TGS SPECIAL REPORT...HANG ON FOR THE COACHING CAROUSEL!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We at TGS have been providing college football coaching “hot seat” updates for as long as we can remember. And there is usually plenty to keep us busy. As in most seasons, around 20 college jobs change hands.
The 2017 coaching carousel, however, has been spinning since October, and many insiders believe it will be moving faster than ever in the upcoming weeks. That’s partly because any number of dominoes could fall with head coaches moving from one job to another (it's already happening). Then there is the number of expected high-profile openings. On top of that is a newer early signing period for recruits in mid-December. This has added some urgency to the proceedings, and we expect to see more openings, and more filled openings, by the first week in December, perhaps than at any time in recent memory. This will likely include numerous teams that will be involved in the upcoming bowl action. As we’ve seen in past years, and have already seen this season, bowl bids ain’t what they used to be, and are hardly the life preserver for coaches that they once were.
We’ve been reaching out the past week to various sources who have provided us with plenty of insights. Though, as a disclaimer, rumor mills that whirr at high speed can change direction in a moment. And some of these jobs might be filled by the time you read this piece. Nonetheless, it’s a rite of passage for those who follow college football closely to be tracking every spin of the carousel.
First, a look at the jobs that have already opened, and updates on where the particular job search is reportedly headed (or, in some cases, where it has already landed). Teams are listed in alphabetical order, as of November 26.
ARIZONA STATE...It might have surprised some that the Sun Devils, an improved bunch this season and bowl-bound at 7-5, would hit the eject button on Todd Graham, especially less than 24 hours after a satisfying win over rival Arizona, but that’s what they did in Tempe on Sunday morning. The buyout, reportedly around $3 million, was not especially prohibitive, but this was as much PR-related as anything, as Graham has long rubbed a lot of people wrong in the Valley of the Sun. His personality (and not-so-secret desire to someday return to his home state of Texas) had much to do with the decision by ASU, which has invested big in a new football facility and a remodel of Sun Devil Stadium the past few years. Now, AD Ray Anderson reportedly has several candidates already on his radar, including Michigan assistant Pep Hamilton, with Pac-12 ties at Stanford under David Shaw, and NFL experience as an o.c. with the Colts; Kevin Sumlin, dismissed from Texas A&M on Sunday; Washington co-d.c. Jimmy Lake; Vanderbilt HC Derek Mason, with roots in the Phoenix area and having also worked with Shaw at Stanford; and South Florida HC Charlie Strong. The candidate of choice among the “Sun Angels” boosters, however, is likely Memphis HC Mike Norvell (more on him in a moment), with ASU ties on the Graham staff a few years ago and a hot commodity at the present time. The dream hire for Sun Devil backers through much of the offseason, and early portion of this season, however, was Chip Kelly, though UCLA beat ASU to the punch on Chip (read on for more on Kelly).
ARKANSAS...To the surprise of no one, Bret Bielema walked the plank after Friday’s finale vs. Missouri, a change considered a fait accompli for a couple of weeks since AD Jeff Long got the boot in early November. There is also considerable intrigue in Fayetteville regarding the still-to-be-filled AD job, which has a few angles of its own. Reports are that a couple of former Razorbacks, football QB Kevin Scanlan and hoop legend Joe Kleine, are the top candidates for a job whose rumor mill has also mentioned former football HC Houston Nutt as a possibility. Sources tell us Nutt is very unlikely to land the job, but the other rumor with a kick from Fayetteville is that if Arkansas can lure back native son Gus Malzahn from Auburn (which has been wildly speculated the past week)... Malzahn would be able to pick his AD! (We told you this year's carousel was spinning wildly in different directions!) But since Malzahn beat Alabama last Saturday to win the SEC West, and will face Georgia for the SEC title this week in Atlanta and a chance to get to the Final Four, is he really still in play? (Some sources say yes.) There are other names in the mix Fayetteville, if the Porker power-brokers have to turn away from Malzahn. The name also mentioned is that of Memphis HC Mike Norvell, who has the added bonus of being represented by super-agent Jimmy Sexton, who reportedly considers Norvell the new apple-of-his-eye, and worthy of the most-special treatment. The high-flying Tiger offense has gained a lot of attention and Norvell could be on the move from Memphis very soon after the upcoming American title clash vs. UCF (whose coach is also generating a lot of attention...more on him in a moment). As mentioned, Norvell could also get a look from Arizona State with the Sun Devils hitting the eject button on Todd Graham; Norvell was o.c. at ASU before taking the Tiger job. Beyond Norvell, others to perhaps watch are Arkansas State HC Blake Anderson, who seems poised to join predecessors that include Malzahn at higher-profile openings, and perhaps SMU HC Chad Morris, whose offenses have been lively (but defenses desultory) in Dallas.
