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Explaining James Franklin’s USC buzz and 6 other coaching carousel storylines

Three interesting Group of 5 decisions, Louisville’s potential backup plan, and ... Mack Brown back?

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California
James Franklin at the Rose Bowl
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

1. Why Charlotte is so sought after, and a bit about the hiring process

New athletic director Mike Hill came over from Florida in March, where he worked under Jeremy Foley for years. He’s taking a page out of his old boss’ book and is expected to lead the search for his next head coach himself, without the help of a search firm.

This could work, because many coaches will line up for it. Charlotte is the rarest of jobs: a high-ceiling Group of 5 with no baggage, expectation, or obvious obstacles, with good facilities in a major metro in the South. That is an aspiring head coach’s dream and a vision for beleaguered vets too.

Coaches have talked about Charlotte all season in anticipation of Brad Lambert’s dismissal, so expect this search to expand as the regular season concludes and coordinators can operate with more freedom. Early names are Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman (a Virginia native who recruits the Carolinas heavily), former Michigan head coach and current Panthers assistant Brady Hoke, and Clemson OC Tony Elliott. That list will grow soon.

2. Why James Franklin is an early name for USC

The industry consensus is that Clay Helton will be fired if the Trojans lose to undefeated Notre Dame on Saturday. Penn State head coach James Franklin’s name is the most prominent in early speculation about replacements.

We’re told this isn’t Franklin’s camp stoking the fire.

He fits the intangible needs people in the industry think USC needs: he’s media savvy and could stand out in the Pac-12 as an aggressive personality, had some Los Angeles recruiting experience for Washington State and Kansas State, and has already repaired a national brand that had far more significant damage.

It’s not that Franklin wouldn't listen if it came to it (he would), but right now the conversation is more armchair AD’ing than actual engagement. And for what it’s worth, Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, labored over the decision to leave Vanderbilt for Happy Valley in 2013.

There’s also the matter of Helton’s fate not being certain. If USC were to upset the Irish, AD Lynn Swann could likely rally support behind a coach who won the conference in 2017 and the Rose Bowl a year prior.

Helton would likely have to make more staff changes. He has already made some, like effectively demoting offensive coordinator Tee Martin by taking play-calling duties away and firing long-time friend Neil Callaway. It remains unclear if the moves were made directly by Helton on his own or at Swann’s behest.

3. Why Butch Jones might have deja vu

Before Jones started his “brick by brick” campaign at Tennessee in 2013, he flirted heavily with Colorado and Purdue. The former is looking for a new head coach, and the latter is very likely to be doing the same.

The former Volunteers coach has options. He’s been an analyst at Alabama in 2018 and could stay on for a larger role with Nick Saban if a few changes (Mike Locksley to Maryland, for instance) occur. With a healthy buyout of over $8 million from Big Orange, Jones doesn’t have to chase bad head coaching jobs.

If he does want to jump back in, either school he spurned five years ago could fit well with Jones’ offensive system. While he lacked a conclusive season in Knoxville, Jones’ reputation as a football coach is great among other coaches and ADs — it’s his public image and marketing that need work. He’s dogged more by his pablum on the mic in Knoxville than his career record, which includes seven eight-win seasons in 11 years.

Then again, he could just stay put in Tuscaloosa, where he’s said to be very happy, and smoke cigars while Knoxville pays him $200,000 a month.

4. Why there’s a great backup plan if Jeff Brohm doesn’t end up in Louisville

It would be a massive upset if the Cardinals don’t hire their native son and former quarterback. The Purdue coach is the overwhelming favorite.

But it’s worth noting he has a substantial buyout. If the Cards wait until after Dec. 5, it’s still $3.3 million. What if that price is too high for a U of L athletic department reeling from a run of scandals and firings?

The good news is that there’s another Kentuckian known for offense on the market. Neal Brown, a Danville native and former walk-on wide receiver at rival Kentucky, would fit almost everything U of L wants in Brohm, aside from the hometown ties.

Brown has great connections in the state and could immediately backstop the ground lost to Big Blue in recruiting. And if there’s one coach who could create excitement for fans missing out on Brohm, it’s the guy who led Troy to wins over LSU and Nebraska.

