USC coaching search heat check: These are the hottest — and coldest — candidates

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Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy walks out of the tunnel before a game against the Baltimore Ravens
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy walks out of the tunnel before a game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 19. (Terrance Williams / Associated Press)

USC's first football head coaching search in almost eight years is sure to take fans of many programs on a wild ride this fall. The fact that the job came open in mid-September should lead to a truly unique search, and The Los Angeles Times will perform a temperature check right here as developments occur.

Hot

It’s too early in what should be a marathon of a search for there to be too much sizzle. Stay tuned, though.

Warm

Penn State coach James Franklin shakes hands with fans in the stands following a 44-13 victory over Ball State
Penn State coach James Franklin celebrates with fans following a 44-13 victory over Ball State on Sept. 11 in State College, Pa. (Barry Reeger / Associated Press)

James Franklin, Penn State head coach: Each offseason as Clay Helton’s ouster loomed, Franklin’s name came up as a natural fit for USC, and, sure enough, within two days of Helton’s firing, radio host Dan Patrick said he has a source that says there is mutual interest between Franklin and USC. Franklin did nothing to dispel the report, going out of his way to not confirm or deny it.

“I’ve tracked this over time, that really no matter what you say, people aren’t happy with, so I’ve decided I will handle this internally, talk to our team,” Franklin said. “I’m not worried about distractions in the media, and with the fans, I’m worried about my team.”

Whatever Franklin said to his team worked, as the Nittany Lions beat Auburn 28-20 Saturday. They’re now ranked No. 6, so a trip to the playoff is on the table, although Penn State has trips looming to No. 5 Iowa and No. 10 Ohio State in October.

As I said in my weekly review of Saturday’s action, Franklin has the most to lose of any USC candidate. But there’s certainly plenty of reason for Trojans to pay attention.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach: Last week at his weekly press conference, Fickell addressed the USC opening.

“Look, I don’t talk to anybody. I barely talk to my own family during the season,” Fickell said. “So I wouldn’t ever talk about it nor would I even answer a phone call or anything like that. It’s not a big deal. It’s nothing but distractions, and for us, it can’t be. I also want to say: This is the greatest thing that can happen for us; it’s a reflection of what these guys have done on the football field. It has nothing to do with me.

“It’s a crazy world. I think this does nothing more than show a lot of us that stability is great in this business. The grass is not always greener.”

Fickell is an Ohio guy with an Ohio wife, and the assumption is it would take a lot for him to move across the country. But due to the connection between him and USC athletic director Mike Bohn, who hired Fickell at Cincinnati, he’s going to be perceived as a serious candidate up until the moment Bohn says it’s someone else.

Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator: A day after Helton was fired, ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter tweeted, “League sources believe Chiefs’ OC Eric Bieniemy will emerge as a head-coaching candidate for USC. Bieniemy is from Southern California and has told confidantes in the past that USC is one of the only college jobs that might interest him.”

Asked about USC later in the week, Bieniemy said, “Well you know me — you guys know me. I am where my feet are. So when it’s all said and done with, I am focused on the task at hand. I’m not worried about anything where my name is being mentioned.”

Bieniemy has been in the running for numerous NFL head coach openings the last few years but has struck out for some reason. He has coached in college before, with an assistant stint at UCLA from 2003-05, and Bohn hired him to be Colorado’s offensive coordinator in 2010, so there’s a relationship there. This doesn’t feel likely, but there is definitely buzz that can’t be ignored.

Medium

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell looks on from the sideline
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell hasn't been asked publicly about the USC coaching job. (Matthew Putney / Associated Press)

Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: The polite sports media in the state of Iowa have not asked Campbell about the USC opening. So there’s no denial or non-denial to report here. It would make sense for Campbell to be looking for a step up from Iowa State, particularly as his roster will be looking at a rebuild after this season. We just need to know more at this point.

