Hiring a college football coach is a tough process. A school needs to find a candidate who is the right cultural fit for its program. It needs to prioritize strategic vision, media relations, and recruiting connections. And perhaps most important of all, it has to weigh all of those factors without upsetting omnipresent mega-agent Jimmy Sexton.
This year’s coaching carousel was the wildest in recent memory, with Tennessee’s fan base revolting against its administration’s choices, Texas A&M signing a coach to the largest contract in college football history, and Arizona State hiring a guy generally known for cracking jokes on TV. So now that the carousel has stopped spinning, who’s in the best shape?
To answer that, I tried to consider not only which school is best positioned to win the most titles going forward, but also which school hired the candidate best suited to accomplishing its goals. I’ve slotted the 12 Power 5 conference coaching hires into four tiers, and and then ranked those hires from top to bottom within each tier.
Home Run Hires
Scott Frost, Nebraska
Few things can wreak more havoc on a college football program than a fan base that lives in the past, and Nebraska fans desperately want it to be the 1990s again. In that decade, the Cornhuskers won a trio of national championships, in 1994, 1995, and 1997. This millennium, the only titles that the Huskers have won are in the Big 12 North and Big Ten Legends divisions, and neither of those exists anymore. Today’s college recruits weren’t even born in the era when Nebraska was a perennial powerhouse.
With that in mind, the administration’s decision to hire the Huskers star quarterback from 1997 as its head coach might feel misguided. Nebraska needs someone who can recruit kids from all across the nation to move to the Great Plains—there have been just six four-star recruits to come from the state of Nebraska in the past decade, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, and just one at an offensive skill position—and the best way to attract prospects who were zygotes the last time the Cornhuskers sniffed national relevance isn’t by linking the new hire to Tommie Frazier.
But it just so happens Frost is a really freakin’ good coach. He worked as an assistant under Chip Kelly and was the offensive coordinator for Oregon’s last great teams, and then pulled off the biggest two-year turnaround in college football history at UCF, lifting the Knights from 0-12 in 2015 to 12-0 in 2017. Frost is the only coach who provides what Nebraska fans want—a sentimental connection to the program’s glory days—and what Nebraska football needs—a dynamite coach and recruiter who can succeed in the present. Nobody on earth would have been a better hire.
Chip Kelly, UCLA
Picture the powerhouse that Kelly built at Oregon: a breathtaking offense slicing through the Pac-12 en route to national title contention. Now place that program in recruit-rich Southern California, a region that produces as many five-star prospects per year as Oregon does in a decade. What you get is a football fever dream.
Whether Kelly’s stint with the Bruins will pan out like his Ducks tenure remains to be seen. After all, he’s previously expressed his distaste for some of the necessary evils of college coaching, like recruiting and interacting with boosters. But Kelly had his pick of programs and chose to make his return at UCLA instead of more historically prominent programs such as Florida and Tennessee, presumably because he feels he can operate the way he wants with the Bruins. The average college offense looks a lot more like Kelly’s Oregon teams in 2017 than it did when he left. I’m curious to see what innovative monsters Kelly has drawn up since the last time we met.
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
The list of active college football head coaches who have won national championships is short: Fisher (Florida State), Urban Meyer (Florida and Ohio State), Nick Saban (LSU and Alabama), and Dabo Swinney (Clemson). That’s it. It should’ve been virtually impossible for a college program to lure any of these four men away from their respective schools, but Fisher’s marriage to Florida State had grown stale over the years, and A&M offered Fisher the largest contract in college coaching history. The time for a move was right; the money ($75 million guaranteed!) was even more right.
I know Aggies fans would like to believe that Jimbo is coming to the Aggies because he thinks boots are neat and has long dreamed of serving at the feet of an omnipotent collie. But the most important Aggies sports tradition of late is spending preposterous sums of money on their football program. Fisher is getting the paycheck and treatment of a small nation’s dictator, and the team’s facilities have recently gotten hyper-expensive boosts.
Still, the Aggies are in an SEC West division with Alabama, Auburn, and LSU, and they’re recruiting against Texas in their own state. A&M has now done everything in its power to win a national title. If Fisher can’t get the job done, I wonder if anybody can.
Willie Taggart, Florida State
Fisher’s exit from Florida State opened up the Seminoles’ head-coaching job for the first time since the 1970s: Bobby Bowden was the coach from 1976 to 2009, and he anointed Fisher as his hand-picked successor. While the idea of Taggart leaving Oregon after a single season may seem flaky, there’s a reason the coach took this job. He’s a Florida native from FSU stock, and this was the first time the position has been available in his lifetime.
