What's old is new again? Here's the latest college football hiring trend

By the fourth quarter of North Carolina’s taut game with top-ranked Clemson on Saturday, the eyes of college football locked in on a place they’d long avoided – Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina’s frenetic upset bid came down to one climactic play – an ill-fated option call by the Tar Heels that failed miserably. But the final result of North Carolina’s 21-20 loss transcended the final score, as it underscored precisely why athletic director Bubba Cunningham brought back Mack Brown as head coach.

One day later, the first job opening abruptly arrived on the college football calendar when Rutgers fired Chris Ash. (It was almost two weeks earlier than last year when Bowling Green let go of Mike Jinks for the 2018 carousel’s first firing.)

Many of the jobs expected to open up on the carousel in the next few months face historical challenges similar to Rutgers. Jobs like UNLV, New Mexico, Illinois, Tulsa and Ball State have coaches attempting to make a last stand.

Expect the momentum created by hiring veteran coaches like Mack Brown and Les Miles at Kansas to make more experienced coaches attractive in this cycle.

“As always is the case when things are successful, we may see a wave of experienced coaches getting another chance to lead a program,” said Glenn Sugiyama, a veteran of collegiate coach searches and a managing partner with DHR International. “It’s cyclical, and people point to situations that work. With Mack Brown’s early success, it could lead to schools entertaining experienced coaches in the upcoming hiring season.”

North Carolina coach Mack Brown reacts after defeating the South Carolina Gamecocks 24-20 on Aug. 31. (Getty)
North Carolina coach Mack Brown reacts after defeating the South Carolina Gamecocks 24-20 on Aug. 31. (Getty)

Both Brown, 68, and Miles, 65, brought rare profiles to their job. They both won national titles at their previous jobs and brought enough cachet where each is recognizable to a wide swath of college football fans by only their first name. Former Florida coach Jim McElwain’s return to Central Michigan, Hugh Freeze landing at Liberty and Herm Edwards’ unexpected success at Arizona State could also end up being viewed as predictive from a trend standpoint.

Cunningham called the atmosphere around Kenan Stadium “electric” on Saturday and said he quickly knew that Brown coming back to North Carolina, where he’d coached from 1988-97, was the right decision.

“Just because of his ability to communicate and rekindle relationships,” Cunningham said by phone this week. “He reached out to every single high school coach in the state. He’s got an incredible knack for building relationships.”

The risk for athletic directors with retread coaches is being able to evaluate if they’ve learned from their failures. It’s much different than the risk associated with first-time head coaches, as athletic directors need to project their leadership style, ability to hire a staff and how they’ll handle myriad off-field obligations.

“There can be a lower risk for an AD to hire someone who has been through it before,” said Chad Chatlos, who runs collegiate searches for Ventura Partners. “The risky part is that a lot of those coaches were fired. They weren’t getting the job done at their former place. Hire them and it doesn’t go right again, people will ask, ‘Why did you hire them?’ ”

With Rutgers ushering hiring season to the forefront, here’s a look at coaches who could emerged from the recesses of our memories and become a factor in head coaching jobs this season. (This list is in no particular order.)

Larry Fedora

The former UNC coach has watched from afar as Mack Brown has squeezed more out of a roster than he did last season as UNC sputtered to back-to-back 3-9 and 2-9 seasons. Fedora was very open with Yahoo Sports about how he’d run a program differently, as he’s served as an analyst for Tom Herman and come to appreciate the importance of fun and connecting with players. (Fedora, by his own admission, was more anal and business-like as a head coach.) He’ll have an ally in Cunningham, who points out Fedora, 57, won a league title at Southern Miss in 2011 and won the ACC Coastal at UNC by going 8-0 in 2015: “I absolutely believe he should get another chance,” Cunningham said. “He’s a great person who does everything you ask and never complains.”

Greg Schiano

Any conspiracy theory that Rutgers already had a deal brokered with Schiano when they fired Ash is completely fabricated. A Rutgers source calls the search “wide open” and any pre-arranged marriage would be complicated by the fact that Schiano and athletic director Pat Hobbs have never met or even spoken. Schiano, 53, is still living in the Columbus area and has spent most of the fall attending his four kids’ various sporting events. The former Rutgers and Tampa Bay head coach is an obvious candidate, but there’s a long way until that could become a reality.

