This year's FBS coaching hires had a common theme: they ... made sense. They were merit-based and sensible.
And half of them will almost certainly fail.
I wrote those words three college football coaching carousels ago, and every one of them applies to 2016’s run of hires.
From an experience standpoint, quite a few FBS schools upgraded considerably. Florida Atlantic just hired a former USC head coach! FIU hired the architect of Miami’s early 2000s run of dominance!
From a success-and-merit standpoint, plenty of deserving coaches just upgraded their offices. Last year’s Peach Bowl champion, Tom Herman, is now at Texas. This year’s AAC champion, Matt Rhule, is moving to Baylor. This year’s Conference USA champion, Jeff Brohm, is on his way to Purdue. Willie Taggart, winner of 17 of his last 21 games at USF, takes over at Oregon.
Sure, there were some off-script moves and the types of from-within hires that often fail. But logic and sense mostly pervaded.
And it’s conceivable that fewer than half of this group will fail. After all, look again at the signing class from three years ago: Bobby Petrino at Louisville, Chris Petersen at Washington, James Franklin at Penn State, Bryan Harsin at Boise State, Dave Clawson at Wake Forest, Dino Babers at Bowling Green, Brohm at WKU, Blake Anderson at Arkansas State, Craig Bohl at Wyoming, Jeff Monken at Army, Chris Creighton at Eastern Michigan. A lot of those sensible hires paid off.
We might be saying the same thing three years from now.
LSU: Ed Orgeron
Last 10 years: Ole Miss head coach (2005-07), New Orleans Saints defensive line coach (2008), Tennessee defensive line coach (2009), USC defensive line coach (2010-13), USC interim head coach (2013), LSU defensive line coach (2015-16), LSU interim head coach (2016)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: five
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 7-4 (fifth)
Since landing the full-time job, Orgeron has suffered some decommits and lost out on his first-choice offensive coordinator (Lane Kiffin). But his 2017 recruiting class still ranks fifth, per 247, and with Matt Canada aboard, he still seems to have aced his OC hire. You get quite a bit of margin for error when you are an ace recruiter in the middle of a recruiting hotbed.
That said, LSU’s hire has felt underwhelming to me. As emotionally satisfying as it may have been to ink a local boy to his dream job, LSU is one of the biggest names and basically limited its search to two home run swings (Jimbo Fisher, Tom Herman) and a single to right. It could work, but it’s not hard to see how it could fail.
The good news is that if Orgeron fails, he will probably fail quickly, and his buyout won’t cost much.
Texas: Tom Herman
Last 10 years: Rice offensive coordinator (2007-08), Iowa State offensive coordinator (2009-11), Ohio State offensive coordinator (2012-14), Houston head coach (2015-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 37
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 5-7 (45th)
Speaking of feel-good tales ...
The former Texas graduate assistant takes a 22-4 career record to Austin and inherits a roster that was young as hell and learning a version of the up-tempo offense Herman will want to deploy. Herman has the power of personality to potentially keep meddlesome boosters at bay, and the situation feels ready-made for success.
No hire is a slam dunk, though. Herman’s Houston did lose a couple of games it shouldn’t have this year (balance for winning a couple of games it shouldn’t have a year ago), and the 41-year-old now takes over maybe the biggest job in the country with just two years of head coaching experience. We have no idea about his long-term program building skills. But he has a lot going for him. A lot.
Baylor: Matt Rhule
Last 10 years: Temple QBs coach and offensive coordinator (2007-11), New York Giants assistant offensive line coach (2012), Temple head coach (2013-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 18
2016 Record and S&P+ rank: 6-6 (73rd)
Rhule proved himself in four years at Temple, inheriting a program that had begun to flail, hitting reset for a year, and going a combined 20-7 in his third and fourth years. The former offensive line coach has proven adaptable on offense, and his defenses have been top-notch.
Mix defensive solidity with the type of offensive talent you can land in Texas, and ... well, that’s a good recipe. Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades interviewed Rhule when he was looking for Missouri’s new head coach a year ago, and he clearly liked what he saw.
Still, this isn’t an amazing fit. In 20 seasons, Rhule has spent exactly one year outside of the Eastern time zone (he was a UCLA assistant in 2001), and he has a lot of recruiting relationships to build in Texas, though he’s building a coaching staff with that in mind.
