CFB Coaching Carousel: Ranking the Best Hires This Offseason
The pandemic-disrupted 2020 college football campaign had more stops and starts than a game of musical chairs, but head coaches didn't get a mulligan.
The sport is a big business, and you'd better win any time you get on the field.
High-profile programs like Texas, Auburn and Tennessee made changes. Other Power Five schools like South Carolina, Arizona, Vanderbilt and Illinois did too. A pair of Group of Five powerhouses (UCF and Boise State) had to scramble when bigger programs came calling for their head coaches.
Kansas is the only team without a full-time head coach following this week's ouster of Les Miles (longtime college assistant Mike DeBord is the acting head coach).
Which teams won the sweepstakes for the best hires?
Factoring in program fit, personality, pedigree (wins and losses) and, in some cases, the staff with which they surrounded themselves, here are the top nine college football hires this offseason.
9. Jedd Fisch, Arizona Wildcats
Arizona's hiring of Jedd Fisch didn't get a lot of national buzz, but it could be a sneaky-good move.
It's similar to how Colorado nabbed Karl Dorrell a year ago. The "meh" could be heard far east of the Rockies, but Dorrell proved a calming factor for the Buffaloes in 2020 and had a stellar first season from which to build.
The cupboard is barer for the 44-year-old Fisch, but the former New England Patriots quarterbacks coach has knowledge of the Pac-12. He spent time in the conference in 2017 as UCLA's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before becoming the interim head coach.
He also served as the offensive coordinator or passing game coordinator at Michigan and Miami and has been an NFL offensive coordinator too.
Fisch needs to find a capable quarterback, but he's a known developer of the position, so either Will Plummer or one of transfers Jordan McCloud (South Florida) or Gunner Cruz (Washington State) will benefit from his tutelage.
Patience is key for Wildcats fans, who may not see immediate improvement after a disastrous Kevin Sumlin era. But if they play the long game, Fisch could be worth the wait.
8. Clark Lea, Vanderbilt Commodores
The last time Vanderbilt chose a star defensive coordinator as its head coach, it didn't work out well. As great as Derek Mason was at orchestrating defenses at Stanford, he couldn't sustain the program James Franklin built in Nashville's West End.
Now, Mason is the defensive coordinator at Auburn, and the Commodores went that route again, hiring Notre Dame defensive frontman Clark Lea to be his successor.
But this feels different.
Lea understands the university and its unique challenges, having played fullback for the 'Dores from 2002 to 2004. He has recruited players to prestigious academic universities like Notre Dame and Wake Forest so he knows the balance well of elite academics and athletic ability.
Will it be difficult to win at Vandy? Of course; few places in the Power Five are tougher. But Lea wanted this job, and he has a worker's mentality and should bring the calming influence the program needs.
"I'm not backing down from making statements about winning here and separating from our competition and the things we feel like are going to separate us long-term from a competitive aspect," Lea told Ralph Russo on the AP Top 25 College Football Podcast.
This is a complete rebuild as the Commodores were the worst team in the SEC a year ago, but Lea has the right mentality to get the job done.
7. Blake Anderson, Utah State Aggies
Blake Anderson stopped the one-and-done cycle at Arkansas State.
Before the hiring of the former North Carolina offensive coordinator, the Red Wolves were in the coaching carousel, replacing Hugh Freeze with Gus Malzahn and then Bryan Harsin. Freeze left for Ole Miss after one season in Jonesboro, and then Malzahn got the Auburn gig before Harsin returned to his Boise State roots.
The program placed a huge buyout on Anderson's contract, and the coach stuck around from 2014 to 2020.
This offseason, he elected to take over the Utah State program that thrived under Matt Wells before Gary Andersen's return to the program wound up fruitless.
Anderson was 51-37 during his time with the Red Wolves, but after his wife, Wendy, died of cancer in 2019, the 51-year-old needed a change of surroundings. Then-athletic director Terry Mohajir told reporters Anderson's departure was a "personal decision."
After winning two Sun Belt titles with a team that featured an explosive offense, Anderson should transition well to the Aggies, who long for the days of Chuckie Keeton and Jordan Love.
Andersen's Utah State offenses struggled the past two years and limited Love's impact in his final season. Anderson should inject a positive jolt of energy.
6. Andy Avalos, Boise State Broncos
There are no guarantees for a first-time head coach, but Boise State has had success with the family tree route.
They've done it again with Andy Avalos.
The 39-year-old former Broncos linebacker was a legend at the program, finishing fourth all-time in tackles on some great teams from 2000 to 2004 under Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins. From 2012 to 2018, Avalos was a defensive assistant at his alma mater, and he served as the defensive coordinator in his last three years there.
Oregon came calling, and Avalos' units have been superb in the Pac-12 the past two seasons. When another favorite son of Boise, Bryan Harsin, left the program where he played quarterback to head to the money-green pastures of the SEC, Avalos was a natural fit.
He's an energetic young mind who has a deep history with the Broncos.
"You're not going to find someone who fits our mission better," Boise State athletic director Jeramiah Dickey said. "We talk about bleeding blue. He was part of defining that for us as a player and as a coach. He exudes the blue-collar mentality of this program."
Much like Clark Lea at Vanderbilt, this hire made perfect sense. All that remains is the storybook ending. Avalos has the energy to do it, but we'll see how it translates in the first time running "his" program.
5. Bret Bielema, Illinois Fighting Illini
Bret Bielema took over Barry Alvarez's program at Wisconsin in 2006 and made it a Big Ten powerhouse.
The Badgers won three conference titles in his seven seasons, and Bielema's program became synonymous with big-boy football, building its resume with the power running game and a sturdy defense. Then he left for SEC money at Arkansas, and everything changed.
