USC coaching search heat check: The latest hottest — and coldest — candidates

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Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, right, instructs tight end Jahleel Billingsley.
Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien talks to tight end Jahleel Billingsley before a game against Florida on Sept. 18. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

It's been more than three weeks since USC fired football coach Clay Helton and embarked on its first coaching search in almost eight years. 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 walks the sideline against Villanova on Sept. 25.
Penn State coach James Franklin walks the sideline against Villanova on Sept. 25. (Barry Reeger / Associated Press)

James Franklin, Penn State coach: Each offseason as 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, 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 has worked wonders — the Nittany Lions, 5-0, are No. 4 and travel to No. 3 Iowa on Saturday.

As I said in my weekly review column after Penn State’s win over Auburn on Sept. 18, Franklin has the most to lose of any USC candidate. But there’s certainly plenty of reason for Trojans fans to pay attention. My hunch is they should be cheering on the Hawkeyes on Saturday.

MEDIUM

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell takes the field with his players before a game against Connecticut last season.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell takes the field with his players before a game against Connecticut last season. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

MOVING DOWN: Luke Fickell, Cincinnati coach: I went to Cincinnati last week to learn more about Fickell and assess whether he would be able to uproot his wife and six kids from their Ohio roots to step into the adventure of a lifetime in Los Angeles. I left feeling like it was unlikely — read the profile to understand why — but still possible because his wife, mother and mentors did not slam the door on USC.

In my weekly review Saturday night, I pointed out why I think Cincinnati’s emphatic win over Notre Dame makes it even more unlikely.

That said, because of 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.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State coach: The Cyclones began the season ranked No. 7 but have lost to Iowa and Baylor. Here’s the thing, though: The shine should not come off at all. What he’s accomplished in Ames is so impressive that a disappointing start does not remotely overshadow it.

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. 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, and a mediocre 2021 season could be just what Bohn needs to persuade Campbell it’s time to move on.

Bill O’Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator: Nobody talks to the Crimson Tide offensive coordinator during the season because of 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. If all goes right for USC and another premier job doesn’t open that would interest O’Brien, the assumption here is he would jump at the chance to come to L.A. and lead the program’s revival.

Kalani Sitake, Brigham Young coach: Sitake is a name that I didn’t include on my first attempt at a list after Helton was fired, but the Cougars are 5-0 (3-0 against the Pac-12 South) and ranked No. 10. Sitake plays a physical style of football that would appeal to Trojans backers, and they’ll get to see what BYU is made of in the season finale Nov. 27 at the Coliseum. It would be fascinating to see how well a coach of Polynesian descent could recruit at USC.

COOL

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops looks on during a game against South Carolina on Sept. 25.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops looks on during a game against South Carolina on Sept. 25. (Hakim Wright Sr. / Associated Press)

Jeff Hafley, Boston College coach: Hafley and the Eagles were one fluke bad snap in the final minute from upsetting Clemson in Death Valley on Saturday. They’re 4-1 and are maxing out their potential without injured starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec. 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.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky coach: I nearly removed Stoops from the list after Kentucky narrowly defeated Chattanooga on Sept. 18. That would have been a mistake. The Wildcats knocked off then-No. 10 Florida in Lexington on Saturday to go 5-0 and are ranked No. 16. The improvement in the Kentucky program isn’t some one-season mirage. Stoops has built the Wildcats the hard way, with defense first. But even after winning two of the last three against Florida, I don’t see USC fans getting excited about him.

NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Dave Aranda, Baylor coach: If you recall, Bohn pursued Aranda to be USC’s defensive coordinator after the 2019 season when Aranda was Louisiana State's defensive coordinator and coming off a national championship. Baylor jumped in and hired him to be its head coach, but it’s certainly possible Bohn has noted the Bears’ 4-1 record and recent win over Matt Campbell and Iowa State in only Aranda’s second season in Waco.

MOVING DOWN: 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." Bieniemy has been in the running for numerous NFL head coach openings, and it still feels likely he will wait it out for the right opportunity there.

NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Anthony Lynn, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator: We’ll always acknowledge any buzz at this stage, and NFL reporter Jim Trotter’s tweet last week that former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn has been contacted by USC boosters about the job (and that Lynn would be interested) certainly adds him to the list. Lynn apparently misses California — and, hey, we get it.

COLD

Then-Washington coach Chris Petersen walks on the field during a game against Oregon in 2019.
Then-Washington coach Chris Petersen walks on the field during a game against Oregon in 2019. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Chris Petersen, former Washington coach: Petersen has big opinions about the USC opening. He said on Fox two weeks ago 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 coach: Stoops was asked on Fox’s "Big Noon Kickoff" two weeks ago about the USC opening and his potential interest. “I love too much working with you guys, what I’m doing,” Stoops said. “I love watching my son play [at Oklahoma]. I’ve got another one coaching. That’s all I’m interested in doing right now.” We’re going to continue taking him at his word.

DROPPED OFF THE GAUGE

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer looks on against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 30.
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer looks on against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 30. (Emilee Chinn / Associated Press)

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars coach: Meyer shouldn’t have been on the Heat Check to begin with. Search his name to learn why he definitely won’t be the next coach at USC.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota coach: The Golden Gophers lost to Bowling Green on Sept. 25, not a loss you want to see in Year Five.

Greg Schiano, Rutgers coach: He just seems well-cast at Rutgers. And it’s not like he’d fire up the USC fan base.

Donte Williams, USC interim coach: The Oregon State blowout loss ended any hopes for Williams.

Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator: His offense, loaded with five-star talent, is broken.

Jack Del Rio, Washington Football Team defensive coordinator: As a USC alum, Del Rio was added to the first Heat Check by default. But we’re not here to mislead.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.