UCF's next football coach could be 1 of these 5 candidates with SEC ties
Terry Mohajir accepting the job as UCF athletic director can have a ripple effect felt in the SEC.
No, that’s not my way of saying he’s about to claim a fake national championship. That guy, Danny White, left for the SEC and opened up the job for Mohajir.
Go figure that White left for Tennessee and brought UCF’s coach while Mohajir left Arkansas State for UCF after he hired former Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
Ah, worlds colliding.
They say the coaching carousel never truly stops spinning. It could spin its way through the SEC. Mohajir’s track record suggests that yet another offensive-minded coach could be the move. In addition to hiring Jones, Mohajir also hired Bryan Harsin and Blake Anderson to lead Arkansas State (Gus Malzahn was hired just before Mohajir arrived).
Does that guarantee he’ll hire another offensive-minded coach? Not necessarily, though Mohajir loved how Anderson developed quarterbacks, which was what put him on his radar after hearing him speak at an appearance before he got the Arkansas State job.
Whatever the case, these 5 coaches with SEC ties could be at the top of a long list of candidates vying for the attractive Group of 5 opening in Orlando:
Jeff Lebby, Ole Miss OC
He has to be on the short list. All signs point to him as the favorite in the clubhouse. Even though he’s only a year removed from being the UCF offensive coordinator, Lebby’s season at Ole Miss was remarkable. He and Lane Kiffin took a quarterback room built from the previous regime and instantly turned it into one of the most electric offenses in America.
From a personnel standpoint, there would be an easy transition with Lebby at the controls. The vast majority of that roster would already be familiar with Lebby. We’ve already seen him dial up a successful season with Dillon Gabriel, too. There wouldn’t be a need to worry about going out and also getting a play-caller, which would be the concern if a defensive-minded coach was hired.
Lebby is loved at Ole Miss. He should be. We forget how much initial hostility there was in that locker room over the Matt Luke firing. It wasn’t just Kiffin who helped turn that around. Lebby was a major part of that. That’s why he got a raise from $700,000 annually to $1.2 million annually shortly after Ole Miss knocked off top-15 Indiana in the Outback Bowl.
And while I don’t know how much this factors into Mohajir’s thinking, remember that Malzahn and Harsin both left Arkansas State 1 year after they got the head gigs at the program they came from (Harsin technically spent the previous 2 years at Texas as the co-offensive coordinator). That was in Mohajir’s first 2 years as Arkansas State AD. He could essentially do that exact thing by poaching Lebby from Ole Miss.
Gus Malzahn, ex-Auburn coach
Again, Mohajir already worked with Malzahn once. That relationship is there. Malzahn doesn’t need the money. That much we know thanks to his $21.45 million buyout at Auburn, half of which he got in the first 30 days. Malzahn could spend the next year playing golf and wait to see what rolls around in 2021.
For what it’s worth, that’s exactly what Gene Chizik told me he expects Malzahn to do:
What did @CoachGeneChizik think about Gus Malzahn’s firing then and now? And what does he think is next for Gus?
The former Auburn coach shared that on the the latest pod.
— SDS Podcast (@TheSDSPod) February 5, 2021
Here’s the thing, though. Is an opening like UCF going to be available for Malzahn next year? You could make the case it’s more appealing than plenty of Power 5 gigs. Malzahn would have a bevy of in-state talent to work with to run his offense. That’s certainly not in question. A new opportunity away from the Auburn/SEC microscope could be an ideal fit for Malzahn, who famously thrived at the lower levels.
If Mohajir views Malzahn as the one that got away, it would make a lot of sense for him to go back to that route. And given Malzahn’s current financial state, money might not even be the thing standing in the way of this happening.
Brian Johnson, Eagles QB coach
Johnson left Florida to take the Eagles quarterbacks coach job a few short weeks ago. Still, though. If I’m Mohajir, I’m calling Johnson and seeing if he wants to return to the Sunshine State. Johnson was promoted to offensive coordinator before the start of the 2020 season, and all he did was help Kyle Trask become a Heisman Trophy finalist for the top passing offense in FBS. Johnson has been viewed as a rising star in this profession, and after spending 6 of the last 7 years on Dan Mullen’s staff, there’s no denying he’s been guided by an elite offensive mind.
Johnson interviewed for the South Carolina job and didn’t get it. He also interviewed for the Boise State job and didn’t get it. How close he was to getting that opportunity remains to be seen. Not having that exclusive play-calling experience could be the thing that prevents him from being the first call that Mohajir makes.
But remember that Mohajir was sold on Anderson because of how he developed quarterbacks. Johnson would absolutely check that box. He’s also a players-coach with plenty of experience recruiting in the state of Florida. Mohajir would be wise to try and talk Johnson out of his new gig in Philadelphia.
Gene Chizik, ex-Auburn coach
Yes, Chizik goes against the offensive-minded theme here. And based on the response of suggesting this possibility on Twitter, some are under the impression that it would never happen. So why am I suggesting it? It’s not just that I’ve always liked Chizik and I, like anyone who has ever spoken to him, thought he was super engaging.
Look at his background. He’s a former UCF assistant who spent 4 years in Orlando. He’s a well-respected former national championship-winning coach with ties all over the Southeast (including his original home state of Florida) that would help him recruit and assemble an exceptional staff. People who dismissed Chizik might’ve forgotten that he was a candidate for the head job at MSU as recently as last year.
Sandwiched between his 2 separate runs at SEC Network was a 2-year stretch running the UNC defense, which finished in the top 1/3 both years he was there (it was No. 119 in FBS the year before he arrived). Since he left UNC to watch his son play high school sports back in Auburn, Chizik hasn’t gotten back into the field because he’s admittedly been picky. But Chizik wants to get back into the profession if the right opportunity comes along. UCF would absolutely be that.
Todd Monken, Georgia OC
Some might assume that UCF will hire a young offensive mind because that’s what the last UCF 2 coaches were, and both left for bigger jobs. Monken doesn’t fall into that group. He just turned 55 last week. But again, White isn’t the one doing the hiring. It’s Mohajir. Anderson was 45 when Mohajir hired him at Arkansas State. Mohajir just hired Jones, who turned 53 in January. In other words, Monken won’t be excluded because of his age.
And why wouldn’t he be a target? He’s set to lead the offense of a likely top-5 team, which is loaded with talent. JT Daniels showcased Monken’s offense in a way that Stetson Bennett IV and D’Wan Mathis couldn’t. Monken’s deep passing game would certainly mesh well with UCF’s current personnel.
The holdup on Monken’s end could be related to what he wants in this phase of his career. He’s been with 6 different programs (both college and NFL) in the last decade. He turned around Southern Miss in Year 3, but then went back to being an assistant, which he was for the previous 24 years of his career. There’s also part of me that wonders about Monken wanting to see his Georgia offense through. Lord knows Kirby Smart would fight like crazy to sweeten the deal to make him stay on board, too.
He’s not the first name anyone has on their potential list, but Monken would be plenty capable of lighting up scoreboards and having a ton of success in Orlando.