Which college football coaches could be moving on to bigger jobs in 2016?
After getting fired as the basketball coach at Indiana State in 2007, Royce Waltman skewered the ideals of college athletics with a memorable press conference that acknowledged some uncomfortable truths. "If you get fired for cheating, you can get hired right back again," he said. "If you get fired for losing, it's like you've got leprosy, so young coaches need to bear that in mind. Cheating and not graduating players will not get you in trouble, but that damn losing."
Waltman passed away in 2014, but his prophetic and poignant observation will be put to the test during the 2016 college football hiring cycle. The single most divisive head coaching candidate is Art Briles, the former coach at Baylor who resurrected the school from a century of forgettable football.
Briles wasn't fired for cheating, which gives a new litmus test to Waltman's theory. Baylor University fired Briles this spring in the wake of an ugly scandal tied to the school's mishandling of multiple sexual assault cases.
Briles's direct tie to those cases remains unclear, but the whole situation is undeniably ugly. One federal lawsuit went as far as to say that university officials were "deliberately indifferent" toward sexual assault allegations against a former Baylor player. (In that case, Briles claimed he did nothing wrong, and he was recently quoted saying he's "never done anything illegal, immoral or unethical.")
The point of this column isn't to explore the morality of hiring Briles, but rather gauge the market in college athletics toward hiring him. The general feeling around the industry after talking with coaches, agents and athletic directors is that Briles, 60, will end up as a head coach again in the next two years.
The reasoning comes straight from Waltman's playbook. While no one argued that hiring Briles wouldn't cause a stir on campus, there's always a school with enough of a renegade soul that it would value the potential of winning over the inevitable backlash.
"Our business has traditionally been forgiving to coaches that win," said a Power Five athletic director. "If you vet that situation and find it's a case where he wasn't trying to cover anything up, then I think he'll definitely get another shot."
Briles has clearly proven himself on the field. He resurrected a program from nearly a century of ineptitude and turned it into a national title contender. Briles went 32–7 his last three years at Baylor, a shocking ascent.
Not everyone agreed that on-field performance is enough to give Briles a shot. Former Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said he can't imagine a school hiring Briles in the current political climate. "I'd be very surprised if he made it back to become a coach at a Power Five school," Byrne said. "College presidents are risk averse, and more and more of them are involved in running college athletics programs."
The name that kept coming up with athletic directors when asked about Briles was former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. (One athletic director had a fitting slip of the tongue and mentioned "Rick Petrino," combining the names of Louisville's two high-profile coaches who've endured off-field scandals.) When Petrino coached at Arkansas, he had an affair, hired his mistress and lied to his bosses about it. That all became public after a motorcycle crash in 2012 that unspooled the entire sordid episode and ended with his firing. Many thought that humiliating episode would end Petrino's coaching career. But Western Kentucky hired Petrino a few months later, and Louisville hired him after one year with the Hilltoppers. Louisville recently extended him through 2023.
"There are schools in this country that are more willing to try and figure out how to rehabilitate a person's reputation than they are rehabilitate his coaching," said another Power Five athletic director. "And that's sad, right? I mean, look, Bruce Pearl is coaching (at Auburn after significant NCAA issues). In many ways it speaks to the fundamental challenge we have in our business."
Where could Briles end up? After polling a few athletic directors and industry sources, there's a few possible answers. The Big Ten is considered too conservative. The Big 12 has had enough Baylor drama to want him back. The only Pac-12 job expected to open is Colorado, which is too liberal to even consider Briles there. No ACC jobs really fit. Among Power Five schools that could open this fall, Auburn and Kentucky came up as possibilities. Both have long histories of placing winning in athletics at the highest of priorities. (LSU would presumably target Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M would have a hard time considering Briles because of in-state political pressure.)
