TGS SPECIAL REPORT...LAST SPIN ON COL FB COACHING CAROUSEL
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Before we sign off on the just-completed college football season, we wanted to take a quick look at a coaching carousel that has done some extra spins before taking a peek at how the hot seat is shaping up for 2018.
Regarding the latter, it looks like potential calmer waters for coaches next campaign, with the just-completed “hot seat season” especially warm. Projecting into the fall, there appear to be fewer coaches on the 2018 hot seat than we were talking about at this time last year. Time could change all of that, however, as only a handful of coaches truly head into each season out of danger’s reach.
The 2017 coaching carousel still has a few spins to go, with Arizona looking for a coach to fill its recent opening created by the dismissal of Rich Rodriguez last week. And until the NFL fills all of its vacancies after the Super Bowl, there’s still a chance at another move or two. Though unlikely, and we hear the same sorts of names every year, the names of Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban have spun out of the NFL rumor mill over the past week. Most likely baseless chatter, but just in case, let’s not put the recent coaching carousel to sleep just yet.
Before we get into the early projections for the 2018 hot seat, a look at the various coaching hires already made in college football. We’re going to refrain from grading any of these hires; annually, we are amused when pundits affix letter graded to hires of longtime assistant coaches who are getting their first chances as a head coach. It is too early to know if any of these moves will work, but it is especially soon to begin projecting about first-time head coaches. We’ll make comments as warranted.
ARIZONA STATE: OUT-Kent Graham; IN-Herm Edwards (via ESPN)...An unorthodox chain of events in Tempe, to be sure, authored by headstrong AD Ray Anderson, who critics claim was trying to run the Sun Devil coaching search like an NFL operation, giving input on staff and so forth. A lot of Pac-12 observers were surprised to begin with that Graham was dismissed after a 7-5 record and second place in the Pac-12 South, but others realized Graham’s prickly personality had won him few friends in the desert and were not surprised to see him go. Anderson, however, had his own ideas on a successor, and went against many“Sun Angel” boosters who would have preferred an earlier run at Chip Kelly or, short of that, an attempt to lure Memphis HC Mike Norvell, who had served on Graham’s staff before moving to the Tigers. (Norvell, a prized client of super-agent Jimmy Sexton, might not have wanted to replace a man he worked for in Graham). Other coaches balked at Anderson’s proviso that both coordinators (o.c. Billy Napier and d.c. Phil Bennett) be kept. That didn’t spook former NFL HC Edwards, out of coaching for a decade while working as an ESPN analyst, and, for a good measure, a former client of Anderson’s when the latter was an agent (how convenient!). Anderson’s grand plan had already started to unravel before the Sun Bowl (in which Graham was curiously allowed to coach) when Napier left for the Louisiana HC job and Bennett decided to retire. Edwards does inherit a winning team, but everything else about this switch appears red-flag time.
ARKANSAS: OUT-Bret Bielema; IN-Chad Morris (via SMU, HC)...Bielema’s ouster was no surprise as he never forged a serious breakthrough in his five years at Fayetteville, with the Razorbacks backsliding this past year. But is the hire of Morris, who was a decorated o.c. at Clemson before taking the SMU job, really an upgrade? Granted, Morris improved the Mustangs markedly the past couple of years, but the Ponies were the quintessential all-offense-and-no-defense entry this past season, and that recipe often has not worked in the SEC. Morris has deep Texas ties with his past as a high school coach in the Lone Star State, on top of his SMU gig the past three years, but the jury is still way out on this Razorback hire.
FLORIDA: OUT-Jim McElwain: IN-Dan Mullen (via Mississippi State, HC)...When listening to various pundits rate the hires in this carousel season, and hearing so many placing Mullen beneath various first-time head coaches, it’s nothing short of an indictment of those analysts. At the moment, we think Mullen looks like the best hire of the bunch. With roots at Florida and in the SEC, having worked in Gainesville as Urban Meyer’s o.c. before getting Mississippi State to number one in the polls for a few weeks in 2014 and stabilizing the Bulldogs as a contender, plus stellar work with QBs (Alex Smith, from days with Meyer at Utah, plus Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott, and most recently Nick Fitzgerald) throughout his career, by us Mullen is thus far the homerun hire of the carousel season.
