Grades for Every CFB Power Conference Coaching Hire so Far
There is always upheaval in the impatient, high-dollar world of college football coaching, but this season has seen even more turnover than usual.
So far, 12 Power Five coaches were canned, and all 12 positions have been filled.
From the quick-decision move by Nebraska to nab favorite son Scott Frost to the baffling decision by Arizona State to select NFL coaching vet Herm Edwards to the twists and turns of Tennessee's coaching search, it's been a weird few weeks.
As several blue-blood programs like Florida State, Florida, the Vols and the Cornhuskers try to resurrect previous success and some new-money, big-name teams like Oregon and Texas A&M try to get things going again, we're left looking at the short- and long-term ramifications of their decisions.
So, let's hand out some grades for the hires. Remember: While it's always fun to speculate on these situations, we won't know the actual outcome for a while now.
These grades are taking into consideration program fit above all else, along with track record, experience, recruiting ability, the staff they can bring with them and the value at which they came. While fan reaction isn't essential in the grading system, it certainly helps to have your followers behind the hires, too.
Nobody understood Clemson handpicking Dabo Swinney back in the day, but the Tigers are always near the top of the college football rankings. As lauded as Jim Mora Jr. was at UCLA, he just got fired.
Still, what fun is it to bypass speculation? College football is much more fun with projections, isn't it?
Arkansas Razorbacks: Chad Morris
Details: Six years, $21 million, according to ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg and Chris Low
As a former Clemson offensive coordinator, Chad Morris was once a coveted commodity when it came to assistant coaches. He took over a college football wasteland at SMU, and though his three-year record was 14-22, Morris brought the program back to respectability.
After a forgettable 2-10 first season, the Mustangs improved to 5-7 last year and 7-5 this season. The 49-year-old coach also was linked to the Tennessee coaching job (but then again, who wasn't?). This hire is up in the air, and the end result will hinge on what kind of staff he brings.
"I've got a blueprint of what it takes to win a national championship," Morris said, according to SEC Country's Trent Shadid.
But can he follow through? There are rumors out there that Morris will target Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables to join him in Fayetteville, and while that may sound like a long shot, the Razorbacks have Walmart money to throw around.
While the hire of Morris has yet to pay dividends, the Hogs should be able to play a little offense, which they'll need to do to make noise in the SEC West. This was a very good, under-the-radar hire.
Arizona State Sun Devils: Herm Edwards
Details: Five years, $10 million, according to the Arizona Republic's Anne Ryman
One of the most controversial hires of the offseason is also one of the most bizarre.
Despite being bowl-eligible, Arizona State decided to sever ties with offensive-minded head coach Todd Graham, electing to swallow his $12 million buyout.
Who'd they replace him with?
Try 63-year-old Herm Edwards, the former NFL-coach-turned-ESPN-analyst whom they got on the cheap and who immediately kept the entire offensive staff, implementing what he called an NFL-type system in which he'll serve as a GM of sorts. To say it wasn't met with aplomb by Sun Devils fans is an understatement.
Former Sun Devils quarterback Jake Plummer was unhappy with the fan reaction.
It's easy to see why. Edwards hasn't coached in college ball since a stint at San Jose State from 1987-89. Does he know the first thing about running a college program? Recruiting? Glad-handing with boosters?
ASU inked him at one of the lowest salaries in the Pac-12, so at least it isn't a huge investment. We're all giddy for possible soundbites like his famous "You play to win the game" outburst. Not many people are giving him a chance to win many of them.
Florida Gators: Dan Mullen
Details: Six years, $36 million, according to the Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley
Just because Florida made the safe hire doesn't mean it was the wrong one.
It may wind up being the best one the Gators could have made.
You have to give credit to second-year athletic director Scott Stricklin for swinging for the fences and trying to get former Oregon coach Chip Kelly to come to Gainesville, but he ultimately lost that battle to UCLA. When that happened, the Gators moved relatively quickly to get Dan Mullen.
The former Gators offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer built a quality program at Mississippi State in his nine years, but when he had the opportunity to return to UF, it was difficult for him to pass up. He'll take most of his staff with him, including defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
With all that talent in the Sunshine State, Mullen should be a perfect fit if he can convince the kids to come play for the Gators. He is one of the standard-bearers for the spread offense and is known as a supreme quarterback developer, having molded Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald.
But with Mark Richt at Miami and now Willie Taggart at Florida State, it's vital Mullen surrounds himself with elite recruiters. Still, he will breathe new life into the stagnant Gators offense that fell flat under the tenures of Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain.
