The 2020-21 college football coaching carousel isn’t as robust or as glitzy as previous versions, but it has stamina.
Kansas’ hire of Buffalo’s Lance Leipold on the last day of April means the carousel will spin into May. The Power 5 vacancies are likely set with Leipold’s move to KU, a sensible and potentially seismic hire by new athletic director Travis Goff.
The total number of moves is up to 16, as Buffalo is the only vacancy. The ACC is the only power conference without a coaching change in the cycle.
There are fewer grades to pass out than last year, and not as many big names landing new gigs. But several of these hires could be significant, especially for programs that bottomed out in recent years.
Here’s my list of grades, which will continue to be updated into May.
2020 coach: Les Miles (fired)
Replacement: Lance Leipold, previously Buffalo head coach
Kansas did very well under the circumstances. Conducting a coaching search in April with a first-time athletic director (Travis Goff) after an embarrassing situation for the program is less than ideal. Especially when the team went 0-9 last season and 18-90 in the past decade. In doing the search right away, Kansas didn’t have to compete with more attractive programs and still had several sitting FBS coaches (Leipold, Army’s Jeff Monken, Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz) interested in the job. Leipold is a proven winner. His record at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater (109-6, six national championships) is the inverse of Kansas’ dreadful decade.
Leipold’s success at Buffalo (37-33 overall, 24-10 since 2018) validates what he can do at a program with inherent challenges. Kansas is an even tougher job, and Leipold hasn’t been at a Power 5 program since 2003 at Nebraska. His staff construction and recruiting approach will be fascinating to watch. But Leipold brings a dynamic offense and, more importantly, understands player development about as well as any coach out there. At 56, he was realistic about his career outlook and wanted to make one more big move. Leipold gives Kansas a real chance to get back on somewhat stable footing again.
2020 coach: Jeremy Pruitt (fired)
Replacement: Josh Heupel, previously UCF head coach
New Tennessee athletic director Danny White faced a very difficult task in convincing candidates with good-to-great jobs to take one in Knoxville filled with uncertainty. He swung big (James Franklin, Luke Fickell, Matt Campbell) and predictably missed, before focusing on Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott until Tuesday. Then the search pivoted to Heupel. White’s hire of Heupel at UCF was a big surprise, and while this move comes with less shock value, there are still concerns about whether the 42-year-old can win in college football’s toughest conference, at a program potentially facing major SEC sanctions, after a decade of utter dysfunction on Rocky Top.
Heupel knows offense and quarterback play, which Tennessee needs, and went 28-8 at UCF. But the program has started to backslide, as the Knights went just 6-4 in 2020. As another Tennessee coaching candidate told me of Heupel, “Not as good a situation to walk into as UCF was.” That’s an understatement. Heupel will have to weather the NCAA storm as well as a Tennessee fan base that likely wouldn’t have been pleased with any realistic option in this search. Heupel’s working relationship with White is a plus here, but he will need incredibly thick skin to withstand the next few years at Tennessee. I certainly have my doubts about this one.
2020 coach: Tom Herman (fired)
Replacement: Steve Sarkisian (previously Alabama offensive coordinator)
The timing of Herman’s dismissal rocked college football, but his replacement isn’t a huge surprise and could provide a much-needed upgrade at Texas. At Alabama, Sarkisian has reaffirmed himself as an elite playcaller, orchestrating record-setting offenses the past two seasons. While many point to Alabama’s talent, his development of quarterback Mac Jones this fall, after the transcendent Tua Tagovailoa departed Tuscaloosa, is truly remarkable. Texas realizes it needs next-level quarterbacks and offenses to ultimately overtake Oklahoma in the Big 12 and compete nationally with the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Herman simply couldn’t get there with Sam Ehlinger, and Sarkisian brings a stronger track record to a quarterbacks room that includes Casey Thompson and Hudson Card.
My only potential hesitation here would be the off-field issues that derailed Sarkisian’s career at USC. He seemingly has turned his life around, addressing problems that many people face and try to overcome. Sarkisian also gained perspective from a health scare over the summer. The Texas job brings a unique level of pressure, and Sarkisian ultimately must show he’s a stronger and more consistent CEO to take the Longhorns to the next level.
