With the hiring of Sonny Dykes at SMU, all of the prominent jobs on the college football coaching carousel appear to be filled. The next dizzying wave will come in the waning hours after the early signing day on Dec. 20, when the sport is bracing for a massive overhaul of assistant coaches switching addresses after recruits have signed their first batches of Letters of Intent.
With 12 Power Five jobs filled, a record $75 million guaranteed for Jimbo Fisher and the searing debacle at Tennessee, there’s been plenty of fodder. Here’s the biggest winners and losers from what an unexpectedly dizzying coaching carousel.
The Bruins won the offseason. By jettisoning Jim Mora early and making a targeted run at Chip Kelly, UCLA officials made it clear they want to be a player in major college football. UCLA was cold and calculating, daring and aggressive. At the very least, the result has been something we couldn’t say often the past two decades – UCLA is nationally relevant.
Kelly went 46-7 in his four years at Oregon. If he can recreate that magic, this move will be viewed as the program’s turning point.
In the end, Tennessee ended up with an inferior coach, an overmatched athletic director and setting a new standard for a disastrous coaching search. The hires that former athletic director John Currie was on the cusp of making – Greg Schiano and Mike Leach – are exponentially more accomplished and better qualified for the Tennessee job. But Phil Fulmer’s power play ended up with him in control as athletic director and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as coach. Pruitt is just inexperienced enough that Fulmer will be able to keep sticking his nose in the program, which is what he’s wanted since he was run out of the job nearly a decade ago. (The classic clueless Fulmer moment was treating the press conference to dismiss Currie like he’d just been hired as coach again, as his tone – including introducing his family in attendance – showed a stunning lack of self-awareness.) Opposing SEC athletic directors, by the way, are giddy to have Fulmer in charge, as his administrative acumen presents little threat to the rest of the league. Expect Tennessee’s glory to remain faded.
Scott Frost chose with his heart instead of his brain, which is good news for Cornhuskers fans. There’s no planet on which Nebraska is a better job than Florida. But Frost felt the tug of home, and the cakewalk of the Big Ten West over the mud fight of the SEC. It will be interesting to see how he recruits to his system at Nebraska, as there are no organic local recruiting grounds. But Frost has proven to be a prodigy on the sideline, and the sense here is that recruits will follow a winner. Props to Frost for taking his whole staff from UCF, as that’s a positive karmic vibe going forward.
LOSER: ARIZONA STATE
The only redeeming part of ASU’s hire of Herm Edwards is that it has been so universally panned as an impending disaster that it will make for a fun redemption tour if he brings a Pac-12 title to Tempe. (Give Edwards’ former co-workers credit, as the ESPN love for Edwards was about the only place where he derived any optimism.) There’s so much bizarre about this hire: Edwards has not coached in college since 1989; the fact that Edwards is a former client of Ray Anderson, the Arizona State athletic director; and, of course, a press release so hilariously awful that it could be read in a sequel of Office Space as a satire of corporate jargon: “This structure will allow the department to form a multi-layered method to the talent evaluation and recruiting processes, increase its emphasis on both student-athlete and coach development and retention, and provide a boost in resource allocation and generation.” Edwards is a good man who’ll be a good mentor to kids. But this whole plan seems doomed for decades of mockery.
WINNER: MISSISSIPPI STATE
The Bulldogs flew under the radar in this cycle, which ended up being a big win when they were able to land former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Athletic director John Cohen was so prepared for his search that he’d begun getting a feel for candidates’ interest weeks before Dan Mullen left for Florida. That put him in perfect position to identify who he wanted and make a quick strike, while SEC programs like Tennessee and Arkansas waited and whiffed. Cohen just completed his first year as athletic director, but he put on a clinic of a search and ended up with exactly what he wanted – an offensive-minded coach who can harness the potential of a program that could return 18 starters.
LOSER: KANSAS STATE
Bill Snyder still appears to be clinging to the dream of passing the program on to his son. This has gone from selfish to sad to toxic, as the entire administration at Kansas State is ready for a change. But Snyder, 78, is still living in nepotism fantasyland that his son, Sean, is qualified to take over. That’s hurt the program, which is 20-16 the last three seasons and lacks an identity nationally outside of mediocrity and uncertainty. Every year Snyder stays and tries to bully the handoff to his son further tarnishes his legacy. This is the anti-Frank Beamer succession. (For example: With offensive coordinator Dana Dimel gone to take the UTEP job, what qualified offensive coordinator would want to work under these conditions?) It will be interesting to see if Kansas State administrators have the collective guts to engage with Snyder about his departure after Kansas State’s bowl game on Dec. 26. Snyder has had a great run, as his accomplishments can’t be overstated. But he’s completely unaware of how bad this whole situation looks or simply doesn’t seem to care.
WINNER: Jimmy Sexton
The run Sexton has had since Thanksgiving is unprecedented in the coaching agent space. He and colleague Clint Dowdle have negotiated close to $300 million in contracts in less than two weeks, a stunning run in the coaching industry that speaks to just how volatile and lucrative this business really is. Sexton’s deals included Fisher’s $75 million guaranteed at Texas A&M, Gus Malzahn’s deal for $49 million at Auburn, Mullen’s $36 million at Florida and Willie Taggart’s $30 million at Florida State. Sexton landed coaches at five of the six open SEC jobs and re-negotiated Malzahn’s deal at Auburn thanks to leverage from Arkansas. Now that the flurry of movement is over, there’s still potential for extensions for clients like Georgia’s Kirby Smart, USC’s Clay Helton and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp.
LOSER: TEXAS A&M
Texas A&M paid $10 million to fire a coach, Kevin Sumlin, who went 23-15 the past three seasons. They did so to guarantee $75 million to Fisher, who went 25-12 the past three seasons. After Fisher conceded ACC supremacy to Clemson the past three years, it’s hard to imagine him toppling Nick Saban’s Alabama empire. So what happens when he’s mediocre after three years at A&M and they still owe him more than $50 million (all of which is guaranteed with no off-set)? The cocksure nature of this move is practically begging for it to backfire, as the championship standards he’s expected to reach haven’t happened in College Station since 1939.
The potential for this $75 million gamble to blow up spectacularly is much greater than the chances of it being a smashing success.
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