In many ways the coaching search season has, appropriately, mirrored the 2015 college football season.
For several months it looked like we were barreling toward a high-water mark in coaching turnover being set. But like the season itself and the College Football Playoff picture, things suddenly started to clear up the closer we got to the end. Instead of chaos, we got calm.
The majority of the coaching searches have concluded before the Heisman ceremony—a rarity in this day and age. Change still looms on the horizon, however, but it’s as good a time as any to catch our breath and look at the current landscape.
In the end, coaches will be judged chiefly on one thing: wins. Winning the press conference, hiring the hot names to be coordinators and hitting the recruiting trail running all matter at the time, but in the end it’s all about the wins.
We won’t know how successful most of these hires are for another three or four years, but for right now we can judge them in the vacuum that is their current situation, how the search itself was performed and just what kind of a fit each new CEO is with his program.
With that in mind, here is the ultimate guide to the 2015 college football coaching carousel.
Out: Mark Richt
In: Kirby Smart
Search Grade: B
The skinny: I understand where Georgia was coming from, but it’s still hard to fathom it fired a coach who is 145-51 overall and just posted a 9-3 season with the bulk of his team coming back for 2016. Sure, the relationship had grown a bit stale with Mark Richt, so the administration rounded up the money to make major changes and replaced one of the winningest active head coaches with a first-time head coach who, though he is an alum and knows the SEC landscape well, has plenty of mystery attached to him in terms of running a program.
Smart can certainly be successful, but is replicating Alabama the best way to be the kingmaker of the conference? Is going with defense the best way to combat division rival Florida? We’ll see, and that starts with key hires at offensive coordinator and other spots.
The bottom line is the Bulldogs skipped getting a coach that could have truly shaken things up and scared the rest of the SEC but instead opted for familiarity. I’m not sure people would be as lukewarm about canning Richt had Georgia landed a Tom Herman or Justin Fuente.
Out: Norm Chow
In: Nick Rolovich
Search Grade: B
The skinny: The writing seemed to be on the wall for Chow in his fourth season despite a season-opening win over Colorado of the Pac-12. While people love the idea of being the coach in Honolulu, the reality is this is one of the most difficult jobs in the country. There’s the travel issue to the mainland that comes up frequently, which has the potential to jet-lag the team. But it is also a main reason why the athletic department is facing a major deficit, which doesn't bode well for the football team's future.
Rolovich is a bit of an unknown (he was previously Nevada’s offensive coordinator), but he fits with what is needed to fill the job as somebody relatively young (36) and energetic, fairly cheap on the contract front and with ties to the school (he’s a former quarterback/OC for the Rainbow Warriors under June Jones).
Out: Tim Beckman
In: Bill Cubit
Search Grade: C+
The skinny: Beckman should have been fired after last season, but he was retained and then, after a scandal quickly developed, was forced out. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was promoted and did a decent enough job keeping the ship afloat, nearly getting the 5-7 Illini to a bowl game.
Cubit does have head coaching experience after going 51-47 at Western Michigan and was the safe choice for a school with an interim athletic director and chancellor. Cubit only got a two-year deal, so he’s still a quasi-interim coach and will have difficulty in recruiting as such.
This only works out well if Cubit improves the results on the field or the program gets a top-notch candidate in the near future. Maybe it could have lured somebody like P.J. Fleck to take the job, but for the moment it looks like the administration is simply punting.
Out: Paul Rhoads
In: Matt Campbell
Search Grade: A
The skinny: As soon as Campbell was announced as the head coach, many pondered if he could have gotten a better job than one of the two or three worst in the Big 12. That’s one barometer of success, as the Cyclones did indeed land a fast-rising head coach who appears to have all the right tools to help turn around the team.
The bottom line is athletic director Jamie Pollard identified the best candidate after canning Rhoads, pursued him and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The result is quite a bit of optimism in Ames.
