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How Long Should It Take To (Re)build A College Football Program?

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A look at some prototypes for BC.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody regularly reading this blog needs to be reminded of the fact that Boston College has not made it to a "major bowl" in football in over 30 years. While Steve Addazio's short-term mandate when he was hired as head football coach before the 2013 season was to rebuild the team from the depths of the Frank Spaziani era, the long-term mandate from most BC fans and boosters is clear: deliver BC a conference title and/or major bowl appearance.

There's nothing unreasonable about this expectation. Similarly situated schools have managed to overcome challenges and ceilings and break through into major bowl games and stick their necks out amongst the major powers in college football. The question is not whether it's possible for BC to pull off something like this; the question is, what does that process look like, and how do they get there? It can be instructive to take a look at programs with similar profiles to BC who have managed to reach that proverbial promised land.

There is a certain segment of the BC fan base/ BCI commentariat who won't be satisfied by anything less than a level of performance on par with an Ohio State or a Florida State. This post is not for you. Please feel free to skip the rest of this article proceed to the comments section, wherein you can just copy-paste these comments I have helpfully typed out for you:

  1. EVERYTHING ABOUT BC ARE AN AMBARRASMENT! WHERE DO I MAIL BACK MY DIPLOMA!!?!!

  2. THE POPE SHOULD FIRE FATHER LEAHY!!!

  3. BC TRUSTEES ARE LOSER WUSSES WHO HAVE REPEATEDLY DEMONSTRATED THAT THE UNIVERSITY'S ACADEMIC REPUTATION IS MORE IMPORTANT TO THEM THAN BC'S SUCCESS LEVEL AT DOING SPORTSBALLS. FIRE THEM ALL!

Thank you.

OK, let's take a look at prototypes for what BC can build to. In general, we should be looking at peer institutions—private, academically strong schools playing in Power 5 conferences. How long has it taken these programs to build to respectability? How long did it take to crack into either a conference title or a major bowl game? And how sustainable was the success?

Exhibit A: Stanford under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, 2007-pres.

It's hard to pick a better prototype than Stanford. Stanford, by any measure, is one of the world's great universities. BC certainly doesn't have any more difficulty than Stanford does with academic or admissions requirements, and the foundation Stanford built off in football was shaky.

When Jim Harbaugh took over Stanford in 2007, the Cardinal's win totals in the previous four seasons were 4, 4, 5, and 1. How long did it take Harbaugh to get Stanford to the promised land?

2007 (Year 1): 4-8
2008 (Year 2): 5-7
2009 (Year 3): 8-5
2010 (Year 4): 12-1, PAC title, Orange Bowl

Jim Harbaugh left after year 4, but David Shaw has carried on successfully, winning 11, 12, 11, and 8 games in his first four seasons. Stanford is currently 4-1 in Shaw's fifth year. It does appear that their success is sustainable, though maybe not at the 11-12 wins a year level...they're certainly not going anywhere.

So...how long did it take them to get back to good? Three seasons. How long did it take to break through? Four seasons. Sustainable? Yes.

Exhibit B: Wake Forest under Jim Grobe, 2001-2013

Wake Forest is probably the closest "peer" to BC within the ACC, in terms of being a small private school with a small stadium/fanbase, having a similar academic ranking, etc. As such, it was tough to see them successfully get to the Orange Bowl in 2006 while BC failed to get into the BCS during that era. Quite frankly, during Wake and BC's recent strong runs, BC probably had a better stretch of sustained success...but, Wake won a conference title. That, quite fairly, is what The People want.

How did Wake do it? What was the process? Jim Grobe took over a perpetual losing program whose futility stretched back a lot further than BC's, which should be kept in mind.

2001 (Year 1): 6-5
2002 (Year 2): 7-6
2003 (Year 3): 5-7
2004 (Year 4): 4-7
2005 (Year 5): 4-7
2006 (Year 6): 11-3, Orange Bowl, ACC Champs
2007 (Year 7) 9-4
2008 (Year 8): 8-5
2009  (Year 9): 5-7
2010  (Year 10): 3-9
2011 (Year 11): 6-7
2012 (Year 12): 5-7
2013 (Year 13): 4-8

How long did it take for Grobe to achieve respectability? His first two seasons were actually quite similar to what Addazio has done at BC: winning records but nothing too great. However, Wake dipped again after that, suffering a series of losing seasons (3 in a row) before breaking through in a big way with an ACC title in Grobe's 6th season.

Was the success sustainable? Sorta. Wake had three straight very good seasons, which is more than they've usually been able to accomplish, but they faded afterward and are still searching for some of that magic under Dave Clawson.

Exhibit C: Duke under David Cutcliffe (2008-pres.)

So, Duke hasn't won an ACC title yet under Cutcliffe, but they did make it to an ACC Championship game...and they're Duke. So we'll count it. What was the process? Cutcliffe took over a 1-10 team in 2008.

2008 (Year 1): 4-8
2009 (Year 2): 5-7
2010 (year 3): 3-9
2011 (year 4): 3-9
2012 (year 5): 6-7
2013 (year 6): 10-4, Chick fil A Bowl, Coastal division title
2014 (year 7): 9-4
2015 (year 8): 5-1 so far

It took Cutcliffe 5 seasons to make a bowl game, and six seasons to win a division title. They're still searching for their first ACC crown, but nobody's doubting they're on a good track right now. Their success seems sustainable at least for the time being.

Exhibit D: Baylor under Art Briles (2008-pres.)

