Ideal Candidates for College Football Teams Most Likely to Be Changing Coaches
Thanksgiving week is upon us, and with it, one of the biggest weeks of the season for college football coaches and their agents. When the 2017 regular season concludes Sunday, the football coaching carousel, which has already been active with firings at Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee, among other places, will spin into overdrive.
Coaches will be fired or "mutually agree" to leave. Rumors will swirl. Search firms will make contacts behind the scenes. And sometime in January, the final FBS coaching vacancy will be filled (or so we hope). Every athletic director believes they've hit a "home run" with their hires, but the rate of turnover among head coaches suggests otherwise.
Who should a program seeking a new direction hire? We took a good look here. We examined nine high-profile jobs that have opened or could open very soon and determined the ideal hire for each program, taking into factors like coaching style, ties to the job and personality. Here's a look at the ideal candidates for college programs most likely to be changing coaches.
Arkansas: Mike Norvell
When Arkansas hired Bret Bielema five years ago, it looked like a smart decision. Bielema had enjoyed huge success at Wisconsin, with a record of 68-24 with four 10-win seasons and three Rose Bowl appearances. But his brand of power football simply hasn't translated in the Ozarks. Bielema is 29-33 in five seasons, hasn't won more than eight games in a season and never finished higher than third in the SEC East. Last week, athletic director Jeff Long, who hired Bielema, was fired, making the coach's position tenuous.
Saturday's loss to Mississippi State dropped the Hogs to 4-7 and eliminated them from bowl contention for the second time in five seasons. SB Nation reported that Bielema was likely to be dismissed at the end of the regular season. While Gus Malzahn's name has come up in connection with the job, it might be better for Arkansas to embrace a young, up-and-coming coach who likely won’t be as costly as Malzahn but also runs a fast-paced, wide-open offense.
The answer sits just across the Natural State’s borders in Memphis, and his name is Mike Norvell. Norvell was hired after Justin Fuente was hired away by Virginia Tech and has picked up right where Fuente left off. After an 8-5 record in his debut season, the Tigers are 9-1 this fall after Saturday's 66-45 win over SMU. They won the American Athletic Conference West Division and will face either UCF or South Florida in the AAC title game Dec. 2.
Memphis is riding a six-game win streak and has averaged 50.8 points in that span. The Tigers average 42 points per game on the season, No. 6 nationally, and also have a top-10 national passing offense. Norvell's system would be a great change of pace for Arkansas. He will be on Power Five radars, so it would be smart for Arkansas to move fast and lock him up.
Florida: Chip Kelly
Despite consecutive SEC East championships, the Jim McElwain era quickly imploded at Florida. The Gators actually started SEC play 3-0 following a season-opening loss to Michigan, but they lost three consecutive games and struggled mightily offensively, shuffling inefficient quarterbacks in and out of the starting lineup. Following a 42-7 loss to Georgia and McElwain's comments about death threats against his family (which he did not elaborate about to Florida administrators), he was fired.
It's a smart move for Florida, which failed to truly capitalize and build in the SEC East while rivals Georgia and Tennessee struggled.
The best fit for Florida is a man who's ready and available to take over immediately. Chip Kelly flamed out as an NFL head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, but he has a strong track record of offensive success at Oregon as the Ducks offensive coordinator and head coach. Under Kelly, the Ducks thrived with a spread offense that was flashy and fun to watch. Oregon went 46-7 in Kelly's tenure, including a national runner-up finish in 2011.
The Gators thrived with Urban Meyer's spread scheme but have failed to replicate that success under Will Muschamp and McElwain. Kelly knows how to develop quarterbacks, and while he served a show-cause penalty after Oregon was placed on NCAA probation in 2015, it has expired and Florida would simply need to clear his hiring with the SEC. The Associated Press reported that Florida officials flew to speak with Kelly Sunday.
His offense would be a nod to Florida's past and a breath of fresh air in Gainesville. And while he struggled in the NFL, so did the Gators' greatest coach ever, a guy named Spurrier who's still hanging around campus. Kelly would be an excellent fit in the Swamp.
Kansas State: Brent Venables
Kansas State faces a crossroads with its program. Thanks to Saturday's 45-40 win at Oklahoma State, the Wildcats are bowl-eligible for the ninth consecutive season, which encompasses legendary coach Bill Snyder's second stint with the program. Snyder has won 208 games in 26 seasons in Manhattan and transformed one of the nation's worst programs into a consistent winner.
