Coaching Carousel (Nearly) Complete
Grading College Football's 2021 Coaching Hires
It’s been a little bit of a hiatus since my last column ranking how the first year college head coaches did in 2020. I had intended to have my ranking of the new coaching hires in college football up much sooner than this. Then, as I started writing this column…Kansas opened…I will have to circle back on that one. Because of the oddness associated with the COVID Pandemic, many pundits figured the coaching carousel would be minimal. That turned out to be a freezing cold take with jobs opening at a major power (Texas) and four SEC programs turning over. This, of course, had a domino effect. Boise State opened because Auburn hired Bryan Harsin. UCF opened because Josh Heupel went to Tennessee. These are my grades for the new coach hires in the FBS level of college football - minus Kansas
Important: These grades are based not just on how big or good the name is, it also factors what shape the program is, it’s prestige relative to the coach it was able to get. I also build in what trajectory the newly hired coach was on, how much interest there was in them from other schools, and, subjectively, how afraid I’d be of the hire if I was a fan of that school’s arch-rival.
As always would love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @ReadyCFB:
Texas – Steve Sarkisian: Whether Texas should have moved on so quickly from Tom Herman or not is an open question. When the “Urban Meyer to Texas” possibility dissipated many people assumed Herman was good for another year. However, when they had the chance to hire the coach that Alabama fans would have overwhelmingly accepted as “coach-in-waiting” to replace Nick Saban, Texas made the move. Urban would’ve been an “A+” because of track record but, despite the personal issues that derailed Sark at USC, this hire has tremendous potential. If Texas can finally get aligned behind a head coach’s vision, the sky is the limit for the flagship university of the state with richer and deeper high school football talent than any other. This is also an A because you have to believe that Sarkisian secured firm commitments that he would have what he needed to full rebuild the program. He also got off to a great start with his assistant hires and recruiting. I would be surprised if this doesn’t work out.
UCF – Gus Malzahn: UCF is possibly the top Group of 5 job in the country and is better than a lot of Power 5 gigs. However, it’s rare to see any Group of 5 lose a coach to a “bigger” program and feel like they immediately hired an upgrade but that’s what they did here. Gus Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn got stale – no question about it. However, he was the most successful coach head-to-head against Nick Saban and Alabama (going 3-5 in 8 years) and led the Tigers to two SEC Championship games, winning one, and a National Championship game berth. His downfall was not being able to recruit and develop a consistent quarterback and, frankly, a complimentary intermediate and deep passing game to go along with his downhill “single wing power spread” running game. However, that is not likely to be a problem at UCF for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that UCF would be a top destination for transfer 4 and 5 star QBs and skill position players. This hole in Gus’ last few years is really the only reason this hire is a “-“. I believe Malzahn will win consistently at UCF. The main question is – will it be 10-12 wins or 8-10 and secondly, how long will he stay?
Bryan Harsin – Auburn: I wrote extensively about this hire when it happened. I rated it a B+, and am sticking with it but since then there’s been a…weird…offensive coordinator hire (no one was clamoring for Mike Bobo’s services it seemed and he isn’t known as an elite recruiter) and the first recruiting class – built mostly on outgoing coach Gus Malzahn’s efforts – was not great. However, considering the circumstances, I still rate this as a really good hire that will keep Auburn in the 8-9 win range with occasional 10-11 win potential, exactly where their previous coach had them…er…why did they do this again? Maybe the hope that a more conventionally elite passing offense will lead to more upside in close games against elite teams not named Alabama – where their luck has been amazing.
Brett Bielema – Illinois: There are some people who rolled their eyes at BERT getting another shot at leading a program. Not me. I think the Illini have got a coach who is a proven winner in the Big 10 and, it sounds like, he has learned from some missteps at Arkansas. There was some bad luck in Fayetteville as well. Illinois has been irrelevant on the national scene for years but it’s easy to forget it was a foundational program as college football became a national sport 100 years ago and was a solid if unspectacular program in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Perched between Chicago and St. Louis, Bielema will look to make a splash quickly. Getting an accomplished head coach who has won the Big 10 multiple times is a B+ hire considering where things are in Champaign.
Kane Wommack – South Alabama: For a lower-tier (for now) job in the Sun Belt to be able to grab a guy that’s a relatively hot defensive coordinator coming off of a stint at the breakthrough Indiana Hoosiers program (who would’ve thought we’d be typing that a few years ago?), who also has experience at the school and in the region – you have to be happy if you are a Jaguars fan. I only have him as a B+ because he doesn’t have head coaching or offensive experience but he appears to be a very good recruiter and defensive mind. Dominating the second tier of Mobile, Pensacola, FL and competing in South Mississippi with Southern Miss, Troy and Tulane will be critical – Wommack seems well positioned to do it and get USA rolling.
Will Hall – Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles spent the mid-1990’s and most of the early 2000s-as the – forgive me – gold standard for what we now call G5 football programs. They were consistent giant-killers. In the 2010s it was up and down and the last couple of years have been more down. Having a coach who understands Mississippi’s JUCO culture and Mississippi/South Alabama/Louisiana 2-3 star recruiting is vitally important. Being innovative on the offensive and/or defensive sides of the ball is critical too and Will Hall brings all of that to the table from his time at Georgia Southern and Tulane as an offensive coordinator. I think this is a hire that’s going to restore the roar in Hattiesburg in the coming years.
