Coaching hires report card: Grades for every hire of 2015–16 cycle

Which schools get A's and which get F's for their head coaching hires? We grade all 29 hires of the 2015–16 coaching carousel, now including Illinois's hiring of Lovie Smith.
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UPDATE: Just when it seemed like the coaching carousel had stopped spinning this off-season, it surprised us with one more rotation. New Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman fired head coach Bill Cubit on March 5 and brought in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith to replace him. As the Fighting Illini's grade below shows, it was a wise move. Here are the updated and now (barring some even later move) complete grades for all the FBS head coaching hires this off-season.

This season’s college football coaching carousel felt a bit more dramatic than usual. Longtime coaches like Steve Spurrier and Gary Pinkel resigned after more than a decade at South Carolina and Missouri, respectively. At the midway point of the season, USC shockingly fired Steve Sarkisian after several off-field transgressions became public. Meanwhile top-tier openings sparked activity on the secondary market, as departing coaches left holes to fill at their previous schools.

Overall 28 29 FBS programs hired new head coaches. Which schools emerged from the coaching carousel in the best position to win, and which schools whiffed on their searches? We offer grades for every college football coaching hire in the FBS.

Dino Babers, Syracuse

Say this much for Syracuse: The school knew what it had to fix in its football program. That much is clear after the Orange hired Babers away from Bowling Green. Syracuse finished the 2015 season 12th in the ACC in total offense (5.11 yards per play), and Babers, a disciple of Baylor coach Art Briles, knows a thing or two about offense. His Falcons boasted the MAC’s top-scoring attack (42.2 points per game) behind record-setting quarterback Matt Johnson. Babers comes to Syracuse fresh off a MAC championship at Bowling Green.

Grade: A

Matt Campbell, Iowa State

Campbell was the youngest head coach in the FBS (32) when he took over at Toledo before the 2011 season. Four years later, he has arrived at Iowa State after leading Toledo to two straight nine-win seasons and consecutive MAC West titles. It’s not easy to win in Ames—previous coach Paul Rhoads went 16–45 in Big 12 play over seven seasons—but Campbell’s affable personality could serve as a spark for the Cyclones. In a way, his hiring has already paid off: Iowa State touted its 2016 signing class, which finished 46th nationally, as one of the best in program history.

Grade: A

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Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech

Fuente might have been the most sought-after coach on the market this off-season, and for good reason. He inherited a Memphis program that had won just five games in the previous three seasons and compiled a 26–23 mark the last three years, winning at least nine games in each of the last two campaigns. In 2015 the Tigers’ offense averaged 40.2 points, second in the AAC. Fuente, who replaced legendary coach Frank Beamer in Blacksburg, made a smart move by retaining longtime Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Fuente faces a long road in reviving a once-proud ACC program, but if he can do it at Memphis, he can do it at Virginia Tech.

Grade: A

Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia

Virginia surprised many when it quietly announced the hiring of the longtime BYU coach. Mendenhall built the Cougars into a power as an independent, going 99–42 in 11 seasons and reaching a bowl game every year. The defensive-minded coach has his work cut out for him in Charlottesville, where Virginia ranked ninth in the ACC in total offense or and 12th in total defense in 2015. However, Mendenhall is a proven winner who could give the Cavaliers much-needed stability.

Grade: A-

• ELLIS: Which new head coaches won on National Signing Day?

Mark Richt, Miami

Richt averaged 9.6 wins per season for 15 seasons at Georgia, and that got him fired. Can he find success at Miami? The Hurricanes bet he would when they plucked the former Miami quarterback (1979–82) out of unemployment. The ‘Canes languished in mediocrity in five seasons under Al Golden, going 17–18 in ACC games. Now they have a coach in Richt who went 145–51 in the SEC. But Richt lost his job for a reason, and that reason was an inability to take Georgia to the next level. The last of his two SEC titles came in 2005, and he never played for the national title. Still, the Hurricanes landed a coach who knows how to consistently win, and immediate expectations won’t be as high in Miami as they are in Athens.

