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Opinion: Three trends coming into focus for college football's coaching carousel

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To understand the new reality of how college football coaching hires work, there’s no better place to start than Texas Tech.

On Oct. 25, athletics director Kirby Hocutt fired Matt Wells, who won just 13 of his 30 games. Exactly two weeks later, he had hired a new coach off the staff of a conference rival who has never been a coordinator at the college level and was a high school coach in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as recently as 2016.

Joey McGuire, who will start at Texas Tech immediately and abandon his post as Baylor’s associate head coach/outside linebackers coach with three games left in the regular season, was not exactly a household name before Monday or the proverbial hot coaching candidate whose name gets linked to multiple jobs at this time of year.

But what he represents is a subtle shift in the way many administrators evaluate head football coaching candidates — and the urgency schools feel to get one locked up as early as possible.

New Texas Tech head football coach Joey McGuire speaks Tuesday during an introductory press conference.
New Texas Tech head football coach Joey McGuire speaks Tuesday during an introductory press conference.

As Hocutt introduced McGuire, one comment stood out above the rest of the typical pablum you hear at these press conferences.

“We wanted somebody who had the connections and relationships to build with this locker room to take these young men forward,” Hocutt said, “but also someone that could penetrate the state of Texas and find the best football talent in the state of Texas. We wanted somebody that had the most connections, knew everybody in the state of Texas.”

Though not every school with a job opening will emulate Texas Tech’s approach, McGuire embodies three key trends that are likely to show up more and more in the coaching carousel this year.

1. The heyday of the offensive guru is over

For several years, it seemed like athletics directors started their candidate lists by looking at which spread offenses were putting up the most points and targeting either the coordinator or the head coach who was considered responsible for installing that system.

While scoring points is still a highly prized commodity, administrators are viewing the job through a more holistic lens and becoming more skeptical of the Red Bull-fueled offensive guru types who think they have, in the infamous words of Charlie Weis, a decided schematic advantage.

Instead, the new buzzword in coaching is emotional intelligence: Somebody who can connect, encourage, discipline and cajole without being considered phony, authoritarian or soft. In the era of players earning money off their name, image and likeness and being able to transfer more freely, there is no offensive scheme good enough to overcome poor management of egos and expectations for players who are part of Generation Z.

Though there are some coaches who can straddle both the playcalling and the emotional aspects of the job — several administrators point to Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley as the unicorn who’s great at both — there’s a burgeoning discussion in the industry about whether some of these X-and-O offensive gurus are too cerebral and formulaic in how they approach their job to connect with and inspire young men.

It’s an unfortunate stereotype, but there’s an element of nerds vs. jocks at play here. When you’re running an entire offense, it's about moving pieces around the chessboard and executing with precision. At other positions, there’s more emphasis on energy and effort.

Mel Tucker was a former defensive coordinator who was hired as head coach at Michigan State.
Mel Tucker was a former defensive coordinator who was hired as head coach at Michigan State.

For most of the last decade, the prevailing thought was that offensive coordinators would better translate into potential CEOs. Now, we’re seeing the pendulum swing a bit back to defense (think Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and Baylor’s Dave Aranda) along with a Dabo Swinney effect where coaches who’ve never even been coordinators are viable because there’s something unique about their ability to recruit or build a certain culture (think Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, Arkansas’ Sam Pittman, South Carolina’s Shane Beamer, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and UTSA’s Jeff Traylor).

Another element one administrator mentioned: Schools are starting to more closely scrutinize how much of an offensive coach’s reputation was tied to an exceptional quarterback. Whether it’s Scott Frost at Nebraska, Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, Dino Babers at Syracuse, Chad Morris at Arkansas, Kevin Sumlin at Arizona, Chip Kelly at UCLA or Steve Sarkisian at Texas, hires that looked good on paper can suddenly go sideways when there’s not an elite quarterback to run their fancy playbook.

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Though some schools are still going to look to offense first in their hiring process, more and more coaches with non-traditional backgrounds like McGuire will get opportunities in the next few years.

2. Recruiting is driving the timing of everything

When college football instituted an early signing period in 2017, its effect on the coaching carousel wasn’t a huge topic. But with multiple years of data, it’s very clear now that schools are being pushed to make decisions earlier and earlier in the calendar in hopes of salvaging a little bit of recruiting time.

Years ago, a school like Florida could hire Urban Meyer in the first week of December and have two months for him to go out on the road and connect with prospects. Sometimes it even worked to the advantage of new coaches to ride the momentum and energy of their first few weeks to flip players who were committed elsewhere.

But now, with most top prospects signing Dec. 15, there’s hardly any time for new coaches to make their case to prospects. From a recruiting standpoint, the first class is Year Zero and the real work starts the following year.

Texas Tech, in that sense, was smart to move the window up a bit by grabbing McGuire now. Though it’s a logistical nightmare for Baylor, which plays Texas Tech on Nov. 27 and has to rearrange coaching staff duties for the rest of the season, McGuire will get five solid weeks to evaluate and do some catch-up work on recruiting.

For programs that are trying to poach sitting head coaches, that strategy isn’t likely to work. But you could see more programs that make in-season changes settle on assistants in hopes of getting their guy in place early.

This conundrum is even trickling down to the assistant coaching level. In the past few days alone, eight assistants have been fired at Nebraska, Oregon State, Washington and Florida. Barring some type of player abuse situation or off-field controversy, nobody who works in a football program would argue that firing assistant coaches in the middle or toward the end of a season helps the current players.

There’s obviously a public relations aspect to that kind of move, eliminating some of the negativity and chatter around a program that’s having a bad season. But it also provides clarity to recruits who might be skeptical about what they’re seeing on the field.

3. The next month could be absolutely nuts

Another benefit to Texas Tech getting its coaching search over with now is not having to be at the mercy of more prestigious jobs being filled.

Often, these searches are a little bit of a game of chicken with multiple schools eyeing the same pool of candidates and agents playing athletics directors against each other. That can be very difficult for the mid-level jobs, where the decision-makers might think they have a coach on the hook — only to discover that the coach is trying to stall for something better.

This year, all of the dominoes are going to fall based on what LSU and Southern Cal do. If Florida decides to move on from Dan Mullen, which seems more likely now than it did a couple weeks ago, that would be a third blueblood type job open.

Will Southern Methodist Mustangs head coach Sonny Dykes become the new head coach at TCU?
Will Southern Methodist Mustangs head coach Sonny Dykes become the new head coach at TCU?

The second tier of jobs should also be robust. We know Washington State and TCU is open, though there’s a belief in the industry that discussions for SMU’s Sonny Dykes to move across town are fairly far along. It’s unclear whether the uptick in Miami’s play of late is enough for Manny Diaz to get a fourth season. It’s almost certain that Virginia Tech will move on from Justin Fuente, opening up a prime ACC job. And the increasingly tense situation at Washington with Jimmy Lake, who is suspended without pay this week for a sideline incident with a player, could very well end with a separation. Other jobs that industry experts are watching include Duke, Tulsa and Temple.

Despite his very public and vehement denials and his massive contract extension, LSU hasn’t completely given up on the idea of luring Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher. If that doesn’t work out, another big opening could be created if Michigan State’s Tucker, Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin or Kentucky’s Mark Stoops end up there.

Penn State coach James Franklin is a logical candidate for LSU, USC or Florida if it opens and seems like he could probably use a change of scenery after a couple disappointing years. If he leaves, Penn State would immediately become the next-best job available.

You also can’t dismiss the notion of a couple guys going to the NFL. Both Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley have been very much on the radar for pro teams the last few years.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Three key trends could change the landscape of college football coaches