Special for Underdog Dynasty by Jake Aferiat
College football coaches have gotten where they are thanks to a mixture of merit and personality — the balance of which is often far from 50/50.
They’re required to have a certain magnetism that attracts players to them.
They’re required to have certain bona fides and resumés that not only give merit to what they’re saying, but allow players to buy in.
And perhaps above all, they’re required to believe that they — and they alone — are the right person for their respective job.
So why then, if these are among the requisite universal truths by which college football coaches must abide — is there a group of coaches who eschew this? Who sign up to reach the pinnacle of their sport on short notice and without preparation, knowing they risk returning permanently to the background if things go south?
Is it magnanimity? What about nobility? Benevolence, even?
The answer, more often than not: it’s out of necessity — both personal and collective — that these men plan their own obsolescence and become interim head coaches.
Indeed, 178 different men have done 201 stints as interim coaches, posting a combined record of 254-490 (.341).
Of the 201 interim stints there have been at the FBS level, 118 have been for large portions of a season or even multiple seasons and then fade back into relative obscurity.
Usually, it’s someone who’s a lifer in the sport. Maybe they haven’t ascended beyond being a position coach, and now, all of a sudden, they’re running an entire program — even one they always dreamed of leading.
Enter Mike Bath.
Bath was a star quarterback at Miami (OH), playing for the RedHawks from 1997-2000, and eventually joined the coaching ranks at Miami in 2004 as GA — something which historically, has translated to success in the coaching field.
The school boasts Jim Tressel, Pat Narduzzi and Gary Moeller among the many assistants who went on to have long and fruitful careers as Division I head coaches.
Once Bath made the transition to coaching, he knew the company he kept and made clear what his goal was.
“When I was a GA and got added on full time, I knew at some point I had that dream that I wanted to be the head coach there,” Bath said.
He wasn’t sure if or when it might happen, only that he wanted it to. And, depending whom you ask, that’s what eventually occurred.
The RedHawks started the 2013 season at 0-5 and had failed to score more than 14 points in any of those games. Up to then, the team had been led for the previous roughly two-plus seasons by fellow RedHawk alum Don Treadwell.
But nostalgia wasn’t enough to engender goodwill and keep him around. After that 0-5 start, Treadwell was dismissed and Bath, who began the 2013 season coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers, was named the interim head coach for the final seven games.
“I remember when the change was made, I realized I’m going to have the opportunity for my dream job,” Bath said, “but this is not the dream circumstance.”
The dream circumstance likely wouldn’t come, and Bath knew that, too. Upon the completion of his interim gig, he wanted the full-time job, and to actualize that goal he put forth nearly a decade before.
But Bath, now the offensive coordinator at Indiana State, was realistic and had spent enough time in Oxford, Ohio to know what he was up against.
“I felt like I was ready to be a head coach. But I also had the understanding and probably enough wherewithal to know the program at that point in time just wasn’t in a great position,” Bath said. “It was probably going to have to take something that may not at that time, have been attainable for us, for me to be the next head coach here.”
The team went 0-7 during Bath’s stint as the interim, which would be his last coaching job at his alma mater.
And yet, when the final game of the season against “a damn good Ball State team” rolled around, and even with the team sitting at 0-11, Bath still had a captive audience. Everyone was bought in.
“We went out on that field and we played hard. We didn’t execute great, we weren’t as talented, we weren’t as developed as they were at that point in time, but our players played hard,” Bath said. “And so I think looking back on the situation, what helped was continually making it about development, continually making it about the players and the program and not making it about the wins and losses, even though we tried.”
He then left Oxford and Ohio altogether and headed west to Laramie, Wyo. to join Craig Bohl’s staff. There he spent four years as an offensive assistant coaching running backs, tight ends and fullbacks.
Bath’s experience is far from unique. An interim coach takes over a faltering program, rights the ship — or attempts to — and then is asked to return to pre-interim status, becoming an assistant once again.
It can hurt pride and wound egos.
It certainly did, at least momentarily, for current Pittsburg State head coach Brian Wright.
Wright served as the interim coach at Florida Atlantic for the final four games of the 2013 season. At that point, the team was 2-6 and was largely written off.
Carl Pelini, the team’s full-time coach, resigned following revelations he was at a party where drugs and alcohol were present. His dismissal occured on a Thursday and the team had to gear up to play Tulane that Saturday.
Time was short. With just days between games and less than a month left to get the team back on track, Wright laid out his vision for the Owls for the remainder of the season.
And given what had transpired up to that point, you’d be forgiven if you think Wright was being bold.
“The day everything happened, I told the team we’re going to do two things: we’re going to focus on us and help each other get through this time. And then we are going to prepare to win four games,” Wright said.
