Brian Kelly called it the "silly season." That's how the then-Cincinnati coach tried to downplay weeks of November and early-December speculation linking him to the soon-to-be-vacant Notre Dame job last year.
Of course, Notre Dame did wind up hiring Kelly. Apparently the rumors weren't so silly.
Following Colorado's long-anticipated ouster of Dan Hawkins last week and Minnesota's axing of Tim Brewster last month, the annual early-winter coaching carousel has begun again. While we don't yet know how many more jobs will open, we certainly know the strongest possibilities (Arizona State, West Virginia, Indiana and Illinois, among others). And we can certainly foretell who some of the hottest candidates figure to be. After all, it was no secret this time last year that Kelly, Tommy Tuberville (Texas Tech), Charlie Strong (Louisville), Skip Holtz (USF) and Turner Gill (Kansas) were on athletic directors' radars.
We could also have divided those names into three different categories -- the established A-lister (Tuberville, Kelly), the mid-major stars (Holtz, Gill) and the hot coordinator (Strong). Here's an early look at some of the names that currently fall into each group this year.
• Mike Leach: The former Texas Tech coach, who set that school's all-time wins record but was removed after 10 seasons under controversial circumstances, is high on a lot of fan bases' wish lists. His record-setting offense and unique personality will do that. What's not known is whether the accusations regarding Leach's treatment of injured player Adam James -- not to mention Leach's pending lawsuit against Texas Tech -- will deter future employers. Leach, who pursued the Miami and Washington jobs while in Lubbock, will likely hold out for a high-level program.
• Mike Bellotti: The longtime former Oregon coach (he went 116-55 in 14 seasons) and athletic director (briefly) is currently with ESPN, but wants to get back into the game. His decision to "retire" after the 2008 season at just 58 always seemed a bit premature -- and was probably not entirely his own call. He's acknowledged already having discussions with Colorado. "We had some initial talks, nothing more than that," he told the Denver Post.
• Jon Gruden: No one seems to know whether the former Raiders and Bucs coach and current Monday Night Football analyst is serious about getting into college coaching. He's flirted with suitors before (Notre Dame) and shown an interest in the college game, most recently telling TheNew York Times that he nearly took an assistant job at Oregon just to study Chip Kelly's offense. If he decides to give it a go, Colorado would likely be interested.
• Jim Harbaugh, Stanford: The Cardinal are 9-1 and ranked in the top 10, yet the school couldn't sell out a recent primetime game against Arizona. That's just one of the many reasons observers believe the highly regarded coach won't be at Stanford forever. But realistically, he only enters the carousel this year if alma mater Michigan comes calling.
• Chris Petersen, Boise State: Petersen's name comes up every year, and understandably so, but he's shown no interest to date in leaving the comforts of Boise, with former boss Hawkins' flameout at Colorado serving as an obvious cautionary tale. Don't expect his stance to change.
• Gary Patterson, TCU: Patterson has garnered surprisingly little interest from Big 12 and other schools in the past despite his decade-long success, but he's also not the type to aggressively pursue other options. He's said he believes he can win a national title at TCU. One of the absolute big boys would have to come calling.
• Troy Calhoun, Air Force: Calhoun is a much more likely target, and was in fact a leading candidate at Tennessee each of the past two years. His option-based rushing attack has been wildly successful, and he's developed Air Force into a surprisingly strong defensive team.
• Brady Hoke, San Diego State: Just as he miraculously turned MAC cellar-dweller Ball State into a 12-win team in 2008, Hoke has led the Aztecs to their first winning record in 12 years in just his second season. Minnesota for one appears to be interested, and while the San Diego weather must be nice, Hoke is an Ohio native who spent most of his previous career in the Midwest.
• Kevin Sumlin, Houston: After achieving national acclaim and playing for a Conference USA title last season, the Cougars have fallen back this year due to quarterback Case Keenum's season-ending injury. But that doesn't mean the third-year coach's stock has fallen. Sumlin, 46, has coached in both the Big Ten and Big 12, spending five years on Bob Stoops' staff.
• Al Golden, Temple: What's not to like about a guy who resurrected one of Division I-A's most downtrodden programs and could notch a second straight nine-win season? But Golden has spent his entire coaching career in the East (Virginia, Boston College, Penn State and Temple), and there's reason to believe he'll hold out for one job and one job only: the one in Happy Valley.
• Will Muschamp, Texas (defense): Muschamp is the designated head-coach-in-waiting at Texas, but Mack Brown isn't expected to retire anytime soon. (Though maybe this season's debacle will cause him to reconsider.) In the meantime, Muschamp's name will always come up for other schools, especially if alma mater Georgia parts ways with Mark Richt (not likely) or Les Miles leaves LSU (also not likely), where Muschamp once was an assistant under Nick Saban.
• Kirby Smart, Alabama (defense): Another Saban protégé, Smart will inevitably get the call at some point. Also a Georgia alum, Smart has worked for Saban at LSU, the Dolphins and now Alabama, overseeing a national championship defense. His age (34) could be a deterrent to some, but Bret Bielema, Pat Fitzgerald and Lane Kiffin were all hired in their early 30s, too.
• Gus Malzahn, Auburn (offense): Malzahn was an incredibly successful high school coach, led one of the nation's most productive offenses at Tulsa and is now at the helm of the SEC's top offense. It's only a matter of time before someone snags the noted hurry-up guru, though don't expect him to give up control of the offensive Xs and Os wherever he goes.
• Mark Helfrich, Oregon (offense): Though Chip Kelly is the unquestioned architect of the Ducks' breakneck offense, Helfrich's association with the nation's No. 1 team and most explosive offense is sure to attract interest. Helfrich, 37, previously served under Dan Hawkins and Dirk Koetter at Boise State and Colorado and would seem a natural fit at a West Coast school.
• Dana Holgorson, Oklahoma State (offense): The former Mike Leach protégé, hired last offseason from Houston, has engineered the nation's most productive offense (547.5 yards per game) despite inheriting a unit that returned just four starters. Holgorson, 39, is renowned for his play-calling and ability to mix the run with the pass. Some may think he's better suited as a coordinator.
• Manny Diaz, Mississippi State (defense): Considered one of the top young defensive coaches in he country, Diaz, 36, spent four years at Middle Tennessee before joining Dan Mullen this season in Starkville, where he's helped the Bulldogs produce a top 20 defense and a 7-3 record as co-coordinator. The son of Miami's former mayor, the polished Diaz would smoothly handle the job's media spotlight.
• Don Treadwell, Michigan State (offense): The one-time Jim Tressel underling showed tremendous poise and leadership as the Spartans' interim coach following boss Mark Dantonio's late-September heart attack, keeping Michigan State on course for an 8-0 start. He's helped boost the Spartans' running game and turn Kirk Cousins into an efficient quarterback.
• Mark Whipple, Miami (offense): A longtime former Division I-AA head coach at New Haven, Brown and UMass (where he won a national title), Whipple spent five years in the NFL before joining Randy Shannon's Miami staff last season. He's certainly got an enticing résumé and a sterling reputation among his peers and should return to the head-coaching ranks eventually.
• Bud Foster, Virginia Tech (defense): Every year, we wonder how the Hokies' coordinator of 15 years hasn't yet landed a head-coaching job. This one will be no different. Virginia Tech's young defense has struggled at times this season (ranked 37th nationally), but Foster, 51, produced the ACC's No. 1 or 2 unit every season from 2004-09.