Top Head Coach Candidates Likely to Be Targeted This Offseason

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2020

Top Head Coach Candidates Likely to Be Targeted This Offseason

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    MATT GENTRY/Associated Press

    College football season may be the most fun time of year in all of sports, but it's followed closely by everybody's second-favorite season: the wild and wacky coaching search season.

    It's going to be interesting to see how many Power Five jobs come open after a pandemic-tainted season that has had a massive impact on schools' athletic revenues. Smaller crowds have a major trickle-down effect, and so the high-dollar sport is going to be penny-pinching more than usual.

    Still, South Carolina severing ties with coach Will Muschamp proves some programs will cut bait regardless. Tennessee, Vanderbilt and potentially even Auburn could wind up disgruntled enough to make a move after this year.

    What if Michigan and Jim Harbaugh part ways, or James Franklin's relationship with Penn State ends? Talk about some massive shockwaves that could turn the coaching world upside down.

    Whatever the case, plenty of hot next-big-thing coaches and up-and-coming assistants will be bantered about very soon. Some are just pipe dreamsΒ (like bringing Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops or Chris Petersen out of retirement) and won't be listed here.

    Which coaches could hear their names called and jump ship after this season?

    Here's a list of candidates who are going to be extremely popular when jobs come open.

Shane Beamer, Oklahoma Assistant Head Coach for Offense

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    When it comes to coaching pedigree, there are few names bigger than Shane Beamer's. Just having that last name carries significant weight considering his father, Frank, is a legendary coach of Virginia Tech.

    The younger Beamer has paid his dues in the coaching ranks, learning under his father, Steve Spurrier while at South Carolina and is now the assistant head coach for offense at Oklahoma under Lincoln Riley.Β 

    He is already being mentioned as a "strong candidate" for South Carolina's coaching vacancy, according to ESPN.com's Chris Low, and he has big-time backing for the Gamecocks job.

    "Shane has expressed this is his dream job, and I believe all fans are hoping that our next head coach is a Gamecock lifer, like Shane's dad Frank was at Virginia Tech," Pro Bowl fullback Patrick DiMarco told ESPN.

    Beamer seems to be a perfect fit at South Carolina, where he was an assistant from 2007 to '10 and helped assemble some of the school's top recruiting classes.

    It's a gamble for a program coming off the shaky tenure of Muschamp to hire a first-time head coach, but Beamer has a lot of upside and has learned under some of the top offensive minds in the sport. He also would be a popular pick to be a CEO type who could have the money to hire big-time coordinators.

    This is a no-brainer inclusion on the list because of the heavy, mutual interest Beamer and the Gamecocks have, but Beamer's name should come up for more than just the Carolina gig. That seems like a perfect fit, though.

    Beamer's reputation, recruiting prowess and coaching chops are going to land him a top job soon.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State Head Coach

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Every year, Matt Campbell's name comes up when it comes to marquee jobs, and it seems every year he shrugs off interest in other programs and remains committed to Iowa State.

    The Cyclones are coming off a massive win over Texas on Saturday that gives them a clear path to the Big 12 Championship Game, and by the end of the season, Campbell could have his team in the Top 10.

    So, you may ask, why is he on this list?Β 

    He's built Iowa State into a terrific program that has potential to occasionally compete in the Big 12, especially when a powerhouse like Oklahoma is having a down year. But what, realistically, is the program's ceiling? Can Campbell consistently recruit top-tier athletes to Ames?

    Is it possible the Cyclones could ever have enough talent to compete for a title? What are Campbell's ultimate aspirations?

    You don't leave a top-15 program for just any job. But what if he has the opportunity to take a blue-blood job like Penn State or Michigan? If that opportunity presents itself, you have to think Campbell would consider it. It's possible even a program like Tennessee could intrigue him if the Vols threw a lot of money at him.

    Campbell is obviously content where he is, and he is proving every year Iowa State can compete with the big boys in the Big 12. You have to think the list of jobs he'd take is short considering just how little contemplation he has given when his name is whispered the past few years.

    But the Iowa State athletic department is going to have to boost his $3.5 million annual salary significantly if he continues this current run and especially if the Cyclones win the league. He is already doing plenty, and he's doing it at one of the toughest Power Five jobs in the nation.

