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College football coaching candidates: 2012's biggest names and biggest risks

Changing coaches is completely and totally a zero-sum game. But we're sure it will work out for your school! Here's a look at all this year's hot (and not so hot) candidates.

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Chris Graythen

Changing coaches is, in a word, terrifying. First of all, there is almost no specific type of hire (hot coordinator vs retread vs head coach at smaller program, etc.) that works out any better than others. Second, as a recent study proved, there is absolutely no guarantee that changing coaches will improve your lot in life.

When a team had been performing particularly poorly, replacing the coach resulted in a small, but short-lived, improvement in performance after a change.

The records of mediocre teams – those that, on average, won about 50 percent of their games in the year prior to replacing a coach – became worse.

Basically, poorly performing teams might get a brief improvement when changing coaches, but the change doesn't last – bad teams remain bad. And average teams, those that hover around six wins every season, actually get worse after making a coaching change.

Change always feels right in the short term, but you shouldn't ever voluntarily change head coaches unless you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you cannot achieve your program's goals (whatever those might be) without hiring a new coach.

More than anything else, an athletic director is judged by (and either rewarded or fired for) his or her ability to hire a football coach. Scary or no, though, it's going to happen. And Coaching Change Season began in earnest on Sunday with five different head coaches meeting their demise. As it currently stands, nine major-conference programs (four in the SEC, two in the Pac-12, two in the ACC, and one in the Big Ten) and four mid-majors have already begun their replacement searches, and more are guaranteed to join the fray in the coming days.

Every program has different needs, goals, and, to put it politely, replacement capabilities. Fans of every school are dreaming big, but we should help fans get acquainted with their future coaches. Below is a list of coaches about whom you either have heard, or will hear, a lot. They are separated into helpful categories.

Big, Dumb Ideas And Grand Gestures

Fans of any program that has played at an elite level in the last decade or two don't want to face the thought of a rebuilding effort. They have had a difficult season (or seasons) -- otherwise they wouldn't have just dumped their coach -- and they want their athletic director to go out and make a grand gesture. Sometimes big swings pay off (Alabama hiring Nick Saban, for example), and other times they end up looking foolish.

This year's crop of Big Swing candidates includes a coach who is almost certainly not going anywhere, a coach who spent the last 19 years of his coaching career (which ended four years ago, by the way) in the pros, a coach who leaves every job either hated or in unceremonious fashion, and a coach who knowingly played ineligible players for an entire season and lied about it to the NCAA and must sit out part of his next season as a head coach.

  • Jimbo Fisher, Florida State coach
  • Jon Gruden, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach
  • Bobby Petrino, former Arkansas coach
  • Jim Tressel, former Ohio State coach

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Jimbo Fisher is this year's Tom Osborne Award winner. By the late-1970s, Osborne had clearly built a strong, sturdy program at Nebraska, but following in Bob Devaney's footsteps, Osborne was not immediately able to win a national title, and despite overall success he started facing increasing pressure and at least some bitterness. As a result, his name began to pop up for other jobs because he must feel unappreciated and must want out of there. He allegedly actually interviewed for the vacant Colorado job following the 1978 season. But he didn't leave. And he eventually won his elusive title(s). There are rumors swirling that Fisher might want out of Tallahassee. Don't believe them.

Regarding Gruden: His name has popped up for both the Tennessee and (briefly) Arkansas openings. He is by most accounts Tennessee's No. 1 choice, and he could very well end up in Knoxville. He also might not be a very good college football coach. We have no idea because the last time he held a college job was in the late-1980s at a school that doesn't actually house a football program anymore (the U. of Pacific). For every Pete Carroll or, potentially, Jim Mora, Jr., there is an Al Groh or a Bill Callahan. If he lands at Tennessee, he will receive a monstrous salary, and, per dollar, he will bring with him more risk than any coach in college football.

Regarding Petrino: That Arkansas fans protested on his behalf following his spring motorcycle accident (and constant lying about the circumstances behind it), and that you can find fans from Auburn to Arkansas (!) willing to give him a chance reminds us what we really look for in a new coach: Wins. Sure, class, character, yadda yadda yadda. Just win, and we'll talk ourselves into it being okay.

