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Looking back at notable interim college football head coaches this century

While a daunting feat, these coaches demonstrate obtaining success while on, and after, the tag.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Miami at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Pat Fitzgerald was suspended two weeks following Maggie Hickey’s investigation confirming that hazing occurred in the Northwestern football program, most figured that the head coach would simply be away from the team’s facilities during a recruiting dead period, and would return July 21. Little consideration was granted to the fact that David Braun was the Wildcats’ acting head coach, to say the least.

However, only three days after news of Fitzgerald’s suspension, the present reality for Northwestern changed exponentially, with the 17-year head coach being fired for allegations of hazing, racism and permitting a toxic culture. In one fell swoop, Braun went from a first-time FBS coach to the head man at a Big Ten institution. Officially, the former North Dakota State defensive coordinator was named the ‘Cats’ interim head coach on July 14 — under six months after he arrived in Evanston.

The role of interim head coach in any sport presents a myriad of challenges, and not just because of the actual word preceding someone’s title. Such coaches must recognize the limited timespan of their opportunities to lead, while frequently being promoted with little prior notice. Further, programs and teams often enter seasons ahead with the intentions to hire someone more experienced and tailored to long-term goals.

Braun endures all of the challenges outlined above, compounded with a team and school that has been the subject of continued negative reactions and headlines, plus deep-seated questions about its culture, practices and values. He’ll also become the first non-Fitzgerald head coach for Northwestern since Dec. 30, 2005.

The circumstances are certainly not in Braun’s favor, as is typical for any interim head coach. At the same time, there have been definite success stories for temporary leaders turned full-fledged, national championship-winning coaches. Below are five of the more noteworthy coaches who started with the interim tag and ultimately achieved tremendously at their schools.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson

Swinney has grown into one of the more iconic and legendary coaches in college football, primarily due to his achievements with the Tigers. He boasts an astonishing 161-39 record, two national titles, eight ACC crowns and 13 end-of-season AP Top 25 rankings.

However, Swinney was not entirely a high-profile assistant hand-picked by Clemson to be its next head coach before the start of a fresh slate.

Following the resignation of Tommy Bowden on Oct. 13, 2008, Swinney — then the team’s wide receivers coach — took over. Under Swinney’s guidance, the Tigers went 4-2 in the regular season, earning a spot in the Gator Bowl (but falling to Nebraska).

Swinney was officially named Clemson’s full-time head coach on Dec. 1, 2008. Since that promotion, Clemson has remained a continual powerhouse, producing 17 first-round NFL Draft picks and losing more than five games just once in Swinney’s 14-year tenure.

Ed Orgeron, LSU

On Sept. 25, 2016, LSU coach Les Miles was fired by the school following an 18-13 loss to Auburn, which dropped the Tigers to 2-2. At that point, Orgeron, the team’s defensive line coach, became the interim head coach.

Over the remainder of that season, LSU went 5-2 in the regular season, with ranked victories over Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Orgeron had the interim tag removed on Nov. 26, prior to the team’s bowl game. The No. 19 Tigers closed the year with a dominating 29-9 Citrus Bowl win over No. 15 Louisville.

In Baton Rouge, Orgeron went 71-51, claiming the 2019 national title with one of the greatest teams in college football history. The Tigers won eight or more games four times from 2016 to 2021, when Orgeron was let go.

Clay Helton, USC

Helton worked as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator in 2013 when he was named the team’s interim before its Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State. Two years later, he became a more permanent interim when head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired for “erratic behavior” on Oct. 12, 2015.

In the final seven games of the 2015 regular season, Helton led USC to a 5-2 mark, including taking down No. 3 Utah. The school discarded the interim tag for Helton on Nov. 30, subsequent to a 40-21 win over rival No. 22 UCLA. Helton’s Trojans made the PAC-12 Championship but lost to No. 7 Stanford; the team also was defeated in the Holiday Bowl.

Helton served as USC’s full-time head guide for six seasons thereafter, accumulating a 40-20 mark, a Rose Bowl trophy and conference championship and two consensus All-Americans. He’s now the coach at Georgia Southern, which went 6-7 and lost the Camellia Bowl in Helton’s first year at the helm.

Ryan Day, Ohio State

Day joined Ohio State in 2017 as the team’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. One year later, he was elevated to full-time offensive coordinator.

Yet, in August 2018, Day was named OSU’s interim head coach, as Urban Meyer was placed on administrative leave following an investigation about his knowledge of domestic abuse committed by assistant coach Zach Smith. Meyer was suspended for three games on Aug, 22, 2018, after the school’s investigation determined that Meyer and AD Gene Smith “failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct and retained an Assistant Coach who was not performing as an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes.”

In Meyer’s absence, Day won the first three games of the 2018 campaign, outscoring opponents — including No. 15 TCU — a ludicrous 169-62. Meyer returned in Week Four, at which point the top-five Buckeyes started 7-0 and finished Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions.

On Dec. 4, 2018, Day was deemed Ohio State’s full-time leader after Meyer’s retirement. While he was not named head coach after an interrupted reign as interim, per se, Day still serves as an example of a part-time head coach garnering a job — in part due to his success as temporary leader.

Since Day’s ultimate ascendance, the Buckeyes have gone 42-6, making three of the last four College Football Playoffs, winning two Big Ten titles and producing nine top-15 draft picks.

Brent Key, Georgia Tech

Nine interim coaches led programs during the regular season in 2022 — including Key, who became the Yellow Jackets’ interim on Sept. 26. Georgia Tech won its first two games with Key calling the shots, including besting No. 24 Pitt on the road in his debut.

The team finished 4-4 under its former offensive line coach, with highlights including a road victory over No. 13 North Carolina. While only a .500 record, the four conference wins were the most by Tech since 2018.

Key was promoted to permanent head coach on Nov. 29, three days after the conclusion of the 2022 season. He’ll lead a Yellow Jackets team projected to finish 12th in the ACC, and which loses quarterback Jeff Sims and second-round pick Keion White.