Welcome to the start of Speculation Season, where upcoming hirings and firings around college football become almost as intriguing as the sport itself. Florida’s inept performance in its 42-13 home loss to Missouri last Saturday night pushed Will Muschamp’s firing from likely to definite. He joins soon-to-be-ousted Michigan coach Brady Hoke in waiting for his walking papers. The Michigan and Florida jobs will drive a market that already includes four open jobs -- SMU, Troy, Kansas and Buffalo.
Here’s an early look at the potential hires and fires around the nation, with an attempt to separate perception from reality. (Information comes from interviews with agents, athletic directors, coaches and various other sources.)
Perception: This should be easy, right? Athletic director Jeremy Foley will tab former Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen as his next head coach. Mullen has led Mississippi State to the No. 1 ranking, and he’d bring to Gainesville many of the things Muschamp lacks -- extensive SEC head coaching experience, a distinguished offensive pedigree and polish with the media. (There was even a hiredanmullen.com, until Mullen spoke out against it.)
Reality: It’s much more complicated. It would be considered a major surprise if Foley even calls Mullen. Foley advised Mullen against taking the Mississippi State job when he left Florida in December 2008 (considering the century of bad football in Starkville that probably wasn’t bad advice). The two don’t have a bad relationship, but its more neutral than chummy. Foley hiring Mullen would be an admission that he made a mistake in overlooking him last time. The Florida brass would also likely have to welcome back Mullen’s co-offensive coordinators, Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy, neither of whom exited Florida on the greatest terms (Gonzales bolted for LSU and Hevesy left with Mullen for Mississippi State. So did operations guru Jon Clark, who would surely come along). The feeling here is that if Mullen ends up getting hired, it happens because someone from the outside pressures Foley. So that means it’s unlikely.
Mullen wasn’t exactly beloved during his time at Florida, as fans called for his job and administrators were ambivalent. Foley isn’t itching for a tie to the Urban Meyer era, either. Some of this comes down to Foley’s ego and whether he can swallow his pride. The guess from almost every corner is that Mullen won’t get the job.
Perception: In the watered-down SEC East, Florida’s a quick fix.
Reality: Florida could easily be back atop the East in two years if it makes the right hire and finds a competent quarterback. But the Gators have coasted on the notion that “It’s Florida” for too long. That certainly worked when Tim Tebow was gashing defenses and Meyer led the Gators to national titles in 2006 and ‘08. But Florida has failed to keep up in the facility game. Florida’s stadium is iconic, but the rest of its football facilities are considered from pedestrian to poor by SEC standards. Florida upgraded its practice fields this summer, but it still lacks the type of gaudy stand-alone football facility, with indoor space, that have become commonplace in the SEC. Florida is looking into whether to build an indoor facility to catch up to its SEC peers, but nothing has been formalized. Foley is one of the best athletic directors in America, but this is one of the areas where he’s missed.
Who is next? Expect Foley to make another run at Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops. But there’s nothing to indicate Stoops will take the job this time. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is an intriguing candidate, but Foley is plugged in enough to have concerns about reports that the NCAA is looking into the Rebels program.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has the offensive ingenuity and head coaching success to fit in Gainesville, but the low-key Rodriguez and hard-driving Foley seem like an odd couple. Rodriguez’s success recruiting Florida while at West Virginia would be a plus, but he’d likely need a staff upgrade. It’s debatable if he’d do that.
Perception: Jim Harbaugh has worn out his welcome in San Francisco. He’ll return home to Michigan as a savior, and the program is desperate enough for a winner that it will endure his, um, quirks. (Or maybe Les Miles will be a candidate again; he went to Michigan, too).