There’s a reason Taggart has now held four head-coaching jobs in seven seasons, too. He turns things around. Check out his résumé:
- Western Kentucky: 2-22 in the two years before Taggart took over; 14-10 in Taggart’s last two seasons on the job
- South Florida: 3-9 in the year before Taggart took over in 2012; 10-2 in Taggart’s last campaign with the Bulls in 2016
- Oregon: 4-8 the year before Taggart took over in 2016; 7-5 in his lone season as head coach in 2017
At South Florida, Taggart proved that he could recruit talented Florida prospects to his roster and build a dynamic offense; the Bulls averaged 43.8 points per game in his final season in Tampa. Toss in Florida State’s name brand and seemingly limitless resources (well, perhaps not as limitless as Jimbo would’ve liked, but still very large amounts of resources) and odds are good that Taggart will stick around in Tallahassee for much longer than a year.
Dan Mullen, Florida
From Steve Spurrier to Danny Wuerffel to Tim Tebow, Florida quarterbacks have a storied tradition of excellence. And from Jeff Driskel to Jacoby Brissett to Treon Harris, Florida quarterbacks of the past decade have a less-storied tradition of looking like crap and then transferring.
Mullen is one of college football’s preeminent quarterback gurus, as he’s squeezed greatness out of a number of players in his career. He molded Alex Smith into the no. 1 NFL draft pick while serving as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Utah. He helped Tebow win the Heisman Trophy after following Meyer to Florida. And he turned unheralded quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald into stars during his head-coaching stint at Mississippi State. Mullen, unlike Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, seems to have what it takes to fix the woes that have ailed Florida recently.
Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State
It may seem odd that the school in Starkville, Mississippi, chose to hire a Yankee city boy: Moorhead is a Pittsburgh native, went to college and later coached at Fordham in New York City, and has never held a coaching job farther south than Georgetown in Washington, D.C. But Mullen had a similar résumé upon arriving in Starkville, as he’s also from Pennsylvania (just outside Philadelphia) and coached in NYC (at Wagner and Columbia). Both came to Mississippi State as highly praised offensive coordinators, too—Moorhead from Penn State, Mullen from Florida.
It’s hard to win at Mississippi State, but Moorhead’s offensive acumen makes him a prime head-coaching candidate. The school’s attempt to replace Mullen with Mullen 2.0 seems savvy.
Chad Morris, Arkansas
A coach is not going to win at Arkansas unless he can recruit in Texas. That should be a breeze for Morris, who spent 15 years coaching at the high school level in the Lone Star State, most notably at Lake Travis High in Austin. (While Morris just missed coaching Baker Mayfield there, he still led the Cavaliers to back-to-back unbeaten seasons.) Morris is probably most familiar to college football fans as the guy who recruited Deshaun Watson to Clemson and helped build the Tigers offense into a juggernaut, yet perhaps more impressive is what he’s accomplished at SMU. In 2014, the year before Morris took over the program, the Mustangs went 1-11 and ranked last nationally in scoring offense (11.1 points per game). This year they’re eighth in that category (40.2 points per game) and have gone 7-5.
Morris has the offensive credentials and Texas know-how to get the job done in Fayetteville, while his predecessor Bret Bielema’s strategy seemed to be attempting to turn the Razorbacks into literal hogs.
Jonathan Smith, Oregon State
Smith’s hire didn’t create a lot of buzz, mostly because the school is Oregon State and his name is Jonathan Smith. But he’s Scott Frost Lite: Smith was the guy who threw passes to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh during the best season in Beavers history, and he’s coming off an impressive stint as Washington’s offensive coordinator. The Huskies ranked eighth and 17th in scoring, respectively, over the past two seasons.
It takes a hell of a lot to win at Oregon State, and Smith’s predecessor, Gary Andersen, straight up left $12 million on the table because he didn’t think he could pull it off. (If I were getting paid $12 million to coach a doomed team, I’d still show up to practice in my Lamborghini.) Smith should give the Beavers their best chance, though, and the addition of ex-Oregon State coach Mike Riley to his staff will make the transition easier.
Congrats on Finding Somebody
Mario Cristobal, Oregon
Let’s start with the positives. Cristobal’s work taking Florida International from 0-12 in 2006 to back-to-back winning campaigns in 2010 and 2011 proves that he’s a good coach, and he absolutely should not have been fired from that job, especially not so the Golden Panthers could hire Ron Turner. Cristobal has been endorsed by Nick Saban, and was a key part of Oregon’s strong recruiting push in the first year (er, the only year) of the Taggart era. He’s good, and as a proud half-Cuban I must endorse him.
