Although he has just one season of experience at East Carolina, Scottie Montgomery has become one of the veteran coaches in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division.
A league teleconference on Wednesday served as an introduction for five new coaches in the AAC, including four at East Division programs.
Scott Frost of Central Florida is the only other coach in the six-team division who is not entering his first season in the AAC. Like Montgomery, Frost is preparing for his second campaign.
Randy Edsall at Connecticut could generate an asterisk since he guided the Huskies from 1999 to 2010 before returning to replace Bob Diaco.
Luke Fickell came to Cincinnati in the wake of Tommy Tuberville’s resignation. Charlie Strong took over at South Florida after Willie Taggart headed to Oregon. Geoff Collins is the new man at 2016 league champion Temple, following Matt Rhule, who departed the Owls for Baylor.
The number of programs involved in leadership transitions is testimony to the league’s competitiveness. The success of Rhule and Taggart attracted Power Five programs.
Coaches such as Diaco and Tuberville, who appeared to have things headed in the right direction in 2015, were victimized by poor showings last year. The Huskies were 6-7 in 2015 after going 2-10 in Diaco’s first season in 2014. UConn stumbled to 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the league last year.
Cincinnati fell from 7-6 and 4-4 in 2015 to 4-8 and 1-7 last year.
There is little toleration for coaches who don’t continue to produce. Tuberville was 36-28 for his four seasons with the Bearcats.
“This is a really good football league,” Frost said. “The American is strong, top to bottom. Year in and year out, the top teams are beating the best teams in the country when they get a chance to. Inevitably, there’s going to be a lot of movement in and out of this conference. You’re going to have to get used to a little bit of a changing landscape.
“I’m happy for those guys who got other jobs and moved on. We’ll have to adjust to new coaches and new schemes from those teams. . . . We’ll have plenty of tape by the time we get around to those teams to be able to make our evaluation and game plan.”
The Western Division has more experience among its coaches. Ken Niumatalolo at Navy is easily the AAC veteran as he enters his 10th full season as skipper of the Midshipmen.
“It definitely helps if you’ve got some stability,” Niumatalolo said. “There’s some familiarity with your players, terminology, expectations. I definitely believe it helps if there’s continuity in your staff as you try to develop your team. You kind of know each other. . . . You know what to expect from each other.
“It is kind of weird, just thinking about it. Three years ago . . . was my first AAC meeting. From that original meeting, I would be the only [football coach], who was in that meeting. . . . It’s a volatile profession. All of us that got into it understand that.”
Philip Montgomery is entering his third season at Tulsa, as is Chad Morris at Southern Methodist.
“I’m the third longest-tenured coach in this league right now, behind Ken and Chad,” Montgomery said. “Chad is like a week or so ahead of me. It’s an ever-revolving door. . . . ”
Houston may have one of the smoothest transitions, having promoted Major Applewhite from offensive coordinator after Tom Herman was hired by Texas.
Edsall remarked that he was comfortable returning to his old office but other aspects have changed.
“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do to get this program back to where it was six years ago,” Edsall said. ” . . . We’re still in the evaluation phase. We’re using spring practice to form opinions about what some of these young man can do. We’ll continue that evaluation period come August.”
Montgomery was in a similar situation to Edsall a year ago.
“We’ve had a productive spring,” said the ECU coach. “There’s a lot more depth on this football team than we’ve had before with some guys that redshirted last year or transferred and are ready to play football now. It’s been a very physical spring. Our defense has done a good job of making sure they create the physicality of this football team. Our little people have made us a tough football team.
“As we move forward offensively, we’ve seen that (quarterback) Gardner Minshew knows how to run the system. He has a year under his belt. We’ve had a much better spring than we may have had last year because we moved from the evaluation process to being able to go to the execution process. That’s what our spring has been about.”
The Pirates have their spring game Saturday at 2 p.m. The format will be similar to last year, essentially offense vs. defense.
“What I’m trying to get out of the game is just to make sure that the execution we’ve seen in practice to this point is that we continue it on Bagwell Field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in front of some great fans,” Montgomery said. “We’ve had some guys who have really showed up for us and we want to make sure we can consistently show up.
“The last part of it — we want to make sure we get out of it in the kind of health we’re in right now, which isn’t bad at all for what we put our guys through over the last 14, 15 practices.”
