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Ranking the coaching hires

12/19/2012
How did Arkansas, Texas Tech and Tennessee fare in their respective hirings? AP, Icon, AP

Only a couple of jobs remain open and a few new staffs are still being formed, but the latest flurry of coaching movement is beginning to wind down. It's time to see how the ADs, presidents and boards made out with their choices. Did they outkick the coverage, so to speak? Did they do the best they could with a shrinking pool of candidates? Or should they hope for the best?

We've ranked the top 15 new hires and provided some footnotes to sum up this round of the carousel.


1. Arkansas Razorbacks

Bret Bielema (previously: Wisconsin head coach)

A couple of days before Bielema made his move, the most surprising of the past month, one coach told me to consider that not everyone is happy in their current situation, even if they're seemingly in a good one. Maybe it wasn't that Bielema was unhappy so much as he wanted a greater challenge -- or a different challenge, anyway. At least that's what he has indicated when asked why he left Wisconsin, where he was 68-24 in seven seasons.

What we didn't know at the time of his hiring was that Bielema, back in September, had reached out to Arkansas AD Jeff Long. It was a message of support, but it also contained his general football philosophies. There will remain debate about whether it was a formal application or not, but Long took note.

The John L. Smith thing clearly didn't work out, but Long has now hitched his reputation to someone who has a significantly higher chance of succeeding, even in the SEC. Bielema has far more resources than he did previously, and he'll need them to compete with Alabama, LSU and now Texas A&M in the SEC West.

His coaching style will be a departure from Bobby Petrino, for sure. It's more of the Nick Saban pattern. Bielema's teams have been in the top 25 in rushing each of the past six seasons and in defense the past four seasons. That type of ball plays in the SEC, doesn't it? Bielema's tough, too, but he'll have to adapt to the way of life on the recruiting trail. If he didn't care for Urban Meyer's aggressiveness, Saban's will be eye-opening.


2. Kentucky Wildcats

Mark Stoops (former FSU defensive coordinator)

The more I learn about the youngest of the three college-coaching Stoops brothers, the more I like about what Mitch Barnhart did in luring him to Lexington. Stoops turned around Florida State's defense in short order, which was impressive (and why he got the job), but I really like the way he's gone about hiring a young, respected staff. As Lexington columnist John Clay noted, Stoops is 45 and his staff has an average of 39.4 years old.

But the relative age does not mean the assistants are bereft of accomplishments and praise. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, 36, was a priority for Stoops. Eliot was his right-hand man in helping the FSU D go from 42nd in yards per game in 2010 to fourth in 2011 and second in 2012.

But in particular, I loved the hire of former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown as the new Kentucky offensive coordinator. Three Big 12 O-coordinators got head jobs, and the 32-year-old Brown likely will not be far behind them. In the meantime, Stoops has a bright recruiter and offensive mind; that was important for a coach known for his work on defense. It reminded me, sort of, of when Stoops' brother Bob hired Mike Leach as his first O-coordinator at Oklahoma.

Will the staff immediately make Kentucky a winner? Probably not. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have a hold on the division. But the Wildcats might soon start making waves. They could pick off a team here or there, eventually getting a foothold. Stoops and his staff will get into Ohio to recruit and Kentucky is more talent-rich than some might realize.


3. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Bobby Petrino (former Arkansas head coach)

Yeah, we'll say it. This was a major league coup for WKU, which, mind you, previously had a solid coach in Willie Taggart. But it's still a gigantic upgrade; Petrino has won everywhere he's been, including in the difficult SEC West. You'd have to think he'll be able to handle the Sun Belt competition with a roster Taggart left in decent shape.

Who cares how long Western has Petrino, who is 75-26 as a head coach? It might only be for a season. But WKU has him now, and that only figures to elevate the program. You knew someone was going to take a chance on him. "I'm surprised he slipped that far," one assistant coach told me last week. "We figured one of those SEC schools would give him a shot. Everyone wants to win."

A little career resuscitation in Bowling Green, Ky., and others just might come calling. As that coach mentioned, winning trumps baggage in a lot of cases.

I was told several times that Auburn was giving Petrino strong consideration before it went in just about the polar opposite direction in terms of character reputation. Petrino essentially had this option, from what I understand: Go somewhere now, get back in the game, or sit out a year and probably be courted by bigger-name programs. He wanted to coach. Now.


4. Auburn Tigers

Gus Malzahn (former Arkansas State head coach)

It seemed almost a little too obvious for the Jays -- Auburn AD Jacobs and school president Gogue -- to turn to Malzahn, the offensive coordinator on the 2010 title team. Some friends, I'm told, encouraged Malzahn to prove he could be a head coach. He did for a year, leading Arkansas State to a 9-3 season (bowl notwithstanding), and that was enough for Auburn's leadership. It was interested in someone with a strong moral compass, and Malzahn is as sharp and devout as it gets.

