20 college football assistants set to become head coaches
There will be 20 Division I coaches making their FBS head coaching debut in 2016, a number that portends at a potential change in hiring trends in college football. The coaches entering their first seasons vary greatly, from NFL veteran Lovie Smith at Illinois to Bowling Green's Mike Jinks, who was a high school coach four years ago.
Those varied levels of coaching and backgrounds make analyzing data like this tricky, as Ball State hiring a first-time head coach isn't comparable to USC doing the same. But around the industry last year, what made the trend so distinct was the caliber of jobs that took a risk on coaches without FBS head coaching experience. Most notable in that group were USC and Georgia, two Cadillac jobs that elected to go with first-time drivers Clay Helton and Kirby Smart. (Helton twice served as USC's interim coach in the past.)
After years of risk-averse athletic directors putting a premium on experience, the 2015 hiring cycle showed a run on assistant coaches. Few would have predicted that D.J. Durkin (Maryland), Chris Ash (Rutgers) and Tracy Claeys (Minnesota) would have Power 5 jobs before the start of last season.
Will this trend of hiring assistant coaches stick? It's hard to say. But the youth movement is real. In the past five years, only one coach over the age of 60 (Mike Riley at Nebraska) and three over the age of 55 (Riley, Smith and Mark Richt at Miami) were hired by Power 5 schools.
Another reason why schools may be trending toward assistants is the rising cost of salaries of head coaches, which have further entrenched them and made them more difficult to move. Ten years ago, Houston coach Tom Herman may have been more aggressive in seeking a new job. But he declined interest from South Carolina last year, in part because the salary paradigm has changed radically in just over a decade. Consider that in 2002, Urban Meyer left Bowling Green for Utah and signed a five-year deal worth $400,000 per year for a total of $2 million. Herman will make $3 million in 2016 alone at Houston.
While that example is extreme, Group of Five head coaches can afford to be a bit more selective these days. Temple's Matt Rhule reportedly makes more than $1.5 million. Boise State's Bryan Harsin makes more than $1 million annually. Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck is the highest paid MAC coach at more than $800,000. That level of salary has allowed coaches to make smart decisions, preventing them from feeling compelled to take bottom-feeder Power 5 jobs just for a raise. As conference realignment has bloated the size of leagues, hard jobs have gotten even more difficult because there are so many program to pass just to get to mediocrity.
Will the run on assistant coaches at high-profile jobs continue? Here's a look at the assistant coaches who will be in the mix to land head coaching jobs in 2016.
Dave Aranda, LSU
He's set up to succeed, as he inherits a loaded defense that returns players who accounted for 80% of the Tigers' tackles last season and 82% of their sacks. Aranda's first year in Baton Rouge could easily be his final one.
Mike Bloomgren, Stanford
He spoke with Maryland and Syracuse last year, a sign that his head coaching opportunity is coming soon. Bloomgren is a perfect fit for a school that values academics and a pro-style approach. Coaching Christian McCaffrey certainly won't hurt his cause.
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Geoff Collins, Florida
The Gators defensive coordinator was in the mix at UCF last season, a sign that he's on the radar of mid-level schools. With a salary of $1 million, he can afford to be patient. But if Florida wins the SEC East again, Collins will get more calls.
Kerry Cooks, Oklahoma
He's got a strong coaching pedigree after successful stints at Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. He's the assistant defensive coordinator for the Sooners, where his strong Texas ties should make him marketable with all the jobs expected to shake up the state this year.
Mario Cristobal, Alabama
The Crimson Tide's associate head coach has mustered some interest the past few years—UTSA and Rutgers last year—but hasn't quite found the right fit. Considering his ties to Miami, Cristobal will always be a candidate for any openings in Florida.
His tenure as head coach of FIU isn't viewed as negative in the industry despite his 27-47 record in six seasons.
Tony Elliott, Clemson
The Tigers' co-offensive coordinator and play caller should only get increased attention with Deshaun Watson as a Heisman Trophy favorite and a likely top-five pick. The highest compliment to Elliott and co-coordinator Jeff Scott is the seamless transition the offense made after Chad Morris left for SMU.