    His name is going to come up because it always does. Is he a Cyclone lifer, or what's it going to take to get him to go?

Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina Head Coach

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    What Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell has done this season is remarkable.

    The Chanticleers were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt Conference's East division before the season started, but all they've done is race to an undefeated record that includes wins over Power Five foe Kansas, ranked Louisiana and conference power Appalachian State.

    They've done this with a redshirt freshman starting quarterback in Grayson McCall and about as little fanfare as you can have. They're one of the most fun, exciting stories in college football.

    The 43-year-old coach, aΒ two-time FCS National Coach of the Year finalist and three-time Big South Coach of the Year while at Charleston Southern, has turned around a woebegone Chanticleers program in such a short time.

    He's already interviewed for the South Carolina head coaching job vacated by Muschamp, and he is also an East Tennessee native who would likely jump at the Vols job if Jeremy Pruitt got fired. He grew up inΒ Caryville, Tennessee, a tiny town north of Knoxville, and played quarterback at East Tennessee State.

    Just how much would he love the Vols gig? His son Jameson's middle name is Heath, named after UT legend Heath Shuler, according to the Charleston Post & Courier's Grace Raynor.Β 

    At such a young age, to be known as a program builder and an innovative offensive mind are major positives when it comes to building a resume that would attract a Power Five program. Chadwell is an intriguing name whose huge season is going to pay dividends, either this offseason or one very soon from now.

Tony Elliott, Clemson Offensive Coordinator

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Every year, some of the top assistants in college football get the opportunity to run their own programs.

    Last season, that happened when LSU defensive coordinator and longtime top-tier assistant Dave Aranda got a huge opportunity to lead the Baylor program and Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott took over at South Florida.

    Now, the other Clemson Tigers co-offensive coordinator should have an opportunity to lead his own program, too.Β 

    That would be 41-year-old running backs coach Tony Elliott, who has been a brilliant assistant under coach Dabo Swinney for one of the nation's top programs for the past several seasons. He's also an elite recruiter who helped turn Travis Etienne and Co. into stars with his innovative offensive mind.

    Elliott's name already has been mentioned for the South Carolina job (as have several on this list), and there will be other suitors coming soon. As well as Elliott is paid ($1.6 million annually), it's going to take an outstanding offer to lure him away.

    Getting the chance to lead his own program could lure Elliott away for even less money than he currently makes, but that's doubtful. He's paid so well, he can be selective. Scott left for an AAC program with a top-shelf recruiting base and a high ceiling. Elliott could do the same.

    Of course, a Power Five program could come calling, especially since Elliott probably has enough ties around the country to bring with him a quality staff and with his recruiting acumen.

    Coming from that prestigious Clemson program Swinney runs, there is nothing but positivity surrounding those assistants, and Elliott's youth, exuberance and offensive innovation are all major bonus marks. If he doesn't get his opportunity to run his own program this year, it will come soon.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati Head Coach

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Luke Fickell has Big Ten written all over him.

    After turning the Cincinnati Bearcats into a powerhouse on the fringe of the College Football Playoff conversation, the Bearcats front man is going to get a lot of run with major job openings. Whether he leaves is another story.

    Of course, if he gets the chance to lead a program like one of the Big Ten's elites, you have to think he'd jump at the opportunity. But could an SEC, ACC or Big 12 program lure him away? You have to think Fickell would love to have the opportunity to stay in a region where he's familiar.

    The former Ohio State player and coach who served as an interim head coach for the Buckeyes in 2011 before serving as the co-defensive coordinator four years would obviously love to coach his alma mater, but Ryan Day is entrenched in that job for the near future.

    Would Fickell take a job at rival Michigan or Penn State? You'd have to think so. Even a Wolverines legend would turn to the Buckeye for the job.

    "I love Luke Fickell," former Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards told The Zach Gelb Show. "I like Luke Fickell a lot, and I like what he's done at Cincinnati. [He's shown] you what Cincinnati football is all about. They play defense, they play offense, and they have a lot of fun with it. I don't think there are any egos down there in Cincinnati. I think it's a committee. It's a win and lose by committee type of program."

