Commentary

Yellow Jackets, Wolverines, Midshipmen earn high marks

Originally Published: December 6, 2007
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

With Rich Rodriguez's leaving West Virginia for Michigan, college football's coaching carousel is finally beginning to slow down.

Arkansas and Michigan made the biggest splashes with their hires, but the Razorbacks and Wolverines didn't look so good in the process. Most college football fans have probably never heard of Paul Wulff, but why might he end up making Washington State look so good?

Here's a look at how more than a dozen schools have fared in their searches for new football coaches, including the jobs that remain unfilled:

Arkansas

The process: Arkansas' new athletic director, Jeff Long, who officially succeeds Razorbacks legend Frank Broyles on Jan. 1, backed himself into a corner by wanting his own football coach in place. Reports of Houston Nutt's ouster surfaced before the Razorbacks played their final two games. Then Nutt led the Hogs to a 50-48 upset of then-No. 1 LSU in the regular-season finale. The school tried to persuade Nutt to stay with a lucrative contract extension, but the damage was done. The search for Nutt's replacement was an even bigger mess, with more leaks than broken water pipes. Two coaches were apparently close to taking the job -- Clemson's Tommy Bowden and Wake Forest's Jim Grobe (who accepted the job before changing his mind) -- and one media outlet reported Auburn's Tommy Tuberville was going to Arkansas. The Razorbacks also inquired about the availability of North Carolina's Butch Davis. Bowden, Davis and Tuberville parlayed Arkansas' flirtations into contract extensions at their current schools. The Hogs finally found their man when they hired Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino after a last-hour interview and late-night news conference.
Grade: F

The hire: Long attracted a high-profile coach in Petrino, who went 41-9 in four seasons as the head coach at Louisville. He is one of college football's best offensive minds and will install a high-octane passing game the Hogs never had under Nutt. But Arkansas certainly could have found a better leader. Petrino has a history of never being happy with his current job and seemingly carries his résumé in his back pocket. He lasted less than a full season with the Falcons, finishing 3-10 and quitting with three games left. Petrino is brash and arrogant and was never accepted in the Falcons' locker room.
Grade: B-

Final analysis: After a two-week comedy of errors, Arkansas got the big-name coach it desperately needed. It also hired a coach it can never fully trust.
Overall grade: C-

Baylor

The process: After firing Guy Morriss, who had an 18-40 record in five seasons at Baylor, the Bears quickly targeted Mike Singletary. The former Baylor and Chicago Bears linebacker is now assistant head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He was the first choice among Baylor fans, but discussions with athletic director Ian McCaw never got past the initial interview. There were conflicting reports about whether Singletary removed himself from consideration or whether McCaw chose to go in a different direction. The Bears also were interested in Nutt, who might have taken the Baylor job if Ole Miss hadn't opened. The Bears might have at least considered Appalachian State's Jerry Moore, a former Baylor player, who just led the Mountaineers to their third consecutive Division I-AA national championship.
Grade: D

The hire: Baylor hired Houston's Art Briles to resurrect a program that has endured 12 consecutive losing seasons. Briles rebuilt Houston, which had only two winning seasons in 12 years before he arrived in 2003. Briles went 34-28 at Houston and had only one losing season in five years. His offenses are high-octane and his teams put plenty of points on the scoreboard, but his defenses have been just as porous. Briles doubled his salary from $900,000 at Houston to $1.8 million at Baylor.
Grade: C

Final Analysis: Briles didn't make the splash that Singletary (or Moore or Nutt, for that matter) would have made in Waco. But Briles is a proven coach whose teams play entertaining football. Overall grade: C-

Colorado State

The process: Rams athletic director Paul Kowalczyk faced the unenviable position of forcing longtime football coach Sonny Lubick into retirement. Lubick, 70, had a 108-74 record in 15 seasons at the school, leading the Rams to nine bowl games and a share of a conference title six times. But Colorado State wasn't very competitive at the end of his tenure, winning more than four games in only one of the past four seasons. When Kowalczyk asked Lubick to retire, the coach refused. So the school relieved the popular football coach of his duties, which didn't sit well with many former players and boosters. Kowalczyk moved quickly to calm the brewing dissension and hired Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, a former Rams quarterback and assistant coach. Fairchild is believed to be the only candidate who received serious consideration for the job.
Grade: B