2020 coach: Kevin Sumlin (fired)
Replacement: Jedd Fisch (previously New England Patriots quarterbacks coach)
Fisch has never been a head coach, but football fans are likely familiar with him — odds are, he has coached for your favorite college or pro team. Since 2000, when Fisch completed two years as a graduate assistant at Florida, his alma mater, he has worked for four college programs and seven NFL teams. Fisch, 44, has extensive coordinator experience and has been considered for several FBS head-coaching jobs, including Arizona when it hired Kevin Sumlin, Rutgers and Kansas. Despite mixed results, including this year with Cam Newton and the Patriots, Fisch has done a solid job of working his way into coaching searches over the years.
I like Fisch personally, and I think he could succeed in the right spot. The issue is Arizona made it very clear what type of coach it wanted after the Sumlin disaster. Arizona wanted someone directly connected to the school or the state, or at least to beloved former coach Dick Tomey. San Jose State’s Brent Brennan, a former Tomey assistant who built the Spartans program this year, seemed like a good option. Nevada’s Jay Norvell was another one. But university president Robert Robbins, who has a close connection with Fisch, ultimately had the final say here. That approach usually doesn’t work out. Fisch has coached in the Pac-12, but he needs to make good staff hires with connections to the state.
2020 coach: Gus Malzahn (fired)
Replacement: Bryan Harsin (previously Boise State head coach)
After turning down many Power 5 overtures at his alma mater, Harsin emerged out of the blue to become Auburn’s next leading man. The grade would be higher without concerns about the fit, but Harsin brings both experience as a head coach (eight seasons) and success in leading programs (76-24 overall, including 69-19 at Boise State with a Fiesta Bowl win and four Top 25 finishes). The former Boise State quarterback also provides a clear vision for Auburn’s offense, which fluttered toward the end of Malzahn’s tenure and ultimately led to his ouster.
Although Harsin replaced Malzahn once before at Arkansas State in 2013, his year in Jonesboro following two years as Texas’ co-offensive coordinator mark the only stretch he has spent outside his native Boise or the Pacific Northwest. He’s about as SEC as Malzahn would be in the Pac-12. Now he has to compete in the same state with Nick Saban, in the same division with Saban, Jimbo Fisher, Ed Orgeron and Lane Kiffin, and in a ruthless recruiting region. Harsin simply can’t bring a bunch of Boise State guys with him to the Plains. His initial staffing hires will be especially important as he adjusts to a vastly different league and area.
2020 coach: Derek Mason (fired)
Replacement: Clark Lea (previously Notre Dame defensive coordinator)
The reaction from Notre Dame fans to Lea’s departure showed a lot about what type of coach Vanderbilt is getting. While all fan bases hate to lose elite coordinators, Notre Dame fans also recognize that Lea’s ceiling in coaching goes much higher than calling defensive plays. Lea could be a viable down-the-road option to lead Notre Dame’s program. He’s that good. For now, he’ll return home to Nashville and take on a much tougher challenge: reviving a Vanderbilt program that endured its first winless season in team history.
Lea, 38, knows Vanderbilt and the challenges there, which is essential in the role. He won’t be blindsided by the differences between Vandy and its SEC competitors. Lea is smart and relatable, and understands the recruiting circles Vanderbilt must enter, not only from his time at Notre Dame but perhaps more so when he worked at Wake Forest under Dave Clawson. Although Vanderbilt could have hired a sitting head coach, and looked for options with offensive backgrounds, Lea has the traits, local knowledge and support network to really get the program going. There’s a lot to like about this hire.
