USC started the coaching carousel early this fall when it sent Clay Helton packing after Week 2. Nobody, not even the most imaginative college football observer, could have predicted what was to come, as nine of the top 20 head coaching jobs in the sport would open — the latest this week at Oregon, where athletic director Rob Mullens is in search of a replacement for Mario Cristobal.
So, how did this happen? For starters, things went south very quickly at Louisiana State, Florida and Washington, which was unexpected. Then USC and LSU maneuvered to make splash hires and played their cards right to steal proven coaches from blue-blood programs Oklahoma and Notre Dame, respectively. Then Miami finally found its window and the immense resources to bring Cristobal home to his mother and his football mothership at “The U.”
This carousel could have been even wilder had Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Texas Tech and Washington State hired head coaches instead of coordinators.
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Maybe the early signing period, which starts Dec. 15, was partly to blame. Maybe it was athletic directors and university presidents who were eager to chart new courses after having to hold firm after the 2020 season because of the pandemic. Maybe it was general unrest created because of the conference realignment spurred by Texas and Oklahoma moving to the Southeastern Conference. Or maybe it was just a beautiful confluence of events across a sport where increasingly it feels as if there are no rules, written or unwritten.
The result of it all will be the most intriguing college football regular season possibly ever in 2022, with the whole country following each week to see who’s a stud or a dud in their new posts.
Here’s my first attempt at grading the 11 hires made so far by Power Five schools:
Riley is a dogged recruiter known for closing commitments on both sides of the ball, and he is right to believe he can build the country’s most talented roster from right here in Southern California. Now the hard work begins, but there’s a strong sense Riley could make it look easy.
The only reason this grade isn’t an A+ is that L.A. is a town that pays attention only to championships, and Riley has yet to climb that mountain. The great news? He gets to keep trying to do it right here.
A- Grade hire
Mario Cristobal, Miami: Welp, this is what Oregon gets for hiring a coach whose love for his mother, his hometown and his alma mater knows no bounds. That said, the Ducks were put in a tough situation after Willie Taggart left for Florida State after one season, and Cristobal put in legitimate work building the program’s foundation back, brick by brick, while winning 35 games and one legitimate Pac-12 championship in four seasons.
But Eugene never seemed like the long-term play for Cristobal. The pull of Miami was always going to be there for him, and the timing was finally right for both sides with the Hurricanes floundering under Manny Diaz and Utah reminding Cristobal twice in three weeks just how far the Ducks still have to go before they can truly compete for a national championship.
This grade could be an A because of the perfect cultural fit and Cristobal’s proven ability to develop a physical backbone within a Power Five program and to recruit the best athletes in the country to play within that philosophy. While he had to raid Southern California to bring in top talent at Oregon, he won’t have to leave a 60-mile radius to do so in South Florida.
Cristobal registers as an A-minus because he has routinely struggled with game management to the Ducks’ detriment, something he will have to improve to get Miami back to where it feels it belongs.
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B+ Grade hires
Billy Napier, Florida: A year after competing for a spot in the playoff, Florida’s erosion under Dan Mullen became so glaring that athletic director Scott Stricklin had to make a move on Mullen, whom he also worked with at Mississippi State. The main issue seemed to be his recruiting; while the Gators had classes in the top 10 nationally, they did not have one class under Mullen that finished in the top three in the SEC. If you don’t recruit successfully in that conference, you eventually fall behind.
Stricklin immediately focused on Louisiana’s Billy Napier, who led the Cajuns to back-to-back Sun Belt championships and was a hot name the last few coaching carousels who elected to stay put and wait for the right job. Napier’s patience paid off with the keys to a program that can win national championships when it has the right coach in place but shockingly struggles when it doesn’t.
While LSU was reportedly swinging for the fences for a big name, Florida dropped its pin on Napier, who has been right under the Tigers’ nose for four seasons, and got its guy. This grade honors the efficiency and clean execution in securing an enticing coach who appears ready for the big time.
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Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame: When Brian Kelly bolted for LSU, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick did not need to hit the panic button. Sure, Kelly had just passed Knute Rockne on the school’s all-time wins list and had brought the program stability it hadn’t seen since Lou Holtz paced the sidelines. And his exit came as a major shock, particularly as the Irish needed only a few upsets on championship Saturday to make their third CFP semifinal appearance in four seasons.
