3 LSU candidates I'd pursue and 3 candidates I'd avoid if I were Scott Woodward
We all knew that Scott Woodward’s time to hire a new football coach would come one day.
The LSU graduate and Baton Rouge native now has a chance to hire someone to take over for Ed Orgeron. The question isn’t whether Woodward will swing for the fences. The guy makes bigger splashes than Ham Porter from “Sandlot.” Woodward is of course the guy who poached Chris Petersen from Boise State to take the Washington job, and more recently, he signed Jimbo Fisher to a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed deal to leave Florida State for Texas A&M.
Splash is not a question with Woodward. The only question is how big the splash will be. I mean, Orgeron just got $17 million not to work just 1 1/2 years after winning a national title. All signs point to a big Bayou splash.
Let’s dig into who Woodward should pursue and perhaps who he should avoid.
1. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
Hey. Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s not true. Kiffin has Ole Miss on the brink of a top-10 ranking in Year 2 with the Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback. Need I say more? OK, I will. Kiffin would have the ability to take that thing to the moon at LSU. The recruiting? That could absolutely threaten Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. The offense? You’d get someone who has proven he can enable an excellent offensive mind like Jeff Lebby and still be the right CEO needed for the program.
Kiffin famously turned down his USC buddy Ed Orgeron, who asked him to be his offensive coordinator when he was hired 5 years ago. Instead, Kiffin spent the last 5 years learning how to be a head coach again. Would Kiffin perhaps feel a bit conflicted about replacing his friend? Who knows.
What we do know is that because contracts in the state of Mississippi can only be 4 years in length, Woodward is going to be at a significant advantage with any sort of contract negotiations. At $5 million a year, one would expect Kiffin to get a raise, but if Woodward basically doubled that, what a fascinating dilemma it would be.
Kiffin isn’t hurting for money these days, though. This is about opportunity. Perhaps LSU would be too good of an opportunity to turn down.
2. Mel Tucker, Michigan State
It’s funny how quickly things can change. Less than 2 years ago, Orgeron was a national championship coach and owner of arguably the best season ever. Meanwhile, Tucker was the desperate hire that Michigan State made after Mark Dantonio’s atypical departure. Now, Tucker, who is coaching an unbeaten top-10 team, is considered one of the favorites to replace Orgeron at LSU.
Bruce Feldman already reported that there’s serious interest from high-ranking officials at LSU:
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 16, 2021
Louisiana sports betting is officially live in much of the state. Whether it is betting on SEC football or LSU football games or the Heisman race each year, if you live in Louisiana, you can now do it from your mobile phone.
Tucker is set to make roughly $5.6 million annually, so this wouldn’t necessarily come cheap in the likely event that he at least has a raise coming in East Lansing. But it would have a ton of benefits. With Tucker running the defense, LSU would have the ability to pair him with an elite offensive mind with total autonomy on that side of the ball. It would also be getting a proven recruiter in the Southeast who earned respect working on the staffs of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.
Tucker would also be LSU’s first Black football coach. Does diversity guarantee wins and losses? No, but it can absolutely help the Tigers recruit and earn support within the locker room, especially in a conference that doesn’t have a Black head coach.
Regardless of how you, reader of this column, feel about that, Tucker is proving to be an excellent football coach and one who is perhaps destined for a bigger job than the one he has.
3. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
I know. You weren’t expecting to see Stoops’ name on this list. He has an excellent thing going in Lexington. He has an extremely favorable contract that pays him $5.2 million annually and it extends him another year automatically every time he wins 7 games. Stoops has had the same boss (Mitch Barnhart) during his 9 years at Kentucky, and he now has excellent facilities, which were upgraded in 2016. He’s well on his way to surpassing Paul “Bear” Bryant as the best coach in program history.
Then why would he be a candidate for LSU?
Stoops has proven to be a phenomenal developer of talent. He had 6 players drafted last year, and he had a total of 13 in the past 3 NFL Drafts. That’s with just a handful of 4-star recruits on a yearly basis. Stoops plays into that chip on the shoulder, Youngstown mentality, which would be well-received in Baton Rouge. It was with Orgeron when things were going well.
You could pair Stoops with an elite offensive mind and watch LSU’s floor rise to the level it was at before Orgeron arrived. There aren’t a whole lot of realistic candidates who have experience winning and developing SEC talent. Anyone scoffing at the notion that Stoops isn’t good enough for LSU just simply hasn’t watched Kentucky football in the past 4 years. Then again, LSU fans watched Stoops run all over a more talented LSU team just 2 weeks ago, so that shouldn’t be the case.
