<
>
Insider

Ranking top head-coaching candidates

11/7/2012

If you have not seen or read Sonny Dykes' name by now, it might be time for familiarization. Dykes, the 42-year-old coach of the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, is quickly becoming one of the more buzzed-about names for open or soon-to-be-open coaching jobs. Yes, the college football hot stove season has arrived.

I'd venture to say that Dykes is the No. 1 name to watch in this cycle of the carousel. (Read on for my ranking of the other sitting head coaches and top coordinators who will soon be considered for new gigs.)

While the possibilities for Dykes and others -- Arkansas and Kentucky are among the current vacancies in the country's top conference -- are considered, he still has a job to do.

"You can't worry about that. It's not something you're in control of," Dykes said Tuesday night. "You owe it to your players and Louisiana Tech to put 100 percent of our focus into doing the best we can. There's a time later to think about other things."

Dykes said it's flattering to hear his name surface, although he assigned credit for that to his flourishing Louisiana Tech program and his coaching staff.

When Derek Dooley left Tech for the Tennessee Volunteers, he was 17-20 there, including 4-8 in his third season. Many looked at that, shrugged and said, Well, it's hard to win in Ruston.

Dykes, previously Arizona's offensive coordinator and the son of longtime Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, didn't see it that way.

"I always thought Tech had potential because it's such a great area to recruit in," said Sonny Dykes, the 2011 WAC Coach of the Year. "On the outside looking in, you thought it would be a good place, just being in Louisiana and [close to] Texas and Arkansas and Mississippi, just the surrounding states play such good football. If you've got a recruiting base, you've got a chance to be good."

Like under Dooley, the Bulldogs went 8-5 in Dykes' second season. But unlike Dooley's tenure, they've built upon that in Year 3.

Louisiana Tech is 8-1. At 19th in The Associated Press poll and 20th in the BCS standings, the Bulldogs are the highest-rated non-AQ program, and their only loss is to 15th-ranked Texas A&M.

Dykes' senior quarterback, Colby Cameron, has thrown 24 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 358 attempts. Senior receiver Quinton Patton is already at 1,000 yards, backing up his 1,200-yard season in 2011.

Offense is pacing the Bulldogs. They're second to Oregon in scoring (52.4 points per game). They needed all of those points, and then some, to try to claw back in that one loss. Texas A&M led 39-13 in the second quarter of the teams' Oct. 13 track meet. Tech came up a two-point conversion shy in a 59-57 defeat. Losing to A&M is far from criminal; everyone on its schedule has, except Florida and LSU (by a total of eight points).

Expect Kentucky to make one of the first pushes for Dykes. Offensive-minded coaches inherently provide a boost to beleaguered fan bases (see: James Franklin at Vanderbilt), and Dykes spent the 1997 and 1999 seasons as an assistant coach at Kentucky.

One subplot: Should Dykes land in the SEC, it could provide for an ironic return for Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Franklin's stay at Auburn lasted only a year and a half before he was fired.

Other current head coaches

With Dykes holding down the No. 1 spot, here is the rest of my ranking of the current head coaches who are most likely to be moving on to bigger and better jobs after the season.

2. Willie Taggart, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

A couple of years ago, ESPN The Magazine had me doing anonymous Sun Belt surveys, and the majority of those polled agreed that Western Kentucky was the worst job in the league. It had just made the leap from the Football Championship Subdivision, and hope was rather bleak in basketball-centric Bowling Green.

Taggart has altered perceptions in a short period of time. After an 0-4 start in 2011, Western won seven of its final eight games, the exception being against then-No. 1 LSU. This season, the Hilltoppers are 6-3 and have a win at Kentucky.

It's assumed that Taggart could get a look from Southern programs, but his three years as an assistant at Stanford (2007-09) broaden his prospects to other parts of the country.

3. Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech Red Raiders

It wasn't long ago that Tuberville was on the hot seat. Now he is one of the more popular names for the Arkansas job. A 6-1 start for the Red Raiders, including wins against West Virginia and TCU, was the boost he needed.

Tuberville would be a fit in Fayetteville, given his background in the division -- he was at Ole Miss and Auburn from 1995-2008 -- and because of whom he could potentially bring along with him. Red Raiders offensive coordinator Neal Brown is a rising star, and first-year defensive coordinator Art Kaufman has resurrected a Tech unit that was buried a season ago.

With that whole package, Jeff Long at Arkansas should absolutely have Tuberville in his crosshairs.

4. Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois Huskies

The Huskies are a one-point loss to Iowa in the season opener from being 10-0. Doeren is 20-4 since taking over last year, as the program was 27-35 in the five years before his arrival from Wisconsin, where he served as the defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010.

It's rare that a coach would come in and immediately rack up a 13-1 league record. NIU's balance -- 10th in the country in scoring offense and 18th in scoring defense -- is particularly noteworthy.

If a place like Purdue opened, given Doeren's Big Ten background, it might be a good fit.