Oh, and he knows offense. Teams Malzahn has been a part of as a head coach and coordinator have averaged 36 points and 470 yards a game. Those numbers were aided by Cam Newton's presence, sure, but they're not predicated solely on his one season with Malzahn. Some have joked that his offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, is a mini-me version of Malzahn. He might soon be on a similar career track to Brown, Kliff Kingsbury -- or Malzahn.

I know a lot of coaches who were nodding in approval when Malzahn got Ellis Johnson to coach his defense. It's duh-worthy obvious that Johnson, after a winless year at you-can't-lose-here Southern Miss, is not a head coach, but don't mistake that to mean he's generally some kind of a hack as a coach. South Carolina was third in total defense in 2011, behind only Alabama and LSU, when Johnson was in charge as the Gamecocks' D-coordinator, and was consistently good under his direction. He'll be back in his comfort zone, recruiting and coaching in the SEC.


5. South Florida Bulls

Willie Taggart (former Western Kentucky head coach)

I watched a couple of weeks ago as Taggart negotiated a hotel lobby, making new friends and acquaintances outside receptions in advance of the College Football Hall of Fame dinner in New York City. No offense to WKU, but Taggart -- fruit from the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree -- had his eyes on a move. Good for him. And good for South Florida for recognizing the Tampa-area native could do well in his home state.

Three years ago, when USF hired Skip Holtz, it was a sleeping-giant program. Now? We're not quite sure what to make of it as the Big East wilts. Still, it's in the right state to get noticed and it's possible to win a bunch of games there, even if those wins will not mean as much as they did prior to realignment.

You know who this hire might hurt most? Charlie Strong. Even if the Cardinals are heading to the ACC, Louisville was regularly raiding Florida -- and especially the Miami area -- for recruiting talent. Taggart might soon make inroads on those prospects. He's got a much better shot of getting them to Tampa than he had of getting them to Bowling Green.

Taggart will recruit his tail off and his hard-nosed style quickly took his alma mater, WKU, from 2-10 in 2010 to back-to-back 7-5 seasons. If you can do that there, the potential is certainly there to win in fertile Florida.


6. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Kliff Kingsbury (former Texas A&M offensive coordinator)

I've been calling him the Ryan Gosling of college football, something that makes other coaches laugh. He dresses like he's Hollywood -- "Like he's always ready to hit a club," as one assistant coach joked -- but he's going to coach in Lubbock.

And at 33, is Kingsbury ready for a major program? We're about to find out. His peers spent the fall telling me, without me asking, how bright they think Kingsbury is. "The guy is a sponge when it comes to offense," a peer said. "He scares me with what he knows and retains." Knowing his alma mater like he does, it's bound to help him adjust to having a program of his own.

While it's somewhat of a risk for AD Kirby Hocutt, a relatively young administrator himself, it could also reap a high reward. Besides, do you think he'd get hit too hard for hiring one of Lubbock's favorite sons and one who has reached great heights as a coordinator at a young age?

Now Kingsbury just needs to find another Johnny Manziel to help soothe the transition. Texas has them lying around, doesn't it?


7. Wisconsin Badgers

Gary Andersen (former Utah State head coach)

Badgers AD Barry Alvarez was in an interesting and somewhat precarious position in having to fill the last of the major job openings. Why not snag one of two coaches who have won bowl games in 2012, right? (This hire can't be officially announced by the school until Thursday, since the earliest a state job in Wisconsin can be filled is two weeks after it has been posted.)

Obviously, Andersen's bowl victory wasn't the specific reason he was hired, but the Aggies were impressive -- just as they were all season -- in dispatching Toledo this past Saturday. More than anything, I was impressed with Andersen's team defensively. In this throw-it-all-over-the-place age, especially at the mid-major level, Utah State showed toughness and focus on the defensive side of the ball. Did you know the Aggies finished the year eighth in FBS in points allowed, at 15.4 a game? And that's with a 48-41 overtime victory against Louisiana Tech.

One thing that may have attracted Alvarez is how disciplined Andersen's teams have played. After all, Andersen's Aggies took the Badgers to the wire in September, when Wisconsin escaped with a 16-14 victory at Camp Randall (one of the tougher places in the country to play).


8. Cincinnati Bearcats

Tommy Tuberville (former Texas Tech head coach)

Sometimes a good hire falls in your lap. When Butch Jones left, I presumed Cincinnati would have to look toward the MAC for a new coach (Ball State's Pete Lembo might have fit the bill). Instead, Tubs was looking for an exit from Lubbock -- and quite intensely, it seems. That's a boon for Cincinnati, even if it's currently lodged in the crumbling Big East. There's hope: As my buddy Ryan McGee wrote Tuesday, Cincy has to be considered one of the top free agents for growing conferences.