Reality: The industry consensus is that Harbaugh won’t be back in San Francisco. Those close to Harbaugh insist that he likes the NFL and his wife enjoys the Bay Area. A return to college hasn’t been ruled out, but it appears unlikely. There are two scenarios more likely than Michigan. One is that the Raiders overpay him to go there, with Harbaugh using Michigan as leverage. He’d also be in play for the Miami Dolphins job if Joe Philbin is fired. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is a Michigan alum and huge benefactor. (Oddly, the 49ers don’t want him to get a college job, as he still has a year left on his contract and could lure some value in an NFL trade scenario like the one the Browns dangled last year).
Miles turns 61 in November. From his questionable clock management to his occasionally tortured offenses, very few people think Miles has won in Baton Rouge because of great coaching. Could Miles recruit the same caliber of players to Michigan as he has at LSU? Unlikely.
Perception: Michigan is a place of higher standards and integrity, sticking its nose up at lesser schools.
Reality: Michigan right now looks like another big-time athletic department gone adrift with overwhelmed leadership, a flailing coach and bungling public relations. Michigan’s handling of Shane Morris’ concussion situation came straight from the Julie Hermann p.r. playbook, highlighting the fissures in an already dysfunctional athletic department.
Michigan has made two consecutive poor football hires, and the scariest part is there’s no indication that the Wolverines have the leadership in place to avoid whiffing again. Athletic director Dave Brandon is a “50-50 shot” to survive, according to a source. If he does, how much say will he have in the hire? Football coaches look at the athletic director and president when evaluating a job. Brandon is on thin ice. New president Mark Schlissel, a former Brown provost, is inexperienced in big-time athletics. That’s not exactly an appetizing combination.
Who is next? Hard to say, because we really don’t know who will be making the hire. There are less logical names than at Florida once you cross Miles and the Harbaughs off the list. (There’s even less chance John Harbaugh comes.)
“There’s not a hot mid-major guy that you have to have and go out and hire,” said an industry source. “There’s no Urban Meyer at Utah or Kevin Sumlin at Houston or Brian Kelly at Cincinnati. You can go through the list. There’s not a guy out there like that this year.”
Mullen will be atop Michigan’s list, but don’t rule out him staying in Starkville. The college football world is flatter than it used to be thanks to television money, as a program like Mississippi State wouldn’t have been able to vault to No. 1 a decade ago. There’s more stability, better leadership and snazzier facilities in Starkville than in Ann Arbor. (Quick, someone get the Michigan Men smelling salts). Mullen is happy with what he’s built there, and the SEC television money will allow Mississippi State to increase his $3 million-a-year salary. History says Mullen should leave, as there’s a century worth of data that would nudge him to a higher-profile job. But there is also a chance he stays, which could encourage star quarterback Dak Prescott to return for his senior year.
The other logical Michigan candidate is former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who turned down the job in 2007 and was fired in Tampa Bay last year. Pete Carroll, Nick Saban and Jim Mora Jr. are all proof that NFL failures aren’t accurate indicators of collegiate success. Schiano’s sterling academic record and power football roots could be attractive.
Jerry Kill would be a wonderful fit in Ann Arbor, as all he’s done is win at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and now Minnesota. Kill’s epilepsy, which caused him to miss a handful of weeks during the 2013 season, could hurt his candidacy.
After that, there are not a lot of obvious names. One wildcard scenario is that Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long takes the AD job if it opens and brings Bret Bielema with him. Other AD candidates could include UConn’sWarde Manuel and Boston College’s Brad Bates.
Perception: The empty seats, mediocre record and restless alumni will lead to the end of Al Golden’s tenure in Coral Gables.
Reality: Yes, we know. Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest have all played for the ACC title since the league expanded in 2005. Miami has not. Miami needs a major overhaul, and it’s unlikely that Golden is the guy to get it done. He’s a bad fit there, and he has to regret not taking the Wisconsin job two years ago. One intriguing industry theory was that Golden would beat the posse this year and go to Virginia, where he had a successful stint as an defensive coordinator from 2001 through '05. But UVA coach Mike London appears to have saved his job, and Golden seemingly hasn’t won enough to gain traction at Michigan.
