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Forde-Yard Dash: USC’s Coach Wish List

The Dash suggests top targets for the Trojans’ coaching search. Plus, David Shaw’s bold decision and another failed delivery by North Carolina State's Dave Doeren.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college sports, where you better keep your head on a swivel with two FBS coaches fired two games into the season:

MORE DASH: Panic Time? | 2–0 Starts | Breakout Players

FOURTH QUARTER: THE USC WISH LIST

As noted in the First Quarter, the performance by Clay Helton’s USC team against Stanford on Saturday was bad. Quite bad. Like, abandon-all-hope-this-is-the-breaking-point bad. Combine that with UCLA’s ascendance under Chip Kelly, and things were trending heavily against Helton. Lo and behold, Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn moved with great swiftness to end Helton’s tenure at Troy.

Virtually everybody who has ever interacted with Helton has come away liking him. He’s a classy guy. Unfortunately, he’s not a great head coach. He will, at least, have a pile of severance money to count while deciding his next move.

And now one of the traditionally great jobs in the sport is open again, for the fourth time since Pete Carroll departed with a blaze of glory and a posse of NCAA investigators nipping at his heels. It’s still a great job, with the same proximity to talent and seemingly as much as anybody to offer in terms of name, image, likeness opportunities. The conference remains winnable, and if/when the College Football Playoff expands, the Pac-12 should have a seat at that table far more regularly than now.

But Los Angeles isn’t for everyone. And Bohn isn’t for everyone. And to make a true home-run hire, USC almost certainly will have to convince someone who is living a good life right where they are to uproot and start over. It could be a tricky calculus.

Still: far better to be the guy trying to do the hiring here than at 90% of the rest of the Power 5. As you might expect, The Dash has thoughts about how I would order the Trojans’ wish list.

First call goes to Lincoln Riley (31). Does the Oklahoma coach really want to leave a conference he has dominated (the Big 12) for the sausage grinder that is the SEC? Especially after as many as four seasons of limbo that could hurt recruiting? In reality, if he’s dissatisfied with Oklahoma’s future path he’s more likely to go NFL. But I’d still make the call to the guy many consider the best offensive mind in the college game. Let him say no.

Next are the two guys whose names have been mentioned for this job for years, as Helton’s tenure became more tenuous: James Franklin and Luke Fickell (32). Franklin has the personality to sell the program in a pro market, and a very good track record at Penn State and Vanderbilt. Fickell has worked wonders at Cincinnati, where he was under Bohn. Both are program builders and maintainers once they’re built.

But does either want the job? Franklin has achieved breakthrough status in recruiting, with a 2022 class that (as of now) could wind up being No. 1 in the nation. Although he could thrive in L.A., he’s also a Mid-Atlantic guy whose recruiting rarely goes west of the central time zone. Fickell is bedrock Midwestern and stubbornly resistant to job hopping—especially if this hop would be to work again with an athletic director that sources say he coexisted with more than enjoyed. Beware the leverage play.

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After that comes the great ex-coach strata, specifically Chris Petersen and Bob Stoops (33). Petersen was brilliant at Boise State and very good at Washington, but he’s also wired differently in terms of what makes him happy and has rebuffed interest from USC at least once in his career. Stoops might be more willing to consider jumping back in the ring; he briefly coached in the ill-fated XFL, which might indicate that he still has the itch. He’s a consistent winner but would need to update his recruiting contacts and establish new ones in California.

Mario Cristobal (34) certainly is the flavor of the moment in the sport, coming off a spectacular win at Ohio State Saturday and positioning Oregon as the top program in the Pac-12 and a serious playoff contender. He’s an excellent recruiter who knows the territory, having plucked consecutive five-star recruits out of California in 2018 and ’19, not to mention other parts of the Pac-12 footprint. That said, Cristobal has a good job already in the Pac-12, at a program that spares no expense. Until that Ohio State upset, he’d also proved less than everyone above him on this list.

Bill O’Brien (35) is the latest Nick Saban reclamation project, and he’s off to a very good start calling plays at Alabama. O’Brien did good work at Penn State in a thankless situation, then had a nice run with the Houston Texans before it finally fell apart. (His biggest problem in the pros seemed to be personnel management, not coaching.)

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Jay Norvell (36) is a long shot, but he’s elevated Nevada to a contender for best Group of 5 program this season. The Wolf Pack went 7–2 last year and played for the Mountain West Conference championship. He’s earned a win over a Power 5 opponent each of the past three seasons in which Nevada has played one (2020 was a washout), beating Oregon State in 2018, Purdue in ’19 and California this season. He could put another Power 5 skin on the wall Saturday at Kansas State. Norvell recruited and developed quarterback Carson Strong, a Californian who could have an NFL future.

And just in case Mississippi goes into Tuscaloosa and wins on Oct. 2, USC could always dance again with that devil it once knew, Lane Kiffin (37).

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Stanford’s David Shaw (38) took a team that looked hopeless in Week 1 and whipped Clay Helton into unemployment in Week 2. That was a startling turnaround, and it was keyed by a bold decision Shaw made early on when the game was tied at 7. Stanford had kicked a short field for a 10–7 lead, but USC being USC, it was offsides on the kick. Shaw took the points off the board and went for it on fourth and goal from the USC 3-yard line. Tanner McKee hit Elijah Higgins for the touchdown, and the Cardinal held the advantage the rest of the way.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

The Dash detailed most of the coaching malfeasance of Week 2 in the First Quarter, but there is some criticism left over for North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren (39). He’s always been pretty good, but he’s also mastered the art of building expectations of a breakthrough season and then failing to deliver it. A minus-three turnover margin and going 59 minutes without a touchdown at Mississippi State on Saturday was certainly another failed delivery.

POINT AFTER

When thirsty in The Dash’s home base of Louisville, try new craft brewery Ten20 in the Butchertown neighborhood. It’s a nicely designed spot with great outdoor seating and a lot of good drink options, with special kudos to the Storyteller IPA (40). Order one and thank The Dash later.

MORE DASH: Panic Time? | 2–0 Starts | Breakout Players

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