    In his time as a head coach, Fickell has gone 40-20 and 2-1 in bowl games. He has the Bearcats in contention for the AAC every year, and they are the top program in the league this season, built around a punishing defense, balanced rushing attack and dual-threat quarterback in Desmond Ridder.

    Fickell has found a way to recruit the type of athletes to fit his system, and that system is a consistent machine that produces winning football.

    It's a formula that would translate well in the Power Five, and it's just a matter of time before he gets his shot.

Hugh Freeze, Liberty Head Coach

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    Matt Bell/Associated Press

    It wasn't too long ago Hugh Freeze's career at Ole Miss came crashing down amid an NCAA investigation and unrelatedΒ scandal involving calls to escort services.

    After a brief layoff, Freeze has resurfaced at Liberty University, a small Christian university in Virginia that has built quite an athletic department in recent years, highlighted by a 30-win NCAA tournament basketball team a year ago.

    Now, Freeze has the Flames football program rolling.

    They're 9-1 with wins over Syracuse and Virginia Tech and the only loss coming to North Carolina State on Nov. 21 in a 15-14 loss in which they missed a field goal as time expired. A big battle with Coastal Carolina looms next weekend, but regardless of the result of that game, what Freeze has accomplished in two years is remarkable.

    He has recruited a star transfer at quarterback in former Auburn backup signal-caller Malik Willis, and the Flames are sound and strong on both sides of the ball. It's only a matter of time before a Power Five program comes calling and gives him a shot.

    Much like how Fickell just seems bound for the Big Ten, Freeze is a Memphis guy who likely belongs in the SEC. He is a popular name with fans on message boards like Auburn's, Tennessee's and others. Plenty of folks want Freeze to resurrect their programs.

    Even though he acknowledged recently the lure of a Power Five program is strong, Freeze has told reporters he's happy where he is.

    "It would take something very, very special for me to leave what we're building here now," Freeze told the News & Advance's Damien Sordelett. "So far, the options that have flirted toward my way have not been anything that remotely interest me. I'm flattered and thankful, but we're at peace here."

    After what he's done at Liberty, he can be selective and wait for something he loves.

Will Healy, Charlotte Head Coach

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    Jaylynn Nash/Associated Press

    One of the most remarkable coaching jobs for a young head coach in the past decade came in 2017 when the virtually unknown Will Healy turned around Austin Peay.

    After taking a year to get acclimated, he made his mark on the Clarksville, Tennessee, school. His 2016 recruiting class was ranked top five in the FCS, followed by the top-ranked class in 2017, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. His Governors went from 0-11 to 8-4, and he was named FCS Coach of the Year.

    When a star is shining that brightly, you don't stay on that level for long. The Chattanooga native accepted the head coaching job at Charlotte, and he has already gone a long way in turning around that program, too.

    Healy led the 49ers to a bowl game a season ago, and though they are just 2-3 this year, the program is on firm footing.

    The former high school quarterback at Boyd-Buchanan went on to play at Air Force before transferring to the University of Richmond, where he played under head coach Dave Clawson and Mike London. Perhaps that's where Healy began developing his exceptional offensive mind.

    There are few better recruiting head coaches on the lower levels than Healy, and with his ties to Tennessee, it wouldn't be out of the question to see Vanderbilt turn his way.Β 

    Healy is going to be a Power Five coach before too long, and he will thrive when he gets the opportunity. It's going to be interesting to see who gives him that chance, or if he needs another few years in a conference like the AAC or Mountain West before he gets the shot.

Clark Lea, Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator

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    Credit: 247Sports

    It would be difficult to mention several of the assistant coaches on this list without bringing up Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who has been dynamic since being promoted to defensive coordinator by the Fighting Irish in 2018.Β 

    After Mike Elko left South Bend to head to College Station to be the defensive coordinator, Brian Kelly turned to his linebackers coach to do the job, and he has not disappointed.

    The Irish have one of the best defenses in the nation, and Lea is also an exceptional recruiter who has helped land safety Kyle Hamilton, linebackers Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb as well as defensive lineman Jacob Lacey.

    One interesting twist in the situation is Lea's alma mater, the Vanderbilt Commodores, fired Derek Mason on Sunday. Mason was hired as the head coach when James Franklin left for Penn State, and he was previously the Stanford defensive coordinator.