But things really didn’t work out for the Ducks over the past few weeks. Losing Taggart is a huge blow, as he seemed like the type of coach who could help Oregon return to prominence. And the way the dominoes fell made everything worse. Taggart didn’t just leave; he left after most hires had already been made, meaning the Ducks didn’t have a chance to land either Kelly or Frost, both excellent coaches who have strong Oregon ties.
If the Ducks had fired former coach Mark Helfrich two seasons ago, maybe they could have promoted Frost instead of losing him to UCF and then to Nebraska. If Oregon had held onto Helfrich for an additional year and fired him after this season, it could’ve conducted its coaching search on a typical timeline. Instead, the Ducks axed Helfrich last year, learned that Frost felt it would be uncouth to leave a program after just one year, and later found out that Taggart was perfectly fine with leaving a program after one year. As such, they were left in the lurch. I’m hopeful for Cristobal, but sometimes being in the wrong place at the wrong time can alter a program’s future.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
Hiring Pruitt was a reasonable conclusion to the least reasonable coaching search in recent memory. ICYMI: Tennessee tried to hire Greg Schiano; the fan base revolted; Tennessee called up every conceivable coaching candidate (except Tee Martin, who seemed like the natural choice); almost all of them either laughed at the Vols or used their talks as leverage to negotiate raises from their current school; former Vols head coach Phillip Fulmer usurped athletic director John Currie; Lane Kiffin made a bunch of jokes on Twitter. And to think, Tennessee fans once thought this search would be as easy as simply calling up Jon Gruden.
Pruitt is Alabama’s defensive coordinator, and Alabama has had some great defenses. The Crimson Tide’s previous defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, has proved to be an excellent head coach for Georgia. Everybody wants a piece of the Process. But Florida and South Carolina have also tried hiring Saban Spawn—Florida has done it twice now!—and learned it’s hard to be better at being Alabama than Alabama. Tennessee is now one of several SEC schools trying to pull that off.
But, hey: At least Pruitt isn’t Greg Schiano.
Matt Luke, Ole Miss
Luke was promoted from interim head coach to permanent head coach less than a week before the long-awaited NCAA sanctions against the Rebels were released. He did all that could be asked of an interim coach: He kept the team reasonably motivated even though it self-imposed a bowl ban; he went 6-6 (the most interim coaching record imaginable); and he beat rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
But Luke is a lukewarm hire. His defining attribute is that he has been at Ole Miss for a long time, as a player, graduate assistant, assistant coach, co-offensive coordinator, and interim coach. He isn’t known as a great strategic mind or recruiter (although he did help the Rebels land several elite offensive linemen under Freeze). Sanctions aside, Ole Miss’s decision to punt on this year’s coaching market while so many schools in its division upgraded was disappointingly unambitious.
Herm Edwards Is Your Coach Now
Herm Edwards, Arizona State
There is no good football explanation for this hire. Edwards hasn’t coached at any level in a decade, had a sub-.500 record with both of the NFL teams for which he was head coach, and only has a few years of college coaching experience, as a defensive backs coach with San Jose State in the 1980s. College coaching is much different than NFL coaching is, and all coaching is drastically different now than it was 10 years ago. Perhaps the best NFL head coach from 10 years ago could seamlessly take over a major college program in 2017; it’s safe to say Edwards was not the best NFL head coach.
Of course, Arizona State seemingly does not want him to be a coach. The school’s plan was to retain the entire staff hired by Edwards’s predecessor, Todd Graham. That hasn’t worked out, but it remains likely that the team’s approach moving forward will largely mirror what it’s been in the past. The Sun Devils administration did not make a change (and pay Graham a $12.3 million buyout) because it had a problem with the program’s strategy, but rather because it had a problem with the person who was talking to recruits and reporters. So it hired Edwards, a longtime ESPN commentator whose press conferences went viral way before virality was a thing.
Edwards will be the head of the school’s “new leadership model,” per a release—the gist being that he’s here for buzzwords and catchphrases, while the school’s existing coaches will be tasked with actually coaching football. Why Edwards? Well, it’s no coincidence that when Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson was an NFL agent, Edwards was one of his clients.
I can’t remember a coaching hire so misguided and cynical. If the Sun Devils improbably turn out to be decent under Edwards, please credit the school’s coordinators and position coaches for doing their jobs, and credit Herm for doing a good job of talking.