As Wright described it, the team was “beaten down” at that point. But despite that, Wright put a big goal out into the ether. To attain it, he knew a lot would have to go the Owls’ way on the field.
But just to be safe in case it didn’t, he banked some good old fashioned intangibles too: the power of hope and camaraderie.
“Even though you’re sitting there at 2-6, we still had hope that we could become bowl eligible. If we win all four of these games, it’s going to put us at six wins, it’s going to make us bowl eligible and our guys were determined,” Wright said. “We told the team that we’re gonna write this into a great story.”
Wright’s calculus paid off as he pushed all the right buttons. FAU won out and finished the season at 6-6, but didn’t make a bowl game. Still, in Wright’s four games as the interim coach, the Owls averaged 37.8 points and 428.8 yards per game.
“We all chose to come together and take the high road and, and go prove something to the world. And we did,” Wright said. “And so there is a great sense of pride and satisfaction in that. And I think of those moments often.”
Hindsight is 20/20. But in the moment, there can be an urge to be like a kid in a candy store and want to have your hands in everything and get a taste for everything.
That newfound omnipotence can be a double-edged sword, but now nearly a decade later, it’s clear Wright struck the proper balance of keeping some protocols and changing others.
“There were certain routines, certain things the players knew already, and I wasn’t going to change those up. However, there were other things — maybe a couple of subtle ways we practiced and a couple of things that we weren’t practicing that we started practicing, which helped. We also changed up the environment a little bit; we were having more competitive fun…” Wright said.
“I think that was part of it — the guys also believing these couple of changes, these different things that we’re doing are going to also help us gain a competitive edge, and allow us the opportunity… to have a chance to win these four games.”
Those four games came and went. Odds were defied, memories were made and lessons were learned. Chief among them was Wright’s unflinching self-belief that he was ready then to be a head coach.
“I most definitely wanted to be a head coach at that time, and believed I was ready to go. To me, it just proved my training,” Wright said. “It proved that me paying attention to those mentors, and continuing with great relationships with those mentors, learning everything I could from those guys — that that was all gonna pay off.”
But, he suffered the same fate as so many interims before him. He stepped back and re-assumed his pre-interim gig, at least temporarily.
And for many coaches across the sport, especially those who are aspirational, their only chance at becoming a head coach is having that pesky little qualifier in front of it.
With college football coaches often being men of at least some ego — that means often the hardest part of the whole experience is the only possibility of ever being a head coach is being an interim head coach and that needing to be the source of some contentment.
For some, like current Bethune Cookman offensive coordinator and former two-time North Texas interim Mike Canales, that’s an easier state of affairs to reconcile. Not wholly easy, but easier.
Canales spent six years in Denton from 2010-15 as part of a coaching career that dates back to 1984, and did two stints as the interim head coach. The first came quickly in 2010.
The Mean Green started the year at 1-6 before Canales took over and went 2-3 to end the season, including a win over Western Kentucky in his debut.
From the moment he was thrust into the interim gig, he did as most interims do. He was campaigning for the full-time job and he thought his results on and off the field warranted him consideration.
“I was trying to get the job, I really was. It was an opportunity and a place where I thought I could do this and there were no issues, no problems,” Canales said. “I ran a clean program with the way we did things and the kids played hard for us and we did some special things.”
It wasn’t enough, though. It didn’t matter that North Texas averaged 412.7 yards and 33.8 points per game. It didn’t matter that Canales seemingly “did everything I was supposed to do” and “tried to motivate everyone to come out.”
Right before North Texas’ final game of the season against Kansas State, Canales found out he wasn’t going to be the full-time coach. Instead, the job went to his friend Dan McCartney, who spent 11 years as the head coach at Iowa State and worked with Canales back at USF in 2007.
It was tough on Canales, who had worked under legends like LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow, mentored NFL All-Pros like Philip Rivers and even did a stint in the NFL.
He wanted to be a head coach. A real one.
But like Mike Bath and like Brian Wright, Canales finished his first interim tenure and returned to the sidelines as an assistant the next season thanks to his friendship with McCartney.
In doing so, he stumbled upon self-affirmation, validation and above all, a feeling of being enough.
“I had to swallow my pride a little bit. It’s not because you weren’t good enough. It’s because somebody else chose to go that direction,” Canales said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. You know what I mean? I did everything I possibly could for them to hire me.”
The ending of the 2010 season wasn’t all bad, for Canales though.
“I knew before the Kansas State game, the night of the game, that I didn’t get the job. And before the game I gave the speech and it was tough. But I’ll never forget leaving the field and they were chanting my name,” Canales said. “That I’ll never forget.”
It also confirmed in Canales’ mind that those decades as an assistant were worth it. Even if the powers that be, for reasons outside their control, didn’t name Canales a head coach, he knew he was ready to be one.
