Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Deciphering USC's head coaching search

As you may have heard, USC has a vacancy within its football program. The Trojans have moved on from Lane Kiffin and promoted Ed Orgeron on an interim basis. As much as fans of other Pac-12 teams want to see Orgeron receive the full-time gig and further drive the Trojans into the ground, that isn't going to happen. USC will embark on a lengthy and tireless search for their new head coach. Because they removed Kiffin so early in the season USC has carved out about two months to carefully operate their search before other jobs start to open up. However, USC's window won't last forever as the Texas job (a better position than USC) is likely to be open by the end of the season.

So what is USC looking for in a head coach? They want someone with head coaching experience and a proven long term track record. USC took a chance on a young coach last time around and it blew up in their face. The Trojans need someone with extensive experience who has won consistently. They want someone who understands USC's tradition and more importantly, it's standing within the city of Los Angeles. For USC alums and administration, it is unacceptable to be looking up at UCLA in the national rankings and Pac-12 standings and to be losing recruiting battles to the Bruins for the top LA high school recruits. Finally, believe it or not, but academics does matter in this situation. USC fans certainly don't care about it, the boosters who will pay the next coach's salary probably don't care, and even Pat Haden who will ultimately make the hire might not care about the academic side of the football program.

However, Haden won't be able to make a final decision without the blessing of USC's President and Board of Trustees and you're kidding yourself if you don't think academics matter to those parties. President Max Nikias and the BOT won't ratify a new coaches contract unless they believe the new guy will maintain a high graduation rate of his players and uphold USC's standing as an institution. USC isn't even one of the top five most prestigious academic institutions in the state of California but it is a private school with very high standards and a lot of powerful people in administration who think the school is on the same level academically as Stanford or UCLA.

A lot of people think USC wants a coach with NFL experience based on their history but that might not necessarily be true this time around. You have to keep in mind that this is Haden's first head coaching search for his football program. He inherited Lane Kiffin from his predecessor Mike Garrett who highly valued professional experience. Garrett hired three football coaches during his tenure: Paul Hackett, Pete Carroll and Kiffin, all of whom were NFL retreads. Garrett also valued professional experience in other sports as his final two hires for the men's basketball program were former NBA head coaches Tim Floyd and Kevin O'Neill. Haden has had to make one major coaching hire in his tenure when he fired O'Neill last season and replaced him with Andy Enfield. Haden did not consider a single NBA candidate last year and ultimately settled on a mid-major coach from Florida Gulf Coast University. Haden may very well settle on an NFL coach but we have seen no clear indication that Haden values NFL experience the way Garrett did.

With that in mind, there are a lot of names that have been thrown out for this job. Some are realistic possibilities while others are preposterous. First, let's dispel the notion that any of the following names have any interest whatsoever in coaching the Trojans:

Jon Gruden: Somehow Gruden comes up as a candidate for every NFL job and every significant college job. The truth of the matter is that Gruden has been out of coaching for five years now and the fire inside him for coaching might be extinguished. He's still relatively young at 50 years old compared to most coaches but he has four years left on his contract with ESPN that is rumored to be worth more than four million dollars per year. Gruden's ESPN contract is worth more than all but four coaches at the NCAA level and instead of working 16 hours a day all year round, he works once a week for four months and gets to do things like this. Gruden hasn't shut the door on returning to coaching but he sure as heck isn't going to take a college job.

Nick Saban: A lot of people think USC has more money than God and will be able to get whoever they want. If that were true, then why not pursue the best college coach in America? Well USC is not nearly as flushed with cash as some people think and Saban has no interest in moving West. Saban has put his roots down in the southeast and doesn't want to move to California where he will no longer have a pipeline to the southern recruits that he has spent the last 20 years getting access to. There is a reason Saban took the jobs at LSU, the Miami Dolphins, and Alabama because he only wants to be in the south. Even if there was mutual interest between Saban and USC, Saban will be the top target for Texas and USC has no hope of winning a bidding war with the Longhorns.

