- The ripple effect of these seven key headlines from 2009 continues to color how college football looks 10 years later.
It’s rare for a college football program to make big news in March. Spring football is in full swing, but few major position battles are decided this early, and most coaching staff hirings and firings have been squared away for weeks. Plus, everyone’s paying attention to basketball.
But a decade ago this month, on the heels of a 10–3 season, Oregon made waves when head coach Mike Bellotti sped up the school’s premeditated succession plan by stepping into the athletic director role, putting offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting Chip Kelly in charge. The rest is history.
That event is one of many worth reflecting on as the 10th anniversary of the 2009 season approaches. It might not have been apparent then, but the head coaches, championship contenders and conference realignment rumblings that felt new a decade ago proved to be the catalysts for storylines that still dominate the sport today. Let’s take a look back.
Dabo Swinney’s first recruiting class and full season at Clemson
Swinney, who had served as a Clemson assistant since 2003, was promoted to interim head coach when Tommy Bowden was fired in October 2008, then turned that half-season audition into the full-time job. In his first full recruiting cycle, he signed Martavis Bryant, Vic Beasley and DeAndre Hopkins, and the next year pulled in the No. 10 recruiting class in the country, per 247Sports.com. Since then, it’s been nothing but top-20 classes at Clemson, with a few leaps up into the top 10. In his sixth year, Swinney had the Tigers playing for the national championship.
In less than a decade, Swinney managed to take a good-but-not-great team and elevate it to the upper echelon of the college game. He’s stolen players previously ticketed for Nick Saban’s Alabama juggernaut and coupled those ace recruiting instincts with a stable staff that puts players in position to succeed. Clemson’s on-field success has won over plenty of top players, but so has Swinney’s infectious personality, which stands in sharp contrast to many of the other top coaches in the game and provides a model for other programs to break into the inner circle of college football elites.
Chip Kelly’s first season at Oregon
Two years after first installing his spread offense in Eugene—the Ducks led the Pac-12 in scoring and total offense in both seasons Kelly was OC—the former New Hampshire assistant was handed the keys to the program, which he shaped into one of college football’s most well-defined brands over the next four seasons.
Kelly was the Pac-12’s coach of the year in 2009 and led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than a decade. Oregon reached BCS bowls in each year of Kelly’s tenure and came within a last-second field goal of a national title in 2010, and Kelly left for the NFL just as variations of his offense proliferated across college ball.
Six years after coach and team parted ways, it’s hard to argue that either side is in a better spot. Oregon is on its third coach since Kelly (although it did play for a national title in 2014 under Mark Helfrich and is building toward contention under Mario Cristobal), who returned to the college game a year ago and is now heading up a full-scale rebuild at UCLA. His time in Eugene still resonates up and down the West Coast.
Western Kentucky’s introduction to the FBS coaching carousel
On Sept. 5, 2009, Western Kentucky kicked off its first season as a fully integrated FBS program. The Hilltoppers debuted with a 63–7 loss at Tennessee and went 0–12, losing by an average margin of 17.9 points.
Western Kentucky’s significance to the larger college football conversation could only go up from there, and after the firing of head coach David Elson, who had guided the program through the FCS-to-FBS transition, the coaches brought in to begin the climb to respectability have remained subjects of national interests at their higher-profile jobs. Elson was replaced by 33-year-old Willie Taggart, whose turnaround in Bowling Green helped him rise up the coaching ranks from South Florida to Oregon and now Florida State. The Hilltoppers provided Bobby Petrino a path back college coaching after his messy Arkansas exit and went 8–4 in his first and only season in 2013. Jeff Brohm took over for Petrino and parlayed his success into the Purdue job; he was the No. 1 choice to replace Petrino at his alma mater, Louisville, last winter before deciding to stay with the Boilermakers.
Under Taggart, Petrino and Brohm, Western Kentucky went 55–35 from 2010 to ’16. It moved from the Sun Belt to Conference USA and won three consecutive bowl games from 2014 to ’16. Brohm’s replacement, Mike Sanford Jr., lasted two mediocre seasons, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Hilltoppers will rebound under Tyson Helton, a 41-year-old first-time head coach who was on Brohm’s staff for two seasons before short OC stints at USC and Tennessee. It’s never a bad idea to keep tabs on who’s running the show in Bowling Green.
Texas’s last great season
The Longhorns haven’t been season-long national title contenders since 2009, the end of an epic hot streak in Austin under Mack Brown. The Longhorns didn’t lose until the BCS Championship Game, after Alabama knocked Colt McCoy out of the game in the first quarter and put Texas’s fate in the hands of true freshman Garrett Gilbert. The next year, the Longhorns finished 5–7, missing a bowl game for the first time since 1997 to begin a decade in the wilderness in which their mid-aughts success hung over their frequent mediocrity.
Tim Tebow’s college football farewell
Before Tebow was an NFL lightning rod, a broadcaster or a Met, his final season marked the end of an era in Gainesville and for college football. The Gators’ dropoff post-Tebow wasn’t nearly bad as the Longhorns’ after McCoy departed, but a decade later, they haven’t gotten as close to the national title game as they were when Alabama ruined their undefeated season in the SEC title game.
The Mountain West Peaks, Then Overhauls
In the final AP poll of 2009, three Mountain West teams were ranked in the top 20: No. 6 TCU, No. 12 BYU and No. 18 Utah. That hasn’t happened since, but what’s most noteworthy about that accomplishment is that within three years, all three of those teams left the conference: BYU went independent, Utah joined what became the Pac-12, and TCU was brought into a Big 12 that needed to make a splash.
If any conference’s 2009 standings raise eyebrows 10 years later, it’s the Mountain West, which set the table for the full-scale shakeup looming and offered a blueprint for Group of Five programs with lofty aspirations.
The Mountain West hasn’t been the same since realignment, which brought Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada, Hawai’i, Utah State and San Jose State into the league over a period of three years. Last season came close, though: The conference finished with three top-25 teams—No. 18 Fresno State, No. 22 Utah State and No. 23 Boise State—none of which were members a years ago.
Alabama’s first title under Saban
At the time, the 2009 national championship game was noteworthy for ending an interminable drought in Tuscaloosa: Alabama hadn’t played for a championship in 17 years. Meanwhile, Texas had won it all in 2005 and had been a BCS mainstay in the first decade of this century. Alabama felt like a change of pace at the time, but that title game offered a preview of the decade to come, when the Crimson Tide (and the SEC) would reign supreme. That team’s roster was led by Greg McElroy at quarterback and Mark Ingram at running back, along with an elite defense full of future NFL-ers: Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Rolando McClain, Marcell Dareus and Kareem Jackson, among others.