CURTIS JOHNSON • Tulane
Age: 50 Alma Mater: Idaho.
Replacing: Bob Toledo, who went out last October as the tenth of Tulane's eleven head coaches over the last 60 years to leave with a losing record, a victim list that includes a young Mack Brown. (The only exception: Tommy Bowden, who arrived with innovative offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez in 1997, turned in what must be the most improbable undefeated season in NCAA history in 1998 and booked the first seat on the first plane to Clemson before the bowl game.) Toledo turned in his resignation on the heels of a 44-7 loss to UTEP that marked the Green Wave's fourth consecutive defeat and brought Toledo's overall record in New Orleans to 15-40 in four-and-a-half years; the Green Wave went on to lose six straight after that to finish 2-10.
Previously On: Johnson spent a decade bouncing around various Western campuses (Idaho, San Diego State, SMU, California) before landing on Butch Davis' staff at Miami in 1996, where he'd go on to coach three soon-to-be household names — Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne — and pick up a national championship ring as the Hurricanes' wide receivers coach. From there, he caught on as receivers coach with the New Orleans Saints in 2006, the same year Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans as a free agent, and has spent the last six years riding the wave (no pun intended) of one of the most prolific passing games in NFL history.
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Best Resumé Line: Johnson has been associated with a lot of big names, none of them bigger than fellow New Orleanians/future Hall-of-Famers Marshall Faulk and Ed Reed, both of whom Johnson is credited with recruiting to San Diego State and Miami, respectively. The simple fact that he's a Big Easy native and knows how to find and connect with local players could open up recruiting channels that Tulane has never exploited before.
Biggest Drawback: At six different stops over 25 years, Johnson has only held one title: Wide receivers coach. He has no experience as a head coach or coordinator.
Grade B: Johnson has national championship and Super Bowl rings, he can recruit New Orleans and he knows full well that the Tulane job is a Bermuda Triangle for head coaches. He also comes aboard just as the university is making a genuine commitment to football for the first time in ages in the form of a new, $60 million on-campus stadium expected to take the Green Wave out of the echoing canyon that is the Superdome by the fall of 2014. Thirty-thousand mostly filled seats in the Garden District is a dramatically better scenario than 50,000 empty seats downtown, and if Johnson can hang on that long, his prospects will be significantly less hopeless.
BILL O'BRIEN • Penn State
Age: 42 Alma Mater: Brown.
Replacing: Joe Paterno, whose unmatched, 46-year tenure at Penn State needs no introduction. In five decades on the job, JoePa set Division I records for wins (409) and bowl games (37), as well as 29 consensus All-Americans, 22 top-10 finishes, five undefeated seasons, three Big Ten championships and two national championships, while also cultivating a reputation as the embodiment of building an elite program while maintaining an emphasis on education, community and fidelity to NCAA rules. His controversial ouster and subsequent death of lung cancer in a span of three months has left deep scars that will probably remain visible throughout O'Brien's tenure and beyond.
Previously On: If you know O'Brien at all, it's probably from his oft-replayed sideline row with Tom Brady last December, but you don't go mano a mano with a future Hall-of-Famer without paying a few dues. O'Brien started out in 1993 at his alma mater, Brown — also Paterno's alma mater, coincidentally — before spending a relatively undistinguished decade in the ACC at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. At Georgia Tech, he can claim a hand in developing quarterbacks Gary Godsey and Joe Hamilton, an unlikely runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1999; then again, in two years (2005-06) as offensive coordinator at Duke, the Blue Devils won a single game.
Best Resumé Line: Like everyone who's come through New England in the last decade, O'Brien's NFL resumé has more than a few gems: He was an offensive assistant on the dominant 2007 team that started 18-0 before dropping the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, and has spent the last three years as Brady's quarterbacks coach. Last year, his first as offensive coordinator, the Pats finished second in the league in total offense, third in scoring and just came within a Hail Mary of winning the Super Bowl.
Biggest Drawback: He's never been a head coach on any level. And as pressure-packed as calling plays for the New England Patriots must be, he's never been around anyone —Bill Belichick included — who operates in the fish bowl he's being dropped into in Happy Valley.
Grade: B. O'Brien's qualifications are almost beside the point: Under any circumstances, replacing a legend is a near-impossible task, but under the circumstances at Penn State, the most stable, insular college program in the country, the reassembly of an entirely new image from the ground up is unprecedented. There is literally no experience O'Brien or any other coach could have accumulated that would compare to revamping "the culture" at a place built in and defined by his predecessor's image.
The near-universal consensus is that O'Brien is here to clean up the mess, weather the storm and make the program into something a more coveted, long-term coach might be willing to take on again in four or five years. It's a long way from that point right now, as the meandering search for Paterno's successor made abundantly clear. If O'Brien gets it there, he will have served the university well. If he does enough to settle in as the long-term coach beyond that transition phase, it will be an A-plus achievement, to say the least.
CHARLIE WEIS • Kansas
Age: 55 Alma Mater: Notre Dame.
