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- David ChingESPN Staff Writer Close
- Covers the SEC
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Graduate of Auburn University
Ed Orgeron passing the baton to Clay Helton at the end of USC's 2013 season might be the most unusual tie between them as interim coaches, but it's not the only one.
Three years after neither coach wound up with the Trojans' top job — USC athletic director Pat Haden passed over interim coach Orgeron in favor of Steve Sarkisian at the end of the 2013 regular season, prompting Orgeron to quit and Helton to take over for the Trojans' bowl game — they both became members of a select group of interim coaches.
When LSU elevated Orgeron from interim coach to head coach at the end of last season, he joined Helton on the short list of interim coaches who have ever held on to claim the full-time job at a major program.
Interim coaches typically take over for a game or two after a head coach's firing and fade into the background once the season ends and the school's athletic director hires a big-name replacement. There are occasions, though, when an interim coach fares well enough to win over the fan base, team and administration.
Dabo Swinney became one such example in 2008 when he went from receivers coach to interim coach to head coach at Clemson in a matter of months. A decade later, Swinney has a national title on his resume, seemingly a million miles from the uncertainty that surrounded the program when he initially took over.
Likely gritting his teeth while remembering that uncomfortable period, Swinney shared pointers with Purdue's Gerad Parker last year after Parker became interim coach upon Darrell Hazell's firing.
"I wouldn't wish that on anybody," Swinney said last October on the ACC coaches' teleconference when asked about his conversation with Parker. "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."
Swinney stands out as an interim coach who helped things become good — a status that Helton and Orgeron now hope to match after claiming USC and LSU's head coaching jobs, respectively, in a full-time capacity. After one season in charge, Helton seems to be well on his way with the Trojans, while Orgeron would happily accept similar results in his first full season after going 6-2 as Les Miles' replacement last year.
Helton did enough as Sarkisian's interim replacement in 2015 — winning five of his first seven games and claiming a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game — that he won the full-time job. His Trojans got off to a slow start last fall, but completed the season with nine straight wins, a victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual and a No. 3 national ranking.
Can they sustain the positive momentum they built last season? Only a few interim coaches have become long-term successes after taking over at a big-time program, but it has happened. Here is a recap of how five of the most memorable interim coaches fared after accepting the big job:
Galen Hall, Florida: Hall had been Florida's offensive coordinator for only a few games in 1984 when he took over for Charley Pell, who was fired after the NCAA accused the program of more than 100 violations. Hall immediately experienced success, going 8-0 overall and 5-0 in SEC play after taking over in 1984, claiming Florida's first SEC title (later vacated by the conference's presidents) and helping the Gators finish third in the final Associated Press Top 25 with a 9-1-1 overall record (5-0-1 SEC). Florida named Hall as head coach after the season and he went 9-1-1 (5-1 SEC) in 1985, although those Gators were on probation for the Pell-era violations. Florida failed to win more than seven games in any of the next four seasons as NCAA penalties hit home, and Hall was fired midway through the 1989 season following another round of NCAA allegations. He finished with a 40-18 mark at Florida (21-12 SEC) and never landed another college head coaching job.
Phil Fulmer, Tennessee: Fulmer filled in for Johnny Majors for the first three games in 1992 (winning all three) while the Volunteers' longtime coach recovered from heart surgery. When the Vols faltered after Majors' return, Tennessee administrators eventually shoved Majors aside in favor of Fulmer, his offensive coordinator and line coach. When UT bought out Majors' contract at the end of the season, Fulmer initially was to take over as head coach at the start of the 1993 season. However, Majors announced days later that his resignation was effective immediately, leaving Fulmer to coach — and win — the Vols' Hall of Fame Bowl game against Ohio State. That 4-0 start as interim coach led to a long, successful tenure for Fulmer. He compiled a 152-52 record over 16-plus seasons at Tennessee, winning the 1998 national title, SEC titles in 1997 and 1998 and claiming the SEC East title six times.
George O'Leary, Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets program was 1-7 and going nowhere when O'Leary took over from Bill Lewis for the last three games in 1994. Tech was a .500 program for the first two years of O'Leary's tenure, but he transformed the Jackets into a competitive program. Starting in 1997, he led Tech to five consecutive bowl appearances, with the high-water mark being a 10-2 record in 1998 (7-1 ACC) and a tie for the conference title. O'Leary won ACC Coach of the Year in 1998 and 2000 and Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year following a 9-3 season in 2000. An NCAA investigation completed years after O'Leary's 2001 departure revealed that the school inadvertently allowed ineligible athletes to compete during his tenure and the school was hit with scholarship limitations and forced to vacate wins from 1998 through 2004 (a penalty later overturned on appeal) as a result.
Bill Stewart, West Virginia: Skeptics typically point toward Stewart's tenure as a warning about premature excitement over an interim coach's success. Stewart took over as interim coach when Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan at the end of the 2007 regular season, and the Stewart-led Mountaineers ended the season with a 48-28 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. A day after the bowl win, West Virginia handed Stewart a five-year contract to become head coach. He led West Virginia to three straight nine-win seasons and bowl appearances each year, but that was a step backward from three consecutive top-10 seasons under RichRod. WVU hired Oklahoma offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen in late 2010 as offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, with Holgorsen expected to take over after the 2011 season — what was intended to be Stewart's last on the Mountaineers' sideline. However, Stewart resigned a few months later following a bizarre summertime soap opera in which he was accused of pushing reporters to dig up dirt on his successor, paving the way for Holgorsen to take over the job he has held for the past six seasons. Stewart completed his three seasons at WVU with a 28-12 overall record (15-6 Big East).
Dabo Swinney, Clemson: Swinney and the Tigers sit atop the college football world after a thrilling win over Alabama brought Clemson its first national title since 1981. Swinney has won big (89-28 in eight-plus seasons, plus three ACC titles) and recruited exceptionally well since taking over for Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season. Swinney went 4-3 that year, helping Clemson achieve bowl eligibility by beating hated rival South Carolina 31-14 at the end of the regular season. Since then, Swinney has won nearly every coach of the year award and led the Tigers to six straight seasons with at least 10 wins, plus a spot in each of the past two College Football Playoff National Championship Games.