Halftime Sports

College Football’s Coaching Carousel: Grading the Seven Biggest Hirings

December 10, 2017


After the final full slate of games in a college football season, a host of head coaches at blueblood universities are handed their walking papers. This same day in the National Football League has been dubbed “Black Monday.” Unfortunately, for many college football coaches, they don’t even last the night after the final game. At the end of the day, college football is a cutthroat business, in which athletic directors need to protect their jobs, and athletic departments need the big money football generates to keep coming in. Similarly, coaching vacancies are filled up quickly, especially at the college level. Programs need faces, after all, and nobody wants to be left twiddling their fingers while the nation’s hottest items are signing dotted lines elsewhere. By now, most of the dust has settled regarding what new face some of America’s blueblood teams will have patrolling the sidelines next season. Some teams scooped up coveted names, while others placed their trust in relatively unknown quantities at the head coaching level. Let’s take a premature look at, of the seven biggest hirings, who did well in finding a new head coach, keeping in mind factors such as the coach’s track record, experience at the head coaching level, and the quality of the job they accepted.

UCLA (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12)

Previous Coach: Jim Mora (46-30)

Replacement: Chip Kelly

Let’s be clear: UCLA is not one college football’s premier jobs. The school’s basketball program is bigger than its football, fans in Los Angeles are notoriously disloyal and rarely fill the Rose Bowl, and the Bruins are always playing second fiddle to the USC Trojans in the metropolis. The program has not reached a BCS bowl since the ‘90s, Josh Rosen, their greatest quarterback since Troy Aikman is, by all accounts, leaving for the NFL Draft after this season, and the West Coast is not regarded as a national hotbed for recruiting.

This being said, hiring Chip Kelly is a grand slam for the Bruins. Kelly has tarnished his reputation as one of football’s greatest minds in the last few seasons with the toxic environment he created with the Philadelphia Eagles, followed by the dumpster fire he oversaw with the San Francisco 49ers. Still, Kelly is still regarded in college football circles as one of the country’s premier coaches. College football needs Chip, and Chip needs college football to rehabilitate his image, and at what better place than UCLA? Irrespective of what happened in the NFL, Kelly’s head coaching record at the college level is absurd. He reached BCS bowls in each of his four seasons as the head coach of Oregon, and was twice named Pac-12 Coach of the Year. This is a guy who knows how to recruit the West, and UCLA is just off the beaten path enough that Kelly can stay out of the spotlight relative to what he would’ve experienced at a Florida or Tennessee. Disappearing amongst the bright lights of Los Angeles, Kelly will be able to build a monster at UCLA on his own terms. A great deal for both parties.

Grade: A

Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC)

Previous Coach: Jim McElwain (22-12)

Replacement: Dan Mullen

Were you the table that ordered the reset button? We all fell a little bit in love with Jim McElwain in 2014, when he was leading an offensive juggernaut at Colorado State and had the Rams in the conversation for a New Years’ Day Bowl. When he took the job at Florida, we read about the down-to-earth, God-fearing man and his family, saw the incredible sunburn and sunglasses tan combo, and couldn’t help but root for him in Gainesville. After two seasons at the helm that featured a pair of SEC East championships, McElwain had done enough to keep his job, but not everything was going swimmingly. Georgia and South Carolina were both struggling and posed little threat to the Gators in the East, before Florida got spanked by Alabama in consecutive years in SEC title matchups, as the offense McElwain was brought in to develop never really got off the ground. Then 2017 happened. McElwain dropped two consecutive SEC games to middling opposition after getting beat up by Michigan in non-conference play, and Georgia added an exclamation point by dismantling the Gators 42-7. McElwain claimed that he was receiving death threats that may not have existed, and the UF hierarchy decided that they had seen enough.

Florida, make no mistake, is a top-tier gig. There is no better recruiting ground in America. The fans in central Florida show up in droves, Jim McElwain was just earning $4.5 million a season in the role, and the SEC East, save Georgia, is still down. Dan Mullen may not be the sexiest name on the head coaching market, but he is the right man for this job. This is the man who developed Alex Smith, Chris Leak, Dak Prescott, and, yes, Tim Tebow, into household names, and has years of experience working with Urban Meyer to lean on. Mississippi State never threatened for the national title under Mullen, but Mullen made a team not named Alabama or Auburn a perennial force in the uber-competitive SEC West, which the firings of Les Miles (LSU), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M), Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss), and Bret Bielema (Arkansas) show, is no easy task. Mississippi State was the doormat of West before Mullen left his role as offensive coordinator of Florida to take the job, and the stability and continuity he brought to the program in his nine years there was wildly impressive. Any college football fan knows keeping a job for nine years in the SEC West is something to be proud of, and a job like Florida’s is the logical next step for Mullen. He has an impressive resume of rejuvenating sputtering offenses like the Gators, and, under Mullen’s leadership, the Gators will have a man who knows the program and can create a contender for the College Football Playoff given time. After the dysfunction of the Gators under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, that’s about all they can ask for.

