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  • As every new hire becomes official, we're grading how it went down and what it means for the immediate future of the programs switching head men.
By Joan Niesen
December 05, 2018

College football has come to the busiest part of its calender that doesn’t immediately involve real football: Everyone is prepping for signing day, good teams are getting ready for bowl games, bad teams are hiring coaches, and some unlucky teams are getting ready for bowl games while hiring coaches. This year’s hiring season has been marked by surprises (Urban Meyer’s retirement), the return of one of the game’s most popular personas (Les Miles at Kansas) and several 30-somethings getting their first chances at a top gig. So far, 20 jobs have come open, and as each one is filled, we’ll be grading them here on five criteria that receive scores between 1 (the worst) and 5 (the best) that are averaged:

• Splash quotient: Looking at the reaction to the hire from media, fans, players, anyone. Did people like it, hate it, even realize it happened?

• Geography: We’re talking recruiting, connections (be it to the school, the region, the conference), anything that might make a coach fit in culturally.

• Stylistic fit: How smooth will the transition be to this coach’s system? How much does his system make sense given his new school’s recent identity?

• Execution: This takes into account the ease and professionalism with which each program made its hire. Was there drama? Miscommunications? Civic unrest?

• Instant impact: How safely can this team expect to be significantly better than it was this year—or, for the best teams on the list, at the same elite level—in the near future?

Keep in mind that these hires are graded on somewhat of a curve; just because a smaller school has no chance of landing the biggest fish on the market doesn’t mean it can’t land above a Power 5 program in these rankings for making the best hire possible given its means. With that, let’s get into the grades, starting with this year’s best hire.

Georgia Tech: Geoff Collins (4.2 out of 5)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 4
Instant impact: 4

Paul Johnson’s flexbone is likely a thing of the past—but Georgia Tech under Collins will likely run a spread offense with elements of the triple option sprinkled in, still getting the most out of the Yellow Jackets’ skill players while also going a bit more mainstream (which should help open up the recruiting pool). But Collins—who spent four years at Tech from 1999–2001 and again in 2006 and is familiar with the team and its landscape—is a defensive coach, and his new team desperately needs a makeover on that side of the ball.

Ohio State: Ryan Day (4.0 out of 5)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

The splash came when Urban Meyer announced his retirement—Day’s promotion from offensive coordinator was an afterthought by comparison. Ohio State may be going from one of the winningest coaches in college football history to a 39-year-old with a 3–0 record as an interim, but it’s still loaded with talent and has proven it can contend for championships no matter who’s in charge. Day passed the interim test with flying colors during Meyer’s September suspension, and he’s been the man behind the Buckeyes’ excellent offense for the past two seasons. It may be time for some fresh perspective in Columbus, and Day will bring that—without too much of a seismic shift from the system that has won back-to-back Big Ten titles.

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Texas Tech: Matt Wells (4.0 out of 5)

Splash quotient: 4
Geography: 3
Stylistic fit: 5
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

In 2018, the Red Raiders averaged 484.3 yards per game; Wells’s last Utah State team averaged 493.8. He’s a perfect fit for Texas Tech, which will retain its offensive identity under new coordinator David Yost but also needs a major overhaul on defense that it may not get under Keith Patterson, who captained a good unit at Utah State this year but faces a much taller task slowing down Big 12 offenses. Sitll, mere competence on that side of the ball would represent an upgrade.

Western Kentucky: Tyson Helton (4.0 out of 5)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 4

Under Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky went 8–5, then 12–2, then 11–3. In the two years under Mike Sanford after Purdue hired Brohm away, the Hilltoppers won six and then three games. Helton is a callback to better times; he was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Brohm’s first two years in Bowling Green, so he knows the program and the style of play that led to its success. From there, Helton spent two years coaching Sam Darnold at USC and last year as Tennessee’s OC. It hasn’t been long since the Hilltoppers were relevant, so Helton could get them back there somewhat quickly.

Louisville: Scott Satterfield (3.8)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 4
Instant impact: 4

Satterfield may have been Louisville’s second choice after Jeff Brohm turned his alma mater down, but that doesn’t mean Cardinals AD Vince Tyra didn’t make a great hire. Having led Appalachian State through its FCS-to-FBS transition, Satterfield is proficient in doing a lot with very little (and Louisville’s current roster situation is the epitome of very little), and he’s also proven to be an exceptional talent evaluator, never making much of a recruiting splash but continually fielding one of the Group of Five’s best teams. It’s going to take a minute for Louisville to regain its foothold in an ACC where Clemson has a chokehold on the top spot and other traditionally strong teams look better poised to rebound. Still, the Cardinals are headed in the right direction.