His last interim stint was seven years ago and his first was 12 years ago. Now at 61, Canales realizes his days of potentially being a hot coaching commodity could be behind him.
And even though he admits he’d “entertain” a head coaching offer if he was presented with one, he’s just as quick, if not quicker, to admit he’s having a great time at Bethune Cookman.
“I’d love an opportunity. I really think I can be a good head coach. I know I can do this if given the chance. If someone gives me a call and those doors open and they say they want me to be a head coach, I’d entertain it,” Canales said.
“But right now, I’m happy with what I’m doing. I love coordinating offense and still being an influence and a mentor to these young men, especially at an HBCU program — It fills my cup. This is where I need to be. But if someone calls and says ‘we want you to be a head coach,’ I would entertain it.”
For as at peace with things as Canales is right now, it took time and some honest introspection.
What emerged from that was gratitude, sure, But also that all important validation on an existential level.
“Just what I was able to do on the field — although we didn’t put up a lot of wins — the way we ran our program, the way we did things. Not one time did I have a kid get in trouble. Not one,” Canales said. “The people of North Texas, they loved me for all I did and how much I gave. It just confirmed I knew I was ready for whatever was next.”
That inner peace is one which takes time to discover.
With the inherent tumult surrounding interim tenures and the uncertainty of what’s next or if all your work will be for naught, there can be a seeming futility around that line of work.
Especially if you’re Brian Wright and defied the odds the way you did at FAU.
“I absolutely believed that I deserved the full-time gig. That was a very difficult thing to go through to not get that position. I thought I had earned it. I thought me and the staff we had there had proven we were the right leadership for that football program,” Wright said. “That was pretty tough to go through.”
When he returned to Boca the following year under Charlie Partridge, Wright was candid — it wasn’t an easy decision, but it was one he had to make.
In a business where you have to look out for yourself and be your own biggest advocate, it might have been easy, and perhaps even better for his career, for Wright to move on.
But in spite of everything that transpired, he came back.
“I had some mixed emotions through all of that because I felt like I deserved that job. I had interviewed for another head coaching position and didn’t get it. And then I had an opportunity to go on to a couple other places as an offensive coordinator,” Wright said. “When it was all said, and done, I just came back to the players at FAU. And I just felt like we had unfinished business there. I felt like I owed it to them to stay on with them.”
If the decision to return to FAU as the OC was difficult, so too was returning to the status quo and facing his team as the offensive coordinator and not the head coach.
“The first time the team came back together in January, and we had our first team meeting, that was really difficult because I had gotten used to being out in front of that group and leading that group and I was no longer doing that with the full group,” Wright said.
But whatever internal turmoil and grappling with ego Wright endured, he never lost sight of why he put himself through all that in the first place.
“I just focused on the players and tried to be the best I could for those guys. I wanted to be the best assistant coach I could and the very best offensive coordinator I could be for the players at FAU,” Wright said. “I made that my main focal point — to just try to get better and help us get better as a football program, rather than be bitter.”
Helping the program and serving the greater good. It’s a stated goal of every coach.
But few embody it more than interim coaches. They’re asked to bridge the gap from one leader to another and steady the ship in five or six weeks while a full-time coach gets years to do the same thing.
They’re asked to lay the foundation and the groundwork, but get very little of the credit.
Being an interim coach is often a thankless job. But only often, not always.
Mike Bath knows this well as his work during those seven games in 2013 laid the initial foundation for current RedHawks coach Chuck Martin and the program to have the success it has lately.
“We went out every single day and busted our rear ends every day in practice and man, did those guys adhere to a certain level of expectation. That allowed us on a day to day basis to come to work, try to get these players better one day at a time and set a good foundation for the next coach to come in and hopefully build upon,” Bath said. “That’s something that I felt like we did and Chuck Martin told me that.”
It wouldn’t have mattered if Bath got Martin’s or anyone else’s stamp of approval, though. He was happy to do it as he felt it was part of something greater.
“Coaching isn’t my identity. I got into coaching a long time ago, I thought, because of the X’s and O’s. But I know personally, I got called into it. My faith is the number one thing in my life, and the good Lord put me in that situation for a reason,” Bath said.
“There are reasons and looking back on them, I don’t know why I was put into it, which I maybe struggled with for a little period of time. But also, I know that some of the reasons why I was there were to be there for a bunch of young men that needed me. And I trust that.”
Bath might not have known why he was thrust into the spotlight. But it didn’t matter.
This was his calling and he had to answer it the best he could at the time.
“I looked at it like, ‘Alright, I’m going to be the guy that’s going to try to help right this ship for the long run.’ And there was definitely part of me that said, ‘Okay, well, let’s see if we can get this damn job.’ And I did. We tried to do this for the players, of course, but I also wanted to win,” Bath said.