California: Justin Wilcox
Grade: B- (B before the point deduction)
Last 10 years: Boise State defensive coordinator (2006-09), Tennessee defensive coordinator (2010-11), Washington defensive coordinator (2012-13), USC defensive coordinator (2014-15), Wisconsin defensive coordinator (2016)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 60
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 5-7 (51st)
For all intents and purposes, Wilcox seems like a fine hire. The former Cal linebackers coach has seven years of Pac-12 coaching experience and played for Mike Bellotti at Oregon in the late-1990s. And despite a young age, he’s got 11 years of coordinator experience, eight out west.
Cal gets a point deduction for spending $6 million to fire Sonny Dykes, late in the carousel, only to end up with a guy with no head coaching experience. The school got tired of Dykes openly looking for other jobs, but it also gave him a contract extension recently despite the wayward glances.
Still, Wilcox makes sense. If he can bring defense back to Berkeley without letting the offense fall apart, he could do just fine.
Indiana: Tom Allen
Last 10 years: Wabash College defensive backs coach (2007), Lambuth defensive coordinator (2008-09), Drake defensive coordinator (2010), Arkansas State assistant head coach (2011), Ole Miss linebackers coach (2012-14), South Florida defensive coordinator (2015), Indiana defensive coordinator (2016)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 56
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 6-6 (48th)
When Allen leaves your school, your defense suffers.
When he moved from Ole Miss to USF in 2015, the Rebels fell from first to 22nd in Def. S&P+. When he moved from USF to Indiana in 2016, the Bulls fell from 46th in Def. S&P+ to 100th. And when he showed up in Bloomington, the Hoosiers improved from 105th to 30th. You could understand that, upon parting ways with Kevin Wilson, IU didn’t want to let go of this defensive whiz.
That said, when you are attempting to move on from potential player mistreatment issues, hiring from within feels a little odd, doesn’t it? Allen was only around one season, so whatever may have been wrong with Indiana’s culture under Wilson didn’t have much to do with him. But schools usually try to make clean breaks in such situations. We’ll see if Allen can help to move the program forward.
We’ll also see if he can actually be a head coach.
Minnesota: P.J. Fleck
Last 10 years: NIU receivers coach (2007-09), Rutgers receivers coach (2010-11), Tampa Bay Buccaneers receivers coach (2012), Western Michigan head coach (2013-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 48
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 9-4 (42nd)
Minnesota certainly didn’t fire Tracy Claeys for his work on the field; this past fall, the Gophers won nine games for the first time since 2003. Still, this feels like an upgrade.
After the boycotts and insubordination and faulty leadership going on at Minnesota in December, athletic director Mark Coyle was still able to land the biggest mid-major name available, someone who might legitimately raise Minnesota’s recruiting ceiling and back it up with developmental prowess.
After stripping WMU’s foundation to the studs in 2013, Fleck raised the Broncos quickly. They moved from 117th in S&P+ to 62nd, then 53rd, then 35th. He recruited better than anyone in his conference, then deployed these prospects appropriately.
Minnesota isn’t going to start signing top-15 classes with Fleck, but if he can sign top-30 classes, his track record suggests he can produce top-20 quality.
There’s concern about Fleck’s schtick — his catchphrases and his relentless, almost comical energy — and who knows, maybe it won’t play in the Big Ten. But what we know for sure is that Fleck aced his first head coaching test.
Oregon: Willie Taggart
Last 10 years: Stanford running backs coach (2007-09), Western Kentucky head coach (2010-12), South Florida (2013-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 14
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 4-8 (69th)
In a way, Taggart suffers from the same issues as Rhule: he’s taking over at a school in a region for which he has minimal recruiting ties. His 18-year career consists of 11 years at WKU, four at USF, and just three anywhere else.
That said, those three were at Stanford from 2007-09, when Taggart was part of Jim Harbaugh’s period of Cardinal growth. And while local recruiting connections are important at Oregon, his Ducks can only succeed because of national recruiting.
Taggart has pulled off two successful salvage jobs; at USF and WKU, he went a combined 4-20 in his first seasons, 11-13 in his second seasons, and 25-12 thereafter. He redefined himself offensively at USF to cater to the talent on hand, and he will probably do the same. If he can figure out how to get a handle on Oregon’s defensive collapse, he can win big.
