(in order from Best to Worst)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC: Lane Kiffin, Alabama Offensive Coordinator (GRADE: A+)
This was my favorite hire of the coaching cycle, for both the team and coach. From FAU’s perspective, they nabbed a well-established, high quality football coach with strong connections in the industry. In spite of the somewhat limited resources, I’m betting Kiffin will be able to put together a strong staff and bring the Owls back to a bowl game within the next two years. From Kiffin’s perspective, this is a prime opportunity to prove to high-level ADs and NFL owners that he is able to run a program. His play-calling abilities have never been a concern, but rather his perceived immaturity and lack of leadership skills. As a mid-major school, FAU will be the perfect opportunity for him to reverse this conception, which is why I believe he took it over another offensive coordinator gig. Even though it’s a near-certainty that Kiffin views FAU as a stepping stone job, I believe both parties will be better off having joined forces this offseason.
TEXAS: Tom Herman, Houston Head Coach (GRADE: A)
TEXAS WON THE TOM HERMAN SWEEPSTAKES!! LONGHORN FOOTBALL IS BACK BABY! – said every Longhorn football fan ever. And they’re probably right: Herman has an incredible track record at Houston and Ohio State, and Texas fans should be visibly excited about him returning to his alma mater. His offenses are among the most exciting to watch in the nation, and outside of Nick Saban, he’s perhaps the best CEO/Head of Organization in the coaching industry. The fact that he’s bringing the bulk of his Houston staff with him to Austin is also a very good sign. But I do want to pump the brakes a little bit on all the hype; Houston did have three in-conference losses during the regular season, including a complete decimation by a mediocre SMU team. With that said, Tom Herman is a championship-caliber head coach, and might be content for a long time at Texas (a la Darrell Royal), so getting Herman is a huge win for Texas athletics.
MINNESOTA: P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan Head Coach (GRADE: A)
This job shouldn’t have been open: I’d argue that the whole sexual assault debacle was just as much AD Mark Coyle’s fault as it was Tracy Claeys, who had a 9-win season last year and full support of the Gophers team. But moving on now. Getting P.J. Fleck to leave Kalamazoo for the Twin Cities is a MAJOR WIN! Fleck arguably did the best coaching job this past season- I don’t know too many people who expected Western Michigan to row all the way to the Cotton Bowl. I’m a firm believer that Fleck can bring Minnesota to a championship-contender level; his high energy and recruiting pizzazz should flow very well with recruits in the great north. It’s also worth noting that Minnesota’s division in the Big Ten is very winnable, which I’m sure was a compelling factor for Fleck to pick Minnesota right now over the slew of jobs he could’ve gotten after next season. To conclude, I don’t believe this job should’ve been open, but regardless P.J. Fleck was the best possible hire for an up-and-coming Gopher football program.
USF: Charlie Strong, former Texas Head Coach (GRADE: A-)
Sure, Charlie Strong’s performance as Texas’s head coach was less than stellar. But I still believe that he’s a very, very good football coach; which is why I’m glad to see that he landed on his feet at a strong program like USF. I do believe that almost nobody could’ve resurrected Texas football much better than him, as Mack Brown left him in a pretty deep hole three years ago. Plus, he had virtually no ties to the uneven Texas recruiting landscape, which is the primary reason I believe he failed there. But moving forward, I do believe that USF was perhaps the best landing spot for him. He’s got extensive recruiting ties in the southeast, and inherits a very good job with a great starting quarterback in Quinton Flowers. It’s very possible that Strong could lead the Bulls to a New Years’ Six game next year if he wins out (or comes close to it) in AAC conference play. USF is a great landing spot for Strong, and conversely, USF is landing a well-established coach with a loyal assistant base. To me, a win-win scenario.