“I’m a competitive guy and I envisioned us going 7-0 but by doing it very specifically every day, and by putting one foot in front of the other and trying to get the damn job. There wasn’t any bit of me saying ‘I can’t do this.’ It was my alma mater and it was an opportunity to try and get the ship righted.”
By now you know, it didn’t go according to plan.
It’s why, when asked if he’s ever been a head coach, Bath answers sheepishly and makes concessions.
“It was a role I was asked to partake in to help put the program back on maybe a little bit more firm ground. If anybody asks me if I was a head coach, I always tell them I have been, but I was asked to take over a program for a period of time,” Bath said.
“I learned a lot and there were great experiences with being a head coach that I learned when I was thrust into [that role.] There are some experiences that I can definitely pull from, but it’s still not something that’s going to satisfy my thirst for being the head coach there or anywhere.”
The experience wasn’t for nothing, though. It reinforced that universal truth and mindset which all college coaches must have — they and they are alone are the right people for their jobs in that given instant.
It may straddle the line between arrogance and knowing your self-worth to some, but in this day and age of college football, if you don’t believe in yourself, who will?
“What it boils down to is trusting my foundation and trusting who you are as a coach. You’re always going to evolve as a coach, maybe on fringe things or how you teach a certain thing or you may learn a little bit after an interaction with a player when something may happen,” Bath said. “But I think when it comes down to it, trusting the foundation of what you believe in is something that you wholeheartedly have to do.”
It’s a strategy that worked for Brian Wright, one of only a handful of interim coaches to go on to get a full-time gig after their tenure.
He’s 10-5 so far entering his third season at Division II Pittsburg State and is the proof of concept for many of the axioms and assumptions about what it takes to be a successful coach.
And he too has emphasized authenticity above all else.
“You’re never going to be able to fool the players or your team when you try to be somebody that you’re not, so you have to be you,” Wright said. “You just have to have confidence and a belief that how you were brought up and how you were raised in coaching and what your core beliefs are in your foundation, what you stand on — those principles in life that you stand on — when things might not be going so good, and also when things are going good, that, that those are the right things.”
Coaching at the Division II level wasn’t necessarily what Wright envisioned.
But it got to the point where he was chasing the proverbial white whale seemingly to no end. A small school Division III player at his core, Wright knows better than most that good football can be found anywhere. So when it came down to it, if his ascent to the top of the coaching ranks meant taking a step down, he’d do it gladly.
“There was probably a time in my career when I was in Division I, that I wasn’t thinking of Division II. At that time, I was thinking, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stay at this level and go as far as I can at that level.’ But it was starting to get to a time where I wasn’t a head coach yet and I was still wanting to do that,” Wright said.
“I got to the point where I wanted to be a head coach, at a place where football really mattered and where it was important to the community and to the school and where there was great tradition, and we had a chance to win really big. I got to the point where I didn’t care what level that was.”
Wright’s career path and key tenets aren’t markedly different from Canales’ or Bath’s or any person who assumes the role of interim coach. But whether he likes it or not, he’s now instructive and a torchbearer for all interims who come after him.
And trust me, there will be interims after him.
These days, the coaching carousel doesn’t lay dormant for very long. Often it’s an omnipresent force lurking in the background storing potential energy, which it then converts to kinetic energy and starts spinning at a moment’s notice.
Whether it’s Week 1 or Week 7, that means this year, just as in years past and years to come — perhaps against their better judgment, there’s a group of men who will play a part in planning their own obsolescence.
Sometimes, it’ll happen regardless of circumstance. Other times, it’ll be wholly dictated by circumstance.
But no matter what precipitates that, it doesn’t change the fact there are few jobs in the sport as cruel, as taunting or as much of a sign of what could be, but likely will never be, as being an interim head coach.
And so yes, magnetism and resumes and self-belief are supremely important to being a successful coach. Most would readily admit that.
But here’s where the onus of fans comes in. Go a step further. Lambaste the coach for results if you want, sure. That’s your prerogative.
But as long as we continue to prop up coaches and link their humanity to their performance on the field, let’s take it upon ourselves to evaluate the order of operations and our own priorities in our fandoms.
That doesn’t mean be less fervent in your passion and unwavering support for your team. Nor does it mean resigning yourself to the fact that your team may never be good.
No, rather, have your program and your fan base be the model for all others in the way you approach college football.
The coaches, often relative unknowns in those often unenviable interim situations, would certainly appreciate it.
“That’s a lot of what you want as a coach in that position — just for people to recognize that you’ve given all you got for the program,” Canales said. “To have them confirm that and reassure you ‘hey, man, we appreciate all you did for us and what you’re doing. That means a lot.”