North Carolina: Mack Brown (3.6)

Splash quotient: 4
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 2

Brown’s name means something in North Carolina, where he coached from 1988 to ’97 and took the Tar Heels from one-win seasons in his first two years to 10 wins in his final two. He has always been an ace recruiter, and even now, in his late 60s, that should still hold true. That said, he’s been out of the coaching game for five years, and his time at Texas didn’t exactly end on great terms. North Carolina has had plenty of talent on its roster in recent years, but Larry Fedora wasn’t able to make the most of it toward the end, and that’ll be Brown’s test, too.

Central Michigan: Jim McElwain (3.6)

Splash quotient: 2
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 4
Instant impact: 3

Geographically, this makes sense: McElwain has spent the past season getting familiar with the state of Michigan as the Wolverines’ wide receivers coach. Still, the former Florida head man has a tough job ahead of him; the Chippewas won one game—against an FCS team—in 2018. This may be a slower rebuild, but McElwain has taken a Group of Five team out of purgatory before during his three-year run at Colorado State.

Kansas: Les Miles (3.6)

Splash quotient: 5
Geography: 2
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

Hiring Miles was about the splashiest thing Kansas could have done, considering the coaches available this year—even if it may not be the most prudent move long-term. Turning around the Big 12’s worst program after so many years in the SEC is going to be an adjustment, and recruiting will be an entirely different challenge than it was at LSU with the stink that has attached itself to Jayhawk football. Miles, whose rosters in Baton Rouge were stocked with NFL talent that didn’t always line up with the on-field results, will now have to seek out under-recruited players and maximize their production. David Beaty left the program in a much better spot than it was when he took over, which may ease the Mad Hatter’s transition.

Texas State: Jake Spavital (3.6)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 4
Instant impact: 3

Spavital is one of the best young offensive minds in the game, and he’s worked with one of the country’s best offenses the past two seasons at West Virginia. He also has Texas ties after working on Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M staff as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Texas State only joined the FBS in ’12 and hasn’t had a winning season since ’14, so the improvement from this fall’s three-win campaign will be gradual. Still, the Bobcats need an offensive overhaul after mustering just 19.8 points per game last year, and Spavital should be able to get that turnaround started quickly.

Utah State: Gary Andersen (3.4)

Splash quotient: 4
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 3
Instant impact: 2

Andersen was a comfortable choice for Utah State; he coached the Aggies from 2009–12, and his success there was a springboard to his first Power 5 head-coaching job at Wisconsin. He’s spent 18 years of his career in the state of Utah, so he’ll be walking back into familiar territory, but Andersen isn’t exactly coming off a great showing as a head coach. In 2018, he was Utah’s associate head coach and defensive assistant, but prior to that, he went a combined 7–23 at Oregon State from 2015–17. Maybe the Utah State gig, in a spot where Andersen is comfortable and with a strong roster that went 10–2 in 2018, is an easier landing spot; there’s no rebuild here, and all Anderson needs to do is stay the course for one of the Group of Five’s most talented teams this season. 

Maryland: Mike Locksley (3.4)

Splash quotient: 2
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 2
Instant impact: 4

Maryland has a lot going for it with this hire. Locksley spent two stints a decade apart in College Park as an assistant prior to DJ Durkin’s tenure, he’s one of the most respected recruiters of the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area and he has a ton of support from Maryland boosters and local fans. On top of that, he will arrive on campus in a full-time capacity only after leading the best offense Alabama has fielded under Nick Saban into the College Football Playoff. Maryland has some talent in place, but after a season of tragedy and administrative instability, it’s ready for a fresh start. In his first and only head coaching job at New Mexico from 2009 to ’11, Locksley was accused of age and sex discrimination (all legal claims were resolved) and served a one-game suspension for punching an assistant. This is not to say he doesn’t deserve a second chance after a nearly a decade, but Maryland would have been forgiven for hiring someone with as clean of a record as possible after the year it has endured.

