Nearly one-fifth of all college football teams changed coaches for the 2020 season. One-fifth of all teams won’t change coaches for the 2021 season.
As each of the 130 FBS teams faces unprecedented financial challenges and, in most cases, unclear or unknown internal expectations with mass player absences and game cancellations, the coaching carousel isn’t spinning rapidly. It is, however, still spinning for teams nowhere near national championship odds in college football betting.
Southern Miss was the first program to hop aboard the carousel when fifth-year head coach Jay Hopson resigned after a season-opening loss to South Alabama in September. The Jaguars joined them three months later in firing Steve Campbell after three dreadful seasons. Here are the grades for Southern Miss, South Alabama, South Carolina, and every other college football hire during the 2020-21 coaching carousel:
Arizona: Jedd Fisch
Program hires coach, coach fails, program fires coach, program hires the coach’s antithesis.
Arizona followed a popular script in college football in firing Kevin Sumlin, a 56-year-old with nearly four decades of uninterrupted college coaching experience, to hire Jedd Fisch, a 44-year-old with eight total years of college experience on his résumé. Fisch has coached under Brian Billick, Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Sean McVay, and Bill Belichick, but he’s never been a head coach and never been at a program longer than two years.
Arizona picked Fisch over San Jose State’s Brent Brennan, who’s leading one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history.
Auburn: Bryan Harsin
Auburn’s nine-day search, implied to be a circus by multiple current football players on Twitter, ended with Bryan Harsin, who becomes the fourth straight Boise State to leave for a Power Five job.
Not widely mentioned in initial reporting as attention focused on Hugh Freeze, Billy Napier, Steve Sarkisian, Brent Venables, and others, Harsin landed one of the best jobs in college football three years after pursuing openings at Tennessee and Oregon. While Harsin will be subjected to unfair criticism as Auburn’s down-the-ballot selection after reports of others exiting the race, he’s not a bad hire.
However, could Auburn, arguably holding one of the top-10 jobs in college football, have done better? Maybe. And my uncertainty in answering that question keeps Harsin as a good, not great, hire.
Arkansas State: Butch Jones
Arkansas State moved quickly after Blake Anderson’s departure for Utah State, naming Butch Jones head coach barely 48 hours later.
Butch Jones wasn’t that bad at Tennessee. He failed to meet outrageous expectations of annual national championship contention but provided some stability and their first back-to-back nine-win seasons since 2006-07.
A former lifelong Midwesterner, the 52-year-old has recruited every corner of the south and southeast over the last eight years at Tennessee and Alabama. Jones will land a few recruits and transfers that were previously untouchable at Arkansas State, is building a strong staff with local ties, and raises the program’s ceiling.
Boise State: Andy Avalos
Instead of a feel-good hire of an unqualified, beloved alum, Boise State made a fantastic hire of a qualified, beloved alum.
Kellen Moore’s late-December statement suggested he was a shortlist candidate for Boise State’s opening before signing a multi-year extension to remain the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive coordinator. His withdrawal, however, came before Boise State introduced new athletics director Jeramiah Dickey last week, therefore it’s fair to wonder if Moore was actually a shortlist candidate.
Four days after Dickey’s introduction, Boise State landed Andy Avalos as head coach. A former Boise State player and assistant coach, Avalos became one of the most sought-after assistants in the country during his final three years on the Boise staff (2016-18 as defensive coordinator) and last two years as Oregon’s defensive coordinator.
Illinois: Bret Bielema
After flunking every math test in fifth grade, a kid scores a 59 on his first test in sixth grade, prompting the teacher to issue a “D” instead of another “F” as encouragement. The kid is Illinois, whose hire of Bret Bielema earns a “D” only because they flunked on Lovie Smith five years ago.
The grade would’ve been marginally better if Illinois didn’t gift Bielema a six-year contract with an annual salary of $4.2 million. That puts him in the same ballpark as Paul Chryst and above coaches who’ve done something in the last decade, including Mike Norvell, Matt Campbell, and Luke Fickell.
