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Grading Every Head Coaching Hire

Which schools made the best hires this offseason?

Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire

It’s that time of year again in college football. No, I’m not talking about recruiting season, in which coaches have time to put the finishing touches on their classes, nor am I talking about bowl season. It’s the wonderful time of the year in college football where we can sit back, relax, and reflect on the coaches set to take over at their new schools next season. Almost every FBS school in need of a coach has hired one at this point, save for Kent State, and it’s time for us to look through all the hires and grade each one. Schools are ordered alphabetically, not based on hire quality.

Arizona State – Herm Edwards

F. Why? Why would you do this, Arizona State? Herm Edwards hasn’t coached since a failed stint with Kansas City back in 2008, and has spent just two years of his entire life coaching college football, 30 years ago, as a defensive backs coach at San Jose State. Herm was a failed NFL head coach, has never recruited at any significant level, and has never been known for any kind of innovation or real football knowledge whatsoever. He’s a boring, foolish, borderline asinine hire, and there’s almost no way Arizona State is in a better place following his tenure than they were under Todd Graham.

Arkansas – Chad Morris

B+. For the first time since Ken Hatfield, Arkansas made an inspiring hire, rather than just bringing in some retread that had decent success at another power five job. Chad Morris is one of the nation’s brightest offensive minds, and turned a 2-10 SMU team to a solid 7-5 bowl team in just three seasons. He has experience working under Dabo Swinney, and know show to build a program, which is exactly what Arkansas needs. His losing record as a head coach makes this hire a bit risky, but I can’t fault Arkansas for taking a chance on a fun young coach.

Central Florida – Josh Heupel

C. I’m pretty much neutral on this one. After losing Scott Frost to Nebraska following an outstanding two-year turnaround, UCF went back to the former offensive coordinator route, hiring Josh Heupel from Missouri. While Heupel did a great job with Missouri’s offense this season, his struggles as OC at Oklahoma, and lack of experience as a head coach makes me nervous. With Kevin Sumlin. Bret Bielema, and Todd Grahama all without jobs, and rising stars like Neal Brown, Seth Littrell, and Bill Clark all at lower level jobs, this hire just doesn’t really move the needle for me.

Florida – Dan Mullen

A.  Culturally, schematically, and logistically, this hire makes more sense than almost any other. Mullen has experience at Florida as an offensive coordinator, and has been extremely successful in SEC as a head coach, turning Mississippi State into one of the best programs in the SEC West. He runs an exciting offense, and likes to put up a lot of points, which is absolutely crucial at Florida. Scandal issues at Mississippi State keep this from being A+, but of all the coaches hired this season, I think Dan Mullen is more likely to be successful than nearly any other.

Florida State – Willie Taggart

A-. Just like the hire at Florida, this hire makes all the sense in the world for Florida State. Willie Taggart was raised a Florida State fan, and has ties in the state from four seasons at USF, when he transformed the Bulls from a 2-10 team to 10-2 in four seasons, before leaving for Oregon. I have no doubt that Willie will be successful at FSU, but with only one year of P5 experience under his belt (a decent year yes, but nothing special), this hire is a bit risky. With his recruiting chops and an extremely talented roster, there should be no drop off from Jimbo, if everything goes according to plan.

Georgia Southern – Chad Lunsford

C+. I’m not generally a huge fan of hiring the interim head coach full time. It’s usually the low risk choice, and more often than not, it’ll lead to a decent coach, but it rarely results in improvement from the previous regime. If Tyson Summers hadn’t been so bad, that’s how I’d feel about this hire, but I can’t imagine Lunsford being any worse than his predecessor. The Eagles seemed to play significantly better with Lunsford at the helm this season after Summers was terminated, but the fact that he doesn’t run the triple option still makes me nervous.

Louisiana-Lafayette – Billy Napier

B. Napier is one of the better young coordinators in college football, and has experience coaching under some of the nation’s top coaches, most notably Nick Saban, as Napier spent four seasons in Tuscaloosa as the wide receivers coach. This past season, with Napier as the OC at Arizona State, the Sun Devils had the 40th ranked offense in points per game, and 37th in S&P+. Napier isn’t a super splashy hire, but his experience in the south, and the hefty $2 million salary pool he’s getting for his coordinators should leave to improvement at ULL.

Mississippi – Matt Luke

C. Another case of a school hiring the interim full time. I don’t have anything against Matt Luke, and I actually think he did a very nice job with the situation he had this season, but with the G5 coaches that were available, like Mike Norvell, Neal Brown, Chad Morris, Seth Littrell, Lane Kiffin, Jason Candle, Bill Clark and Lane Kiffin, this just isn’t  a very inspiring hire. However, the players seem to like him, and he provides continuity, which will be extremely valuable for a school that is about to get absolutely obliterated by sanctions, so I understand the hire.

Mississippi State – Joe Moorhead

B. Moorhead has been one of the best coordinators in America the past two seasons, and helped turn Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorely into one of the nation’s top backfields. He’s innovative, and I have no doubt that with the talent Mississippi State has returning next season that the Bulldogs will be extremely good in 2018. However, Moorhead has never been a head coach in FBS, though he was extremely successful at Fordham. That lack of experience makes this at least a little risky from the perspective of program building and sustaining, but Moorhead should be fine.

Nebraska – Scott Frost

A+. Everything about this hire is about as perfect as it could be. Scott Frost is a hometown hero in Lincoln, a fun, exciting offensive minded coach, and has all the tools needed to win at least ten games every year at Nebraska for a very long time. He’s a great recruiter, and has experience building a program, thanks in large part to his time working under Chip Kelly. I’ll be absolutely shocked if this hire doesn’t work, and I’d be willing to say that this is my favorite hire of the entire cycle. Nebraska did an excellent job this time around.

