Get ready for an off-field showdown the likes of which college football hasn't seen in generations.
Dan Mullen’s firing at Florida on Sunday means there are three consensus Top 10 college football head coaching jobs open at the same time: Florida, LSU and USC. And they are open amid a candidate pool that could be rapidly shrinking due to contract extensions and timing of the upcoming hiring process.
And that leaves a lingering tension that’s going to hang over the upcoming weeks, ratcheting up pressure on the athletic directors involved and potentially increasing leverage for the coaches who are attainable. Everyone’s head is on a swivel to figure out how – and when – these coaching dominoes can fall.
After those Big Three, there’s still very good jobs like Virginia Tech, TCU and Washington, who have competed at the highest levels of the sport this generation. Then there’s the potential opening at Miami, who has a storied history but little of it recent. (The overwhelming expectation at TCU remains that SMU’s Sonny Dykes fills that job, according to sources.)
“LSU, Florida and USC are going to want some of the same people,” said an industry source. “Someone is going to get left out of the musical chair game. Every athletic director’s desire is to look like they got their first choice, even when they didn't get their first choice.”
So who fills the rest of them? Timing will play a bigger role than preferences and available budgets as the timeline of the hiring cycle continues to mutate.
3 pools of head coaching candidates
Who is in the hiring pool for these schools? (Let’s assume that AD Scott Woodward’s Jimbo Fisher man crush has been dashed at LSU, per Jimbo’s public statements, which will be difficult for Fisher to swallow.)
Let’s say the A-list pool for the top three jobs consists of:
Penn State’s James Franklin
Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell
Iowa State’s Matt Campbell
Baylor’s Dave Aranda
Oregon’s Mario Cristobal
Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin.
And let’s allow that some of them may get raises, want to stay or there’s potential matches like Kiffin going back to USC that will never work. (We left off Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, for example, who has a lucrative offer that could keep him in East Lansing.)
Then there’s a pool of head coaches who’d be behind them:
Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson
Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi
Boston College’s Jeff Hafley
Louisiana’s Billy Napier
BYU’s Kalani Sitake
Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell
Nevada’s Jay Norvell
Fresno State’s Kalen DeBoer
Army’s Jeff Monken
Rest assured, those athletic directors know the high-end coach shortage and are scrambling for the opportunity to lock them up. The most compelling part of this race will be the ripples coming simultaneously from different directions.
As the first pool diminishes, that elevates the second pool. And as that pool dries out, we’d transition to the coordinator pool. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see a coordinator rise up and snag a plum job, as the top contenders are:
Georgia’s Dan Lanning
Texas A&M’s Mike Elko
Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman
Alabama’s Bill O’Brien
the tough-to-move Clemson duo of Tony Elliott and Brent Venables
Could someone like Dallas Cowboys DC Dan Quinn emerge from the NFL ranks?
Why will timing matter for the likes of LSU, USC and company?
Consider that the biggest target in this coaching cycle is Cincinnati’s Fickell, and his team could well find itself No. 4 in the College Football Playoff race on Tuesday. The Bearcats’ road to reach the playoff has been cleared open some, with Oregon losing, Alabama looking pedestrian (and likely facing two losses) and no notable potential one-loss team (Oklahoma State, Oklahoma or Notre Dame) playing particularly compelling football.
That’s a long-winded way to say that hiring Fickell, which is something all of those schools would strongly consider, is going to likely be untenable if the Bearcats make the CFP. Amid all the ambiguity of this coaching carousel, it’s becoming clear that hiring a hot coach who is also having an elite season is going to be a challenge.
Why? Well, consider the timing aspects. The USC job opened Sept. 13. The LSU job opened Oct. 17 and Florida on Nov. 21. Part of the calculus of these firings early is to be set for the early signing day on Dec. 15. A coach like Fickell who could reach the CFP, wouldn’t play until Dec. 31 in the semis and potentially Jan. 10 in the national title game. It’s such a rare opportunity, it’s hard to imagine him diverting from it.
It would be insanely clunky for one of those Cadillac jobs to wait to talk to Fickell or any other CFP coach without a finalized deal. Fickell likely wouldn’t risk the potential of a distraction, as any backroom/handshake deal would become obvious and awkward as jobs remained open well past signing day while the Bearcats are preparing for the biggest moment in school history. It would be counter to Fickell’s former wrestler DNA to prepare for the biggest game of his career knowing he’d agreed to leave immediately after. For UC fans, the best way to cheer for keeping Fickell is to cheer for a CFP bid.
The opposite of Fickell in the timing aspect is Iowa State’s Campbell. The Cyclones have trudged through a 6-5 season and back-to-back close losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Not playing in the Big 12 title game could work in Campbell’s favor if he wants to leave, as it’d prevent a school like Florida, LSU or USC from a week of sweaty palms and having to run a shadow search before being able to formally lock him up.
There will be administrators all over the country rooting for their potential candidates to lose, which would give them access to the coaches quicker. Coastal Carolina, for example, didn’t reach the Sun Belt title game, while Louisiana did. That could allow schools more time to vet a candidate like Chadwell or visit him in person and not risk the exposure of upsetting a team on the brink of the most pivotal moment of its season.
Places like Wake Forest, Baylor, Fresno State and others will hope an extra week that comes with a league title game will mean added protection of their coaches. The same goes for coordinators and assistants, as Nick Saban and others famously guard their coordinators from interviewing until after the conference title game.
This year will offer quite the ethical threshold test to those coaches who’ve long maintained that they wouldn’t talk to any other school before their league title game. That may be hard considering the caliber of jobs open and the urgency of those attempting to fill them.
The opening of the Florida job on Sunday officially ratchets up the race. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin felt the pressure of getting things right long term, as firing Mullen one week later would have given the Gators a much better shot at beating Florida State. Instead, the Gators dove into the pool.
The eyes in Gainesville, inevitably, were glancing to Baton Rouge, Los Angeles and, perhaps, even Coral Gables. The mad scramble is on, and timing will mean everything.