Ranking major FBS coaching hires: SEC, ACC grab biggest headlines
Jim Harbaugh (Michigan, 2015), Urban Meyer (Ohio State, 2012) and Nick Saban (Alabama, 2007) were the kind of hires that change the college football landscape in a tangible way for an entire decade.
It doesn’t appear that this season’s coaching carousel contains one of those paradigm-shifting hires. Still, this cycle has been far from boring.
The ACC made three splashy hires. The SEC nearly lost its four longest-tenured coaches, until Les Miles emerged from a Baton Rouge novella with his job. USC headlined an unusually-large group of programs who decided to promote interim coaches on a permanent basis.
Judging coaching hires in December is similar to judging NFL draft selections in May. It will be years before we get an accurate depiction of just how well these hires turn out.
That’s not going to stop us from making some educated guesses and engaging in one of the biggest debate topics in college football: grading coaching hires.
Here’s how we rank the seven biggest FBS hires this offeseason, along with some analysis on a few other notable programs.
New hire: Mark Richt, former Georgia head coach
Analysis: Forget about Florida State and Clemson. In the weak ACC Coastal, which could be at the very bottom in terms of power conference divisions, Miami has fallen behind the likes of North Carolina.
Mark Richt is a good recruiter, a man who operates with a respected ethical code and a person who understands the region as a former Miami quarterback (1979-82).
Richt probably isn’t going to win a national title with the Hurricanes, and may not end an ACC title drought that extends back to 2003. But he’ll continue to distance the school from its bad-boy image, which has migrated to Florida State.
He got out-coached by Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier in the SEC, but in the Coastal Division, he should be good enough to at least contend for division titles annually.
Golden did not finish in the Associated Press Top 25 once during his 5-year tenure. Richt has 11 career finishes in the AP poll.
The bottom line: This is an upgrade. Richt has earned some level of criticism, and he’s not a top 10 kind of coach. But he’s probably a top 25 coach. This was not an easy one to pull off, given Miami’s current mess. “The U” won the headlines this coaching cycle.
Open because: The Hurricanes fired Al Golden after years of mediocrity. Golden is 59-59 for his career and went 17-18 in the ACC while at Miami.
2. Virginia Tech
New hire: Justin Fuente, former Memphis head coach
Analysis: Virginia Tech’s offense has been an embarrassment in recent seasons. Enter Justin Fuente, who helped develop Andy Dalton at TCU and potential first-round pick Paxton Lynch at Memphis.
Fuente, a former quarterback, is a proven offensive teacher with four years of head coaching experience. He led Memphis to an upset of Ole Miss in 2015, but isn’t a one-game wonder — the usually-lowly Tigers could reach back-to-back 10-win seasons by beating Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl.
At 39 years old, Fuente gives Virginia Tech a chance at back-to-back long-time coaches. He also will retain Bud Foster, who served as Beamer’s defensive coordinator for the last 21 seasons and has been an assistant coach or graduate assistant underneath Beamer since 1981.
Fuente’s name was linked to several openings in the last two years, and at least publicly, it seems that Virginia Tech won this year’s biggest “sweepstakes” chase of a head coaching candidate. If he can fix the offense, Fuente can re-install the Hokies as a top 25 fixture.
Open because: Hokies legend Frank Beamer retired at 69 years old. Beamer spent 29 seasons at Virginia Tech. At one point under Beamer, the Hokies ranked in the final Associated Press poll 16 times in 19 years. But that hasn’t happened since 2011.
New hire: Bronco Mendenhall, former BYU head coach
Analysis: Most people were skeptical when Virginia teased its hire as follows.
Attention HOO fans. BIG announcement coming HERE in just minutes regarding UVA Football. #GoHoos
— Virginia Football (@UVa_Football) December 4, 2015
Then the team announced it had lifted Mendenhall from BYU in an unexpected move. The athletic department swung for the fences with this hire, interviewing Mark Richt as well.
Mendenhall went to a bowl game in all 11 seasons at BYU and finished in the Coaches Poll top 25 five times. He holds the second-most wins in BYU history with 99.
A very good defensive coach, Mendenhall’s teams always are feisty and grumpy. He brings instant credibility to the program and should have the Cavaliers at least competing for a bowl game on an annual basis.
Open because: Mike London managed just one winning season in six years.
New hire: Kirby Smart, former Alabama defensive coordinator
Analysis: The Bulldogs traded a known quantity for an unknown one, and that could be a good thing.