Regarding Tressel: That Ohio State fans gave him a monstrous, standing ovation this Saturday, on the same day that their Buckeyes clinched an undefeated season that a) was accomplished mostly with players Tressel recruited, and b) would not be followed with a national title shot because Tressel got them banned from the postseason reminds us what we really look for in a new coach: Wins. Sure, class, character, yadda yadda yadda. Just win, and we'll talk ourselves into it being okay.

Fans Of Every School In The Country Are Mentioning Them

Those who are either unwilling or (more likely) unable to follow a Big, Dumb Idea to fruition will choose their next coach from one of many different pools. The odds are good that fans of every BCS school with a current opening have proposed their school go after the following coaches:

  • Art Briles, Baylor
  • David Cutcliffe, Duke
  • James Franklin, Vanderbilt
  • Al Golden, Miami
  • Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
  • Butch Jones, Cincinnati
  • Gary Patterson, TCU
  • Chris Petersen, Boise State
  • Paul Rhoads, Iowa State
  • Charlie Strong, Louisville

Some (Cutcliffe) have recently signed contract extensions at their current schools, others (Golden) are getting ready to face sanctions for the wrongdoings of others, and some (Petersen) have been mentioned for every job running for the last five years without ever actually going anywhere.

But most are simply coaching at schools fans of other schools assume are ripe for the picking. "Why would [Coach A] stay at [TCU, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Louisville] when our school clearly has a better ceiling?" With enough money involved, some of those fans will be right. Most will not.

Mid-Major Darlings

I'll say this much: the pool of super-intriguing mid-major head coaches is wonderfully strong this year. Of course, you probably could have figured that out by simply looking at the current BCS standings, which feature Kent State at No. 17, Northern Illinois at No. 21, Utah State at No. 24 and San Jose State at No. 25. Whether engineering an immediate rebound in his first or second year (DeRuyter, Hazell, Hudspeth) or taking time to build his program from the ground up (Berry, MacIntyre), this pool is full of young, interesting coaches who have succeeded at quite a high level.

To assist in separating them from one another, I am including their age, years at current job, total years as a head coach, and two-year record (unless this is their first year). Are you looking at the next hot, young thing, or would you prefer more of a proven program builder?

  • Gary Andersen, Utah State (48, fourth year at USU, five total years as head coach, 17-8 last two years)
  • Todd Berry, UL-Monroe (52, third year, 11 total years, 12-12 last two years)
  • Troy Calhoun, Air Force (46, sixth year, six total years, 13-12 last two years)
  • Dave Clawson, Bowling Green (45, fourth year, 13 total years, 13-11 last two years)
  • Mario Cristobal, FIU (42, sixth year, six total years, 11-14 last two years)
  • Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State (49, first year, one total year, 9-3 in 2012)
  • Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois (40, second year, two total years, 22-4 last two years)
  • Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech (43, third year, three total years, 17-8 last two years)
  • Darrell Hazell, Kent State (48, second year, two total years, 16-8 last two years)
  • Mark Hudspeth, UL-Lafayette (44, second year, nine total years, 16-8 last two years)
  • Pete Lembo, Ball State (42, second year, 12 total years, 15-9 last two years)
  • Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State (47, first year, one total year, 8-3 in 2012)
  • Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State (47, third year, three total years, 15-9 last two years)
  • Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky (36, third year, three total years, 14-10 last two years)

Taggart is the youngest, Berry is the oldest, Calhoun and Cristobal have been in their current positions the longest (and both have had iffy sixth seasons), Clawson has the most head coaching experience, and Doeren has easily been the most successful over two seasons. Doeren, Hazell, Andersen and MacIntyre have already won double-digit games in 2012, and DeRuyter, Dykes, Lembo and Malzahn could join them following a bowl game.

This is a lovely crop. And as we know, half of them would fail if hired by a bigger school. That's the way the zero-sum game works.

