Coaching changes abound, but are there enough prospects?

Photo by Shelby Daniel/Icon SMI
05 December 2011: Ole Miss Introduces Hugh Freeze-Freeze takes over after a disapointing stint by Houston Nutt. Ole Miss held the press conference to introduce their new head coach in Oxford, MS at the Ford Center. (Photo by Shelby Daniel/Icon SMI)

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Dec. 4, 2011

 

At least one current – and one future – SEC school is searching for a new head coach, and others might join the party by the end of the season. Around college football, there have been 20 Division-IA programs already find themselves with a vacancy since the end of the 2011 regular season.

 

The question is, are there enough good coaching prospects to go around?

 

Every year, TideFans.com takes a look at up-and-coming coaches to watch. We typically restrict the field to current head coaches either at the Division-IA level (but not in a BCS conference) or Division-IAA level. Occasionally, we will mention coordinators if there is enough confluence of opinion among experts in the coaching field that a particular assistant stands out from the rest. Given that coordinators typically do not have a body of work as head coaches, however, TideFans prefers to spend much time talking about them.

 

This year, we may have no choice. Of the 20 schools with vacancies, five have already filled their slots. In this article, we’ll take a look not only at some names to watch, but also look at the jobs that are open.

 

TideFans.com’s 2011-2012 Coaches to Watch

 

Hugh Freeze, Arkansas

Pros: Good offensive mind, led Arkansas to 10-2 record

Cons: Has only one year of experience at the helm of a Division-IA school

Analysis: Freeze is best known for being the head coach of Briarwood (Tenn.) High School during the time Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame played there. He coached two years at tiny Lambuth, compiling a 20-5 record there, before coming to Arkansas as offensive coordinator. When former coach Steve Roberts was fired, Freeze was elevated to the head coaching position. Arkansas State went 10-2 in the regular season in 2011, bettering 2010’s record of 4-8. He’s in the mix for jobs at Texas A&M and Ole Miss, among others.

 

Larry Fedora, Southern Miss

Pros: Considered an offensive Svengali, has paid his dues as coordinator at some major programs

Cons: His teams have been prone to ugly upsets

Analysis: Fedora was one of the innovators behind the passing spread attack now in use everywhere in the Big 12. His offenses at Florida probably kept Ron Zook employed longer than he rightfully should have been. Since taking over Southern Miss, Fedora has at times been one of the hottest names in the mix, and at other times has caused Golden Eagle fans to look into hiring a moving company and sending it to his house. Losses this year to Marshall and UAB torpedoed USM’s chances at being a fringe candidate for the BCS Championship Game. He is being considered for openings at Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Kansas.

 

Kevin Sumlin, Houston

Pros: 2011 team was on the cusp of possible BCS championship until final game; good offensive coach

Cons: 5-7 and was on the hotseat in 2010, so how much of his success was Case Keenum at QB?

Analysis: Sumlin didn’t create the offensive juggernaut at Houston; Art Briles (who was once a member of the TideFans.com Coaches to Watch list himself) did that before moving on to Baylor. Sumlin has coached four seasons at Houston, finishing with two mediocre years (2008, 2010) and two good years (2009, 2011). He has experience as an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and a long resume of coaching wide receivers and quarterbacks, but because of his up-and-down record at Houston, it’s hard to evaluate him and separate his prowess as a head coach from the playing ability of Case Keenum, his NFL-ready quarterback. Sumlin is a candidate at both Ole Miss and Texas A&M, as well as Arizona and possibly UCLA.

 

Troy Calhoun, Air Force

Pros: Teams consistently over-achieve, has NFL experience and is a Jim Grobe protégé

Cons: His teams don’t play defense well; option offense is considered a limitation; seems happy at USAF

Analysis: The biggest issue for Calhoun is the last one listed under “Cons” – he has had opportunities to leave Colorado Springs in the past and hasn’t taken them. Calhoun would likely have to change his offensive scheme if he moved up to a bigger job, but of greater concern is Air Force’s defense, which has been poor at best, especially against the run. Still, Calhoun consistently churns out winners, and if enough big-time jobs come open this offseason, someone will look at him. He hasn’t been mentioned in connection with many jobs yet other than some weak rumors about UCLA.