FLORIDA STATE: OUT-Jimbo Fisher; IN-Willie Taggart (via Oregon, HC)...Again, this is a hire we think will work, as Taggart got Oregon back on its feet this season after quick rebuild jobs at Western Kentucky and South Florida. A Sunshine State native, Taggart seems a good fit. Again, however, we wish the pundits would spare us how they believe Taggart rates an upgrade over Fisher, who moved to Texas A&M. If Taggert gets the Noles into a pair of Final Fours and wins the national title in the next five years, it can be said he’s on a par with Jimbo. Anything less, and this was not an upgrade, though it still seems a solid hire considering Taggart’s past successful HC work.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN: OUT-Tyson Summers; IN-Chad Lunsford (via Ga. Southern, interim HC)...Lunsford took over for the overmatched Summers at mid-season, and while Lunsford didn’t wow ‘em in Statesboro, he stabilized the Eagles and got a couple of wins down the stretch. That alone was more than Summers, one of worst hires in recent memory after taking over for Willie Fritz prior to 2016, could manage in 1+ desultory seasons. We recall some pundits mistakenly believing Summers was a good choice to replace Fritz; at least Lunsford now has a bit of experience as a head coach, and unless he fails miserably will be an improvement over his predecessor.
KENT STATE: OUT: Paul Haynes; IN-Sean Lewis (via Syracuse, o.c.)...Because Haynes turned out to be such a dismal failure, the Lewis hire could look good in comparison. Lewis does have some characteristics of a quality MAC coach, mainly a devotee of wide-open, spread football honed at the foot of Dino Babers, on whose staff Lewis worked at Bowling Green and the ‘Cuse. The hope for the Golden Flashes is that Lewis can replicate the Babers success at Bowling Green. And that chance for a Babers MAC redux with Lewis makes this look a worthwhile stab by Kent State, but remember that Lewis is also untested as a HC at this level.
LOUISIANA: OUT-Mark Hudspeth; IN-Billy Napier (via Arizona State, o.c.)...The Hudspeth tale is a worthy one for any low-major coach who wonders about pursuing jobs up the pay scale; a few years ago, Hudspeth was something of a hot commodity, but resisted overtures from elsewhere to stay in Lafayette. There’s no security at the lower levels of FBS if a coach doesn’t win, either, as Hudspeth found out before ever getting his crack at a big-time job which seemed in his future not long ago. Though the aforementioned Napier moved from ASU, where his offense was exciting, he’s also a Nick Saban disciple, having worked as Alabama’s WR coach before moving to the Sun Devils, which justifies his hire, especially in the Sun Belt.
OLE MISS: IN-Matt Luke (via Ole Miss, interim HC)...The “out” at Ole Miss came last summer when Hugh Freeze was relieved of his duties. Inheriting a difficult situation, interim HC Luke kept the Rebs afloat last fall, and perhaps due to a surprise Egg Bowl win over Mississippi State, was rewarded with the job on a full-time basis. Of course, the Ole Miss situation scared off several potential candidates, as the Rebs also have a bowl ban for 2018 and scholarship reductions for the next couple of years resulting from penalties during the Freeze era. For the short-haul, Luke, with a year under his belt, appears be a good option, though hardly a guarantee that he will lift the Rebs back to their former levels once the NCAA penalty phase is complete.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: OUT-Dan Mullen; IN-Joe Moorhead (Via Penn State, o.c.)...Moorhead has some credentials, having coordinated the explosive Nittany Lions offense for James Franklin the past couple of years, and before that a HC at Fordham. This will be Moorhead’s first FBS head coaching job, however, and those who believe the Bulldogs might come out ahead in this switch are looking at things thru maroon-colored glasses. In truth, Moorhead has an awfully difficult act to follow, as Mullen elevated MSU to levels, and sustained the success, more than any Starkville coach in memory. It’s a big stretch to think that MSU somehow upgraded here...Mullen left some awfully big shoes to fill.