The bottom line is that Miami president Donna Shalala will step down at the end of the school year. She’s unlikely to ditch Golden on her way out, especially because he soldiered through the dismal Nevin Shapiro scandal. With Golden’s contract running through the 2019 season, it’s also unlikely that the cash-strapped school can afford to jettison him. Look for Golden to stick around for another year.
SMU: The short list appears to be Clemson’s Chad Morris, Ohio State’s Tom Herman and Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel. Names like East Carolina’s Lincoln Riley, Rice’s David Bailiff and Arizona State’s Mike Norvell could join the list. They’ll be some retread buzz like Mack Brown and Houston Nutt, but that will be more to pacify boosters.
Tulsa hasn’t opened yet, but it will essentially have the same list once it does. Could get interesting as these two AAC schools fight over candidates.
Best guess? Herman for SMU and Morris for Tulsa.
KANSAS: The Jayhawks want to give interim coach Clint Bowen every shot possible. But he needs to win two games, and that probably won’t happen. Ohio State’s Ed Warinner, the top assistant during the Mangino glory years, will get a long look. So will Texas A&M’s David Beaty and Nebraska’s Tim Beck, who also have experience in Lawrence. Rice’s Bailiff could be a good fit here, and he’s beaten Kansas twice. Kansas needs someone who won’t complain about having to do more with less. If things continue to go sideways at N.C. State, maybe Dave Doeren beats the posse here? He’s from Kansas and a former Mangino assistant.
Best guess? Too early to tell. AD SheahonZenger was the only person who saw Charlie Weis as a good fit back in college, so he can’t do any worse. His one hiring mulligan has been used up.
There’s always one college opening that no one sees coming. Could Brian Kelly leave Notre Dame for the NFL if the right job opened? Sure, but this may not be the year with nearly every significant Irish player projected to return next year.
Could an NFL opening in Pittsburgh, New York (Jets or Giants), Atlanta, Oakland, Miami or St. Louis nab a college coach? Sure. UCLA’s Mora could be a candidate. So could Stoops, Kelly or Stanford’s David Shaw. But there are no indications right now that any of them will jump.
• Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough often shook his head when he received the reports from Tevin Coleman’s high school games. Playing in a Wing-T offense at Oak Forest (Ill.) High, Coleman didn't get the ball much. In fact, McCullough doesn’t recall Coleman having double-digit carries in a single game (he rushed for 949 yards and 13 touchdowns on 83 carries his senior year).
And despite being 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he didn’t really run between the tackles. “His MO was he did a lot with less,” McCullough told The Inside Read. “He was explosive with the opportunities he had.”
While Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon have received the attention in the Big Ten, it’s Coleman who has made the most of his opportunities. He’s making defenders shake their heads these days with his FBS-best 1,192 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 135 carries for Indiana.
Last Saturday, the star junior ran for 132 yards on 15 carries against Michigan State’s ironclad defense in a 56-17 loss. It was the first time the Spartans have surrendered a 100-yard rusher since last year’s Big Ten championship game.
Coleman is on pace at 8.83 yards per carry to break former Nebraska running back and 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier’s FBS per carry record (7.81 yards).
Coleman has been a coup for an Indiana program still trying to break through under fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson. McCullough was persistent in establishing a relationship with Coleman and his father, Wister, fending off the likes of Michigan State, Iowa and West Virginia.
“I think there might have been some assumptions that maybe he would land at one of these other places,” said McCullough, a former NFL and CFL running back.
Coleman’s first year at Indiana was a difficult transition for him because he had to learn how to run through tacklers, read defenses and pass block. He was also dinged up physically with hand and shoulder injuries, but played through. “It was kind of an apprentice year,” McCullough said.
When McCullough recently reviewed Coleman’s football grades from after his freshman year, in which he led the team in kick return yards, he found that Coleman had high marks for potential, but was average to low in most other categories. “There was a lot that he needed to pick up,” McCullough said.