    In other words, the blueprint is there for the program to make a hire of Lea's ilk. It isn't like they haven't gone the route of defensive coordinator at a prestigious academic school before.

    Lea obviously would have a love for the university, and he knows the ins and outs and intricacies of recruiting for a program that has athletics take a back seat at times to academics.Β 

    Lea has also coached at Wake Forest, and he played fullback at Vanderbilt from 2002 to '04. He is leading the Irish to the nation's 10th-ranked defense this year.

    "I thought our game plan was outstanding," Kelly said after their win over North Carolina on Friday, according to 247Sports' Clint Buckley, who mentioned Lea's name as a VU candidate.

Sean Lewis, Kent State Head Coach

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    Branddon Wade/Associated Press

    Though you probably won't hear Sean Lewis' name for any big-name job openings this offseason, he could materialize at a bigger program than Kent State.

    On a lesser level and with a smaller sample set, his trajectory this season is comparable to Coastal Carolina's Jamey Chadwell's. What Lewis has done in less than three seasons with the Golden Flashes is pretty remarkable.

    The former co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Bowling Green and Syracuse under coach Dino Babers is a respected offensive mind who, along with quarterback Dustin Crum, has Kent State playing PlayStation offense this year.

    After a tough first year when Kent State remained one of the worst MAC teams at 2-10 in 2018, he led the team to a 7-6 finish a year ago that was highlighted by a 51-41 Frisco Bowl victory over Utah State. This season, his team started the year 3-0 before a shootout loss to MAC power Buffalo on Saturday.

    Perhaps some high-profile college programs looking for a head coach would like to see Lewis develop players a little better defensively considering the issues the Flashes have had on that side of the ball, but the offensive chops are definitely there.

    Several MAC coaches have gotten the call to bigger programs in recent years, such as Babers, Butch Jones and Rod Carey. It's not out of the question that Lewis could leap to an American Athletic Conference program or perhaps the Mountain West.

    Is a Power Five gig right now a long shot? Sure. Schools would have to run down the list a bit for that to happen, but the 34-year-old is an up-and-coming coach who played college football at Wisconsin and has been an assistant on that level.

    At the very least, you should remember his name.

Billy Napier, Louisiana Head Coach

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Last year, Billy Napier's name was brought up prominently with the Mississippi State job before he elected to stay at Louisiana and perhaps wait for something different.

    That gig went to Mike Leach, and Napier has led the Ragin' Cajuns to an 8-1 season that includes an upset victory against Iowa State to begin the season. Nothing has diminished the positive vibes surrounding Napier's candidacy this year, either.

    He's been mentioned for the South Carolina job, and there will be other suitors, too. Where he wants to end up is another question altogether. He's proved over the years no matter where he is, he can get quality players to follow him.

    As an assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama and Dabo Swinney at Clemson, he helped convince the nation's best recruits to join the respective programs. Now at Louisiana, he's done a good job of recruiting those second-tier athletes to Lafayette and turning them into stars.

    He carries a 26-11 career record as a head coach and has learned under some of the top minds in the sport. After an 11-3 campaign a season ago, the Ragin' Cajuns will have a spot in the Sun Belt title game this year, too.

    There are plenty of people who want him at a major program, and former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden believed when Napier was an assistant alongside Dabo Swinney both would be future coaching stars.

    "When I was a head coach, I had a plan for moving Dabo up, and I had a plan for moving Billy up," Bowden told theΒ State's Matt Connolly in an article that discusses why Napier would be a good fit for South Carolina. "I thought both of them I’d lose. They have so many of the same qualities."

    Napier paid his dues and has recently gotten the opportunity to lead his own program, and it's been wildly successful. That's why he can be selective in the next job he chooses. With Louisiana potentially losing several offensive playmakers after this season, now may be the time.

Steve Sarkisian, Alabama Offensive Coordinator

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is about to be the latest to take a position under Nick Saban and turn it into a head coaching job elsewhere.Β 

    Saturday's Iron Bowl may have been a dress rehearsal with Saban sidelined by COVID-19, and Sark succeeded with flying colors.Β 

    The former BYU quarterback who was Pete Carroll's offensive coordinator at USC before becoming a successful head coach at Washington and later for the Trojans has overseen an Alabama offense loaded with talent the past couple of years. He took over for Mike Locksley, who took over for Lane Kiffin, and the Crimson Tide haven't missed a beat.