But that’s an awfully big “if.”
Purdue: Jeff Brohm
Last 10 years: Louisville passing game coordinator (2007), Louisville offensive coordinator (2008), FAU quarterbacks coach (2009), Illinois quarterbacks coach (2010-11), UAB offensive coordinator (2012), WKU offensive coordinator (2013), WKU head coach (2014-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 89
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 3-9 (108th)
Purdue has suffered from a lack of imagination, going with the safe, Big Ten-ish hire instead of looking for something exciting from outside the Big Ten umbrella.
Granted, Bowling Green, Ky., isn’t that far out of the umbrella, but snaring the immensely successful Brohm from WKU was a damn coup. His Hilltoppers have ranked in the S&P+ top 15 for two straight years, averaging 45 points per game in the process. Purdue’s best hires have come from the “outsider with offensive success” vein. Brohm qualifies.
The newest members of the AAC fraternity
Cincinnati: Luke Fickell
Last 10 years: Ohio State defensive co-coordinator (2005-10), Ohio State interim head coach (2011), Ohio State defensive co-coordinator (2012-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 61
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 4-8 (91st)
Fickell is as Ohio as it gets. He grew up in Columbus, he was a four-year starter for Ohio State, and he has coached at Ohio State for 16 years. His only two years as a non-Buckeye assistant coach were at Akron. The draw is obvious for Cincinnati.
Plus, while he wasn’t very successful in his awkward season as Ohio State’s interim head coach when Jim Tressel departed, we’ve learned time and again that year-long interim situations are nearly impossible. So that probably shouldn’t be held against him.
Still, it’s our only evidence of Fickell as a head coach. And fair or not, that has to give us pause. He’s going to recruit well and represent the state of Ohio with aplomb. But we don’t know much beyond that.
Houston: Major Applewhite
Last 10 years: Alabama offensive coordinator (2007), Texas assistant head coach (2008-10), Texas offensive co-coordinator (2011-13), Houston offensive coordinator (2015-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 52
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 9-3 (27th)
Applewhite has lived a few coaching lives already. Remember when he was Todd Graham’s 27-year-old coordinator at Rice? Or when he was Nick Saban’s first OC at Alabama? When he was Mack Brown’s hot young assistant at his alma mater? When he was disciplined at Texas for an “inappropriate relationship?”
Applewhite is still only 38, and only the hairline hints at him being older than 26. But he’s been around the block, and now he lands a big home-state gig, one that comes with hilariously high expectations.
I’m generally hesitant to appreciate continuity hires, and being able to continue building what Herman had started was a huge selling point for him. But he’s got the experience. Hires can be both uninspiring and logical.
Temple: Geoff Collins
Last 10 years: Alabama director of player personnel (2007), UCF linebackers coach (2008-09), FIU defensive coordinator (2010), Mississippi State defensive co-coordinator (2011-12), Mississippi State defensive coordinator (2013-14), Florida defensive coordinator (2015-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 67
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 10-3 (18th)
It does Collins a slight disservice to say that he is “selling high” in taking the Temple job. There is logic to support it — after crafting dominant defenses for Florida’s Jim McElwain for two years, Collins’ stock is high, and with the experience the Gators stand to lose on defense, they were probably due a slight backward in 2017.
However, I’m thinking the floor would’ve remained high for Collins’ Gator defense. His Mississippi State defenses ranked 17th and 27th in Def. S&P+, and both of his Florida defenses ranked sixth. UF would have slipped, but only so far, and his stock probably wouldn’t have fallen with it.
Goodness knows Collins is inheriting a job with a high defensive ceiling. Temple has ranked 16th, 18th, and 18th in Def. S&P+ over the last three years and has the type of attacking talent Collins craves.
You never know how a successful coordinator will perform as a head coach, but Collins was due. His lack of experience in the Northeast is a bit of a concern, but plenty of Northeastern head coaches recruit the South. Collins will be no different.
UConn: Randy Edsall
Last 10 years: UConn head coach (1999-2010), Maryland head coach (2011-15), Detroit Lions director of football research (2016).
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 105
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 3-9 (117th)
I mean, I get it. Your program was decent under Edsall — over his last four years, the Huskies averaged 8.3 wins with an average S&P+ ranking of 53rd — and has been mostly awful since. In the six years after he left for Maryland, you’ve averaged four wins and an S&P+ of 94. Ergo, bring back the guy who had your program better than it is.