But Kelly’s sudden exit could have been catastrophic if Swarbrick had conducted a national search, dragging out toward early signing day, and ended up with the wrong guy (and, let’s be honest, so many have been wrong in South Bend until Kelly). Kelly figured something out about navigating this incomparable challenge, and the hope is that much of that knowledge was passed to Freeman, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, in the last year.
The 35-year-old Freeman has been a big part of Notre Dame’s recruiting renaissance, and naming him as Kelly’s successor should keep the Irish’s 2022 class, ranked No. 6 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, largely intact. If Notre Dame is going to take the next step and win a playoff game, it can’t afford to start over in recruiting.
Of course, Freeman is a risk because he has never been a head coach. But if it becomes clear early he is in over his head, Swarbrick could then conduct that national search with proper preparation to get it right. Notre Dame does not have to make the same mistake that USC did with Helton, handcuffing itself to an overmatched interim-turned-permanent head coach for a damaging length of time.
And maybe Freeman will be an instant star. He does not have to rebuild, and, did you happen to see the reaction of Notre Dame players when they heard he was taking over? The excitement for the future in South Bend was palpable.
B Grade hires
Brian Kelly, LSU: I know, giving Notre Dame’s hiring of Freeman a better grade than LSU’s hiring of Kelly might seem absurd. I’m not saying that Freeman is a better coach than Kelly. I’m saying that, when taking into account the fit between coach and program and the coach’s chances to meet said program’s expectations, Freeman was a slightly better hire for the Fighting Irish at this moment in time than Kelly was for the Tigers.
From the second LSU let Ed Orgeron go, the buzz was that athletic director Scott Woodward, a Baton Rouge native, was going to reel in a big fish. Woodward brought Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M by offering him financial stability beyond his wildest dreams, and, originally, the thinking was that he would just re-up with Fisher to bring him to LSU. That didn’t happen, and so then the buzz switched to Riley. When Riley chose to join USC, Woodward moved fast to convince Kelly that he had reached his ceiling at Notre Dame, that he owed himself one final shot in his 60s to reign over the sport.
Tigers fans should be happy about Kelly. He’s a proven winner, having compiled great success at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and then Notre Dame. But for some reason this move feels tinged with desperation from both sides; perhaps it’s because the stakes are so high at a place where national champion coaches are discarded like cheap Mardi Gras beads the morning after Fat Tuesday.
Kelly, born and raised in the Boston area, is the opposite of a cultural fit for Louisiana’s state capital. The uneasiness of the pairing was bare for the world to see last week when Kelly debuted his attempt at a Southern accent while giving a speech at an LSU men’s basketball game. Very quickly, the marriage between Kelly and LSU had become a joke, but, given Kelly’s coaching acumen, it is likely the Tigers will be taken seriously on the field soon enough under his leadership.
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Kalen DeBoer, Washington: The Jimmy Lake era in Seattle was plagued by offensive ineptitude so pronounced it couldn’t save Lake’s predictably sound defense. Enter DeBoer, the Fresno State coach who steered one of the country’s most delectable offenses this season in leading the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record, which included a thrilling win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
DeBoer was attractive to Washington because he should be able to fix the Huskies’ offense — especially if he has the same kind of effect on highly-touted freshman quarterback Sam Huard as he did on former Washington transfer Jake Haener at Fresno State. It was baffling this season watching Lake stick with Dylan Morris for so long while Huard kept waiting for his chance to show what he can do.
DeBoer went 67-3 as the head coach of his alma mater, Sioux Falls (S.D.) of the NAIA, from 2005 to 2009. He led the program to three NAIA championships and has steadily risen up the profession since then. The Huskies are the most recent Pac-12 program to make the playoff, but in their current shape, any big swings were likely to be misses. There’s good reason to believe DeBoer has the chops, and he gets to enjoy the added jolt of Cristobal leaving Oregon.