 

Ron English,

Pros: Bowl-eligible out of nowhere in 2011, good defensive pedigree, good recruiter

Cons: 2-22 in his first two years at EMU

Analysis: He probably hasn’t done enough to get a long look from a top program yet, but English has connections to the West Coast. He played at Cal and got his masters from Arizona State, putting him either in the sphere or near it of both the Arizona and UCLA openings. In reality, he’s a year away from getting consideration for a bigger job, but given that most of his team returns in 2012, EMU figures to be bowl-eligible again, and that will draw notice in Ypslianti.

 

Pete Lembo,

Pros: Good resume at previous stops, won more in first year at BSU than expected, funky offense

Cons: Only one year in Division-IA, improvement in 2011 may not have all been Lembo’s doing

Analysis: The two-year Stan Parrish experiment was a failure at Ball State, and Pete Lembo came in with low expectations. Most pundits thought BSU would struggle to post a record with fewer than 10 losses; instead, Lembo delivered a bowl-eligible 6-6 mark. He has a good resume at Elon and Lehigh, and has now won 85 career games, but the big question is how much of ’s improvement in 2011 was simply a factor of not being burdened with Parrish any longer. Like Ron English, Lembo will need an additional year or two of success before being tapped to take a step up, but keep him on your radar screen.

 

Mario Cristobal, Florida International

Pros: Disciplinarian, good recruiter and motivator, defensive whiz

Cons: 16-33 record prior to 2011, judging Sun Belt coaches is always tough

Analysis: Despite suffering through a mixed middle of the season, Cristobal’s team closed out the year strongly at 8-4. Cristobal took over a program that was the dregs of college football and mired in a culture of cheap shots and undisciplined play, and turned it into the most feared program in its conference thanks to its inherent recruiting advantage. It was even a mild surprise to some that selected Al Golden over Cristobal last year, as Cristobal is a Hurricane alum. Another good season like 2011 and Cristobal will have his pick of jobs.

 

Dave Christensen, Wyoming

Pros: Two bowl-eligible teams in 3 years, great offensive mind who learned under Gary Pinkel at Mizzou

Cons: 3-9 in 2010, defense has been spotty

Analysis: On a scale of difficulty, consistently winning at Wyoming is one of the most difficult accomplishments for a college coach to achieve. Wyoming even managed to ruin the career of Joe Glenn, who had experienced great success in lower divisions before arriving in Laramie. Christensen, however, has gotten the Cowboys to bowl eligibility twice in three years. If he has any sense about him, he’ll find the first decent job and get out of town.

 

Tim Beckman, Toledo

Pros: Three seasons with gradually improving results, sound on offense, dangerous against any opponent

Cons: Defense – which is his specialty – has been spotty, 2011 results came from veteran lineup

Analysis: The 2012 season will tell the tale for Beckman. Toledo started 13 seniors and 6 juniors for most of 2011, and that kind of experience can shade results one way or another. Still, this team was the MAC team no one wanted to face in 2011, and was relentless against all comers. Offensive coordinator Matt Campbell probably wrote his own check for a head coach’s job in 2012, too, by ripping off these five point totals in the last five games of the year: 49, 60, 66, 44 and 45. Beckman needs to put up one more year of results to prove he can do it with his own recruits and not former coach Tom Amstutz’s, but if he does, he’ll have his pick of jobs.

 

Sonny Dykes,

Pros: Credible coaching pedigree, teams play with toughness, 8-4 in 2011 with a green team

Cons: Has only been a head coach 2 years

Analysis: The Bulldogs finished the year on a 7-game that included wins over Ole Miss, Nevada and Utah State. This came on the of an overtime loss at Mississippi State. Dykes, the son of legendary Texas Tech head coach Spike Dykes, won’t be in Ruston for long. He has been mentioned in connection with the jobs at Ole Miss and Kansas and figures to be in the mix at Houston if Kevin Sumlin is hired away. Dykes may have done the best job of anyone on this list in 2011 relative to what he had coming back on his roster.