Grade: A-

Kirby Smart, Georgia

There’s very little reason to scoff at this hire if you’re a Georgia fan. Smart has long been one of the most sought-after assistants in college football, spending the last nine seasons on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. Plus, Smart’s arrival also served as a sort of homecoming, as he played defensive back at Georgia from 1995–98. He has already notched one big win in Athens by inking the ninth-ranked signing class in the country, higher than any other new coach. But Georgia is rolling the dice with Smart to some degree. He’s still a first-time head coach replacing a longtime head coach who won at a high level.

Grade: B+

Chris Ash, Rutgers

Rutgers’s athletic department has been the butt of many jokes in recent years, exemplified by the November ouster of failed athletic director Julie Hermann. So Scarlet Knight fans should be happy with the hire of Ash, who served as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Ohio State for the past two seasons and led the Buckeyes to consecutive top-20 finishes in total defense. If he can tap into recruiting New Jersey, Ash will prove his worth as Rutgers’s new coach.

Grade: B+

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota

Minnesota took the practical route in promoting Claeys to head coach following the retirement of Jerry Kill. The Gophers seemed to lean towards continuity in removing Claeys’s interim tag after he went 2–4 to close out the season. Claeys has been with Minnesota since 2010 and had coached with Kill for more than 20 years. He also stepped in several times as interim head coach during Kill’s bout with epileptic seizures. The Gophers didn’t hit a home run with Claeys, but they avoided a drastic change in culture.

Grade: B

Barry Odom, Missouri

Odom’s success as a defensive coordinator is well documented, as is his loyalty to the Missouri program. Save for a short stint as Memphis’s defensive coordinator (2012–14), Odom had been on Gary Pinkel’s Missouri staff since he was a grad assistant in ’03. That’s probably why the Tigers tabbed Odom as their new head coach following Pinkel’s retirement. Could Missouri have landed a bigger name? Pinkel proved the Tigers can win in the SEC by reaching the conference title game in ’13 and ’14. But situations like the football strike last fall likely painted Columbia as an unattractive destination to some suitors. The Tigers made no huge mistake in maintaining the status quo with Odom.

Grade: B

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D.J. Durkin, Maryland

Remember when Maryland hoped to become the “Oregon of the East Coast”? That goal seemed to clash with the school’s decision to replace dismissed coach Randy Edsall with Durkin, the former defensive coordinator at Michigan. Durkin may lack flash, but that doesn’t mean he won’t work out with the Under Armour-infused Terrapins. The Wolverines’ 2015 defense (No. 5 in FBS with 4.46 yards allowed per play) was one of the best in the country, and Durkin also has experience coaching defenses under Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp at Florida. Perhaps Maryland shouldn’t have expected to lure a bigger-name coach to the same division as Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.

Grade: B

Clay Helton, USC

In 2015 Helton managed to piece together the rubble of the Steve Sarkisian mess at USC, close the regular season with a 5–2 record and reach the Pac-12 title game. But the Trojans’ November decision to tab Helton as the program’s full-time head coach was still underwhelming. Few college jobs are more highly touted than USC, and yet athletic director Pat Haden opted to ink a first-time head coach to a guaranteed five-year contract. Perhaps Helton can turn the Trojans back into winners—he signed a top-15 class on Signing Day—but couldn’t USC have taken a bigger swing?

Grade: B-

Will Muschamp, South Carolina

This time last year Muschamp had just arrived as Auburn’s defensive coordinator after a failed tenure at Florida. Apparently that short stint on the Plains was enough to convince South Carolina that he deserves a second chance as a head coach. Muschamp went 28–21 at Florida before being fired following the 2014 season, and the coach’s primary downfall was an inept offense. After all, he had three different offensive coordinators in four seasons in Gainesville. Now Muschamp has put together a staff of great recruiters like Bryan McClendon, Travaris Robinson and Lance Thompson. But Muschamp couldn’t win at a juggernaut like Florida. There’s no reason to believe he’s a sure-fire winner with the Gamecocks.

Grade: C+

Kalani Sitake, BYU

Sitake can’t be described as a home-run hire when he wasn’t even BYU’s first choice. But once the Cougars well-documented courtship of Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo fell through, the program honed in on Sitake, the defensive coordinator at Oregon State. Sitake fielded a stingy defense at Utah from 2008–14 before moving to Corvallis last season, where the Beavers finished near the bottom of the Pac-12 in total defense. Sitake did play at BYU and understands coaching in the state of Utah, but the Cougars whiffed on their first target for the job. That makes Sitake a less comfortable hire.

