College football coaching carousel 2017: Which assistants are in line for a head coach job?

As the whirl of activity buzzed around him at a recent Ohio State practice, Greg Schiano paced through the noise with a preternatural calm. Glasses propped professorially at the bridge of his nose and flecks of grey hair peeking past his temples, Schiano cuts the mold of a veteran coach comfortable amid all the noise. Entering his second year in Urban Meyer’s operation in Columbus and with a breadth of experience that includes resuscitating Rutgers from a century of irrelevancy and two seasons as an NFL head coach, Schiano ranks as the most overqualified assistant coach in the country.

Schiano, 51, enters his first season as the sole defensive coordinator at Ohio State after co-coordinator Luke Fickell left for the head job at Cincinnati last spring. Schiano has made the transition back to being an assistant seamlessly, earning raves from Meyer as one of the best coaches he’s been around.

It’s appropriate that news of Schiano turning down two significant coaching offers came from Meyer at Big Ten media days, long after the coaching carousel stopped spinning. Schiano himself has max protection from media attention since arriving in Columbus. (He declined comment for this article.) With Schiano’s twin sons set to finish high school, expect Schiano to be more active in the coaching market after the 2017 season.

Schiano presents an interesting coaching case, as he’s seen just about everything. He worked as an assistant at Penn State for Joe Paterno and coached elite defensive players at Miami under Butch Davis. He went 1-11 at Rutgers in 2002 and then 11-2 in 2006, sweeping all of the major national coach of the year trophies. In Tampa, he went 7-9 during his promising debut season before flaming out with a 4-12 clunker that included complaints of an autocratic style. Along the way, he’s become a confidant of Bill Belichick, spending a lot of time in New England studying his operation. (Belichick’s son, Stephen Belichick, played for Schiano at Rutgers, and New England’s roster has been flush with former Scarlet Knights over the years).

Glance around the country at potential coaching candidates, and the pool lacks a plethora of obvious choices. There’s clearly no college assistant with a better résumé than Schiano. In his two years off in 2014 and 2015, Schiano did a good job networking with potential suitors. “I think going to work for Urban was a very smart step for him,” said a veteran athletic director familiar with Schiano. “I think he’s done a good job of re-branding who he is. The exposure most of us have had with him, he’s coming from a humble approach and a genuine recognition of where his strengths were that allowed him success. But he also recognizes areas he could improve. His perceived shortcomings will be stronger in the future.”

Meyer has been beyond effusive in his praise for Schiano. Meyer and Schiano’s friendship goes back to Nike coaching trips, where they and their wives gravitated to each other. Since arriving in Columbus, he’s embraced the role of chief lieutenant, recruiting with the fervor of a recently promoted graduate assistant and blending with a staff full of successful veteran coaches. Since arriving in Columbus, the results have been there, as the Buckeyes finished No. 10 in forced turnovers forced last year, a leap from No. 59 in 2015. Ohio State’s three first-round NFL picks in the secondary last year were the most since Miami in 2002. Ohio State boasts a defensive line flush with talent this year, as three defensive ends and a tackle could end up as first-round NFL picks. “I thought he was one of the best I’ve ever been around,” Meyer said at Big Ten media days. “He’s a little better than that. That’s how good of a coach he is.”

Greg Schiano has been around plenty of great defensive lines — but the one he has at Ohio State may be his most talented yet. (Getty)
Greg Schiano has been around plenty of great defensive lines — but the one he has at Ohio State may be his most talented yet. (Getty)

The question about Schiano’s next move is a tricky one. His years in college and time in the NFL taught him the importance of alignment, which will be paramount in his next stop. Expect Schiano to go after a job only at a program capable of winning the national title, similar to programs like Southern California and Miami that he’s been involved with the past few seasons. That standard could limit his options this year, as the high-end job market projects to be slow. The NFL could also be an option. Recent NFL head coaching hires – Anthony Lynn, Sean McVay, Sean McDermott – have shown that there’s not exactly boundless high-end candidates available in that league. There’s also a possibility he could go to the league as a high-end assistant, as he’s turned down similar opportunities in the past. (The NFL assistant coaching market has evolved to the point where top coordinators make $2 million per year.)