5. Why Texas State is a slightly better gig than you realize

Yes, it’s in the Sun Belt. Yes, it’s only been in FBS since 2012. Yes, it’s only had one winning season and never been to a bowl.

But the location will make it attractive to a young coach. It’s not like UTEP. It’s right between Austin and San Antonio.

It’s also in a slightly better place revenue-wise than its peers. Per USA Today, the Bobcats’ athletic department generated $38.4 million in revenue last year. That’s $6 million more than North Texas, $10 million more than UTSA, and $24 million more than UT-Arlington (a non-football school). There’s money in the banana stand in San Marcos.

That is due in large part to the student fees allocated to the athletic program for a school with the third-largest enrollment in the Sun Belt and on the higher end of schools in the state (34,000 students).

That tells coaches there’s money to pay assistants, key to recruiting when you’re trying to build a program.

A name that could be on the radar is Nebraska offensive line coach Greg Austin. He’s never been a coordinator, which means there would be some questions about whether he’d be in over his head, but he has the energetic profile (while coaching at UCF, he earned two master’s degrees in business) you like for a head coach at a G5 program looking for a foothold.

His schematic background (under Scott Frost and Chip Kelly), youth (34), and Texas roots (from a Houston suburb) mean he could be a fit, but prying him from his alma mater wouldn’t be easy.

It would be a departure from Everett Withers, whose ties weren’t in the state (very important in Texas) and didn’t do himself any favors with the alumni base.

Where it wouldn’t be a departure is in the fact that Austin is also black. Hiring two black coaches back to back is a rarity.

Although [Scottie] Montgomery and [Charlie] Strong followed black head coaches at their current roles, that’s the exception. A 2015 study by found that, dating back to 2000, 29 black FBS coaches have changed jobs, and only five had black successors. Strong became the sixth, when he replaced Willie Taggart at USF.

6. Why Mike Sanford could be hard to replace at WKU

A report in the Bowling Green Daily News specified Mike Sanford’s chances of making it to his third season depended on whether WKU could win two of its last three games. So far they’ve lost at FAU and whipped lowly UTEP at home, with a trip to 7-4 Louisiana Tech next.

Regardless of the outcome, firing Sanford (7-16 in two seasons) could prove to be tough for a program that’s been overachieving for so long that it’s lost some perspective.

Starting with the recruiting of Willie Taggart through the explosive offense of Brohm via Bobby Petrino, WKU kept hitting aces as a FBS novice. The university poured money into facilities, pushing the school to Conference USA, and the ‘Toppers won 23 games and two conference titles in 2015/‘16.

So what happened? Recruiting under Brohm waned just enough, which is all it takes at a G5 for a hiccup to become a gulch. Combine that with Sanford’s overhaul of the offense and locker room culture resulting in a rash of transfers and dismissals, all of which contributed to a 2-9 record that includes a loss to FCS Maine.

Bowling Green might receive that argument with deaf ears, as the level of expectation for its program exploded in the Taggart-Petrino-Brohm run. WKU has suddenly become a demanding job that expects 10 wins, yet can’t sell out its home stadium for conference championship games.

Given that Petrino and Brohm brought buyout money into the program, the school shouldn’t have a problem paying Sanford out at $1.2 million. The trick would be finding a coach who’s willing to deal with immediate expectations to win despite a roster that needs long term work.

7. Why people are talking about Mack Brown to UNC — wait, what?

Yeah, this is a real rumor right now!

Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora is 5-17 in his last two seasons in Chapel Hill, and despite the support of his peers could still be fired after Saturday’s game vs. NC State.

UNC has a lot of upside and a lot of names attached. Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and App State head coach Scott Satterfield are two to watch. There’s no reason a Mark Stoops-style slow build couldn’t work here.

But Brown? Yeah, the 67-year-old national title winner at Texas, retired since 2013, is a name floating around boosters at UNC. Given that Brown is second all-time in program wins at North Carolina (he coached the Heels from 1988-’97), this isn’t quite as strange as Les Miles to Kansas, but the style (and age) of Brown is at odds with the desire among UNC insiders to get “younger and cooler,” per one source.