And there's hope in the form of the new coach. Tuberville has had only four losing seasons in 17 years as a head coach, and he's never won fewer than five games in a year. He's 130-77 as a head coach, including 85-40 while at Auburn. Regardless of why he wanted to leave Texas Tech, Cincinnati is surely pleased to have a coach with that record. Consider that its previous two coaches were from Central Michigan and the man before them, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, was a career assistant. (Granted, all three of those hires worked well.)


9. Tennessee Volunteers

Butch Jones (former Cincinnati head coach)

AD Dave Hart, in his first football hire at UT, aimed high -- maybe too high. However far down on the list Jones was, perhaps he's at the level Hart should have been targeting in the first place. There's a certain gamble when you've tumbled like Tennessee has. Even a truckload of cash couldn't lure Mike Gundy or Charlie Strong, or others.

Does that mean it's an abysmal hire? No, not really. In fact, it could work, but "could" is the operative word.

Jones, 44, is affable, and he's had only one losing season, his first at Cincinnati, as a head coach. The problem with all those winning seasons is that he has never coached at this level.

He's 0-5 against Top 25 teams and 14-23 versus teams with records above .500. That won't sit well with Tennessee fans who will have Derek Dooley (0-22 versus Top 25 teams, 6-33 versus those above .500) nightmares after reading those numbers. Some are already miffed that Hart hired someone who, gasp, lost to Dooley.

Jones' response this week to whether he's ready for the SEC? Players are players and coaching is coaching, he said, paraphrasing. Let's compare his thoughts now and a year from now. It might be more along the lines of "this takes time."


10. North Carolina State Wolfpack

Dave Doeren (former Northern Illinois head coach)

AD Debbie Yow was quick in her strike to obtain Doeren. It's difficult to argue Doeren's success in sustaining and lifting Northern Illinois' brand after taking over from Jerry Kill. The Huskies were 23-4 with Doeren in charge, even if it's sort of unfair that they'll now have to play the school's first BCS game, the Orange Bowl against FSU, without him.

A Kansas native, what's concerning about Doeren is that he has no direct ties to the area or league. We've seen that work on lower levels but rarely at a BCS level. Let's face it: Doeren would have made a lot more sense -- a lot more -- at Wisconsin. The fact he'll be coaching the Wolfpack next season and not the Badgers has a lot to do with timing, whether anyone admits that or not.

That said, it doesn't completely preclude Doeren from success at NC State, which has a fair commitment and recruiting base. Matt Canada's addition as the offensive coordinator is big for Doeren; Canada was with Doeren in his first year at NIU before going to Wisconsin. Doeren's defensive background dictated that he would need a strong offensive guy, and Canada fits the description.


11. Colorado Buffaloes

Mike MacIntyre (former San Jose State head coach)

I really thought MacIntyre was destined for Kentucky, though I've already applauded the hire that Barnhart wound up making.

Frankly, for MacIntyre's sake, he would have been better off in the Bluegrass. While he did a bang-up job turning around lowly San Jose State -- going from 1-12 in 2010 to 10-2 in 2012 -- the SEC might have even proven less formidable than financially challenged Colorado.

A coach who talked with Colorado when it hired Jon Embree suppressed laughter when describing how dire things are in Boulder. He said the AD, Mike Bohn, admitted up front that the school didn't have much money -- for the head guy, let alone assistants. Bohn might have been more optimistic this time around -- nearly landing Butch Jones -- but it doesn't mean much until the cash is seen and used. "Campaign" promises often go unfulfilled. It'll be an intriguing narrative to see whether a relatively young (48 years old), up-and-coming coach can bring back this once-respected program.

For Bohn, it was a hell of a hire given what has recently gone on. It has been a bad job, more than that chuckling coach told me. We'll see whether it continues to be a bad job, or if MacIntyre can fix it.


12. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Todd Monken (former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator)

The message in Hattiesburg seemed to be, "Quick, get us back to where he we were under Larry Fedora." The experiment with Johnson, a veteran, defensive-minded coach, was a flop; USM again wanted something flashy and centered on offense. Understandable. The program went from 16 consecutive winning seasons ... to zero wins.

Well, in that case, Monken was a great choice. Oklahoma State's previous two O-coordinators, Fedora (North Carolina) and Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), now have BCS-level programs. And Monken showed what he was worth this past season, leading an offense that had three inexperienced quarterbacks -- two of them freshmen -- to finish fifth in total yardage (549 per game) and fourth in scoring (45 points per game).

Like Holgo, Monken's a character. His pressers will be must-see TV each week, something that wasn't really the case with the fatherly, reserved Johnson. Winning pressers isn't all there is to coaching, clearly, but getting attention at Southern Miss -- or any mid-major job -- is part of the job.