For all his charms, Mark Richt no longer seemed capable of winning an SEC title or contending for national championships. As the monetary playing field has leveled in the conference, Georgia’s natural advantages aren’t as pronounced as they were early in Richt’s tenure. The bottom line is UGA has watched the Richt movie again and again. The team knew the ending by heart by the time it made the decision to move on from CMR.
There are no guarantees that Smart will even be as good as Richt. Perhaps he will fall into the “bad apple” pool of former Nick Saban assistants as head coaches, along with Will Muschamp to this point and Derek Dooley. Maybe he’ll be like Richt, finishing 9-3 with regularity. Or just maybe he’ll be able to contend for national titles, dominating the SEC East in a way that Alabama has done since Saban arrived in 2007.
There’s no question that Georgia’s defense will be good. Smart and his staff will be able to leverage recruiting to ensure top 10 talent every year. But can Smart pair himself with a great offensive coordinator (and system)? Or will he repeat the mistakes that Muschamp, another long-time defensive coordinator who migrated to a big SEC East program, made at Florida?
Smart is as proven as any coordinator in the country. But he still is a first-year head coach. At a top-tier program like Georgia, that keeps this grade from being higher.
Open because: Georgia got tired of performing below expectations and fired Mark Richt. Since 2012, the Bulldogs entered each season as the SEC East favorite or co-favorite, but didn’t win a single division title. Richt lost handily to Alabama and Florida this season, once again coming up lacking against the SEC’s best teams. There were also reports of discord among the UGA coaching staff, specifically between Richt and former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
New hire: Barry Odom, former Missouri defensive coordinator
Analysis: Maybe you’re an optimist. Missouri wasn’t going to do any better than Odom. Who else would you rather have to continue the #MizzouMade culture? Is anyone going to be married to this job more than Odom? Is anyone going to work harder at it? Care more? And have you seen how good Odom’s defenses have been at Memphis and Missouri?
Maybe you’re a pessimist. Gary Pinkel was a relative legend. Although his career is not without its blemishes, he took Mizzou to division titles in the Big 12 and SEC with a regularity the school never has experienced. There’s been a big talent drain on the field this year. Tennessee and Florida are sleeping giants finally awakening from a slumber in the SEC East. The coaching staff, one of the most consistent in the country, now must be rebuilt. And Odom is a first-year head coach with a program with a historical baseline that would place it lower middle class within the SEC.
Pinkel made his bones by being one of, if not the best, talent developers in the country. Odom needs to pick up the torch by pushing through the facilities upgrades that Pinkel pushed to secure. He also must start bringing in four- and five-star talent with greater regularity. The offense needs to be fixed in a major way as well, and the social unrest on campus and among the players in ’15 is at least something he’ll have to address with outsiders.
That’s a lot to tackle. But Odom seems committed for the long haul.
Open because: Gary Pinkel retired, citing his recent cancer diagnosis and desire to step away from the game. The all-time wins leader at Toledo and Missouri, Pinkel is 63 years old. The end was going to come sooner or later in Columbia, Mo. But after back-to-back SEC East titles, and a dramatic 2015 Tigers season on and off the field, Mizzou fans still may be a bit shellshocked.
New hire: Clay Helton, former USC interim coach
Analysis: For all his good, Pete Carroll left the Trojans with a “cheater” label and major NCAA sanctions. Then controversial man-child Lane Kiffin, then 34 years old, led a disappointing tenure. Then the school hired a drunk in Steve Sarkisian.
At this point, boring may be good. Helton twice has been interim coach at USC. The current players seem to adore him. The quarterbacks coach under Kiffin and the offensive coordinator for Sarkisian, he’s got a sense of the team’s recent history.
Nationally, Helton is a virtual unknown. He came to USC after serving as offensive coordinator at Memphis for three years, and got that same title in SoCal after an internal promotion. USC remains one of the destination jobs in all of college football, and usually can attract the hottest coaching candidates in the NFL and college football.
So for the team to settle for a guy who was the second interim coach just two years ago — behind Ed Orgeron — leads one to wonder if the team could’ve gone after a more proven commodity.
Open because: Sarkisian reportedly was involved in numerous alcohol-related incidents at USC, so the school fired him after he took a leave of absence in mid-October. Now Sarkisian is suing for wrongful termination.
7. South Carolina
New hire: Will Muschamp, former Auburn defensive coordinator
Analysis: It’s easier to win at Florida than it is at South Carolina. Will Muschamp held a 17-15 SEC record while in Gainesville. A tenure, by the way, that ended in misery on Nov. 16, 2014. Barely more than one year later, after a so-so year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Muschamp earned another head coaching gig in the SEC East.
