With Texas expected to move on from Charlie Strong, stage is set for robust turn on coaching carousel
One month ago, Texas players carried Charlie Strong off the field after a double-overtime victory against Notre Dame. The upset kicked off Strong's third season in Austin with a signature win and appeared to secure his future with the Longhorns.
A month later, Strong finds himself in a perilous situation for his future at Texas. A high-ranking Texas official said on Sunday night that Strong is "very close" to losing his job at the end of the season after back-to-back road losses to Cal and Oklahoma State. The official said that there will be no move made during the year on Strong. Part of that comes from the fact that there's no logical candidate on the staff to take over the program. Strong announced Monday that defensive coordinator Vance Bedford has been demoted after the Longhorns gave up 99 points the past two games. Strong will take over play calling duties.
Strong is 13–16 overall in his third year in Austin. Texas officials are pleased with how he's recruited and overhauled the program's talent and culture in the wake of the lack of talent and discipline left behind at the end of Mack Brown's tenure. But there are too many details in game management and special teams that the Longhorns have struggled with. Texas getting three extra points blocked in the first half at Oklahoma State on Saturday perpetuated the notion that the Longhorns have failed to pay attention to detail under Strong.
With Strong expected to be gone at the end of this season, the stage is set for one of the most robust coaching carousels in the past decade. There's an expectation that jobs could open at Texas, Auburn, USC and Oregon to join the opening at LSU. (There's still a chance Penn State could move on James Franklin, but athletic director Sandy Barbour made definitive statements to the Altoona Mirror this week that Franklin "is not on the hot seat" and "is going to be our football coach.")
The prospect of five major job openings presents a fascinating next two months in college football. The most puzzling question on the landscape will be who could fill all the high-profile jobs, as there appears to be a lack of candidates qualified to fill positions of that caliber. "There's not five coaches out there that are good enough to fill those jobs with the expectations those schools are going to have," said an industry source.
Here are questions looming over the coaching carousel:
Is Texas or LSU a better job?
Texas is expected to target Houston coach Tom Herman as its top choice. LSU is expected to target both Herman and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. If Herman ends up as the top target for both, it will be fascinating to see which one he chooses. Herman is a former graduate assistant at Texas and has much stronger ties there as opposed to Louisiana. (Herman's coaching path went through Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice.) There are strong arguments for each program, but Herman's experience in the state of Texas and his having spent time at the school would appear to give UT an edge. That's by no means definitive, as there are many variables and positives and negatives at each place.
While both have great tradition and recent national championships, neither is a paragon of stability. When top-tier coaches evaluate where they want to work, they want stable leadership overseeing them.
LSU failed to fire Les Miles last year, despite making an attempt at it, when it was obvious the school should have. Joe Alleva is seen as one of the weaker athletic directors in the SEC, and his future at the school isn't certain in the long term.
Texas has been an administrative mess for years, and there's no immediate end in sight. Athletic director Mike Perrin is a bright man and an accomplished lawyer. But he has no practical athletic department experience and is overmatched in his current job. With Perrin acting as a placeholder, there's been a mad scramble for power under him, which has caused administrative upheaval and congestion that's made it a difficult working environment for coaches. Instead of athletic department employees focused on helping coaches win, there's a feeling at Texas that they are more concerned about their own power.
As Texas prepares for another coaching search, it will be interesting to see whether it makes another run at Oliver Luck, the former West Virginia athletic director who is now a top NCAA official. When Texas hired Steve Patterson in 2013, it had targeted Luck but ended up switching course at the 11th hour. Patterson didn't last two years, a rocky tenure undone by his own mistakes and just how antiquated the athletic department was when he arrived. (An interesting nugget is that Herman has a relationship with Luck from his days at offensive coordinator at Rice when Herman recruited his son, Andrew, to the Owls.)
Both schools are in talent-rich states, but the recruiting edge may go slightly to LSU, only because there's no in-state competition for the best players. Texas can still recruit pretty much whoever it wants, but Texas A&M has emerged as a recruiting juggernaut under Kevin Sumlin. There's much more in-state competition with Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech.
The biggest edge for Texas is that it presents the easier path to the College Football Playoff. (Not having to beat Nick Saban may be the biggest advantage of the job, along with avoiding the rough-and-tumble SEC West.) But being in the Big 12 also means dealing with Big 12 drama. That league's recent history of dysfunction reads like an article from The Onion.
Where do the coaching dominos fall from there?
