College Coordinators Who'll Make the Move to Head Coaching Jobs Soon
The 2015-16 college football offseason has been an active one. Barring a surprising departure, the movement surrounding FBS head coaching positions has finished, but there was significant turnover. Twenty-eight teams changed head coaches for one reason or another, although the toppling of high-profile dominoes didn’t happen.
Instead, with notable exceptions such Mark Richt (who moved to Miami after being fired following 15 successful seasons at Georgia), FBS programs dipped into the assistant ranks to fill their vacancies. Thirteen new head coaching hires were coordinators, which includes South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, who spent the season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator after being fired at Florida.
College coordinators are an efficient (and often) less expensive option than a sitting head coach, and it gives programs an opportunity to catch a rising star. More and more coordinators will be making that same leap to a head coaching job. Here are some of the best coordinators who could become head coaches very soon.
LSU Defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda
LSU has had an impressive offseason. Following a turbulent end-of-season stretch that tested Les Miles’ hold on the Tigers’ head coaching job, Miles landed a strong recruiting class. But his best addition came from Wisconsin.
When Kevin Steele surprisingly left for Auburn after just one season as LSU's defensive coordinator, Miles turned it into a positive. He hired Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, one of the nation’s most impressive coordinators.
In three seasons at Wisconsin, Aranda helmed a stingy defense. In that span, Wisconsin ranked among the top five nationally in scoring defense (16.9 ppg), total defense (289.4 yards per game), passing defense (179.9 ypg) and rushing defense (109.6 ypg). The Badgers led the nation in total defense and were second nationally in scoring defense in that span.
Last fall, Wisconsin’s defense was especially tough. The Badgers led the nation in scoring defense, allowing 13.1 points per game, and were third in total defense at 268.6 yards per game and fourth in rushing defense, yielding 95.4 yards per game.
Aranda should keep LSU’s tough, attacking defense humming. It’s just a matter of time before someone recognizes how his style can translate to a head coaching role.
Florida Defensive Coordinator Geoff Collins
Jim McElwain put together some impressive success in his first season at Florida. The Gators finished 10-3, won the SEC East and earned a Citrus Bowl bid. While the offense struggled at times, the defense was an unqualified success. Florida yielded 310 yards per game, ranking No. 8 nationally in total defense.
It was another big feather in Geoff Collins’ cap. He has become known as the “Minister of Mayhem,” and his aggressive schemes wreak havoc for SEC offenses. Collins excelled as Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator/co-defensive coordinator before joining McElwain’s staff at Florida. The next step? It could be spreading mayhem with a program of his own.
North Carolina Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik
Sometimes, you just need a second chance. Gene Chizik is proof of that. His head coaching record has huge highs and huge lows. He became Iowa State’s head coach in 2007 and, despite compiling a 5-19 record in two seasons, surprised many by getting hired at Auburn.
He (temporarily) silenced his doubters by riding Cam Newton’s talents to a 14-0 record and the 2010 national title, but the Tigers cratered after Newton left for the NFL, going 11-14 in their next two seasons. Following a 3-9 record in 2012, Auburn fired Chizik.
He spent two seasons out of football before Larry Fedora hired him to turn around a horrific North Carolina defense. Chizik did just that. While the offense got its share of attention in an 11-3 season, the Tar Heels defense was significantly improved, yielding 22.6 points per game and ranking No. 35 nationally. Chizik showed he still has sideline acumen. How long before another program takes a chance on him?
Arizona State Offensive Coordinator Chip Lindsey
When Memphis hired away Mike Norvell, Todd Graham faced a tough challenge replacing him as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator. Norvell’s fast-paced systems were keys to the Sun Devils’ back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013-14.
Graham found a rising star in Southern Miss offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. He just finished his fourth season as a college assistant, but he has a great record of success in the Alabama and Georgia high school ranks and, of course, with the Golden Eagles.
Southern Miss improved from 0-12 in 2012 to make a bowl game this season. Lindsey’s offense played a huge role, as the Golden Eagles set program records in total offensive yards, passing yards, points and touchdowns. Lindsey prefers an uptempo, exciting style, and he clearly has value to other programs.
When Todd Monken surprisingly jumped to the NFL as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant, Southern Miss inquired about his interest as head coach, but Lindsey opted to stay with ASU, per Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. It likely won’t be his last head coaching offer in the years to come.
Alabama Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin
Just over two years ago, Lane Kiffin arrived in Tuscaloosa as the epitome of “damaged goods.” He had quickly risen to prominence as a Southern California assistant and became the Oakland Raiders’ head coach in 2007, the youngest head coach in NFL history. But he clashed with owner Al Davis and was fired in 2010.
He landed at Tennessee and talked big but left the Volunteers hanging after just one season to replace Pete Carroll as USC head coach. Kiffin went 28-15 and was fired midway through his fourth season at the Trojans’ helm.
Kiffin needed some image rehab, and Nick Saban’s staff was the perfect place to get it. Saban does not permit his assistants to speak with reporters, so media interactions have been few and far between. On the field, Kiffin’s pass-base offense has excelled.