Any school is a few months away from making such a decision. But one source points out that every athletic director considering a hire this year will at the very least do plenty of research on Briles. He may have to sit out another year, but the industry presumption going forward is that Briles's winning percentage is too high to keep him on the sideline. Will the furor over hiring him be worse than getting beat by him? That's what athletic directors need to figure out.
Here are 20 other head coaches who will be in the mix for jobs this season. On Thursday, we'll look at the top assistant coaches on the market. Coaches are listed alphabetically.
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
He's 16–10 in two seasons at Arkansas State, including an 8–0 Sun Belt record last year. The most important statistic for athletic directors may be Arkansas State's No. 12 NCAA ranking in scoring offense (40.0 ppg).
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
After winning 74% of his games at Wisconsin, Bielema has found his footing at Arkansas the past two years. There are so few pro-style coaches in college that they'll always have a market.
Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky
There is a lot to like here with NFL playing pedigree, a Conference USA championship last year and 20–7 overall record. His refusal to interview for jobs during the season last year irked some, but cemented his reputation for putting the team first.
Troy Calhoun, Air Force
He turns 50 next month, and there's an increasing feeling that he may have missed his window to jump. Calhoun bounced back from a 2–10 season in 2013 to go 18–9 the last two years. His solid reputation, 10 years of experience and clean image could make him attractive at Baylor. Kansas State is another possibility if Bill Snyder steps down.
Jason Candle, Toledo
Candle showed impressive maturity in his coaching debut last year by remaining in the press box to call plays during Toledo's upset of Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl. (Most coaches would have gone to the sideline, but Candle didn't want to disrupt the team.) The Rockets return so much talent on offense that Candle is poised for a strong debut season. Athletic directors have come to appreciate the Mount Union lineage.
Rod Carey, Northern Illinois
The MAC West is loaded, both with strong teams and promising up-and-coming coaches. Carey needs a big season to reverse a three-season downward trend in record—12–2, 11–3 and 8–6. This year is especially critical after losing 55–7 to Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl last season.
Bob Diaco, Connecticut
After starting his career 2–10, Diaco navigated the Huskies to a bowl game last season. There's 15 starters returning in Storrs and quiet optimism that the hard-nosed, pro-style vision Diaco has laid out is manifesting. Handing Houston its only loss in 2015 gave Diaco a marquee victory.
Sonny Dykes, California
Expect Dykes to try and get back to Texas this year, especially with a flurry of jobs likely to open up in the state. Dykes hasn't won enough to get a high-end job, but it wouldn't be surprising to find him back in the Big 12.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina
North Carolina's 11–3 season in 2015 changed the paradigm of Fedora's future. He should have options this year if he wants to escape the eternal specter of potential NCAA sanctions hanging over North Carolina. A victory over Georgia in the opener could put him in contention for top-tier jobs.
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P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Fleck's jump to a Power Five school appears imminent. Rutgers and Syracuse reached out last year, but Fleck declined to pursue those jobs. His recruiting momentum has translated to on-field success, as he led Western Michigan to the program's first-ever bowl win last season. He's the perfect fit at an underdog program that needs a spark.
Bryan Harsin, Boise State
He's 21–6 with a Fiesta Bowl victory, which means he'll always be mentioned for jobs. The question for Harsin, a Boise State graduate and Boise native, is how concerned he is with the yawning gap between Power Five and Group of 5 schools. That may ultimately determine how long he stays in Boise.
Tom Herman, Houston
He's a favorite for Texas and Texas A&M if either become open and should remain the hottest coach on the market. Herman showed last season he won't jump at a middling job, as he turned away interest from South Carolina. With a salary of $3 million and blue chipper Kyle Allen waiting to take over at quarterback, Herman can afford to be picky.
Doc Holliday, Marshall
He's won double-digit games and registered bowl victories in each of the past three seasons. It's hard to imagine what else Holliday could do to get noticed in Huntington. At 59, he'll need to find something quickly as the hiring trends turned sharply toward younger assistant coaches last year. He'll certainly be a factor if West Virginia opens.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Mullen has led Mississippi State to 19 victories the past two years, the most in any two-year span in school history. His Urban Meyer lineage, program transformation in Starkville and penchant for developing quarterbacks (Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott) make him a logical candidate. How much more can he do at Mississippi State?