Other coaches may have higher ceilings, but this is a strong hire that could be great if recruiting goes as planned.
Florida State Seminoles: Willie Taggart
Details: Six years, $30 million, according to the Tallahassee Democrat's Wayne E. McGahee III
Willie Taggart's intensity, ability to develop running backs and acumen for rebuilding programs are as good as anybody around.
Now, the question is whether he can sustain the success of an elite program.
He returns to Florida following a one-year hiatus in Oregon, where he guided the Ducks to a 7-5 record after leading South Florida's program for four years. He told ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson:
"My 16-year old son came in, out of nowhere, and said, 'Dad, I know you are struggling with this decision and it is your dream job. You always tell me to chase my dreams and don't let anyone get in the way of it. I don't think it is right for me or anyone else to stop you from chasing your dreams. I don't want to leave, Dad, but if you are going to chase your dream, I am going to ride with you.'"
Taggart will have a bunch of talent at his disposal in Tallahassee with running backs Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers to anchor the offense and stud quarterback Deondre Francois coming back after missing essentially the entire 2017 season with a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. This is a team that's ready-built for Taggart, who can dominate right away.
The Gators and Hurricanes should beware of Taggart's recruiting ability in the Sunshine State. He's one of the best in the nation, as he was proving with the Ducks' 2018 class. Now, he gets to sell recruits on a place that is one of the easiest places to attract talent in the country.
By the way, he has a $5.5 million pool to pay assistants on his staff. Having coach Jimbo Fisher bolt for Texas A&M after an underwhelming season was a big blow, but Taggart has a prime opportunity to restore this school to prominence and not miss a beat.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: Joe Moorhead
Details: Four years, $11 million, per the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's Will Sammon
For the price, this isn't a bad deal for Mississippi State, which plucked Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead for significantly less than it was paying former coach Dan Mullen. Part of the reason Moorhead took the gig was a considerable salary pool for assistant coaches.
Moorhead went out and signed former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop with some of that money after Shoop's two forgettable seasons in Knoxville. Prior to joining Butch Jones' staff, he was a very good coordinator in Happy Valley.
Though he and Moorhead didn't cross paths in their tenures at Penn State, having coached under James Franklin probably helped the getting-to-know-you process.
If Shoop returns to form, Moorhead could be a very good hire.
"We're not here to maintain," Moorhead told reporters at his press conference, according to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough. "We are here to elevate."
On the surface, this hire isn't going to move the needle in the rugged arms race that is the SEC. Moorhead desperately needs to surround himself with elite recruiters to be successful in Starkville.
From a sheer coaching standpoint, though, Moorhead is a good hire. He is a known developer of quarterbacks and oversaw two excellent offenses the past couple of seasons in Happy Valley. SI.com's Bruce Feldman wrote about the offensive schemes the football savant hatched while he was head coach at Fordham.
There are just too many questions to rate this as a big deal right now because of his inexperience recruiting in the South. It's a wait-and-see situation for the Bulldogs, who lost a star in Mullen and replaced him with an unknown commodity.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: Scott Frost
Details: Seven years, $35 million, according to USA Today's George Schroeder
There wasn't a better hire in all of college football than Nebraska's decision to convince former Cornhuskers quarterback Scott Frost to leave Central Florida and return to the cornfields of the Midwest.
Will the reigning National Coach of the Year bring championships with him?
After leading UCF to an undefeated record in only his second year as a head coach, Frost will try to rebuild the once-proud Nebraska program. There are few coaches Frost's age out there with a better pedigree; counted among coaches he has learned from are Bill Walsh, Tom Osborne, Chip Kelly and many more.
Now, he's coming home.
"People here are passionate and nobody here knows that better than me," Frost said, according to Big Ten Network's Tom Dienhart. "We're going to do it in a way that Nebraska people can get unified and behind it. There's been, in my opinion, a lack of unity of focus about this place for a while, and if I can bring that back that'll be really rewarding."
Frost's acumen was on display with the high-powered Knights, who led the nation in scoring offense in 2017 with 49.4 points per game. He took over a UCF program that was 0-12 and led it to a bowl in his first season before a spotless slate and winning the AAC this year.
Not only is he an up-and-coming coach, but he was a no-brainer hire for the Cornhuskers and brings with him the recruiting and swagger it will take to turn Lincoln into the elite destination it was not long ago. This is why Nebraska fans have plenty of reasons to be thrilled about football again.