Jeff Fisher: USC's love of NFL coaches is well documented and between that and Fisher's status as a USC alum, Fisher has become a dream candidate for Trojan fans but the thought of him taking the USC job is totally unrealistic. Fisher has been coaching at the NFL level since 1985 and has no college coaching experience whatsoever, not even as a graduate assistant. With the exception of Saban and Bobby Petrino, no sitting NFL head coach has left an NFL job for a college job. Saban and Petrino were long term college coaches who gave the NFL a try and quickly found out it wasn't for them. Fisher is an NFL lifer and even if he is on the hot seat with the St. Louis Rams he won't be fired until the NFL coaching carousel starts in January, long after the expiration of USC's internal deadline to install a new coach. Even if Fisher is fired by the Rams, I think he would rather retire than step down to the college level.

Chris Petersen: The Boise State legend might be the most preferred candidate for USC fans but he has been the top target for top jobs before including Florida, UCLA, Arizona State, Arkansas, and Washington among others. Petersen has repeatedly said he is happy in Boise and did not get into coaching for money. He doesn't want to deal with the stress and pressure of coaching at a place like USC and he has proven that time and time again with his actions.

Mike Riley: Riley comes up because he has been wildly successful in the Pac-10/12 for the better part of the last decade and he is familiar with USC as he was the offensive coordinator and QB coach at USC from 1993-1996. Thanks to his history with USC and success in the conference, he was offered the job both in 2001 and 2010 and rebuffed the Trojans on both occasions. Like Petersen, Riley is happy at a small school where fans are happy with eight wins and will build a statue of him for it. He has proven that he has no interest in the USC job and the third time won't be the charm for USC if they call him again.

Kevin Sumlin: Sumlin might actually be a realistic candidate. A lot of people close to him say he is eager about moving up the coaching ladder and trying to rise to the top of the coaching profession. However, between Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Houston, and Texas A&M again, Sumlin has spent the last 12 years of his life establishing himself in Texas and building a reputation as a top recruiter within the state. I don't think Sumlin will be at Texas A&M for the long haul but I think he is going to patiently wait for the NFL to come calling rather than make a lateral move to a place like USC where he will no longer be able to build his roster on Texas recruits.

Those six names will come up frequently as possible targets for USC but will not be the Trojans' new coach under any circumstances. Of course, someone has to be the next coach at USC and the school's brain trust will be able to have their pick of an exciting crop of prospects. These are the names to pay attention to:

James Franklin: If you can win at Vanderbilt, you can win anywhere and if other programs want you, then you probably shouldn't stay at a place like Vandy for too long. Franklin has been a hot coaching prospect for about three years now because of his energy and passion and the way he inspires his players. He took over a pathetic program and turned it into a quality team almost overnight. If not for being in the SEC and constantly facing guaranteed losses from the likes of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, Vanderbilt would be a perennial top 25 team under Franklin. Franklin has greatly stressed academics and maintained a very high graduation rate. He has also consistently won recruiting battles against top SEC teams and has qualified his high school recruits despite Vanderbilt's ridiculously high admissions standards. Franklin loves the college game and the traditions that surround it. He doesn't know much about USC and its traditions but he would embrace USC and its history with open arms.

Art Briles: Briles has become an enormously successful head coach at Baylor and like Franklin, he took over a historically terrible team and quickly built it into a borderline national title contender. To tell you the truth, I haven't heard Briles' name connected to USC all that much but he absolutely should be. If USC wants to compete in the new age Pac-12 and modernize its offense then they have to get a guy like Briles who is regarded as a true offensive genius and one of the best QB gurus in the college game. Briles seems happy at Baylor but the chance to coach at a place like USC is a huge step up in prestige and salary. Briles traded in the Houston job for Baylor and at the time Houston was a better football school than Baylor so I think Briles will have his eyes set on a great job like USC. Of course like Sumlin above, Briles has built his career on recruiting in Texas and he might be reluctant to leave that behind. If the Texas job opens up and UT officials pursue Briles, then Briles will pick Texas over USC. However, if the Longhorns don't court him and USC does offer, I think the Baylor coach would jump on the opportunity.

Jack Del Rio: As a former professional head coach and a USC alum, Del Rio fits the profile of a head Trojan. Unlike Fisher, Del Rio is not a current head coach but is rather the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and is therefore clear to jump on an offer from USC. I believe Del Rio will be a serious candidate at USC and he would accept the job if offered but I don't think USC should want him. Del Rio has no college coaching experience at all and as a defensive coach, he would not be addressing USC's biggest issues, QB development and overall offensive productivity. I know USC was terrible on defense against Arizona State but that had more to do with scholarship sanctions than Clancy Pendergast. USC built a big enough body of work in its first four games to suggest their defense is better under Pendergast. Right now, USC does not have the depth to hang with the top teams in the Pac-12 but bringing in a defensive coach like Del Rio and pushing Pendergast away would be counter-productive. Because Del Rio has no college experience, there is no evidence to suggest that Del Rio has the connections to find a successful college offensive coordinator who can develop quarterbacks and call plays.  Del Rio will be in the mix for this job but USC would probably be smart to ignore him.