NEBRASKA: OUT-Mike Riley; IN-Scott Frost (via UCF, HC)...Now this one does look like a homerun hire after the quick rebuild done at UCF by Frost, who in two years took what was a winless team for George O’Leary and turned it into an undefeated monster that beat Auburn in the CFP Peach Bowl. Moreover, the way the hiring process was conducted by new Husker AD Bill Moos was straight from the how-to book, identifying Frost early, not disrupting the Golden Knights before their regular-season and American title games were complete, and then allowing, and encouraging, Frost to coach UCF in the Peach, which was amenable to UCF. Frost is already a proven commodity, but the only question in this is his alma mater, and how difficult it might be for Nebraska to get back among the nation’s elite, which it really hasn’t been since about midway in the long-ago Frank Solich regime, and the 2001 BCS title game appearance. Frost should look good by comparison to Riley, but the Husker job has not been an elite one for some time. That will be up to Frost to change.
OREGON: OUT-Willie Taggart; IN-Mario Cristobal (via Oregon, o.c.)...Though Cristobal was due another HC spot soon, after taking FIU to its first two bowls and mistakenly fired by clueless Golden Panthers AD Pete Garcia, and then spending a few years on Nick Saban’s staff before moving to Oregon to join Taggart, a lot of Pac-12 observers thought that the Ducks should have been shooting a bit higher. In the end, internal pressure from the players who wanted Cristobal might have had something to do with the hire, which did not get off on the right foot with the Las Vegas Bowl loss vs. Boise State. It will be up to Cristobal to prove that the Webfoots couldn’t have done better.
OREGON STATE: OUT-Gary Andersen; IN-Jonathan Smith (via Washington, co o.c.)...We’re still a bit puzzled at Andersen’s resignation in early October, which came out of left field. The Beavers players were campaigning for interim HC Cory Hall to get the full-time gig, but unlike downstate Oregon, OSU went elsewhere. Though not looking far, tabbing a past Beaver hero, Jonathan Smith, a former star QB in the Dennis Erickson era and earning his stripes as an offensive assistant in recent years for Chris Petersen, first at Boise State and then at Washington. While Smith has offensive credentials, he’s never been a HC, and this is the Pac-12, which can be unforgiving. Curiously, Smith has enlisted former Beaver HC Mike Riley, fresh off a dismissal at Nebraska, as an assistant.
RICE: OUT-David Bailiff; In-Mike Bloomgren (via Stanford, assistant)...Here we go again with another instance of the sports media immediately assuming Bloomgren to be a big upgrade from Bailiff. True, the Owls endured a steep decline the past couple of years, but it’s the same Bailiff who also took Rice to bowls three straight years for the first time in school history, and four bowls total, which is three more than the Owls qualified for in the 45 years preceding his hire. Bailiff was great for Rice until things finally went stale after a decade. Just because Bloomgren worked in the “academic” environment of Stanford for the past seven years is absolutely no guarantee he will be an improvement upon anything to do with Bailiff other than the past two subpar seasons.
SOUTH ALABAMA: OUT-Joey Jones; IN-Steve Campbell, via Central Arkansas, HC)...Campbell isn’t a household name, but he has a championship pedigree. He won a D-II national title at Delta State in 2000, and at the juco level in 2007 while at Mississippi Gulf Coast. He’s spent the last four seasons at Central Arkansas, going 33-15 overall, but 20-5 the last two seasons. The Bears were 17-1 in the Southland Conference, winning the conference this season. USA is hoping Campbell’s winning ways at the lower levels can translate to the Sun Belt, where Jones was unable to elevate the Jaguars after stewarding their move from the FCS ranks.
SMU: OUT-Chad Morris; IN-Sonny Dykes (via TCU, assistant)...Though this looks like a good fit for Texas native Dykes, who had good success at La Tech and put an entertaining product on the field in four years at Cal, the way Dykes was originally promoted was straight from the how-not-to book for bowl games. After the aforementioned Chad Morris took the Arkansas job, rather than let assistant Jeff Traylor, as was originally planned, coach the Frisco Bowl vs. Dykes’ former employer La Tech, the Mustangs decided to put the newly-hired Dykes, who had worked for Gary Patterson at TCU this past season, in charge on short notice. The result was an absolute disaster in a 51-10 loss to the Bulldogs. Dykes, with deep Texas roots, still appears a very proper fit in Dallas...it’s just that the Frisco Bowl will be one that he and SMU would like to forget.