FRESNO STATE: Jeff Tedford, former California Head Coach (GRADE: A-)
On the surface, this seems like a match made in heaven: Jeff Tedford is coming home to rebuild the place where he once was the star quarterback. Overall, Tedford did a great job at Cal Berkeley. During his tenure, the Golden Bears were competitive and regularly appeared in bowl games until his last season there. Tedford’s had some time to step back and re-evaluate his coaching methods, which I think will be a very good thing. And Fresno State is perhaps the best destination for him. He’s very connected to the school and the SoCal area, and I believe he’ll have considerable success if he assembles a strong coaching staff. There is some downside to this hire, as Tedford was ran out of Cal, and he’s had some health scares in the past few years. But this hire definitely makes sense, and it could be seen from a million miles away by many football fans and analysts.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL: Butch Jones, former Miami (FL) Head Coach (GRADE: A-)
BUTCH DAVIS IS BACK COACHING!!! HURRAH!!! Well, it’s not that much of a surprise. Davis has been looking to get back into coaching– he might’ve been the guy at Miami (FL) last year if Mark Richt wasn’t available. FIU isn’t really that bad of a consolation prize: Mario Cristobal had a lot of success before Pete Garcia rather boneheadedly fired him a couple years back. He might flame out since he hasn’t coached in seven years. But I really do think Davis could bring them back to regular bowl contention in a few years: he’s had a lot of success in the past and he has strong connections in the Miami area. I’m expecting him to surround himself with people connected to The U, and ride this one out Howard Schnellenberger style. From the university’s perspective, this was probably the best hire they could’ve made, even if it doesn’t work out.
PURDUE: Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky Head Coach (GRADE: B+)
The comparisons between Jeff Brohm and legendary former Purdue coach Joe Tiller definitely make sense; both are top-notch offensive minds who came to Purdue from a mid-major program. Jeff Brohm’s offenses are really, really fun to watch; the C-USA championship between Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech was one of the most fun games I watched this season. Even though I have concerns that he’ll be able to build a legitimate defense at Purdue, I have mostly positive opinions about this hire. Brohm fits the bill as an “up-and-coming” coach looking to prove himself as a head coach of a Power 5 football program, while Purdue has been painfully mediocre, if not downright bad, for most of the 21st century. Part of the reason is that there has been a lack of an offensive identity, something I believe Brohm will be able to quickly change in his tenure as head coach. Given that he builds together a strong staff, I believe Brohm will be successful at Purdue, a very difficult place to win regularly. There’s a pretty decent chance that he’ll depart for a bigger school in 3-5 years if he’s successful; but if Brohm can make Purdue football relevant again, it’ll be more than worth it.
WESTERN MICHIGAN: Tim Lester, former Purdue Quarterbacks Coach (GRADE: B+)
It’ll be sad to see Western Michigan give up “Row The Boat” with P.J. Fleck headed to Minnesota, but they made a very good choice to start the new era of Bronco football with Tim Lester, a former star quarterback for the school. I like this hire for several reasons, starting with the fact Lester is very familiar with the university and the state of Michigan. He led the Broncos to a win over Vanderbilt in the late 1990s, which is why this hire should probably drum up some support among alumni and boosters. Secondly, Lester has head coaching experience under his belt, which is always helpful and a good sign. He has a very strong base of assistant coaches who he’s close with, so I’d expect him to assemble a high quality staff with ties to the university. He’s been alright as a senior offensive assistant coach at Syracuse and Purdue too. Furthermore, he walks into a pretty nice situation inheriting a team that won 13 games this past season, so I’m expecting him to have considerable success early on. The big question is if he can sustain success, which will be interesting to watch. Overall, I’m a fan of this hire.
TEMPLE: Geoff Collins, Florida Defensive Coordinator (GRADE: B+)
Geoff Collins was another one of those hires that came out of left field; almost nobody saw him as a candidate until he was hired as Temple’s head football coach. Little did we know, Collins is close to former coach Matt Rhule during their time together at Western Carolina; and I’m just guessing here, but Rhule probably recommended Collins to AD Patrick Kraft as a possible successor. Collins is a pretty darn good ball coach; regardless of scheme, his defenses are consistently tough and almost always efficient. If he can bring aboard a good offensive coordinator, he will probably have considerable early success. He’s helped by the fact that Rhule left Temple in a very good state, as they had double-digit wins this past season. But in the *far* past, Temple has been a notoriously difficult place to win, and Collins’s lack of ties to the state of Pennsylvania is a big knock against him. I’ve got some concerns about this hire, but I won’t be surprised whatsoever if Collins ends up being very successful as Temple’s head coach.
