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Did Monte Kiffin get hosed at NC State?

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Was Kiffin a victim of his predecessors’ success?

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Throughout the history of its football program, NC State has had it’s share of good, bad, and downright average coaches. Lou Holtz, Dick Sheridan, and Bo Rein all found great success while leading the Wolfpack. Tom Reed couldn’t get the thing out of reverse. Mike O’Cain finished just one game over .500 and made only three bowl games over seven seasons as the head man.

But I’m here to talk about a coach who couldn’t even match O’Cain’s “success”. A man who missed a bowl game in each of his three season. And I’m here to wonder if he got a raw deal when he and the school parted ways.

I’m here to talk about Monte Kiffin.

Now I’m not going to say that Willis Casey wasn’t justified in his decision to send Kiffin packing. Heck, even in the 13 years after Kiffin departed Raleigh, he looked to be nothing more than a career NFL journeyman positional coach. It wasn’t until he latched on as the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996 and put in place his now famed ‘Tampa 2’ defense that he garnered the majority of the respect he holds.

It’s a hard argument to say that a coach who went 16-17 and failed to make a bowl game in his three seasons as head coach got a raw deal.

But that’s the argument I’m going to make.

For those who need a refresher on Kiffin’s time at NC State, his Sports-Reference page is all that’s really necessary. Hired in 1980 to replace Bo Rein, who had been hired away by LSU after winning the 1979 ACC Championship, Kiffin posted a pair of 6-5 campaigns sandwiched around a 4-7 season. He posted 3-3 ACC records in each of the 6-5 seasons, while going 2-4 in 1981.

Making matters worse for Kiffin was that Rein replaced Lou Holtz, who himself won an ACC Championship in 1973. In the eight seasons before Kiffin took over, Rein and Holtz combined for a 31-13-2 ACC record. Replacing that with an 8-10 mark over three seasons isn’t going to bode well for a coach’s job security. As it turns out, the NC State job would be the first and last job Kiffin would hold in the role of Head Coach.

The record is... well... not good. It does help, however, to look at Kiffin’s tenure in the greater context of NC State’s full football history. Specifically when sorting by Strength of Schedule (SOS). Three of the 13 hardest schedules faced by Wolfpack football squads based on Sports-Reference’s SOS Rating were during the brief Kiffin tenure.

Okay, so yeah, Rein faced three of the five toughest schedules. Holtz three of the 14 toughest. Not really helping myself here, so let’s get back on track and look at the schedule year-by-year.

1980

The best win was over a 6-5 Clemson team (38th in Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System, 49th in SP+) that was just a year away from being great. That win would be the best of Kiffin’s tenure. The only other win over a team with a winning record in 1980 was against a 6-4-1 Appalachian State squad (74th/70th).

The losses:
  • Home vs 5-6 Wake Forest (41st/36th), a team that was just 1-4 in one-possession games, with all four losses by less than a field goal (ouch).
  • At 8-4 South Carolina (24th/16th) which was #18 in the country at the time of the game and featured RB George Rogers, who won the Heisman Trophy that year.
  • At 11-1 North Carolina (10th/11th), who finished the year ranked #10.
  • At 8-4 Maryland (26th/24th), who lost three games to Top 10 teams and the fourth in their bowl game.
  • At 10-2 Penn State (8th/4th), who finished the year ranked #8.

1981

Started the year 4-1, although without a win over any team that finished with a winning record. The “best” win among those was over a 5-6 East Carolina team (80th/85th). State lost the last six games of the year, though, with three of those being by one possession.

The losses:
  • Home vs 4-6-1 Maryland (31st/35th) with Boomer Esiason under center.
  • Home vs 10-2 North Carolina (12th/12th), who finished the year at #9.
  • At 12-0 Clemson (5th/3rd), the 1981 National Champions.
  • At 6-6 South Carolina (36th/39th).
  • Home vs 10-2 Penn State (1st/1st), who finished the year at #3.
  • At 6-5 Duke (52nd/65th).
  • Home vs 9-2 Miami (7th/7th), who finished the year at #8.

1982

Again started the year 4-1, only to slide over the back half of the year, going 2-4 this time. Wins included over a 7-4 East Carolina (67th/71st), that was a competent QB away from being really good, and 6-5 Duke (39th/44th).

The losses:
  • At 8-4 Maryland (9th/8th), again led by Boomer Esiason, that finished the year at #20.
  • At 8-4 North Carolina (12th/9th), that finished the season #18.
  • Home vs 9-1-1 Clemson (20th/19th), that finished the season #8.
  • At 11-1 Penn State (1st/1st), the 1982 National Champions.
  • At 7-4 Miami (26th/26th), a team with a QB room featuring Jim Kelly and Vinny Testaverde.

So of the 17 losses suffered under Kiffin, only two were to teams with losing records, and one of them happened to have a future NFL MVP under center. He had to face two national champions and a Heisman Trophy winner. Almost half his losses (8) were to teams that finished the season ranked in the AP Top 10.

Willis Casey might not have hated Kiffin (or maybe he did), but he sure did him no favors by scheduling five non-conference games in three years against Penn State and Miami.

Even looking at NC State’s historical SP+ ratings tells you that Kiffin wasn’t that bad compared to his fellow Wolfpack head coaches.

Here is the chart in that tweet, with the Kiffin years highlighted in yellow:

Those three seasons line up pretty dang well with the 10-year moving average of the O’Cain through Doeren years.

The SP+ Ratings for Kiffin: 50th (1980), 63rd (1981), and 50th (1982). Over three years, he lost just a single game to a team ranked lower in the SP+ than NC State, which was the 1981 loss to a Duke team ranked 65th, a mere two spots below. When you account for the fact that it was a road game, Duke would have been the favorite in that game.

The SRS Ratings for Kiffin: 47th (1980), 48th (1981), and 42nd (1982). By this metric, too, the Duke game is the only one lost to a lower-rated opponent.

For Kiffin, the issue was that he couldn’t pull off the big wins like his predecessors did. His 1980 50th ranked SP+ squad “upset” 49th ranked Clemson. His SP+ 50th ranked 1982 squad “upset” a 44th ranked Duke team.

Kiffin simply won the games he should have; however, there were no upsets, no big wins. There were three losses to North Carolina. That’s not going to have many clamoring for patience and more time for you.

Hindsight being what it is, I’ll contend that NC State would have been better off keeping Kiffin around for three more years rather than turning the keys over to Tom Reed and his miserable 3-8 machine.

Part of me wonders if Kiffin and his 4.7 average SRS teams (that number trails only Chuck Amato’s 5.9 and Sheridan’s 5.4 since) would have been able to start stacking up the wins through the remainder of the 80’s and into the mid-90’s as the ACC as a whole significantly weakened (average SOS from 1972-1982: 6.0 / average SOS from 1983-1995: 1.3). He may have even been able to pull off an ACC title before Florida State joined the league and started laying waste to everyone.

Given what Kiffin’s predecessors accomplished, I won’t fault Casey for parting ways with the man, but given the lofty expectations set out for him, the brutal schedule he had to face, and the minimal time he was given, I’ll say Kiffin got hosed. He deserved at least a little more time in Raleigh.