13. Purdue Boilermakers

Darrell Hazell (former Kent State head coach)

I'm tougher on the Purdue job than most, it seems. The coaches I spoke with this month in New York thought it was worthy of maybe even Butch Jones (they said the weakness of the Big Ten, generally, opened the door for Purdue and others to climb up the conference pecking order), but I still think it's a tough place to recruit and make yourself appealing.

Then again, so is Kent State. Hazell took the Flashes from 5-7 to 11-2 in one year's time. So give him that. Kent State went from a team that ran for 108 yards in 2011 (107th in the country) to 228 yards in 2012 (17th). That, to me, shows buy-in, toughness. Can that happen in the Big Ten? Seemingly reasonable.

While we're at it, and since this list only goes to 15, Paul Haynes was a pretty strong hire to replace Hazell. Getting an alum with additional ties to the state is a good place to start.


14. Arkansas State Red Wolves

Bryan Harsin (former Texas offensive coordinator)

Some of his coaching peers I spoke with thought this might be a year too early for Harsin, who was starting to set his feet in Austin. Then again, how set could your feet get with the ground shaky under Mack Brown's Nikes?

Most recently, Arkansas State has produced the current coaches at Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze) and Auburn (Malzahn), so Harsin was wise to take this particular job. His track record at Boise, and even the Year 1 to Year 2 improvements at Texas, indicate he could be a great hire on the Sun Belt level.
Harsin's Longhorns went from 28 points a game in 2011 (55th in FBS) to 36 in 2012 (24th), 26 turnovers in 2011 (86th) to 15 in 2012 (17th). Amazing what a little experience will do to make a coach look smart. Now let's see Harsin -- a straight-laced, through-and-through Chris Petersen protege -- with his first program.


15. California Golden Bears

Sonny Dykes (former Louisiana Tech head coach)

Dykes was the hottest free-agent name in coaching circles midseason, right around the time Louisiana Tech nearly knocked off Texas A&M. But a late-season slide -- and then a flap that led to the school declining a bowl bid -- caused his name to cool.

Some coaches I have spoken with in recent weeks, ever since his name first appeared on Cal's list, were wondering how Dykes would fare in the Pac-12. They said they recognized he had been Arizona's O-coordinator under Mike Stoops (2007 to 2009), but they said they thought he was more suited for a job in Texas or in the South. (Would Dykes have gotten a look for the Texas Tech job, you have to wonder?)

Dykes could end up succeeding, but those working the region as head coaches might have been better fits for the Bears. Dykes' offense put up 51.5 points a game in 2012, more than any other FBS team, but his previous offenses -- as a head coach or coordinator -- were at or below 30 points per game in four of six seasons.

Notes from the merry-go-round:

• The WAC was a farm club more than any other league. The head coaches of the conference's top three teams, Utah State (Andersen), San Jose State (MacIntyre) and Louisiana Tech (Dykes), all got new jobs in BCS leagues. Dykes and MacIntyre will continue facing each other in the Pac-12.
Perhaps they'll eventually see one of Andersen's Wisconsin teams in the Rose Bowl?

• Ahead of the latest round of Big East defections, two Big East head coaches were on the move. Jones of Cincinnati and Steve Addazio of Temple are now in safer spots. Another, fired South Florida coach Skip Holtz, went to Louisiana Tech.

• Being a Big 12 offensive coordinator was the launching pad in 2012: Harsin, Kingsbury and Monken will take over their first programs -- one of them, Kingsbury, in a BCS conference. Kingsbury was also in the mix at Louisiana Tech, according to a source, until Tuberville abruptly left for Cincy and his alma mater opened.

• Just when Texas Tech thought it had hired the nation's youngest coach, Western Michigan went out and one-upped it. Tech's new man, Kingsbury, was born Aug. 9, 1979; Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck, most recently on Greg Schiano's Rutgers and Tampa Bay Bucs staffs, was born Nov. 29, 1980.
Interestingly enough, that makes Fleck a year to the day older than Toledo's Matt Campbell, who was the youngest FBS coach in 2012.

• Quick demos: 14 of the new hires were head coaches in their previous stops.

• Only one so far, former San Diego coach Ron Caragher, was called up from the FCS level; he'll take over at San Jose State. Remember that Jim Harbaugh was at San Diego prior to landing at Stanford.

• Two, Fleck and new UTEP coach Sean Kugler, were previously NFL assistants.

• There were only two recent defensive coordinators to get head jobs, Stoops at Kentucky and Paul Haynes at Kent State. Both have ties to Ohio. Stoops and his brothers grew up in Youngstown. Haynes, a Columbus native, played at Kent and was one of Jim Tressel's assistants at Ohio State.

• Both of Arkansas' coordinators under Bobby Petrino, brother Paul Petrino (Idaho) and Haynes, wound up taking head jobs.