A weeklong grade book for the offseason coaching hires. Today: Under-40 hires in their first head-coaching gigs.
JUSTIN FUENTE • Memphis
Age: 35 Alma Mater: Murray State (Oklahoma transfer).
Replacing: Larry Porter, whose two-year stint at his alma mater resulted in three wins, two last-place finishes in Conference USA's East Division and a ticket on the first bus out of town. Porter arrived from LSU with an offensive background — he spent the previous 12 years as a running backs coach, which may as well be code for "enthusiastic recruiter" — but the Tigers finished among the most impotent offenses in the nation in every major category both years.
Previously On: Fuente began his college career at Oklahoma in the mid-nineties, went on to set multiple school passing records at Murray State, and has just two prior stops on his coaching resumé: Six years as quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator at Illinois State, followed by a five-year stint at TCU that included three outright Mountain West championships, three top-10 finishes, two BCS bowl games and one undefeated season in 2010. Oh, and TCU is joining the Big 12 now.
Best Resumé Line: In three years under Fuente, TCU's offense set school records for yards and points in 2009, surpassed both marks en route to a 13-0 finish in 2010 and came up just short of breaking the scoring record against last year — and that was despite breaking in a new quarterback, sophomore Casey Pachall, for NFL-bound Andy Dalton.
Red Flag: Not only has Fuente never been a head coach on any level: At 35 years old, he's easily one of the youngest — and therefore greenest — head coaches in Division I, only claiming seniority on two of his peers: Toledo's Matt Campbell (see below) and Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart, the latter by a little over a month.
Grade: B+. There's not a lot to go on, but expectations cannot be lower in the River City and Fuente is coming from a program that succeeded wildly with limited resources. At the very least, we know he can coach an offense. If he can handle the CEO part, Memphis has a chance to compete in a watered-down Big East, and Fuente may be fielding calls from a heavier hitter or two in a few years.
GARRICK McGEE • Alabama-Birmingham
Age: 38. Alma Mater: Oklahoma (Arizona State transfer).
Replacing: Neil Callaway, who finally got the axe in November — excuse me, he "mutually agreed that his tenure would not be extended" — on the heels of one final loss, a 38-35 stumble against previously winless Florida Atlantic to close the season. At least by then he should have been nice and numb: In five years under Callaway, the Blazers were a quiet 18-42 in five years, topping out at 5-7 in 2009.
Previously On: After two forgettable years as the Sooners' starting quarterback, McGee bounced around in obscurity for almost a decade before catching on for a four-year stint at Northwestern, the last two as offensive coordinator. From there, he landed at Arkansas as quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator in place of head coach Bobby Petrino's brother, Paul, during the latter's two-year stint in Illinois. He was a serious candidate last year to take over at Tulsa — his hometown school — before withdrawing his name at the last minute.
Best Resumé Line: McGee's two-year stint as offensive coordinator coincided with Arkansas' best two seasons since joining the SEC in 1992, thanks mainly to an attack that finished atop the conference in total and scoring offense both years. In 2011, the Razorbacks put up 37 points on 438 yards per game and finished in the top five of the final polls for the first time since 1977, despite losing 2010 headliners Ryan Mallett and Knile Davis to the NFL and a season-ending knee injury, respectively.
Red Flag: Besides his lack of head-coaching experience, McGee is also the only Division I head coach who's been arrested on burglary charges: As a 19-year-old freshman at Arizona State, he faced multiple counts for allegedly stealing three leather jackets worth $1,160 from campus-area stores in late 1991, eventually leading to his exit from the program. (He later pled guilty to theft, paid restitution and was sentenced to three years' probation.) More recently, he also has to answer for a 2006 DUI arrest during his stint at Northwestern, for which youthful indiscretion — he was 34 — doesn't hold up.
Grade: B. UAB wants to spin McGee's checkered legal history as "part of what makes him such a special person" and "a positive influence on student-athletes" as an older, wiser, more responsible adult who's been there, done that, et cetera. If they're right, they have an up-and-coming offensive mind who's been a key part of success at a much higher level and is regarded as a charismatic recruiter. In the meantime: How many backs is he willing to slap for the sake of that on-campus stadium?
MATT CAMPBELL • Toledo
Age: 32 (Seriously). Alma Mater: Mount Union.
Replacing: Tim Beckman, who turned back-to-back bowl trips into a Big Ten gig, as the new head coach at Illinois. The Rockets' return to the winners' column in 2010 snapped a four-year slide in the red, record-wise, their worst slump in 30 years.