Todd Graham

After going 95-61 via successful runs at Rice, Tulsa, Pitt and Arizona State, Graham is eager to return to the sideline. He started his career in Texas and that general footprint would be appealing. Graham, 54, went 36-17 at Tulsa, which could use an adrenaline shot in both coaching and fundraising, one of Graham’s specialties. Don’t be surprised to see his name emerge if Tulsa parts ways with Philip Montgomery. Graham is eager to get back in, and this cycle may have opportunities in that footprint.

Bret Bielema

He’s quietly emerged as a key cog in the Patriots’ organization, coaching the defensive line. Bielema went 92-68 as the head coach at Wisconsin, and that run combined with two years learning from Bill Belichick could be a compelling narrative at a place like Illinois. Bielema, 49, has the experience, personality and resonance to give a have-not a jolt. The New England experience would surely be viewed as an asset by athletic directors.

New England Patriots assistant coach Bret Bielema talks on the field before a game against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 11, 2018. (Getty)
New England Patriots assistant coach Bret Bielema talks on the field before a game against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 11, 2018. (Getty)

Gene Chizik

He fits the profile of Brown and Miles in that he’s a former national championship head coach who’d like to get back on the sidelines. Chizik, 57, was a dud personality as Auburn’s coach, but has thrived as a television analyst. He went 11-14 at Auburn in the two years after Cam Newton left, which could bring some pause to athletic directors. Being a defensive coach also goes against current hiring trends. Would he be willing to go help save a languishing coach like Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech as a $1.5 million-per-year defensive coordinator?

Mark Helfrich

Along with leading Oregon to the College Football Playoff title game following the 2014 season, Helfrich’s other defining legacy in Eugene was offering and landing Justin Herbert. When Oregon moved on the local prospect, Herbert’s best offer was Nevada. Helfrich, 45, won just under 70 percent of his games as a college head coach and could intrigue one of the Mountain West schools with a potential opening. His role coordinating the offense for the Chicago Bears will only help his reputation.

Butch Jones

His two-year apprenticeship under Nick Saban has made Jones eager to return to the sidelines. His Tennessee tenure bottomed out with a winless SEC season in 2017, but his overall tenure there looks decent considering the morass of ineptitude that’s followed. Jones, 51, has a strong portrait of overall work, with four league championships, two outright at Central Michigan and two co-championships at Cincinnati. He could be a match at a few different jobs, as he’s a former Rutgers GA and could be a splash for a Mountain West program like New Mexico, UNLV or Colorado State.

Jim Mora

He’s still getting paid by UCLA through 2021, which means he can afford to be a bit picky. Mora, 57, could give a place like UNLV a jolt of credibility and an experienced coach as it continues the steep climb of attempting to compete with professional sports in Las Vegas. He went 46-30 at UCLA, which is the type of record many toiling schools would desire.

Mike MacIntyre

He jumped immediately back in the fray as Ole Miss’ defensive coordinator, rekindling some of his early career coaching roots in Oxford. The argument for MacIntyre, 54, comes with the job he did turning the battleship at San Jose State, where he went from 1-12 to 10-2 in the span of three seasons. He also had a 10-win season at Colorado in 2016, which shows a pattern of being able to handle underdog jobs.

Brady Hoke

His underwhelming stint at Michigan obscured a stellar run early in his career, as Hoke went 12-1 at Ball State in 2008 and 9-4 at San Diego State in 2010. He’s back with Rocky Long at San Diego State as the defensive line coach, which could lead to a natural transition back to Hoke. (Long turns 70 in January.) Hoke, 60, spent six years in the 2000s rebuilding Ball State. Would they attempt to try and rekindle that?

Major Applewhite

He’s stashed in Nick Saban’s long-established bounce-back program at Alabama, helping out with the wide receivers and learning The Process under Saban for the second time. Applewhite, 41, could end up in the mix at a place like UTSA or as an OC and play-caller for a defensive-minded head coach who wants an experienced wing man.

Al Golden

Want a program that’s comparably hopeless to where Rutgers is right now? That would be Temple in 2006, when Golden took over. He’s thrived with the Detroit Lions as an assistant in the NFL but would be eager to return to the college sidelines for the right opportunity. He’s a New Jersey native and has a strong recruiting reputation there. The miracle turnaround he pulled at Temple, which went 9-4 in 2009, is similar to what Rutgers needs.

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