The hire: Lubick built Colorado State into a very competitive football program, and now it's up to Fairchild to restore that winning tradition. Fairchild, 49, was a member of Lubick's first staff at Colorado State and was the Rams' offensive coordinator for four seasons. He previously coached the Bills' running backs and tutored quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger while working as offensive coordinator under former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz. Fairchild is a San Diego native and recruited California well when he worked at Colorado State in the past.
Grade: B

Final analysis: Kowalczyk made a very difficult and unpopular decision in firing Lubick, but it was a move that needed to be made. Hiring Fairchild, a popular former player and assistant coach, might go a long way toward healing festering wounds.
Overall grade: B

Duke

The process: After suffering through 13 consecutive losing seasons and fielding one of the least competitive teams in history for more than a decade, Duke is finally ready to get serious about playing football. After firing coach Ted Roof, who had a 6-45 record in six seasons, Blue Devils athletic director Joe Alleva targeted Navy's Paul Johnson as his next coach. Alleva offered Johnson as much as $2 million per season to rebuild the woebegone program, and Johnson seriously considered taking the challenging job. However, Johnson chose to accept less money at Georgia Tech, where he'll have a better chance of winning. The Blue Devils then interviewed former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell, who would have become the first African-American coach in any sport at Duke, and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, who later withdrew from consideration. Grambling State coach Rod Broadway and Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, two other African-American candidates, also were considered for the job. But Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe blew away Duke officials during his interview and received a contract offer less than 48 hours later.
Grade: B

The hire: If nothing else, Cutcliffe will bring stability to Duke. Cutcliffe is a gentleman and will conduct himself and run his program the way Duke wants things done. He is regarded among the best quarterback coaches in college football, after tutoring brothers Eli and Peyton Manning in college. Cutcliffe had a 44-29 record in five seasons as coach at Ole Miss, leading the Rebels to five bowl games during 1999-2004. He was criticized at Ole Miss for poor recruiting, but the Rebels have fared much worse on and off the field without him. Duke will pay him close to $1.5 million per season, and the school has promised to increase salaries for assistants and make vast improvements to facilities.
Grade: B

Final analysis: Duke has the coach who can help it finally win games, but the Blue Devils must follow through with more financial commitment to get the program turned around.
Overall grade: B

Georgia Tech

The process: Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich made the difficult decision to fire coach Chan Gailey, who had a 44-32 record in six seasons. Gailey led the Yellow Jackets to the ACC championship game in 2006 and a bowl game each season, but couldn't get them to 10 victories and couldn't beat rival Georgia. After the financially strapped athletic department paid Gailey more than $4 million to buy out the remaining four years of his contract, Radakovich had to deliver a successor who would generate excitement and, more importantly, ticket sales. Radakovich hired Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search to conduct the search. The Yellow Jackets interviewed a slew of candidates over several days: former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher, Navy coach Paul Johnson, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel, Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, the team's interim coach for the Humanitarian Bowl. Remarkably, Georgia Tech officials were able to keep the process relatively secretive despite interviewing so many candidates.
Grade: A

The hire: Radakovich might have hit a home run in hiring Johnson. The former Navy coach has strong ties to Georgia, winning two Division I-AA national championships at Georgia Southern. However, Radakovich is taking a calculated gamble in believing that Johnson's triple-option offense will work in the ACC. The ground attack certainly worked at Navy, where Johnson led the Midshipmen to a 45-29 record in six seasons. Johnson believes his offense will be even better with more talented players running it.
Grade: A

Final analysis: Georgia Tech was able to hire one of the country's most underrated coaches and convinced him to take its job for less money than what Duke and SMU were offering Johnson. If nothing else, his offense will create headaches for opposing defensive coordinators.
Grade: A

Houston

The process: After losing Briles to Baylor, Houston athletic director Dave Maggard interviewed at least five candidates for the job. Maggard concentrated his efforts on coaches with backgrounds in offense in hopes of keeping the Cougars' high-octane attack in place. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Michael Haywood, a Houston native, emerged as one of the early favorites. Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin, Tulsa offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, Houston interim coach Chris Thurmond and former Cougars coach Jack Pardee also were interviewed. Pardee, 71, best known for his run-and-shoot offense, also coached the Houston Oilers, but hadn't coached since 1995. He wanted to build a staff of former Houston players, including record-setting quarterback David Klinger, to groom an eventual successor. After two weeks of interviews, Pardee and Sumlin emerged as the finalists.
Grade: B

