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The Recent History of College Football Coaches Returning to a School

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Gauging the range of possibilities for Randy Edsall’s second tenure at UConn.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Kansas State vs Texas A&M Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s perfectly reasonable to have doubts about the second Randy Edsall era at UConn, but there are also plenty of reasons to believe he can return the program to solid footing and potentially even break through the ceiling it seemed to have the first time around.

He certainly wouldn’t be the first head coach to leave a school he was working at only to come back and have success. Given our past six seasons, who wouldn’t take UConn matching the performance from Edsall’s last four years with the Huskies?

Believe it or not, Edsall’s return to UConn is not as unique to college football as you might think. Many FBS programs have had a head coach serve for multiple years, leave, and then reclaim his post.

Let’s take a look at how some of them have fared:

Bill Snyder, Kansas State (1989-2005 and 2009-present)

A former longtime assistant of legendary Iowa head coach Hayden Fry, who former UConn head coach Bob Diaco played for, Bill Snyder took over at Kansas State in 1989 and brought the program to respectability in a couple of years. He inherited one of the worst programs in college football history, with just one bowl appearance to its name and an 0-26-1 record going into his first season.

By 1996, he had them in the Big 12 title game, which the Wildcats won over Texas Tech. He would go on to win 11 games in six of the next seven seasons only to retire in 2005 after following it up with two down seasons.

Snyder would return to K-State in 2009, and has gone 66-37 with seven straight bowl trips. So yeah, the second Snyder era is going pretty well.

This is the gold standard, however, and the departure came under different circumstances than Edsall’s. Still, Snyder did build a strong program from nothing and didn’t seem to miss a step upon his return. That’s promising, right?

Mark Whipple, Massachusetts (1998-2003 and 2014-present)

Reportedly one of the leading candidates to replace Edsall at UConn in 2011, Whipple coached at UMass while it was still in 1-AA. The Minutemen actually won a national championship in his first season at the helm and he only had one sub-.500 season in the six years of his first stint.

He left to coach in the NFL, returning in 2014 after the program had moved up to FBS. After two 3-9 seasons as a member of the MAC, UMass is now independent and the Minutemen are still struggling, having just posted a 2-10 season.

Mike Riley, Oregon State (1997-1998 and 2003-2014)

Two years with an 8-14 record at Oregon State was evidently good enough for the fine leadership of the San Diego Chargers to make Riley their next head coach after firing Kevin Gilbride in 1998.

His time with the Chargers didn’t go very well, so after a year as an assistant with the Saints Riley found his way back to Corvallis, where he would stay for 12 seasons. In that time, the Beavers made eight bowl games and won 85 games. Riley would leave Oregon State a second time to coach the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who he led to a 9-4 record in 2016.

Bobby Petrino, Louisville (2003-2006 and 2014-present)

A guy who never stuck around anywhere for long, Petrino had the longest tenure of his 30-year coaching career to date after his four seasons as Louisville’s head coach. His teams won a lot of games, and even though his character record is... spotty, to say the least... he’s winning again on a team that has since upgraded conferences to the ACC.

Petrino left Louisville for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and returned after Charlie Strong took the Texas job. There was a lot of chicanery in between but that’s none of my business.

Bill Walsh, Stanford (1977-1978 and 1992-1994)

Walsh went 17-7 with two bowl wins in two seasons at Stanford before becoming a legendary NFL head coach with the 49ers, where he won three Super Bowls. He left San Francisco after the third in 1988, eventually returning to Palo Alto for a three-year run.

His first year back went really well, as the Cardinal finished with a major bowl win over Penn State and a final No. 9 ranking, but after two down years he retired from coaching.

Johnny Majors, Pittsburgh (1973-1976 and 1993-1996)

I recognize we’re getting into the deep tracks here, but bear with me. Just one more left after this.

Majors was first hired by Pitt after five seasons at Iowa State and won a national championship in his third and final season, going undefeated in 1976. That performance was good enough to earn the head coaching job at his alma mater, Tennessee, where he was an All-American halfback and a two-time SEC MVP.

His 16 seasons at the helm of the Volunteers saw three SEC titles and an impressive 116-62-8 record. He “resigned” in 1992 and then returned to Pitt, where he had four unsuccessful seasons with the Panthers in the brand new Big East football conference.

Chris Ault, Nevada (1976-1992, 1994-1995, and 2004-2012)

Edsall receives a lot of credit for shepherding UConn from FCS to the FBS ranks, but Ault took the Wolfpack there from Division II. He remarkably completed three stints with the program while also serving as athletic director from 1986-2004. The first two times he left his post as head coach, he did so to focus on his administrative position with the school.

Ault—inventor of the “pistol” offense in 2005—led the program through a transition from Division II to 1-AA in his third year, making the national semifinal in the first season and beginning a run of deep playoff appearances. In the final season of his first stint, the football program joined the WAC in a move up to the FBS level.

He would eventually retire after the 2012 season. Each of his longer stints saw multiple double-digit-win seasons as Ault won 233 games in his career.

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Randy Edsall may not have been the most exciting choice for UConn head coach, but he has a lot in common with various successful returnees above. He built the program and brought it to success. He knows the recruiting footprint, has gained from his post-UConn travels and, most importantly, seems open-minded about evolving his football strategy, particularly offensively.

Lastly, the roster is actually in decent shape.

Bryant Shirreffs is a serviceable quarterback who will be looking to redeem himself with a clean slate. Edsall and his new staff could also snag a graduate transfer to fill in under center. Donovan Williams has the raw talent to succeed but ideally he redshirts next year.

Arkeel Newsome, Ron Johnson, Tyraiq Beals, Hergy Mayala, and a talented crop of underused tight ends compose a solid group of skill position players and the defense will return the likes of Luke Carrezola, Vontae Diggs, E.J. Levenberry, Cam Stapleton, Foley Fatukasi, Junior Joseph, Cole Ormsby, and Jamar Summers. Vanderbilt transfer Tre’ Bell will also be eligible to play.

If used correctly this assembled talent can win. Depending on roster attrition and how many junior college or graduate transfers the new staff may add to fill gaps, UConn could start the healing with a solid 2017 campaign.