Grading the coaching hires: Washington, Penn State lead the way

Tuesday January 21st, 2014

After going 92-12 as the coach at Boise State, Chris Petersen takes over as Washington's new coach.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

This year's coaching grades column is shorter than in years past, because there was less movement. It's strange but true that USC's Lane Kiffin was the only coach fired from among any of the schools in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC this year -- and Kiffin's ouster took place several months ago. Granted, Texas' Mack Brown hardly resigned on his own terms.

In fact, the distinguishing tone of the 2013-14 coaching carousel is that while the job openings were few, the profiles of those jobs were pretty darn high -- not only the Longhorns and the Trojans, but also Penn State, Louisville, Washington and Boise State.

Most new coaches have to rebuild. Many of this year's will be expected to win right away.

Boise State: Bryan Harsin, former Arkansas State head coach. Harsin, 37, played quarterback for the Broncos in the late 1990s. He was a Boise State assistant for 10 years (2001 through '10), the last five as Chris Petersen's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. His familiarity with the program should help with continuity, while his subsequent outside experience -- especially his two seasons at Texas -- presumably inspired fresh ideas for running his own team. Grade: A

Washington: Chris Petersen, former Boise State head coach. Alum Jim Mora was the school's first choice, but the Huskies know they did well because Petersen, their second option, has a career record of 92-12. There are some concerns about the previous major-conference failings of Petersen's Boise State predecessors, Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins, but Petersen took that program to another level, routinely beating power-conference foes and churning out NFL prospects. Oh, and Petersen knows a thing or two about the Northwest. Grade: A

Penn State: James Franklin, former Vanderbilt head coach. As I wrote about this hire at the time, Franklin is exactly what the Nittany Lions need to continue lifting their program and community out of the dark past two-plus years. A relentless salesman and recruiter who oozes energy and self-confidence, Franklin will get people excited about Penn State football again, even if ongoing NCAA sanctions preclude the Nittany Lions from returning to an elite national level just yet. Grade: A

Texas: Charlie Strong, former Louisville head coach. In a minor upset, new Longhorns athletic director Steve Patterson and a bloated search committee did not botch this hiring. On the contrary, they landed one of the sport's most respected coaches, who went 23-3 the past two seasons with the Cardinals, who oversaw two BCS championship defenses at Florida and who is a big-time recruiter who will instill toughness in Austin. One concern: Strong's admitted discomfort with media attention. Grade: A-

Vanderbilt: Derek Mason, former Stanford defensive coordinator. Mason has established himself as one of the nation's premier defensive coordinators, thanks in large part to the Cardinal's recent success shutting down Oregon's prolific offense. He obviously knows the challenges of coaching at a school known for its rigorous academics. It will be interesting to see how well he transitions from an X's-and-O's guru to a manager -- and how long he stays before potentially moving to the NFL. Grade: B+

Wake Forest: Dave Clawson, former Bowling Green head coach. Clawson has a reputation for turning programs around. Fordham (1999-04), Richmond ('04-07) and Bowling Green ('09-13) all improved and won conference championships with him at the helm. At the first two stops, Clawson found success by recruiting nationally and focusing on academics, both of which he'll need to do at Wake. The one blip on his résumé? A disappointing stint as Tennessee's offensive coordinator in '08. Grade: B+

USC: Steve Sarkisian, former Washington head coach. It's never a good sign when one of the most prestigious programs in the country hires a new coach and the general reaction is: Meh. Sarkisian did yeoman's work digging the Huskies out from the 0-12 debacle of 2008. Still, in five seasons at the helm, he never came close to returning Washington to Pac-12 title contention. Perhaps that will change with USC's superior recruiting prowess -- but again, he'll need time. Grade: C+

Louisville: Bobby Petrino, former Western Kentucky head coach. The Cardinals could very well win big immediately, because Strong left a stocked cupboard and Petrino is an X's-and-O's savant. At that point, Louisville fans will likely inundate me with taunting emails about this column. But four years from now, after the roster has deteriorated (as it always does) and Petrino has bolted for another job (as he always does), the program may be worse off than it was when it hired him. Grade: D

Best of the rest

• Arkansas State: Blake Anderson. Following their recent blueprint, the Red Wolves landed yet another fast-rising offensive coach, who excelled in two seasons at North Carolina.

• Bowling Green: Dino Babers. After taking FCS Eastern Illinois to consecutive playoff trips, Babers will install his high-flying, "Art Briles copy" of a system with the reigning MAC champions.

• Connecticut: Bob Diaco. The 2012 Broyles Award winner impressed many in the industry during his four seasons as Brian Kelly's defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.

• Western Kentucky: Jeff Brohm. Having spent five seasons as an offensive assistant to Petrino, Brohm will provide the Hilltoppers with continuity.

• Wyoming: Craig Bohl. In perhaps the biggest steal of the entire coaching carousel, Wyoming landed the architect of North Dakota State's FCS juggernaut.

Ten impact coordinators/assistants

• Dave Christensen, Utah (offense): Kyle Whittingham hopes Gary Pinkel's former right-hand man can solve the Utes' offensive identity crisis.

• Tim Drevno, USC (offensive line): The San Francisco 49ers offensive line coach may be the most notable addition to Sarkisian's first USC staff.

• Larry Johnson, Ohio State (defensive line): Penn State's coaching change allowed Urban Meyer to snap up the renowned East Coast recruiter.

• Lane Kiffin, Alabama (offense): The widely reviled ex-USC and Tennessee coach can focus on his specialties: play-calling and recruiting.

• Doug Nussmeier, Michigan (offense): Having previously mentored quarterbacks Jake Locker and AJ McCarron, Nussmeier could rejuvenate Devin Gardner and the Wolverines.

• Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia (defense): Bulldogs coach Mark Richt couldn't do much better than landing Florida State's BCS championship-winning coordinator.

• Kurt Roper, Florida (offense): Will Muschamp desperately needs to upgrade his offense. Duke coach David Cutcliffe's protégé is an excellent choice.

• Mike Sanford, Boise State (offense): The former Broncos quarterback returns home after spending three seasons at Stanford, two as recruiting coordinator.

• Joe Wickline, Texas (offense/offensive line): Wickline is such a distinguished offensive line coach that Strong offered play-calling duties to entice him.

• Sonny Cumbie, TCU (co-offense/quarterbacks): Gary Patterson enlisted the Mike Leach protégé to rev up the Horned Frogs' struggling offense.

STAPLES: Louisville hired Bobby Petrino to win, not because he's changed

THAMEL: USC's Steve Sarkisian talks about rebuilding, facilities and legacy

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