Oregon – Mario Cristoball

C+. Another school hiring their interim head coach, though this may be the best of the bunch. Cristoball has been outstanding everywhere he’s gone, and has learned from some of the best in the business, including Nick Saban, Butch Davis, Greg Schiano, Larry Coker, and now Willie Taggart. Cristoball was solid at FIU, and ultimately failed for reasons that were out of his control, and has the recruiting chops to be successful at Oregon. What that success looks like is still up for debate, but if Cristobal can win eight games every year Oregon fans should be pleased.

Oregon State – Jonathan Smith

B-. Oregon State went with the sentimental hire this offseason. After a failed Gary Andersen tenure, Oregon State wanted an exciting coach that can get people interested in what goes on in Corvallis, and while Smith is unproven, he should be able to do that. He has a ton of experience working under Chris Peterson, and runs an offense that works in the Pac-12. Oregon State is an immensely difficult job, and if Smith can consistently get the Beavers to a bowl game he’ll be a fan favorite for years to come.

Rice – Mike Bloomgren

B. This is a pretty basic hire, but I like it a lot. Bloomgren isn’t splashy or exciting, but if he has support, the system he wants to run will work at Rice, a school that desperately needs a system and tradition. David Shaw assistants have been successful taking over as head coaches quite a bit recently, and while Bloomgren doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, he’ll build a culture of smashmouth football that should win games in the C-USA. If nothing else, Rice showed with this hire exactly what kind of program they want to have.

SMU – Sonny Dykes

D. Uninspired, predictable, and stale. This hire is a retread, and it comes at absolutely the worst time. For the first time since the early 80s there was real excitement around SMU with head coach Chad Morris, and the Mustangs decided to ride that momentum into Sonny Dykes, the college football equivalent of a lukewarm coffee. Schematicaly this makes sense, but if Dykes couldn’t recruit at Cal, I have no reason to believe he can at SMU. He was solid at Louisiana Tech, but this hire just reeks of a program terrified to take risks. I would’ve greatly preferred Seth Littrell, KC Keeler, or Frank Wilson here.

South Alabama – Steve Campbell

B.  Well hey, a creative, fun, risky hire! Campbell was awesome at Central Arkansas and Mississippi Gulf Coast JC, and has experience in Alabama. as he coached under Pat Dye in the late 80s, and has been in the south for basically his whole life. While the loss of Joey Jones is a big one, I think South Alabama did about as well as they could have done in replacing him. The willingness to take a risk is refreshing, and in the Sun Belt, I think Campbell could get South Alabama competing for titles relatively consistently.

Tennessee – Jeremy Pruitt

D. “What if we hire a Saban assistant? No one in the SEC has ever done that”. This is a boring, stale, all too familiar hire for a program that desperately needs excitement and innovation. the Vols haven’t been relevant since the early 2000s, and make a terrible mistake in firing Phil Fulmer almost ten years ago. Honestly, after the Fulmer firing, Lane Kiffin probably would’ve been successful had he stayed in Knoxville, and it’s truly the best hire Tennessee has made since Fulmer was forced out.

Derek Dooley and Butch Jones were both awful for different reasons, and Pruitt, while he may be an extremely accomplished and skilled defensive mind, has never been a head coach, and has no personality that will endear him to the fanbase. With how poorly this hire was handled, ending up with a boring coach isn’t surprising, but with all the young talent out there, it’s still disappointing.

Texas A&M – Jimbo Fisher

A-. Texas A&M deserves all the credit in the world. They had a target, focused on him, and got it done. While it seemed extremely unlikely, the Aggies got their guy, and I can’t honestly say that it wasn’t impressive, especially with Tennessee and Arizona State tripping over themselves throughout this process. However, this hire seems all too familiar for Texas A&M. Mike Sherman, Dennis Franchione, RC Slocum, and Jackie Sherrill were all hired from power five schools (either coordinator or head coach), or the NFL, and none were particularly successful, save for some years of Sherrill and Slocum.

Kevin Sumlin was the first innovative and fresh hire the program had made in years, and after he couldn’t get the job done, it feels like the Aggies have gone back to the old norm. Obviously Jimbo is completely different from those old coaches, but if he can’t adjust his offense, he’ll fail in College Station. However, it’s hard to question a man with a national title, and Jimbo will probably be great at A&M.

UCLA – Chip Kelly

A+. Just like Nebraska and Texas A&M, UCLA knew exactly who they wanted to hire, they went hard after their top target, and locked him up quickly, avoiding all drama while smoothly transitioning into a new era. Kelly makes a ton of sense culturally at UCLA, and with the talent on that team on both sides of the ball, the Bruins could be very good very early on if Kelly still has the coaching prowess he had at Oregon. While his offense changed a bit in the NFL, and it will be interesting to see what a  Chip Kelly college football program looks like after his NFL tenure, I expect this pairing to be extremely successful.

UTEP – Dana Dimel

D+. The only word that really comes to mind with this hire is “meh”. After firing Sean Kugler midseason, UTEP came to a crossroad as a program this offseason, and could’ve either hired another young, exciting coach, or gone with the tried and true, steady, six win kind of coach that they had for years under Mike Price, and in hiring Dimel, they picked the steady head. Dimel was solid at Wyoming in the late 90s, but struggled at Houston before spending more than a decade as a coordinator.

He was solid at Kansas State, and will probably be fine at UTEP, but I would’ve liked to see something fun and new here, not the safe hire.


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