With Strong firing, what's next for CFB coaching carousel?
Texas lost to Kansas for the first time since 1938 on Saturday night, transitioning the firing of coach Charlie Strong from a likelihood to an inevitability. The historic loss dropped Strong to 16–20 through three years in Austin and set off the predictable flurry of reports about Strong's future. Sports Illustrated confirmed an Austin American-Statesman report on Sunday night that a decision has been made to fire Strong, but a source said the timing of the announcement in relation to the game against TCU on Friday is still uncertain. Later Sunday, Texas AD Mike Perrin released a statement saying the school will evaluate the situation following the regular season, which means Strong's departure will likely become official after the TCU game.
Heading into Saturday, Texas president Gregory Fenves stood behind Strong. Many in and around the university thought that a respectable finish could be enough to save Strong's job. Strong overhauled the culture at Texas, significantly upgraded the talent base and finally found a style, coordinator and quarterback to get the offense on track. Fenves, an academic with little athletic experience, wasn't exactly anxious to dole out the more than $10 million required to fire Strong, either.
But Texas's uninspired and listless performance in Lawrence on Saturday changed everything. Kansas entered the game with a nine-game losing streak, a 19-game league slide and a stranglehold on the status of worst Power 5 team. But Texas managed to commit six turnovers, squander an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and lose on Matthew Wyman's 25-yard field goal in overtime. Kansas's run of futility ending means a new era for Texas football.
With Strong's dismissal coming, the high-end market appears to be set for the 2016 college coaching landscape. The Texas job is all but certain to open. The LSU job is already open, and interim coach Ed Orgeron's chances to hold onto it appear dim. The Oregon job isn't open, but there's still little chance that Mark Helfrich holds on.
The three projected open high-end jobs will set the market and likely set off a few unexpected reverberations throughout the sport.
Here's a look at what to expect at Texas, Oregon, LSU and beyond in the next few weeks.
Heading into Saturday, the choice to keep Strong would have really doubled as a decision to allow Houston head coach Tom Herman to head elsewhere. Don't be surprised if Texas kicks the tires on a few higher profile coaches, but Herman is the top choice on its list who'll give the school a definitive affirmative answer. Herman has a master's degree from Texas from his time as a graduate assistant, and a majority of his recruiting connections are grounded in the state.
Herman brings with him a 22–3 record with the Cougars and an offensive expertise that he showcased by helping lead Ohio State to the national title in 2014 with a pair of backup quarterbacks. Considering Herman's background at the school and in the state, the Texas job has long been considered his top preference of any in college football. In his two years at Houston, Herman has showed an affinity to fundraise, upgrade facilities and court boosters, things that haven't been a specialty of Strong during his tenure in Austin. At this point, for Texas not to turn to Herman would be a significant surprise.
It would take some sort of high-profile darkhorse coming from out of nowhere to swoop in. Obviously, Texas has openly lusted after Nick Saban for a better part of the past five years. But Texas's administrative dysfunction, meddling board and bloated athletic department wouldn't jive with a coach who values alignment off the field as much as he does on it. "Whoever goes to Texas needs to be ready for the total dysfunction of the department," said an industry source. "The facilities are outdated and the coach will need to fight, fight, fight for everything."
There's other names that would certainly fit, like TCU's Gary Patterson, UNC's Larry Fedora and Utah's Kyle Whittingham. But considering the mutual intrigue between Herman and Texas, that's the highest probability result here. Around the industry, it would be a surprise if Herman doesn't land the job.
There's more intrigue around the athletic director situation at Texas. The administration is expected to move on from lawyer turned athletic director Perrin as early as this spring, as his "hire" was never a viable long-term solution. The name Oliver Luck, who finished second to Steve Patterson in 2013, will certainly surface. Herman recruited Luck's son Andrew while the offensive coordinator at Rice, which means there's a pre-existing relationship there.
Has any athletic director had a worse year than LSU's Joe Alleva? He failed in his attempts to fire Les Miles at the end of last season and then ended up ousting him this September. He then threw a temper tantrum to get LSU's game with Florida this year moved to Baton Rouge after the initial date in Gainesville was cancelled because of a hurricane.
After testy negotiations that belied the SEC's image of corporate congeniality, LSU ended up hosting the game and losing to the Gators on Saturday, 16–10. Even if the Tigers had won, it really wouldn't have mattered as LSU has long been headed toward a lost season after early flops against Wisconsin and Auburn. LSU is 6–4 and Alleva's pitch to a new coach will be, Hey, my misguided vision means you'll be playing Florida in Gainesville your first two years. So enjoy that.
