When the coaching carousel starts spinning, Group of Five programs brace for anything but a pleasant ride. Successful teams often find themselves looking to hire a head coach.
That's to be expected in college football, where both the power and money reside in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Only those five conferences have a legitimate shot at reaching the College Football Playoff, and they're best prepared to pay a hefty coaching salary.
In this offseason alone, three Group of Five champions lost their head coach to a power conference.
Mike Norvell (Memphis, AAC) headed to Florida State, Lane Kiffin (Florida Atlantic, Conference USA) bolted for Ole Miss and Eliah Drinkwitz (Appalachian State, Sun Belt) landed at Missouri. Plus, the Mountain West saw its Coach of the Year, Nick Rolovich (Hawaii), move to Washington State.
Not surprising, nothing new.
Barring a second unexpected resignation—the first being Mark Dantonio's departure from Michigan State—the 2019-20 carousel has almost stopped. Still, one of the reported finalists for the Colorado job has long been prepared for the Power Five leap.
Troy Calhoun was connected to vacancies at Tennessee and Texas A&M in the early 2010s but hasn't been in the rumor mill much since. Yet he's guided the program to a 98-69 record and 10 bowls in 13 years, recently completing an 11-2 campaign.
Considering the limitations at Air Force—practice time, body-size restrictions and no redshirts—Calhoun's success has been stellar. He, at worst, deserves a chance to interview at Power Five schools.
Otherwise, the 2020-21 cycle is likely to pick up exactly where it left off: with the spotlight on Luke Fickell.
In his first year at Cincinnati, the team finished 4-8. Over the last two seasons, the Bearcats have totaled a 22-5 record and finished in the AP Top 25 both years. Fickell parlayed those accomplishments into an interview with Michigan State this offseason, though he declined the job.
Fickell will be mentioned regarding many potential openings, but his high-profile Power Five move could be USC. Clay Helton's future is extremely uncertain, and the school's recently hired athletic director is Mike Bohn—the person who hired Fickell at Cincinnati.
That connection will be impossible to ignore should USC need a new head coach next offseason.
Fickell leads the Group of Five options, but both Billy Napier and Bill Clark should be close behind.
Napier served in an assistant capacity for 15 years before he landed the Louisiana job in 2018. During his two seasons, the Ragin' Cajuns went 18-10 with two Sun Belt West Division titles and ranked 13th and sixth nationally in yards per play.
Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated noted Feb. 12 Napier turned down chances to double or triple his salary this offseason. He interviewed at Baylor after Matt Rhule left for the Carolina Panthers and declined an offer from Mississippi State.
It seems only a matter of time before the right opportunity opens and Napier seriously considers leaving Louisiana.
Bill Clark, meanwhile, has resurrected a UAB program that didn't play in 2015 or 2016 and had never won eight games in a season. Since returning to the field in 2017, the Blazers have reached the mark every year.
Overall, UAB is 28-13—including a perfect 18-0 at home—with a Conference USA title and another trip to the championship game.
Similar to Napier, Clark passed on opportunities to engage SEC (and AAC) schools, according to Kevin Scarbinsky. Pulling him from UAB won't be easily done.
The same can be said for Ken Niumatalolo and Bryan Harsin, who along with Fickell, Napier, Clark and Calhoun complete the top six Group of Five head coaches.
Niumatalolo has overseen nine eight-win campaigns while leading Navy for 12 full years. He's coached at the school in some capacity since 1995, save for a three-year stop at UNLV from 1999 to 2001. Harsin has guided Boise State—his alma mater—to five 10-win seasons and three Mountain West titles in six years.
Fickell, Napier and Clark are being selective, but Niumatalolo and Harsin can wait for the absolute perfect job.
The difficulty for Niumatalolo is selling the triple-option offense he'd run. Tulane's Willie Fritz would meet a similar obstacle, though he's worth mentioning because Tulane just posted consecutive seven-win seasons for the first time in 21 years.
Jim McElwain would meet far less opposition for his offensive philosophy, and Central Michigan rose from 1-11 to MAC East champions in his first season. He's trending back toward the Power Five, as is SMU coach Sonny Dykes, who guided the Mustangs to an AP Top 25 appearance for the first time since 1986 last year.
The next wave of Group of Five coaches include Toledo's Jason Candle, Eastern Michigan's Chris Creighton, Arkansas State's Blake Anderson and North Texas coach Seth Littrell. If they sustain or build on recent successes, a power-conference school should call soon.
And the Group of Five-driven carousel will once again begin spinning rapidly.