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How Historic and Marquee Coaching Hires Reshaped College Football for 2022

Athlon Sports logo Athlon Sports 8/19/2022 Athlon Sports

An in-depth look at how the hires of Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly and Mario Cristobal have reshaped college football going into the 2022 season. © Provided by Athlon Sports

In the course of just over a week right after Thanksgiving, the college football coaching landscape exploded and reorganized itself. Sure, we’ve seen massive coaching hires and fires as a practice in this industry, but nothing quite like the sequence of moves that impacted six major Power 5 programs in such a short time. Starting on Nov. 28 and ending on Dec. 6, three of the biggest openings of the 2021 coaching cycle — USC, LSU and Miami — were filled when those schools poached from three otherwise venerable, steady contenders — Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Oregon.

The shock has subsided, but the impact will be felt for a long time to come. What exactly does it say for college football that so many power programs opted to take established winners away from the competitors? What does it say that they could? And most importantly for fans, media and the rumor mill, who won and who lost? Assigning outright winners and losers is naive and premature at this point, but let’s take a moment to examine the perception and reality of the hires and their effect on the future of the sport after college football’s great Coach Poach.

THE MOVE: Lincoln Riley leaves Oklahoma for USC

The Trojans set the market on the 2021 coaching cycle, firing Clay Helton way, way back on Sept. 13. It was a move conceived during the pandemic and held over to ’21 for budgetary reasons, and once Stanford whipped the Trojans, Heritage Hall had its excuse. Think of it this way: Helton was fired so early in ’21 that he had time to interview and be hired by another FBS program, Georgia Southern, before the season ended.

For basically the entire regular season, speculation ran wild as to whether or not third-year AD Mike Bohn would be free to make a hire without any tampering from the program’s notoriously involved boosters and alumni. Any doubts about USC’s country club meddling were killed with a bombshell: On Nov. 28, Bohn poached Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, humbling the Sooners and shocking the college football world.

The Statement Made

Hoo, boy — just pick one: Riley walked out on an OU program still technically alive for playoff contention and with the SEC on the horizon in coming years, so, to Sooner fans (and Finebaum nation), he’s a fraud for abandoning his kids and a coward for ducking an invite to the nation’s toughest conference. The Trojans want to spin Riley’s choice to leave Norman as proof they’re still among the very best in the nation, and that the most vital program west of the Rockies can compete for national titles again — and soon.

The Reality

The Trojans were fine-to-good at times under Helton, but there was zero energy around the program locally and nationally. And in the modern era, USC’s success has always been accompanied by a Hollywood level of buzz. Riley is young and his offense is marketable, but both the Trojans and the Pac-12 have endured a brutal decade-plus of irrelevance. Taking OU quarterback Caleb Williams along with him to L.A. is a big, splashy move, but take it from Californian-turned-Buckeye C.J. Stroud, who has criticized the lack of excitement at Pac-12 campuses: West Coast college football is way behind. Riley has to win back Southern California’s wealth of talent before he can win national titles.

Back in Norman, it’s arguable that new head coach Brent Venables is more of a cultural fit for the Sooners than Riley ever was, and that new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, most recently at Ole Miss, can maintain OU’s offensive reputation.

Who’s the Short-Term Winner?

Oklahoma is the jilted lover in this equation, but they’re also in much better shape … for now. OU has some time (one year? two? three?) left in a very manageable league before heading South. Because of OU’s dominance in the Big 12, there’s a better chance you’ll see the Sooners back in the CFP before Riley can get USC up to speed, which, yes, might be a big reason their former coach decided to work for a program in a similarly dominant relationship with its league.

What Could Happen?

One thing that’s certain: Riley is Public Enemy No. 1 now and forever in the Sooner State. That won’t change whether Venables is wildly successful or not, and OU fans will be actively rooting against USC as long as Riley’s their head coach. But with the excitement — and uncertainty — of the SEC looming, if OU falls from the perennial playoff contender status afforded by the Big 12 to something closer to a Florida or Texas A&M in the SEC, while at the same time Riley reestablishes USC’s dominance of a weak Pac-12 (which is very, very similar to how OU currently treats the Big 12), Riley should be considered the winner.

