For most college football teams, the regular season is over, and for a few of them that means the silly season has just begun. Among the schools searching for new head coaches are three traditional, high-profile powerhouses — Florida, Michigan, and Nebraska — whose ringleaders have been sent packing. Fortunately, Gators, Wolverines, and Cornhuskers fans are all magnanimous, patient sorts who will undoubtedly embrace the forthcoming hires with goodwill and realistic expectations.
Here’s the reality awaiting each fan base — and the dream scenario it shouldn’t quite be ready to let die.
Florida: Another Bite From the Tree of Saban
After a couple of pump fakes in the general direction of Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze,1 the Gators’ search zeroed in Tuesday on Colorado State coach Jim McElwain, who was literally stalked at his front door by local reporters as he met with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley at McElwain’s Fort Collins, Colorado, home. Not at all creepy!
Around the same time, a Colorado State recruit told a reporter he was planning to cancel an upcoming visit because a CSU assistant had told him McElwain “is taking the Florida job.” Reports indicated the sides were “nearing a deal” on Tuesday night, the main sticking point being the $7.5 million–ish buyout on McElwain’s current contract. Write about enough coaching searches and you learn that the deal is never really done until it’s done,2 but as of this morning, McElwain to Gainesville looks like a done deal.
Who can forget the day Alabama hired Rich Rodriguez?
At 52, McElwain is not what you’d call a sexy, up-and-coming candidate by Florida standards — if you recognize him at all from his stint at Colorado State, it’s probably from the clip of him getting pissed off at Denver’s mayor following the Rams’ season-opening win over Colorado in August — but his career has been building toward a shot at a marquee job. In three years at CSU, McElwain elevated the Rams from perennial doormats in the Mountain West to one of the top outfits in the conference, breaking through with eight wins in 2013 and a 10-2 mark this year, Colorado State’s first 10-win season in more than a decade; before last weekend’s loss to Air Force, the Rams had enjoyed three straight weeks in the AP Top 25.
Maybe more important, McElwain has meaningful SEC experience as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008 to 2011, a span that yielded two BCS championships and Bama’s only Heisman Trophy winner to date (Mark Ingram in ’09). In lieu of a blockbuster courtship involving an instantly recognizable, household name, a winner from the mid-major ranks is usually a sound, rational bet that’s certain to infuriate the fans who had their heart set on, like, Jon Gruden or whomever. McElwain’s not a slam dunk, but at least he’s not Josh McDaniels.
Perfect Fit: Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen. At this point, I’m willing to acknowledge that I’m a full-blown, possibly irrational Mullen-Florida shipper. Still, reports that Mullen was never on the list for the gig are baffling, even though they’re apparently true. (Unless Mullen sent word through the grapevine, early and emphatically, that he wasn’t interested, allowing Foley to later pretend he wasn’t, either. Another plausible explanation might be a lingering, undisclosed personal grudge between old colleagues, though no evidence of one has ever come to light.)
Mullen is a former UF assistant with direct ties to the halcyon Urban/Tebow years in Gainesville, and he should be looking to cash in on his improbable (and likely unsustainable) success at Mississippi State, which just wrapped up the best regular season in school history. The personal connection, résumé, and timing are too perfect in this case to believe there was no communication. The iron’s too hot. If the McElwain thing falls through, I still don’t see any reason why Mullen and Florida wouldn’t make an ideal match.
Nebraska: Welcome to Your Regularly Scheduled Identity Crisis
Is Nebraska still an A-list job? As I argued earlier this week, the malaise that lingered throughout the Bo Pelini era emanated from a place much deeper than the head coach’s office: Nebraska has been searching for a coherent, sustainable identity since the turn of the century, if not longer. In the past decade, the Cornhuskers have changed coaches, conferences, and philosophies, and have nothing in particular to show for it: no conference championships, no top-10 finishes, no major bowl bids under Pelini or his predecessor, Bill Callahan. Consistency notwithstanding, no one ever mistook Pelini for the answer, with his flammable temperament on the sideline and lukewarm results on the scoreboard.
Now that the focus has shifted from the postmortem phase to the future, though, it seems there’s no prevailing consensus as to who the answer might be, or even what the answer would look like if the fan base could somehow conjure the perfect coach out of thin air, Weird Science–style.3 How can there be, until they’re all asking the same question?
Presumably the result would look like a reincarnation of Tom Osborne circa 1993 in the body of Kelly LeBrock circa 1985.
Predictably, without a clear vision of what the program can or should be in the future, many of the initial suggestions for moving forward aim to resurrect the glories of the past. The odds-on favorite to win the job, per Las Vegas, is Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, the starting quarterback on Nebraska’s last national championship team in 1997. Also high on the wish list is first-year Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl, who played in Lincoln, spent eight years there as an assistant, and went on to amass a stellar record as the head coach of North Dakota State.4 But it’s hard to make a really compelling case for either guy that doesn’t begin and end with picking him out in one of the team photos from the good old days. Frost is regarded as a comer, but remains very green for a prospective CEO, still in just his second year as a coordinator. Despite his track record at NDSU, Bohl is coming off a rough, 4-8 debut at Wyoming, and his first tour at Nebraska ended with a pink slip in 2002.5
The Bison claimed three consecutive FCS championships under Bohl from 2011 to 2013, and went 7-3 against FBS opponents during Bohl’s tenure.