But during the following spring, Coleman’s marks soared. So did his play last season, when he broke out with 958 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 131 carries, despite missing the last three games with a high ankle sprain. “He really soaked up what he needed to do,” McCullough said. “He just kept on growing.”
These days, McCullough is shaking his head in another way about Coleman. Yes, Coleman is better than McCullough, a former NFL and CFL running back, even though he’s yet to admit it.
“OK,” McCullough said, “maybe I have in my mind.”
• Georgia running back Todd Gurley’s suspension for allegedly accepting money for signing autographs was a blow to the Bulldogs’ College Football Playoff hopes and essentially ended his Heisman Trophy chances. But the 6-1, 226-pound junior’s two-game absence so far hasn’t hurt his NFL stock should he leave early, which was expected before the season started. Gurley not playing has actually helped his draft value, one NFL scout told The Inside Read.
“He can’t get hurt,” the scout said.
The scout points out that Gurley was on pace for a career-high in carries this season after already rushing for 773 yards and eight touchdowns on 94 attempts. Last fall, he was nagged by a strained quadriceps and a left ankle injury, the latter of which caused him to miss three games.
Gurley finished with 989 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 165 carries along with 37 catches for 441 yards and six touchdowns. That was after 1,385 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on 222 carries as freshman in 2011.
The scout says that Gurley could go as high as the first half of the first round and should be the first running back selected. That would break the position’s two-year drought in the draft’s opening round.
“Why would he could come back?” the scout said. “That type of risk just doesn’t make sense.”
• Speaking of players expected to leave early for the draft, add Boise Stateredshirt junior running back Jay Ajayi and Arizona State redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong to the list, according to industry sources.
The 6-0, 216-pound Ajayi is an intriguing prospect because of his combination of rushing and pass-catching and is expected to be a second-day pick, according to an NFL scout. He’s fifth in the FBS in all-purpose yards (1,184 yards) and the only player with more than 800 yards rushing and 300 yards receiving.
“He’s something to look forward to,” the scout told The Inside Read.
Some scouts think Ajayi might be better than his former Boise State teammate Doug Martin, who was the second-to-last pick of the first round in 2012. It’s all shaping up to look like Ajayi made the right decision not to pursue professional soccer.
The 6-3, 215-pound Strong could go in the late first or early second round, according to an NFL scout. So far this season, he has 49 catches for 689 yards with six touchdowns, which puts him on pace to shatter his breakout last year (75 catches/1,122 yards/7 TDs).
“He’s big, physical and competitive with great hands,” the scout said. “He’s not a burner. He’s probably 4.53 in the 40, but Marques Colston and all these guys get in the league and do really well. He’s one of those. He’ll be a really good player.”
• Offensive guru Bob Stitt has endorsements from Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen. The latest stumping for the Colorado School of Mines coach comes from John L. Smith, the former Arkansas, Louisville and Michigan State coach. Stitt’s undefeated team routed Smith’s Fort Lewis squad 56-14 last Thursday in an NCAA Division II clash on national television.
Smith is now 0-2 against Stitt since taking over as coach of Fort Lewis last season. He is perplexed that Stitt has never received serious consideration for a head-coaching job at the FBS level.
Earlier this season, the 50-year-old Stitt won his 100th game at Colorado School of Mines (his career record is 105-60 in 15 seasons at the engineering school just west of Denver).
“I can’t understand why they wouldn’t come look at a guy that gives you an opportunity to win with maybe not as good a kid as the next guy,” Smith told The Inside Read. “They’ve just kicked our tail both years. We just don’t have anybody that can matchup with his kids and what he does.”
Smith is even more impressed with Stitt’s success considering that he’s doing it at an academically rigorous school. “It’s the Stanford of our league,” Smith said. “He gets good smart kids and can recruit the country. He does a great job of coaching them. I like what Bob’s done.”