FLORIDA...The Gators hit the eject button on Jim McElwain after the thrashing received by Georgia in Jacksonville on October 28. After a brief courtship of Chip Kelly, attentioned turned toward UCF HC Scott Frost, who has his Golden Knights unbeaten and poised to represent the Group of Five conferences as their rep in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, providing UCF beats Memphis (and its in-demand HC, Mike Norvell) in Saturday’s American title game. Note that Frost is one of the few top coaching flavors not represented by Jimmy Sexton; Frost is aligned with Sexton’s rival Trace Armstrong. (Which means one job Frost is unlikely to land is the one at Tennessee, the alma mater of Sexton, who is likely moving many of the pieces on the chess board in Knoxville). We're not sure if Frost declined, but the Gators moved in a different direction, confirming reports from our sources that Mississippi State HC Dan Mullen, who worked in Gainesville as Tim Tebow’s o.c. on Urban Meyer’s staff before taking the job at Starkville, could be on the move. On Sunday night, Mullen, who had likely taken the Bulldogs as far as they could go, walked away from what seemed like near lifetime job security at Mississippi State to ink with the Gators.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN...The Eagles pulled the plug on the disastrous Tyson Summers experiment at midseason, then began to unexpectedly rally for interim HC Chad Lunsford, who has won back-to-back games, including a 52-0 job over South Alabama (more on the Jags in a moment), to emerge as a serious candidate. Reportedly, the Southern list also includes Army o.c. Brent Davis, with Eagle ties from days with West Point HC Jeff Monken, and would certainly restore GSU’s option roots; Georgia RB coach Dell McGee, who was the interim Eagle HC for the bowl win over Bowling Green two years ago after Willie Fritz moved to Tulane; and perhaps Penn State d.c. Brent Pry, also a former GS aide who once interviewed for the job post-Fritz.
OLE MISS...Hugh Freeze’s dismissal in summer gave interim Matt Luke a season to audition, in hopes of removing his interim. In the meantime, speculation centered for months upon many candidates, including the aforementioned Mike Norvell, and his connection to infuential agent Jimmy Sexton. Bama d.c Jeremy Pruitt, another Sexton client, was also thought to be in the frame, especially considering how well his Tide d.c. predecessor Kirby Smart is doing these days at Georgia. Sources say AD Ross Bjork had also long considered Willie Taggart, his employee from days both were at Western Kentucky, his backup in case something went awry with Freeze...which it did, but not before Taggart left South Florida for Oregon last offseason. For a while, sources also said that Colorado HC Mike MacIntyre, with roots in the South, could be a target, though it would have helped for his Buffs to get bowl-eligible (which they didn’t). Troy HC Neal Brown, with his progressive passing schemes, is another up-and-comer, and was also possibly in play at Ole Miss. In the end, however, the Rebs are apparently going to stick with Luke, with the full support of his players, who rallied down the stretch and won the Egg Bowl last week, likely helping Luke's cause. Also in Luke's favor was that he was not spooked by the sanctions in Oxford.
NEBRASKA...Mike Riley’s dismissal after desultory 4-8 campaign, the worst in Lincoln since the pre-Bob Devaney days of 1957 under Bill Jennings, was more telegraphed than one of George Foreman’s roundhouse rights aimed at Muhammad Ali in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. New AD Bill Moos has already expressed fondness for alum Scott Frost, as the current UCF HC is the dream hire in Huskerland. Some suggest the deal for Frost might be complete, and that Moos is waiting for UCF to play in the American title game vs. Memphis on Saturday before announcing the hire...we'll see. If Frost doesn't jump, some believe Moos might be tempted to lure his former employee at Washington State, Mike Leach, though Pac-12 sources say Leach is completely satisfied with his situation in Pullman. The MAC flavor of this carousel is Toledo’s Jason Candle, who could be a target and might be in demand, considering the high regard in which predecessor Matt Campbell is now held at Iowa State.
OREGON STATE...Gary Andersen’s still-curious resignation in early October continues to puzzle Pac-12 observers and threw them all for a loop in Corvallis. Sources say the Beavers might be close to making a deal with Cal o.c. Beau Baldwin, who previously had very good success in the Big Sky as HC at Eastern Washington. UCLA o.c. Jedd Fisch, who became Bruin interim HC after Jim Mora’s dismissal, is also apparently in the mix. Former Beaver QB and current Washington co-offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith is another who has been getting some mention at OSU.