Grade: C

Bill Cubit, Illinois

When Illinois decided to remove the interm tag from Bill Cubit on Nov. 28, athletic director Paul Kowalczyk said this about Cubit’s two-year contract: “It's not ideal but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program.” That’s about as far from a glowing testimonial as a coach can get. Illinois fired Tim Beckman in August, and after an entire season of assessing its coaching situation, the school basically settled on Cubit. The bulk of Cubit’s resume is his 51–47 record in eight seasons as Western Michigan’s head coach from 2005–12. If that’s the best Illinois can do, the program’s future isn’t bright.

Grade: F

Lovie Smith, Illinois

Whitman was quite busy during his first few hours as Illinois’s athletic director. On March 5, his first day on the job, he fired the Fighting Illini’s interim head coach, Bill Cubit. Two days later, the AD shocked the college football world by luring Smith to Champaign. Smith, the former head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, brings immediate moxie to a program that has posted losing seasons in six of the last eight years. Given where the Illini were a month ago—SI graded the Cubit hire an F—Whitman should feel thankful to land a coach who can deliver a spark to a cellar-dwelling program. The only caveat? Smith hasn’t coached at the college level since 1995, when he served as Ohio State’s defensive backs coach.

Grade: A-

• JOHNSON: Can new coach Smith revitalize Illinois's recruiting?


Group of Five hires

Willie Fritz, Tulane

Fritz has won 69% of his games as a head coach at three different schools. Tulane couldn’t have asked for much more.

Grade: A

Scott Frost, UCF

Assuming UCF can hang onto Frost—he’s a Nebraska alum—Oregon’s former offensive coordinator could work wonders with skill players in the state of Florida.

Grade: A

Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe

Viator went 77–33 in 10 seasons at McNeese State, including a 10–1 record and a Southland Conference title in 2015. Getting a coach with that much in-state success is huge for Louisiana-Monroe.

Grade: A

Everett Withers, Texas State

Withers has been a college coach for more than 25 years with stops in the NFL and, most recently, as head coach as James Madison, where he went 18–7 overall with an FCS playoff berths in each of his two seasons. The Bobcats get plenty of veteran experience in him.

Grade: A

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Jay Hopson, Southern Miss

Hopson, an Ole Miss graduate and Vicksburg, Miss., native, led Alcorn State to Southwestern Athletic Conference championships in each of the past two seasons.

Grade: A-

Mike Norvell, Memphis

Arizona State never ranked lower than fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense in any of Norvell’s four seasons in Tempe, and he inherits a Memphis program left in good shape by Justin Fuente.

Grade: B+

Jason Candle, Toledo

Candle isn’t a big name, but he helped the Rockets average 35 points per game last season as Matt Campbell’s offensive coordinator.

Grade: B+

Mike Neu, Ball State

Neu, who graduated from Ball State as the school's all-time leading passer, spent the past two seasons as the quarterback coach for the New Orleans Saints. Though he's never been a college head coach, Neu could jolt an offense that averaged just 23.1 points per game in 2015.

Grade: B+


Frank Wilson, UTSA

The former LSU assistant is a fantastic recruiter who could take advantage of a small program within the talent-rich state of Texas.

Grade: B

Seth Littrell, North Texas

Littrell is fresh off a two-year stint as Larry Fedora’s offensive coordinator at North Carolina and also worked under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. So expect the Mean Green to score some points.

Grade: B

Nick Rolovich, Hawaii

Rolovich played quarterback at Hawaii under former coach June Jones, who found remarkable success on the islands. Perhaps Rolovich can channel his former coach’s winning ways.

Grade: B-

Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern

A former defensive coordinator at Colorado State, Summers sounds like he will continue the tradition of a triple-option offense at Georgia Southern. But his lack of a background in offense, the jury is still out on his arrival.

Grade: B-

Mike Jinks, Bowling Green

The Falcons’ new coach is familiar with up-tempo offenses—he spent the last two seasons under Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech—but Jinks has never even been a coordinator at the college level.

Grade: C+

Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina

East Carolina fired Ruffin McNeil, who had a 42–34 record with the Pirates, for Duke offensive coordinator Montgomery, who only has two seasons of coordinator experience. That’s a head-scratcher.

Grade: C+