Stitt’s up-tempo spread offense is ideal for a program seeking a quick revival according to Smith. “You bring an excitement in,” Smith said. “But it also gives you a chance to win with maybe not quite as good of a kid.”
• The marriage of Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has been one of college football’s most watched storylines. The highpoint of Kiffin’s offense came in last Saturday’s 59-0 rout of Texas A&M in which his unit cracked the 600-yard barrier of total offense for the third time this season. That was after it struggled for two weeks in a disappointing 23-17 loss at Mississippi and a sluggish 14-13 win at Arkansas.
Those in coaching circles are not just watching, but have Kiffin’s offense under a microscope. One SEC staffer insists Saban has no restrictions on Kiffin’s play-calling based on what he ran offensively in his previous coaching stops. And while Alabama can still traditionally run the ball down the throat of opposing defenses, Kiffin has revitalized the Crimson Tide offense and is opening it up more. He’s increasingly spreading the ball around like when he was co-offensive coordinator during USC’s 2005 title run.
It’s what made Kiffin so appealing as a potential head coach back then. And what the SEC staffer believes will have suitors knocking on Kiffin’s door again sooner than later.
• Even before Duke went 3-9 in 2010 and '11, Blue Devils cornerbacks coach Derek Jones remembers the angst prior to both seasons. “It almost seemed impossible when you looked at the schedule and who you had to play,” Jones told The Inside Read. “You knew the difference in your ability.”
But after winning six games combined, Duke has now won at least six games in the three consecutive seasons and is bowl eligible again after Saturday’s 20-13 defeat of Virginia. The Blue Devils control their own destiny in the ACC’s Coastal Division and are primed to win plenty more this season with a favorable remaining schedule (at Pittsburgh, at Syracuse, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest).
“Now, I don’t think there’s a game we go into where we don’t feel like we have a chance to win,” Jones said.
Seventh-year Duke coach David Cutcliffe’s job with the perennial ACC doormat has been one of college football’s most improbable turnarounds of the last decade. It’s also transformed the confidence of a Blue Devils’ program that prior to Cutcliffe had never been to back-to-back bowl games.
“Instead of streaking through the stadium after a win, we shake their hands, go to the locker room and we’re moving on to the next one,” Jones said. “I can remember a point in time where if we won any game, it was a monumental occasion.”
And with Duke having been in the doldrums for the first half of Cutcliffe’s tenure, Jones still receives excited text messages, calls and Tweets after wins from even recent former Blue Devils.
Said Jones, “But I look at the guys who are actually doing and they’re like, ‘Coach, we were supposed to win.’”
• So what’s eating Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel? He once again struggled in the Gators’ embarrassing 42-14 home loss to Missouri last Saturday night and tossed his SEC-leading ninth interception before being knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury.
“It’s the same pattern,” an opposing assistant told The Inside Read. “Bad throw, misread, turnover. It’s all the same thing. It’s not like he’s going to change.”
Driskel’s lack of confidence is obvious, according to the assistant. “It’s got to be a little more of a relaxed component in the pocket,” the assistant said. “Dude’s got the arm. He’s got the feet. He’s got to just make plays on third downs. He’s got to be more accurate at those times.”
But Driskel’s biggest problem just might be his teammates. “I don’t think those guys really totally believe in him or want to play for him anymore,” the assistant said.
Not that Florida’s offensive woes are entirely Driskel’s fault. The assistant also placed significant blame on senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, who didn’t start for the first time since 2012 in Saturday’s loss and hardly played after repeated drops in previous games.
“He thinks he’s the next NFL dude,” the assistant said. “He’s nothing. He’s just a guy out there filling a spot.”
Q&A with Fox's Bruce Feldman
From Namath to Brady, quarterbacks are indelible icons, the key pistons that churn hundred-million-dollar college football programs and billion-dollar NFL franchises. So what goes into the making of the stars of the most important position in sports? Fox’s Bruce Feldman explores that question in his latest book, The QB. It’s a definitive look at the intricate subculture of developing quarterbacks and explores the tutors who are tied to the biggest names in the sport. Are the intangibles for the position from nature or nurture? How do quarterback gurus help superstars like Tom Brady along? Why do so many quarterback prospects flop?