Out: Randy Edsall
In: D.J. Durkin
Search Grade: B+
The skinny: After bungling the firing of Edsall, the talk out of College Park was that the move would allow the Terps to finally live up to their billing of being the Oregon of the East Coast, complete with shoe company money fueling a rise from the outhouse to the penthouse. The involvement of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank was far overblown in hiring a head coach, and it seemed like AD Kevin Anderson interviewed at least two dozen candidates.
In the end, the school went defense in well-respected coordinator D.J. Durkin. While that may mean the team isn’t truly turning into Oregon East, the hire does give the program a smart leader who has learned from some of the best head coaches and can build a stingy defense quickly. Durkin also brings good recruiting connections up and down the Eastern seaboard, especially in the Carolinas and Florida, which is what the Terps need. Still, it’s a very difficult job and a deep division.
Out: Justin Fuente
In: Mike Norvell
Search Grade: A-
The skinny: Can using the same playbook help a school strike twice with a head coach? It might be the case at Memphis, which, despite a big offer to retain Justin Fuente, knew he was likely out the door as soon as the season was over. The odds-on favorite to land the job was former defensive coordinator Barry Odom, but after he decided to wait things out at his alma mater Missouri, the school needed to look elsewhere.
Enter off-the-radar candidate Mike Norvell, who is young (34) and should keep the Tigers playing an exciting brand of offense. It was going to take the right situation for Norvell to leave Arizona State and Todd Graham’s side, and it appears this was it. He brings several recruiting ties to that part of the country and can help the team remain in the race in the ultra-competitive AAC.
Out: Al Golden
In: Mark Richt
Search Grade: A
The skinny: Coaches with nearly 150 FBS wins don’t come along often, and yet there the Miami alum was for the taking. Many didn’t expect Richt to jump back into the business right away, but there are times when the right opportunity at the right time comes along. Richt should be re-energized and seems like the exact type of head coach that the administration was looking for.
There are legitimate questions about the staff that Richt will put together and how he’ll deal with recruiting in South Florida, but this is as good of a hire as Miami could have asked for. Expectations shouldn’t be national title or bust, but rather a trip to the ACC title game in the next couple of years.
Out: Gary Pinkel
In: Barry Odom
Search Grade: B+
The skinny: Odom got plenty of support from current and former players and seemed to be the obvious choice once candidates either backed out or went elsewhere. As a first-time head coach at his alma mater, Odom is risky, especially because he's taking over for somebody so successful. Still, it’s hard to argue there was a better fit.
Out: Dan McCarney
In: Seth Littrell
Search Grade: A
The skinny: Many were surprised when AD Rick Villarreal canned McCarney before he could even collect his thoughts after a bad, bad loss (and 0-5 start) earlier this year, but the decision turned out to be a sign of how UNT would go about filling the position: knowing what it wants to do and getting it done. Based on some of the candidates that we heard either interviewed or were considered, it appears the team was on the right track no matter who actually ended up with the job.
In Littrell, the program gets a first-time head coach who has the energy to turn things around and the offensive acumen to tap into the great high school players in the state.
Out: Kyle Flood
In: Chris Ash
The skinny: It was clear to everybody in the country that Rutgers needed a housecleaning, and they finally got it by firing head coach Kyle Flood and athletic director Julie Hermann. With that out of the way, the school was free to find a head coach who could tap into the blue-collar mentality the football team needs.
Enter Chris Ash, who no doubt learned a lot coaching under Urban Meyer and helping the Buckeyes win the national title last season. He should pay immediate dividends on defense, but finding the right staff will be key if the Scarlet Knights are to get out of the basement in the Big Ten East. After a long malaise, it appears Rutgers has finally made the transition from laughingstock to a program ready to make sound decisions with Ash and company in place.
Out: Steve Spurrier
In: Will Muschamp
Search Grade: C-
The skinny: Listen, Muschamp should almost assuredly be better in his second go-around as a head coach than he was the first time at Florida. He knows the SEC landscape as well as anybody, he’s in the easier East division, and he’ll recruit far better than Spurrier did the past few years. The problem with the hire lies in the search, where the inexperience of athletic director Ray Tanner no doubt contributed to the perception that it was bungled.