But there are issues afoot. Snyder is 78 and has throat cancer, and it's reasonable to wonder how his exit will unfold. Per a report by sports writer Brett McMurphy, he nixed the idea of Jim Leavitt being hired as his replacement and reportedly favors son Sean Snyder, who has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator (he is K-State's special teams coordinator and associate head coach).
How about a compromise: Brent Venables.
The Clemson defensive coordinator is a K-State alum and has proved himself as one of the nation's top coordinators, turning an awful Clemson D into one of the country's best on a yearly basis and helping the Tigers win a national title last fall. He makes $1.3 million annually and can afford to be choosy with a head coaching destination, but K-State would be a great fit if he's interested and he would give the Wildcats a smooth transition from the Snyder era as well as a bridge to the past.
Nebraska: Scott Frost
Let's face it. The Mike Riley experiment at Nebraska hasn't worked out. When the Cornhuskers fired volatile Bo Pelini three years ago, they went for his polar opposite in good-guy, good-with-the-media Mike Riley. But after Saturday's 56-44 loss to Penn State, the Huskers are 4-7 and will miss a bowl game for the third time since 1961, and they haven't looked competitive doing it, with a 56-14 loss to Ohio State and a 54-21 loss at Minnesota.
Nebraska fired the athletic director who hired Riley, Shawn Eichorst, and replaced him with Washington State's Bill Moos. Moos told reporters that Riley "deserves to finish the 2017 season," an ominous comment. Nebraska will be in the market for a new coach—and the perfect candidate is Central Florida's Scott Frost.
Frost led Nebraska to a piece of the national title as a senior quarterback in 1997 and started his college coaching career as a Husker graduate assistant in 2002. He spent seven years on Oregon's staff as a wide receivers coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, helping Marcus Mariota to a Heisman Trophy. As UCF head coach, he's used a fast-paced offense to quickly turn around a program that was winless in 2015.
The Knights are 16-7 under his watch, including 10-0 this season as one of four remaining FCS unbeatens. Frost's passing offense and knowledge of the program would be a natural fit at Nebraska, which has lacked an identity under Riley. He denied a report from Bleacher Report's Lars Anderson that a deal with the Huskers was close, but it would be a perfect fit for Frost to come home to Lincoln.
It’s time for Frost to come home to Lincoln.
Ole Miss: Charlie Strong
Ole Miss is in a difficult position as hiring season begins. The Rebels enjoyed significant on-field and recruiting success under Hugh Freeze, making four consecutive bowls that was capped with a 10-win season and Sugar Bowl victory in 2015.
However, that came with a price.
Ole Miss has dealt with a lengthy NCAA investigation that has already resulted in a self-imposed bowl ban this fall and perhaps significant penalties and scholarship losses when the NCAA Committee on Infractions reveals its verdict soon.
They'll be doing so with a new coach. Freeze was fired in late July after phone records showing inappropriate calls surfaced. The Rebels must attract a new leader with the unknown variable of NCAA sanctions that could hamper the program for years to come.
USA Today's Dan Wolken reported that safety Deontay Anderson is seeking his immediate release after feeling he was misled by Ole Miss about sanctions, which could have a domino effect on the rest of the 2016 signing class. A veteran, steady coach would fit well, and Charlie Strong should be the first call.
Strong was fired at Texas after three seasons without a winning record, but he is enjoying a bounce-back season at South Florida, where the 9-1 Bulls will play for an AAC division title against Central Florida this week. Strong is a tough-love coach who shaped up Texas' roster with disciplinarian techniques. He's a proven winner who could guide Ole Miss through some rough NCAA-induced waters with integrity.
Oregon State: Bronco Mendenhall
Three years ago, it looked like Oregon State had scored a major coup for its football program. After Mike Riley's eyebrow-raising departure to Nebraska, the Beavers were able to lure Gary Andersen back to his West Coast roots.
But Riley didn’t leave a lot in the cupboard, and Andersen struggled to win consistently. He walked away midway through this season with a 7-23 overall record. Oregon State is in a tough spot in the competitive Pac-12 North with Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Stanford as division rivals.
How should the Beavers respond? By going after one of their own.
