LOS ANGELES – With Week 17 of the NFL season upon us, the annual Black Monday flurry of coaching firings will commence after this weekend. NFL executives are bracing for an unusually busy season in the coaching market, with at least a quarter of the league’s 32 head-coaching jobs expected to open.
What’s the best guess for the number of NFL openings? A safe target to set an over-under is 9.5. There’s already four jobs that are considered sure things to open – New York Giants (open), Cincinnati Bengals (open), Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. There’s five jobs that are considered likely – Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals. Then there’s five jobs where there’s a chance of an opening – Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans. (Plus, there’s always a curveball job – Seattle Seahawks? – that no one expects to open.)
“I don’t think there’s enough candidates to fill the jobs,” said one veteran NFL coach. “Who do you hire to coach? Who’s left? Who do you hire?”
There will be some heavy recycling in NFL circles, as coaches like Eagles assistant Jim Schwartz and New England Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels appear in line to get another shot. In a copycat league, there will be a youth movement to attempt to hire the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan. There will also be hot names like New England’s Matt Patricia, Houston’s Mike Vrabel and Detroit’s Teryl Austin and Jim Bob Cooter.
So where does that leave the college space? The odds are that an NFL franchise will at least kick the tires on a handful of college coaches.
There’s a surprise college job that opens in virtually every coaching cycle. Think Bob Stoops suddenly stepping down at Oklahoma in 2017 or the departures of coaches like Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien and Greg Schiano to the NFL. (And you can dig deeper to Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh and Bobby Petrino.)
The most obvious college opening that could pop this offseason is Kansas State, as Bill Snyder is defying age, health and his own legacy if he returns to Manhattan for the 2018 season. (He’d turn 79 next season and said after the Cactus Bowl on Tuesday that his future “hasn’t been decided yet.”)
There’s no obvious coach ripe to jump, as Stanford’s David Shaw is the No. 1 candidate but has shown no signs of wavering from his commitment to his alma mater. Let’s assume Nick Saban still has no interest and Jimbo Fisher isn’t movable because he just signed a guaranteed contract for $75 million. We’ll throw Washington’s Chris Petersen in that category, too, as it would be stunning if he held a job other than Washington’s head coach.
Where does that leave us? Well, here’s a look at potential top NFL targets in the college game for both this season and beyond.
1. David Shaw, Stanford
Let’s be clear here. There are no signs that Shaw has any interest in leaving Stanford. He has built the program to historic levels, the university has followed through with pristine facilities and perks like housing for assistant coaches. This may be the best coach-university marriage in all of college football. But Shaw is on this list because he is the NFL’s top target of interest, which was affirmed by Shaw being the only college coach recommended by the NFL’s career development advisory panel.
Someday, Shaw may take that call. But not soon.
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
His professional pedigree from both playing and coaching is better than any college candidate. But Harbaugh comes with a warning label from administrators at Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers: Doesn’t play well with others.
Harbaugh is a tortured genius who some think would be a perfect match with eccentric Colts owner Jim Irsay. General managers in Chicago and Indianapolis may be a bit more hesitant, considering the strife with the front office in San Francisco.
His name will always be on these lists, as his track record isn’t one of longevity at one spot.
3. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly has revived Notre Dame back from its 4-8 hiccup in 2016, and the rejuvenated staff has translated to the No. 6 recruiting class for 2018. Kelly has previously received NFL interest from the Eagles in 2013 but ultimately stuck around South Bend. He’s hitting the point entering Year 9 at Notre Dame next season where something different may be intriguing. It’s hard in modern college football, especially at a fish bowl like Notre Dame, to stay anywhere more than a decade.
4. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Few have been more consistent and done more with less than Whittingham. His 11-1 bowl record is also comically good. He has pro-style roots and the right demeanor to handle NFL players. He’s 111-56 over 13 seasons at Utah, a remarkable run considering the Utes jumped leagues and have still managed to consistently compete at the highest level.
5. James Franklin, Penn State
Not likely to happen anytime soon, as Franklin has a contract through 2022 at Penn State and appears to finally have his roster stocked fully post-NCAA sanctions. Franklin has NFL experience, a strong reputation and has been interviewed previously for NFL head jobs. Franklin, 45, served as the Packers’ wide receivers coach in 2005. There seems to be a lot of career runway for him to eventually return to that level.
6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
He has given little indication he’d like to leave Iowa. The NFL has knocked on his door before, as he had a great reputation as an assistant coach with the Browns and Ravens. There’s nothing particularly sexy about Ferentz as a candidate, but he has run an NFL system, his teams are hard-nosed and he has as strong of a personal reputation as anyone in the business.
7. Greg Schiano, Ohio State DC
If he jumps up to the NFL to become a coordinator soon, he has a much better chance at becoming an NFL coach in the next few years than he does a college coach. The Tennessee debacle will be hard to overcome in college circles, as it unfairly shamed his name. The NFL could end up being an easier path to navigate.
8. Kirby Smart, Georgia
Before Georgia fans begin hyperventilating, this is another name for down the road. Smart money is on Smart sticking with his alma mater for a long time. But he’s only 42, which means a long and meaningful run could still yield plenty of time for Smart to try the NFL. He has a year of NFL experience with the Dolphins in 2006.
9. Matt Rhule, Baylor
NFL teams aren’t exactly pining for a coach who went 1-11 in college, as Rhule did at Baylor this past season. But Rhule went 20-7 the two previous years at Temple and runs a pro-style system. His public handling of cleaning up the off-field mess at Baylor has earned rave reviews in college circles. It’s easy to see him as the face of an NFL franchise, with old-school football chops and a personality that can connect with the new generation. He made a strong impression on the Giants’ brass during his year there as an assistant in 2012.
10. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
He’s got just a 10-14 career record at Iowa State. (He did go 35-15 at Toledo.) But Campbell is one of the hottest names in college and could soon generate NFL buzz. Campbell fits the NFL in style and presence. And his Mount Union pedigree will go a long way with NFL brass, considering that school’s recent success in churning out coaches. If he keeps winning in Ames, he’ll have boundless options.
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