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Coaching searches fire up around SEC

By Jess Nicholas, Editor-In-Chief

Nov. 25, 2012


As expected, Auburn decided Sunday it could not continued to tolerate the leadership – or lack thereof – of Gene Chizik, terminating his contract and those of his assistants.


Chizik’s departure makes four vacancies currently in the SEC. The others are Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Reports out of St. Louis on Sunday afternoon indicate Missouri might also make a change in the next few days, jettisoning longtime head coach Gary Pinkel.


Other jobs at BCS conferences were also coming open throughout the day, headlined by a surprising decision by North Carolina State to fire coach Tom O’Brien. O’Brien was, at one time, seen as a possible candidate for the job at Auburn.


Purdue canned Danny Hope a day after his Boilermakers achieved bowl eligibility. Boston College fired Frank Spaziani, who probably should never have been hired in the first place. California had let Jeff Tedford go a few days prior. Illinois, by late Sunday afternoon, was said to be considering firing Tim Beckman after just one year at the helm.


Other potential openings include Minnesota, where Jerry Kill’s health might finally, and unfortunately, end his career, and Southern Mississippi, which went from solid program to three-ring circus in one season under Ellis Johnson.


Here’s a first look at who might be under consideration at SEC schools with openings:


Auburn Tigers

Candidates: Bob Petrino, unemployed; Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach; Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator; Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams head coach; Charlie Strong, Louisville head coach; James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach; Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State head coach; Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech head coach; Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette head coach; Skip Holtz, South Florida head coach

Analysis: Auburn is in a pickle, thanks to an NCAA investigation looming over the program. The names Auburn is said to be courting run the gamut from promising assistant (Smart) to mid-major up-and-comer (Dykes) to unemployed offensive guru (Petrino) to NFL pipe dream (Jeff Fisher). This job has been “open” for about a month now, and some of the names that have become attached to the job over that period of time included Dykes and Hudspeth from lesser conferences, to Holtz at South Florida and Tom O’Brien at North Carolina State. The reason for inclusion of the latter two has to do with an unstated goal of the Auburn administration to find a tough, discipline-heavy head coach who can help wrangle some of the attitudes prevalent among the core group of players Auburn will have back for 2012. But the struggles of Holtz and O’Brien likely mean their candidacy for the job is over.

Prediction: Look for Auburn to make Jimbo Fisher its primary target. Bob Petrino may still be too toxic for any SEC program to take right now, while Jeff Fisher is highly unlikely. There is a lot of support for Kirby Smart, but Auburn would be taking a risk going after an unproven coach at this time. Gus Malzahn would seem to be the fallback option if Jimbo Fisher says no.


Arkansas Razorbacks

Candidates: Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech head coach; Art Briles, Baylor head coach; Chris Petersen, Boise State head coach; Charlie Strong, Louisville head coach; James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach

Analysis: Franklin is thought to be significantly behind the others on this list in terms of Arkansas’ interest. Media reports broke late Saturday that Petersen had taken the job, but as of Sunday, that news appeared to be a bit of a misfire. Briles is now considered the front-runner, and with the success of Texas A&M’s offense, the Razorbacks may be open to giving Briles a shot in the SEC. Briles developed the offense Kevin Sumlin now runs. Moreover, Arkansas’ roster is already suited to that style of play. The wild card in this search is Tommy Tuberville, who would probably run whatever offense his roster could manage, while improving the Razorback defense, which has been the team’s Achilles heel for years.

Prediction: Briles has deserved a shot at a legitimate BCS power program for years. If he is hired at Arkansas, the Razorbacks will become competitive quickly, although Briles’ teams typically ignore the concept of defense. In other words, Arkansas fans would be familiar with the on-field results.


Kentucky Wildcats

Candidates: Dirk Koetter, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator; Bob Petrino, unemployed; Butch Jones, Cincinnati head coach; Sonny Dykes, Louisana Tech head coach; Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky head coach; Brent Pease, Florida offensive coordinator; Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M offensive coordinator; Neal Brown, Texas Tech offensive coordinator; Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator

Analysis: You can see from the list of candidates that Kentucky is clearly going after an offense-minded head coach. It’s not a bad strategy for the second-tier Wildcats, who were at their most notably and newsworthy in the years Hal Mumme coached the team. Petrino made a splash in the days after Joker Phillips was fired when his father was quoted as saying son Bob wanted the job. But Kentucky officials specifically declined interest in Petrino in the days immediately after Phillips’ firing. Initially, Dirk Koetter was considered the front-runner for the job. He was previously the head coach at Boise State and Arizona State, and while Koetter is considered a good offensive mind, his Arizona State teams in particular defined the terms “finesse” and “soft.” Currently, Butch Jones appears to be leading the pack, which is somewhat surprising given that he was on the hot seat himself at Cincinnati at the start of the season. There appears to be a fairly clear line separating Jones and Koetter from the rest of the pack.

Prediction: This is Jones’ job to take at the moment. If talks break down late, look for Kentucky to re-target Koetter. If Koetter turns the Wildcats down, Kentucky will likely have to select a young assistant. Word from those close to the Alabama program say Kirby Smart will not take this job, and Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart is also a longshot at this time.


Tennessee Volunteers

Candidates: Jon Gruden, unemployed; Charlie Strong, Louisville head coach; Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator; Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech head coach; Jimbo Fisher, Florida State head coach; Al Golden, Miami head coach; Chris Petersen, Boise State head coach

Analysis: Tennessee’s field shrunk in a hurry when Art Briles and Butch Jones essentially allowed themselves to become the chief candidates for other schools. Tennessee also, rather unabashedly, targeted Gruden in the days just after Derek Dooley’s firing. While Gruden is not officially out of play just yet, Tennessee program insiders admit that his candidacy is not nearly as solid as it was a week ago. Jimbo Fisher and Chris Petersen are long shots to consider the position, and Tennessee will probably not pursue Smart given the fact the Vols just fired another Nick Saban protege. Now the question becomes whether Tennessee will make Charlie Strong or Al Golden its priority target. Tommy Tuberville’s name has somewhat surprisingly emerged in recent days as well.

Prediction: Strong and Golden appear to be clear favorites above the others. Golden seems to have the respect of more of the program insiders, but his tenure at Miami has been rocky to say the least. Golden did not get off to a fast start with the Hurricanes as he was expected to do, and some of the Canes’ pending NCAA troubles are alleged to have occurred under Golden’s watch. Strong would seem to be the safer pick, and his recruiting prowess is a requirement for working in Knoxville. With the fate of both the Big East and the ACC up in the air, it would seem Tennessee would be an easy choice for either Strong or Golden, depending on who gets the offer.


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