CONNECTICUT: Randy Esdall, former Maryland Head Coach (GRADE: B)
Even though it’s always awkward re-hiring a former head coach, in this case I actually don’t think this was a bad move. I will admit that I was very confused and surprised when AD David Benedict chose to part ways with Bob Diaco right after Christmas, and I firmly believe that Diaco will be very successful elsewhere as a defensive coordinator or head coach. But I do understand the allure in bringing back Randy Edsall as head coach, as he was very successful and led the team to a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010. Unlike the team’s last two head coaches, Edsall’s teams at UConn were competitive on both sides of the ball and very exciting to watch. And while he obviously flamed out at Maryland, Edsall is still a pretty good ball coach. It might be a bitter pill for some loyal Huskie fans to swallow- as Edsall’s departure led to a sharp downturn for UConn football- but Edsall might be the best-suited candidate to bring the football program in a new and better direction. I could see UConn soon re-emerging as a strong power in the AAC, or whichever conference the university might choose to join in the future.
WESTERN KENTUCKY: Mike Sanford Jr., Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator (GRADE: B)
I’m going to admit this: when I first saw the tagline “NOTRE DAME OC MIKE SANFORD JR. HIRED AS WESTERN KENTUCKY’S HC” on ESPN, I was a bit confused. But as I did more research, I learned that Sanford Jr. actually does have ties to Western Kentucky, where he was the quarterbacks’ coach during the 2010 season under Willie Taggart. He has a very good track record as an assistant coach; he’s highly regarded within Stanford circles, and his offenses at Boise State and Notre Dame have been very fun to watch. He’s also walking into a very nice situation at Western Kentucky: the last three head coaches were all very successful. I’m a bit surprised that AD Todd Stewart landed on him, instead of someone along the lines of Tyson Helton or Paul Petrino. And if I were Stewart, I’d be very concerned that Sanford Jr. will bolt after a few years like the last three coaches have done. Regardless, I do think Sanford Jr. is a pretty solid hire, and if he assembles a strong staff, I do believe he will achieve considerable success as Western Kentucky’s head coach.
LOUISIANA STATE: Ed Orgeron, LSU Interim Head Coach (GRADE: B)
I’m actually kind of amused reading “coaching hire grade” articles on big news outlets and finding that they universally pan LSU’s hire of Ed Orgeron. Sure, the way LSU settled on him was flawed and uncomfortable at best. And I don’t disagree that AD Joe Alleva should probably step down in the next year or two for the way he’s handled the football program over the last year and a half. But I do think Ed O is a pretty good hire for LSU, all things given. His players love him, and in terms of character, there isn’t a better fit for LSU if not only because his strong cajun accent. I firmly believe that Ed O is going to establish a strong staff, and the hires of OC Matt Canada and DC Dave Aranda should both be highly praised. With some changes to the offense, LSU is a top ten team; with the right coaching, they could definitely get there. I do hear the concerns about Ed O’s time at Ole Miss, along with complaints that he probably isn’t the best guy to turn around LSU’s anemic offense. But I think he’s learned so much over the last ten years and see more success at LSU than he had at Ole Miss. Yes, Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman absolutely would’ve been splashier hires, but promoting Coach O is still a win in my books.
BAYLOR: Matt Rhule, Temple Head Coach (GRADE: B)
Matt Rhule is a very good ball coach. He’s highly regarded in the industry, and he’s exceeded expectations at Temple, which can be a very difficult place to win consistently. With that said, this hire was something of a head scratcher to many football analysts. Rhule is entering a very difficult situation at Baylor, a place where many boosters are resentful over the Art Briles debacle. And it’s important to note that Rhule has ZERO ties to the state of Texas, which will make recruiting a lot harder. At time of his hire, Baylor had one commit in their 2017 recruiting class, so Rhule still has a lot of catching up to do on that end. Looking at the bigger picture though, he’s helped by the fact that AD Mack Rhoades gave him a 7-year deal. And winning at Baylor is a lot more possible now than it was ten years ago when Briles first became head coach. So, I think there’s two directions this hire could go: one scenario is Rhule has success and ends up leaving for a bigger job, and the other, and the other is that Rhule can’t rebuild Baylor to where it used to be, and gets fired in four to five years.