TENNESSEE: OUT-Butch Jones; IN-Jeremy Pruitt (via Alabama, d.c)...Considering the mess they made of things in Knoxville with this hire, including running off an AD (John Currie) for a botched job, the Vols ended up where they should have been at the outset with Pruitt, the latest Nick Saban special from the Alabama staff. Pruitt’s background also includes work as Florida State’s d.c. during the Noles’ national title year in 2013, and the Vols will be hoping this one turns out as well for them as Georgia’s hire of Kirby Smart off Saban’s staff two years ago has worked out for the Bulldogs. The last question we have at UT is with new AD Phil Fulmer, the former football HC who was hired to restore order after the Currie fiasco, and to complete the Pruitt hire, but only inked for two years on the job. Pruitt will thus likely be working for a new AD within two years, hardly comforting for any coach taking over a job.
TEXAS A&M: OUT-Kevin Sumlin; IN-Jimbo Fisher (via Florida State, HC)...There were 75 million reasons for Jimbo to bail on FSU, where he just endured a difficult season. But super-agent Jimmy Sexton was on the case and knew that A&M would break the bank for Jimbo, which it did, as the Ags proved trendsetters again as they first did 36 years ago when starting all of this coaching frenzy by luring Jackie Sherrill from Pitt. With an unlimited budget, Jimbo has also been able to shell out $2 mill+ annually for Notre Dame d.c. Mike Elko, so money is obviously no object in College Station. Whether this ever works out for A&M is solely dependent upon Jimbo winning a national title; for this kind of loot, anything less will be deemed a failure.
UCF: OUT-Scott Frost; IN-Josh Heupel (via Missouri, o.c.)...This one surprised a bit, as many believed Kevin Sumlin was headed to Orlando to replace Frost. Instead, UCF went out and tried to find the most Frost-like hire it could and ended up with Heupel, who helped forge a major turnaround in the Mizzou offense and QB Drew Lock this past season. Frost leaves some awfully big shoes to fill after the Golden Knights finished unbeaten, but give UCF credit for looking to apply the same hiring formula with Heupel, who also knows something about winning from his playing days (Oklahoma QB for Bob Stoops’ national title winner in 2000).
UCLA: OUT-Jim Mora; IN-Chip Kelly (via ESPN, former Oregon, Eagles, 49ers HC)...While they’re happy as could be in Westwood that the Bruins, thanks in large part to the impetus provided by big-bucks booster Casey Wasserman, inked the high-profile Kelly, there are various sources in the Pac-12 who have some reservations. Kelly, though wildly successful at Oregon, took over the Ducks at the right time, when Phil Knight’s money had Oregon at the top of the college arms race (a gap that has been significantly closed in recent years) and several perennial league contenders were in a down phase. Kelly’s offense was avante garde in 2009-10-11-12 but is nothing unique any longer in the Pac. Plus, Kelly mostly inherited a veteran staff at Eugene that was put together by predecessor Mike Bellotti. With its academic bar higher than others, UCLA has to do selective recruiting, which might make it tougher for Kelly to bring in the sort of skill weapons he did with the Ducks. And his NFL adventures with the Eagles and 49ers did not exactly end well. Though this looks like an upgrade from the Mora years and a signal that UCLA is finally a national “player” for the first time in almost 20 years, there are some questions, too.
UTEP: OUT-Sean Kugler; IN-Dana Dimel (via Kansas State, o.c.)...Kugler resigned in early October and was replaced on an interim basis by former HC Mike Price, who was ready for a return to the golf course by the end of a season that ended 0-12 for the Miners. Perhaps the most thankless job in the FBS ranks is now undertaken by Dimel, a blast from the past after a long-ago stint in the late ‘90s as Joe Tiller’s successor at Wyoming, then moving on to Houston, where things didn’t go as well. A Bill Snyder disciple, Dimel has been the Wildcat o.c. since 2009, and might be hoping that a quick turnaround in El Paso will get him in the frame to succeed Snyder, who will be retiring sometime soon. To us, this hire beats many du jour assistants getting the first head coaching gig, as UTEP has a coach with experience who has battled at locales such as Laramie and Manhattan, Kansas. Comparably, El Paso might look like New York to Dimel.
EARLY LOOK AT HOT SEAT 2018
As mentioned earlier, the hot seat projections for 2018, at least at this stage, don’t seem as cluttered as this past season, though things can certainly change next fall. For the moment, these are the coaches who look to be in the most danger heading into 2018.
