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Louisville coaching search: 10 names to know as the Cardinals replace Charlie Strong

With Strong headed to Austin, whom might Louisville be looking at for its head coaching opening? Here's a list of coaches to keep in mind as potential candidates.

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Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Strong is widely expected to be announced as the new football coach at Texas on Sunday, leaving Louisville looking for a new head coach in his place. Athletic director said Sunday that "100 or 200" coaches have expressed interest in the job. He added that he's spent four days building a short list and plans to move very quickly -- this search might not even last through the week.

Which names might be on that list? Here are 10 potential candidates to keep in mind as Louisville transitions, based in part on the reporting of Bruce Feldman and others noted below.

Derek Mason

Current job: Defensive coordinator, Stanford

Coaching Search indicates that Mason is already the top target at Louisville.

If you were looking for a coach who fit the current philosophy of the program, Mason would make a lot of sense. Strong, a longtime defensive coordinator at Florida before landing with the Cardinals, built his Louisville program on the defensive side of the ball. In 2012, Louisville went 11-2 and finished second nationally in total defense. Barring something incredible from Florida State in Monday's national championship game, the Cardinals will finish first nationally in total defense this season and post a 12-1 mark.

We can talk about Teddy Bridgewater all we want, but the fact is that Louisville is a defense-oriented football team.

While Mason's raw numbers at Stanford aren't as good as Louisville's -- or, for that matter, Strong's defenses as the coordinator at Florida -- they come in an offense-crazed conference where every week provides a wholly different challenge. In three seasons as David Shaw's defensive coordinator, Mason has fielded three top-25 defenses. This season, the Cardinal allowed 343 yards per game (18th nationally) and just 19 points per game (10th nationally).

And according to Football Outsiders' advanced stats, the Cardinal D was third in the country, behind Florida State and Alabama.

There would be some schematic issues to resolve: Mason has run the 3-4 as a base defense ever since taking the Stanford job, while Strong chose the 4-3 over his 3-3-5 for the Cardinals. As Wisconsin showed this season, though, moving to a three-man front is not that difficult when the personnel fits. It did there, and it should here. The Cardinals have depth at defensive tackle, an abundance of athletic pass-rushers, and experience everywhere.

If there's a knock on Mason, it's that he has no ties to the program or the East Coast. Mason played college football at Northern Arizona (as did U of L athletic director Tom Jurich a decade earlier), and has coached almost exclusively in the West. While he has handled some of Stanford's recruiting efforts on the East Coast, he would likely have to build a recruiting network from scratch at a program that doesn't have the national profile that Stanford does. It's an important consideration, but hardly a disqualifying one.

Mason should be near the top of the list.

Pat Narduzzi

Current job: Defensive coordinator, Michigan State

Mason's Rose Bowl counterpart could also be his top competition for the Louisville job. Narduzzi's stock skyrocketed this season, as the Spartans fielded one of the nation's top defenses. Michigan State is third nationally in scoring defense (and could well be second by Tuesday morning) and second in total defense. The only defense better than his Spartans, at least statistically: Louisville.

For his part, Narduzzi won the Broyles Award this season as the nation's top assistant coach.

Narduzzi comes with a longer track record than Mason, having spent the past decade as Mark Dantonio's defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and MSU. He also more closely fits Louisville's current scheme, having run an aggressive 4-3 at Michigan State. He has spent almost all of his coaching career in the upper Midwest and Northeast, so recruiting should not be as much of an issue as it would be with Mason, though Louisville's move to the ACC should theoretically move some of its recruiting southward.

The biggest question with Narduzzi would be whether he is interested. He has turned down head coaching opportunities in each of the past two years, at Texas A&M and Connecticut. While neither of those opportunities included inheriting a 12-win team moving to one of the nation's best conferences, the fact remains that Narduzzi has been loyal to Dantonio and appears content in East Lansing.

Bobby Petrino

Current job: Head coach, Western Kentucky

Let's address the elephant in the room.

Former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, currently standing on a stepping stone 100 miles south of town and waiting to make the jump somewhere. Petrino first made his name at Louisville, inheriting John L. Smith's seven-win outfit in 2003 and going 11-1 two seasons later. Petrino hardly hesitated when the Cardinals moved to the Big East in 2005, winning 21 games in two seasons and taking the conference crown and the Orange Bowl in 2006.

Of course, Petrino had one foot out the door from the moment he got to Louisville. After his first season with the Cardinals, he interviewed for the Auburn job even though Tommy Tuberville had not been fired. In 2006, he signed a massive, 10-year contract with the school, a contract that would still be in place today if he hadn't left for the NFL six months later.