INDIANA: Tom Allen, Indiana Defensive Coordinator (GRADE B-)
Indiana probably wins out for the title of most surprising/weird/confusing coaching search of this year. It was a surprise to see Kevin Wilson get fired after two winning seasons, for being a tough-nose football coach. But clearly there’s some information being withheld from the public, as Wilson’s only getting one-twelfth of the financial buyout in his original contract. Moving on, I’m kind of surprised that AD Fred Glass immediately chose to promote Tom Allen to the head job before conducting any resemblance of a coaching search. Allen is a good ball coach with strong ties in the state and familiarity with the program, and ran a very good defense last season. But I just have a bad feeling that Indiana’s momentum will begin to shift for the negative, especially given that he’s planning on keeping the bulk of Wilson’s coaching staff intact. I do understand that the university was put in a tough situation given that Wilson was fired with cause, along with knowing that Tom Allen would’ve only stayed aboard if he was promoted to head coach- he was probably seeking the Ole Miss defensive coordinator job. But Fred Glass’s decision to internally promote Tom Allen without going through a legitimate coaching search is something of a head-scratcher to me, and only time will tell if Allen can be successful at Indiana, which can be a tough place to win consistently.
GEORGIA STATE: Shawn Elliott, South Carolina Offensive Line Coach (GRADE: B-)
This is the perfect example of why coaching search firms aren’t needed in college football. AD Charlie Cobb has known Shawn Elliott for a long time, given their shared history at Appalachian State, and he shouldn’t have needed to dole out a six-digit figure to a search firm to settle on his longtime friend. Aside, Elliott is a fine hire for Georgia State. I’m not overly excited, in part because Elliott’s offensive line unit at USC has done terribly this year and Gamecock fans were clamoring for him to be canned for that alone. With that said, he did an alright job last season as interim head coach when Steve Spurrier stepped down mid-season, and perhaps his ties to AD Charlie Cobb will bring some security to the Panther football organization. There’s a lot to be excited about with Georgia State’s move to Turner Field next year, yet Elliott doesn’t inspire as much excitement as other hires might’ve done. In short, ehh.
HOUSTON: Major Applewhite, Houston Offensive Coordinator (GRADE: B-)
Even though it’s tough to blame Tom Herman for returning to his alma mater, it’s a bit disappointing to see him leave only two seasons after completely turning around the Houston football program. Herman did a magnificent job, and deserves a standing O for it. For a brief moment in history, it seemed like Houston was committed to becoming a top-level football program. They had the money (courtesy of Tilman Fertitta) to make a splash hire, which is why I’m a bit confounded why they promoted Major Applewhite to the job. Overlooking the fact that Todd Orlando probably would’ve been the best internal hire, Major Applewhite simply does not inspire confidence. He did a good job under Tom Herman’s supervision, but I question whether he can continue the #HTownTakeover momentum, concerns only further heightened by the beating they took from San Diego State in the Las Vegas Bowl. The whole scandal he went through at Texas isn’t helping either. Instead of making a run at someone like Dana Holgorsen, the administration looked for someone who wouldn’t jump after two years. Understandable, but not the right call in my opinion. I don’t think Major Applewhite is a bad football coach, but he probably would’ve been better off starting his career somewhere a bit quieter such as Rice or UTSA. The demands at Houston are high, and it’ll be interesting to see if Major Applewhite can meet them.
CALIFORNIA: Justin Wilcox, Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator (GRADE: B-)
I’m shocked that Cal parted ways with Sonny Dykes so late in the coaching search season. When the move was announced, I assume they were going to make a power play for Chip Kelly or another “top of the line” head coach, per say. But I was wrong. Cal’s very inept administration went into this search relatively unplanned, and got somewhat lucky in landing Wilcox (an average hire at best), perhaps the best of the candidates they publicly interviewed. Wilcox walks into a very tough situation at Cal, which currently has very unstable finances and stadium issues at the moment. With that said, Wilcox is a pretty solid ball coach who has had success as a defensive coordinator everywhere he went outside of the USC debacle. I firmly believe that he’ll turn around Cal’s defense, which was quite terrible in the Dykes era, and assemble a solid offensive staff to keep the momentum going on that side of the ball. My concern with Wilcox is that he doesn’t have head coaching experience, and that he’s very unfamiliar with the situation he’s going to be walking into as Cal’s head coach. He coached under Jeff Tedford from 2003-05, but Cal is a very different place right now than it was ten years ago. This one will be interesting to watch, especially given how competitive the Pac-12 is getting. My bet is against Wilcox having success at Cal, but he could very well end up proving me wrong.