With a deft duality that seamlessly crosses over both the technical side of quarterback play and the personality elements required to be a great quarterback, Feldman explores the quarterback underworld through intimate access, a keen eye for detail and fascinating looks at the evolution of stars from Aaron Rodgers to Brett Favre to Johnny Manziel. He spent a few minutes talking quarterbacks with The Inside Read.
You got unprecedented access to Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. What was that world like?
It was pretty surreal. The craziest part was that week I spent around him before Alabama. Literally, at one point, the national media is all in town the week of the Alabama game. Kevin Sumlin is asked if Johnny is going to speak. [Sumlin] tells the media he’s not going to. Johnny is in Jake Spavital’s office and has his feet up on the desk. Sumlin walks in and they have a back-and-forth about why he’s not letting him speak. Meanwhile, the TV is on ESPN in the office and on the left-hand column there’s three different Johnny related topics they’re going to be talking about. One says, “Barkley rips Manziel.” Everyone was like, “What did Matt Barkley say?” It was Charles Barkley, and he said that Johnny forced an Auburn guy to root for Alabama. Johnny said, “I guess I’m an awful person,” and walked out. It was like Johnny was in the middle of his own Truman Show.
It’s amazing no one has explored the QB position in depth before. How did you come up with the idea for the book?
I worked with Trent Dilfer at ESPN. You could tell how consumed he was by the position if you turned on an NFL game. He was so into the minutia of the position and so consumed by it. I asked him if he ever thought about doing a book, and he DM’d be back and said, “Gimme a week.” He said, ‘I don’t want to do this or that’ (about his career). He wasn’t pitching me a book, but said, ‘I have something I’m working on.’ He’s the head of the Elite 11. He said, ‘Come to Ohio State.’ I didn’t really understand it at first, but when I got to Columbus, the more I started digging the bigger and bigger it got.
Your previous books -- Cane Mutiny, Meat Market and Swing Your Sword -- were college centric. How does this one cross from high school to the NFL?
The quarterback subculture is one degree of separation from Trent Dilfer to Aaron Rodgers, from Trent Dilfer to George Whitfield to Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M staff and the Ohio State staff. Whitfield’s mentor Cam Cameron at LSU brings in Tom House, he’s Drew Brees’ guy and Tom Brady’s guy. All these guys are interlocked. I did a proposal, and the more calls I made, the more fascinating it became. Any book you do, especially if it’s not a biography, you need a main character who is emotionally open and conflicted, open about their flaws and everything else to drive the book. Trent Dilfer became that guy. He’s so consumed by his failures and he played in the NFL and won a Super Bowl.
If people reading this have kids who are quarterbacks or want to be quarterbacks, what’s a good takeaway?
Some of biggest things are leadership and intangibles. Steve Clarkson (a prominent quarterback tutor) has made a fortune, especially with successful parents and dads that have come to him to turn kids into a college quarterback. I’m not saying you have to spend that much money. There’s certain things teaching-wise you can pick up, and those intangibles develop into leadership and confidence. Those are things that should carry over and probably make you better at anything that you do.
You and your wife, Christie, had twins -- Ben and Riley -- during the middle of writing the book. What was that like?
It was the most stressful thing that I have ever gone through. Literally my wife is about to deliver one day. A few hours before that I’m on the phone with Rick Neuheisel and she’s in the hospital bed looking to keep her mind occupied. She’s transcribing Archie Manning interviews from the Manning Camp. That’s the truth. I knew the next couple weeks I wasn’t going to be focused. It was probably almost a month before I got productivity again. I’m hoping when people read it they don’t say, ‘This is the part when he became a dad.’
We’ve seen the quarterback position evolve exponentially at the college level the past decade. What’s next?
