When I examined college football's destination jobs two years ago, Ohio State was in the highest echelon. If it wasn't the best job in America, it was a close second. So where is it now? Here's a hint: It will take a lot to make that job less desirable.
In compiling this list of America's best coaching jobs, I considered a few factors. Most important was proximity to recruits. Schools located in recruiting hotbeds have a prohibitive advantage over schools that must travel the nation to find players. Obviously, that isn't the only factor. If it were, South Florida coach Skip Holtz would have the best job in America. It also matters how recruits view a school. For example, Texas, Ohio State, Georgia and LSU got significant points because recruits consider them the dominant programs in their heavily stocked states. Conference affiliation matters as well. SEC and Big Ten programs generally have more money to spend, while Big 12 and Pac-12 programs are catching up thanks to their new television deals. I also considered how well the schools pay their coaches -- and their assistants -- and how programs make and spend money. Tradition factored in, and so did fan/booster support. Of course, if fans are a little too passionate and turn the job into a pressure-cooker, that might make a gig a little less desirable.
Remember, this isn't a ranking of the actual on-field product. If your favorite team is good and isn't on this list, it means your team's coach is excellent. If your team is on this list and isn't good, it means your team might need to hire a new coach soon. This is a ranking of which jobs, if they opened, would draw the most interest from coaches because they allow the greatest opportunity for success. Whether coaches take advantage of that opportunity is entirely up to them.
Forget the Longhorns' record last year and remember this: If Mack Brown retired tomorrow, the agent for every coach in America would feverishly dial numbers in the 512 area code. Texas has the wealthiest athletic program in America. According to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, the Longhorns raked in $461.6 million in revenue the past five school years, including a whopping $143.6 million in the 2009-2010 school year. The numbers will only rise after Texas launches its own TV network. The Longhorns have their annual pick of recruits from the state that produces more BCS conference signees than any state besides Florida, where Florida, Florida State and Miami have jockeyed for top position for decades. Texas essentially runs a major conference. Obviously, the coach at Texas is under tremendous pressure to win, but he has the most tools at his disposal to win big every year.
Yes, the NCAA might still come down hard on the Buckeyes for the rules violated during the Jim Tressel era. Short of the Death Penalty, which won't happen, that shouldn't scare away anyone from applying for the job. (It might, but it shouldn't.) Consider this: Miami won a national title in 2001, a little more than five years after it received crippling sanctions from the NCAA. Alabama won a national title in 2009, seven years after receiving crippling sanctions from the NCAA. Ohio State is in better position to bounce back than either of those two programs, regardless of what the NCAA does. Ohio State owns a state loaded with excellent players. As an added bonus, many of those recruits come from high schools with small college-quality coaching. Ohio State enjoys a recruiting advantage no other Big Ten school -- with the possible exception of Penn State -- can duplicate. As any reporter covering the recent scandal knows, the fan base's passion is unmatched by anyone outside the state of Alabama. The program brings in more money than everyone but Texas ($451.9 million over the past five years), so the coach essentially has a blank check for facilities and staffing needs. When Ohio State officials go in search of a new coach in 2012, they should have no shortage of willing candidates -- no matter how severe the NCAA's sanctions.
In terms of pay, access to recruits, fan support and all the other factors used to determine the best jobs, Oklahoma isn't much different from the SEC schools ranked just below it. So why is Oklahoma ranked higher? Because it isn't in the SEC. Beat Texas, and chances are high that you'll compete for the Big 12 and national titles. Bob Stoops has proved that by winning the conference seven of the past 11 years and playing for the BCS title four times.
The forthcoming cavalcade of SEC schools probably should be listed as 4a-4d, but my bosses won't let me have a four-way tie. So the SEC East's best jobs get a slight nod over the SEC West's best jobs only because the competition doesn't seem so cutthroat in the East. You're only supposed to win the national title every other year at Florida or Georgia; at LSU and Alabama, you're supposed to win the national title every year. Sure, Florida has to compete with Florida State and Miami for recruits, but there is plenty of talent in the Sunshine State to go around. The state of Florida produces more talent than any other, and the University of Florida is the flagship university and the only SEC member within a 10-hour drive of the extremely fertile grounds on the southern end of the state.
Want to know why Mark Richt is on the hot seat despite six seasons with at least 10 wins since 2001? Because Georgia has the resources to be in the national title hunt every season. The Bulldogs just finished a major football facility upgrade, and they play in one of the nation's iconic stadiums. They have plenty of money. In terms of recruit preference, the Bulldogs rule a state that cranks out 90-100 BCS AQ-conference signees each year. Theoretically, Georgia should have its pick of those players, but Bulldogs coaches can't always stop Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and Florida State from cherry-picking some of the state's top recruits. Unlike Florida or Alabama, which must fight off in-state rivals, Georgia recruits on a different level than Georgia Tech. The situation is more comparable to Texas and Texas A&M, which is why Georgia fans had a right to be dismayed that the Bulldogs had to win last year's installment of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate just to pull even with the Yellow Jackets at 6-6 on the regular season. (Never mind the Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida.) Put simply, this is a great job for Richt if he can return to his early 2000s dominance. If Richt can't, the right choice can come in and win big in Athens.