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall is a former Oregon State safety, serving as a team captain in 1987. He was also an Oregon State defensive line/defensive backs and defensive coordinator in 1995-96. Mendenhall is a proven winner, taking BYU to 11 bowls in as many seasons while compiling a 99-43 record. He has also turned around Virginia in just two seasons. OregonLive.com's John Canzano reported that Mendenhall, who was the runner-up when Andersen was hired, is being considered again.
After a 2-10 debut, the Cavaliers are 6-5 and bowl-eligible this season. Would Mendenhall pack up and move cross-country again after just two years in Charlottesville? It's unclear, but he knows the program and could quickly bring winning football back to Corvallis.
Tennessee: Dan Mullen
While Butch Jones should be commended for rebuilding Tennessee after the disastrous tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, he was never able to get the Volunteers program to the proverbial Rocky Top of the SEC. Tennessee won nine games in 2014 and 2015 but never won a division title in a down SEC East. When the Vols started this season 4-6 with no SEC wins, his fate was sealed.
Now, Tennessee needs to find the guy that can take them to the top of the division and the top of the SEC in general. With Nick Saban at Alabama and Kirby Smart at Georgia, that's a tough ask, but the Vols need to get this hire right. Their ideal hire is a guy who has done more with less in the SEC West.
No one will confuse Starkville with a thriving metropolis, and Mississippi State's athletic revenue is the lowest in the SEC. But Dan Mullen has done an excellent job with less at MSU. The Bulldogs will go to a bowl for the eighth consecutive season, and Mullen is 69-45 at State with five seasons of at least eight wins.
The Bullies put a bigger scare into No. 1 Alabama than anyone this season, leading in the fourth quarter before falling 31-24 after the Tide scored in the final 30 seconds. But it's quite possible that with Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same division that Mullen has reached a ceiling in Starkville. He's ready for a bigger, better-funded challenge and would thrive with Tennessee's facilities and resources. He has earned the chance to try, without question.
Texas A&M: Chad Morris
Texas A&M entered the SEC with a splash. With electric quarterback Johnny Manziel running the offense, the Aggies stunned then-No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, finished the 2012 season 11-2 and helped Manziel earn the Heisman Trophy in Kevin Sumlin's debut season. But that has been the Aggies' high-water mark in the SEC.
A&M has not won more than nine games in a season since, and even with last week's win over Ole Miss, nine wins is the best the Aggies can do in 2017. That might not be good enough for Sumlin to save his job. A&M spent $485 million renovating Kyle Field, and it didn't do so to finish third in the SEC West, something that Sumlin hasn't done since 2012. It wouldn't be surprising to see leadership move on from him after the regular season concludes.
Where do the Aggies turn? Their answer is already within Texas borders.
Chad Morris has revitalized an SMU program that went 1-11 in 2014. The Mustangs are 6-5 and bowl-eligible this season using a high-flying passing offense that averages 301.5 yards per game, No. 15 nationally. SMU averages 39.9 points per game, No. 9 nationally. Would Morris be wise to change his defensive approach? Yes—the Mustangs allow 35.3 points per game, No. 113 nationally.
However, Morris is an A&M alum who would likely jump at the chance to coach at his alma mater. He is a Texas native who has strong recruiting connections statewide that would likely only improve with A&M's brand behind him. He'd be an excellent choice to get the Aggies to the next level in the SEC West.
UCLA: Kevin Sumlin
UCLA has never been a football-first school. However, the athletic department that John Wooden built still cares about the gridiron, as Jim Mora Jr. found out Sunday. Mora got off to a strong start in Westwood, winning 29 games in his first three seasons. But the Bruins have slumped even with the presence of standout quarterback Josh Rosen, going 8-5, 4-8 and 5-6 over the last three years. Sunday, Mora was fired by UCLA.
The Bruins need a fresh look, and while Chip Kelly would be an appealing option, maybe they should take a look at someone who just needs a fresh start, period. As we mentioned, Kevin Sumlin has all but run his course at Texas A&M. However, he is a proven offensive coach and could bring defensive coordinator John Chavis with him.
Sumlin is 86-42 in 10 seasons as a college coach with only one losing season and three seasons of at least 10 wins. He would benefit strongly from coaching in the Pac-12, especially out of the glare of the SEC. Whether he's fired or just makes a move on his own, this is something both parties should strongly think about.