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Six Names to Watch as Colorado's Coaching Search Heats Up

From far-flung coaches with West Coast ties to the head men at upstart Group of Five programs nearby, the Buffaloes should have a wide net of potential fits.

Colorado last won a conference championship in 2001, has not won a bowl game since this year’s freshmen were in preschool and finds itself on a coaching search for the fourth time in the last 12 years. This isn’t an easy job, despite athletic director Rick George saying last week, “There’s not a better job in America than here in Colorado.”

Sure, you’ve got one of the best live mascots in sports, you’ve got a picturesque setting to live in and lure prospects to, and you’ve got an administration seemingly willing to spend money, since it is paying recently fired Mike MacIntyre’s $10.3 million buyout. You’re also in a state that doesn’t churn out a plethora of major college football players (Colorado ranks 34th nationally in per capita Power 5 signings the last decade), you’re at a place where fan support for football isn’t overwhelming, and you’re competing in a Pac-12 South division that, while recently weak, likely won’t stay that way for long with Chip Kelly building at UCLA and USC hard to count out for any extended stretch. That’s why the Buffaloes began the meat of their coaching search this week with a list of likely targets that have 1) West Coast and/or Colorado ties, 2) recruiting connections in California, Texas and the islands, and 3) a clean background.

Where the search is exactly heading remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. George and staff have been tight-lipped, but their opening should be filled within a week. The search is heating up, and the potential candidates are lining up—after all, it is just one of four Power 5 jobs currently open, joining Louisville, Texas Tech and Maryland. The Buffs could take a look at an NFL offensive coordinator, a couple of SEC defensive coordinators and a nearby coach. They mostly fit the characteristics of what you’d want at a place like Colorado.

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Matt Wells, Utah State head coach

Case for: Wells, 45, has worked in the Mountain Time Zone for 11 years. He coached receivers for three seasons at New Mexico and has spent the last eight at Utah State, taking over when Gary Andersen left for Wisconsin in 2013. With spread guru David Yost coordinating the offense, the 10–2 Aggies have broken records on the way to Wells’s best record yet at the school. 

Case against: While he’s taken the Aggies to five bowls games in his six years as coach, Wells’s squad suffered through a dreadful 3–9 season in 2016 and barely became bowl eligible in ’15 and ’17.

Tosh Lupoi, Alabama defensive coordinator

Case for: Lupoi is from California, played college ball for Cal and has assistant stints with the Golden Bears and at Washington, where he was known as an aggressive recruiter. He is currently in the final stage of Nick Saban’s Head Coach Training School, oh-so-close to graduation. The 37-year old has risen from analyst in 2014–15 to outside linebackers coach in ’16 to co-defensive coordinator in ’17 to full-time DC in ’18. The Crimson Tide’s defense has been overshadowed by a record-breaking offense this year, but Bama has allowed the seventh-fewest yards in the nation.

Case against: Lupoi has never been a head coach, and he is young. He’s a defensive-minded guy, too, something that isn’t necessarily a negative but would be unusual. MacIntyre came from a background in defense, but the four Colorado head coaches who preceded him were from the offensive side of the ball. Who knows, though—a defense-first hire could mean the Buffs keep on staff up-and-coming offensive mind Darrin Chiaverini, a Kliff Kingsbury disciple and the guy who as co-OC and wide receivers coach recruited star receiver Laviska Shenault, one of the nation’s most explosive players.

Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City offensive coordinator

Case for: This is an easy one. The 49-year old attended high school in California, played at Colorado and is coordinating one of the NFL’s hottest offenses right now. The ex-Buffs running back has spent the last half-decade learning from one of the game’s brightest minds, Andy Reid. He’s served as an assistant twice at CU and spent three years at UCLA.

Case against: Like Lupoi, he’s never been a head coach. In fact, he’s only coordinated a college offense for two seasons, and those came at Colorado during the failed tenure of Jon Embree, during which the Buffs went 4–21. Also, Bieniemy has spent the last six years away from college and its wild world of recruiting.

Jim Leavitt, Oregon defensive coordinator

Case for: The 61-year-old Leavitt appears to be on the prowl to land another head coaching gig after eight seasons as an assistant, two most notably with Colorado in 2015–16. Leavitt’s defense helped the Buffaloes to MacIntyre’s best year in ’16: a 10–4 campaign and a Pac-12 South championship. Leavitt is a fan favorite, and his units at Oregon, though inconsistent, have turned in some impressive performances in a high-scoring league.

Case against: Remember that “clean background” thing? South Florida fired Leavitt following the 2009 season after an investigation found he struck a player and lied about it. His dismissal ended a 13-year run in Tampa in which he led an upstart program out of the FCS, turning the Bulls into a squad that appeared in a bowl each of his last five years.

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Mel Tucker, Georgia defensive coordinator

Case for: A former Wisconsin defensive back, the 46-year-old Tucker is in his fourth year with Kirby Smart, having served under him as a DBs coach at Alabama before becoming Smart’s coordinator at Georgia. He spent a decade in the NFL, mostly as a defensive coordinator, with the Browns, Jaguars and Bears, and he has done stints at Ohio State and LSU. His experience and connections run deep, and he now has full command of the Saban/Smart defense.

Case against: Tucker lacks West Coast ties, and he has never been a head coach, aside from a five-game interim stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jeff Tedford, Fresno State head coach

Case for: The 57-year-old quarterback guru checks plenty of boxes. He has coached nearly his entire career out west, including 11 years as head coach at Cal in which he twice won 10 games, once with help from a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers. He turned around Fresno State immediately, going 20–6 with Mountain West West division titles in his first two years. He is another name that fans like, but it’s unclear if he’ll get a legitimate shot at the gig.

Case against: Tedford went 15–22 in his last three seasons at Cal, a reason for his dismissal.