Alleva's move on the Florida game comes straight out of Shortsighted Leadership 101. He let the immediate emotion of the situation outweigh what would be the best long-term move for his football program. Eyes have rolled around the SEC about how LSU has handled nearly everything over the last year. (The Texas athletic department and LSU athletic department could host a Dysfunctional Family Feud, and it would end up being pretty competitive.)
Now Alleva needs to run a coaching search, and the meddling forces that have guided some of the poor decisions around LSU still loom large. LSU's top target is expected to be Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, who has both a national title and an intimate familiarity with LSU after a stint there as an assistant from 2000 to 2006.
Herman is a viable name there, but it would be hard to imagine him choosing LSU over Texas considering his connections to the state. If Fisher turns down LSU, there's few obvious choices. Fedora would be a top name. Maybe Patterson's name comes up as well? There'd likely be some NFL interest, as LSU is one of the best jobs in the country. Names like Stanford's David Shaw, Washington's Chris Petersen, Louisville's Bobby Petrino and West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen are completely unrealistic.
This is going to be tricky going forward. Good luck to Alleva, who has shown this last year that he needs it. The fact that Alleva's biggest hire so far at LSU is basketball coach Johnny Jones doesn't inspire much faith. Jones was openly mocked all last season for tactical deficiencies and wasting future No. 1 pick Ben Simmons's lone season on campus. Alleva needs to do much better than his recent track record.
The Ducks got a nice break from their season of misery by upsetting Utah 30–28 in Salt Lake City this weekend. But any notion that the victory, which improved the Ducks to 4–7, is significant enough to save Mark Helfrich's job is foolish.
The Ducks have endured a spate of off-field discipline issues this season and have bottomed out on the recruiting tail. The recent loss of high-end defensive back prospect Elijah Molden to Washington provided another reminder of the program's frailty. (Molden's father, Alex, played for the Ducks in the 1990s.) According to 247 Sports, none of the state's top five players are headed to Eugene. The top two, defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu and Molden, are headed to Seattle.
The Ducks need a jolt of energy and a new identity. They'd covet Herman, but that seems like a long shot if Texas is interested. From there, there's no obvious answer. Even with the 49ers looking dismal, Chip Kelly isn't expected to try and rekindle the magic in Eugene. Who would? Boise State's Bryan Harsin would surely listen. He's 31–7 there, 10–1 this year and has already won a Fiesta Bowl in his young career.
The name that's intriguing Oregon officials is Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck, as he's proven an elite recruiter and would give the program an instant jolt. He'd be a geographic risk and is only 35, but it would be easy to see Phil Knight falling for his vision and passion.
There are few logical West Coast options here, as no other coach or coordinator has risen enough—outside of Whittingham—to elevate himself into the conversation. UCF's Scott Frost, a former Duck offensive coordinator, is chummy with Knight and has had a promising debut season by getting UCF bowl-eligible. But is he ready to take the leap back to Eugene?
Oregon has always valued innovation, which means two sleeper candidates here could be Navy's Ken Niumatalolo and Patterson. Both are considered on the cutting edge on their side of the ball.
There's two prominent perceptions about the Purdue search. The first is that it is far down the road with a candidate. The second is that it is out hunting big names, a hallmark of the search firm being used, DHR International. The two most prominent names on its list are former LSU coach Les Miles and Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck.
If Purdue is going to act early, Miles would be a favorite. He's right in the mix of this job, although the chances of Alabama assistant Steve Sarkisian going with him, as reported, are considered slim.
Fleck has yet to speak with Purdue. He's not planning on entertaining any inquiries until after the season, which could be after the MAC title game on Dec. 2 if Western Michigan beats Toledo on Friday and advances.
Purdue has been busy with its search, as former NFL offensive coordinator Greg Olson and Illinois State coach Brock Spack are squarely involved. Both have strong Purdue ties as former assistants there. Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz is also considered a legitimate candidate. (Holtz is 30–20 with two bowl wins in his fourth year at Louisiana Tech.) Air Force coach Troy Calhoun is considered in the mix as well. He's familiar with winning in a hard situation, having gone 75–53 in 10 years with the Falcons, including three bowl wins.
The three main names to watch are Miles, Colorado's Mike MacIntyre and SMU's Chad Morris. All are candidates from distinctly different backgrounds. Miles has significant Big 12 experience from his time at Oklahoma State and could be a calming presence for a school in turmoil. Morris is a beloved former high school coach who would bring instant recruiting credibility. MacIntyre is the hot candidate after leading Colorado out of two decades of doldrums and into the thick of the Pac-12 race this season.
Herman and Fedora are in Baylor's sights, but they'd have to be considered reach candidates at this point considering the caliber of jobs that are open or expected to open. Other names that have popped up in this search are Tulsa's Philip Montgomery, Cal's Sonny Dykes, Arkansas State's Blake Anderson and Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.