By all appearances, the college football coaching carousel has stopped.
For the second straight year, no head coach is jumping from college to the NFL. The college game had lost Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone to the pros in 2013, and in previous years lost Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll.
In a major reversal of fortune, the college game poached a big one from the NFL – Harbaugh went back on campus. And that’s an appropriate place to appraise the winners and losers in this year’s coaching realignment derby.
Michigan. The Wolverines dumped a coach who was in over his head, shot for the moon and hit the bull's-eye with Harbaugh. Best thing to happen to Michigan football since Charles Woodson.
Mississippi State. For much of the season, Gridworld speculated on whether Dan Mullen would go to Florida or Michigan or some other high-rent locale. Instead Mullen stayed put in Starkville – and so did his star quarterback, Dak Prescott. The Bulldogs lost defensive coordinator Geoff Collins but replaced him with Manny Diaz, who did a fine job at the school earlier in Mullen’s tenure.
Oregon State. The Beavers lost an institution of a coach in Mike Riley, but his program was losing momentum – just 12-13 the last two years, and 29-36 the past five. Replacing him with Gary Andersen has the potential to be an upgrade – he won 19 games in two seasons at Wisconsin after breathing life into a dead Utah State program.
Texas A&M. Defense was a disaster under Mark Snyder. Replacing him with John Chavis – a proven commodity at both Tennessee and LSU – is a huge plus. And Chavis is less likely to look at the job as a steppingstone to a head-coaching gig than younger coordinators. He could be there quite a while. (A&M also wins by firing student assistant Michael Richardson after his disgraceful sideline act in the Aggies’ bowl game.)
Auburn. Also made an impactful change at defensive coordinator, replacing Ellis Johnson with Will Muschamp. Best way to combat Nick Saban is to get a guy who knows how Saban thinks – and adding assistant Lance Thompson directly off Saban’s staff is another step in that direction. Muschamp will be a major help in recruiting as well – but how long will he stay? He interviewed for the Houston head-coaching job and undoubtedly wants to run his own program again soon.
American Athletic Conference. League champion Memphis retained 2014 Coach of the Year Justin Fuente. And the entire Southwest Frontier upgraded: Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman to Houston; Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris to SMU; Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery to Tulsa. There will be more points in a league rife with struggling offenses.
Western Michigan. The Broncos kept one of the most intriguing young coaches in the business, P.J. Fleck. After a 1-11 debut season, Fleck went 8-5 this year – Western Michigan’s most victories since 2008. He’s had crazy recruiting success the previous two years, and currently is assembling a 2015 signing class Rivals.com ranks 62nd – best in the Mid-American Conference. The longer WMU can keep this rising star, the better.
Pittsburgh. The Panthers reeled in Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, a guy who has been coveted in several locales the past couple of years. He’s been integral to the Spartans’ ascendance and seems like the perfect guy to re-establish some toughness in the Pitt program.
Sun Belt Conference. A league that tends to have its best coaches poached by bigger programs kept everyone its members wanted to keep. That was especially good news at Louisiana-Lafayette, which won nine games and a bowl for the fourth straight year under Mark Hudspeth. And Arkansas State, which retains its head coach for a second season – something that hasn’t happened at Revolving Door U. since 2009-10.
Kentucky. The Wildcats retained tight ends coach and recruiting ace Vince Marrow, who turned down an offer from Harbaugh and Michigan in favor of a long-term deal at UK. Losing offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who became the head coach at Troy, should be relatively easy to overcome.
Utah State. Matt Wells, who has sustained what Gary Andersen built despite major graduation losses and horrendous injury luck at quarterback, is returning for a third season. That’s a big win.
Florida. I like the hire of Jim McElwain for plenty of reasons: he didn’t win with smoke and mirrors at Colorado State, because there’s no such thing as doing that there; he’s a Saban Method guy without the Muschamp Method of impaired offense; and he’s a capable recruiter who knows the SEC. But he’s not the Urban Meyer slam-dunk hire of a decade earlier. McElwain will have to prove himself to a fan base that was hoping for a ready-made superstar.
Nebraska. Mike Riley is a great guy who may turn out to be a great coach in Lincoln, where it is far easier to win than at Oregon State. But he’s a 61-year-old guy in unfamiliar territory, and the best stretch of his coaching career was 2006-09 – basically ancient history in 2015. We’ll see.