But 53rd would have ranked about fifth in the AAC, and that was with the benefit of recruiting to a power conference. Those are the good old days? Isn’t this when you’re supposed to be looking for someone with grand visions of winning AAC titles? Plus, you’re in the AAC! Home of young up-and-comers! And you land on Edsall two days after you announce that you’re firing Bob Diaco?
Ignoring that sequels generally aren’t as good as the original ... ignoring that the mean for coaches returning to their old haunts is closer to Bill Walsh’s second stint at Stanford than Bill Snyder’s at Kansas State ... hell, ignoring that even Snyder hasn’t produced the same level of sustained brilliance the second time around ... Edsall is a decent coach. And his hire of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is certainly an intriguing step in the right direction.
He also would have been available later in the search process, if UConn had decided to take a little bit more time surveying the field.
USF: Charlie Strong
Last 10 years: Florida defensive coordinator (2007-09), Louisville head coach (2010-13), Texas head coach (2014-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 77
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 10-2 (39th)
No matter what kind of mess he inherited from Brown, Strong underachieved as Texas’ head coach. He didn’t handle the meddlesome boosters well, and he never seemed like a great fit within the media-saturated UT market. He was slow to make what seemed like obvious offensive changes, and once his offensive improved, his defense regressed drastically.
Very little of that applies at USF. Strong can do what he does best: recruit Florida. The competition will be stiff, but he built a winner at Louisville on the back of Florida players, and he will probably do the same in Tampa. And he’s experienced enough that he may not jump to just any power job if he succeeds.
FAU: Lane Kiffin
Last 10 years: Oakland Raiders head coach (2007-08), Tennessee head coach (2009), USC head coach (2010-13), Alabama offensive coordinator (2014-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 100
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 3-9 (118th)
Kiffin’s image transformation has been stunning. He went from the cocky, young head coach who fell upward and benefited from his well-known genes to the stepson Nick Saban never had, a guy who celebrates touchdowns before they happen, gets yelled at by his angry boss, misses the bus, and acts goofy on Twitter.
And now he’s taking a pay cut to prove he can be a head coach again. Florida recruiting has never been as competitive as it is about to be — Kiffin, Strong, and new FIU head coach Butch Davis are all well-connected, to put it lightly — and Kiffin will get to prove his tactical chops in an environment that doesn’t give him boatloads of blue-chippers.
I don’t know if this marriage will work, but I’m excited that we get to find out.
FIU: Butch Davis
Last 10 years: North Carolina head coach (2007-10)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 121
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 4-8 (118th)
If Davis were 55, this would be a slam-dunk, A+ hire. Davis’ program-building efforts at Miami, when he was head coach there from 1995-2000, were legendary. He set the table for Larry Coker to run some of the most talented teams of the last generation.
He left Miami 16 years ago, though. He went 28-23 at UNC from 2007-10 and left the program with an NCAA mess. And over the last six seasons, his only coaching job has been as an unpaid advisor for Greg Schiano with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Talent evaluation is still talent evaluation, and Davis will almost certainly leave FIU better than he finds it. That alone makes this a solid hire. But one has to wonder about how much of the game has passed Davis by.
Fresno State: Jeff Tedford
Last 10 years: California head coach (2002-12), Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator (2014), British Columbia Lions head coach (2015), Washington offensive consultant (2016)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 84
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 1-11 (112th)
First thing’s first: Tedford really is only 55. It feels like he’s been around forever, and it feels like forever ago that he was bringing Cal to the doorstep of a BCS bowl bid. Plus, he was dealing with heart problems only two years ago.
Still, he’s got solid California connections, and in theory he’s still got decent years to offer. But were the good recruiting ties and memories of great Tedford offenses really enough for Fresno State to so quickly pounce? Without seeing who else the market might have to offer, the Bulldogs nailed Tedford down in early November. It was a safe, uninspiring, and quick hire. That’s odd.
Georgia State: Shawn Elliott
Last 10 years: Appalachian State offensive line coach (2001-09), South Carolina offensive line coach (2010-11), South Carolina offensive co-coordinator (2012-15), South Carolina interim head coach (2015), South Carolina offensive line coach (2016)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 116
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 3-9 (106th)
Elliott played and coached for legendary Appalachian State head man Jerry Moore, then moved to Steve Spurrier’s staff in 2010. He was effective enough as an OL coach and recruiter that he not only served as interim coach when Spurrier retired, he also stayed when Will Muschamp came to town.