FCS (Or Lower) Darlings

As BCS conferences often pluck from the non-BCS coaching pool, so, too, do non-BCS programs with lower-level programs. Below are five coaches who could get looks, either as a non-BCS head coach or (in Bob Stitt's case) a BCS-level coordinator.

  • Beau Baldwin, Eastern Washington (40, fourth year, five total years, 15-7 last two years, 2010 FCS national champion)
  • Sean McDonnell, New Hampshire (56, 12th year, 12 total years, 16-8 last two years, 2005 Eddie Robinson Award winner)
  • Danny Rocco, Richmond (52, first year, seven total years, 8-3 in 2012, five-game turnaround in first year)
  • Bob Stitt, Colorado School of Mines (he's this guy)
  • Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion (20-4 last two years, 37-9 in four years after literally building ODU from scratch)

Pro To College

Technically, there are probably tens of current NFL coaches or assistants who could end up in a college job. Many have a mix of college and pro experience. But here are two names that have popped up for multiple job openings.

Jackson is a 47-year old former college offensive coordinator (Cal in 1996, USC from 1997-00) and former Oakland Raiders head coach (he went 8-8 in 2011, which, with the Raiders, should have probably gotten him a raise). Roman, meanwhile, is currently Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers and was Harbaugh's run-game coordinator at Stanford. His experience is primarily at the professional level.

  • Hue Jackson, Cincinnati Bengals
  • Greg Roman, San Francisco 49ers

Hot Coordinators

Most of this year's successful college coaches were coordinators first. Alabama's Nick Saban was Michigan State's defensive coordinator in the 1980s and the Cleveland Browns' DC in the 1990s. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly was the defensive coordinator at Grand Valley State for two years before taking the head coaching job there and finding his way into the "FCS (Or Lower) Darlings" pool. Georgia's Mark Richt was the offensive coordinator at Florida State for 11 seasons. Florida's Will Muschamp was the defensive coordinator at both Auburn and Texas. Oregon's Chip Kelly was the offensive coordinator at both New Hampshire and Oregon. Kansas State's Bill Snyder was Iowa's offensive coordinator. Et cetera.

Among the 18 names below are a) coordinators leading very successful units this year, b) coaches who will end up coaching very, very good teams at the BCS level, and c) coaches who will not. Have fun figuring out which are in the (b) camp and which are in (c).

  • Neal Brown, Texas Tech offensive coordinator
  • Jim Chaney, Tennessee offensive coordinator
  • John Chavis, LSU defensive coordinator
  • Bob Diaco, Notre Dame defensive coordinator
  • Pep Hamilton, Stanford offensive coordinator
  • Mark Helfrich, Oregon offensive coordinator
  • Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M offensive coordinator
  • Chuck Martin, Notre Dame offensive coordinator
  • Derek Mason, Stanford offensive coordinator
  • Todd Monken, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator
  • Chad Morris, Clemson offensive coordinator
  • Doug Nussmeier, Alabama offensive coordinator
  • Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State defensive coordinator
  • Brent Pease, Florida offensive coordinator
  • Paul Petrino, Arkansas offensive coordinator
  • Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator
  • Mark Stoops, Florida State defensive coordinator
  • Justin Wilcox, Washington defensive coordinator

Is There A Term More Polite Than "Retread"?

So you value head coaching experience, huh? Unless you are a big name with the money to take a successful head coach for another school, you might have to go the other route: choosing another team's leftovers. The coaches below have been successful at one time or another, but aside from Bellotti, they probably weren't successful at the end of their last tenure. And they are most likely old.

  • Mike Bellotti (61, last job: Oregon, final two years: 19-7)
  • Phil Fulmer (62, last job: Tennessee, final two years: 15-11)
  • Dan Hawkins (52, last job: Colorado, final two years: 6-15)
  • Jim Leavitt (55, last job: South Florida, final two years: 16-10, left for reasons other than performance)
  • Houston Nutt (somehow only 55, last job: Ole Miss, final two years: 6-18)
  • Dirk Koetter (53, last college job: Arizona State, final two years: 14-11)
  • Mike Sherman (57, last college job: Texas A&M, final two years: 15-10)

Have fun everybody!

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