B- Grade hire
Brent Venables, Oklahoma: After processing the shock of losing Riley to USC, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione and Bob Stoops, while serving as the interim head coach, decided to keep it in the Sooners family with a nod to Stoops’ early glory days in Norman when Venables was his defensive coordinator. The decision was well-received at OU, particularly among former players who saw the program going soft under Riley’s leadership and desired a return to tough-minded defense as the team’s hallmark as it prepares for the upcoming move to the SEC.
There is no debating Venables’ ability to coach defense after his decade at Clemson, helping Dabo Swinney and the Tigers to two national championships. Even this season as the Tigers went 9-3, Venables’ unit was as menacing as ever. Venables has spent his career watching legendary head coaches do their thing — Bill Snyder at Kansas State (as a player and assistant), Stoops and Swinney. Now it’s his turn to implement what he has learned, and it’s a logical assumption to make that he’s ready.
But something about this hire isn’t moving the needle. Maybe it’s the question of why it has taken this long for Venables to become a head coach after being a known commodity as a coordinator. Was he uninterested in running his own program until an amazing opportunity like this one came available, or were other schools put off by something and unable to take the plunge?
Venables will have to nail his offensive coordinator hire, and he very well might have done so with Mississippi offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, an Oklahoma graduate. But even with Lebby there is a big question: How much credit should he get for Ole Miss’ offensive performance when Lane Kiffin is his boss?
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C+ Grade hire
Sonny Dykes, Texas Christian: After three straight seasons winning less than seven games, TCU finally said goodbye to Gary Patterson, who took the program from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big 12 over two decades at the helm. The Horned Frogs had unquestionably become stale, particularly on offense, and they didn’t have to look too far for help on that side of that ball with Dykes working his magic on Southern Methodist, TCU’s longtime rival across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Dykes, a former California head coach, worked under “Air Raid” creators Hal Mumme and Mike Leach as a young assistant. At Cal, Dykes mentored Jared Goff into the No. 1 overall pick but had only one winning season before being removed. He did an admirable job getting SMU to three straight bowl games, but it’s hard to see incredible upside for him at TCU given his track record.
C Grade hires
Joey McGuire, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders were 5-3 in Matt Wells’ third season when they fired him, so they must have really been pining for a fresh start. They moved quickly to pluck McGuire from Baylor, where he had been a part of successful seasons under Matt Rhule and now Dave Aranda.
But McGuire’s biggest draw for Texas Tech was the connectivity of his story as a former high school football coach at Cedar Hill outside of Dallas, where he won three state championships before Rhule brought him to Waco. The Red Raiders just didn’t seem like themselves under Wells, and it will be McGuire’s job to get their guns up in the newly-renovated Big 12.
Jake Dickert, Washington State: Dickert stepped into a very tense situation this season as the Cougars’ interim head coach after the school fired Nick Rolovich because of his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Dickert, the defensive coordinator, had never been a head coach, so the idea he was being thrown into the fire was an understatement. He went 3-2 and kept the Cougars in the Pac-12 North chase until the final weekend, when Washington State romped past Washington in the Apple Cup.
It made sense for athletic director Pat Chun to give Dickert the permanent gig since the team displayed an upward trajectory during a period when the Cougars easily could have crumbled. But there is so little evidence to go on with Dickert, and, over time, Washington State fans could be wondering why Chun did not take a longer look at Mountain West success stories such as Nevada’s Jay Norvell, who ended up moving within his own league to Colorado State, or San Jose State’s Brent Brennan.
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C- Grade hire
Brent Pry, Virginia Tech: In six seasons under Justin Fuente, the Hokies didn’t exactly disappear from national relevance — they were ranked in the top 25 at some point each season — but they failed to assert themselves in a weak Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal division and were no threat to Clemson’s dominance.
Virginia Tech should have bigger goals, which it reflected by firing Fuente but not with the hiring of Pry, the defensive coordinator at Penn State who has never been a head coach.
From the time the divisions were drawn up in the ACC, it was expected that Miami and Virginia Tech would compete most years for the Coastal. Neither has followed through on that prediction, and now each will break in a new leader. Pry will have his work cut out for him against Cristobal and the recruiting machine he is sure to install at Miami.
J. Brady McCollough is a sports enterprise reporter for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on national college football and basketball topics. Before joining the Times in May 2018, he was a projects reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a 2017 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.