Bill O’Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator: Nobody talks to the Alabama offensive coordinator in-season due to Nick Saban’s rules, so the buzz on USC and O’Brien, the former Penn State and Houston Texans head coach, is likely to stay quiet by default. The Crimson Tide’s offense hasn’t lost much under his stewardship thus far, even with the losses of quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota head coach: Fleck has not publicly addressed the USC opening, not that he would say anything helpful. Folks in Minneapolis may assume this will just lead to another contract extension for Fleck, but if USC actually has interest, it would be shocking if he wouldn't listen. Fleck and the Golden Gophers just pounded Colorado 30-0 in Boulder, and his work with Minnesota in 2019 will put him on all of these lists until he leaves the Twin Cities.

Kalani Sitake, Brigham Young head coach: Sitake is a name that I didn’t include on my first list after Helton was fired, but he’s 3-0 against the Pac-12 this year and worthy of consideration. It would be fascinating to see how a coach of Polynesian descent could recruit at USC, that’s for sure.

Jack Del Rio, Washington Football Team defensive coordinator: Del Rio, the former USC linebacker, is always a name that comes up when the Trojans have an opening. The likelihood of Bohn going with someone whose lone qualification is “former Trojan player and former NFL head coach” doesn’t seem high.

Cool

Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer watches a play on the stadium's video monitor
Urban Meyer is off to an 0-2 start as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. (Stephen B. Morton / Associated Press)

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach: Meyer, the former national championship head coach at Florida and Ohio State, said there was “no chance” when asked last week about USC. Of course, trusting Meyer — or anyone else, for that matter — to tell the truth in this scenario would be naive. The Jaguars are 0-2 and have looked so bad that Meyer had to put out a statement asking fans to stick with them, so he may not be long for the NFL. Even if he flames out this season, would the power brokers at USC seriously consider him with all the morality baggage?

Greg Schiano, Rutgers head coach: Asked about his inclusion in some USC candidate lists, Schiano said, “There’s nothing to talk about, guys. I promise you. We’re figuring out how to get our first down. That stuff is really not in my wheelhouse. Like zero.” A pretty standard response from a candidate who doesn’t jump out from the crowd anyway.

Jeff Hafley, Boston College head coach: Given Hafley’s success as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator and his early work at Boston College, it would be a surprise if USC doesn’t vet him. But Bohn would likely have to miss on some more obvious choices first before this gains real traction.

Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator: If Elliott wanted USC to give him a serious look, he picked the wrong time for the Clemson offense to totally nosedive. It’s been ugly so far, which won’t help his unlikely candidacy.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach: The overall trajectory at Kentucky is impressive under Stoops, but barely beating Chattanooga on Saturday isn’t going to move the needle. The Wildcats would need to upset Florida or Georgia this season to get the Trojans fired up for this Stoops brother.

Donte Williams, USC interim head coach: The way the Trojans responded to their 14-0 deficit in Pullman, Wash., with backup quarterback Jaxson Dart made a lot of USC fans happy — happy enough to make this list? We can’t ignore the possibility that Williams will put together a season that makes Bohn’s decision tougher than originally thought.

Cold

Washington head coach Chris Petersen is doused with a blue sports drink at the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl
Former Washington coach Chris Petersen hasn't expressed any interest in the USC opening. (Steve Marcus / Associated Press)

Chris Petersen, former Washington head coach: Petersen has big opinions about the USC opening. He said on Fox Saturday that USC needs someone who can develop players, offering, “Talent and skill are two different things. They need skill.” But there has been no indication that he wants to be that person, with the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman saying, “No Chris Petersen in this USC search.”

Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach: Stoops was asked on Fox’s "Big Noon Kickoff" Saturday about the USC opening and his potential interest.

“I’ve only been on the set three times and you’re already getting rid of me,” Stoops said. “Nah, listen. I love too much working with you guys, what I’m doing. I love watching my son play [at Oklahoma]. I’ve got another one coaching. That’s all I’m interested in doing right now.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.