Just about every assistant coach in the country considers the possibility of eventually getting a chance to run his own program.
Rarely do they imagine taking over at midseason with no advance notice.
Yet that’s the situation facing North Texas’ Mike Canales, South Carolina’s Shawn Elliott, Southern California’s Clay Helton and Maryland’s Mike Locksley. They were named interim head coaches this week after the sudden departures of their bosses.
People who’ve had this job before understand its challenges. Interim coaches must guide teams through adversity without being distracted by their own uncertain futures.
“You’re thrown into a leadership role just all of a sudden, and you have the fact that you’re worried about what you’re going to do once this is over if you’re not allowed to keep the job,” said North Carolina State cornerbacks coach George Barlow, who was New Mexico’s interim coach for its final eight games in 2011. “What I tried to do is just block all of that out and just make everything about the kids.’
Five Football Bowl Subdivision programs currently have interim coaches. Canales, Elliott, Helton and Locksley join Illinois’ Bill Cubit, who took over before the season after Tim Beckman was fired. That doesn’t include Rutgers’ Norries Wilson, who was an interim coach for three games before Kyle Flood returned from a suspension this week.
According to STATS, the last time five different FBS schools had interim head coaches at once during the regular season was 2003, though its records only noted those who took over after the start of the season and therefore didn’t include someone in Cubit’s situation.
Interim coaches rarely stay long enough to have the “interim” removed from their titles. The last person to be chosen a permanent head coach after coaching at least two games at that school on an interim basis was Clemson’s Dabo Swinney in 2008, according to STATS.
But that doesn’t keep interim coaches from hoping.
“Every guy that’s an interim head coach wants the (permanent) job,” said Everett Withers, who was North Carolina’s interim coach throughout the 2011 season after Butch Davis got fired.
Interim coaches generally inherit tough situations.
Illinois fired Beckman due to allegations that he had mistreated players. North Texas dismissed Dan McCarney after a 66-7 loss to Portland State. Maryland fired Randy Edsall and Steve Spurrier stepped down at South Carolina after both schools had disappointing starts. Southern California changed coaches one day after athletic director Pat Haden said Steve Sarkisian arrived on campus in no condition to work.
In each of these cases, the interim coach was an assistant on the former coach’s staff. Rather than focusing on one position group, he now must oversee the entire team while also handling media sessions and other off-field responsibilities.
“I don’t remember sleeping much during those two months I was doing it,” said Oklahoma inside linebackers coach Tim Kish, who was Arizona’s interim head coach the final six games of the 2011 season. “I remember constantly thinking about things you had to do.”
Swinney described the transition by saying “you go from wearing one hat to wearing 30 hats.”
“There’s a lot of emotion involved,” Swinney said. “You’ve got a lot of factions and a whole football team who did not come there for you to be their head coach. But you have to push all that aside and you have to get everybody to understand that it’s bigger than any one person.”
Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, who worked as the Jayhawks’ interim head coach for eight games last season, said the advice he’d give is to “send the seniors out the best you can” and “do whatever you can to keep the team together.” Kish emphasized staying positive and being organized. Withers said an interim coach should stick to a plan and focus on the players rather than dwelling on his own situation.
“We’re getting paid to be resilient,” said Wyoming running backs coach Mike Bath, an interim head coach at Miami (Ohio) for seven games in 2013. “We get paid to coach football, and we know the ins and outs of the profession and that things like (coaching changes) can happen. But if you put the young men first and their needs first… at least those young men will know the rest of their lives that coach was in a tough situation, but he thought about us first.”
The only interim coach making his collegiate head coaching debut this week is Elliott.
Cubit coached Western Michigan from 2005-12. Locksley coached New Mexico from 2009-11. Canales was North Texas’ interim head coach for five games in 2010. Helton was Southern California’s interim head coach for a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.
Although history indicates they’re unlikely to continue coaching their respective teams beyond this season, they still have plenty at stake. By leading a late-season surge, they could catch the attention of some future employer.
For example, Withers led North Carolina to a 7-6 record in 2011 and earned his first win against James Madison. Two years later, Withers was hired as James Madison’s head coach.
“You can’t get bogged down in saying, ‘I’ve got to get this job. I’ve got to get this job,’ ” Withers said. “You have to do the best job you can for the university and the kids – and all that other stuff will work itself out.”