One of my frustrations with some BC fans is that there are some who seem to think it's somehow common that programs just rise out of nowhere to become an elite national powerhouse. In college football, this pretty much just doesn't happen. If you were great in the 1970s you're probably great now. If you weren't, you probably aren't. That's life.

Baylor has bucked that trend, as they seem to be on the path to sustainably contending for Big 12 titles. What was their path to success?

2008 (year 1): 4-8
2009 (year 2): 4-8
2010 (year 3): 7-6

2011 (year 4): 10-3
2012 (year 5): 8-5
2013 (year 6): 11-2, Fiesta Bowl
2014 (year 7): 11-2, Cotton Bowl

2015 (year 8): 5-0 so far

How long did it take to get to "good"? Three seasons—that's when Baylor first made a bowl game under the current regime. Year 6 saw their first major bowl appearance, which they  followed up with another in year 7; there's no reason to think year 8 (and beyond) won't yield more success.

Exhibit E: Georgia Tech under George O'Leary (1995-2001)

Georgia Tech has been pretty good for a long time now. But it wasn't always this way. George O'Leary inherited a pretty mediocre program in 1995. After going 11-0-1 in 1990 GT won 8, 5, 5, and 1 games. How long did it take to build them back into a team that could win the ACC?

1995 (year 1): 6-5
1996 (year 2): 5-6
1997 (year 3): 7-5
1998 (year 4): 10-2 Gator Bowl, ACC Champs
1999 (year 5): 8-4
2000 (year 6): 9-3
2001 (year 7): 8-5

It only took one year for O'Leary to guide GT back to a winning record, but they did fall below .500 in year 2. However, in year 4 O'Leary was able to break through and win an ACC title. GT has gotten back to the promised land a few times since 2001 using the time tested method of "being good every year and then some years being a little bit better than good."

Exhibit F: Purdue Boilermakers under Joe Tiller, 1997-2008

Joe Tiller's time at Purdue is interesting because it confirms some trends while bucking others. Tiller inherited a 3-8 team and managed to find immediate success, though it took four years to make it to a major bowl:

1997 (year 1): 8-3
1998 (year 2): 9-4
1999 (year 3): 7-5
2000 (year 4): 8-4, Rose Bowl

For the remainder of his tenure, Tiller produced a few bowl teams, but never reached the 9 win mark again.

Special Bonus Exhibit G: Oregon Ducks

Oregon is not really analogous to BC due to being a public institution, but they are another one of the rare examples of a program that's gone from being just OK to being a legitimate regular national power. This process began with Rich Brooks, who coached Oregon for 18 seasons from 1977-1994; it took him 8 years to achieve a winning record and he won his first conference crown in year 18. Mike Bellotti took over and had a few decent seasons (9, 6, 7, 8, 9 wins) before winning a conference title in 2000, his fifth season with the Ducks. He failed to win another conference title in his final 8 seasons but left the program in great shape for Chip Kelly to come in in 2009 and take them to the next level.

Special Bonus Exhibit H: Boston College under Jack Bicknell (1981-1990) and Tom Coughlin (1991-1993)

Ah, the good old days at BC. Where for here Men were Men and their Hearts Were True. If you told them all were one, they'd punch you in the face. Then they'd help you up. That's how much those men were men, I'll tell you. Surely, BC in this golden age nobody now could ever fathom will provide an instructive example of how quickly a program can be rebuilt.

The Bicknell Years

Joe Yukica and Ed Chlebek produced a stream of "meh" seasons (7, 8, 6, 0, 5, 7 wins) before Jack Bicknell took over in 1981. In year 1, BC went 5-6. In year 2, BC reached the level of "good," going 8-3-1; year 3, 9-3; year 4, the big one, 1984, BC went 10-2 and went to the Cotton Bowl. Now, some might say this might have more to do with the fact that BC happened to have Doug Flutie; Bicknell was never quite the same after Flutie left, winning 4, 9, 5, 3, 2, and 4 games for the rest of his tenure.

Enter Tom Coughlin.

TC. The man. The myth. The legend. In year 1, Coughlin went 4-7 (surely, BC Interruption dot typewriter was irate and calling for his head). Year 2 was better: 8-3-1. The Eagles broke through with a strong season in year 3, going 9-3. Sure, BC didn't go to a major bowl game, but they did win something called the Blockbuster Bowl and they beat Notre Dame, which is surely a level of glory no BC fan who followed the program from, say, 2002-2008 could ever truly comprehend. As such, we won't even bother looking at TOB's first few years in charge.

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The only other private schools other than those discussed above to make a major bowl game out of a P5 conference since 2001 are USC, Miami, and Notre Dame, who are USC, Miami, and Notre Dame, respectively.

Nothing from any of these examples can tell us for sure whether or not BC is on the right path with Steve Addazio. But what they do tell us is that success—be it brief or sustained—at one of BC's "peer institutions" is hard-earned, and can not be achieved by making rash decisions or expecting immediate results. All of the peer institutions to BC that have managed to break through into the next level have done so at the tail end of a long process of building up a stable, successful program.

Is BC on that path to stability and success? That's up for debate. Many of the maddening and boneheaded coaching decisions that have plagued BC during this three-game losing streak seem like problems that could undo BC even at a time when their roster is more well-stocked with talent. That said, unless BC is somehow different from every other comparable program, the path to success will be a process; there will be no savior figure who can show up and immediately deliver the double-digit win seasons that BC fans are hoping for. But some history and context can help us understand what that process might look like.