Replacing: Turner Gill, who was given the boot after just two years on the heels of a 10-game losing streak, six of those losses coming by at least 30 points. For the second year in a row, Kansas ranked last or next-to-last in the Big 12 last year in rushing offense, rushing defense, passing offense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, total offense, scoring offense, scoring defense, third down offense, third down defense, sacks and sacks allowed. The 2011 edition also finished last in the conference in total defense, allowing more yards and more points per game this season than any defense in the nation.
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Previously On: OK, technically Weis isn't coming from the NFL, having spent 2011 as offensive coordinator at Florida and five of the previous six seasons in the crucible that is the head coach's office at Notre Dame. But his sensibility is still dominated by 15 formative years under Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, a stint that conferred upon him four Super Bowl rings (one as a lowly offensive assistant with the New York Giants, three as offensive coordinator of the Patriots) and an unshakeable faith in his game-planning prowess.
Best Resumé Line: Before things went pear-shaped in South Bend, Weis took the Irish to back-to-back BCS games with a pair of top-20 finishes in his first two seasons. He also left with his reputation for developing first-rate quarterbacks intact: Over the course of his career, he's helped develop Tom Brady as a young pro (did he tell you he knows Tom Brady?), helped Brady Quinn set a mountain of Notre Dame passing records en route to becoming a first-round draft pick and molded his star recruit to ND, Jimmy Clausen, from an overwhelmed freshman into a bona fide star who went in the second round.
It took him less than two weeks to recruit another pair of former blue-chips, Dayne Crist from Notre Dame and Jake Heaps from BYU, instantly shoring up one of the Jayhawks' most glaring issues — although, to be fair, pretty much every aspect of this team qualifies as a glaring issue.
Biggest Drawback: After fielding what will probably go down as the worst team in school history in 2007, Weis left Notre Dame with back-to-back 6-6 finishes in the regular season, making him the first Irish coach since Joe Kuharich (1959-63) to go three straight seasons without posting a winning record. Weis' tenure included only one win against a team that finished in the final polls (over Penn State, which snuck in at No. 24 in 2006) and losses in 20 of his last 23 against teams that finished with winning records.
Two years later, his offensive cred isn't looking so hot these days, either, after overseeing the nation's 102nd-ranked total offense in his only season as offensive coordinator at Florida — the Gators' worst season in 25 years, offensively or otherwise.
Grade: B— Like Gill's predecessor, Mark Mangino, Weis arrives with a considerable rep as an offensive passing guru with a tendency toward the morose and condescending. But at least he knows he's going to have time: Gill was fired after two years of obvious, sustained regression, but after those two years, there's literally nowhere left to regress to. The Jayhawks are terrible. If Weis can make them slightly less terrible, Kansas fans might want to get used to this mug, because it's going to be the face of the program for a while.
JIM MORA • UCLA
Age: 50 Alma Mater: Washington.
Replacing: Rick Neuheisel, whose earnestness and recruiting prowess couldn't get his alma mater over the hump: In nine years under Neuheisel and his predecessor, ex-Bruin teammate Karl Dorrell, UCLA finished at or within a game of .500 six times. At one point, from 2001-04, they finished 4-4 in conference play four years in a row, and — following a brief step forward in 2005 — proceeded to go 5-4 in each of Dorrell's last two seasons. Last season, Neuheisel's fourth? A giant leap to 5-5, capped by the most lopsided loss on either side of the USC-UCLA series since the early days of the Great Depression.
Previously On: Following in the footsteps of his famous father, Mora ascended the pro ranks with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers before landing his first head coaching job in Atlanta in 2004. He lasted just three seasons there, and just one season in the top job in Seattle before the Seahawks pulled the plug in 2009. To the most consistently mediocre program in the nation, he brings a career head coaching record of 31 wins and 33 losses, most of the wins coming as a direct result of coaching Michael Vick in his prime in Atlanta.
Best Resumé Line: Mora's head-coaching experience is fine, but the most appealing part of his resumé may be what's not there: He's the first outsider put in charge of the program in more than 50 years. After Harry R. "Red" Sanders died on the heels of the best decade in school history in 1957, UCLA stayed in the family for its next nine head-coaching hires, including three — Neuheisel, Karl Dorrell and Bob Toledo — who were ultimately fired in the last decade. Mora is a much-needed injection of fresh blood into arguably the most insular culture in college football this side of Penn State.
Biggest Drawback: Former NFL bosses have a notoriously mediocre track record in college jobs, but at least most of them have some experience in the college game before coming back. Mora's only experience on campus since graduating from Washington in 1983 is one season as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1984. Before he accepted the job in December, he hadn't been on a recruiting trip in more than 25 years.
Grade: C+ The fan base was… well, "underwhelmed" by Mora's hire would be putting it mildly. So far, Mora has scored points by talking about "changing the culture" and inking a surprisingly good recruiting class. But Neuheisel consistently brought in touted recruiting classes, too, with nothing to show for it on the field. Until Mora delivers there, tough talk is cheap.
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