10 questions that will define CFB coaching carousel
The college coaching job market has some clarity on the high end. With LSU firing Les Miles and the head-coaching roles at Texas and Oregon expected to open, those jobs will certainly set the market.
But from there, the field this year looks a bit flat compared to past years. All should be quiet in the SEC outside of Baton Rouge. The ACC has no jobs assured of opening. Oregon should be the only Pac-12 opening. And the Big Ten could begin and end with Purdue. Coaches who have needed to win this season at places like Texas A&M, Auburn, Minnesota, West Virginia and Kentucky have done just that, which will slow this season's coaching carousel.
Five jobs are already open for the 2017 season—LSU, Baylor, Purdue, Fresno State and FIU—but while there is always late movement and surprises, it's unlikely that the market this year will approach the 29 jobs that opened last year. It could end up being closer to half of that.
As we enter the finishing kick of the season, here are the 10 questions that will define the coaching carousel.
1) What's Charlie Strong's future at Texas?
Texas is 4–4 with four games remaining in the season. The Longhorns beat No. 8 Baylor on Saturday, but the general feel around Texas remains that this will be Charlie Strong's final season in Austin. The Longhorns just haven't looked like a crisp operation under Strong, as he did a poor job putting together a staff and picking an identity on offense and has been plagued by subpar special teams play.
Strong has played some catch-up and clearly has a young and talented team, but it's doubtful that he'll be able to overcome his early mistakes. He still has the support of president Gregory L. Fenves, an academic with little feel for sports. But with Tom Herman winning down the highway in Houston, it will be hard for the Texas brass to pass on a shot at one of the next generation's most promising coaches. Especially with Strong sitting at 15–18, toiling behind Kansas State, West Virginia and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 standings.
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Here's an intriguing question for the Longhorns: Who would they hire if they couldn't land Herman? There aren't a lot of logical options. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher would be a top name, but his time at LSU would make that a logical lean if he wants to leave Tallahassee. Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien's name often surfaces this time of year, but he's poised for an NFL playoff run.
2) With Oregon slipping into irrelevancy, what do the Ducks do?
There's little hope that coach Mark Helfrich can keep his job. The Ducks are 3–5, in fifth place in the Pac-12 North and could lose the rest of their games—at USC, Stanford, at Utah and at Oregon State. With season tickets a concern and the buzz from the Chip Kelly era gone, even salvaging a bowl may not save Helfrich. That national title game appearance following the 2014 season feels like a long time ago.
The prevailing thought is that Chip Kelly has no interest in returning for a second hitch in Eugene. Kelly's first year with the 49ers has been horrific (1–6), but he has the support of ownership and is determined to make it work. The 49ers have one of the NFL's worst rosters and could be facing front office changes, but the commitment to Kelly is there.
3) Who will revive Oregon's on-field product and brand?
The most obvious candidate with Oregon ties just left the school. Former Ducks assistant Scott Frost has energized and turned around UCF, overhauling a winless train wreck into a 4–4 program with energy, direction and purpose. (If he hadn't squandered a three-score lead at Houston on Saturday, he'd be an even more attractive candidate.) Important to note here, Frost has long been a favorite of Nike czar Phil Knight, a huge asset in his candidacy. (UCF's slick new uniforms this season can be attributed to Frost's cozy relationship with Knight.)
After Frost, there are solid candidates but few with logical ties. Out West, Boise State's Bryan Harsin (28–7 with the Broncos) would certainly be a name for his consistent success. (No, Chris Petersen isn't leaving Washington for a blank check.) Utah's Kyle Whittingham would be a great name for his decade of consistent success, but he'd need to be paired with a dynamic offensive coordinator. Another intriguing name here is P.J. Fleck, who has turned dormant Western Michigan into the buzz of college football. His energy would certainly intrigue a program—and a certain sneaker brand—comfortable being bathed in neon yellow.
Could Navy's Ken Niumatalolo bring back Oregon's strategic advantage? Oregon ushered in an era of tempo and has found itself left behind.