The hire: Maggard made the right choice in hiring Sumlin over Pardee. Sumlin, 43, spent the last five seasons working on Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma and has never been a head coach. Sumlin has extensive college coaching experience with stops at Washington State, Wyoming, Minnesota, Purdue and Texas A&M. Besides Stoops, Sumlin has worked under Dennis Erickson, R.C. Slocum and Mike Price. His Sooners offense averaged 44 points per game this season, which ranked among the country's best attacks. Sumlin is the first African-American coach in the 60-year history of the Cougars program.
Grade: B

Final analysis: Hiring Sumlin ensures the Cougars will remain potent on offense. It's up to him to make sure Houston plays a little bit of defense, something it rarely did under Briles.
Overall grade: B

Michigan

The process: When Lloyd Carr announced his retirement Nov. 19, two days after the Wolverines lost to rival Ohio State for the sixth time in seven seasons, it seemed it would only be a matter of days before LSU's Les Miles was named his successor. After all, Miles was a "Michigan Man." He played for legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler and coached under him as well. Miles seemed to be the most popular choice among Michigan fans, but the Wolverines' courting of him never seemed to get off the ground. When ESPN reported Miles would be named Michigan's new coach, he held an impromptu news conference hours before the Tigers played Tennessee in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game in Atlanta. Miles called the report "misinformation," and LSU announced its coach had agreed to a lucrative contract extension. With Miles seemingly out of the mix, Michigan athletic director Bill Martin turned his attention to Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who later decided to remain with the Scarlet Knights. Martin also interviewed Wolverines offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and defensive coordinator Ron English and had informal discussions with Ball State's Brady Hoke. With the search seemingly stuck in neutral, Martin interviewed West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez in Toledo, Ohio, on Dec. 14. Rodriguez and his agent reached an agreement with Michigan later that night, and Rodriguez was introduced as Michigan's new coach on Monday.
Grade: C

The hire: If the Wolverines couldn't hire Miles, Rodriguez was probably the next best choice. The architect of West Virginia's spread offense, Rodriguez has long been regarded as one of the best coaches in college football. He has no ties to Michigan, but will bring an exciting brand of football to Ann Arbor. Rodriguez led the Mountaineers to a 60-26 record in seven seasons and a BCS bowl game in two of the last three years. If Rodriguez can recruit fast players like he had at West Virginia, his teams might change the way the game is played in the Big Ten Conference.
Grade: A

Final analysis: It might be hard to believe the Wolverines couldn't lure one of their own home, but LSU is a better job than Michigan right now. But with Rodriguez on board, it won't be long before Michigan is a national power again.
Overall grade: B

Mississippi

The process: If the Rebels had never fired Cutcliffe, they would have never hired and fired Ed Orgeron, who was let go after a 3-9 record this season. Ole Miss was much better under Cutcliffe, who led them to five bowl games during 1999-2004. Orgeron never took the Rebels to a bowl game in three years and didn't win an SEC game this season, the school's first winless record in SEC play since 1982. After Orgeron was suddenly fired, it seemed the Rebels might try to lure Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel to Oxford, Miss. Neuheisel, a former coach at Colorado and Washington, was a finalist for the Ole Miss job when Orgeron was hired. But then Nutt resigned at Arkansas and was hired at Ole Miss less than 24 hours later.
Grade: D

The hire: The Rebels might have lucked out by landing Nutt, who led the Razorbacks to a 75-48 record and three SEC West titles in 10 seasons. He knows the SEC well and inherits a pretty talented roster that Orgeron left behind. Former Texas quarterback Jevan Snead will be eligible in 2008 after sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules. Nutt is already off to a good start by hiring South Carolina defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix.
Grade: B

Final analysis: If the Rebels hadn't made a mistake in hiring Orgeron, they wouldn't have their third coach in five seasons. Nutt inherits one of the tougher jobs in the country, but faced similar obstacles and succeeded at Arkansas.
Overall grade: C-