UNLV. Hired high school coach Tony Sanchez, who comes with a lot of positive reviews and even more to prove. Even if it doesn’t work out, what does UNLV have to lose? The program is in lousy shape and the investment (a reported four years, $2 million) is minimal.
Oklahoma. Bob Stoops radically remade his staff, highlighted by the hiring of hotshot East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Those changes have been met with great approval – but the bigger question remains in the big office. After years of slippage, is Stoops still a championship-level coach at Oklahoma?
Wisconsin. For the second time in three years, a successful coach jilted the Badgers in a lateral-at-best move – first Bret Bielema went to Arkansas, now Gary Andersen went to Oregon State. Bringing home native son Paul Chryst made everyone feel good, but Chryst was 19-19 at Pittsburgh. He’s not a sure thing. And the league is tougher now than when he left it.
Colorado State. The Rams wanted Narduzzi but lost out to Pitt, with Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo the fallback choice. He may work out just fine – but if he does, Bobo is no more likely to put down roots than McElwain, who stayed three years. At present, CSU is destined to hire two types of coaches: those who are too good to stay for long and those who aren’t good enough to keep for long.
Defensive coordinators. Seven first-time head coaches were hired in FBS this offseason. Six of them were offensive coordinators. Narduzzi is the only exception to the continuing trend of hiring offense, offense, offense. No wonder stud defensive guys like Bud Foster and Chavis seem resigned to being career assistants, and guys like Brent Venables, Kirby Smart and Bob Shoop have to wonder what it will take to get their shot.
Alabama. Nick Saban lost (intentionally or not) a pair of defensive assistants to SEC West rivals in Kevin Steele (to LSU) and Lance Thompson (to Auburn). Now offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is reportedly in the mix to be offensive coordinator with the 49ers. Would these moves be addition by subtraction, or is working for Saban not worth the handsome salary anymore? The answer should be found on the field in 2015.
Kansas. David Beaty brings instant recruiting credibility where the Jayhawks need it most, in the state of Texas. What else he brings to the table remains to be seen. He hopscotched between Rice and Kansas as an assistant, including being a member of Turner Gill’s staff in Lawrence – normally not something to mention in anything more than hushed tones. Beaty spent the last three seasons at Texas A&M coaching wide receivers.
Troy. The hiring of Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown means … well, we don’t know what it means yet. He’s a Tony Franklin/Mike Leach guy, which means all spread, all the time. And he has familiarity with Troy, having worked there from 2006-09. But his work at UK was OK, not necessarily anything that suggests he’s a sure-fire success.
Missouri. Losing defensive coordinator Dave Steckel was a blow to Gary Pinkel, who cherishes staff continuity. Replacing him with former staffer Barry Odom, who had done good work at Memphis, should lessen that blow.
Georgia. More than a few Bulldogs fans were cheering the departure of Bobo. But then again, more than a few Rams fans were cheering the departure of Brian Schottenheimer to succeed Bobo in Athens – just as more than a few Jets fans cheered Schottenheimer's departure before that..
Buffalo. You can’t be overly choosy when you’re the Bulls, so hiring a guy with a 109-6 career record certainly jumps off the page. But Lance Leipold compiled that record at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, and has spent a grand total of three seasons coaching or playing Division I ball. He was an assistant at Nebraska from 2001-03. Even the MAC will be a big step up.
HOTTEST SEATS FOR 2015
Virginia. Mike London’s last three seasons are 4-8, 2-10, 5-7. A lot of people were surprised to see him get another shot.
Illinois. Incremental improvement capped by going to a bad bowl game kept Tim Beckman employed. But at 12-25 there is no indication yet that he’s the long-term answer.
Iowa State. Paul Rhoads is a likeable guy in a tough spot, but he’s also 5-19 his last two seasons. Even beating Kirk Ferentz half the time isn’t enough to keep you employed forever.
Iowa. Speaking of Ferentz—he’s gone from untouchable to unloved by a growing segment of the fan base over the past five mediocre years. Ferentz is standing pat on staff, which is a roll of the dice. But with a golden contract that runs through 2020, maybe he can afford to.
Indiana. There is one current coach of a power-five school that has been there four years without going to a bowl game. That man is Kevin Wilson, whose record is 14-34 at IU. The fan base is far more invested in basketball, which has been a saving grace so far. But Year Five seems like high time to at least ascend to the dizzying heights of 6-6.