When Cal announced that Beau Baldwin had been hired as their new offensive coordinator, I was excited. I knew that Eastern Washington was an FCS powerhouse under his watch, primarily because of an explosive offense. But that’s about it. As it turns out, his career is much more interesting than you might have guessed for a name you probably hadn’t heard of until the last few years - and even then only if you’re a college football obsessive.
He faces an interesting challenge at Cal, and he’s showing a ton of confidence in his own abilities by choosing to take that challenge on.
To start, going from head coach to offensive coordinator is a step down in terms of responsibility, even if it’s coming at a higher level within the sport. But more importantly, he’s taking over for an offensive staff that was very successful, and he’ll likely be asked to produce results that are at least comparable. That’s not necessarily an enviable situation, particularly since Cal is without a quarterback with game experience.
Does he have what it takes? Let’s look at what his coaching career tells us:
Quarterback coach, Central Washington - 1994-2002
You might not be familiar with the Central Washington Wildcats, who ply their trade in the Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference. Back in the 90s Central Washington was an NAIA school, and Beau Baldwin played quarterback. He evidently impressed the coaching staff, as he was immediately hired as quarterbacks coach, and for two years he coached Jon Kitna, who ended up having an improbable 15 year pro football career. He book-ended his time at CWU by coaching Mike Reilly, who spent two years on NFL practice squads before heading to the CFL, where he led the Edmonton Eskimos to a Grey Cup.
There’s not a ton else we can say about Baldwin’s early years - I couldn’t even find a media guide at the CWU website, but his Eastern Washington bio certainly indicates a prolific offense by NAIA standards. In any case, after nine years he got a call from FCS Eastern Washington, and he held the reigns of the EWU offense for 13 of the next 14 years.
Offensive Coordinator/QB coach, Eastern Washington - 2003-06
Hey, do you guys remember Paul Wulff? Well, ole’ Paul was EWU’s offensive coordinator for a couple years before getting promoted to head coach starting in 2000. However, his Eagles were kinda mediocre for the first few years of his tenure. His first three years in charge, EWU went 10-11 in Big Sky play. Not an awful performance at a school only a decade removed from a jump from DII, but hardly amazing either.
But then Wulff hired Baldwin to take over the offense, and the Eagles made the FCS playoffs 3 of the next 5 years.
Am I saying that Baldwin was the guy that made Wulff look good, and that when Wulff left for Washington St. without him, he wasn’t able to replicate the same results? That’s a little facile, but based on future events it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Baldwin was the real driving force behind EWU’s rise to power in FCS football.
Head Coach, Central Washington - 2007
In Baldwin’s only season in charge, he guided CWU to a 10-3 record that included an appearance in the elite 8 equivalent of the DII playoffs . . . which as best as I can gather, has been something of a rarity for CWU. Seems impressive. Again, a sheer lack of information means that there’s not a ton to analyze here.
Head Coach, Eastern Washington - 2008-16
When Paul Wulff did finally leave for Washington St., the Eagles tapped Baldwin to replace him. It was probably the obvious choice considering Baldwin’s success as EWU’s offensive coordinator and an impressive one year stint at CWU. In this case, the obvious choice was also the right choice.
Since hiring Baldwin, Eastern Washington probably has trailed only North Dakota State and Sam Houston State in terms of FCS success. In nine years he racked up 5 titles in the deep Big Sky conference to go along with 6 playoff appearances and a national title.
This is the point at which I’d like to reference a whole bunch of concrete, contextualized stats to explain exactly how the EWU offense was great. But I can’t really do that. As best I can tell, nobody does fancy stats for FCS football. I’m not even talking holistic stats like S&P or FEI - even basic metrics like yards/attempt are hard to come by if you look back more than a year or two. What little you can find comes in the form of hideous, unwieldy tables or in bizarre, maddening report databases.
What I can say is that for more than a decade EWU has had one of the best offenses in FCS football, and with the limited information at our disposal, here’s the best way I can illustrate the point. FCS football has 122 teams. Here’s where Eastern Washington has ranked in yards/play over the last 5 years*:
No, it’s not adjusted for schedule strength, but it’s as close as we’re going to get to a single number that tells us how successful EWU’s offense has been. Considering that EWU regularly schedules Pac-12 teams, plays in a high end FCS conference, and regularly makes deep playoff runs, that level of consistent production is even more impressive.
Of course, we have to face an obvious question: Will Baldwin’s offensive ideas translate at Cal, against power 5 defenses rather than FCS defenses? Plenty of major college football teams have plucked coaches from the lower tiers of the sport. Sometimes you find a Chip Kelly or a Rich Rodriguez. Sometimes you find Mouse Davis.
Why do I think Cal fans should be optimistic? Well, for one thing Baldwin’s offenses have already worked pretty damned well against Pac-12 opposition. And while Baldwin doesn’t want to pigeon hole his offense with a particular name or label, it’s certainly true that it features plenty of spread/air raid concepts**. There’s no reason to think that Cal shouldn’t have the personnel to run his offense - or that Baldwin can’t adapt his ideas to Cal’s current roster.
That Baldwin has (very successful) head coaching experience is an added bonus. Having that on the Cal coaching staff can only help as Justin Wilcox navigates his new role.
Cal football generally does not have the luxury of making ‘sure thing’ hires. Baldwin is as close as Cal has gotten since I started closely following the Bears, and I’m damned excited to see his offenses in action.
*Why the last 5 years? Because if have to spend any more time trying to work through the NCAA’s idiotic FCS stats webpages I’ll quit CGB.
**Expect to see some EWU game film break down through the rest of the off-season as we try to get a better grasp of what Baldwin will be bringing to Berkeley.