LSU edges Alabama because of only one factor. Alabama must fight Auburn for the best recruits in the state of Alabama. LSU has to fight no one for the best recruits in talent-rich Louisiana. Sure, out-of-state schools occasionally try to swoop in, but just as Ohio children grow up wanting to be Buckeyes and Georgia children grow up wanting to be Bulldogs, Louisiana children grow up wanting to be Tigers. Other than that, LSU and Alabama are about the same. Both programs rake in the cash and play in massive stadiums before deafening crowds. And in both places, if the coach can't keep his team in the hunt for the national title every year, people will start clamoring for a coach who will.
In the 2009-10 school year, Alabama finished second to Texas in total revenue ($129.3 million), and the school opened an addition to Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2010 that raised capacity above 100,000. No fan base in America cares more about its football team, which can cut both ways for a coach. Win a national title and get a statue. Don't win a national title and get run out of town.
Penn State is the last of the true destination jobs on this list. Any coach who has one of the jobs already listed would not voluntarily leave for another job unless he just always wanted to coach at his alma mater or in Hawaii. Why is Penn State in this group? The school could pay a fat salary, but Joe Paterno hasn't requested one. More important, the Nittany Lions have the best Q-rating of all the schools in a huge swath of recruit-rich territory. Their hunting grounds include all of Pennsylvania and the Eastern Seaboard from the District of Columbia to New York. In the Big Ten, only Ohio State has a firmer grip on a talent-rich area. If Paterno ever decides to hang up his black shoes, almost every coach in the country will want this job.
Auburn falls below the dead-heat SEC quartet above for one reason. Because the Tigers historically are the Red Sox to Alabama's Yankees, the Crimson Tide have the initial edge in most in-state recruiting fights. This edge isn't insurmountable, though. Auburn also is only a short drive from talent-rich Atlanta, but those players have to be wrestled away from Georgia and Tennessee. Auburn doesn't bring in quite as much money as Alabama, but the Tigers still have cash to burn. They can pay a handsome salary and have plenty left over to pay offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn $1.3 million a year to turn down the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. This is critical, and it is a common factor among all the schools listed so far. Any school willing to shell out for quality assistants is serious about winning.
Oregon is an oddity on this list. It has no natural recruiting ground. It has a 60,000-seat stadium. It has a relatively small alumni base compared to the monstrous bases in the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC. But it has an X-factor the other schools don't: It's the University of Nike. That means something to high school football stars. I may think the uniforms are hideous, but I'm not a 17-year-old. All that Nike money continues to give Oregon an edge in the facilities department as well. Last year, Oregon unveiled plans to turn the Len Casanova Center -- which is pretty nice as currently constituted -- into an absolute palace. The Swoosh is the most powerful brand in sports, and Nike founder Phil Knight's support of his alma mater makes the Oregon job one of the nation's most desirable even if the school doesn't fit the profile of a traditional power.
Even in the midst of some of the harshest sanctions the NCAA has handed down since SMU got the Death Penalty and lost its 1987 season, this job makes the list. Why? Because USC sits in a recruiting gold mine, and because a player on an official visit can look up from the practice field and see the Hollywood sign. One reason this job has dropped since two years ago is that competition will be tougher in the Pac-12 because of the rise of Oregon and because the league's new television contract will allow schools to spend on salary and facilities like their counterparts in the SEC and Big Ten. Before, USC had a serious funding advantage over its conference peers. That gap is closing. But once the Trojans are back to 85 scholarships, they should have the talent to contend for the conference title every season. They also should climb back up this list.
Everyone in Ann Arbor seems to be behind Brady Hoke, which is the only reason this job -- which probably would have ranked near the top five 10 years ago -- is this high on the list. When Rich Rodriguez held the job, it didn't seem as if all those in maize and blue pulled in the same direction. A perceived lack of internal support might have scared away some candidates. But it appears Hoke will get the support he needs. Hoke knows he is at a special place. Michigan doesn't have the recruiting base of an Ohio State, a Penn State or an SEC power, but it has a dedicated fan base and the resources to draw recruits from other parts of the country. Michigan didn't become the sport's winningest program by accident.
Even though Notre Dame hasn't truly been a national title contender for two decades, the job remains one of the best in college football. The Fighting Irish will pay a coach handsomely. Of course, boosters and fans expect results. Notre Dame has no local recruiting base, but it has a natural in with players at every Catholic high school in America. It also has its own network TV deal, which doesn't mean as much as it used to but still brings cachet. Notre Dame's academic standards are tougher than the schools listed above, and that will always mean the Irish will draw from a smaller pool of recruits than the rest. Despite that, this remains a plum job that will draw big-name candidates whenever it opens.
