Gator Bowl: If Not Jim Harbaugh, Who Would Replace Rich Rodriguez at Michigan?
With all the talk swirling around the Michigan Wolverines football program, you'd think it was a foregone conclusion that athletic director David Brandon is going to fire head coach Rich Rodriguez and replace him with Stanford miracle worker Jim Harbaugh.
After all, Rich Rod hasn't exactly succeeded at the helm in Ann Arbor, with the 2011 Gator Bowl marking the Wolverines' first trip to a bowl game during his tenure.
Similarly, the Maize and Blue fans and boosters do not seem intent on embracing Rodriguez as their guy, both for his lack of winning and his insistence of a spread offense at a school known for playing smash mouth football.
Oh, and Brandon didn't hire him, so it's not as though the Michigan AD would have any sentimental qualms with cutting Rodriguez loose and starting over again.
Furthermore, Harbaugh would seem to make perfect sense as Rodriguez's replacement.
For one, Harbaugh is a Michigan man, a "Golden Boy" who spent three years as the starting quarterback under legendary coach Bo Schembechler while leading the Wolverines to the Fiesta Bowl in 1986 and the Rose Bowl in 1987.
If that weren't enough, Harbaugh has proven himself to be a rather capable head coach, leading Stanford to the first 11-win season in school history in his fourth year in Palo Alto.
Unfortunately for U-M fans, Harbaugh is a tough nut to crack and has yet to show signs that he would jump at the opportunity to restore his alma mater to its former glory.
With that in mind, let's have a look at the top 10 candidates for the Michigan job should Rodriguez get his walking papers and Harbaugh turn down one of the premiere coaching jobs in college football.
Les Miles, LSU
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Word on the street is that Michigan AD David Brandon is intent on getting someone with a connection to the football program to bring the winning tradition back to the Big House, not to mention someone with extensive experience and success as a head coach.
Aside from Harbaugh, no one fits the bill better than LSU head man Les Miles.
In 10 years at Oklahoma State and LSU, Miles has compiled a record of 89-38, coached in a bowl game in each of the last nine years and won two BCS games, including the National Championship Game in 2008.
What's more, Miles played AND coached under Bo Schembechler, making him a favorite of Michigan fans, administrators and boosters alike.
Pessimists around the program will recall that the Maize and Blue tried once before to lure Les back to Ann Arbor in 2008 after Miles won his first national title, but the promise of football in Baton Rouge was too much for him to leave behind.
Others blame former AD Bill Martin, known colloquially as "Sailboat Willie," for botching Miles' coaching courtship and subsequently offering the gig to Rich Rod out of panic.
Either way, expect Brandon's third call, after firing Rodriguez and reaching out to Jim Harbaugh, to go directly to the desk of Les Miles.
Brady Hoke, San Diego State
Jacob de Golish/Getty Images
If Brandon strikes out with Harbaugh AND Miles, he'll still have plenty of viable options with Michigan connections to choose from, with Brady Hoke chief among them.
The current head coach at San Diego State, whose Aztecs just finished their season at 9-4 following a win in the Poinsettia Bowl, spent eight seasons as Lloyd Carr's defensive line coach in Ann Arbor, thereby tying him to the program.
With eight seasons of experience at Ball State, his alma mater, and SDSU, Hoke has established himself as a coach capable of turning around programs deep in the dumps.
A move to Ann Arbor would undoubtedly be the biggest step up in Hoke's meteoric rise through the college football ranks.
Ralph Friedgen, Maryland
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Assuming David Brandon decides to expand his search beyond the scope of those familiar with the program, he may turn to now-former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen.
Despite leading the Terrapins football program to a 75-50 record in 10 years and being named the 2010 ACC Coach of the Year, "The Fridge" was forced out of his alma mater by new athletic director Kevin Anderson, presumably because Friedgen's teams weren't "exciting" enough.
Whether the folks at Michigan care about the style of play that Friedgen's teams employ is unknown. What is clear, though, is that Friedgen had considerable success coaching football at what is traditionally a basketball school and that he still wants to be a head coach.
As such, Friedgen may be among those most receptive to an invitation to lead the Wolverines back to the top.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Speaking of coaches on the market who have succeeded where few others have, the folks at Michigan will likely send more than a few inquiries to the address of Jon Gruden.
The current commentator for Monday Night Football has been tied to just about every job that's come open this season, both at the college level and in the NFL.
And for good reason.
"Chuckie" had considerable success as a young coaching phenom, leading the Oakland Raiders to consecutive AFC West division crowns before jumping to Tampa Bay, where he guided the Buccaneers to a trouncing of the Silver and Black in Super Bowl XXXVII.