Butch Jones – Arkansas State: Losing a good coach to a step up has been the norm for Arkansas State through the years. They’ve been a proving ground, sometimes just a one year proving ground, for coaches that are now patrolling Power 5 sidelines. Blake Anderson actually stabilized the program after a series of “one and dones” (Freeze, Malzahn, Harsin…). With Butch Jones, Arkansas State has an established coach who will continue their positive winning tradition. The Tennessee experience left some mud splattered on Butch but the guy was a winner at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Frankly, looking at the last decade of Tennessee football, his 9 win 2016 was the high water-mark. Now he’s been through the Nick Saban home for lost coaches and is thrilled to be a head coach again. He may even be able to elevate State in the Fun Belt.
Andy Avalos – Boise State: A solid replacement for the loss of Harsin, Avalos will bring defensive intensity to this head job after spending the last few seasons as Oregon’s DC. I didn’t rate this any higher because it seemed kind of like a quick hire once Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore wasn’t interested. Avalos knows the Northwest – he was a star linebacker at Boise so he knows the system well. He’s never been a head coach however, and there can be some pitfalls with that. Overall a good hire that should keep the Broncos rolling, but can they get back to where they were in the halcyon days of Chris Petersen? The Mountain West is better now than the early 2010s…time will tell.
Charles Huff – Marshall: Marshall firing Doc Holliday after another winning, but not quite good enough, season had me thinking they might struggle to find an attractive replacement especially with stories circulating that the state’s political structure had been involved. Instead, I believe they’ve found a great choice with a lot of energy, an excellent pedigree from being with Nick Saban, and an elite recruiter. Huff is a B rather than B+ because he has no head coach or coordinator experience but he brings an edge to Marshall that should yield results. In addition, as the first African-American head coach at either Marshall or West Virginia, he’s a historic choice that should benefit the school in recruiting Virginia, Ohio and the Southeast which is critical for Marshall to get back to dominating CUSA and possibly move up in future realignment.
Blake Anderson – Utah State: Coming off a 4-7 season at Arkansas State, this ranking may seem high but you have to look at the previous six years where Anderson went 47-30 (36-12 in conference) and went to six straight bowl games. Utah State needed a steady hand to recover from the chaos left by Gary Andersen who quit on the program after two underachieving years. Blake Anderson has some experience coaching in the Mountain West from the early 2000’s and has had success as a play caller and coordinator in a number of G5 and P5 stops before landing at Arkansas State. For Utah State, it may lack a lot of splash but it’s a pretty good hire given the circumstances.
Clark Lea – Vanderbilt: While not the flashiest candidate that was mentioned for the Commodore job, Lea – who played fullback at Vanderbilt for Bobby Johnson in the early 2000s – is a very good hire. As the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, where his team held Alabama to its fewest points of the season despite a clear talent gap, Lea was certainly on a number of rising star lists. This is only at a B because Vandy’s offense has been the big problem since James Franklin left (and actually wasn’t especially dynamic even under Franklin). Lea is a defensive coach – his offensive hires and more importantly, his choices of what to emphasize will be critical as will being able to recruit Nashville’s burgeoning high school ranks and establishing more of a national footprint like Stanford has been able to do for an academic-focused university like Vanderbilt.
Tennessee – Josh Heupel: Here me out…some folks have been dogging this hire but considering where the Volunteers have put themselves with self-reporting NCAA violations so that they could save money on ending the disastrous Jeremy Pruitt era. So – considering what Tennessee had to work with, and a desperate need to inject some offensive excitement, they could have done worse than Heupel. He was a winning-record G5 head coach with SEC and Big 12 offensive coordinator experience – albeit getting fired at Oklahoma in the early 2010s. He should get the offense cranking a bit, but the jury is out on whether he can really build the program up considering that his only head coach experience was taking over an undefeated UCF and, after an initially wonderful start, had begun coming back to earth. Tennessee fans had their designs on some bigger names but at this point…beggars can’t be choosers.
Louisiana-Monroe – Terry Bowden: At first blush I thought this was an interesting hire but the more I evaluate, it seems like more of a ploy for attention than a serious effort to rebuild ULM’s program…or I should say “build” as big moments have been few and far between. Terry Bowden did get Akron to a bowl game sandwiched in between a lot of losing. He reinvigorated a North Alabama program before going to Akron but feels like this hire is chasing ghosts. Getting a young and hungry assistant, to me, may have made more sense. Unfortunately, considering the fact that ULM pays at the lowest level of FBS for coaching salaries, there may not have been a lot to pick from. He’s a “+” because he is a big name that will get some attention. This would not be a C+ at a less downtrodden school.
Shane Beamer – South Carolina: I loved Shane’s father Frank Beamer who built Virginia Tech into a real power from basically nothing. Shane was with him part of that time and has been an assistant under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina and Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma among other stops. However, he’s never been a coordinator and seemed to get the job because former players at SC and boosters liked him. He’s dealt with staff turnover since starting. I want to believe – I really do – but I don’t see how he gets South Carolina permanently back ahead of Kentucky and Missiouri or long-term competes with Tennessee for that 3 – 4 spot in SEC East much less does battle with Clemson. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong.
Jedd Fisch – Arizona: Career NFL and college assistant gets head coaching job based on…having been at lots of places? He’s not even an offensive innovator really – more of a pro-style coach. This one is weird, and – to use the Bud Elliott standard from 247Sports, it’s an “I don’t get it” hire. The only sense I can make is that he has spent a lot of time in the PAC-12 and has a lot of good relationships on the West Coast with athletic director’s like Arizona’s. This SEEMS like a stopgap hire as the price tag of about $3 million a year is very cheap while the Wildcats pay off outgoing coach Kevin Sumlin’s $15 million (!) buyout.