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Who won the coaching carousel? Grades for this year's hires

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 12/13/2017 George Schroeder, USA TODAY Sports

The thing about coaching hires is, well, you never know how they’re going to pan out. The no-doubt rock star can crater. The underwhelming hire made after four other guys said no can turn out to be the guy who wins championships. Fit matters a lot. And luck, too. Even the surest thing is a risk.

But as a wild turn on the annual coaching carousel slides to a halt, here’s an assessment of how the schools fared. Each new coach currently is undefeated; maybe one of them will even stay that way some year. History shows most of the hires will land somewhere between great and terrible.

A

UCLA — Chip Kelly

The Bruins are the undisputed winners of the carousel. They fired Jim Mora early and went hard after Kelly, who was the most attractive available candidate. He spent the season perched in a TV analyst’s spot after getting fired by the San Francisco 49ers. Even though Kelly was pursued by several schools — most notably Florida — and was legitimately conflicted when UCLA called because of its Under Armour affiliation and the conflict it created with Nike founder Phil Knight, whom Kelly considers a friend and mentor, in the end his landing spot wasn’t a surprise. He chose cosmopolitan Los Angeles over the fishbowl of an SEC college town.

After four years out of the college game, there are questions as to how effective Kelly’s signature uptempo offense might still be — defenses haven’t exactly caught up with it, but it’s not the discombobulating force as when he introduced it at Oregon — but that pays short shrift to Kelly’s overall ability to build a program’s culture. He’s not 46-7 as a college coach only because he calls good plays.

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Nebraska — Scott Frost

If the goal is to hire the guy you absolutely, positively had to have — the only guy you wanted — this is an easy A. Frost may well turn out to be a great hire in his return home; in two years at UCF, he took a winless program and turned it into a New Year’s Six participant. That’s impressive, but it’s also a short résumé. He’ll understand Nebraska and its challenges. And he has experience recruiting elite talent to far-flung locales (see Eugene, Ore.). It seems unlikely anyone can return Nebraska to the glory years — you know, back in the 1990s when Frost was the Huskers’ quarterback. But if Frost can elevate the program past the Minnesotas and Iowas of the Big Ten West and into contention with, say, Wisconsin … that would be a very nice start on returning to relevance.

Florida — Dan Mullen

The Gators are a prime example that a) it’s hard to hire a coach, period, and b) with preparation, you can still reel in a very nice catch. Widely considered the best available job, Florida went after Chip Kelly and then Scott Frost. When both turned them down, Scott Stricklin landed Dan Mullen, a former Gators assistant who can now try to do what he accomplished at Mississippi State, only at a school with exponentially more resources. He’ll bring good offense and a reputation for finding and developing quarterbacks to a program that is starving for both. Never mind Kelly or Frost, Mullen might just have been the best fit, anyway.

Texas A&M — Jimbo Fisher

During each of the last two years, LSU tried hard to pull Fisher out of Tallahassee, only to be rejected. But the Aggies pulled it off — for an unprecedented 10-year, $75 million deal. As much as the money, though, it was Fisher’s discontent at Florida State that probably persuaded him to take a job that is, by almost any historical or current accounting, a lesser gig. It doesn’t have to stay that way, though. In College Station, Fisher will get anything he asks for, and probably before he asks for it. A&M gets a proven championship coach, even if things got a little stale for Florida State in the ACC in the last couple of years. Now we’ll see what Fisher and the Aggies can do in an SEC West that is dominated by his former boss Nick Saban.

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B

Florida State — Willie Taggart

When Jimbo Fisher tossed out the Christmas tree and headed to Aggieland, the Seminoles didn’t take long to identify Taggart. Although his career record is only 47-50, he rebuilt South Florida’s program. As important, the Floridian has deep recruiting ties in the state. Taggart will have a hard time matching Fisher’s success, but that’s true of anyone in an ACC that has now become Clemson’s domain.

Mississippi State — Joe Moorhead

Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen clearly was prepared for Mullen’s departure. When Mullen left for Florida, he quickly rolled through a list of candidates. As impressive, especially considering the fantasies that accompanied other searches: Mississippi State understood what was actually doable. The list was largely coordinators. Will Moorhead, who has a head-coaching track record at FCS Fordham before moving to Penn State as offensive coordinator, be able to match Mullen’s success? It’s a tall order. But he will bring a fun and explosive offense to Starkville.

Arkansas — Chad Morris

Arkansas’ search had potential to go wildly off the rails, starting with the ouster of athletic director Jeff Long before it began and continuing with what appeared to be a quixotic attempt to lure Gus Malzahn home from Auburn. Malzahn seriously considered the move but stayed at Auburn (and got a better deal there). But the Razorbacks pivoted quickly, hiring Hunter Yurachek as athletic director and then Morris (much credit should go to interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples). Morris is a Malzahn protégé who will run an uptempo spread (see Clemson, where he was offensive coordinator), which could help equalize talent deficits vs. SEC West opponents. He did a nice job building SMU’s program, and the former Texas high school coach is plugged deeply into that state — very important for Arkansas’ recruiting needs.