As a native Ohioan, Gruden understands the gravity of the Michigan position and would have at his disposal a recruiting tool that few college head coaches possess: a Super Bowl ring.
Chris Petersen, Boise State
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Moving on to head coaches both employed and without previous ties to Ann Arbor, David Brandon would likely turn his attention first to Boise State's Chris Petersen.
Some would undoubtedly remind Brandon of the legacies left behind by Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins, the two men who preceded Petersen in Boise and parlayed their success into big-time coaching jobs, only to fail miserably at Arizona State and Colorado, respectively.
However, Petersen's teams have far outperformed those of predecessors, posting a sparkling 61-5 record in five seasons at the helm, including an unprecedented two wins in BCS bowls for a school from a non-automatic-qualifying conference.
Despite a lack of roots in the Midwest, Petersen would not likely have trouble ingratiating himself to region and its people once hired.
Unfortunately for the Maize and Blue, Petersen has thus far shown little interest in leaving Idaho for greener football pastures.
Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Nebraska's Bo Pelini may be more willing to change addresses than Boise State's Chris Petersen.
The question remains, would Cornhuskers AD and coaching legend Tom Osbourne allow him to leave?
Osbourne allegedly refused to allow Pelini to interview for the Miami (Fla.) job, and for good reason.
In just three seasons in Lincoln, Pelini has already reversed the seemingly irreparable damage left in the wake of the Bill Callahan era, making him something of a big deal at Nebraska.
However, even with a 30-12 head coaching record and a penchant for turning bad defenses (like the Wolverines') into great ones, Pelini might not be a particular favorite among the Michigan faithful, as he spent his college playing career as a free safety at arch-rival Ohio State.
David Brandon wouldn't dare replace Rich Rodriguez with a guy named "Bo" who has ties to Ohio State, now would he?
For the answer to that question, just ask Glenn Edward "Bo" Schembechler.
Randy Edsall, UConn
Once Michigan is done playing Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, expect David Brandon to turn his attention to the Fiesta Bowl, where he'll have a keen eye fixed on UConn's Randy Edsall.
Edsall has been the head man in Storrs for 12 years and, in that time, has led the Huskies football program from Division I-AA to Division I-A, from an independent program to the top of the Big East.
Though UConn's 8-4 record may not set Michigan fans in a frenzy, it was good enough to earn the Huskies their first-ever Big East football title and the BCS berth that comes with it.
Needless to say, Wolverines fans would certainly hope that Edsall wouldn't need 12 years to get the program back up to par.
Kyle Whittingham, Utah
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Kyle Whittingham may not be entirely responsible for the recent rise to prominence of the Utah football program, and he may not be particularly interested in leaving Salt Lake City, but he could very well get a call from Michigan in January.
Since taking over the Utes with the departure of Urban Meyer to Florida in 2004, Whittingham's teams have amassed a 58-20 record, including two wins in BCS bowl games.
Of course, Meyer was largely responsible for turning Utah into a football powerhouse, but Whittingham deserves plenty of credit for continuing the program's rise, which resulted in the school accepting a bid to join the newly expanded Pac-12 in 2011.
With his program now moving into a BCS conference, and being so firmly entrenched at a school in a state so friendly to his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Whittingham seems like a long shot to leave the Utes behind for the Wolverines.
But, then again, you never know how the glimmer and glow of such a high-profile position might affect Whittingham's mind.
Brent Venables, Oklahoma
Should David Brandon decide to dip into the assistant coaching ranks, he would be well advised to start with Brent Venables.
As the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, Venables has been the architect behind several dominant Sooner defenses, was a finalist for the Broyles Award for the top assistant in college football in 2006, and has had his name linked to myriad head coaching positions in the past several years.
Venables' defensive know-how and fiery nature would presumably make him a great choice to revive a largely dormant football program in Ann Arbor.
Whether Venables is a hot enough commodity to whet Michigan's appetite remains to be seen.
Kirby Smart, Alabama
Getty Images/Getty Images
As far as defensive coordinators are concerned, few, other than Venables, are more highly regarded in college football today than Alabama's Kirby Smart.
An Alabama native, Smart has been in charge of the Crimson Tide's crushing defense since arriving in Tuscaloosa along with head coach Nick Saban in 2007.
The Georgia Bulldogs alum has made a name for himself as a true football firebrand and would bring with him plenty of lucrative recruiting ties to the football hotbeds of the South should Michigan extend an offer his way.