The fact that Arizona and Rich Rodriguez so publicly humiliated the school by announcing RichRod turned down an offer was not a good look, and more than anything the chance to shake things up at a school where success doesn’t come easy didn’t happen. Gamecocks fans need to realize that double-digit-win seasons are not a regular thing in Columbia and that 7-5/8-4 years should be considered good outings. Muschamp should be able to get things to that point even if the deck is stacked against him early on.
Out: Scott Shafer
In: Dino Babers
Search Grade: A
The skinny: Shafer was respected by a lot of coaches and may have kept his job had it not been for a rash of key injuries. Still, it’s hard not to argue that the school didn’t get a big upgrade with the exciting Baylor-lite brand of offense that Babers will bring with him to the Carrier Dome. While the news of the hire did leak before Babers won the MAC title Friday, it’s hard not to call this a successful search by AD Mark Coyle.
Out: Matt Campbell
In: Jason Candle
Search Grade: A-
The skinny: Candle was offensive coordinator for the Rockets under Campbell and a longtime staffer at Toledo (seven years). While the school could have looked elsewhere, this is a vote for continuity and maintaining recent success. Those in the region think it is a good hire, even if it was the easiest move the program could have made.
Out: George O’Leary
In: Scott Frost
Search Grade: A
The skinny: In terms of upgrades, it’s hard to bring in a better one-two punch than AD Danny White and now Scott Frost as head coach to replace George O’Leary. Offense was the biggest issue for the Knights, and Frost should provide an immediate boost in that area as a candidate who was up for bigger jobs but chose the opening in Orlando.
While there are question marks about Frost moving into the big chair (and, frankly, dealing with losing considering he hasn’t done much of that lately), this match between coach and school could pay huge dividends in the AAC. Frost said he’s taking a carbon copy of the Oregon offense, so it should be fascinating to see it with the type of athletes that the Knights can get in their own backyard.
Out: Steve Sarkisian
In: Clay Helton
Search Grade: C-
The skinny: Clay Helton did enough to earn a head coaching job during his interim stint, but was it enough to earn a top-five job like the one at USC? We’ll find out in the long run, but he at the very least provides some stability and is already making much-needed changes. Bottom line, he’s running the program like an adult, and that was something that had been lacking around Troy lately.
The issue is the fact that Pat Haden was running the show to replace Sarkisian and showed no signs of doing a detailed search to land the perfect head coach. Haden should have been working off the list of head coaches who could have scared the rest of the Pac-12 if they were to take over at USC.
Helton doesn’t scare anybody in the conference and, in the end, simply kept the Trojans even with preseason expectations (with more losses than expected). One could argue a clean break with the past is needed in Los Angeles, but that’s not exactly what USC ended up with.
Out: Mike London
In: Bronco Mendenhall
The skinny: The Cavaliers win for the most out-of-left-field hire of the year by plucking Mendenhall from BYU. The fit is different and interesting, but Mendenhall has done well in a difficult job for nearly a decade. He will fit in well with the school’s climate, and the on-field product should pick up from an X’s and O’s standpoint. Assembling a staff may be a bit of a challenge, but it’s hard not to like what Virginia did.
Out: Frank Beamer
In: Justin Fuente
The skinny: This, folks, is how you do a coaching search. AD Whit Babcock didn’t have to make the difficult choice regarding Frank Beamer’s future because the legendary coach knew when to make it. That made things easy in creating the opening, but Babcock absolutely nailed things every step of the way in first identifying the perfect candidate and then sealing the deal with Fuente.
Just as importantly, his swift moves allowed Fuente to retain renowned defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Yes, it’s pretty easy to figure out who won the coaching search silly season.