C

Tennessee — Jeremy Pruitt

This grade isn’t so much a referendum on Pruitt. The Alabama defensive coordinator has a nice pedigree with stops at Florida State and Georgia as well as his time with Nick Saban. But is this the kind of hire the Tennessee fan base was looking for during a tumultuous search that included a fan revolt against one would-be hire (Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano) and included the firing of athletic director John Currie? So many of the coaches Currie went after were more accomplished than Pruitt — that includes Schiano, by the way — but it appears the fan base is satisfied with Pruitt.

Or maybe just with having Phillip Fulmer make the pick. Or maybe just with having the search finally finished. Pruitt might well be a very good fit in Knoxville, the right guy to take the Vols back to prominence. He’s familiar with the South, and the SEC. But he’s anything but the splash hire so many fans expected. 

Oregon — Mario Cristobal

Consider the unlucky Ducks. Twice in a span of a little more than 12 months, they’ve had an opening. Twice Chip Kelly was available — at precisely the wrong time. If Nebraska hadn’t been open, they might well have lured Scott Frost, one of Kelly’s protégés. And then consider that while there were legitimate questions about whether Willie Taggart was going to be a long-term solution in Eugene, it took a weird confluence of events for him to bolt after one season. Add all that together, sprinkle in (slightly overwrought) concern about the new early signing date, and suddenly Oregon was hastily promoting Cristobal.

His 27-47 record at Florida International doesn’t begin to tell the story of what he accomplished in building the program there. He came highly recommended, and in one season as an Oregon assistant he clearly impressed athletic director Rob Mullens. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the right guy. But even with Kelly and Frost off the table, a stability hire wasn’t exactly what the Ducks would’ve predicted as their best available option.

UCF — Josh Heupel

After losing Scott Frost to Nebraska, the Knights turned to another former star quarterback turned Power Five assistant. Heupel’s hire doesn’t move the needle much, but he did good work as an offensive coordinator, most recently at Missouri. UCF athletic director Danny Knight is banking Heupel, 39, can continue to build on what Frost did in taking the Knights from winless to unbeaten. That might be a tall order, but the program is well-positioned to remain atop the pecking order in the Group of Five.

Oregon State — Jonathan Smith

A former Beavers quarterback with a coaching résumé as an assistant to Chris Petersen, Smith now tackles one of the most difficult Power Five jobs, a gig so tough the last guy bailed — Gary Andersen just flat quit — at midseason. It’s not like Smith isn’t familiar, though, both from his time as a player and from his recent perch as Washington’s offensive coordinator. An early plus: Smith has added former coach Mike Riley, fresh off a firing by Nebraska, to his staff. It’s maybe something that could only happen in Corvallis and with Riley. What’s unclear is whether Smith or anyone can turn the Beavers into consistent winners.

Ole Miss — Matt Luke

Considering the uncertainty of the NCAA hammer waiting to fall (and which has since happened), it’s not like the Rebels had many options in replacing Hugh Freeze. The job was not attractive to the kinds of candidates the school would otherwise have expected to attract. Luke, a former player, did a nice job during a stint as interim coach in holding the team together (including a win vs. rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl). If his promotion feels like a stop-gap, maybe it is. But for Ole Miss, this might have been the best available move.

D

Arizona State — Herm Edwards

Every so often, someone comes up with a new idea that changes everything: See the iPhone. Other times it’s more like the ESPN phone. (Remember that, from 2006? That was a thing.) It’s why the most inexplicable hire is also the most intriguing. Edwards hasn’t coached in college for almost 30 years, or anywhere since 2008. But athletic director Ray Anderson fired Todd Graham to bring in Edwards to change the paradigm. Although it was hard to decipher the jargon in the press release (get ready for the “New Leadership Model”), it appears Edwards’ role is supposed to be something more like general manager than conventional head coach.

Arizona State retained offensive coordinator Billy Napier and asked defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to do the same (he declined), and apparently plans to give the coordinators expanded responsibilities. Although it’s unclear exactly how all of this is supposed to work, it’s hard to imagine it working very well. Arizona State’s gamble — the riskiest of the hiring season, by an exponential factor — seems much more likely to be either a soaring success or a spectacular crash and burn than just another humdrum hire. For that, I guess we should be grateful. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Others

Georgia Southern — Chad Lunsford, C

Rice — Mike Bloomgren, B

South Alabama — Steve Campbell, C

SMU — Sonny Dykes, B

UTEP — Dana Dimel, C

Open: Kent State, Louisiana-Lafayette

Related slideshow: Best of the 2017 college football season (provided by photo services)


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