After his five-year tenure at Arkansas, Bielema went from one of the most respected coaches in college football to searching for a job. After spending the past three years in the NFL as an assistant with the New England Patriots and New York Giants, he is back in the Big Ten.
The Illinois Fighting Illini are banking on him to replicate some of that old glory.
It's not a given Bielema will again lead a dominant program. As UCLA will tell you with Chip Kelly's return to the Pac-12, hiring a previously elite coach doesn't equal an immediate turnaround. But Kelly is slowly rebuilding the Bruins after his days of coaching an elite Oregon team, and Illinois will hope Bielema does the same.
Lovie Smith struggled to build anything sustainable with the Illini, and it will take time for Bielema to get the foundational blocks in place to do what he wants in Champaign. The woebegone program hasn't been relevant in a long time.
Banking on Bielema was worth the gamble and a great, high-ceiling hire.
4. Gus Malzahn, UCF Knights
Gus Malzahn wasn't the trendy pick being discussed for the UCF Knights after Josh Heupel left Orlando for Rocky Top, but he may have been the smartest one.
Some speculated the program might go after Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby (a former play-caller at UCF) as the next head coach, but the Knights did the safe thing, hiring a coach with a stellar resume.
Though Malzahn didn't develop a ton of quarterbacks during his time at Auburn, he finished 68-35 with some big seasons. He was a thorn in Nick Saban's side at times when nobody else could beat the Alabama head coach.
Malzahn will look to replicate that success at UCF, and he inherits a lot of playmakers, led by quarterback Dillon Gabriel. While this may not be the most exciting coaching move of the offseason, it could pay instant dividends.
With all the speed in Florida, Malzahn's offense could be rejuvenated and thrive in the Sunshine State. He has made several stellar hires such as defensive coordinator Travis Williams, offensive line coach Herb Hand and co-defensive coordinator David Gibbs.
Whether or not Malzahn is an ideal fit for the current personnel at UCF, he could have the Knights competing for a New Year's Day bowl game soon, especially outside the pressure cooker he left on the Plains.
3. Josh Heupel, Tennessee Volunteers
It's going to be a long, hard road back up Rocky Top, but Josh Heupel may be the perfect person to get the Tennessee Volunteers through a difficult time.
With an investigation looming and potential self-imposing of penalties ahead after the Jeremy Pruitt era, it will be tough to lure prospects. The Vols have endured a cycle of transfers, and recruiting will take a hit if the punishment is fierce.
But Heupel has gotten off to a great start in Knoxville, endearing himself to fans and hitting the ground running to establish recruiting relationships in the Volunteer State.
He also hired a strong staff that includes longtime SEC assistant Rodney Garner, former Auburn wide receivers coach Kodi Burns, former Penn State co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks and former Michigan linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary.
Heupel's public relations skills far surpass Pruitt's, so he's a refreshing change of pace in front of the microphone for a UT fanbase that needs positivity. The bottom line is his high-flying offensive attack could cover a lot of warts.
Tennessee's cupboard is not bare. This team is a year removed from winning eight games. While it has plenty of holes to fill, Heupel was 28-8 as head coach at UCF and has spent time as an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Missouri.
Was this the sexiest name thrown around Tennessee message boards? Not even close. But Heupel is what Tennessee needs.
2. Bryan Harsin, Auburn Tigers
No matter what part of the Auburn athletic department you talk about, one word that comes up is "family."
The Tigers went outside their family and all the way to Boise to hire Gus Malzahn's successor. It's a major gamble considering Bryan Harsin's lack of experience in the SEC, but it could pay off in a big way.
Though Harsin lost some games he wasn't supposed to at his alma mater, he finished with a 69-19 record, five seasons of 10-plus victories and three bowl wins in seven years. It may be difficult to gauge whether he'll be a success, especially in the huge crimson shadow of Alabama, but he has the track record.
He has also made some terrific coaching moves, grabbing South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo for the same role, hiring former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason to lead his defense and retaining Carnell "Cadillac" Williams to coach running backs. Keeping Williams helps Harsin adapt to the family environment on the Plains.
While it may be a stretch for AU to leave its comfort zone for a head coach, Harsin embodies what Auburn stands for.
He was big on loyalty, returning to Boise State for seven seasons. Yes, he jumped at an opportunity to coach on the biggest stage, but few wouldn't. Auburn has more pieces in place to win right away than Tennessee, but Harsin is a comparable hire to Heupel in Knoxville.
Neither is a sure thing, but both are intriguing. Harsin has excelled for a little longer, so he gets the nod for the second position.
1. Steve Sarkisian, Texas Longhorns
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of college football, teams normally go after the hottest name when they shouldn't. It doesn't always wind up being the best pick.
Texas hopes its second swing at the buzzy name is better than its last one.
Tom Herman didn't live up to the massive expectations in Austin, and his tenure with the Longhorns came to an unceremonious end in January. Apparently, the burnt orange boosters believed Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was too good to pass up.
He probably was.
Few more brilliant offensive minds exist in the sport than Sark, who led the incredible Alabama offense in 2020 on its way to a national championship. That prompted a return to a head coaching role for the first time since USC fired him in 2015 following reports from staff and players that he was intoxicated at practices and at least one game.
Much like his buddy Lane Kiffin, Sark's career needed a jump-start, and Nick Saban provided the opportunity. This isn't Sark's first foray into a high-stress situation. He was the Trojans head coach for a year-plus, going 12-6, after posting a 34-29 record in five years at Washington.
That is no guarantee Sark will be successful, but his offense should translate in Austin with Texas' resources, the recruiting hotbed and some of the players in place. It's obvious this hire has the highest ceiling of any in college football.
Texas hopes you get what you pay for.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.