In the days leading up to Ohio State's Oct. 27 meeting with Penn State, I was chatting with a Big Ten coach about the success of both schools in their NCAA sanction-laden seasons. Heading into the contest, the Buckeyes were 8-0, and the Nittany Lions had won five straight after starting the year 0-2.
"You shouldn't be surprised," the coach said. "No one should. Yes, Urban (Meyer) and Bill (O'Brien) took over messes. But there was certainly no lack of talent or resources in those programs. Never will be. They were just rudderless. The table is always set at places like those two, you just have to have the right cook in the kitchen."
The coach went on to echo a thought I have heard repeatedly from those in the coaching profession: Just as there are jobs you should always say yes to -- no matter the circumstances -- there are also jobs you should always turn down.
"Sometimes you just want a head coaching job so bad you'll take anything," the late Bill Stewart said during a conversation we had about the career assistant's decision to take over at Virginia Military Institute. "But even if a school has a great brand name or a great conference affiliation, they are still ships that are never going to stay afloat. The Titanic was impressive to look at, but it was destined to sink."
So of the jobs that are open or might become open, which programs appear the most ready-made for a hero-making turnaround? I surveyed (and informally polled) coaches and athletic directors from around the country to find out.
Here's our ranking of the top five college football reconstruction projects that aren't as bad as they appear to be.
Current coach: Jeff Tedford | Current record: 3-7
Patience with Tedford, in his 11th year, seems to have officially run out after a 49-27 trouncing by Utah, which had been winless in Pac-12 play, and an uninspired 21-13 loss to Washington, a game played in front of the smallest home crowd of the season. It will get no better in Cal's home finale this weekend when the No. 3 Oregon Ducks come to town.
Cal has won a share of a conference title only twice since 1958, the same season it made the last of its eight Rose Bowl appearances. But it has been to eight bowl games in the past decade and has a decent baseline of talent. But its biggest attraction for a new coach is the stadium the Bears suddenly can't win in, a $321 million renovation -- and earthquake-proofing -- of 90-year-old Memorial Stadium.
"The stadium alone makes that job attractive," a West Coast athletic director said. "The name of the game is facilities. Everything else stems from that. Recruiting, fundraising, you name it. All of that creates a springboard that a new coach can use to reignite the torch around there very quickly."
Current coach: Gene Chizik | Current record: 2-7
At any other time, including when Chizik took the job in 2009, this is the gig that likely would have topped this list. But just two seasons removed from winning the national title, the situation at Toomer's Corner is, to quote an SEC athletic director, "a
Why? Just take a look at Auburn's win-loss record, staff turnover, recruiting erosion and the daily radio pinata beating the team gets on "The Paul Finebaum Show," particularly when former Auburn coach Pat Dye calls in.
"Of all the schools you have thrown out at me, this is the one that makes me think, 'Damn, there's a lot of work to be done there,' " an ACC coordinator said. "But at the same time, you know the money will be great. The facilities are great. It's just you wonder if it's worth walking that razor blade every day. When they love you, they really love you. But they will turn on you so fast down there."
Yeah, just ask Dye.
Current coach: Tom O'Brien | Current record: 5-4
This is the only school on this list with a winning record and, quite frankly, wasn't on my "Would you take this job?" list when I started calling around. But nearly everyone I talked to brought it up as a position they expected to be opening, and one they would salivate over.
"Have you seen the facilities in Raleigh?" a West Coast coordinator asked. "If you were at that stadium 15 years ago and then you were there over the last year, then you can see how committed they are to the program. That fan base is a sleeping football giant. And there is a ton of talent in North Carolina that leaves every year. O'Brien is a good X's and O's guy but he's never taken to recruiting. Get a real recruiter in there and he would mop up."
From the outside, the idea of taking an ACC job might seem like the wrong direction. But everyone I talked to said the opposite -- as long as it's the right ACC job.
"That conference is ripe for the picking," the West Coast coordinator continued. "It would take no time at all to start racking up big numbers and getting BCS berths. You can make a hell of a living doing that. Just ask Virginia Tech. NC State is the kind of place that can get to that level, and in a hurry. The other ACC jobs that might be out there -- Boston College and Maryland -- they're a hundred miles behind State."
Current coach: John L. Smith | Current record: 4-5
At first blush, Auburn and Arkansas would appear to be on pretty level footing. They pay well and their facilities are great. But in the eyes of the coaches and athletic directors I talked to, there is one overwhelming item on the checklist that makes Fayetteville more attractive than The Plains.
"The talent on the Arkansas roster is off the charts," an ACC administrator said. "That's a 10-win team sitting there, just aching for a leader. You walk into Auburn or Purdue or Kentucky, you're basically starting from scratch. At Arkansas, there are blue-chip kids already there, just waiting to be coached up. It won't take much and you can look like a genius. But it's not an easy place to recruit, so you just have to be able to blow it out of the water with the roster you inherit, but still be able keep it up over the long haul."
In other words, do it like Chizik in the beginning, but not at the end? "Exactly," the administrator said.
Current coach: Derek Dooley | Current record: 4-5
Even Dooley's staunchest supporters are willing to admit that Saturday's near-loss to Troy was unacceptable. But even Dooley's biggest detractors -- a group that seems to grow by the day -- are willing to admit that the program has a better foundation than when he took over three years ago. A team that was already on a slide under Phillip Fulmer grew insanely unstable under Lane Kiffin. Now that ship has been, if not righted, then certainly stabilized under Dooley, a former athletic director.
In the eyes of would-be head coaches, that gives Tennessee -- a program already blessed with ridiculous facilities, history and well-known deep pockets -- an edge over the other schools on this list.
"From outside the business of college sports, this might read a little nuts when I say this, but Tennessee has some momentum going right now," the SEC athletic director said. "Are they ready to win the BCS or even the SEC? No. But they've already bottomed out and are headed back up. You look at some of these other jobs and they are headed down first before they can come back up. UT has already been there. Derek has done all the heavy lifting. The next guy will reap the benefits from that."