ANALYSIS: New CMU football coach Bonamego a gamble for Heeke

By John Irwin

John Bonamego clearly has the passion to be Central Michigan’s 28th head football coach.

John Bonamego
John Bonamego

But will success follow him?

Bonamego, who signed a five-year, $2.4 million contract on Monday, was emotional during his introductory press conference, telling reporters that he’s taking his dream job at CMU, where he played in the 1980s.

“I’ve wanted this job for a very long time,” Bonamego said, according to CM Life. “I plan to start and end my head coaching career here.”

Intentionally or not, he positioned himself as an anti-Enos of sorts. Whereas his predecessor, Dan Enos, was often seen in the public as aloof and relatively distant from the program, Bonamego made it clear he will be accessible to students and to the media, and he has no plans on leaving Mount Pleasant anytime soon.

But passion for a football program does not automatically equal success. Just ask Brady Hoke.

Like Bonamego, Hoke took over a middling program at Michigan in 2011 previously helmed by a divisive head coach that was never able to win over a fan base used to success.

Like Bonamego, Hoke was a relative unknown but was able to win fans over with a fiery, passionate press conference.

Like Bonamego, Hoke said his new job would be his last.

He was fired four years later.

It’s very possible Bonamego will prove himself to be a great CMU head coach. And if the program wants to avoid a decade of mediocrity, that’s what he’ll need to be.

But CMU and athletics director Dave Heeke are taking a risk by hiring him. Frankly, Bonamego’s track record as a coach gives little indication that he’s bound for success as a head coach.

For starters, Bonamego has never been a head coach past the high school level, and he only has six years of coaching experience to his name at the FBS level. He was an assistant coach at Army between 1993 and 1998, which finished 32-34-1 in his six seasons there.

Since 1999, Bonamego has served as a special teams coordinator for several NFL teams, most recently with the Detroit Lions.

How have his special teams units stacked up against the league? Turns out, not so well. The chart shows Bonamego’s special teams’ “defense-adjusted value over average” rating as determined by the football statistics website Football Outsiders. Essentially, the statistic determines how effective a given unit is and ranks it accordingly. (More details here.)

Note: Years in italics indicate years served as an assistant special teams coach.

As head special teams coach, Bonamego’s teams finished at an average rank of 21st in the NFL out of 32 teams. His most recent team, the 2014 Lions, finished 31st.

That’s not exactly a sterling record of success.

Additionally, what CMU did in hiring Bonamego is extremely rare. Most new coaches are former head coaches or offensive or defensive coordinators, with a few notable exceptions. While special teams play a vital role in every football game, a coordinator’s impact on offense or defense is much easier to determine, and thus they are given more opportunities for head coaching positions.

That’s especially true of this year’s new coaching hires.

Besides CMU and UNLV, which hired six-time Nevada high school state champion head coach Tony Sanchez, no school hired a new head coach without prior experience at either the same position or as an offensive or defensive coordinator.

None of this, of course, is to say Bonamego can’t or won’t succeed. He very well might. His outgoing demeanor and passion for CMU football are a great start.

But Heeke and CMU are taking a huge gamble on a coach with numerous question marks.

Time will tell if that gamble pays off.

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