Schiano has also thoroughly enjoyed working for Meyer, his good friend and close confidant, as the two have become much closer in the past 18 months. If no high-end jobs emerge as a match, don’t be surprised to see Schiano stick around Columbus. “He had a mixed reputation at Rutgers, as people said he was difficult to work with,” said another veteran athletic director with exposure to Schiano. “I met him during his time away and really liked him, found him to be engaging and intelligent. He landed in a good place at Ohio State, which should help him in the eyes of athletic directors.”

With Schiano established as the top college assistant coach on the market, here’s a list of the top 20 Power Five and Group of Five assistant coaches.

1. Joe Moorhead, Penn State offensive coordinator – Has head coaching experience from Fordham and revitalized the Nittany Lions offense last season. His star will continue to soar as Saquon Barkley runs through defenses.

2. Tony Elliott, Clemson co-offensive coordinator – He’s been passive in the job market, in part because of his loyalty to Dabo Swinney. Play-caller for the national title winner is about as good of a résumé line as one can have.

3. Dave Aranda, LSU defensive coordinator – The highest-paid assistant coach in college football, Aranda will make an average of $1.85 million the next three seasons. That’s great for his bank account, but those golden handcuffs eliminate him from most Group of Five jobs. (The fact that he served as a graduate assistant at Texas Tech will certainly come up).

4. Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator – The conga line of Nick Saban coordinators heading for high-profile jobs will continue. Pruitt has established himself as a top recruiter and won three national titles, including one at Florida State. His $1.3 million salary puts him out of the range of most Group of Five jobs.

5. Mike Bloomgren, Stanford offensive coordinator – A West Coast guy with Southeast roots, Bloomgren has been involved at Syracuse, Temple and Maryland in recent seasons. Don’t be surprised if this is the year he finds the right fit, as Stanford will be strong again.

6. Mike Yurcich, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator – Rising star with a direct link to quarterback Mason Rudolph’s Heisman candidacy and prolific career. Yurcich is an Ohio native, which means he could be a fit at a MAC opening. If the Cowboys end up on a run, his trajectory could be higher.

7. Mike Elko, Notre Dame defensive coordinator – Elko has been lauded from all corners – scheme, fit, recruiting – since arriving at Notre Dame. He figured out a way to dominate at Wake Forest – six top 20 defensive categories in 2016. If he does the same in South Bend, his stock will soar. (Don’t be surprised if the NFL is a suitor).

8. Brent Venables, Clemson defensive coordinator – He’d be higher on this list if his desire to take a head coaching job matched his prolific résumé. When asked two years ago about Kansas State, he said of taking a job of that caliber: “That’s torture!” Could he be happy just staying as Dabo Swinney’s wingman, winning big and staying out of the spotlight?

Will defensive coach Brent Venables leave Clemson for a head coaching gig? (AP)
Will defensive coach Brent Venables leave Clemson for a head coaching gig? (AP)

9. Todd Orlando, Texas defensive coordinator – He’s priced out of many head coaching jobs now that he’s making more than $1.1 million. Classic steel-jawed DC who could get hotter if Tom Herman’s debut season in Austin crushes. Dislikes self-promotion as much as giving up a third-and-19.

10. Jim Leavitt, Oregon defensive coordinator – Leavitt reminded everyone of his defensive acumen with his work at Colorado last year. He had a lot of success as a head coach at USF but endured a controversial exit and circuitous route back. He will be a frontline candidate at Kansas State if Bill Snyder (ever) decides to step down.

11. Manny Diaz, Miami defensive coordinator – The Hurricanes return one of the ACC’s most imposing defenses and have been crushing it on the recruiting trail. Best thing Diaz has going for him is that he’d blow away a college president in an interview.

12. Chip Lindsey, Auburn offensive coordinator – If new Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham soars this season, expect Lindsey’s name to heat up. He’d be a prime candidate with a run of Sun Belt jobs expected to open. (There’s a boom-or-bust element here because if the Tigers tank, he could be looking for a job along with the rest of the Tigers staff).

13. Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator – With Sam Darnold at the forefront of the Heisman race and a favorite to be a top-10 NFL pick, Martin is positioned to run his own program sometime soon. He has a playing pedigree at Tennessee with a national championship, a great recruiting reputation and should be at the helm of one of college football’s most successful offenses in 2017.