Bohl’s replacement as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator? A young Bo Pelini.
Neither has as compelling a track record at the FBS level as, say, Greg Schiano, whose name has also come up because … well, why the hell not? A lot of people have heard of him and he’s available. In this market, that’s a seductive combination.
Perfect Fit: Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. The general assumption this winter is that big-time ADs have become increasingly gun-shy toward candidates who have never been head coaches before, which may be even more true at Nebraska than elsewhere. (Pelini had no head-coaching experience before he took the reins in 2008.) Narduzzi has spent 25 years as an assistant, the last 11 of them as Mark Dantonio’s defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and Michigan State. But Narduzzi has been up for multiple head-coaching gigs in that span, turning some down while building one of the most reliably suffocating defenses in the nation. Think of him as the upper Midwest’s answer to Charlie Strong, who spent years bouncing around the SEC as an assistant before finally landing his big break at Louisville at age 48, the same age Narduzzi is now. Unlike Louisville, Nebraska isn’t a stepping-stone to a glitzier gig (Texas, in Strong’s case), but neither does it have proven winners leaping to leave their current posts.
Narduzzi knows the Big Ten’s recruiting turf, and how to make hay with less-celebrated prospects,6 a relevant skill for a program limited by geography and demographics. He’d also arrive with a straightforward mandate to remake the Huskers in the defensively driven image of Michigan State, which is bound for another January bowl game in pursuit of its fourth 11-or-better win season in five years. It’s not the most progressive brand of football, but the challenge at Nebraska isn’t selling more tickets. It’s creating a product that the perennially sold-out crowds can recognize and embrace from one week to the next.
Michigan: Man Up
See: Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Jerel Worthy, Johnny Adams, Greg Jones, et al.
Surely, few failed to appreciate the irony that the day Brady Hoke was officially fired from Michigan just happened to be the same day his beleaguered predecessor in Ann Arbor, Rich Rodriguez, was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year at Arizona. It’s the kind of coincidence that makes for a fleeting laugh line on Twitter. But the ongoing success of the guy who was once blamed for so many of Michigan’s failures — and with that success coming at a program with a fraction of Michigan’s resources, no less — actually sums up the situation quite succinctly: Like Nebraska, Michigan isn’t looking to solve a coaching problem so much as it’s looking to solve a Michigan problem.
Interim athletic director Jim Hackett, the man leading the search for Hoke’s successor, openly pined Wednesday for a swift death to the notion that the Wolverines must be overseen by a “Michigan Man” with long-standing ties to the program — if not directly to Bo Schembechler, the iconic coach who coined the term, then at least to Gary Moeller or Lloyd Carr, Michigan lifers who carried the Schembechler line into the new millennium. Rodriguez was an outsider who inherited a depleted roster, failed to win over the holdovers from the Carr administration, and found himself undermined at every turn; Hoke was an insider who won initially with a much stronger lineup and was later undermined by his own incompetence.
Hackett played for Schembechler, and he believes in the company line: “This place does not need to cut corners to win. You come here, you know you’re signing up to be the best in the world without any kind of shenanigans.” Clearly, though, he’s willing to take a more open-minded approach to determining who’s actually qualified to be the best in the world.
Perfect Fit: 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. Do I really need to elaborate? He may be a known asshole who has succeeded in alienating his current boss past the point of no return, but Harbaugh has also overseen wildly successful turnarounds in both college and the NFL with stunning efficiency and without any notable ethical breach. He won a BCS game at Stanford, for heaven’s sake, which would have hardly seemed possible two years before, and two years later he came within five yards of winning a Super Bowl with a franchise that had been mired in mediocrity or worse for a decade prior to his arrival. In this case, Harbaugh’s “Michigan Man” pedigree under Schembechler7 is a footnote to his actual qualifications: If any other school with a vacancy thought it had a prayer at landing him, it would leap at the chance and brace itself to weather whatever tensions might arise later.
Harbaugh spent part of his high school years in Ann Arbor when his father was an assistant on Schembechler’s staff, and played quarterback at Michigan from 1983-86.
So hiring Harbaugh would be the opposite of cutting corners. At age 50, he can make a plausible argument that he’s already the best. Because of his history there, Michigan just happens to be the one school that might have more than an infinitesimal chance of landing him when the situation in San Francisco comes to its dramatic conclusion in the next few weeks.
If not, the field is wide open, with Mullen likely residing at the top of the list. If the “Michigan Man” barrier has truly been breached, there may be an opening for Narduzzi, whose MSU defenses have routinely obliterated the Wolverines, or even — perish the thought — Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, whose offenses have done the same the past three years. Otherwise, the rumor mill is clogged with names ranging from the implausible (Les Miles, who is 61 years old and not about to abandon a decadelong tenure at LS-freaking-U for a rebuilding job) to the uninspired (Schiano, who reportedly turned Michigan down seven years ago to remain at Rutgers), to the perfunctory (John Harbaugh, whose name is also Harbaugh).
The Wolverines are able and willing to pay top dollar, which means they could wind up buying themselves a pleasant, expensive surprise. But it’s hard to come up with another plausible name beyond Mullen or one of the Harbaugh brothers who’d be worth the sticker shock.