SAN JOSE STATE: Brent Brennan, Oregon State Wide Receivers Coach (GRADE: B-)
Geez, over the last month I’ve begun to realize how hard it is to win at San Jose State, giving me so much respect for the job Mike MacIntyre did a couple years back. Ron Caragher was a disaster and needed to be replaced; AD Gene Bleymaier looked to someone with a prior history coaching for SJSU in Brent Brennan to be the program’s next leader. Before I go on about why it’ll be hard for Brennan to have MacIntyre-like success, I’d like to note that he’s highly regarded as a position coach in the coaching industry, and is one of the pacific coast’s best recruiters. With that said, Brennan is going to have very limited resources to work with, making it hard for him to really assemble a top-level coaching staff. Plus, San Jose is a very expensive place to live, especially for a coach, which fans should take note of. It’ll be surprising if Brennan chooses to call offensive plays given that he’s never been an offensive coordinator, so Spartans fans are going to have to cross their fingers and hope that he can somehow lure an experienced or gifted offensive play-caller to his staff. Brennan might be successful, and I really don’t want to bet against him, but the signals point to him having a difficult road ahead in re-building San Jose State’s football program.
OREGON: Willie Taggart, USF Head Coach (GRADE: C+)
I’ve got some conflicted feelings about this hire, most of them being negative. AD Rob Mullens probably made the right call in firing Mark Helfrich to begin a rebuild of a decimated Oregon football culture, but he botched just about everything else. He waited WAY TOO LONG to make the move, and came off as very unprofessional when he scathed Helfrich in the official press release. Next, he somehow lost out on Matt Rhule to Baylor, who many believe was his top target. And then, it appears he was heavily swayed by phone calls from Jim Harbaugh and Tony Dungy and hired Willie Taggart in a whim. In short, it appears that Mullens was very clueless throughout the process, and didn’t take a definitive approach in anything he did. I’d argue he did an even worse job than LSU AD Joe Alleva. But back to the actual hire, Taggart isn’t the best fit. Yes, he coached at Stanford, but most of his roots lie in the southeast, so it’ll be interesting to see what his recruiting strategy will become. And so far, it appears that he’s trying to copycat Jim Harbaugh by hiring several of his former assistants to his staff; not a bad choice, but it seems that he doesn’t have a strong base of loyal assistants, unlike many other established head coaches. I’ll be very interested to watch how he handles the transition from the current *very tenured* coaching staff, which will be critical in determining whether or not he can be successful as Oregon’s head coach.
CINCINNATI: Luke Fickell, Ohio State Co-Defensive Coordinator (GRADE: C+)
Five years after guiding Ohio State to a sub-.500 record as interim head coach in 2011, Luke Fickell gets his first head coaching job just a hundred miles away from his alma mater and the place where he’s spent 15 of his 17 years as a football coach. To be frank, I’m not a big fan of this hire. Even in tough circumstances, Fickell did a pretty weak job coaching the 2011 Buckeyes, which is partially why it’s taken him this long to get his first head coaching job. Secondly, he’s never been a defensive play-caller in his coaching career, as neither Urban Meyer or Jim Tressel trusted him enough for those responsibilities. I also question whether he’s going to be the best recruiter for Cincinnati; he has extensive experience in Ohio, but his focus was never in that area, which is why I initially assumed Kerry Coombs to be a more realistic candidate than him. Finally, I’d also like to note that Cincinnati chose him over a qualified field of very proven head coaches, including Scott Satterfield and Neal Brown. As such, I’d argue that he was probably the worst of the possible hires for Cincinnati, which is in desperate need of turnaround after Tommy Tuberville set them back a bit. I will note that I’ve heard Fickell is a strong motivator and a very good position coach, so there is some upside that he could succeed at Cincinnati. With that said, this is among my least favorite hires of the coaching cycle.
NEVADA: Jay Norvell, Arizona State Wide Receivers Coach (GRADE: C+)
I didn’t see this one coming at all. First, I strongly believe Brian Polian is a very good ball coach who at least deserved another season to turn things around. Clearly there was some disconnect between him and AD Doug Knuth. But moving on, I’m not sold that Jay Norvell was the right hire for Nevada. To summarize his career, he’s bounced around schools quite a bit, mostly as a position coach. He’s repeatedly been unsuccessful as a play-caller. His offenses at Nebraska, UCLA, and Texas were pretty difficult to watch at times. In my opinion, his best chance at success will be if he reverts Nevada’s offense back to a Chris Ault-like spread/pistol offense, and doesn’t interfere with calling plays whatsoever. With that said, I’m a big fan of both his coordinator hires in (OC) Matt Mumme and (DC) Jeff Casteel. But I think Nevada would’ve been significantly better off going with an established head coach, such as Beau Baldwin or Paul Petrino.