14. Ryan Day, Ohio State co-offensive coordinator – Has earned rave reviews from players and coaches behind the scenes in Columbus. If J.T. Barrett returns to his 2014 form, Day will draw interest. (He played quarterback for Chip Kelly at UNH and coached with him two years in the NFL).

15. Beau Baldwin, California offensive coordinator – Consider the Cal gig finishing school for Baldwin, who is one of the West Coast’s most respected offensive minds. He won an FCS national title as head coach at Eastern Washington and had an overall record of 95-35. Hard to imagine a more prepared and qualified candidate.

16. Jedd Fisch, UCLA offensive coordinator – Fisch is set up to succeed, as he inherits both Josh Rosen and an offense that went comatose after Rosen got injured mid-way through UCLA’s 4-8 season. If Fisch revives the Bruins and Rosen fulfills his resplendent potential, both could end up at higher levels next year.

17. Brian Ferentz, Iowa offensive coordinator – He has the pedigree from playing at Iowa and coaching for the Patriots to check a lot of boxes. Ferentz would bring a distinct pro-style identity and a name that’s among the most respected in the sport.

18. Alex Grinch, Washington State defensive coordinator – The top candidate to be this year’s Elko and move up from a lower-profile Power Five job to a lucrative gig at a blue blood. Being Mike Leach’s defensive coordinator isn’t easy, but this projects as the Cougars’ best defense. (That’s relative, of course).

19. Jimmy Lake, Washington co-defensive coordinator – Charismatic Huskies coordinator has NFL experience, secondary expertise and proven to be a vital recruiting cog for Chris Petersen’s burgeoning juggernaut. He may need more experience, but is considered a high-end coach in the long term.

20. Walt Bell, Maryland offensive coordinator – Showed his recruiting prowess during his time as a UNC assistant and his offensive acumen at Arkansas State. The results have come at Maryland on the recruiting trail. When they show up on the field, the 33-year-old Bell will be on the fast track. Has as high of a long-term upside as any coach on this list.

Top Group of Five assistants

1. Brian Johnson, Houston offensive coordinator – Left his gig coaching quarterbacks at Mississippi State for Houston to run the offense. (He was Dak Prescott’s quarterback coach at State, which must go over well in home visits in Texas). He inherits Kyle Allen at Houston, a former five-star who could further enhance Johnson’s rep.

2. Brent Vigen, Wyoming – He recruited both Carson Wentz to North Dakota State and Josh Allen to Wyoming. Turned down the opportunity to interview for the North Dakota State head coaching job in order to attempt to make it at the FBS level in Laramie. Could Wyoming turn to him if Craig Bohl seeks greener pastures?

3. Sterlin Gilbert, USF – Few are set up to succeed more than Gilbert, who returns AAC Player of the Year Quinton Flowers at quarterback. Look for Gilbert’s name if Tulsa opens, as he famously left there for Texas after the school president flew up to woo him to Austin.

4. Danny Gonzales, San Diego State – No one wins with less fanfare than the Aztecs. All their success, combined with interest from other schools, led to Gonzales getting promoted to defensive coordinator last year. (Coach Rocky Long hadn’t assigned anyone that title since he calls the plays.) SDSU led the nation in interceptions last year and finished in the top 20 in scoring and total defense. Look for a West Coast school to pluck him soon.

5. Andy Avalos, Boise State – The former Broncos star enters his second year as defensive coordinator. Boise finished in the top 30 in scoring defense last year despite forcing just nine turnovers. Look for former walk-on linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to have a breakout season and anchor a sturdy defense.

Others considering: Jeff Scott (Clemson), Doug Nussmeier (Florida), Jerry Kill (Rutgers), Sonny Dykes (TCU), Kevin Wilson (Ohio State), Kerry Cooks (Oklahoma), Tim Drevno (Michigan), Don Brown (Michigan), Mel Tucker (Georgia), Sonny Cumbie (TCU), Brian Lindgren (Colorado), Jim Leonhard (Wisconsin), Chip Long (Notre Dame), Jonathan Smith (Washington), Matt Canada (LSU), Mario Cristobal (Oregon), Morgan Scalley (Utah), Marcus Arroyo (Oregon), Dan Enos (Arkansas) and Ivin Jasper (Navy).