SOUTH ALABAMA...Joey Jones handed in his resignation (likely before the axe was to fall) in November. Georgia LB coach Kevin Sherrer, who was USA’s d.c. in 2013, is reportedly considered a top contender to replace Jones, though also on the Mobile target list are Auburn o.c. Chip Lindsey, Jacksonville State HC John Grass, Central Arkansas HC Steve Campbell, and Auburn d.c. Kevin Steele (a onetime HC at Baylor).
TENNESSEE...Butch Jones got the expected pink slip after a 50-17 loss to Missouri earlier this month. The Dan Mullen-on-the-move rumors in the SEC also included Knoxville before the Mississippi State HC ended up at Florida. The Vols then seemed to have a deal in place with Ohio State d.c. Greg Schaiano, former Rutgers and NFL Bucs HC, though that fell apart sometime Sunday. Now, attention focuses elsewhere, and the Vols might look to go the Georgia route and hire what might be this year’s version of Kirby Smart off of the Nick Saban staff, current Tide d.c. Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt is also a client of Vol alum Jimmy Sexton, as is Memphis HC Norvell, who might prefer Knoxville to Arkansas. The Vols also apparently have no qualms opening the saddlebags for Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, if they decide he’s their man (as some are suggesting) and worth the buyout. But would Campbell (or Norvell or Pruitt) want to make this move to a job that has lost quite a bit of luster in the last decade? And will Sexton want to steer his clients to his diminished alma mater?
UCLA...The Bruins have moved quickly, with beleaguered Jim Mora axed after the recent loss to crosstown USC (the Bruins; third straight setback vs. the Trojans after Mora beat SC in his first three tries) and before the regular-season finale vs. Cal, which the Bruins won 30-27 under interim HC and o.c. Jedd Fisch, becoming bowl-eligible in the process. Within 24 hours of beating the Golden Bears, however, the Bruins had inked former Oregon, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers HC Chip Kelly to a 5-year, $23.5 million deal. This was mostly the work of mega-booster Casey Wasserman, the new king-maker in Westwood whose grandfather Lew Wasserman was one of the great power-brokers in Hollywood. Kelly’s signing continues an intriguing trend of UCLA football hires for almost a half-century; the last to come directly from another head-coaching job was Pepper Rodgers, who had previously been on Tommy Prothro’s Bruins staff in the '60s and was hired away from Kansas in 1971. Since then, UCLA has hired its coaches off of the Chuck Knox LA Rams staff (Dick Vermeil), promoted from Vermeil’s staff (Terry Donahue), promoted from Donahue’s staff (Bob Toledo); hired from Mike Shanahan’s Broncos staff (Karl Dorrell); hired off of Brian Billick’s Ravens staff (Rick Neuheisel); and hired off of a TV gig (Mora). Technically, Kelly has been hired off of a TV gig, too, as he has most recently been seen as an in-studio analyst for ESPN.
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UTEP...The first job to open during the season (Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss in their own category) was with the Miners when Sean Kugler resigned after the Sept. 30 loss at Army. UTEP didn’t win a game for former HC and interim Mike Price, finishing 0-12. Those brave enough to undertake this task at the Sun Bowl reportedly include Oklahoma State o.c. Mike Yurcich, Tennessee QB coach Mike Canales (former interim HC at North Texas), Texas Tech o.c. Eric Morris, and North Texas o.c. (and former Texas Tech QB) Graham Harrell. They’re also looking for a new AD at UTEP which could slow the search for a HC until that position gets filled.
TEXAS A&M...With Kevin Sumlin given his walking papers Sunday, there's an opening with the Aggies. The hot rumor to College Station is Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, who sources say might be on the lookout as he has had his first real frustrations in Tallahassee with lagging facilities. He’s also a Jimmy Sexton client. And if Jimbo is really in play, then Tennessee might get into the mix for him as well. Then the Florida State job would be a major enticement to many established coaches. Or if Malzahn leaves Auburn...could Jimbo land with the Tigers? Might Will Muschamp leave South Carolina for Jordan-Hare? Maybe Bobby Petrino? And what if Bill Snyder hangs ‘em up at Kansas State...could Bret Bielema, once on Snyder’s staff, succeed him? And now the Mississippi State job has opened up in the SEC! Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. Considering the speed all of this is likely to happen in the next week or so, maybe we should be like agents Jimmy Sexton and Trace Armstrong and think a few moves down the road. Hang on for the ride. Stay tuned