Let's say for the sake of hypotheticals that Herman goes to Texas and Fisher goes to LSU. That leaves expected openings at Auburn, USC and Oregon. Who would get those jobs? There's no easy answers there. One thing to keep in mind is that most coaching searches are conducted covertly in October and November before the current coach gets fired. This makes the next few months especially intriguing, as there aren't a lot of obvious candidates for high-profile jobs. (And if Fisher stays at Florida State and LSU remains in the market, that further complicates the landscape.)
Auburn: Gus Malzahn is 3–10 in his last 13 SEC games and has lost six of his past seven SEC games at home. It's not a guarantee Auburn fires Malzahn, but it remains an expectation in the industry. The longer one examines the coaching market this year, the easier it is to see former Baylor coach Art Briles getting back in the mix. Auburn is the type of school that could hire Briles, as its administrators want to win bad enough that they'd endure the tidal wave of bad publicity. Another strong name at Auburn is North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, who has SEC experience from three seasons as a Florida assistant and has built a strong program under difficult conditions at UNC.
Auburn faces a unique problem in that it needs to find a coach who can figure out how to build a better program than Alabama's Nick Saban. Good luck.
Oregon: A blowout loss to Washington State feels like the tipping point for Mark Helfrich. It certainly doesn't help matters that Washington is showing signs of burgeoning dominance in the Pac-12 North. The defense is still porous under new coordinator Brady Hoke. The two-point conversion strategy against Nebraska was embarrassing. And, most importantly, the once mystical Ducks offense has become pedestrian. There are so few obvious coaches out West that it's hard to come up with a list for Oregon. Chip Kelly would be its first and obvious target. After that, it's tricky to compile names. (The guess here is that Chris Petersen isn't going to leave what he's building at Washington, even for a Phil Knight blank check.) Would Fedora leave his geographic comfort zone? Would Boise's Bryan Harsin get a peek? UCF's Scott Frost, a former Duck assistant, probably isn't ready yet. This job stands out most when pondering the lack of obvious available names.
USC: As USC tries recapture its glory by hiring people with ties to USC, the glory slips further way. USC continued this vicious cycle by promoting Clay Helton last year. While it's not a certainty the school will fire Helton, it would be a surprise if it didn't at this point. There's little evidence he can lead USC back to the top echelon of college football. The tenor of losses to Alabama and Stanford offered little in the form of hope, and the squandered lead at Utah was disheartening. At 2–3, a drastic turnaround is needed.
Here's another issue for the Trojans: There's little evidence that new athletic director Lynn Swann and school administrators can hire a coach capable of reviving the school's glory days. USC's unwavering faith in USC keeps undermining the school. There's no obvious favorites for this job, as names like Kelly, Ohio State assistant Greg Schiano (he interviewed last year) and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham would emerge.
No easy answers here, either.
Which smaller-school coaches could emerge?
One of the interesting trends last year was that established schools like Georgia and USC hired assistant coaches. Helton's faceplant at USC and Kirby Smart's early struggles at Georgia may steer athletic directors away from that direction. It's a big leap, especially at the highest levels.
After Herman, the next best head coach in the Group of Five ranks are Harsin at Boise State, P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan and Jeff Brohm at Western Kentucky. Are any of them ready to make the jump?
Harsin capped a sparkling 12–2 season in 2014 with a Fiesta Bowl victory. Boise struggled by Boise standards by going 9–4 last year. With victories over Washington State and Oregon State already this season, the Broncos appear to have regained their dominance. Harsin will be patient, as he's a Boise native and graduate and has the best job in that league. He can afford to be picky.
Fleck has turned Western Michigan from one of the worst jobs in college football to a top-25 team. The program earned its first-ever national ranking this week, coming in at No. 25 in the Amway Coaches Poll. Western received it after winning at Northwestern and Illinois earlier this season and blowing out MAC rival Central Michigan this weekend. Fleck's pitch will be as someone who can bring a culture change, as his high energy and relentlessly positive style have transformed the school. Fleck turned down interest from several Power Five schools last year, and he appears poised to make a leap this year.
Brohm is 23–9 in three seasons at Western Kentucky. He's also in no rush to leave, as he's yet to hire an agent and turned down opportunities to speak with schools last year so he could focus on the Conference USA title game. Brohm has plenty of money from a long NFL playing career and is a Kentucky native, so he's willing to be patient. His offensive acumen and seamless transition to becoming a head coach make him attractive.
Who else from there? South Florida's Willie Taggart could make a move with another strong season. Matt Wells at Utah State is still highly regarded out West. Temple's Matt Rhule is the top young coach in the Northeast, but no job of significance may open up in that footprint. Memphis's Mike Norvell has acclimated to head coaching quickly. Scott Satterfield at Appalachian State is well regarded in coaching circles.