A few months ago, Todd Grantham turned down the Cincinnati Bengals’ offer to become the team’s next defensive coordinator so that he could stay at Florida.
Surely it helped that Grantham wanted to establish some stability after being at 8 places in the 21st century. But it also helped that Florida upped his annual pay to $1.8 million per season, which made him the fourth-highest paid assistant in America.
I actually wrote why I believe that deals like Grantham’s, Brent Venables’ and Dave Aranda’s will make it more likely that the powerhouses keep their assistants. The booming assistant salary pools have made it more attractive for top-flight coordinators to stay and be picky about their next opportunities.
The highest salary for an assistant annually last year was Aranda at $2.5 million while the highest salary for a non-Power 5 FBS head coach was $2.6 million. That’s why for some of these top-flight coordinators, it’s considered lateral move to go the Group of 5 head coaching route.
I wanted to get that message out in front because I still believe we’ll see this trend take shape at programs with deeper pockets. And for the assistants who do decide to leave for another opportunity — and they aren’t wiped out by a fired/departed head coach — the Power 5 head coaching route makes more sense.
Last year, 4 SEC coordinators became FBS head coaches at season’s end (Mike Locksley, Chip Lindsey, Mel Tucker and Tyson Helton).
So with that said, here are 5 SEC coordinators who I think could be FBS head coaches by this time next year.
1. Mike Elko, Texas A&M DC
Like Grantham, Elko was involved in talks to leave for the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator position. More important, Elko turned down the Temple head gig to stay at A&M another year, where he’ll presumably be among the top 4 highest-paid assistants like he was last year. So what makes me think that this year could be Elko’s last in College Station?
Besides the fact that the guy got impressive results in Year 1 — A&M’s total defense ranking went from No. 78 to No. 36 last year — is that he’s now an even more popular name who elevated 3 different defenses in each of the past 3 seasons.
Coach who doesn’t get enough credit: #TAMU DC Mike Elko. The Aggies lead the SEC in rushing D by a wide margin and haven’t allowed more than 143 yds in a game all season. Last year A&M allowed 200+ eight times.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) November 20, 2018
This year, the Aggies will get plenty of opportunities against high-profile offenses. Elko’s price is going to soar if he can stymie Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence or Jake Fromm, all of whom the Aggies will see this year. That’s obviously no guarantee, especially given the Aggies’ pass defense struggles last year.
But if he builds off a solid first year in College Station by helping the Aggies to a New Year’s 6 Bowl, the soon-to-be 42-year-old assistant will be a candidate to fill some lower-level Power 5 head vacancies. Obviously Elko turned down the Temple gig even though it was by his Northeast roots.
If say, Dino Babers left Syracuse or Rutgers fired Chris Ash, there could be an interesting Power 5 market for Elko to consider.
2. James Coley, Georgia OC
Is it bit of a leap to include Coley on this list? Perhaps, but think about this scenario. Georgia gets back to the Playoff while Fromm looks like a Heisman Trophy candidate and a top 10 pick. Those aren’t very far-fetched possibilities.
Wouldn’t it make perfect sense for Coley to cash in on that in his first season running Georgia’s offense? His value would certainly be high enough to at least get a raise, which he already did this past offseason. As someone who has been an assistant for the likes of Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher and Bobby Bowden, Coley would certainly have quite the reference list.
I’m not sure if Coley is seeking a head coaching position — he’s never been a head coach at any level — but he spent the past 22 years climbing the ladder. If he wants to keep climbing in the event that he delivers the biggest season of his career, it would make a lot of sense.
I’m just spitballing here, but there’s a scenario in which Lane Kiffin leaves FAU after Year 3 and that job becomes super attractive for a coach with South Florida roots like Coley.
3. Kevin Steele, Auburn DC
Before you criticize this call, yes, I realize that Steele just turned 61. That’s not exactly the age that most coordinators decide to make a switch to a new position.
But don’t tell Mack Brown (67) or Les Miles (65) that you’re too old to take on a new head coaching gig if you’re on the other side of 60. It was also about a year and a half ago that Steele interviewed for the head gig at his alma mater Tennessee, which ultimately went to Jeremy Pruitt.
With Mike Gundy out attention will turn to Kevin Steele, the defensive coordinator at Auburn. Tennessee grad. Big time recruiter. Up for Broyles Award. Would unite Tennessee family. Put together great staff.