We’re going to see even more diversity and shapes and sizes. One of the cool things that happened for the book was that it turned out the last year was probably the most significant year for quarterbacks in that it changed the way the position is looked at all levels. Trent Dilfer has become bigger, George Whitfield becomes this big presence on GameDay. On the highest level, a sub-6-foot quarterback goes in the first round. That hasn’t happened in 60 years. Years ago, shorter quarterbacks compared themselves to Drew Brees, now a lot say Russell Wilson.
There’s going to be changes in technology with AXON cognitive training. Chip Kelly, when he was back at Oregon, was one of the first major brands to buy into it. That’s something Dilfer has bought into (Elite 11). It’s fascinating to see guys hooked up and it looks like they’re playing video games and how it works with a quarterback. It’s something a few NFL teams have looked at. You’ll see more stuff like that as technology keeps going.
• Three years ago, David Gibbs was coaching his then-8-year-old son’s team in a peewee football league in Houston. It was one of the highlights of his 23-year coaching career, after his firing the previous season as the Houston Texans’ secondary coach. He did it because he and his family weren’t interested in leaving the Bayou City.
“I love Houston,” Gibbs told The Inside Read. “My kids love it here. My wife loves it here. Everybody’s happy.”
Everyone except opponents facing Gibbs’ ball-hawking Houston defense that has quietly become one of the nation’s most feared units, a notion that once would have been blasphemy at a program known for its record-setting offenses. With four takeaways during last Friday’s 31-10 victory over Temple, the Cougars now have an astronomical 66 in Gibbs’ 20-game tenure (the next closest is Tulane with 53).
Houston is currently second in turnovers gained (23) after leading the FBS in the category last season. It’s been a lifesaver for third-year Cougars coach Tony Levine, whose team is 4-3 after two straight wins behind wide receiver-turned new starting quarterback Greg Ward Jr.
“I knew we were going to be good [defensively], Gibbs said, “but I’m actually disappointed that we’re not better.”
But as hard as Gibbs is on his unit, it’s markedly improved this season in total defense (327.6 yards per game), nearly 90 yards fewer per game from a year ago, which ranks 23rd nationally. It’s also allowing almost four points fewer per game than last year (17.9), good for 11th-best in the country.
“We can’t stop a screen pass, but we’ll strip the ball out and intercept it for sure,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs is quick to point out that he has a couple of players who have a knack for causing turnovers, but also admits that their attempts to strip the ball come at the cost of making sure tackles.
“We do sacrifice some,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs has made sacrifices himself to stay in Houston. When he was let go by the Texans, he still had a guaranteed two years remaining on his contract. So while coaching his son’s youth team and taking his children to school in 2011, Gibbs stayed in the game by visiting then-Houston coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff weekly. He also visited close friend and then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and then-South Florida and now Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz.
The next season Gibbs was a defensive backs coach for the UFL’s short-lived Virginia Destroyers and became Holtz’s defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech in late 2012. The 46-year-old had that job for a couple weeks before Levine offered him his current gig that allowed he and his family to remain in Houston. He’s a rarity in that he’s a pedigreed coach with NFL and major college football experience at a non-Power 5 program.
The son of NFL offensive line guru Alex Gibbs, he worked in the NFL for nine years, interrupted only by his season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2005. A defensive back on Colorado’s 1990 national championship team, he was also Minnesota’s defensive coordinator for four years under former Gophers coach Glen Mason.
There was speculation that Gibbs might leave for another job after last season, particularly to be the defensive coordinator at Arkansas or Georgia, but he signed a new two-year deal in January that pays him $300,000 annually.
“I could have gone a lot of places last year,” Gibbs said, “but I didn’t want to go.”
The wise-cracking Gibbs stayed because of days like this past Sunday, which he spent most of watching his 8-year-old daughter, Charlie Grace, play soccer. “She’s better than my defense,” Gibbs quipped.