 

Mark Hudspeth,

Pros: Long-term track record of success, consistent offense that scores points

Cons: Personality doesn’t win over everyone, never won “the big one” at UNA

Analysis: The love/hate factor is high and he could be a boom-bust type of pick for whoever hires him next, but one thing seems sure – he will get an opportunity at a bigger school. Hudspeth is already in the mix for the Tulane and Ole Miss jobs and, like Dykes, would probably be a candidate to back-fill Houston if Kevin Sumlin is hired by another school. Hudspeth is now 74-25 after 8 seasons as a head coach, and in 2011 at Louisiana-Lafayette, brought a surprisingly effective and consistent offense to the table. He’s a high-energy type and his act isn’t for everyone, but for the right school, he’d be a good fit and probably a very successful one.

 

Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator

Pros: Nick Saban pedigree, great recruiter, defense has put up stifling numbers for five years now

Cons: No way to tell how much of UA’s defensive success is his, has never been a head coach

Analysis: Smart is one of only coordinators we’ll touch on, because he’s one of few virtually assured to get a head coaching job sometime in the next year or two. Smart has already been connected to the Texas A&M and Ole Miss jobs, and he’s been mentioned at least to some degree in the Arizona State search and a presumptive search at Houston should that job come open. Smart could also end up at Southern Miss if is hired elsewhere. will hate to lose him, but Smart needs some head coaching experience and a track record before he can be considered a candidate to replace Nick Saban years from now when Saban retires.

 

Gus Malzahn, Auburn offensive coordinator

Pros: Frenetic offense was aces in 2010, use of misdirection helps lesser teams compete

Cons: Poor results in 2011, spread slowly being figured out by opposing defensive coordinators

Analysis: Malzahn could have written his own ticket to several schools following the 2010 season, but chose to remain at Auburn. It remains to be seen if his decision will cost him some money. Auburn’s offense was a grease fire for much of 2011, thanks mostly to the lack of a viable quarterback, but remain as to how much of the Tigers’ struggles was due to defensive coordinators catching up to Malzahn’s formations and tendencies. One of the truisms of football is that defenses always catch up in time. Can Malzahn make the necessary adjustments? He might do so at Kansas or Tulane.

 

JOB OPENINGS

 

As of Dec. 4, the following jobs were open in Division-IA college football. Here’s our ranking of them, from best to worst:

 

Texas A&M

Pros: Big fan base, good tradition, has enough money to fund whatever improvements it wants

Cons: Hasn’t always spent that money, College Station is not a preferred destination

Analysis: Texas A&M will struggle for 2-3 years upon entry to the SEC, just as Arkansas and South Carolina did and Missouri will also do. But in the long run, the Aggies have enough resources to challenge for perennial inclusion among the top teams of the SEC West.

 

UCLA

Pros: In the middle of recruiting Nirvana, West Coast locale and climate, history of putting into NFL

Cons: Facilities are abhorrent, questionable commitment to the program from higher-ups

Analysis: If UCLA gets serious about spending real money to help the program along, UCLA could be every bit as good or better, in the long run, than USC. The question is whether the Bruins will actually do it. Unless such a commitment is made, this will be a middle-of-the-pack PAC-12 program. Winning costs money; how much does UCLA want to win? If the answer is “a lot,” the next coach of this program could be stepping into a gold mine.

 

State

Pros: Gobs of tradition, loyal fan base, well-positioned in a BCS conference

Cons: The Sandusky/Paterno fallout will reverberate for years, always a challenge recruiting speed here

Analysis: This was already going to be a tough assignment just from the standpoint of following the legend Joe Paterno. Then the Jerry Sandusky case broke, and all bets are off. Tom Bradley’s chance at the job is all but gone, and attention has turned mostly to Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen in recent weeks. If State can somehow get beyond the Sandusky issue – which will be a challenge in recruiting, no matter how much PSU fans wish it won’t be – the next question is, can the next coach do better at recruiting speed? This has been an issue at Penn State for years, as the Nittany Lions are one of the slowest teams in the BCS. The fact is, we simply don’t know where Penn State is going from here once Paterno is no longer in charge.

 

Illinois

Pros: Big Ten is vulnerable now, decent recruiting area, good resources

Cons: Expectations out of sync with history, if OSU and Michigan get rolling again all bets are off

Analysis: Illinois is basically the Georgia of the Big Ten, a good school in what should be a recruiting hotbed that has never seemed to put it all together. The Fighting Illini have a chance to take the next step up, but the window is tight and closing fast. Illinois’ last choice, Ron Zook, brought talent to campus but couldn’t develop it. Illinois is positioned to win quickly with the right guy at the helm, but long-term success may be a challenge.

