The next wave of hot college football coaching candidates: 30 names you need to know

Sports

There have been 72 coaching changes the past three years in college football, including a record 30 last year. That has left the rising assistant coach and lower-level coaching ranks “picked over,” to borrow a term from multiple industry sources.

That statistic dovetails into a prediction — don’t be surprised to see a run on retread coaches in this upcoming cycle.

We only included Bill O’Brien atop our assistant list because he has spent multiple years as a college coordinator and looms as the most coveted coach — Group of 5 or assistant — in the cycle. We kept most of the other former head coaches off the assistant-coach list because we wanted to put a light on the rising faces in the industry.

But it’d be hard to ignore the crop of coaches looking for a second shot. There are those who are sitting out — Tom Herman, Dan Mullen, Justin Fuente, Skip Holtz. Does Mullen have the desire to coach in college again? Could an ambitious school hire Nick Rolovich and endure immediate backlash to secure a proven head coach?

Then there are coaches on the rebound who are trying to work their way back up — Manny Diaz (Penn State DC), Barry Odom (Arkansas DC), Al Golden (Notre Dame DC), Matt Wells (Oklahoma analyst), Derek Mason (Oklahoma State DC) and Major Applewhite (South Alabama OC).

Why a run on retreads? Among the 30 open jobs last season, we saw Joe Moorhead (Akron), Mike MacIntyre (FIU), Jeff Tedford (Fresno), Clay Helton (Georgia Southern), Jerry Kill (New Mexico State), Jim Mora (UConn) and Don Brown (UMass) emerge as former head coaches hired back as head coaches.

Perhaps fueling the trend is the notion that schools that move on early from their coaches now have a huge advantage by bringing in a coach and giving them a head start. Georgia Southern, Texas Tech and UConn all filled their jobs in early November, which gave the new coaches valuable weeks to evaluate the current one, monitor the portal and recruit high schools.

Clay Helton got hired on Nov. 2 at Georgia Southern, which allowed him to re-recruit his new roster, get a feel for its needs and get an early jump on staff hiring.

“It’s huge,” said Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko. “Most coaches, those first two weeks of December, they’re drinking from the fire hose and things are coming pretty quickly. The piece that allowed us and Clay to be aggressive was that he took those extra four weeks and get a better sense of roster management piece.”

The new debate for athletic directors will be whether to hire a retread — or a position coach like McGuire who can leave his school — and potentially get the advantage of an early start. Or sit around and wait out a sitting head coach or coordinator until they are available and risk whiffing on the first recruiting class.

Here are the top head coaches below the Power 5 who’ll be considered in this cycle, with Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Houston’s Dana Holgorsen and BYU’s Kalani Sitake not included because they are graduating up to the next level as they enter the Big 12 after next season.

Jump to: Assistants ready for a promotion


Group of 5 head coaches

1. Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina: Is this the last hurrah in Mulletville? With quarterback Grayson McCall back, Coastal Carolina will again be in contention to be the darlings of the Sun Belt. Chadwell has interviewed at multiple Power 5 spots but yet to find a fit. His playcalling, innovation and experience will be sought after in this cycle.

2. Jeff Traylor, UTSA: He rewarded UTSA’s faith in hiring him by sticking around after overtures from Texas Tech. He has UTSA well-positioned for another strong season, the school’s last in Conference USA. Traylor is a former Texas high school coach, so his fit will always be regional. Expect him to keep winning and wait for the right opportunity in this footprint. A 10-year contract makes that much easier.

3. Blake Anderson, Utah State: He authored one of the season’s most dramatic turnarounds last year, flipping a 1-5 team in 2020 to an 11-3 Mountain West champion in his first season. That marked Anderson’s third league title as a head coach, adding to the pair he won at Arkansas State. After some slippage at Arkansas State following the two league titles, this reignited Anderson’s chances of jumping to a Power 5 job.

4. Troy Calhoun, Air Force: It’s hard to argue with the results, as Calhoun is 24-8 with two bowl wins the past three years. He has won double-digit games in four of the past eight years, remarkable considering the restrictions at an academy. Calhoun, 55, has remained picky about his options.

5. Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois: After going 5-7 in his debut season and winless in 2020 — 0-6 in the COVID season — Northern Illinois took a leap. The Huskies won the MAC title with a remarkable run, playing 10 one-score games and winning seven of them. They finished 9-5 with an upset of Georgia Tech. Another MAC title is possible, with quarterback Rocky Lombardi returning and four starters on the offensive line.

6. Jeff Monken, Army: Heading into his ninth season, Monken has turned winning at Army in this generation from an anomaly to an expectation. He has won at least eight games five of the past six seasons and won four bowl games, including a win over Missouri last year. He has also recruited the best player at Army in the past half-century, as 6-foot-7 rush end Andre Carter could be Army’s first first-round pick since Glenn Davis in 1947.