5. Mike MacIntyre, San Jose State Spartans

The progress in San Jose has been remarkable: 1-12 in 2010, 5-7 last season and a 7-2 start in 2012. Athletic directors love to see that sort of growth, especially at a program with no real semblance of tradition.

MacIntyre is from Florida and went to Georgia Tech, so look for him to come up for jobs in the Southeast -- heck, maybe even in Atlanta if the incoming athletic director eventually moves on Paul Johnson.

6. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mullen seems content at Mississippi State, but it's worth wondering because of the ceiling in Starkville, where he is 28-19 in three-plus seasons with a high-water mark of 9-4 in 2010. The Bulldogs are 7-2 but have been hammered in back-to-back weeks by Alabama and Texas A&M, and LSU is next.

No one is really talking about it, but it'd be interesting to see what Mullen could do at a place like Arkansas or Tennessee (if it opens). Yeah, we know. His name came up similarly when Will Muschamp got the Florida job, though he was reportedly never a candidate even after his time there as offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer.

They're different levels of jobs, really. Based on a variety of factors, Coaches By The Numbers ranks Florida as the No. 3 job in the country, while Tennessee is 13th and Arkansas is 20th. Mississippi State, by the way, is 41st.

7. Art Briles, Baylor Bears

The school is in the process of building a new on-campus, riverside stadium, which makes it less likely that Briles would be interested in making a jump. Less likely, however, does not mean out of the question. He is a Texas guy, but I asked him in the spring if he'd ever think of coaching outside the state and he didn't really flinch.

Like with Mullen at Mississippi State, where is the ceiling for Baylor? And how much does a new stadium raise that ceiling? That's the question for Briles and his staff, which have churned out 11 draft picks the past three seasons. That's 14th among active coaches, according to Coaches By The Numbers.

Briles is just 18-53 in his career against teams above .500 -- but 10 of those wins have come since 2010. Perhaps now is the time to field a few phone calls. A raise would be another good reason; he is making less than $2 million in a top-three conference.

8. Butch Jones, Cincinnati Bearcats

After going 4-8 in his first season in 2010, Jones' teams have won 16 games to stabilize the underrated program. At 6-2 this season, Jones is getting frustrated about support.

"Sometimes you take things for granted," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer this week, after about 26,000 fans attended the win against Syracuse at the school's 35,000-seat stadium. "We have a great product here in Cincinnati. For our football program to grow, Nippert Stadium needs to be sold out."

That's the constant uphill battle in Cincy, where it's largely a pro audience -- a big reason why Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio left for jobs in more visible college spots.

Although Jones has undoubtedly wanted to distance himself from those before him, be his own man and all that, it probably helps in hiring circles to see Kelly and Dantonio doing well in high-profile jobs. If a good Big Ten job comes open in the next few years, Jones would be a solid option.

9. Charlie Strong, Louisville Cardinals

"Wait a second," you're thinking. "Why is Strong so low?" That's because it's becoming less and less likely that he is going anywhere, for now.

Louisville seems prepared to open the checkbook to keep a coach who has the program off to its best-ever start at 9-0. With a number of returning players coming back in 2013, including Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater, it's not the best time to bolt. He has been linked most often to Arkansas -- he is from the state and played at Central Arkansas -- but that's almost too obvious.

10. Gary Patterson, TCU Horned Frogs

Like Strong, Patterson is a signability issue or he would be ranked far higher. It's going to take a really special job if Patterson is ever going to leave TCU, which just opened a new stadium and overhauled the football facility.

We're talking Oklahoma- or Texas-level special. Patterson's 115-32 record has earned him that, if he's willing to wait. He seems prepared to do so.

Others to watch: It's probably a year early for a few coaches who could wind up being the 2013 version of Dykes.

Toledo's Matt Campbell (8-2) and Fresno State's Tim DeRuyter (7-3) have done excellent jobs in their first seasons. Kent State's Darrell Hazell (8-1) and Ball State's Pete Lembo (7-3) are two more to keep an eye on in the MAC.

Those names could come up sooner rather than later at a place such as NC State, should it part ways with Tom O'Brien. The potential opening at Boston College is also intriguing for MAC coaches, since the new AD there came from Miami (Ohio).

Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy has come up a few times, including at Arkansas, but his new deal at his alma mater seems to have satisfied him, and the resources in place have made the school competitive against its in-state rival and the rest of the Big 12. There's no reason to bolt.

Top coordinators

1. Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator

For years, it was Muschamp and Smart as the next generation of SEC coordinators to become SEC head coaches. Muschamp took a detour through Texas before landing at Florida, a top-three job in the league, and Smart has been patient for the right opportunity. Is it this year? The jobs that are open, or potentially opening, don't seem to suggest the timing is right.

Tennessee, though, might be the most intriguing for Smart. It would seem to follow the Muschamp trail: play at Georgia, be a coordinator in the SEC West and become head coach of one of UGA's division rivals.

2. Chad Morris, Clemson offensive coordinator

The Tigers had to boost the second-year OC's salary by more than a million dollars -- amazing, considering he was a high school coach in 2009 -- to keep him from looking elsewhere last season. As long as he is succeeding with Clemson, and the offense is chugging again this year, he'll continue to remain a target.