Everyone suspected that Muschamp would get another opportunity at some point. But after one year? And in the same division?
Muschamp’s defenses were outstanding at Florida. There’s no questioning his ability to build and develop on that side of the ball from recruiting to coaching staff to teaching to game-planning. But that wasn’t the problem at Florida, where he rotated offensive coordinators like a 17-year-old changes outfits before her first real date. He never was able to develop a quarterback and relied on a way-too-conservative offensive philosophy that was a big detriment in recruiting.
Speaking of which, that’s Muschamp’s biggest redeeming factor. He’s always been an ace recruiter. He also is prioritizing recruiting as he builds his coaching staff, starting with defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson.
South Carolina must win its share of in-state recruiting skirmishes with Clemson, and Muschamp is the rare coach who is capable of that. (To prove his salesmanship, he essentially told the media, “look how attractive my wife is compared to me.”) But the school also must hit Georgia, Florida and other talent-rich locales to supplement the roster. This staff is much better equipped to do that than the one Spurrier assembled.
Still, unless Muschamp can find a magic elixir on offense — not to mention a way to scrub the narrative that he’s a quarterback killer — it will be very, very difficult to even attract top 25 type talent to Columbia, S.C., on that side of the football. And beyond that, Muschamp still has to prove his staff can coach up those type players.
Open because: Steve Spurrier resigned. After three consecutive 10-win seasons — the best stretch in Gamecocks football history — the well of talent ran dry in South Carolina. Spurrier did not keep up with the Joneses (like Butch) in recruiting the last few years. When things went South, he got petulant in the media and then quit the team midseason. He explained that he thought South Carolina needed a new voice and that by stepping aside, he was giving the assistants a chance to fight for their futures.
Illinois: The entire athletic department spent the fall semester in disarray. Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was smart to avoid what seemed like a tempting offer to become co-defensive coordinator in Champaign,, Ill. The team fired Tim Beckman just one week before the season after an investigation into player mistreatment. Hardly in a position to conduct a national search, the Fighting Illini essentially deferred, giving interim coach Bill Cubit (5-7 in ’15) a two-year contract.
Iowa State: The Cyclones took a hot Group of 5 coach in Matt Campbell, who managed to reach 9 wins in three of the last four seasons at Toledo. At just 36 years old, perhaps Campbell has the drive and hunger to force Iowa State into regular bowl contention in the Big 12.
Maryland: Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin reportedly was linked to this opening at one point. But the Terrapins eventually hired D.J. Durkin, a Florida assistant from 2010-14 before he migrated to Michigan to be Jim Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator. The Terrapins, flush with Under Armour and Big Ten money, are at least positioned for a rise up the pecking order.
Memphis: The Tigers lost defensive coordinator Barry Odom to Mizzou last year, head coach Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech this year and will lose 6-foot-7 QB Paxton Lynch to the NFL draft after the Birmingham Bowl. Memphis seemed very interested in bringing back Odom before Mizzou hired him instead. The Tigers settled on long-time Todd Graham offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, most recently of Arizona State.
Minnesota: Jerry Kill was both inspirational (coaching through cancer and epilepsy) and respectable (leading the Golden Gophers to a 20-13 record in his final three seasons). By hiring Tracy Claeys, Minnesota was able to keep continuity with Kill’s assembled staff and the current recruiting class. Claeys, defensive coordinator since 2011, filled in as acting coach numerous times throughout Kill’s career even prior to Minnesota.
Syracuse: The 54-year-old Dino Babers has followed a linear career path that’s becoming rarer in every industry, slowly working his way up the ladder as an assistant, then as a head coach at Eastern Illinois (12-2, FCS quarterfinalist participant in 2013) and Bowling Green (10-3, MAC conference champion in 2015). Getting Syracuse football to compete in the ACC is an uphill battle, though. One wonders if Babers made a mistake taking this job rather than holding out for a better power-conference gig in the next few years.
UCF: This is a mess. The Knights went from 12-1, a Fiesta Bowl win and an Associated Press top 10 ranking in 2013 to winless in 2015. But the school has some money, a talent-rich location in Central Florida and an exciting new offensive coach. Scott Frost served as an Oregon offensive assistant from 2009-15, through the Chip Kelly/Marcus Mariota eras.
The Rest: Bowling Green, Hawaii, North Texas, Rutgers, Toledo
Open Jobs: BYU, East Carolina, Louisiana-Monroe, Tulane