7. Sean Lewis, Kent State: He has brought Kent State to historic highs, including the school’s first-ever bowl win. But there will always be limitations when the nonconference schedule includes three road games like this year — Washington, Oklahoma and Georgia. Could the change at defensive coordinator help deliver the school’s first title since the Don James coached 1972 team?

8. Hugh Freeze, Liberty: The coaching and playcalling part has never been in question for Freeze. He’s seeking an administration that can look past his misconduct at Ole Miss.

9. Jay Norvell, Colorado State: He just jumped to Fort Collins after a remarkable run at Nevada, where he led the Wolf Pack to four straight bowl games. With games at Michigan and Washington State in the first month, there’s ample opportunity for Norvell to make noise in his CSU debut.

10. Matt Entz, North Dakota State: He has won two of the past three national titles at a place that has sent the past two coaches, Chris Klieman and Craig Bohl, to the FBS. With the FBS continuing to pull away from the FCS, would Entz be tempted by a Power 5 defensive-coordinator job if there are no head-coach opportunities?

Top assistants

In the lore of college coaching, There has always been an endearing and enduring niche for the rising assistant coach.

There are playcalling savants, ace recruiters and the kinds of characters who often have the bandwidth to connect more with the players, community and high school coaches than the perpetually preoccupied head coach.

As we peek into the 2022 coaching carousel, it doesn’t project to be a cycle where the assistant coaches are going to be coveted commodities. Overall, 15 assistant coaches were hired as first-time FBS head coaches last season. (That number is 16 if you include interim Bryant Vincent at UAB and 17 if you want to count Don Brown’s return to UMass, which was FCS during his last hitch there.)

There were a flurry of high-profile assistants among the 30 openings — Mike Elko (Duke), Tony Elliott (Virginia), Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame), Dan Lanning (Oregon), Rhett Lashlee (SMU), Brent Pry (Virginia Tech) and Brent Venables (Oklahoma).

There also were a flurry of lower-profile assistants who got elevated, which indicated a wise evolution in creativity and methodology among the search firms and administrators doing the hiring.

That included Timmy Chang (Hawaii), Sonny Cumbie (Louisiana Tech), Michael Desormeaux (Louisiana), Jake Dickert (Washington State), Stan Drayton (Temple), Joey McGuire (Texas Tech), Jon Sumrall (Troy) and Ken Wilson (Nevada).

Who could follow them to head-coaching jobs? A look at the top assistants.

1. Bill O’Brien, Alabama OC: He has called plays for Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, elevated Penn State from the depths of the Sandusky conviction and won the AFC South four times in seven NFL head-coaching seasons. Upon his return to college, he helped develop Bryce Young into a Heisman Trophy winner. The relative lack of interest last season in O’Brien, 52, was strange, as he’s intrigued by a return to college head coaching.

2. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin DC: The longtime Badgers defensive coordinator has held that job there since 2017 after joining the staff in 2016. He has annually put together some of the country’s top units. Leonhard, 39, has recently shown more interest in life outside Madison, as his biggest issue moving up has always been his willingness to move out.

3. Todd Monken, Georgia OC: Stetson Bennett emerging as a national-title-winning quarterback is a compliment to Monken, who led Georgia’s offense to 38.4 points per game last season. Monken, 56, is a former head coach at Southern Miss and was well thought of enough in the NFL experience that he interviewed for multiple head jobs. Another strong year will earn long looks.

4. Alex Grinch, USC DC: He has been in Power 5 searches and been selective about the head-coaching job he wants to take. If Grinch, 42, can turn around USC’s Swiss Cheese defense in his first year — the Trojans ranked No. 103 nationally at 31.8 ppg — he’ll earn consideration for the top jobs.

5. Tommy Rees, Notre Dame OC: He’s 22-4 as a playcaller for the Irish. With the offensive-minded Brian Kelly gone to LSU, Rees is in position to likely receive much more attention for his work calling plays. Rees, 30, will ultimately need to decide whether his future is in college or the NFL.

6. Josh Gattis, Miami OC: He authored a radical turnaround at Michigan last season, as the Wolverines finished No. 16 in scoring offense en route to winning the Big Ten. He won the Broyles Award and was deep in the mix for Virginia’s head-coaching job. Gattis, 38, also distanced himself from the Michigan offense’s pedestrian first two seasons — No. 44 and No. 66 in scoring offense — with him at the helm. If he turns QB Tyler Van Dyke into a superstar, he’ll have opportunities.