Since then, Petrino has left the Atlanta Falcons with three games left in the season, coached Arkansas into a BCS game, got into a motorcycle accident with his then-secret girlfriend on the back of the bike, got fired for lying about hiring said girlfriend to the football staff, and resurfaced at Western Kentucky.

At all of the college stops, Petrino has won. He was as successful at Louisville as Charlie Strong, he won 10 games twice at Arkansas, and he even went 8-4 in his first season at Western Kentucky. There is no doubt that he would take the job, because Bobby Petrino takes jobs. There are ties to the school and the state. There is his offense. All of these things make sense.

And yet, he probably isn't getting a call (he reportedly hasn't yet), because Louisville has played this game before and has bigger ambitions than being another Bobby Petrino stepping stone. You can't just ignore what he did to Louisville, says Card Chronicle, but Jurich said Sunday that nobody's ruled out.

Chad Morris

Current job: Offensive coordinator, Clemson

Tyler Smith, Getty

We might as well throw the nation's highest-paid assistant into the mix. Morris spent 16 seasons as a high school coach in Texas before becoming Tulsa's offensive coordinator in 2010. After one season with the Golden Hurricane in which he and Todd Graham set Conference USA on fire, he left to become offensive coordinator at Clemson. Dabo Swinney made him a rich man one year later, yet Morris has remained in high demand. Texas Tech interviewed him last year before choosing Kliff Kingsbury.

What Morris may lack in ties to Louisville -- it could well be that he's never stepped foot in Kentucky -- he makes up for in institutional knowledge of the Cardinals' new conference. Morris has three seasons of ready-to-use ACC information, crucial for a program that desperately wants to make an immediate impact on its new home. He also brings a hurry-up spread offense with the endorsement of the nation's hottest offensive coach, Gus Malzahn.

Morris is not a schematic fit for what Louisville has done under Strong (and that might be just fine with Cardinals fans), but he would have a blank canvas to work on and a superb defense to protect him while his offense finds its way. Whether that's enough to make Morris leave $1.3 million per season at Clemson is anyone's guess.

And at least one Cardinal likes the idea of livening up the offense:

Rich Rodriguez

Current job: Head coach, Arizona

Update, Jan. 5, 3:38 p.m. ET: Football Scoop reports RichRod is target No. 1.

If we're going to talk about run-first spread offenses, we might as well go to the source: Rich Rodriguez, West Virginian, former Michigan coach, and current coach at Arizona. It feels like eons ago that Rodriguez took the West Virginia Mountaineers within one game of a BCS National Championship appearance and parlayed three consecutive 10-win seasons into the head coaching job at vaunted Michigan.

Since that time, RichRod imploded in Ann Arbor, got fired after just three seasons, took a year off, and resurfaced in the desert. He's gone 8-5 in each of his two years there, winning two lower-tier bowl games and looking fairly content.

If Rodriguez is going to consider the Louisville job, a lateral-at-best move from Arizona, the impetus has to be geographic. Rodriguez had no ties to the Pac-12 or the West Coast before coming to Arizona. He's a native of Grant Town, W.Va. He played football at West Virginia when it was an independent, scheduling across the current ACC. He coached at Clemson before returning to Morgantown in 2001, and for a while at least, he had to regret ever leaving.

Rodriguez got an extension from Arizona after his first 8-5 campaign, and now makes $2.25 million per season. In an article on the extension, Tucson Citizen reporter Anthony Gimino remarked that it was a correction for the bargain-basement price Arizona initially paid for Rodriguez, before speculating, "You can bet that other schools will come knocking, blank check in hand, if Rodriguez posts another season like that in 2013."

He did just that. It remains to be seen whether Louisville will be holding that blank check.

Tom Herman

Current job: Offensive coordinator, Ohio State

The last two former coordinators to take the Louisville job, Bobby Petrino and Charlie Strong, were markedly better than the last two former head coaches, John L. Smith and Steve Kragthorpe. It should not be a surprise, then, that Louisville's list includes many of the nation's top coordinators (even though Football Scoop reports the primary target is a major head coach), and any list of top coordinators prime for a head coaching job has to include Tom Herman.

Herman started his coaching career under Mack Brown and Greg Davis at Texas and, despite having no ties to the state, built a solid career there. He spent four seasons as an assistant at Sam Houston State, and acted as offensive coordinator at Texas State and Rice before becoming Paul Rhoads' coordinator at Iowa State in 2009. He has spent the last two seasons under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. And he did all of that before his 39th birthday.