It has nothing to do with mansions in L.A. and everything to do with the ability to land and develop talent that can get you in the national title hunt with the most frequency. That’s it.

Who Needs To Calm Down?

Oklahoma: the fans, the program, the state legislature, just … all of it. Upon Riley’s sudden departure, it became painfully apparent that this fan base hadn’t had to deal with an actual head-coaching opening since 1999, way back when Bob Stoops replaced John Blake.

Predictably, OU message boards and Twitter have been vociferous in minimizing Riley’s success and demonizing him for his move, but so have established media in the state, not to mention multiple elected officials trying to create publicity stunts by denouncing their former head coach.

There’s a fine line here — college football thrives on this specific kind of vitriol, but for a blueblood program like OU, too much of the “scorned ex” behavior risks recasting the entire brand as something less than it actually is. There’s a good chance all this calms down once actual football starts in 2022, but for now, there’s too much attention on L.A. and not enough on Venables.

Insider Take

“What if everybody wins this one? No one in Norman wants to hear that, but it could happen. I can see both of these teams in the top 20 for the next 10 years. Brent is a damn good coach, and he did the smartest thing a coordinator turned first-time HC could do — he went out and got a dynamic group of assistants to work the other side of the ball. You don’t hire a guy like Lebby and ask him to slow it down, not in that league. Lincoln’s got way more pressure on him. That job is bigger than the football games you’re coaching. The whole West Coast gets down when USC is down. You’ve got Alabama and Ohio State raiding that city; it’s unlike any other time in history. If you’re gonna dominate, truly dominate at USC, then years from now we’re talking about the Trojans owning L.A. again and getting five-stars out of Dallas and Atlanta. That’s a long way off.” — A Power 5 coordinator

Related: Ranking All 131 Quarterbacks for 2022

THE MOVE: Mario Cristobal leaves Oregon for Miami

Ever since Bear Bryant uttered the words upon leaving Texas A&M for Alabama, the phrase “Mama called” has become college football shorthand for a coach or player leaving one perfectly good situation for another closer to — or directly at — home. That’s undoubtedly the case here, as Miami lured one of its own all the way back from Eugene, Ore., when Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal came home on Dec. 6

The Statement Made

For Oregon, the Ducks have done everything possible off the field to maintain national relevance after the Chip Kelly era, only to lose their last two head coaches to Florida jobs. Former head coach Willie Taggart (a Seminoles fan and Florida native) left Oregon after one season when Florida State opened in 2017. Cristobal, then on staff, was promoted as his replacement, only to pull the same move with The U four years later.

In both situations, going home to rebuild a former national power was the clear motivator, and neither coach had a single bad thing to say about the potential, culture or resources at Oregon. But perception is reality, and Oregon is desperate to become a destination job, not a stopover for coaches before they get their dream jobs in warmer weather. (New Ducks head coach Dan Lanning is a Missouri native, for what it’s worth.)

For the Canes, Mario was the only name on their entire list and a sign to the entire CFB landscape that Cristobal saw enough potential in UM’s new leadership to come home and attempt a rebuild.

The Reality

Miami was very, very desperate to get Cristobal. It was a one-name coaching search, so much so that now-former head coach Manny Diaz (also a Miami native) was still on the road recruiting throughout the extremely public courtship of Cristobal by UM because many thought he would be retained if Cristobal elected to stay in Eugene.

For years, chatter about Cristobal coming home bounced around coaching circles, but most people thought it wouldn’t come to fruition because of UM’s myriad dysfunctions. That changed when Clemson AD Dan Radakovich came to Coral Gables, and the chatter accelerated when ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit excoriated the Canes on live TV for failing to fund, operate and function like a real national title contender.

Also, Mama literally called: At one point during the Ducks’ season, Cristobal came home to Miami to see his mother, who was recovering from an illness. Just like Taggart before him, Cristobal considered only one job to be worth leaving an otherwise fantastic gig at Oregon.