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East Carolina: Mike Houston (3.4)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 5
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 2
Instant impact: 3

Houston was hired at East Carolina on Monday after a bizarre few days for both him and his new school; the former James Madison coach was lined up to take the Charlotte job last week before his eye was drawn to ECU, which fired Scottie Montgomery two days before its regular-season finale against NC State. The Pirates are still reeling from the bizarre termination of Ruffin McNeill after the 2015 season, and Montgomery never got things rolling after being hired away from David Cutcliffe’s Duke staff. Houston has been wildly successful at college football’s lower levela, with an 80–25 record as a head coach and a 2016 FCS title at James Madison, and he also has deep ties to the state of North Carolina and the Mid-Atlantic region.

Colorado: Mel Tucker (3.4)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 2
Stylistic fit: 4
Execution: 4
Instant impact: 4

Colorado took a few days to make it official with Tucker, but the delay was worth it for a low-hype but potentially high-return hire. Coaching and recruiting in the Pac-12 will be an adjustment for a coach who has spent most of his career in the SEC or the NFL, but snagging a branch off the Nick Saban coaching tree is no small victory for Colorado, which lost its final seven games of 2018. Tucker’s defense this year at Georgia was No. 13 in the FBS in yards allowed, and he’ll be an instant upgrade on that side of the ball. It’ll be fascinating to see who he can snag to run the Buffs’ offense, which struggled once injuries slowed down do-everything wideout Laviska Shenault.

Charlotte: Will Healy (3.2)

Splash quotient: 2
Geography: 4
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 3
Instant impact: 4

If this hire had been made a year ago, after Healy had taken Austin Peay to an 8–4 record after the Governors won just one game between 2014 and ’16, it might have been met with more fanfare. Healy’s Governors were 5–6 this year, but five wins at Austin Peay is still remarkable. The 33-year-old Healy got the job after East Carolina drew Mike Houston’s eye, and he is a more than acceptable second choice for a program still establishing its identity; its five-win season this year was its best in four seasons of FBS ball.

UMass: Walt Bell (3.0)

Splash quotient: 2
Geography: 2
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 5
Instant impact: 3

Bell, 34, marks a bit of a 180 for UMass, which had spent the past five seasons under the direction of 61-year-old Mark Whipple. Bell doesn’t exactly come to the Minutemen riding recent success after coordinating Florida State’s disastrous offense in 2018, but before that, his units at Maryland and Arkansas State had been high-scoring ones. Bell is a strong recruiter, and that will be a key facet of his value to an independent that has not won more than four games since rejoining the FBS in 2012.

Bowling Green: Scot Loeffler (3.0)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 3
Stylistic fit: 3
Execution: 3
Instant impact: 3

Loeffler, a first-time head coach who was Boston College’s offensive coordinator from 2016 to ’18, has hammered home his desire to hire an exceptional staff, and so far, he’s retained defensive coordinator Carl Pelini and brought back Terry Malone, who was an assistant at Bowling Green from 1986 to ’95 and will take over as offensive coordinator. That continuity will be key, because Loeffler’s résumé doesn’t exactly portend a quick turnaround for a program that hasn’t had a winning season since Dino Babers was coach in 2015. Loeffler has worked under some of the biggest names in the business, including Frank Beamer, Urban Meyer and Lloyd Carr, but his uninspiring coordinator stints at Virginia Tech and Auburn did not endear him to fans. Boston College averaged 32 points per game this year, but before AJ Dillon showed up in Chestnut Hill, Eagles fans had grown similarly tired of Loeffler’s punchless offenses.

Liberty: Hugh Freeze (2.8)

Splash quotient: 3
Geography: 3
Stylistic fit: 2
Execution: 3
Instant impact: 3

Freeze is barely more than a year removed from leaving something close to scorched earth behind him at Ole Miss: rampant NCAA violations, sanctions and a laundry list of uncouth actions in his personal life. But thanks to the cheating he was more than happy to employ, Ole Miss got some good recruits, and it got good, and it beat Alabama—twice. That was enough for Liberty, the Christian university that joined the FBS right around the time Freeze was ousted. It got a big name, but one with a recent track record for ravaging the program he coached in an effort to win. Maybe Liberty thinks he can coach it to something like relevance, but there’s little evidence he’ll do so without at least bending the rules.

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