He is known less for a particular system than for adapting his offense to existing personnel. Herman simply hasn't been in a job long enough to build a group of players that would fit one particular style. His offenses are generally based on spread formations, and they are productive. Ohio State ran for 295 yards per game in 2013 and ranked sixth nationally in scoring offense.

There is nothing about Herman's profile that specifically suits Louisville -- he's never coached in the ACC or in the state of Kentucky, though Ohio's one of Louisville's recruiting priorities as well -- but if the Cardinals are looking for the next hot assistant coach for the job, Herman's likely on the short list.

Mark Hudspeth

Current job: Head coach, UL Lafayette

Derick E. Hingle, USA Today

Here is all that Hudspeth has done as a head coach: in seven seasons at North Alabama, he won 66 games and made five appearances in the Division II playoffs. He has gone 9-4 in each of three seasons at UL Lafayette, and won the New Orleans Bowl three straight times. His Ragin' Cajuns tied for the Sun Belt title this year.

He has not posted a losing record since 2002. He has recorded nine wins or more in eight of his 10 seasons as a head coach. If the coaching carousel had spun at its usual speed this year, Hudspeth would probably be going somewhere else.

There is a double-edged quality to Hudspeth's background, though. He is a product of the deep South. He was born in Louisiana and played college football at Delta State. Aside from a one-year stint as the offensive coordinator at Navy, the furthest north that Hudspeth has ventured are two brief stints at Central Arkansas. While he has no ACC experience, Hudspeth would bring 20 years worth of recruiting contacts in Lousiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, some of the nation's most fertile recruiting territory.

He would also bring his offense, built in his time at North Alabama and as an assistant to Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. Hudspeth is probably not a perfect fit for the particular issues related to Louisville football, but he'd be a fine choice nonetheless.

Kirby Smart

Current job: Defensive coordinator, Alabama

What happens when you are the presumed coach-in-waiting at a program where the head coach might never leave and another suitor comes calling? Will Muschamp finally tired of waiting for Mack Brown and left for Florida. Jimbo Fisher waited patiently for Bobby Bowden despite other offers. Tom Bradley stayed at Penn State for two decades, only to watch the top job go to someone else when Joe Paterno was fired.

What about Kirby Smart, seven-year veteran of the Nick Saban regime in Tuscaloosa, highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country, and a likely contender for the Alabama job should Saban ever leave? What does Smart do now that Saban is signed in perpetuity and shows no signs of giving up the reins any time soon?

If Smart left for Louisville, he would inherit a top-notch defense (albeit a 4-3 scheme) on a top-25 team run by one of the nation's best athletic directors. It was enough to make Muschamp jump. Smart's widely believed to be waiting for an SEC job, and he seems unlikely to top Louisville's list anyway.

Matt Wells

Current job: Head coach, Utah State

Besides Petrino, Wells is the only person on this list with actual Louisville coaching experience. The first-year Utah State coach was quarterbacks coach and passing game coordiator for the Cardinals in 2009. As Card Chronicle points out, that might not have been the best season to be associated with Louisville football: The Cardinals ended the season near the bottom of the nation in passing yardage and finished 4-8. After the season, head coach Steve Kragthorpe was shown the door, and Wells left along with him.

Aside from the one year at Louisville and a previous stint at Navy, Wells has been a West Coast guy. He's coaching at his alma mater, he just won the Mountain West Conference championship, and he only has one year of experience. Throw the unpleasantness of his previous stint on top of that, and this match does not look likely.

Pete Lembo

Current job: Head coach, Ball State

Joe Robbins, Getty

Lembo looked like a hot commodity after ushering Ball State to a 10-2 record and GoDaddy Bowl appearance in his third season in Muncie. But the carousel has almost stopped spinning, and Lembo is still stuck in Muncie. Lembo's previous coaching experience is geographically favorable -- he currently lives 150 miles from Louisville, and has previously coached in Pennsylvania and North Carolina -- and his record is impeccable.

Lembo has inherited winning programs and found new levels of success, as he did at Lehigh. He has inherited struggling programs and turned them around, as he did at Elon and Ball State. He has posted one losing season in 13 years as a head coach, and won his conference's Coach of the Year award the following year. He wouldn't even have to change his wardrobe.

He is not as flashy as many of the top coordinators, and Louisville's recent track record with mid-major coaches has been spotty at best, but if the Cardinals are looking for past head coaching experience, Lembo could be the guy.

Who else?

If Jurich is planning to hire a big-name head coach away from another top program, then that coach's name might not be on our list. Who's the most prominent coach you think Louisville could swipe?

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