How much money does Clemson have? If Morris keeps going, he'll be making more than head coach Dabo Swinney.

3. Mark Stoops, Florida State defensive coordinator

Could Mark be the next of the Stoops boys to get a head-coaching job? It's clearly worked well for Bob, but not so much with Mike, now back at Oklahoma.

Jimbo Fisher said this week during his news conference that he'd like to turn FSU into a launching pad for future head coaches, and Mark Stoops would be a good place to start.

The Noles are first in the country in total defense, giving up just 3.5 yards per play.

4. Todd Monken, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator

Evidently the job requirements to be a Cowboys OC are as follows: foul mouth, big-time offense.

It worked for Dana Holgorsen, now at West Virginia. And it's working for Monken, in his second year running the OSU offense.

The Pokes are averaging more yards per game this season without Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. The team began the season with an 18-year-old freshman quarterback, Wes Lunt. When he was injured, redshirt J.W. Walsh came off the bench to star. When Walsh was lost for the season to injury, third-string QB Clint Chelf and Lunt combined to rack up yards last week at Kansas State.

It's a testament to the level of quarterback play at Oklahoma State, sure, but credit Monken's system too. The Cowboys have scored more than 30 points in a stunning 95.2 percent of their games under Monken, according to Coaches By The Numbers.

When another Big 12 school needs a coach -- say, if Baylor or Texas Tech happened to open a position -- he'd be an intelligent call.

5. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M offensive coordinator

Kingsbury, the former Texas Tech quarterback, is an up-and-comer who is going to keep rising as Kevin Sumlin does at A&M.

He could still use a year or two in the new league to sharpen his chops. It will be interesting to see what the Aggies do this week against Alabama.

"If they take care of the ball, I think they'll have a chance. I really do," Dykes said of the Aggies' shot at upsetting the Tide. "A&M can make some plays. The tempo will give them problems. It's going to be something so different than what they've seen."

6. Neal Brown, Texas Tech offensive coordinator

Youth is certainly working on the side of this 32-year-old. If Tuberville does wind up getting the Arkansas job, it would put Brown in an even more visible place with more toys with which to play. He'll eventually get a job, but it's a matter of locating the right one.

7. Brent Pease, Florida offensive coordinator

He is in his first year at Florida after being lured from Boise State, so he might want to stay a bit to let his stock rise, but some schools might soon begin kicking the tires -- Kentucky, for example.

The first instinct is to say, "Oh, Florida's offense has been pretty abysmal this season," but anyone who has watched the team knows that 1) it's 8-1, and 2) the staff has gotten some good mileage out of a so-so amount of talent on offense. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel is still young, and the older receivers have been underachieving players from the previous regime's recruiting classes.

Pease has done a lot with a little, and athletic directors have taken note. Now it's just a matter of waiting for the right opportunity.

8. Mark Helfrich, Oregon offensive coordinator

He was all set to take over for boss Chip Kelly when Kelly was all but gone to Tampa Bay last offseason, but Helfrich is still in wait-and-see mode. No one is questioning Helfrich's acumen; it's just a matter of whether he wants to hang on until Kelly's next NFL overture. But even elite programs will be interested in what Helfrich has soaked up working alongside Kelly.

9. Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State defensive coordinator

His stock was on the rise when this season started -- Narduzzi nearly left to be Sumlin's defensive coordinator at Texas A&M -- but a middling year for the Spartans hasn't done anything to spark interest. Still, Narduzzi is an engaging individual with a bright football mind.

10. Justin Wilcox, Washington defensive coordinator

Wilcox might be an intriguing name to consider a year from now. Washington's defense is so young, and subsequently pretty poor, that he is not going to get rave reviews in his first season at U-Dub. But if he can turn it around in the near future, the affable 35-year-old should soon be a candidate for some West Coast positions.

Former coaches

We won't rank those in this category because there are so few, compared to last year when you would have found Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and Washington State coach Mike Leach here.

Bobby Petrino has to be considered the prime candidate currently out of the game. His cause for termination at Arkansas will be a deterrent, but his 75-26 career record could ultimately speak louder for some program. There are some decent options for the 51-year-old, but he might hold out another year, a la Rodriguez and Leach, to see if a bigger job opens.

If not for the previous flirtation, secret planes and whatnot, Auburn would actually make the most sense. Maybe it still goes after him anyway.

Butch Davis isn't a name getting a lot of traction, but he wants back in the game. He could find a Conference-USA-type job -- UTEP could be open, for instance -- and build from there.

Phillip Fulmer has made no secret for several years that he would like another opportunity to coach, but he remains the Jon Heder of college coaches. Heder will always be Napoleon Dynamite. Fulmer will always be Tennessee.

Jon Gruden still seems far-flung, although some Tennessee alums are convinced he is a viable option. One question comes to mind: Why? Gruden was known as a veteran hoarder in the NFL, someone who seemed to like to work with more seasoned players over rookies. Does that translate into a successful college coach?