If Stoops feels like he’s taken Kentucky as far as it can go, LSU would be an incredibly intriguing opportunity.
1. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Nope. Nope. Nope.
It’s not 2017 anymore. The idea of Woodward hiring Fisher for the second time will continue to be brought up, especially with the ties to LSU. Fisher is a solid coach, and he’s done some things well at Texas A&M. But to get him to leave College Station after 4 years, you’d essentially have to offer him at least a 10-year, $100 million contract. Remember, Fisher got an extension to pay him more than Woodward originally did. The A&M coach is now on a 10-year deal worth more than $9 million annually (annual increases will have him at $10.6 million in 2028).
Is Fisher really worth that? Absolutely not. And remember, that’s just the money Fisher is currently making. Sure, LSU wouldn’t have to fork over any money to A&M if Fisher left, but given the terms of Fisher’s new deal, why would he leave for anything less than $11 million annually?
Sorry, but that’s not worth it for someone who has 1 top-7 season and 0 top-10 offenses since he last coached Jameis Winston in 2014.
2. James Franklin, Penn State
Franklin is fantastic at rebuilding programs. He’s a high-energy guy who can sell, sell, sell. He’s an excellent recruiter who has now been one of the sport’s better coaches for the past decade. There’s no denying that if Woodward somehow got him to leave his home state program for Baton Rouge, it would be considered a significant splash that would have an impact from coast to coast.
But when I close my eyes and think about Franklin explaining some horrendous late-game decision in a post-game press conference, I picture his support fading in a hurry.
Franklin is many things. He’s charismatic, passionate and detail-oriented. He’s also a bit on the sensitive side — see his reaction to being accused of faking injuries and his long-winded statement in which he outlined that he’s “trying to save college football” — which seems like a bad fit for someone coming in as a perceived outsider. There was the time when Franklin was so bothered that a media member criticized his decision-making on a 2-point conversion call that he needed to rant about it days later. He’s the same guy who famously accused other divisional programs of negatively recruiting against Penn State … only to then be later called out for negative recruiting himself.
Something tells me the tolerance level for some of that stuff at LSU would be different there than it is at Penn State.
Franklin is making $6.5 million a year at Penn State. One would assume he’s not leaving that program without some significant financial incentive to do so. Is he worth it? Like with Fisher, I don’t think Franklin is a good enough coach to suddenly be paid as much as — or even more than — someone like Saban.
3. Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers
Wait. What? Wasn’t Brady the mastermind behind the 2019 season? Why shouldn’t LSU do everything in its power to bring him back? A few reasons.
I’m not one to sit here and say that you need to be an FBS coordinator or a head coach in order to succeed as a Power 5 head coach. Orgeron’s success and Sam Pittman’s efforts at Arkansas should have put some of that notion to bed.
But the difference between those lifer college coaches is that Brady spent a total of 1 season as an on-field assistant at the FBS level. There are so many things that go into being a head coach that’s well beyond calling plays. There’s no track record whatsoever on how the 32-year-old Brady will handle that. He didn’t recruit Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase or Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Shoot, I don’t think it’s even fair to say he deserves credit for developing them. Brady’s scheme allowed them to blossom, sure, but it wasn’t like he coached them up for 3-4 years and turned them into Round 1 picks.
Do we even know if Brady likes recruiting? Or if he has any idea how to manage a staff?
There’s also the great unknown of what Brady wants for his career. Does he see himself as an NFL head coach? If he really was set on rising in the college game, perhaps he would’ve taken a different opportunity than becoming Matt Rhule’s offensive coordinator in 2020. That’s not necessarily a reason LSU shouldn’t pursue him, but it would drive the price up.
Brady is always going to be intriguing as the wunderkind on that historically dominant 2019 team. But he succeeded in a very specific role. We’re discounting the difficulties of being a head coach if we think that’ll automatically translate with so much more on his plate.
And about Mario Cristobal …
I think the Oregon coach is excellent, so why didn’t I have him on my “pursue” list? There are a few things I’d absolutely worry about with him as it relates to other jobs. One is that USC could and should make a play for him. So too could his alma mater, Miami. If that happens, Woodward is suddenly negotiating a contract that’s probably far more lucrative than other capable candidates.
There’s also the daunting possibility that Cristobal, a Nick Saban disciple who spent 4 years on that staff, could eventually be the next coach at Alabama. Whether that’s true or not, that’s the type of thing that could matter in the recruiting world. And if Woodward is constantly having to break the bank to fend off those rumors, I question how much sense it makes to hire Cristobal, who is pushing for his second Top 25 finish as a head coach (and first without Justin Herbert).
Hiring Cristobal is a bit trickier than some of those other candidates.