7.Tony Alford/Justin Frye/Brian Hartline, Ohio State: There are multiple Ohio State non-coordinators who’ll again be up for jobs, as that offense is poised to soar again. Alford, 53, has been on the cusp for years, and with the MAC likely to have some openings he’ll be in the mix. Frye, a 38-year-old Indiana native, is back to his Midwestern roots and will be part of a nuclear offense. Hartline, 35, has been the country’s most consistent and prolific recruiter of wide receivers, and he could also eventually draw NFL interest.

8. Jeff Grimes, Baylor OC: The country’s most distinct offensive turnaround came when Grimes took over for Larry Fedora and led Baylor from 2-7 in 2020 to 12-2 last year. Baylor’s offense jumped from No. 100 to No. 40, scoring eight more points a game. Grimes, 53, has to overcome an offensive line background, which is rare among head coaches.

9. Doug Belk, Houston DC: He might need one more coordinator job before jumping to a head coach, but Belk, 34, has established himself as one of the country’s top young coordinators. Houston finished in the Top 20 in virtually every defensive category last season, including No. 1 in third-down defense. His production and Alabama background are a recipe for a high trajectory.

10. Jeff Lebby, Oklahoma OC: By leaving Lane Kiffin’s and Josh Heupel’s shadow, the 38-year-old Lebby can cement himself among the game’s top coordinators and playcallers now that he’s working for a defensive head coach in Venables. Lebby has reunited with Dillon Gabriel, which should lead to points. No coach from Art Briles’ last Baylor coaching staff in 2015 has been hired as a head coach.

11. Lance Taylor, Louisville OC: The 40-year-old has impressed with the handful of head-coach interviews he has received so far for jobs in the MAC and Sun Belt. By going to Louisville and adding the coordinator piece, Taylor polishes a resume that a school president would love — Stanford, Notre Dame and the NFL. If Louisville breaks out this season with a slew of returning talent, his name could heat up.

12. Warren Ruggiero, Wake Forest OC: The mad scientist behind Wake Forest’s unorthodox and wildly effective offense, which led the Deacons to an 11-3 record last season. Ruggiero, 56, has never expressed a burning desire to be a head coach, but could a big-budget Power 5 school snatch him away to run that offense elsewhere?

13. Tim Beck, NC State OC: He got head-coaching interest at FIU last year after helping Devin Leary emerge as one of the country’s top quarterbacks (35 TDs, 5 INTs). Beck, 56, has worked everywhere from Texas to Ohio State to Nebraska to Kansas, giving him a breadth of experience to lean on when he’s running his own program.

14. Gino Guidugli, Cincinnati OC: The playcaller on the Bearcats’ playoff team last season, Guidugli, 39, takes over the whole offense this season. If Fickell gets a bigger job, he’d be the strongest internal candidate in the program considering his tenure as an assistant and gravitas as a star former player. He has an opportunity to buttress his reputation by shining this season with the departure of Desmond Ridder.

15. Tom Manning, Iowa State OC: The Cyclones failing to live up to their hype last season shouldn’t diminish what Matt Campbell and his staff have accomplished there. Manning, 39, has authored some of the best offenses in school history. He’d be a top internal candidate if Campbell left for greener pastures and should also garner interest from any MAC jobs that open.

16. Sherrone Moore, Michigan Co-OC: The 36-year-old Moore’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award last year for the top unit in the country as Michigan pushed around Ohio State in the season finale and won the Big Ten for the first time since 2004. With Gattis moving on to Miami, Moore will share playcalling duties. With a majority of the offensive line back, a strong stable of running backs and a Charmin-soft schedule where the Wolverines should be favored in every game until OSU, Moore’s troops should excel.

17. Kasey Dunn, Oklahoma State OC: The Cowboys ended up inches from being in the thick of the College Football playoff conversation, losing in the last seconds to Baylor in the Big 12 title game. In Big 12 play, OSU had the league’s No. 2 total offense and quarterback Spencer Sanders earned all-Big 12 honors in Dunn’s first season as coordinator.

18. Aaron Roderick, BYU OC: In the wake of developing Zach Wilson, Roderick, 49, kept BYU’s offense humming. The Cougars finished No. 17 in total offense last year, and Jaren Hall returns as a rising NFL prospect and potential first-round pick.

19. Alex Golesh, Tennessee OC: An interesting wrinkle appeared in Golesh’s Tennessee bio this offseason, revealing that he was the playcaller for Tennessee last season. He was also the playcaller at UCF the year before, and over that span those offenses led the nation at 3.06 plays per minute and 1.53 points per minute. If Tennessee’s offensive fireworks continue, don’t be surprised if a school targets Golesh, a Matt Campbell disciple, to bring his offensive acumen there.

20. LeVar Woods, Iowa STC: He has coached on both sides of the ball during his time at Iowa, along with being the special teams coordinator since 2017. Woods would be considered the staff member most likely to replace Kirk Ferentz, as he’s from Iowa, served as a captain there and has been a linchpin since 2008.

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