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4) Where does LSU turn after firing Les Miles in September?
Saturday night in Baton Rouge, when Alabama visits, will be a referendum for interim coach Ed Orgeron's chances to land the LSU job full time. Orgeron is a fan favorite and has jolted the program with his energy and an influx of creativity on the offensive side of the ball. But is he a long-term answer? He flopped hard at Ole Miss, got little consideration at USC and then threw a temper tantrum and walked out on the program when he didn't get the job. For all the goodwill Orgeron has built at LSU, is he really the guy who can topple Nick Saban? Or is he really best suited as an interim adrenaline shot at a program lacking juice?
The question no one can answer is this: What happens if LSU passes on Orgeron, whiffs on Herman and gets rejected by Florida State's Jimbo Fisher? No easy answers there. The best would be a long look at North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, who has SEC experience and would bring an offensive ingenuity missing during the Miles era. Could an established coach like Notre Dame's Brian Kelly get a look? LSU is a better job in general than Notre Dame, but Kelly has to realize that Notre Dame is likely a much better job for him.
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For now, LSU remains a fascinating mystery. And considering how it bungled Miles's near-departure last year and handed Florida two home games to handicap its next coach, the LSU administration hasn't exactly shown it's equipped to handle high-stakes situations.
5) What's next for Art Briles?
After Friday's alarming revelations in The Wall Street Journal, it would be surprising if Art Briles ever coaches another snap of college football. No school president, board or athletic director could handle the backlash that would inevitably come with hiring Briles. The report said that 17 women on campus reported "sexual or domestic assault involving 19 players, including four alleged gang rapes." They quote Briles breaking down in front of the board and telling them, "I had a system where I was the last to know, and I should have been the first to know." Briles also failed to alert authorities about a gang rape involving a Baylor student athlete.
Briles's lawyer raised the issues of Baylor violating a non-disparagement clause, but the damage is already done.
Briles could stick on with an NFL franchise, but even his recent stint helping out the Cleveland Browns was met with a wave of hard questions and harsh columns.
6) What's next at Baylor?
The interesting tension at Baylor is how much the school wants to divorce itself from anyone affiliated with Briles. Tulsa's Philip Montgomery is one of the hottest coaches on the market. The Golden Hurricane are 6–2 and came within a whisker of upsetting Houston. Montgomery served as a Briles assistant at various high school and college spots for more than a decade before he left Baylor two years ago for Tulsa. It's important to be clear that his name hasn't been raised in any of the investigations in Baylor. But will the perception of hiring someone tied in any way to Briles be too much for Baylor's board to stomach?
Dino Babers, another former Briles assistant, has been impressive in his first season at Syracuse (4–4). He left Baylor to take over Eastern Illinois in 2011, which means he's been gone for a majority of the years in question. (The 17 reported assaults in The Wall Street Journal were since 2011.) Babers also has no ties to the scandal and only worked for Briles for four years. The bigger issue with Babers may be if Baylor or any other school would pay a buyout that's perceived to be significant. He signed an initial six-year deal with Syracuse last year.
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7) Who else could emerge at Baylor?
A logical candidate in Waco is SMU's Chad Morris. He delivered a signature victory over Houston two weeks ago and has re-energized a dormant program at SMU. With the Mustangs (4–4) playing better and Morris's considerable heft with high school coaches in Texas, he'd be a safe hire that could keep Baylor's on-field momentum going. Morris's roots in up-tempo offenses would fit well with Baylor's roster, too. His reputation is glowing in the state after going 169–38 as a high school coach, including back-to-back undefeated state championships at Lake Travis in 2008 and 2009.
Another intriguing option could be Miles, who would give Baylor a veteran presence with championship experience. Miles has a solid track record in the Big 12 after going 28–21 in four seasons at Oklahoma State. He would have to hire an offensive coordinator who'd run a tempo offense that's tailored to Baylor's personnel, but if Miles wants to win big, this is his best option on the board.