December signing date
The first Wednesday in February has traditionally been the signing date for recruits in college football. A proposed December signing date is likely to be passed.
“I’m for it,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought it had a place for a lot of reasons. There’s other things that I would like to see done but it makes everybody show their cards a little bit earlier. We’re at a point now that I’m not sure if certain kids understand if they’re offered or if they’re not offered. It clouds their minds, especially in the September, October, November area. They’ve got kids taking visits to places they do not truly have an offer from.
“It will also give us a chance to find out what’s on the minds of the kids. You can know by October with the signing date a couple of months away. The one thing that I would like to try to get added to it, as a head coach, I wouldn’t mind being on the road in the spring maybe for a week or two, just to be able to get out and see some of these kids. A lot of times, depending on where your open date is, you’re not going to be able to get out to as many kids.
“I think it would make people be more transparent in the way they offer kids and how the kids respond to those offers. If you watch, there’s been a hundred offers going out in June or July and they kind of float until December. January, you start seeing kids left out in the middle of nowhere. I think this early signing period will give those kids a chance to keep from winding up in nowhere. The recruiting will start again for them. The schools who thought they were in it for a kid will know it and they’ll me able to move to the second part of their recruiting.”
Montgomery said there will be changes in what he and his staff do in January if the changes in the recruiting timetable are enacted.
“That depends on the amount we do sign in December,” he said. “In January, it will shift a little more to 2019 and 2020 (high school graduates). We’ll be able to get ahead a little bit more. Most of January, I’m flying around trying to get lunch and dinner visits with kids. If most of the class is signed in the December period, then we’ll get ahead for the next couple of classes.”
With more time after a December signing date, the period ahead will be more compacted.
“You’ve got to do a great job of evaluating kids’ transcripts,” Montgomery said. “A lot of times in June, you don’t have that information yet.”
The AAC coaches generally approve of a December signing date but want to continue to tweak the process for improved function.
Second-year Tulane coach Willie Fritz expressed some reservations.
“When you sign a young man, it’s really a marriage between you and the families and the university,” Fritz said. “I just really like collecting a lot of information. Also, I like the benefit of seeing their senior year and how they develop both academically and football-wise. It’s a little bit tougher for a school like Tulane. We’re one of the top academic schools in the nation. This early, it’s hard to pinpoint where they are academically.
“If they’ve taken a test, if they’ve only taken it once — I’ve got three grown children of my own and I know they improved each time you take the test. That’s important for us.
“But it seems like the student-athletes would like to have an early signing period. They’ve done a lot of research with it. I don’t know how many official visits we’ll have early in April, May or June. I’m sure there are other schools that will have more than us. But if we’re really positive about a young man and he wants to make a decision early, we’ll have to have him in early.
” . . . We want to make sure we have guys who can compete in the classroom as well as on the football field. . . . With this accelerated signing period, you’ve got to collect that information earlier and make decisions earlier. You just want to make the right decisions.”
The NCAA also is moving toward the addition of a 10th assistant coach on staffs for 2018.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Tulsa’s Montgomery. “When you’re dealing with the kids we’re dealing with, having another guy that’s going to be able to be active on the field, do the things we have to do from a practice standpoint, a game standpoint, that’s a big plus. Also, having another guy out on the road as far as recruiting, be able to hit the number of schools and be able to evaluate talent better, evaluate the kids better, do a better job of getting background on them prior to bringing them into your program — all of those things are positive.
“I can’t think of a negative thing about adding a 10th assistant. For us, I think it’s going to be a big deal, just like it is across the country — giving guys an opportunity to step in and really make a difference in your program in different ways.”
Every program faces challenges.
Navy’s triple option has been a tough attack for ECU to defend. The Midshipmen as well as Tulsa and SMU rotate off the Pirates’ non-division schedule this year.
ECU will play at Houston (Oct. 28), host Tulane (Nov. 11) and travel to Memphis (Nov. 25) in 2017 for its non-division AAC games.
The guys in Annapolis have their hurdles, too. Niumatalolo’s players at Navy must demonstrate their proficiency in swimming.
“Our players are getting their grades right and working on military requirements,” said the coach of the Midshipmen. “I know there’s no other program that is working on the backstroke right now, but it’s part of who we are.”