Florida Atlantic athletic director Patrick Chun announced the stunning resignation of Carl Pelini as the Owls' head football coach Wednesday, due to "illegal drug use." The move created the fourth coaching vacancy in FBS football since the start of the season, after USC, UConn, and Miami (Ohio).
Chun has said the hunt for next year's head coach is already underway. Who could be on his radar? One trait the Owls will likely prize is a tie to talent-rich South Florida, which Pelini lacked (Chun didn't hire Pelini).
Current job: Offensive line coach, Alabama
Let's start with the name that immediately sprung to mind: former Florida International coach and current Alabama assistant Mario Cristobal. The 43-year-old Cristobal spent six seasons coaching the Golden Panthers, taking one of FBS' most inept programs to a share of the Sun Belt title in 2010 and a program-record eight wins in 2011. The 2012 season got sideways, though, and FIU athletic director Pete Garcia shockingly fired Cristobal.
Cristobal was born in Miami, played college football at Miami, and has spent most of his career as a coach in Miami. He is also known as a dogged recruiter, particularly in South Florida. With a brand new stadium that opened in 2011 to fill, FAU could use Cristobal's name recognition and recruiting acumen. And it never hurts to put a finger in the eye of rival Florida International.
Current job: Offensive coordinator, Miami
Coley checks all the boxes: a Miami native who played at Miami Senior High, got his start in coaching in the Miami high school circuit, and, aside from a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at LSU, has coached exclusively in the Sunshine State. Coley had a two-year run as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins, one season with Cristobal at FIU, and five seasons as an offensive assistant and recruiting coordinator at Florida State (the last three as offensive coordinator). He is in his first season on Al Golden's staff at Miami, having made the move to take on playcalling duties he did not have at FSU. He is young, experienced, and tied into South Florida recruiting.
Current job: Offensive coordinator, Cincinnati
Gran has been coaching for 26 years, mostly in the South. He spent 14 seasons with Tommy Tuberville at Ole Miss and Auburn, coaching running backs and special teams. Gran spent 2009 as Lane Kiffin's running backs and special teams coach at Tennessee, then moved to the same spot with Florida State from 2010 through 2012. In December, he rejoined Tuberville as the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati.
While he is a product of Cal Lutheran, Gran has ties to the Miami area -- he was a graduate assistant for the Hurricanes in the early '90s -- and has recruited South Florida for more than two decades for some of the nation's best programs.
The biggest concern has to be that he's spent just one season as a coordinator and has no head coaching experience whatsoever. Florida Atlantic is not likely to land an established coach, but they have to hope for a slightly longer track record than this.
Current job: Defensive coordinator, Ohio State
Florida Atlantic athletic director Patrick Chun came to Miami after more than a decade at Ohio State, and could well call on another Buckeye to lead his program going forward.
Of the assistants on the current staff, Fickell makes the most sense. He has one year of head coaching experience, having acted as interim coach after Jim Tressel was fired in 2011. He also has eight seasons as co-defensive coordinator under both Tressel and Urban Meyer. He has been handling Meyer's recruiting efforts in Florida this year, and while he has not struck gold in South Florida, Fickell is considered an excellent recruiter. His long career at Ohio State has made him a household name for football fans.
There might not be enough money in the budget for Fickell, though. He already makes $750,000 as an assistant at his alma mater. By contrast, Carl Pelini was making $450,000 as FAU's head coach when he resigned. There is also a concern that he does not have any biographical ties to South Florida -- he has never played or coached outside the state of Ohio -- and FAU's success is so clearly tied to its ability to recruit its own backyard.
Current job: Defensive coordinator, Texas A&M
Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder could be the candidate who checks all the boxes, but there are concerns.
Snyder has ties to Chun's past, having acted as a longtime Jim Tressel assistant at Youngstown State and Ohio State. He was the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator from 2001-2004, as Tressel won a national title and returned Ohio State to national prominence. Snyder also has head coaching experience, having led his alma mater, Marshall, for five seasons. He also knows Florida, having spent two years as defensive coordinator at South Florida under Skip Holtz, along with two years as a defensive assistant at Central Florida early in his career. And he has spent the last two seasons running the defense for one of the nation's hottest programs.
The concern lies in his coaching record since leaving Ohio State in 2004. Snyder was 22-37 as head coach at Marshall, never finishing higher than third in Conference USA East and finally squeaking into a bowl game in his fifth season. His 2010 USF defense was solid, but the 2011 debacle is not forgotten. And though they play exciting football, Texas A&M has not exactly been known for defense since his arrival last January. Snyder is another candidate that checks the boxes, but might not be much more than that.
Current job: Former defensive coordinator, Texas
Diaz is a Miami native who started his coaching career at Florida State. Until this September, Diaz was a rising star in coaching. He spent six years as a defensive assistant at N.C. State, four seasons as defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, and a year at Mississippi State before Mack Brown came calling. He got in just over two seasons as the Longhorns' defensive coordinator before a bad 2012 and horrendous display against BYU this September got him fired.
That high-profile termination could be a blessing and a curse. While it is true that FAU likely could not match the salary Diaz received at Texas, it is also true that his firing makes him a bit radioactive at the moment, especially for an apparent promotion to head coach. Chun's actions in pushing Pelini out the door show he is not beholden to public perception, but moving Diaz into the top job just weeks after he was so publicly discarded makes for especially bad optics.
Current job: Banker
Hear me out.
Ron Zook followed Steve Spurrier at Florida. There was not a coach alive who could have stepped into those shoes, and Zook's failures weren't catastrophic: Urban Meyer took his players to a national championship two years after he was fired. Zook got Illinois to a Rose Bowl, and while it was despite a pedestrian 9-4 record, remember that we are talking about Illinois football.
Other positives: He will never leave the program for someone else, having shown his loyalty everywhere else he has coached. He would be available for almost nothing, no matter how lucrative the banking racket might be. He is an excellent recruiter and program salesman, in the mold of program patriarch Howard Schnellenberger. Also, it would set up the annual game with Florida International as a battle between former Illinois coaches, which would draw at least 15,000 Illinois fans armed with rotten tomatoes and eggs.