From all indications, Bielema didn’t have offers elsewhere, yet Illinois made him one of the 30 highest-paid coaches in the country. It’s hardly surprising given their $4-million-per-year investment Lovie Smith but reckless nonetheless.
Louisiana Monroe: Terry Bowden
Akron was bad before Terry Bowden. Akron was good with Terry Bowden. Akron was bad after Terry Bowden.
Maybe Akron should’ve kept Terry Bowden.
Bowden, after 29 wins in three seasons at Division-II North Alabama, cleaned up Rob Ianello’s mess and led the Zips to 30 wins from 2013-17, his second through sixth seasons as head coach. After a seven-win 2017, his offense was gutted by departures and they fell to 4-8, Akron’s fewest wins since Bowden’s first season. That was enough to warrant a change, said Akron, who fired Bowden and hired Tom Arth, who’s 1-17 in his first two seasons.
The Zips made a mistake, clearly. Louisiana Monroe did not.
Bowden has four decades of coaching experience, has recruited every corner of the region, and will immediately raise the floor for a historically underachieving program.
Marshall: Charles Huff
After 10 years of stability under Doc Holliday, it would’ve been easy for Marshall athletics director Mike Hamrick to promote from within, hire a retread coach, or land an unqualified and beloved alum in hopes of keeping the locals and boosters happy. Instead, Hamrick took a swing at one of the nation’s best recruiters with Alabama associate head coach and running backs coach Charles Huff.
Huff is a 37-year-old first-time head coach who’s never coached in West Virginia and has no notable ties to the Marshall program. Oftentimes, these types of swings—elite recruiters, positional coach proteges of prominent coaches, etc.– are whiffs. And, of course, Hamrick might whiff on Huff. But at least he took a swing on a coach that could bump Marshall from seven-, eight- and nine-win stability to New Year’s Six contention.
South Alabama: Kane Wommack
In 51-year-old Steve Campbell, South Alabama hired a proven FCS and Division-II coach with FBS experience and strong high school and JUCO ties throughout the state and region. It didn’t work; Campbell went 9-26, including 6-18 in the Sun Belt, in three seasons.
With his third swing at hiring a head coach, longtime athletics director Joel Erdmann plucked 33-year-old Kane Wommack from Tom Allen’s Indiana staff. A former assistant at South Alabama under Joey Jones, Wommack was an FCS grad assistant (Jacksonville State) just nine years ago.
“I’ve always known that no matter where I was or what position I held, I would choose South when the opportunity came,” Wommack said after his introduction on Dec. 14. “I’m so thankful that the administration and search committee felt the same way.”
Now the youngest FBS head coach, Wommack’s lack of head-coaching experience caps the initial grade at “B+,” but the potential is undeniable.
South Carolina: Shane Beamer
Bravo to South Carolina for correcting their Will Muschamp mistake by eating an eight-figure buyout and looking beyond another failed retread coach in their attempt to reach SEC relevancy.
A former Gamecocks’ assistant under Steve Spurrier (2007-10), Beamer has been on prospective candidate lists elsewhere for years. Beloved by former South Carolina players and throughout recruiting circles in the southeast, Beamer has coached under Spurrier, Kirby Smart, Lincoln Riley, and his father, Frank Beamer.
South Carolina took a swing with a 43-year-old coach with zero head-coaching experience, but the value (five years, $13.75 million) is spectacular.
Southern Miss: Will Hall
I’ve kept a close eye on two coaching-carousel items within the Tulane program over the last two years: When will a low- or mid-level Power Five team realize head coach Willie Fritz is a brilliant program-builder? And when will offensive coordinator Will Hall land a Power Five coordinator job?
Entering the final days of the 2020 season, Fritz remains Tulane’s head coach but needs a new offensive coordinator after Hall skipped the Power Five coordinator route to replace Jay Hopson as Southern Miss head coach. A Mississippi native, Hall won 56 games in three years as a Division-II head coach (West Alabama and West Georgia) before stops at Louisiana, Memphis, and Tulane.