Mike Jinks, Bowling Green... The post-Dino Babers era for the Falcons has been ugly, with Jinks recording a 6-16 mark in two years and not coming close to a bowl bid, with several blowout losses on the ledger. Last season’s 2-10 collapse was especially unsightly. They’ve done their fair share of winning over the past 20 years at BGSU, where Urban Meyer, Dave Clawson, and Babers used success to propel themselves to bigger and better things. Thus, doubt they can tolerate another losing year from Jinks in 2018.
Kalani Sitake, BYU...There were some who believed Sitake might be in trouble this season as the Cougs collapsed to 4-9 in his second year on the job. The old high-powered BYU offense has disappeared, and the school cannot tolerate its flagship football program being down in the dumps. Staff changes are ongoing in Provo, but the clock is already ticking on Sitake.
Brad Lambert, Charlotte...While Lambert has done all of the construction work at a program that only began in 2013 and fast-forwarded to the FBS level in its third season, the 49ers looked outclassed this past season when finishing 1-11 in modest C-USA. While expectations are still tempered, Lambert must put a competitive product on the field next fall or risk the consequences.
Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina...How do they feel now at Greenville for running out Ruffin McNeill, who had led the Pirates to almost-annual bowl games, and replacing him with Montgomery, whose teams have gone back-to-back 3-9 and absorbed countless vicious beatings along the way (such as this past season when allowing Memphis to drop a 70-point bomb in the season finale)? To this point, Montgomery has been a colossal failure at a program that won consistently in the decade prior to his arrival. It should be bowl-or-bust next season for Montgomery, who is lucky to have the chance.
Lovie Smith, Illinois...This was a bad idea from the start for the Illini administrators, who thought that Lovie could connect with recruits in Chicagoland. No evidence yet of that, and Lovie sure isn’t proving much of an upgrade on the field, with a 5-19 the past two years and working on 10 straight defeats. Illinois, who was rarely even within earshot in Big Ten action this season, has already seen up to nine players transfer out after the season, while Lovie has made the obligatory staff changes, throwing several assistants (including o.c. Garrick McGee) under the bus after the 2-10 fiasco in 2017. All of the signs are there for Lovie to walk the plank sometime in 2018, maybe before the end of the season.
David Beaty, Kansas...The well-meaning and personable Beaty has yet to find any traction at KU, where he’s won three games in as many years (and only one vs. an FBS foe, Texas, of all teams, in 2016, sealing Charlie Strong’s fate at Austin), and fortunate to be able to stick around for a fourth season. Beaty’s Texas roots have yet to result in any recruiting upgrades, and KU has to be running out of patience as it has undergone significant facility improvements the past couple of years (though KU Memorial Stadium ranks well below all other home stadiums in the Big 12). Another slow start by the Jayhawks in 2018 means Beaty might be unlikely to make it to Columbus Day, much less Halloween.
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech...Big 12 sources say that Kingsbury narrowly missed the axe in 2017, likely needing the season-ending win at Texas to be spared by AD Kirby Hocutt. Kingsbury’s high-water mark in Lubbock, however, remains the 8-5 mark he recorded in his first year of 2013, and his Red Raiders have never won more than four Big 12 games in a season. Working in Kingsbury’s favor are colorful offenses and the fact he is so well-liked in Lubbock that EVERYONE in the region wants him to succeed (unlike, say, Todd Graham this past season at Arizona State). But at some point Kingsbury is going to need something better than 7-6 or 6-7 records to stick around, and regional sources believe Hocutt has conveyed this to Kingsbury, thought to be on his way out this past season by several Big 12 onlookers.
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt...If looking for the moment where it all came finally tumbling down on Mason, perhaps the 59-0 loss to Alabama at Nashville in late September was the turning point downward. The Commodores were not just beaten, they were emasculated, and seemed as shell of a team afterward, though they did manage a 42-24 win over rudderless Tennessee in the finale. Still, Mason has not been able to sustain the momentum generated by predecessor James Franklin, as Vandy has made a bowl in just one of four seasons on Mason’s watch, and has yet to finish above .500. Though AD David Williams (whose more-fancy official title is “Vice Chancellor for Athletics”) is still said to be in Mason’s corner, the Dore support base is in near-revolt mode. Another non-bowl season this fall could doom Mason.
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