Ole Miss Rebels: Matt Luke
Details: Four years, $12.6 million, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's Antonio Morales
College football coaches everywhere have to battle perception issues all the time, which is why it's going to be difficult for Ole Miss coach Matt Luke to succeed right away in Oxford.
The biggest reason is he's going to be hamstrung by NCAA sanctions that stripped the Rebels of scholarships and imposed a bowl ban through the 2018 season, thanks to the tumultuous era of Hugh Freeze.
So, rather than test the waters in the coaching market, Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork removed the interim tag from Luke's title. That isn't going to be a decision that excites a lot of fans or recruits, but it may be the right one, according to the Daily Mississippian's John Macon Gillespie:
"Sure, Luke has connections to Ole Miss, and many prominent boosters and Oxford residents wanted to see him land the full-time job, but it is not a bad hire by athletics director Ross Bjork. The players seem to respond to his leadership, and it is evident that they support the hire. After the Egg Bowl win, many Ole Miss players chanted 'We want Luke!' in the locker room and voiced, via social media, their desire to see Luke land the full-time job."
It's hard to dispute the work Luke did in the wake of Freeze's ouster last season. The Rebels went 6-6, and that was with star quarterback Shea Patterson missing the final five games with a knee injury. Now, Patterson is transferring to Michigan, so his era is over.
Luke's is just beginning. The former Ole Miss offensive lineman and longtime assistant bleeds red and blue more than anybody, so this is a unifying hire at a difficult time for the program.
Now, we'll wait and see if he can recruit the type of athletes it takes to win in the SEC West, especially while saddled with sanctions. It won't be an easy task at all.
Oregon Ducks: Mario Cristobal
Details: Five years, $12.5 million, according to CBSSports.com's Matt Prehm
Oregon was put in a tough spot when Willie Taggart left for his "dream job" at Florida State after only a year in Eugene, but the Ducks responded quickly by promoting Mario Cristobal to head coach.
Considering the massive buyout UO put in place (he would have to pay the school as much as $10 million if he leaves before Jan. 31, 2019), Cristobal looks like he'll be at the school for a long time. He earned the promotion after just one season as co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
"We want to be here until you’ve got to drag me away kicking and screaming," Cristobal said at his press conference. "I wanted it to be known, I wanted it to be put in writing so that there is no chatter."
Cristobal is a dynamic recruiter who should be able to build a quality staff, especially if he can retain defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. Those two would be the nucleus of a solid staff that can help reinforce the Ducks as a power-driven, run-oriented offense.
Still, the hire of Cristobal is puzzling, regardless of how much the players wanted him to get the nod. This is, after all, Oregon, and with all that Nike money, the Ducks can throw a bunch of cash at quality candidates. There was certainly a market for them to go out and make a hire like Mike Leach, for instance.
Instead, they chose to spend less money, load up on the buyout and stay in-house to keep Cristobal, whose head coaching experience includes an up-and-down stint at Florida International.
It may be the most intriguing decision of the entire coaching carousel this season.
Oregon State Beavers: Jonathan Smith
Details: Five years, $9.5 million, according to the Oregonian's Danny Moran
For a downtrodden program, this hire was the poor man's equivalent of Scott Frost at Nebraska.
Following the forgettable Gary Andersen era, the Beavers added Washington co-offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith as their new head coach. That may not mean much to you—admit it, you had to look up the name—but his name carries plenty of weight in Corvallis.
The former Beavers quarterback helped take the Huskies offense to record-breaking heights alongside coach Chris Petersen, but long before that, he was a part of OSU's 11-1 season in 2000 that ended with a 40-9 thumping of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
He was a fan favorite as a former walk-on quarterback who wound up third on the school's all-time list for passing yardage and touchdowns.
Now, he'll try to rebuild the worst program in the Pac-12. He has a bonus pool of $3.3 million to spend on assistant coaches, and the 38-year-old first-time head coach already made a widely lauded move by bringing former OSU coach Mike Riley back to be an assistant head coach.
Smith, it appears, is smart enough to surround himself with the kind of people who were around Oregon State's program when it was at its best. So, while this isn't a coaching hire that is going to make a lot of people stand up and take notice of the Beavers, it's the best one they could have made.
It won't be an overnight rebuild in Corvallis, but Smith is the right guy to get the job done.
Tennessee Volunteers: Jeremy Pruitt
Details: Six years, $22.8 million, according to USA Today's Blake Toppmeyer
There was no coaching search anywhere so filled with twists, turns, turmoil and outright drama as the one on Rocky Top.