But Gibbs’ isn’t joking about his comfort or his family's comfort in Houston. “The days of me thinking I’m going to be the next guru and go move somewhere where I don’t want to live, I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I’ll stay here forever. I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere.”
• West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s cell phone has been ringing a lot since his unit’s stymying of Baylor’s nation-best offense in a 41-27 victory last Saturday. “We’ve had a lot of people calling to ask what the hell we did,” Gibson told The Inside Read.
Gibson’s answer is simple about his scheme that held Art Briles’ fast-paced, spread offense to not only a season-low in points, but also its lowest total offense since 2010 (318 yards): “We just went all in with the blitz game,” he said
When Gibson initially presented his blitz-heavy blueprint the Sunday night before the game, he got a mixed reaction from his unit. “Half of them looked at me like I was crazy,” Gibson said with a laugh. “Half of them got excited about it.”
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was on board from the start and his reinforcement of Gibson’s plan during Monday’s team meeting set the tone for the Mountaineers. Before long, they had all bought in. “They were locked in all week,” Gibson said. “It was probably the best week of practice I’ve ever been a part of.”
Gibson’s logic in blitzing Baylor was two-pronged. First, he wanted to make Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty uncomfortable, which West Virginia did with four sacks, three of which were by senior defensive end ShaqRiddick, a transfer from FCS Gardner-Webb.
“We got after him,” Gibson said of Petty. “We tried to keep him off balance. Kind of disrupt timing. Their whole offense is about timing. The plan was to disrupt him.”
West Virginia’s pressure was also meant to keep its defenders from being stressed by having to both play pass coverage and stop the run, which Petty is known for exploiting.
“I didn’t want to put guys in run-pass conflicts,” Gibson said. “Here are the guys for the run game. You guys cover these guys. Make it that simple.”
By the time it was over Saturday, Gibson had blitzed on 48 of Baylor’s 79 offensive plays, using a dizzying array of pressures. On 18 plays, he used seven-man pressure, went with five-man pressure 16 times and used four-man pressure on 14 occasions.
“Nobody’s ever done it to them for nearly a whole game,” Gibson said. “People pick and choose when the time is.”
Gibson’s plan was gutsy considering Baylor thrashed West Virginia 73-42 last season. At the time, Gibson was in his first season back in Morgantown, where he previously was an assistant for seven seasons under former Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez.
Now, Gibson is in his first season as a defensive coordinator in major college football and showing he’s more than an ace recruiter with a unit ranked 28th nationally in third-down conversions allowed (33 percent). Defense has been an Achilles heel for Holgorsen at West Virginia, but the Mountaineers are much improved under Gibson, a big reason for their 5-2 start.
West Virginia moved up 45 spots nationally in total defense (382.3 yards per game) and 30 places in scoring defense (27.1 points per game). “We’re still not even close to where we can be or where we need to be,” Gibson said.
Gibson’s defense has generated buzz about Holgorsen again after a disappointing 4-8 record last season. Interestingly, many of Gibson’s telephone calls about how he stopped Baylor have been from outside the Big 12, a testament to how much Briles’ high-powered offense has spread.
“Once people see the film, it wasn’t magic that we threw out there,” Gibson said. “We had a good plan and the kids executed. I’m sure guys are going to watch it.”
Kyle Whittingham often pays homage to deceased Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller. The Utah coach does so by ordering a huge plate of two ground beef tacos, two cheese enchiladas and a bean tostada called Larry Miller’s Combo at Restaurant Morelia, a Mexican joint in south Salt Lake City. It’s Whittingham’s favorite restaurant and he tries to stop in with his family at least once a month in the offseason.
An “enchilada guy,” Whittingham’s favorite part of the Larry Miller Combo is the corn tortilla overflowing with cheese. Whittingham though isn’t waiting to have his own namesake dish at Restaurant Morelia, which has a casual dress code and doesn’t accept reservations. “I don’t think that’ll ever happen,” said Whittingham with a laugh.