Navy

The process: Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk figured it was only a matter of time before he lost Johnson to another school. Johnson nearly left for NC State last year, and when three potential suitors came calling this season, Gladchuk had a plan in place. After Navy beat Army to win the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the fifth straight season, Gladchuk told assistant head coach/offensive line coach Ken Niumatalolo that he would be seriously considered for the job if Johnson left. When Johnson was hired by Georgia Tech, Gladchuk didn't wait long to name Niumatalolo his successor.
Grade: A

The hire: Niumatalolo, who becomes the first Polynesian head coach in college football, worked the last six years under Johnson. He played quarterback at Hawaii and worked as a graduate assistant under Johnson there. Niumatalolo was later instrumental in installing the triple-option spread offense at Navy. With quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper and defensive coordinator Buddy Green deciding to stay on board at Navy, the transition figures to be seamless.
Grade: B

Final analysis: Gladchuk figured keeping Johnson's system in place was more important than hiring a proven head coach. Niumatalolo knows the offense as well as anyone other than Johnson, so it's a calculated gamble that should pay off.
Overall grade: B+

Nebraska

The process: The Cornhuskers won't be rebuilt overnight, after they suffered through one of the worst seasons in school history under former coach Bill Callahan. The Cornhuskers went 27-22 in Callahan's four seasons, two of which ended in losing records, which previously hadn't occurred at Nebraska since 1962. With the Cornhuskers' struggling like never before, athletic director Steve Pederson -- who hired Callahan and gave him a contract extension before the 2007 season -- was fired in midseason. Former football coach Tom Osborne, who built the Cornhuskers into one of the sport's greatest powers, was hired as interim athletic director. Osborne's task was to evaluate the football program and decide Callahan's future. Callahan was fired the day after Nebraska lost to Colorado 65-51 to finish the season at 5-7. Osborne interviewed LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini in Baton Rouge, La., the following day. Buffalo coach Turner Gill, a former Cornhuskers quarterback and assistant coach, also was interviewed. Osborne also spoke with Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe about the vacancy. The search was quickly narrowed to Pelini and Gill.
Grade: B

The hire: Pelini has the characteristics Osborne wanted in Nebraska's next coach: he has a background in defense and understands the culture and expectations at Nebraska. Pelini worked one season as the Cornhuskers' defensive coordinator under Frank Solich and was the team's interim coach in the 2003 Alamo Bowl. He worked the last four years as LSU's defensive coordinator and helped lead the Tigers to the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game.
Grade: C

Final analysis: Osborne might have worried too much about hiring a coach with Nebraska ties. A program like Nebraska should have been able to lure a proven head coach.
Overall grade: C+

Northern Illinois

The process: Longtime Huskies coach Joe Novak retired after his team finished 2-10 in his 12th season at the school. Athletic director Jim Phillips asked Novak to assist him in the search for his replacement. Novak and Phillips spent two days in Atlanta working with Parker Executive Search to finalize a list of possible candidates. Phillips said he looked at more than 1,200 résumés for the job. The finalists seemed to be South Florida assistant and former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney, Southern Illinois coach Jerry Kill and Grand Valley State coach Chuck Martin. Phillips said Kill was very impressive in his interview in Carbondale, Ill., on Dec. 9. He was hired by the Huskies three days later.
Grade: A

The hire: Kill produced quite a turnaround at Division I-AA Southern Illinois, which was considering dropping football when he arrived there in 2001. The Salukis won only five games in his first two seasons combined, but then made the I-AA national playoffs in each of the next five seasons. Kill recruited the Chicago area very well for the Salukis, which he'll have to continue to do at Northern Illinois.
Grade: B

Final analysis: The Huskies landed a coach with an impressive track record at lower levels. Kill knows the recruiting base well and should be successful.
Overall grade: B

SMU

The process: SMU was one of the first schools to make a coaching change, firing coach Phil Bennett on Oct. 28 with four games left in the season. The Mustangs really wanted Navy's Paul Johnson, who turned them down for less money at Georgia Tech. SMU athletic director Steve Orsini has been very quiet in his search for a replacement ever since. A slew of former college coaches -- Terry Bowden, Glen Mason, Chan Gailey and Larry Coker -- have been mentioned as possible candidates, but nothing has materialized so far.
Grade: Incomplete