Tennessee's journey to replace Butch Jones started with outlandish Jon Gruden rumors, meandering through to the hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, only to see a fan uprising lead to UT's rescinding of the offer the same day.
Afterward, the Vols offered the job to Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren and possibly Purdue coach Jeff Brohm before athletic director John Currie flew to the West Coast and reportedly was close to a deal with Washington State coach Mike Leach.
Instead, Currie was fired and replaced by Tennessee legend Phil Fulmer, who ultimately chose Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to lead the program. Got all that? Yeah, books will be written.
The bottom line is, regardless of the national perception of Tennessee, the athletic department seems healthier with Fulmer at the helm, and the once-fractured fanbase is behind Pruitt, who is an ideal fit for a program needing toughness and quality recruiting.
The staff Pruitt is building is a who's who of SEC assistants with strong recruiting pedigrees. From Tracy Rocker to Chris Rumph to to Will Friend to Terry Fair to general manager Austin Thomas to keeping incumbent running backs coach Robert Gillespie, Pruitt's initial staff in Knoxville is shaping up.
Everybody knows Pruitt is a great defensive coordinator who has been a part of four national championships. But whether he can run his own program remains to be seen. Still, this is a high-ceiling hire that once seemed like it was headed off the rails.
Texas A&M Aggies: Jimbo Fisher
Details: 10 years, $75 million, according to SBNation's Alex Kirshner
Texas A&M will pay Jimbo Fisher the richest contract in college football history with a guaranteed $75 million over 10 years, and while the jury is out on whether he (or any coach) is worth that much money, you've got to applaud the school for making a commitment to winning.
If you've got it, spend it. And with all that oil money around College Station, the Aggies certainly have it.
That wealth has led to a firestorm surrounding Fisher, like Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi's comments on The Paul Finebaum Show, via Carter Karels of the Dallas Morning News:
"If he were 12-1 and in the College Football Playoff right now, I don't think he's the next coach at Texas A&M. He saw his program was crashing a bit, he was 5-6, he was getting some heat about his assistant coaches—the administration wanted him to fire some assistant coaches—so yeah, I think he bailed because if he had a good season this year, I don't think he takes the job. No. And in my opinion, that's bailing."
There are better coaches in college football than Fisher, who struggled this season with far too much talent, but he still had a great run in Tallahassee, and he'll win big in College Station, too. He's a strong offensive mind, a great recruiter and now has the facilities he always demanded at FSU.
Short of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney or Chris Petersen, Fisher is among the best coaches in all of college football. It just so happened he could be bought, and A&M did it. But the cost of landing these coaches isn't the focus here.
Frost is the best bang-for-the-buck hire out there, but Fisher is a sure thing. That's why the Aggies went and got him, and that's why they'll surround him with everything he needs to build the kind of program that can contend with Saban and Gus Malzahn at Auburn.
UCLA Bruins: Chip Kelly
Details: Five years, $23.3 million, according to Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times
After a year in the studio, Chip Kelly is headed back to college football, taking the job many pegged him for once Jim Mora Jr. landed on the hot seat. Kelly spurned an overture to go to Florida and instead will coach the UCLA Bruins, signing a five-year contract.
The former Oregon coach revolutionized the college game with his hurry-up, no-huddle, high-octane Ducks offense, but he left Eugene to try his hand in the NFL. After failed tenures in Philadelphia and San Francisco, Kelly was out of coaching this season.
He'll be back on the West Coast in 2018, and he'll quickly become a thorn in the side of USC's Clay Helton, Washington's Chris Petersen and every other coach in the Pac-12. While quarterback Josh Rosen likely will head to the NFL, where he'll be a high first-round pick, Kelly will build the Bruins quickly.
UCLA is a sleeping powerhouse sitting on a hotbed of talent in Los Angeles, and Kelly's offense will be enticing to recruits. The only question now is: Has the college game caught up to his philosophy?
At the time of Kelly's heyday in Oregon, not many teams were duplicating what the Ducks were doing. Now, everybody does it. His offense didn't translate well in the NFL, and now, the book has sort of been written on how to defend it.
What kind of wrinkles will Kelly add with the Bruins?
There will be all kinds of pressure on him. Favorite son Troy Aikman already called Kelly the school's "greatest football hire ever," according to the Orange County Register's Jeff Miller.
Kelly is a big name and a proven commodity that should thrive in the big-fish environment of Westwood. It's just a matter of time before he'll have the Bruins battling at the top of the conference.