Four other intriguing names at Baylor are Cal coach Sonny Dykes, Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and Fedora. All could end up in the mix, as MacIntyre's revival of Colorado has made him an intriguing name around the sport.
8) Will any ACC job open?
No job in the conference is certain to open, but there's a few worth monitoring down the stretch. Watch out for Dave Doeren at North Carolina State (4–4), where the Wolfpack have lost three straight and could easily lose the rest of the games on their schedule (Florida State, at Syracuse, Miami and at North Carolina).
Boston College's Steve Addazio picked up a critical win at NC State this weekend. The Eagles are 4–4 and need to show continued improvement down the stretch, but that victory injected hope and optimism into the program. Boston College's next two games are Louisville and at Florida State, followed by winnable games against UConn and at Wake Forest. A bowl bid would assure Addazio's return, especially with the school owing him a significant buyout as it recently signed him through 2020.
There's athletic director uncertainty at Boston College as well, as the industry perception is that Brad Bates won't return next season. (His contract expires next year.) The final decision on Addazio will come from the president's office, which adds a layer of mystery.
Another cash-strapped school is Georgia Tech, which is mired in debt. Paul Johnson won the Orange Bowl two years ago and is 5–3 this year. Is that worth the $6 million to buy him out? Probably not. And it's likely that Tech simply can't afford it. The Yellow Jackets have a new athletic director in Todd Stansbury, but it's hard to imagine everything coming together to move on Johnson. Remember, Tech kept former basketball coach Brian Gregory a year longer than expected in part because of finances.
9) Who gets the Purdue job?
The early buzz out of Purdue is that the Boilermakers are thinking big, as the arrival of new facilities has the school wanting to compete for Big Ten titles. Can new athletic director Mike Bobinski lure the type of coach to change Purdue's paradigm? The big buzz names there will be Fleck and Miles, but it's hard to imagine either of them taking that job.
Former Purdue assistant Brock Spack, the defensive coordinator during the Joe Tiller glory years, will get a much-deserved look. But he's just 4–5 this year at Illinois State after upsetting Northwestern early this season. Louisiana Tech's Skip Holtz could emerge, as he's trending toward his third-consecutive nine-win season in Ruston.
Montgomery could be a logical fit. He'd be outside his geographical recruiting comfort zone in Texas, but bringing that Baylor offense to the Big Ten would make the Boilermakers unique and give them a much-needed identity. Another coach who fits that realm is Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, who fits the category of a successful head coach (16–4 the past two years) whose system could differentiate Purdue in the Big Ten.
Purdue wants to hire a head coach, but its issue is going to be luring a top-tier Group of Five coach like Fleck, Temple's Matt Rhule or Western Kentucky's Jeff Brohm. After the disastrous tenures of Danny Hope and Darrell Hazell, the school is becoming a place where careers stall out. Tiller is the only one of the past six Purdue coaches to leave with a winning record.
10) Will there be any movement in the AAC?
It should be a quiet year in the league, but the one job gaining buzz is Cincinnati. The Bearcats are 1–4 in the AAC this year after finishing 4–4 last year. For a school with aspirations to play on a bigger stage, can Cincinnati afford to fall behind on its current modest one?
Tommy Tuberville's buyout is manageable, as Cincinnati would owe him $1.5 million after Dec. 7. The Bearcats are 4–4 overall but will be underdogs in their final four games. (BYU is a seven-point favorite at Cincinnati this weekend, and the Bearcats finish at UCF, Memphis and at Tulsa.)
Tuberville, 62, got hired by the school to raise its profile in the minds of Power 5 conferences. Who could revive Cincinnati? The job would generate a lot of interest if it opens. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell would be the logical local name. Appalachian State's Scott Satterfield, Troy's Neal Brown and Toledo's Jason Candle could all generate interest. Cincinnati should be set up to be one of the better jobs in the American. Perhaps a strong candidate like Brohm would give it a look because he'd be positioned to win in a geographic comfort zone.