with me. It may not be the best set of circumstances, but let’s try to figure it out.'”

The bowl didn’t go well. SMU lost 51-10 to Louisiana Tech, a team Dykes coached from 2010 to 2012. Dykes’ in-game coaching was, well, limited.

“I didn’t know any of the players. It was like, ‘Hey, No. 5, come here. You’re a running back, right? Don’t fumble.'”

SMU coach Sonny Dykes

“I was basically a spectator,” Dykes said. “The guy sitting in the stands probably knew more about SMU’s offense and defense than I did. That’s not normally the case. I didn’t know any of the players. It was like, ‘Hey, No. 5, come here. You’re a running back, right? Don’t fumble.'”

Dykes’ SMU tenure began with a 41-point loss, but the bowl experience had long-term benefits. He bonded with the players and began identifying the team’s strengths and weaknesses.

This year, Dykes led SMU to its first 10-win season since before the so-called “death penalty.”

“It helped us to trust each other maybe a little more quickly than sometimes that transition can take,” Dykes said.

All the coaches who go through the bowl transition say the players are impacted more than any other group. They’re the ones most often in the dark.

Silverfield and others in his position try to maintain a sense of normalcy.

“The last four years here, I’ve poured everything I have into it, and I owe it to these players,” Silverfield said. “Even if I hadn’t gotten the job … it wouldn’t have changed my work ethic, it wouldn’t have changed my focus one bit. But now being the head coach, it gives you a little bit of sense of pride and hope moving forward.”

ESPN’s Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.



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