John Hartwell’s soft deadline for the Utah State football coaching search is rapidly approaching.
After Hartwell relieved Gary Andersen of his head coaching duties earlier this season, he set Dec. 15 as the date by which he hoped to have a new Aggie head football coach named.
“The sooner the better,” Hartwell said. “What that does is it alleviates the anxiety of ‘Who will it be?’ and ‘What kind of coach?’ Those questions. I will not rush to a decision. I want to make sure we get the right person, but if we can find that person on or before Dec. 15, I think we are doing well.”
That soft deadline is only four days away now, and while there have been rumors of reported interviews held and offers made, no decision has yet been announced ahead of USU’s season finale against Colorado State.
Who the next Utah State coach will be remains anyone’s best guess, but there is one name connected to the search known to everyone — interim head coach Frank Maile.
A players’ coach
Maile has not been shy about his interest in keeping the job on a permanent basis. When he was given the interim tag by Hartwell he told reporters that the USU job was his dream job. It was and remains the one he wants.
“Absolutely,” Maile said. “I’m a true-blooded Aggie, through and through, so if the future holds that, then so be it.”
His players overwhelmingly would prefer to see him stay on as the Aggies’ permanent leader. Beloved can sometimes be a word tossed around with nary a thought, but Maile is beloved throughout the program.
“Everybody wants him to get the job,” freshman linebacker Kina Maile said. “Everyone respects this man a lot and they play for him, any time, any place, anywhere, against anybody. We all want him to get the job.”
“The one thing about coach (Maile) is he is very consistent about who he is. He is a tough-minded dude and he wants his football team to play the same way.” — USU senior tight end Carson Terrell, on Frank Maile
For some, like senior outside linebacker Nick Heninger — a nominee for the 2020 Burlsworth Trophy — their future in Logan depends on what happens with Maile.
Heninger, like every senior, has to decide in the coming weeks if he’ll return for an additional season or test the NFL waters instead. The retention of Maile and the rest of the USU’s coaching staff would go a long way in convincing Heninger to run with Aggies one final year.
“Hopefully it stays the same,” he said. “I love these guys and I know that they are going to be able to continue building a great program here.”
Others involved with the program, such as outside linebackers coach Bojay Filimoeatu and assistant athletic director Waqa Damuni, the director of student-athlete development/academic coordinator, have made known their feelings on social media and they have confidence in Maile.
“The one thing about coach (Maile) is he is very consistent about who he is,” senior tight end Carson Terrell explained. “He is a tough-minded dude and he wants his football team to play the same way. Every time he’s been put into the interim head coach job, it hasn’t been the best situation, but he gets the team ready to play every week. He has been killing it.”
The product on the field
For all the love Maile gets, Utah State hasn’t been much better on the field, if at all, with him at the helm than they were with Andersen.
Of the 30 major statistical categories tracked by the Mountain West Conference — think total offense and defense, rates of efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversions, etc. — USU is 10th or worse in the conference in 17 of them and fifth or better in only seven.
USU (1-5) did earn its one and only win of the season, thus far, under Maile’s direction, a 41-27 triumph over New Mexico, but the losses, namely a 35-16 loss to Fresno State and a 35-7 loss to Air Force, have been just as uninspiring as those suffered at the end of the Andersen era.
With Maile leading the way, the Aggies have also witnessed a series of departures from the program, including wide receiver Deven Thompkins, safety Troy Lefeged Jr., linebacker Cash Gilliam and running back Jaylen Warren, all of whom were starters.
Throw in the dismissal of quarterback Jason Shelley and an argument can be made about a lack of stability under Maile, although nearly 150 players across the country have entered the transfer portal over the last week and a half, and no one dared suggest Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had lost control of his program when the Utes had four players transfer over the course of a month, from Oct. 7 to Nov. 2.
(Not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but neither is it an apples-to-oranges one either).
In fairness to Maile as well, it is nearly impossible to make wholesale changes midseason. Throw in the sheer amount of difficulties that 2020 has wrought upon the Aggies — six coaches have missed games due to COVID-19, USU has the seventh youngest team in the country and the Aggies have had 23 first-time starters (28 players made their USU debut) — and Maile has done about as well as could be asked, especially considering how hard being an interim head coach is under normal circumstances.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN, when discussing his own tenure as an interim head coach. “That’s a difficult situation, especially when you’re a young coach. ... You go from one of them to now you’re the leader of them. None of those guys came there for you as the head coach. So there’s just a lot of moving parts and a lot of dynamics and a lot of things that you can’t control, and things haven’t been good and that’s why you get put in that situation.”
How have interims fared?
Swinney’s is one of the most well-known success stories when it comes to interim coaches who’ve had the tag removed and become the permanent leader of a program. Swinney has built Clemson into a perennial powerhouse, where once the Tigers were viewed as the ultimate underachievers.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron falls in the success category as well, this year’s struggles aside. Win a national championship and you are a success, at least for a time.
(We will never forget you, Gene Chizik).
Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell was an interim head coach in 2017 and went 3-9 with the tag. He was made CCU’s permanent head coach in 2019 and is now one of the hottest coaching names in college football, with his undefeated Chanticleers slated at No. 13 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings.
In 2017, Chad Lunsford took over as the interim head coach at Georgia Southern, and the very next season the Eagles went 10-3, followed by a 7-6 campaign in 2019 and a 7-4 mark this year.
As recently as last season, Memphis’ Ryan Silverfield and Appalachian State’s Shawn Clark were interim head coaches, had the tag removed and have gone 6-3 and 7-4, respectively, in their first year as the head coach.
Not every interim situation is the same of course. Many, though not all, of the success stories took over in winning situations. And for all the success stories there are, there have been just as many interim head coaches who’ve had the tag removed and then struggled mightily.
Matt Luke got his dream head coaching job at Ole Miss in 2017 when he had the interim tag removed after taking over for Hugh Freeze. Two years later he was out of a job, as the Rebels moved on with Lane Kiffin.
Major Applewhite lasted two calendar years as the head coach at Houston, after taking over as interim head coach for Tom Herman. He’s now an offensive analyst at Alabama.
Tracy Claeys was an interim success story at Minnesota, until he was fired abruptly after a team-led boycott.
There is no real consensus on how interim head coaches do when they take over a program permanently. Some succeed, while others fail. In-season success often leads to the tag being removed, however, and the more a program struggles during the interim period, the less likely a coach is to be retained.
Last season there were seven interim head coaches. The one’s who got the job permanently were a combined 1-1. Those who didn’t were 4-12. In 2018, 10 coaches had the interim tag, Maile included. Only one got the job on a long term basis, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, after going 3-0. The other nine coaches finished 9-16.
A job well done
Whether or not Maile ultimately gets the job, he has done what was most needed at Utah State. He’s kept the team together through a tumultuous season.
“This season took a turn back in spring,” sophomore quarterback Andrew Peasley said. “We had spring ball canceled and we all went home. Everyone in the world was struggling with COVID and they still are. This team has had a lot of ups and a lots of downs, season canceled, season back on on. I’m just really really proud of our team for sticking with it. We never got down. Losing sucks, but I feel like we showed up every day ready to compete.”
That, according to multiple Aggies, was because of Maile.
“This season has been a roller coaster for sure, for all of us players and coaches,” sophomore defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka said. “With everything going on it would have been really easy for us to lose faith, but the one thing coach Frank really did well was keep us together. He is an awesome man, an awesome coach and he really did that.”
All that is left now is one more game, Saturday night against Colorado State. Then all eyes will turn to Hartwell and his Dec. 15 deadline.