Fate happened to strike the Ducks the same way twice, but there’s still plenty of frustration. After both Kelly and former Kelly assistant Mark Helfrich took Oregon to national title games, outside hires have ultimately betrayed this wholly unique and entirely capable title-contending program. Lanning has a ton of potential, but Ducks fans have seen all this before.

Who’s the Short-Term Winner?

Miami has much more buzz coming out on the winning end of the hire, due in part to Cristobal’s aggressively assembled all-star coaching staff (Kevin Steele, Charlie Strong, Josh Gattis, Joe Salave’a), plus a potential star at quarterback in Tyler Van Dyke. Also, Oregon draws the ugly task of playing Lanning’s old team, Georgia, to open the season. Without any referendum on the long term for either program, it’s likely that Miami sees more of the spotlight in 2022.

What Could Happen?

The long-term ask of Cristobal is as massive as it might be impossible: Return the Canes to national title glory. The blueprint old Miami teams used to become a national power — closing ranks around the “State of Miami” and owning recruiting at every high school program south of Interstate 4 — isn’t possible in 2022. Every major program in college football has a South Florida recruiter today, and it’s not possible to “hide” talented recruits or find an under-recruited area in the age of the internet database and star rankings.

Miami fans would probably settle for winning the ACC — something the Canes still haven’t done since arriving in 2003 — before they start thinking about national titles.

Who Needs To Calm Down?

Miami fans, actually. The Canes brought their guy home, and we’ve mentioned that Cristobal electing to return is a validation of the program, but there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done here. It’s true that The U hasn’t been a national title contender in two decades, but even that statement doesn’t accurately represent the state of this program: The Canes have one division title and one 10-win season and are 5–13 against top-10 opponents since joining the league in 2004. Since the end of Larry Coker’s tenure, Miami has had more vacated seasons than New Year’s Day bowl appearances.

Insider Take

“These are two unrelated situations; they just have a coach [Cristobal] in common. Oregon is a top-25 job, but back East you would have a tough time arguing it’s a top-10 or even top-15 job because of their league. That’s not something Oregon can fix on their own, and it is held against them when these top-tier coaches are evaluating jobs. The entire West Coast has suffered these last few years, and that drags down Oregon. When they dropped a game to a bad Stanford team, the nation reacts differently than if a SEC team loses a road conference game. So at one loss, they’re on the outside looking in for a postseason bid. … Miami has Miami problems, and if anyone can break through and get it fixed, it’s Mario. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. On pure football terms, Manny would be unfireable if the staff hadn’t tried to get D’Eriq King back out there and switched quarterbacks to start the season. This wasn’t a bad team. … This is a program that wants to be nationally relevant again. Are they going to listen to Mario and do what it takes?” — A CFB coaching agent

Related: Ranking All 131 College Football Teams for 2022

THE MOVE: Brian Kelly leaves Notre Dame for LSU

From the day that new LSU AD Scott Woodward stepped on campus, the clock started ticking on Ed Orgeron. It didn’t matter that Orgeron had led the Tigers to a perfect national title season in 2019; forces in Baton Rouge had never fully aligned behind the brusque Cajun, and Woodward, a native son, came home to his dream job with a reputation for delivering headline-making coach hires (Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M, Chris Petersen to Washington).

After a delayed public announcement that Orgeron would leave following the end of the regular season (Orgeron’s post-natty 11-11 record enabled Woodward to clean house), LSU’s search dominated the rumor mill, with names like Lincoln Riley, Mel Tucker and Jimbo Fisher (more than once) considered to be guaranteed at different times.

Woodward ended up taking Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, who was quietly interested in openings at USC and Florida as well, to replace Orgeron. Despite the fact that he’d succeeded in creating a second act as Irish head coach (Notre Dame went 54-9 after a 4-8 campaign in 2016), Kelly wanted out — either to the NFL or to a Power 5 program that he felt would have easier access to national title-caliber talent.

The Statement Made

The move made history — no sitting Notre Dame coach has left for another college football job since 1933, when Hunk Anderson left for NC State after a losing season — and indirectly communicated that Kelly believed Notre Dame couldn’t win a national title. After all, the Irish had found success in the playoff era with their faux-membership in the ACC but got crushed by stalwarts Clemson and Alabama in 2020.

