In September of 2016, Todd Stansbury sat beside Bud Peterson as the new athletic director at Georgia Tech and introduced the bare bones of what appeared to be an innovative and effective approach to returning the program to national prominence. He followed up that press conference like few before him have by acting on his innovative ambitions: the switch to adidas, a complete rebrand of Georgia Tech Athletics, the Athletics Initiative 2020, and plenty of other ventures that would surely contribute to the reparation of the Institute as both a brand and an athletics program.
Following Paul Johnson’s retirement, however, Todd Stansbury is leading a coaching search that, by all reports, cuts completely against his stated objectives. He has reportedly made Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator and former Yellow Jacket Ken Whisenhunt the singular focus of the endeavor, going so far as to offer Whisenhunt the job (according to sources at Atlanta’s 680 the Fan). It could all be inaccurate, but the lack of information about any other candidates indicates that it probably isn’t.
The reasons why this presents a significant departure from Stansbury’s stated goals and vision are numerous and varied. Most obvious of all is that Whisenhunt is a 56-year-old who hasn’t coached at the college level since he was a position coach at Vanderbilt in 1996. It takes impressive mental gymnastics to convince oneself that he or any other candidate in his position has any valuable understanding of what it takes to succeed in the modern landscape of college football, especially compared to active college coaches who have been mentioned in connection with the job.
The biggest concern in this regard is recruiting. Relational capital and a working knowledge of current recruiting strategy can sink a coach’s tenure, and Whisenhunt has had a decades-long break from the rat race. It isn’t easy to get back in, either — especially in a state like Georgia where regional powers in every direction are clawing for footing in one of the most talent-laden recruiting strongholds in the nation.
Whisenhunt’s offensive philosophy may be unique by NFL standards, but it flatly doesn’t scratch the surface of true innovation at the college level and would provide Georgia Tech with yet another barrier to success: competing for pro-style talent with the powerhouses of the southeast. Drawing from an entirely different pool of offensive talent is an aspect of the Paul Johnson era that even his harshest critics will soon miss, and it’s an advantage that this path all but gives up.
The list of NFL lifers who have tried their hand at the college game is one riddled with failure. Lovie Smith continues to flounder at Illinois. Jim Mora was just recently forced out of UCLA. Chan Gailey invented perpetual mediocrity during his time at Tech as Paul Johnson’s predecessor. The list of successes, meanwhile, starts and ends with Pete Carroll at USC. It just supports the argument that the transition from the NFL to college is never a smooth one for coaches with no substantial collegiate coaching experience, and the odds seem demonstrably long that this direction will be a worthwhile one to pursue.
In the simplest and most brutally honest of words, the hiring of Ken Whisenhunt would excite very few at a time when fan engagement is struggling and more resources are needed to ensure the future success of the program. We can pretend it shouldn’t be or isn’t a factor all day long, but fan and booster enthusiasm drive college football now more than ever. To ignore the value of momentum and place the program on a path that many fans are already vocally wary of is not a winning strategy.
All things said, innovation comes in two ways from head coaches in college football: with recruiting approaches and with coaching philosophies. There is no evidence to support that Ken Whisenhunt would be able to innovate in any of these areas, raising the overarching questions: How does his hiring accomplish the goal of repairing Georgia Tech’s brand? How will he succeed in a college football landscape dominated by a select few schools, particularly given that the few successful schools on Tech’s level have achieved their victories by pursuing options that run completely counter to the type of coach Whisenhunt is? How will he energize a fan base that was fiercely divided and unenthused at the end of the Johnson era? I’ve tried to step back and answer these questions, but I can’t.
This is a critical hire for the program that will likely determine Georgia Tech’s competitiveness for many years to come. Todd Stansbury has pushed every right button so far during his tenure as athletic director, but this search provides a scary opportunity for a misstep.
Ken Whisenhunt is an accomplished coach and a man we’re lucky to have as a Georgia Tech alumnus, but he simply isn’t the future. It is critical for Stansbury to stay true to his vision for Georgia Tech Athletics, and that means making a hire that reflects the same commitment to and potential for innovation that he himself has worked so hard to implement.