Mike Norvell, Memphis
This is Norvell's first season in Memphis, but he's already got a reputation as a top offensive mind. Justin Fuente didn't leave the cupboard bare, which should make Memphis competitive in Norvell's debut. Norvell isn't shy about projecting JUCO transfer Riley Ferguson as a future star, and Norvell's career should rise accordingly.
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Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
This has been a healthy marriage. Rodriguez resurrected his career after fitting in horrifically at Michigan. Arizona rose from the ashes of the Mike Stoops era and won the Pac-12 South in 2014. Rodriguez flirted heavily with South Carolina last year, and at 53 has one more good run in him. Rumblings of a reunion with West Virginia will be persistent this season. After considering South Carolina this past off-season, logic would dictate that he'd look at his alma mater.
Matt Rhule, Temple
Rhule's ascent has been rapid, as he's gone 2–10, 6–6 and 10–4 in his three seasons. A victory over Penn State last season and playing Notre Dame toe-to-toe in a 24–20 loss thrust Rhule into the spotlight. A victory at Penn State, his alma mater, in Week 3 would push him into the top echelon of coaches in this coaching class. Rhule will be patient, as he declined to pursue the Missouri job when the Tigers expressed interest last year.
Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State
No surprise that Appalachian State went 11–2 and won a postseason game in its first bowl-eligible season in 2015. There's plenty of tradition there, as Satterfield was part of three national title teams during his time as a player and assistant. The transition from FCS has gone smoothly and could feature a league title this year, as the Mountaineers return 15 starters. Satterfield, 43, is 22–15 in three seasons.
Willie Taggart, USF
The Bulls' late-season charge last year took Taggart off the hot seat and ended with him receiving a contract extension through 2020. Another strong season could vault him into a Power Five league. Taggart's Harbaugh family ties should help. He played for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky. Jim Harbaugh, who he worked for at Stanford, was the best man in Taggart's wedding.
Matt Wells, Utah State
Wells has led Utah State to three bowls games in three seasons. A fourth bowl appearance will likely catapult him out of Logan, as he's well regarded in athletic director and search firm circles as a complete candidate with the personality to handle off-field demands. A strong performance by Utah State in Week 2 at USC would only bolster his reputation.
Here are five smaller school coaches to keep an eye on in this coaching cycle.
John Grass, Jacksonville State
He's best known for coaching Jacksonville State to a near-miss in an overtime loss at Auburn last season. But Grass has quickly established himself as a top FCS coach, as he's 23–4 and led the Gamecocks to the national title game last year.
Will Hall, West Georgia
In five seasons as a head coach at West Alabama and West Georgia, he's 49–16. Hall, 36, brings a strong playing pedigree, as he won the Harlon Hill Trophy for the top Division II player in the country in 2003 while at North Alabama. Now he's one of the bright young coaches in Division II.
Chris Klieman, North Dakota State
He's 28–3 with two national titles in his two seasons. His name will emerge for FBS jobs for as long as the Bison remain the best brand in the FCS. That could be for a while, as they've won five straight national titles. Best chance for a national splash this season comes at Iowa on Sept. 17.
Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina
Moglia's 41–13 record doesn't quite trump his business accomplishments as one of America's top corporate CEOs. But it's close. He's proven himself a top-flight coach, something that will be tested as Coastal Carolina transitions from FCS to FBS this season. At 67, age is a factor with athletic directors that Moglia needs to overcome.
Brock Spack, Illinois State
He's 56–29 at Illinois State, which includes the FCS playoffs in three of the last four years and back-to-back league championships. He'll have strong support among the old guard at Purdue, as he was a successful defensive coordinator under Joe Tiller there.