Players seem to love him, he belongs to two impressive coaching trees, and his South Carolina tenure has given him plenty of exposure to Atlanta recruiting.
And as with Fickell, holding Elliott’s 1-5 interim record against him might be unfair. But it’s all we’ve got.
Nevada: Jay Norvell
Last 10 years: UCLA offensive coordinator (2007), Oklahoma assistant offensive coordinator (2008-10), Oklahoma offensive co-coordinator (2011-14), Texas receivers coach/play-caller (2015), Arizona State receivers coach (2016)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 96
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 5-7 (121st)
On paper, Norvell has a wealth of experience and the kind of offense-friendly pedigree one comes to expect from Nevada. He has coached at Iowa, Wisconsin, Iowa State, Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona State, and he’s mixed in six years in the NFL. Plus, the Iowa grad is yet another member of the Hayden Fry coaching tree. Those guys tend to do pretty well.
But one thing has irked me about Norvell: teams don’t seem to miss him when he’s gone.
Oklahoma ranked an average of 29th in Off. S&P+ over his last two seasons as co-coordinator, then improved to eighth and first in his absence. Texas ranked 73rd in Off. S&P+ in 2015 with him calling plays for part of the season, then rose to 31st after he left. Arizona State fell from 31st in Off. S&P+ in 2015 to 59th in 2016 when he came aboard.
Judging Norvell in this way is a bit unfair. He was also co-coordinator for a couple of excellent OU offenses, and pinning the Texas mess on him is inaccurate. But color me unconvinced.
San Jose State: Brent Brennan
Last 10 years: San Jose State offensive coordinator (2005-10), Oregon State receivers coach (2011-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 88
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 4-8 (105th)
Brennan is the least known quantity on the list. The former UCLA receiver is a San Jose local boy and spent six seasons leading decent and dreadful SJSU offenses before becoming part of strong and sickly Oregon State offenses.
Brennan will inherit a defense that was young and shaky and an offense that was led by a senior passer, senior rusher, and senior receiver. He won’t have to wait long to have an influence on that side of the ball.
But ... well ... I’m not going to pretend to know more about him than I do. And what I do know is mixed.
Western Kentucky: Mike Sanford
Last 10 years: Stanford quarterbacks coach (2007-08), Yale tight ends coach (2009), WKU quarterbacks coach (2010), Stanford running backs coach (2011-12), Stanford quarterbacks coach (2013), Boise State offensive coordinator (2014), Notre Dame offensive coordinator (2015-16)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 44
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 10-3 (14th)
A coaching wunderkind, Sanford worked for Harbaugh and David Shaw before breathing life back into Boise State’s offense (13th in Off. S&P+ in 2014), then doing the same at Notre Dame (seventh in 2015).
While 2016 was a struggle for all in South Bend, it didn’t ding Sanford’s reputation. And now he takes over what has been maybe the most impressive Group of 5 offense in the country over the last two years, one that will feature 4,000-yard passer Mike White.
This feels ... right. You never know, but this feels right.
Western Michigan: Tim Lester
Last 10 years: North Central defensive coordinator (2007), Elmhurst head coach (2008-12), Syracuse quarterbacks coach (2013), Syracuse offensive coordinator (2014-15), Purdue quarterbacks coach (2016)
Program five-year S&P+ rank: 83
2016 record and S&P+ rank: 13-1 (35th)
This one is hard to figure out.
On one hand, Lester has six years of head coaching experience (beginning with one year at St. Joseph’s in Division II when he was 26) and has only finished with a losing record once. On the other, most of his head coaching came in Division III. Taking Elmhurst to the DIII quarterfinals in 2012 is nice, but it’s hard to imagine that applies wholly to coaching in FBS.
On one hand, Lester’s pedigree as a former WMU quarterback suggests he knows the terrain and might not leave for just any power conference job. On the other, “He might stay longer” tends to be a scared criterion to use in a coaching search.
Still, a youngish guy with local ties and 40 career wins as a head coach and a year as an XFL quarterback? That’s pretty fun.