— Tony Barnhart (@MrCFB) November 29, 2017
As one of the highest-paid assistants in the country, there are a variety of scenarios in which Steele winds up with an FBS head coaching gig.
Let’s say Auburn has one of those years and it surprises everyone to reach the Playoff. Steele would get a ton of attention, as most coordinators who reach the Playoff do. If there’s any itch for Steele to right the wrong after he flamed out at Baylor, he could decide to do so if the right opportunity were to come along. And in that scenario, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Auburn try to make Steele the highest-paid coordinator in America.
There’s another scenario — one that Auburn fans probably don’t want to think about — that needs to be mentioned. If this does end up being a 7-5 season that ultimately winds up being the final year of the Gus Malzahn era on The Plains, Steele could be out, too. Would a new coach try to keep Steele on board? Probably, but he could decide after 17 years of being an assistant that he wants 1 more crack at being an FBS head coach.
Then there’s the sinking ship scenario with Steele. That is, he doesn’t want to be caught on it. If Malzahn is retained after 2019 but there are still uneasy feelings about his future, Steele could decide he doesn’t want to be surrounded by such uncertainty at this point of his career.
Would I bet the house on Steele taking his defensive chops to a head coaching position at season’s end? Probably not, but it’s not as crazy as some might think.
4. Dave Aranda, LSU DC
So there are a few things that are worth remembering with Aranda and his future. One is that he’s only 42 and has plenty of time to become a head coach if he wants to.
He’s had 6 consecutive top 30 defenses at 3 schools, and he owns the richest annual salary of any assistant in college football history ($2.5 million per year through 2021). At this point in his career, it would be surprising to see Aranda leave LSU for anything less than a Power 5 head coaching gig, though that speculation isn’t going anywhere.
It's a Bowl Tradition! @LSUfootball DC Dave Aranda speaking about jobs and his future. Aranda says he is happy being a part of Coach O's staff, he loves it at #LSU he's treated with respect and it feels like home. He would like to be a head coach, but at the right time. pic.twitter.com/OFgyB48ufi
— Michael Cauble (@Cauble) December 29, 2018
It’s also worth noting that Aranda got that record-setting $10 million guaranteed deal — there wouldn’t be a buyout if he took a head coaching job — because he turned down Texas A&M after Jimbo Fisher took over, despite what was reportedly a sizable offer. Scott Woodward signed off on offering that deal when he was the athletic director at A&M. He, of course, is now at LSU which means that if someone tried to poach Aranda, I wouldn’t be surprised if Woodward sweetened Aranda’s ever-increasing deal.
Last year, Aranda made more than 4 Pac-12 head coaches, and he’ll make more than what former Georgia defensive coordinator/new Colorado head coach Mel Tucker will earn this year. I tend to think that Aranda would only leave Baton Rouge if:
- A) He had doubts about Ed Orgeron’s future with Woodward
- B) He felt like there was a ceiling at his current role
- C) A Power 5 head coaching vacancy caught his attention (Iowa State, Ole Miss, USC, etc.)
- D) All the above
For all I know, Aranda will become Venables 2.0 and he’ll be a Power 5 defensive coordinator for 20 years. Or maybe he has it in his mind that his fourth year will be his last, just as it was at Hawaii. But in terms of coveted coordinators for head coaching jobs, Aranda figures to be at the top of that list until further notice.
5. Mike MacIntyre, Ole Miss DC
Wait, but MacIntyre hasn’t even coached in his first game at Ole Miss yet. How would that make sense that he’s getting a head coaching job next year?
It’s not really a wild scenario. If Matt Luke is fired at season’s end, MacIntyre likely would need to find work elsewhere.
I’d be surprised if a Group of 5 school wasn’t interested in the guy who was 3 years removed from earning AP Coach of the Year honors. I’d also be surprised if the 54-year-old didn’t have a desire to get back on the head coaching horse after the way he fell off last year at Colorado.
This would be dependent on him making some solid improvements to the Ole Miss defense, which has been a train wreck in recent memory. And if he does that and Luke is the coach beyond 2019, MacIntyre still could treat this coordinator job as a 1-year buffer in between head coaching jobs like Will Muschamp did at Auburn in 2015.
Certainly MacIntyre wouldn’t mind following that path to his next opportunity.