    Both Kiffin and Locksley went on to lead their own programs again, of course, and Sark is next.Β 

    No matter if the quarterback was Tua Tagovailoa or Mac Jones, Sark devised plays to get the ball in the hands of myriad playmakers, and that unit is perhaps the toast of college football. It's obvious he knows what he's doing, and his play mixture is exceptional, too.

    Alabama is a hard place to please fans, but the Tide's offense has been versatile and terrific under Sark's tutelage.Β 

    It helps matters that he's already had Power Five success, albeit in the Pac-12, but after matriculating to the SEC, that expands his footprint, and now he could wind up basically anywhere. When you consider just how dynamic offenses rule the sport these days, it's just a matter of time.

    Somebody is going to give Sark a shot soon, and he should do a good job. There have been no indications recently the coach has experienced any recurring personal issues that led to his dismissal at USC, and that's great news.

    With a revitalized reputation and a refreshing look on modern offense, Sark is going to be a hot commodity.

Kalani Sitake, BYU Head Coach

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    Jeff Swinger/Associated Press

    Before this season started, BYU coach Kalani Sitake's teams were known for being hard-nosed and defensive-minded, and they normally hovered right around .500.

    That's not the case anymore.

    Sitake has put together a brilliant staff, led by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who has worked a masterpiece of a 2020 season with Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Zach Wilson leading the way. Of course, when you have a playmaker like Wilson, things are easier.

    But the Cougars' undefeated run into the AP Top 10 this year is much more than that.

    They have a veteran offensive line, two capable running backs, playmakers at receiver and a defense that gets a lot of pressure because the offense posts points so quickly, but that side of the ball has been up to the challenge, too.

    Sitake's spotless record this year runs his career record as a head coach to 36-25, and though he would probably get several looks for programs, especially out West, you have to believe it's going to have to take a perfect situation to lure him away from Provo.

    As a former Cougars fullback who cares so much about the program, Sitake certainly seems like a BYU lifer.

    He signed a contract extension through the 2023 season, and it would be stunning if he left. Still, you're going to hear his name. Programs with money eventually will come calling, and once Wilson heads to the NFL, sledding will become tougher.

    "For Kalani, it is more than just football," defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga told the Deseret News' Jeff CallΒ after he signed the extension. "I am just happy for him and happy for his family. We love coach Kalani and everything he stands for."

    Sitake and BYU have tons of mutual love, and Grimes or another assistant may get calls for head coaching jobs. Provo looks like the place for the head man, but he will get some looks after this season.

Brent Venables, Clemson Defensive Coordinator

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Brent Venables is one of those old-school defensive coaches who seems to really enjoy romping up and down the sideline and molding some of the most talented youngsters in the country into NFL defenders.

    But how long until he gets the itch to run a program of his own?

    At 49 years old, the longtime Clemson defensive coordinator may be getting ready to do that, despite only being around the halfway point of a five-year deal worth $11 million. Yahoo Sports'Β Pete Thamel wrote an article this year quoting a source who said the "time is approaching" for Venables to take a head coaching job.

    On November 16, the State reporter Matt ConnollyΒ wrote that Venables was asked about the South Carolina job, and the Tigers defensive coordinator gave a basic non-answer.

    Clemson's dynasty has been built on several different things, such as elite recruiting and the consistent, constant presence of coach Dabo Swinney at the top. Having assistant coaches entrenched has been a major benefit, too.

    But with Jeff Scott leaving for South Florida's head coaching job before this season, now Venables and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott see their names come up for virtually every open job. You have to think at some point they're going to jump, too.

    Venables' name is even surfacing for some NFL head coaching vacancies. An article on the Texans' SB Nation blogΒ discussed why he should be considered as a "dark horse" candidate and mentioned just how much improved Clemson's defense has been since he came on board in 2012.

    The Tigers' top assistant is a high-energy, exciting coach who is still on the young side, is beloved by his players and consistently produces one of the top defenses in the country. There are a lot of reasons to think those attributes would translate into him being a quality head coach.

    When will he get the chance?