Tennessee: Josh Heupel
Three years ago, Jeremy Pruitt wasn’t Tennessee’s first choice to replace Butch Jones. Pruitt wasn’t their second, third, or fourth choice and he was a colossal failure in Knoxville. New Vols’ athletics director Danny White claims Josh Heupel was his first choice to replace Pruitt. Only White knows if that’s true but that doesn’t make it a great hire.
If Heupel was indeed White’s first choice, a sincere bravo to the former longtime UCF athletics director. Bravo for ignoring the external noise and internal pressure for a more splashy hire. If White landed his top choice, he deserves loads of credit. But, again, that doesn’t make it a great hire.
If Heupel retains defensive coordinator/interim head coach Kevin Steele, this grade will earn a bump. For now, it’s an average hire for a program that, despite impending NCAA issues, should do better.
Texas: Steve Sarkisian
Texas collected buyout money (approximately $25 million for Tom Herman and his staff), conducted a search for a job that wasn’t publicly open, and hired the best offensive coordinator in college football…all without anyone noticing. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment for an athletics department that’s been a frequent punching bag across college football.
The hire itself is also good, though not A-plus level. Eleven years ago, Steve Sarkisian was also the best offensive coordinator in college football when Washington poached him from USC. And while Chris Petersen deserves loads of credit for building Washington into a playoff team, Sarkisian laid the groundwork that earned him a return to USC as head coach.
From all accounts, Sarkisian is no longer battling the issues that led to his 2014 dismissal from USC and is once again highly revered across the country. He’ll hire an incredible staff, win more in-state recruiting battles, and immediately raise the floor and ceiling for an underachieving program.
UCF: Gus Malzahn
Losing Josh Heupel to Tennessee wasn’t bad for UCF. Prolonged defensive issues and a gradual downward trajectory since 2018 wouldn’t have landed Heupel on the hot seat anytime soon, especially now that we know (former UCF AD and new Tennessee AD) Danny White loved him enough to lead the latest Tennessee rebuild, but it was cause for concern. Instead of eating a seven-figure buyout if Heupel was fired by White’s successor after another mediocre year or two, UCF was gifted a seven-figure buyout for losing Heupel.
And hiring Gus Malzahn wasn’t bad for UCF. They landed a 55-year-old with nine seasons of FBS head-coaching experience and three wins over Nick Saban. Malzahn will hire an outstanding staff and swipe recruits from the state’s Power Five programs. However, unless Malzahn pivots from a stale offensive system and better maximizes talent, it’ll be nothing more than above-average hire resulting in more eight- and nine-win seasons.
Utah State: Blake Andersen
Don’t let Utah State’s run of success under Gary Andersen (during his first tenure) and Matt Wells fool you into thinking this is an easy Mountain West job. This is a hard job, which the Aggies filled with a proven head coach and one of the most beloved people in college football.
The only reason Blake Anderson didn’t earn an “A+” grade: He hasn’t regularly recruited west or north of Texas in two decades. In seven years at Arkansas State, Anderson proved to be one of the country’s best at talent identification and development; therefore, it’s highly probable he can tweak that operation at Utah State. But it’s a fair question for a coach who hasn’t been west since a three-year run at New Mexico ended in 2001.
Vanderbilt: Clark Lea
Given the academic and athletics infrastructure restrictions, Vanderbilt hit the jackpot with Clark Lea, one of the most in-demand assistants in college football, whom they might’ve failed to hire with more openings in a normal year.
Vandy, like dozens of programs across the country, will never ditch their stepping-stone status. Unless the Commodores find their David Cutcliffe or Bill Snyder, their successful head coaches will always follow James Franklin’s path to bigger programs. However, Lea’s local ties (Nashville native, former Vandy fullback) might keep him around an extra year or two if the big boys call.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.