Grade: A-

Tennessee (4-8, 0-8 SEC)

Previous Coach: Butch Jones (34-27)

Replacement: Jeremy Pruitt

The process of hiring a new head coach was a nightmare for Tennessee. Somehow, despite how mind-numbingly poorly the job of replacing Butch Jones has been handled, Tennessee remains a top college football head coaching gig. Why? The SEC East, despite all the five-star recruits that live in the area, money pumped into programs like gasoline, and rabid fan bases,was not competitive this season, and nobody but Georgia capitalized. In the talent-rich Tennessee area , with UK and Vandy posing little threat to poaching recruits or regional dominance, it doesn’t feel right that the checkerboard end zones and raucous fans of Neyland Stadium haven’t had a meaningful November game in quite some time.

Tennessee is coming off of a nightmare season that saw them finish as the only team in the conference not to record an SEC win. They needed an overhaul sooner rather than later, and neither their coaching search process, nor their hiring of Jeremy Pruitt from the University of Alabama will be enough to achieve those goals. Pruitt will certainly shore up the UT defense, but a strong defense is more a fact of life than a question in the SEC, and the Vols finished in the middle of the pack nationally in total defense this season. On offense, however, the Vols were a distant last in the conference, finishing 116th out of 129 teams in the nation in points per game. They scored 0, 7, and 10 points in their only games against ranked opposition (Alabama, Georgia, and LSU, respectively). Pruitt is a great defensive mind, and has a stellar reputation as a coordinator, but he has never been a head coach, and, with all the inherent benefits of coaching in Knoxville, one would’ve hoped Fulmer landed one of those more experienced, offensive minded names.

Grade: C+

Texas A&M (7-5, 4-4 SEC)

Previous coach: Kevin Sumlin (51-26)

Replacement: Jimbo Fisher

A&M began the Kevin Sumlin era with so much promise, and captivated the nation as the Johnny Manziel circus act and human highlight reel Mike Evans helped the Aggies to an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl victory in Sumlin’s first season in College Station. The 12th Man at Kyle Field has not seen those feats replicated, however, as the Aggies have crashed and burned with Kenny Hill and Kyler Murray both failing to live up to the hype under center. Sumlin never lost six games in the head job at A&M, but hadn’t won ten since that 2012 campaign, and the school hierarchy thought now was as good a time as ever for a change. And boy, what a change they made.

It’s one thing for a program to throw money at a coach in a comparable job to try and lure them away from the cozy confines they have grown accustomed to. Texas A&M took this to another level, poaching Jimbo Fisher away from his objectively better job at Florida State with a  whopping 10-year, $80-million dollar contract. Not only is that the largest total contract ever handed out in college athletics, a mind-numbing $75 of the $80 million is in guaranteed money. Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. The same reasons that make Fisher such a splashy hire are the reasons it’s so surprising he left Tallahassee at all. In the six seasons preceding 2017, Fisher had won at least ten games and reached a BCS/New Years’ Six Bowl, with the highlight of his tenure being a 2013 national championship. So, for all the inherent risk in throwing such an exorbitant sum of money at a man to lead a football program, Fisher alleviates much of the risk with a look at his resume. This is the man that made Jameis Winston and JaMarcus Russell (yes, I know what happened later) into the #1 picks in the NFL Draft, and a national championship is hard to argue with. The Aggies’ best player, wide receiver Christian Kirk, is likely bolting for the NFL after this season, and the SEC West is only becoming tougher to compete in every week. The Aggies decision-makers recognized the necessity to act, and  did so. Though they overpaid, A&M managed the difficult, if not impossible, task of convincing a coach to ditch one of America’s top jobs to hit the reset button with a team in a worse spot for the future. For that, they deserve credit.

Grade: B+

Florida State (6-6, 3-5 ACC)

Previous Coach: Jimbo Fisher (83-23)

Replacement: Willie Taggart

Every action has a reaction, right? This was certainly a down year for the Seminoles, their worst in quite a considerable amount of time. It was always going to be interesting to see how they reacted to starting quarterback Deandre Francois going down for the year in the season opener against #1 Alabama, and the answer turned out to be not very well. A popular College Football Playoff pick entering the season, the Seminoles started the year as the #3 ranked team in the nation. Their ranking, however, only went one way from there. After losing to the Crimson Tide, the Noles suffered a shock loss to NC State in their next game, and the losses in the ACC started piling up until FSU was stomped by Boston College 35-3. When Fisher  bolted, he still left a roster stacked with talent, that will be led by 2016’s #1 ranked high school running back, Cam Akers, and the return of Francois. Losing defensive swiss-army knife and overall freak athlete Derwin James to the NFL Draft hurts, but there is no better place to recruit in the country than the Georgia/Florida area.

Despite the shocking season, and the even more stunning departure of Fisher, Florida State has the pieces, and the resources, to contend in the ACC and for the College Football Playoff every season, including in 2018. The gap in perception between Dabo Swinney led Clemson and the Noles is widening, but Florida State had the opportunity to hand over the reigns to a number of individuals who would be able to work the team back into the national conversation for years to come.