For LSU, Woodward catered directly to a core of highly influential supporters who have longed for a head coach they could hold up as a CEO and statesman on par with their former leader, Nick Saban. Kelly’s polish and demeanor are the exact opposite of Orgeron, and the belief among LSU’s boosters is that Kelly was held back by Notre Dame, not the other way around.

The Reality

The hottest debate of the offseason has been whether or not Kelly or the Irish were at fault for the program’s postseason ineptitude. The general consensus in coaching circles is that Kelly felt he’d done all he could possibly do at the program following the 2020 run, and that in order to win a national title, he’d have to coach somewhere else. His replacement, Marcus Freeman, has already prompted many in the industry to predict that Notre Dame will close on the handful of difference-making superstars needed to keep the Irish in games against the Bamas of the world. But if anyone says they’re convinced it’s one or the other, they’re lying right now. Only time will tell.

Down South, Woodward has been hard at work convincing everyone that Kelly was his first choice and that Fisher, his close friend and former employee in College Station, was never the intended target. The exact pecking order of the search will certainly never see daylight, but Kelly wasn’t at the very top. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t be successful in Baton Rouge. The problem is that both the Orgeron and Les Miles eras are considered to be failures by many Tiger fans who expect to keep pace with Bama, despite the fact that both of those coaches won a national title.

Who’s the Short-Term Winner?

If you’re looking for who has a better shot at making the playoff first, it’s Notre Dame. Freeman was defensive coordinator for the Irish last season and retained key assistants like offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. The Irish open at Ohio State, but they can survive an early loss and remain in playoff contention.

However: LSU’s turmoil has stretched over multiple seasons, basically since the day after the Tigers beat Clemson in the Superdome. Kelly could deliver a pedestrian eight-win bowl season, and, if the headlines die down and recruiting looks strong, fans would respond positively. The same can’t be said if Freeman’s first season ends with fewer than 10 wins.

What Could Happen?

There’s only one question to answer: Is Kelly right about Notre Dame? If Freeman can recruit better than his predecessor and the Irish win a national title (or even lose in a much closer fashion against one of the handful of top programs), Kelly’s reputation will naturally suffer. However, if Kelly does what every LSU head coach has done since Saban’s hire in 2000 — win a national title — while the Irish maintain their status as nationally elite but not champions, BK’s move will make sense.

Make no mistake, though: LSU fans are expecting a dynasty of consistent, scandal-free titles and playoff appearances. While 99 percent of college football would be thrilled to boast three nattys in 20 years and elite SEC status, LSU is chasing the dust of its former architect Saban, which is why the idiosyncrasies of Miles and Orgeron — as well as their on-field coaching shortcomings — prompted changes.

Who Needs To Calm Down?

Everyone involved. LSU fans should avoid the shorthand prognostication of a head coach who has never recruited in the SEC, and Notre Dame fans should extend some level of patience to a first-time head coach taking over arguably the most famous program in college athletics.

There’s one facet of Kelly’s working theory that’s definitely true: These are wildly different jobs, in different cultures, and with wildly different standards and practices. Comparing the two is a fool’s errand, but Kelly has prompted exactly that with his move.

Insider Take

“This entire situation boils down to recruiting. You’re gonna win at both of these programs. Well, you’re going to win, or you’re going to be fired very quickly. We know that. Kelly’s certainly not wrong about Notre Dame’s standards. They’re difficult, and it’s not the easiest place in the world to plug in 25 superstars and go. That’s Bama, that’s Georgia. But does that mean he recruited as effectively as possible? Maybe Marcus is the right coach at the right place and the right time. He’s already called out the Irish for not managing its brand to appeal to five-star kids in cities as much as it appeals to the 50-year-olds in the stands. The very early returns are positive. … For LSU, BK has to learn how to be cutthroat. They have to be creating top-5 classes immediately. He has a great staff around him that knows how to do that, but don’t kid yourself — the head man closes. Look at Bama, look at Georgia. That’s what he signed up for.” — An SEC assistant coach

— Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) for the Athlon Sports 2022 National College Football Annual.

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