Previously On: As new head coaches go, you can hardly call Campbell inexperienced — he grew up as a coach's son in football-crazy Massillon, Ohio, played on three national championship teams at Division III power Mount Union and won two more titles there as an assistant coach before moving on to Bowling Green and then Toledo, where he's been offensive coordinator since 2009.
Best Resumé Line: The Rockets led the MAC in total and scoring offense in 2011, putting up at least 42 points in six straight games to close the season — including a wild, 63-60 loss at the hands of Northern Illinois, Toledo's only conference loss of the season.
Red Flag: At 32, Campbell is the youngest head coach in the I-A/FBS ranks by a good three years. He graduated from college in 2002. It will take most of the season for most Rocket fans to tell him apart from his players.
Grade: C. At least he has an endorsement from his old boss: In his first press conference at Illinois, Campbell's predecessor, Tim Beckman, called his former protégé "one of the brightest young minds in college football today," adding "I guarantee you I'll be trying to get Matt Campbell" to follow him to Champaign. For Campbell's sake, hopefully he'll never have another opportunity.
KYLE FLOOD • Rutgers
Age: 41 (Yeah, fudging the 'Under-40' criteria just a bit). Alma Mater: Iona.
Replacing: Greg Schiano, architect of Rutgers' decade-long rise from Big East laughingstock to postseason regular and new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Knights' solid record over the last seven years doesn't quite convey how far they've come from the fish-out-of-water outfit Schiano inherited in 2001: Spending has spiked, the stadium has expanded and Rutgers has become the kind of program that can actually win recruiting battles for the best players in New Jersey and New York. In other words, a legitimate FBS program.
Previously On: Flood originally joined Schiano's staff as offensive line coach in 2003 (replacing the first choice to replace Schiano, Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal), and has spent the last four years as assistant head coach. Before landing at Rutgers, he toiled in obscurity as the offensive line coach at Delaware, Hofstra and Long Island University-C.W. Post.
Best Resumé Line: Three of Flood's protégés have gone on to the NFL Draft since 2007 — including massive tackle Anthony Davis, the highest pick (No. 11 in the first round to the San Francisco 49ers) in school history — matching the total number of offensive linemen Rutgers sent to the draft over the previous 47 years combined.
Red Flag: In terms of resumé, Flood has never been a head coach or even a coordinator, and has never coached at another big-time FBS program. In terms of timing, athletic director Tim Pernetti and the Rutgers administration were under pressure to name a coach by last Wednesday, Feb. 1, the day recruits began faxing in their letters of intent. They were also under some pressure from the academic side to hold off on hiring a full-time coach until a new university president is named later this summer, which raises the question of just how permanent Flood's promotion is beyond salvaging the recruiting class and holding down the fort for the 2012 season.
Grade: C. As an internal hire, Flood offers continuity for a program at a crossroads, as the face of athletic department that's taken a lot of heat from faculty and legislators for the increasingly massive subsidies the department has required to balance the books. If he can't keep the beat in a diminished conference that may be on the verge of losing its reserved seat at the BCS table, it won't take long for the Knights' engine to run out of steam on the wrong side of the slope.
TONY LEVINE • Houston
Age: 39. Alma Mater: Minnesota.
Replacing: Kevin Sumlin, on his way to Texas A&M after the first 12-win season in Houston history. In four years under Sumlin, Houston led the nation in total and scoring offense twice (2009 and 2011) and last year came within one game of securing Conference USA's first BCS bid.
Previously On: Levine has toiled for most of his career — including three years on Bobby Petrino's staff at Louisville and two with the Carolina Panthers — as a special teams coach. (At Carolina, in fact, he was assistant (to the) special teams coach, as well as assistant (to the) strength-and-conditioning coach.) At Houston, he's spent the last four years under Sumlin coaching special teams, tight ends and outside wide receivers.
Best Resumé Line: Again, continuity is a virtue: He was a part of crafting the most prolific passing game in college football, overseeing seven 1,000-yard receivers in four years. On the special teams front, the Cougars took back 11 kicks and punts for touchdowns in that span while giving up just four.
Red Flag: Levine has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator on any level; the closest he's come to running a program is the 1996 freshman team for Highland Park (Minn.) High School.
Grade: C—. Obviously, the natives are not impressed. Not that you need a headliner to put together winning records at a program that's enjoyed its share of success under multiple administrations over multiple decades. But an obscure position coach is a strange choice to inherit a team that loses both the coach (Sumlin) and the prolific quarterback (Case Keenum) who have guided the Cougars to 35 wins over the last four years, just as it's preparing to take a step up in class from Conference USA to the Big East in 2013. Levine isn't going to reinvent the wheel, but minus Case Keenum and last year's top four wide receivers, there are a lot more new questions than old answers.