Considering this, the hiring of Willie Taggart from Oregon feels like a weak play. It’s almost as though Florida State athletic director Stan Wilcox realized Jimbo Fisher just left to take the same position at a school not named Alabama or Ohio State, thought FSU wasn’t an elite job anymore, scrambled to replace him and…settled. Taggart’s reputation and Florida State’s prestige simply do not match up, especially when considering Taggart only has one year of Power Five coaching under his belt, leading the Ducks to a promising, but ultimately pedestrian 7-5 record. What Taggart has going for him is that he oversaw an exciting offense at Oregon that scored 36.9 points per game in the competitive Pac-12 North, and has ties to the Florida area after recruiting well and improving win/loss records in each season while leading the USF Bulls. At the end of the day, however, Taggart has a losing overall record (47-50) as a head coach at the college level, and does not have the big-time school pedigree to prove he deserves this job. It’s hard to think that Wilcox and Florida State president Mark Thrasher couldn’t have tried to catch a bigger fish.

Grade: C-

Nebraska (4-8, 3-6 Big Ten)

Previous Coach: Mike Riley (19-19)

New Coach: Scott Frost

When Nebraska let go of Bo Pelini in 2014 after the team had won at least nine games in each of Pelini’s seven seasons in charge, the school had its doubters who disagreed with the move. When Mike Riley, Pelini’s replacement, was let go two weeks ago after a three-year stint bookended by six and four-win seasons, the latter being the Cornhuskers worst season in 56 years, those doubters were proven absolutely right. The fact of the matter is, Nebraska is not, and has not been for a long time, a premier job on the coaching market. While the team gets great support from its fervent fan base, the B1G West is simply not well regarded compared to the conference’s eastern half, especially by the College Football Playoff committee. Also, the Midwest, particularly Nebraska and its neighbors, rarely produce elite recruits. It’s simply difficult to pitch hotshot recruits on the idea of leaving the bright lights of the cities, or the celebrity status they’d receive at America’s biggest football schools, to make the trek to Lincoln, Nebraska. When the best the school could do after seven straight nine-win seasons was hire Riley, who compiled a middling 85-66 record at Oregon State, that should signal something about the Cornhuskers’ image in the modern college football landscape.

A little bit of luck always helps a problem, however, and Nebraska got extremely lucky in hiring Scott Frost. After all, it’s not often that one of a program’s legends goes on to be an extremely successful head coach as well. Frost, who won a share of his national titles quarterbacking the Huskers in 1997, essentially had his pick with regards to where he would be coaching next season. He spectacularly transformed a UCF Knights team that did not win a game in 2015 into the undefeated, American Athletic Conference champions they are right now, while averaging a national-best 49.4 points per game in the process, top in the nation, in what has been one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history Frost looked set to become the next head coach of Florida until he dramatically had a last-minute change of heart and, undoubtedly feeling the nostalgia of his playing days and love from the Nebraska faithful, ultimately accepted a 7-year, $35 million contract that could have Lincoln partying like it’s 1997 sooner rather than later. What a story Scott Frost is writing, and what a coup for the Cornhuskers.

Grade: A

Arizona State (7-5, 6-3 Pac-12)

Previous Coach: Todd Graham (46-31)

Replacement: Herm Edwards

I had to get a word in about this one. Arizona State under Todd Graham was largely irrelevant. Graham won ten games twice in five seasons, but never made a BCS/New Years’ bowl in his time in charge of the Sun Devils and had just overseen two straight losing seasons. The decision to move on from Graham is understandable, especially at a time when the Sun Devils were struggling to win games in a very weak Pac-12 South.

However, the move to hire Edwards, who has been an analyst for ESPN since 2009, has a 54-74 record as an NFL head coach, and last coached at the college level as the defensive backs coach at San Jose State from 1987-89 (!!), is the epitome of a head-scratcher. Edwards is a colorful personality, very well-regarded in football circles, and has a strong reputation as a defensive mind. However, in a conference that puts points up in bunches, and has thinkers like Mike Leach, Clay Helton, and now Chip Kelly calling the shots, hiring a defensive mind is a highly questionable move. Furthermore, Edwards has been out of coaching for nine years, and probably hasn’t had the same hunger for winning games and figuring out opponents in recent times that characterized him as a player and coach. Even if the Sun Devils are able to stay in games with the big boys and have a high-character team under Edwards,  they’re going nowhere in the Pac-12 if they can’t put up points. And in this day and age of college football, you simply can’t hire a proven offensive innovator without giving him the title of “Head Coach” to match, making it highly doubtful ASU will be able to keep pace offensively in the Pac-12.

Grade: D

 

Photo: Florida State Sports Information


Will Shanahan
is a senior in the McDonough School of Business, and former Sports Executive and Editor of The Voice. He spends his days plotting visits to downstairs Leo's when the omelet line will be short and trying to recall memories of his middling high school football career.


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