Pat Fitzgerald: I'm skeptical whether Fitzgerald wants to leave Northwestern. He is an NU alum and has been the head coach there for seven years now. He has been courted before but not by any schools as powerful as USC. He's also never been hotter as a commodity than right now as Northwestern is a top 25 team and is a legitimate front runner in the Big Ten. If Fitzgerald manages to upset Ohio State this week, Northwestern will be in the cat bird seat to reach the Rose Bowl and Fitzgerald will rise to the top of the wanted list for every team with a vacancy. Fitzgerald will have a hard time turning his back on his alma mater but a job as big as USC could sway him. Fitzgerald may be a defensive coach but he would still be a great fit at USC. Northwestern has had the best graduation rate in college football for several years now and Fitzgerald has unanimous respect from his players. Fitzgerald's players respect him and listen to him in ways that USC's players never did for Kiffin. he also made a great OC hire four years ago when he brought in Mick McCall who implemented the spread offense at Northwestern and made the Wildcats one of the premier offensive teams in the Big Ten. If Fitzgerald can bring McCall with him to USC, he would be a great hire and Haden would be stupid not to at least give Fitzgerlad's agent a phone call.

Tim DeRuyter: DeRuyter would be a fall back option for USC if the prospective coaches above said no but he probably should be a front runner. DeRuyter has built a great program at Fresno State and has the Bulldogs undefeated and in position as the best non-AQ program in college football in his second year at Fresno. DeRuyter is from a defensive background but he has a noted offensive coordinator/QB coach at Fresno in Dave Schramm who has made a name for himself developing QB Derek Carr into a potential first round draft pick. DeRuyter understands the college football culture in California and the local recruiting climate and he can give USC unprecedented access to Texas recruits thanks to his time as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. His two teams at Fresno State have been very well disciplined and a lot of people have been very impressed by his command over Fresno's locker room. DeRuyter would not be a flashy hire like Franklin or Briles but I think he would be an ideal fit for what USC needs. Of course, there is one other guy who would have to say no before USC calls DeRuyter...

Steve Sarkisian: Sarkisian's name has been the most loudly heard within the USC fan base since Kiffin was fired, more so than Del Rio, Fisher, or anyone else. The reasons why are obvious, Sarkisian was an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll from 2001-2008 (save for one year in 2004 when was with the Oakland Raiders). Now of course USC hired a Carroll understudy with USC connections last time around and he was a complete failure. So why would USC go down this road again? Well Sarkisian is a far superior coach for one. Instead of a disastrous venture into the NFL and one ill-begotten season at Tennessee, Sarkisian parlayed his USC success into another Pac-12 job and has been a proven success. It took him a little while to turn things around at Washington and his job security was sketchy at times but in his fifth year in Seattle, Sarkisian has successfully rebuilt an 0-12 team into a borderline national title contender.

Sarkisian is a great offensive coach who coordinated great offenses for USC under Carroll but smartly abandoned his antiquated pro style system and brought in a new no-huddle spread offense this year that has revolutionized Washington's program. He also has a loaded staff at Washington that he can bring to USC led by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox who is one of the best in the game and defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi who is regarded as one of the premier recruiters on the west coast. Sarkisian would modernize USC's offense, stabilize its defense, and beat UCLA in recruiting for all the top players in Southern California. Sarkisian should be USC's top target and the future of USC might come down to whether Sarkisian is willing to turn his back on Washington and make a lateral move within the conference that will surely lead to an ugly breakup in Seattle. Personally, I don't think Sark will leave Seattle. He was offered the USC job in 2010 but turned it down saying that he felt UW was a "dream job" and "not a stepping stone." He toiled for five years reshaping the worst team in college football into a contender and I don't think he is about to flush that all away so he can return to USC and inherit another rebuilding job that is in almost as dire a situation as what we walked into when he arrived in Seattle back in 2009.

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