 

Arizona State

Pros: PAC-12 has room for another good team, Tempe area has some recruiting pull

Cons: admin has been unrealistic with expectations for last two coaches

Analysis: First off, let’s get this out of the way – if you are recruiting a young man who wants a fun campus with a large number of available, attractive coeds, it’s hard to do better than Arizona State, which has a well-deserved reputation for hedonism. The question is whether you can build a winner out of a group of those guys. Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson couldn’t, and they’ve been let go, basically for the sin of not being Bruce Snyder and/or not being able to attract a Jake Plummer at quarterback. The next head coach will have an opportunity to put his school on the PAC-12 map, thanks to probation at USC, a lack of commitment at UCLA and a coaching change down the road at Arizona that will bring with it a full system change in personnel. The only problem is, whoever coaches this team has to work for the ASU administration.

 

North Carolina

Pros: Great school, prime recruiting territory, increasing financial commitment to the program

Cons: NCAA probation looms, basketball will always overshadow the football team

Analysis: Butch Davis could have been the perfect fit at North Carolina, were it not for pesky NCAA regulations. This is a school primed to be led by a coach with good recruiting acumen, thanks to a rise in talent from both Carolinas. Davis was the ideal coach for the job, so the next coach will be judged relative to Davis’ recruiting. With Tennessee struggling and abounding at Clemson about player development, not to mention a flagging North Carolina State program, UNC could take a big step up with the right coach.

 

Kansas

Pros: Decent fan support considering program’s history, Big 12 is vulnerable with recent defections

Cons: Never has been a power, recruiting territory is miniscule

Analysis: For all his flaws, Mark Mangino knew how to make Kansas competitive. Surprisingly, Turner Gill did not. Now Kansas pushes the reset button and hopes the next coach can reposition the Jayhawks in the upper echelon of a rapidly changing Big 12 landscape. This is the point in our list where the jobs cease to be good ones. Kansas football is not now, nor will it be viable unless major changes are made within the program and especially on the recruiting trail. The next coach either needs to be a technical coaching wizard, or be able to convince Texas and Florida talent to move to America’s flatlands.

 

Ole Miss

Pros: In the SEC, could easily flip balance of power in its state, good recruiting lands

Cons: Low budget, Old South fallout still resonates, SEC expansion doesn’t help a bit

Analysis: The bottom three jobs in the SEC, in terms of what can be accomplished, are Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The fact MSU has been good the past couple of years explains why Dan Mullen is on State’s short list. If James Franklin continues to impress at Vanderbilt, someone else will throw him a mint. At Ole Miss, the program has made nothing but missteps since Tommy Tuberville departed for Auburn. David Cutcliffe was fired thanks to overinflated expectations, and his successor, Ed Orgeron, nearly wrecked the program. Houston Nutt, never a great recruiter, won initially but as the talent ran out, this team started looking like the one from the Joe Lee Dunn era. To put it bluntly, Ole Miss fan expectations are absurd. Continued insistence that the Rebels’ “Grove” tradition means anything on the field has set the program back, and if Ole Miss is serious about taking the next step, it’s got to be about more than money. It has to involve a reining in of expectations and also a full-blown commitment to get rid of anything still trying Ole Miss to its Old South roots. If the aren’t willing to sacrifice that, this coaching search and any others that follow it are meaningless. Recruits will make sure of it.

 

The rest: Tulane, Akron, Florida Atlantic, Memphis, Colorado State, Massachusetts, Fresno State

Pros: Good places to build your resume for the next step

Cons: All have at least one fatal flaw

Analysis: Of the names listed above, only Florida Atlantic has any real upside, thanks to its built-in Florida recruiting advantage. Tulane has the most history and prestige, but the school hasn’t made a financial commitment to success and the balance of power in that state is tilted heavily – in both fan count and state-sanctioned support – toward LSU. Memphis has a decent recruiting area from which to draw, but the academic state of that particular recruiting area is dismal. Fresno State could hold promise, but like Central Florida, seems to have stalled a bit in its progression as a program. Neither Akron, Colorado State nor UMass, the latter of which is a new addition to Division-IA, is a long-term job. But you gotta start somewhere.

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