Out: Dino Babers
The skinny: Most of Babers’ assistants from Bowling Green will be going with him to Syracuse, and it doesn’t seem like anybody from his former staff will get elevated into his old job. This is an attractive opening because the team is fresh off a league title and has developed a reputation for sending head coaches on to better jobs. Expect some of the search to play out this week with a coordinator likely filling Babers’ shoes.
Out: Bronco Mendenhall
The skinny: The Cougars are in a tough spot, not only because of the unexpected loss of Mendenhall, but also because they’re a little hamstrung in terms of candidates. Coaches must be LDS members in good standing with the church first and foremost, which limits the pool of those under consideration considerably. Add in a salary that will be smaller than some think and the difficulty of navigating football independence, and it will take a unique person to make it all work.
The first calls should be godfather-type offers to Kyle Whittingham (an alum who wouldn’t have to move) and then Ken Niumatalolo. If they say no, interviews will likely happen with Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and maybe Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Keep an eye out for Robert Anae, who is already on staff and could very well be tabbed for the job.
Out: Ruffin McNeill
The skinny: This may be the most puzzling opening of the year, as McNeill’s 5-7 team had a ton of injuries this season (and nearly beat Florida) and is coming off an 18-8 record the past two years. It sounds like the Pirates could emulate a number of their peers in the AAC and go with a coach whose background is on offense. This could be a case where the school should be careful what it wishes for after canning somebody like McNeill.
Out: Curtis Johnson
The skinny: The situation in New Orleans is fluid (as most are in that city), but Tulane made progress by hitting a home run in hiring Troy Dannen as the new AD. He could go a number of different ways with the next head coach. This isn’t a great job by any stretch, but it’s fairly solid with the improved situation on campus.
It’s possible a current head coach could be lured with the right offer (perhaps Jeff Brohm at Western Kentucky), but at this point it looks like an offensive coordinator from a quality team is where this one is headed. It’s unclear if LSU assistant Frank Wilson has mutual interest in the job, but he’d be a great pick if so.
Out: Todd Berry
The skinny: This might be a prime spot for a former head coach to land (Ed Orgeron, Houston Nutt?), but beyond that there’s not much talk out there about the Warhawks just yet. But that will pick up this week with a hire likely coming shortly.
While things may have calmed down in terms of openings, there’s about to be two more waves of coaching changes that we’re only seeing on the horizon right now. The first lies with coordinator turnover (we’re not even touching the numerous assistants moving around) at both the college and NFL level.
It remains possible somebody like Baylor OC Kendal Briles gets a head coaching job, and that in turn creates an attractive opening in the Big 12. And of course there's Kirby Smart, whose move to Georgia opens a spot for current Bulldogs DC Jeremy Pruitt or perhaps even Florida DC Geoff Collins.
There are already reports, including this one from CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, that TCU's Sonny Cumbie has been interviewed by Texas, which is an opening with the potential for a huge salary that could lure a big name from the college ranks. Plus there will be plenty of lower-level moves, such as somebody perhaps plucking up Western Kentucky OC Tyson Helton (he could be in play at Georgia, for example).
That’s not even getting into the crossover with the NFL that will start to happen as the pro regular season winds down. There will be several college coaches who join NFL staffs (and others like Georgia OC Brian Schottenheimer who will go back). Most of these moves will likely happen after signing day.
Likewise, there’s the potential for others from the league to go back to college. Former Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was being mentioned for a number of head coach openings at both levels before getting the axe in Indianapolis, and he could still land a job as the top guy or go back to the college ranks as a coordinator.
It may not have been the wild and crazy coaching offseason that we expected all of two or three weeks ago, but keep in mind there’s still plenty of time for things to go off the rails. There should be lots of movement this week with most of the college athletics industry in New York, even more after the bowl season starts to wrap up and yet another wave when the annual coach’s convention leads to some chatter and movement.
It’s a long road until the 2016 season begins, but the groundwork is being laid with coaching moves across the country. Only time will tell how well they all pay off.
Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.