Brian Ferentz, Iowa
Ferentz has a strong reputation in NFL circles from his years with the New England Patriots. With Iowa suddenly hot again, he's the coach on the staff with the most upward mobility. Ferentz is just 33, but the offensive line coach and run-game coordinator should see his star rise soon.
Luke Fickell, Ohio State
Fickell made a conscious decision this off-season to pursue college head coaching jobs after years of not making a concerted effort to pursue any. (He switched agents in the off-season to aid the effort.) The defensive coordinator served as Ohio State's interim coach in 2011 and has interviewed over the years at Pittsburgh (twice), Northern Illinois and Akron.
Jedd Fisch, Michigan
If the Wolverines fulfill expectations this year, athletic directors will certainly look to pluck more branches from the Jim Harbaugh tree. Durkin's energetic start at Maryland on the recruiting trail will help this cause, too. As with Fisch, Michigan's pass-game coordinator, run-game coordinator Tim Drevno will also get attention.
Alex Grinch, Washington State
Few coordinators made a bigger difference last year, as Washington State allowed almost 11 fewer points per game and improved from No. 10 in the Pac-12 in red zone to No. 2. Grinch also has a good reputation in SEC circles from his time as an assistant at Missouri. Don't discount ties to Mount Union either, which went 54–1 with three national titles during his time as a player.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama
Kiffin's reputation rehabilitation in Tuscaloosa continued with his second consecutive season of transforming an unknown quarterback into a solid player. If he pulls that trick off a third time, someone will take a gamble on him. Kiffin's penchant for getting attention for all the wrong reasons, which defined his tenures at Tennessee and USC, has faded during his time in the Nick Saban bubble.
Doug Meacham, TCU
The Horned Frogs finished third nationally in total offense and seventh in scoring last season. Another year like that should yield opportunity for Meacham and co-coordinator Sonny Cumbie. Meacham had interest from North Texas and Texas State last season, and Cumbie turned down a chance to be Texas's offensive coordinator.
Doug Nussmeier, Florida
He's been a strong candidate for years and could have taken the Southern Miss job last season. Nussmeier's pedigree from Michigan, Alabama and Washington all help, along with NFL experience with the St. Louis Rams. The trick here will be whether he can make any of Florida's pedestrian quarterbacks look good.
Todd Orlando, Houston
The most overlooked part of the Cougars' success last season was Orlando's salty defense. Houston finished the season No. 1 nationally in turnovers gained (35) and No. 20 in scoring defense (20.7). The scoring number is particularly gaudy, considering that the high tempo offense Houston prefers to play leads to more possessions.
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
He may be the hottest coordinator on the board after Oklahoma averaged 43.5 points per game and reached the College Football Playoff last year. Riley will be picky, as he drew interest from South Carolina and North Texas last year. He also declined to speak with three other schools.
Robert Alam/Icon Sportswire
Mike Sanford, Notre Dame
Sanford's name arose for multiple jobs last season, including Syracuse and Virginia. Another big season for the Fighting Irish offense, and Sanford will be well positioned for the next step. Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Denbrock has been close to landing a head coaching job recently as well.
Greg Schiano, Ohio State
Look for the Buckeyes' new hire to stay at least two seasons, which would allow his twin boys to finish high school. But Schiano could be lured away by a high-end Power 5 job. With a slew of new faces on Ohio State's defense, Schiano's name could get hot if these Buckeyes grow up quickly.
Bob Shoop, Tennessee
If the Volunteers fulfill their great expectations, Shoop will be the most likely candidate to move on from Knoxville. He's got a Yale degree and produced back-to-back top 20 defenses at Penn State despite thin rosters.
Brent Venables, Clemson
The question with Venables is always how badly he wants a head coaching job. His intensity, success and consistent results should yield him the opportunity. But he told SI last year he'd never take a total rebuild job like Bill Snyder at Kansas State. "I don't want to do that," he said. "That's torture! I don't want to live like that."
Ed Warinner, Ohio State
Warinner has interviewed at Kansas, Army, Bowling Green and Akron over the years. The feeling in the industry is that his time is coming, as he shined as a play-caller last season once he went to the booth for Ohio State's final two games. He should thrive calling plays for J.T. Barrett this season.