2020 coach: Lovie Smith (fired)
Replacement: Bret Bielema (previously New York Giants outside linebackers coach)
Illinois had an interesting decision with Smith’s replacement: Hire a lower-profile but ascending FBS coach (Buffalo’s Lance Leipold, Kent State’s Sean Lewis, Army’s Jeff Monken), an up-and-coming coordinator (Oklahoma’s Alex Grinch) or a retread but one who won three consecutive Big Ten championships not that long ago? Athletic director Josh Whitman ultimately went with Big Ten experience in Bielema, 50, who was trying to get back into the college game after three years in the NFL. Bielema understands how to win in the Big Ten, especially the West Division, after coaching at both Wisconsin and Iowa and recruiting against Illinois.
I understand some of the criticism toward Bielema. The truth is he never should have left Wisconsin, one of the best and most stable programs in college football. I understand why he did but thought the decision would backfire and it did. But he’s also turned a page, patched up his friendship with Barry Alvarez and gained a lot from his time in the NFL, especially alongside Bill Belichick in New England. Although Leipold would have been my pick here, Bielema’s knowledge of the division and name recognition should provide a nice boost for Illinois.
2020 coach: Will Muschamp (fired)
Replacement: Shane Beamer (previously Oklahoma associate head coach)
The outcome here will be fascinating. The fit factor is paramount in coaching searches, and Beamer undoubtedly is a fit at South Carolina. He loves the school, where he served as an assistant from 2007 to 2010 and helped build the recruiting classes that sparked the Gamecocks to a 33-6 run from 2011 to 2013. Unlike most candidates, Beamer truly sees South Carolina as a destination job. He has been around great coaches and programs his entire life, most notably his father, Frank, a College Football Hall of Fame coach at Virginia Tech. Previous Power 5 head coach or coordinator experience isn’t absolutely necessary for head-coaching success. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald all lacked those credentials, and they’ve all done pretty darn well.
But I wouldn’t have graded any of those hires much higher than this one. Previous head-coaching experience, or at least coordinator experience, is strongly preferred for these jobs, especially one of the more challenging positions in the nation’s toughest conference. Beamer, 43, wouldn’t have been a strong candidate at many other Power 5 jobs. While sitting head coaches like Louisville’s Scott Satterfield and Louisiana’s Billy Napier surfaced in the search, South Carolina ultimately went with a guy who had stronger support from former players. Beamer could be a fantastic CEO, but there are some reasonable concerns here, and his staffing hires will be critical to boosting South Carolina.
Group of 5
2020 coach: Josh Heupel (left to become Tennessee head coach)
Replacement: Gus Malzahn (previously Auburn head coach)
In a mostly underwhelming hiring cycle, Terry Mohajir made two of the strongest moves. He landed Butch Jones while still serving as Arkansas State’s athletic director. Then, after leaving for the UCF job, he brought in Malzahn, who was somewhat surprisingly fired by Auburn despite having $21.7 million left on his contract. Although Mohajir didn’t hire Malzahn at Arkansas State, the two overlapped during the 2012 season, and Mohajir is very familiar with Malzahn’s work. The lukewarm reaction from UCF fans on Twitter stems from Malzahn’s middling results the past three seasons (23-13, one Top 25 finish).
While UCF is an excellent job, it’s still a Group of 5 program, which just hired a coach who played for a national title in 2013, twice won the SEC West and beat Nick Saban’s Alabama teams three times between 2013 and 2019 — more than any other coach. Malzahn undoubtedly needs to rediscover his fastball on offense, which is my only hesitation here, and the primary reason he’s no longer at Auburn. The lack of progress with quarterback Bo Nix and Auburn’s offense the past two years is a real concern. But Malzahn inherits a great situation with quarterback Dillon Gabriel and should have UCF competing for the New Year’s Six again right away.
2020 coach: Doc Holliday (contract not renewed)
There is always a dose of skepticism when a school picks a coach who hasn’t led a program before or spent most of his career as a coordinator (Huff coordinated Penn State’s special teams from 2014 to 2017). But Huff has been preparing this role, rather than taking offensive coordinator jobs and moving up the traditional ladder. He is one of the nation’s elite recruiters, brings a strong understanding of the national landscape, and should attract strong assistant coaching candidates to a program used to winning. The 37-year-old hasn’t coached at Marshall but has worked in the general region with stops at Penn State and Vanderbilt. His ability to recruit in different areas — Northeast, Midwest, mid-South and Southeast — should serve Marshall well. This is a risk-reward hire, but one that could provide Marshall a much-needed boost after Holliday’s solid but often overlooked tenure.