Jimbo Fisher may just turn this into a destination job again. It sits this low because the fan/booster base was lulled to sleep at the end of the Bobby Bowden era. Upon his ascension to the big chair, Fisher immediately went into fundraising mode. He convinced boosters to chip in, and he quickly bulked up Florida State's academic support, strength and nutrition programs. The recruits have flocked as well. Because of the school's location, FSU's coach has to work a little harder than Florida's coach. Tallahassee is at the northern edge of the state, so players from Central and South Florida have to drive right through Gainesville on the way to FSU's campus. The Seminoles are closer to many players in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, but they have to fight to get those players out of their home states. That said, coaches at most schools would volunteer a limb to have as many quality players within 300 miles of campus.
The Cornhuskers don't have a natural recruiting base, but they do have money, great facilities and cachet. Nebraska football still means something. The Cornhuskers should have just as much success getting players from California, Texas and Florida to come play in the Big Ten as they did getting them to play in the Big 12. Coach Bo Pelini is smart enough to know that the Cornhuskers can play at a high level provided they don't try to run a pro-style offense. There are plenty of versatile athletes who don't quite fit the mold that the powers in their states seek, and Pelini and his staff can convince those players to come to Nebraska and be rock stars in a state that lives and breathes Big Red football.
In 2009-10, nine athletic departments broke the $100 million revenue barrier. You've already read about eight of them. Why would an SEC program with 10-figure department revenue and a 100,000-plus stadium slip this low? Because Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has to work so much harder than his rivals to get recruits. The state of Tennessee produces some players, but its geography tends to breed mixed loyalties. Most of the best players are in Memphis, which is a six-hour drive from Knoxville. Players there grow up hearing as much or more about Ole Miss and Arkansas. Nashville is more of a Big Orange stronghold, but out-of-state schools have been known to slip in and pluck players. Tennessee is at its best when it can dip into Atlanta (three hours away) and pull players, but when good coaches sit at Georgia and Auburn, that's a tough assignment.
In terms of proximity to players, Virginia might be a better job than Virginia Tech. But coach Frank Beamer has done such a good job convincing players from the stocked Tidewater area to come to Blacksburg that he has effectively negated any geographic disadvantage. Virginia Tech also can dip down into North Carolina, which has an underrated high school football culture that routinely produces great players. Virginia Tech would be higher on this list but for its revenue. The fan base is excellent, and Lane Stadium offers an intimidating home-field advantage, but Virginia Tech consistently ranks in the bottom half of BCS AQ-conference schools in revenue. The Hokies are quite competitive on the field, but Texas, Ohio State and the SEC powers are playing an entirely different game on the balance sheet.
If a coach can get a player to visit the campus in Tempe, he has a chance. City kids will feel comfortable in the suburb of a huge metropolis, and most will realize quickly that Arizona State is about as close to collegiate paradise as it gets. Of course, like the trendiest restaurants, the Sun Devils should be able to use local produce more and more as the years pass. Though growth has slowed, the population of Phoenix exploded in the past two decades. Sports culture needs time to take root, but every year the area produces more quality players. Add in the fact that the Pac-12's new TV deal will increase funding dramatically, and this job looks quite a bit better than it did a few years ago. Of course, there is a flip side to this. If the new TV deal allows Arizona State to shell out more money for a coach, that coach had better win. After a 10-win debut in 2007, Dennis Erickson has lost at least six games each of the past three seasons. That won't cut it in the new era.
It seems as if Wildcats athletic director Greg Byrne tweets every other day about a new, anonymous multimillion-dollar donation to the program. The figures have been so impressive that Bryan Fischer of CBSSports.com wondered aloud whether Mr. Anonymous has any unmarried daughters who wouldn't mind supporting a sportswriter. The Pac-12's new TV deal should boost Arizona into the top half of the AQ revenue bracket, and the same emerging set of players that should help Arizona State also should help stock Arizona. Just as in Tempe, this influx of resources will make the coach's job easier and more difficult at the same time.
Despite the obvious differences in conference and culture, the school on this list Oklahoma State most resembles is Oregon. Both schools have smallish, passionate fan bases bolstered by one loaded sugar daddy who has poured in enough cash to revolutionize the program. Oregon has Knight and Oklahoma State has energy magnate T. Boone Pickens. The Knight connection probably intrigues more recruits because high school students consider Pro Combat jerseys and Air Jordans cooler than oil futures and wind farms, but Pickens' money spends just as well as Knight's. In 2009, Oklahoma State unveiled a palatial facility funded almost entirely by Pickens. So why is Oklahoma State ranked 10 spots below Oregon? Because Oregon has made itself the Pac-12's "it" program, while Oklahoma State has the misfortune of annually clashing with Texas and Oklahoma for recruits and prestige.