In two seasons, the Crimson Tide have two SEC titles, two College Football Playoff berths and a national championship, and quarterbacks Blake Sims and Jake Coker have been integral parts of the offense. It likely won’t be long before Kiffin gets another shot at running his own program again. Will the third time at the collegiate level be the charm?
TCU Co-Offensive Coordinator Doug Meacham
Two years ago, Gary Patterson was at a low point in his TCU tenure. The Horned Frogs had just finished a 4-8 2013 season and needed a revamp. Patterson took a chance by hiring Air Raid acolytes Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie as co-offensive coordinators, and the gamble paid off.
TCU went from scoring 25.1 points per game in 2013 to 46.5 in 2014, emerging as one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. The Horned Frogs averaged 41.7 points per game last fall, ranking No. 8 nationally. Meacham has a long history with the Air Raid system, working as an Oklahoma State assistant under Mike Gundy from 2005 to 2012. His partner, Cumbie, is equally invested in the system and also talented; in fact, his name could have just as easily been mentioned here.
Either Meacham or Cumbie (or both) will have attractive opportunities in the very near future, especially if they can continue TCU’s offensive success following quarterback Trevone Boykin’s departure, with former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill his likely successor.
Oklahoma Offensive Coordinator Lincoln Riley
Oklahoma enjoyed one of the nation’s most impressive turnarounds in 2015. The Sooners rebounded from a disappointing 8-5 record to finish 11-2 with a Big 12 title and a College Football Playoff berth. While Bob Stoops revamped his entire offensive staff, the biggest piece was new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who brought an Air Raid philosophy that Stoops actually used to win his only national title in 2000.
With transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield leading the way, Oklahoma averaged 45.8 points per game, ranking No. 3 nationally. It was the latest sign that Riley is a rising star in the coaching profession. He worked under former OU offensive coordinator Mike Leach at Texas Tech and then had a successful five-year run at East Carolina. The Pirates averaged 35.8 points per game in his final year at ECU.
2015 only made him a more impressive candidate for programs that are looking to perk up their offenses. At 32 years old, Riley is in a perfect position to be choosy about his next job, but he won’t have a shortage of offers.
Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator Mike Sanford
Mike Sanford is on the fast track to success. The son of longtime college coach Mike Sanford (currently the head coach at FCS Indiana State), Sanford is 34 years old but is already putting together a solid offensive resume.
The former Boise State quarterback spent three years as a Stanford offensive assistant and then moved to his alma mater as an offensive coordinator in 2014. The Broncos ranked No. 9 in scoring, averaging 39.7 points per game, and No. 14 in total offense at 494.3 yards per game. That got the attention of Brian Kelly, who hired him as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator.
Sanford endured the early-season loss of starting quarterback Malik Zaire to a broken ankle but persevered with backup DeShone Kizer. The Irish finished 10-3 and made the Fiesta Bowl with a balanced offense that averaged 34.8 points per game and finished in the top 40 nationally in both passing and rushing.
Sanford has a prolific offensive mind, and that should garner him plenty of looks as a head coach.
Tennessee Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop
Butch Jones has Tennessee headed in the right direction, with consecutive winning seasons capped with bowl victories. But he clearly isn’t satisfied. Jones made one of the best staff upgrades of the offseason by snagging Bob Shoop away from Penn State and James Franklin.
Shoop spent the past five seasons with Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State, and his track record is impressive. All three of his Vanderbilt defenses ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. In 2014, Penn State finished second nationally in total defense and seventh in scoring defense. This fall, the Nittany Lions were No. 15 nationally in total defense, allowing 324.3 yards per game, and No. 26 in scoring defense, allowing 21.8 points.
Shoop will take over a talented defense on Rocky Top. If he can improve it, this might be the 49-year-old’s ticket to running a program of his own. He has already spent three seasons as an FCS head coach, working at Ivy League Columbia from 2003 to 2005.
Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables
Brent Venables was already a well-respected defensive coordinator when Dabo Swinney hired him following the 2011 season. After all, then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips interviewed Venables, then the Oklahoma defensive coordinator, for the job that went to Swinney in 2008. But Venables’ move to Clemson has only heightened his star.
He took a defense in utter disarray following a 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia and molded it into one of the nation’s very best. In 2014, Clemson had the nation’s top overall defense. Last fall, Venables worked through multiple graduation departures and again fielded a great unit that ranked No. 10 nationally in total defense.
Clemson will return only three defensive starters in 2016 following another raft of NFL draft and graduation losses, but no one is betting against Venables, whose defenses are consistently among the nation’s toughest and best. Venables has said he isn’t seeking a job, as USA Today's George Schroeder wrote.
"It's not something that consumes me," Venables said. "I'm a believer in fate, a believer in being committed to what you're doing now. … I've just seen so many coaches that have gotten in a hurry that way, and then wished they hadn't."
With a $1.4 million annual salary, he is comfortable on Swinney’s staff.
But his time is coming sooner or later. Venables is a Kansas State alumnus and would be a natural fit to replace Bill Snyder when the legendary coach finally steps down. Venables is one of the nation’s best coaches in waiting.