Southern Miss

The process: Firing long-time coach Jeff Bower might have been the worst offseason coaching move by any school. Bower won 119 games in 17 seasons and put Southern Miss on the college football map. He led the Golden Eagles to 14 consecutive winning seasons and bowl games in 10 of the last 11 years. Bower was forced to resign after Southern Miss finished 7-5 in a season in which it was projected to compete for the Conference USA championship. Athletic director Richard Giannini felt Southern Miss needed new energy and direction. He interviewed Tyrone Nix, the former South Carolina defensive coordinator and Southern Miss player, who later withdrew from consideration when the search dragged into a second week. Giannini said he interviewed as many as 15 candidates for the job, including former Alabama coach Mike Dubose, Arkansas offensive coordinator David Lee, Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and at least two junior college coaches. Giannini finally settled on Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora.
Grade: F

The hire: The Golden Eagles hired Fedora to put more pop into their offense and more fans in seats. Fedora, 45, has never been a college head coach. He previously was offensive coordinator at Florida. The Cowboys finished 6-6 this season and averaged 484 yards per game, ninth-best in Division I-A.
Grade: C

Final analysis: Bower had the Golden Eagles in position to challenge for the Conference USA championship seemingly every season. There's not much room for improvement for Fedora.
Grade: D

Texas A&M

The process: By the final month of the season, Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne knew coach Dennis Franchione was going to be fired. Byrne apparently knew who Franchione's successor was going to be as well. Only three days after Franchione was fired after five rather mediocre seasons, Houston Texans offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was introduced as his replacement. It is believed Sherman was the only candidate seriously considered for the job. If the Aggies had waited, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville might have been interested.
Grade: C

The hire: Sherman went 57-39 in six seasons as coach of the Green Bay Packers and worked the last two seasons as an assistant with the Texans. Sherman spent seven seasons as offensive line coach at Texas A&M under former coach R.C. Slocum, who still has a lot of influence on the College Station campus. Sherman understands the way Texas A&M works and will be a better fit than Franchione.
Grade: B

Final analysis: Sherman didn't do a bad job coaching the Packers, who were plagued with injuries during his tenure there. He might be a good fit at Texas A&M, but given the failures of so many former NFL coaches who returned to college, Byrne might have considered at least a few other candidates.
Overall grade: C

UCLA

The process: The Bruins are slowly moving along in their search for Karl Dorrell's replacement. Dorrell was fired after leading UCLA to a 35-27 record and a bowl game in each of his five seasons. Former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, now the offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans, appears to be one of the front-runners. So does former Washington and Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, now offensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach John Harbaugh, brother of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, will interview for the UCLA job. Interim coach DeWayne Walker, the Bruins' interim coach, also has interviewed for the job.
Grade: Incomplete

Washington State

The process: The Cougars interviewed at least three candidates after coach Bill Doba resigned following a fourth consecutive non-winning season. Washington State interviewed former Michigan State coach John L. Smith, now a scout with the St. Louis Rams, and Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin, who ended up being hired as Houston's coach. Washington State seemed to target Eastern Washington coach Paul Wulff from the start and hired him Dec. 11. The Cougars were limited in their candidate pool because they were willing to spend only about $500,000, which was Doba's salary at the school.
Grade: C

The hire: Wulff isn't a big name nationally, but he might be the perfect fit at Washington State. Wulff, 40, is a former Cougars center and was very successful at Eastern Washington. He was named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year three times and runs a potent no-huddle offense, which he plays to install at Washington State.
Grade: B

Final analysis: The Cougars weren't willing to pay much for a head coach, but they ended up with a bargain.
Grade: B-

West Virginia

The process: The Mountaineers are reeling after Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan, a year after the former West Virginia player said he would coach at his alma mater for the rest of his career. Look for West Virginia to make a serious run at Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, a native of Huntington, W. Va. Other schools have failed to lure Grobe away from the Demon Deacons. Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, who played at West Virginia and worked as an assistant at his alma mater, wants the job and should be seriously considered.
Grade: Incomplete

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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