2020 coach: Bryan Harsin (left to become Auburn head coach)
Replacement: Andy Avalos (previously Oregon defensive coordinator)
When Harsin left his alma mater for the Plains, two other Boise State graduates immediately surfaced as the likeliest replacements. Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, a former Boise State quarterback and the most popular player in team history, would have been the grand slam hire. But Avalos is a strong option too, as he knows Boise State extremely well as a former star linebacker and a longtime defensive assistant coach for both Harsin and Chris Petersen. Avalos transitioned well into his first Power 5 role at Oregon, especially with the 2019 defense, which ranked ninth nationally in scoring. Avalos will have a learning curve as he adjusts to running a program. Boise State’s success also is tied to coaches with offensive backgrounds. While Avalos starred as a linebacker at Boise State and significantly improved the Broncos’ defense, he will need to make smart staffing and personnel choices to continue the program’s tradition of offensive success. Boise State aspires to make New Year’s Six bowls, so the pressure is on Avalos.
2020 coach: Matt Viator (fired)
Replacement: Terry Bowden (previously Clemson graduate assistant)
I just don’t get it. ULM is at the bottom of the FBS pecking order, but it still had an opportunity to hire a younger, up-and-coming coach who could navigate the financial challenges and upgrade the program in an increasingly more competitive Sun Belt. Memphis assistant John Simon, Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Joe Sloan and former ULM offensive coordinator Matt Kubik all made sense. Instead, the school went with a recognizable name in Bowden, 64, who Akron fired two years ago. Sources described the hiring process as flawed and unnecessarily delayed. Bowden certainly understands what the job entails, and he has held positions at more smaller schools (Salem, Samford, North Alabama, Akron) than bigger ones (Auburn). But he’s also at the end of his career, while ULM easily could have nabbed a coach on the rise.
2020 coach: Blake Anderson (left to become Utah State head coach)
Replacement: Butch Jones (previously special assistant to Alabama coach Nick Saban)
This is a very smart hire, especially with the program plateauing under Anderson before a 4-7 mark this year. Arkansas State’s past four coaches all have left for other FBS jobs, and the job is well-regarded in the industry. Jones ideally wanted to return to the Power 5 and had a good shot at Rutgers last year if things didn’t work out with Greg Schiano. But his biggest successes have been at the Group of 5 level at Central Michigan (27-13, two MAC titles) and Cincinnati (23-14, two Big East titles). He has name recognition throughout the region from his time at Tennessee and will energize Arkansas State’s recruiting in the ascending Sun Belt Conference. Jones, 52, also benefited from his time alongside Saban and likely won’t make the same errors he did toward the end at Tennessee.
2020 coach: Jay Hopson (fired after season-opening loss)
Replacement: Will Hall (previously Tulane offensive coordinator)
Not to get too repetitive, but fit is the most important thing with these coaching searches, and Hall appears to be a strong fit at Southern Miss. He grew up in the state, where his father, Bobby, became a high school coaching legend and won a total of four state championships at two schools. Will Hall also brings head-coaching experience at two Division II programs: West Georgia and West Alabama, going 56-20 overall. Hall, 40, started his college career as a quarterback at a Mississippi junior college (Northwest Mississippi), and knows how to navigate both the junior college and high school scene in the state. Southern Miss had some bigger names involved but Hall should prove to be a strong choice in Hattiesburg.
2020 coach: Steve Campbell (fired)
Replacement: Kane Wommack (previously Indiana defensive coordinator)
South Alabama athletic director Joel Erdmann had an obvious hire to make. While schools often don’t choose the clear choice, Erdmann did in hiring Wommack, South Alabama’s former defensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017. Wommack’s stock couldn’t be much higher, as he helped Indiana to a 6-1 regular season and a No. 11 CFP ranking. The Hoosiers’ defense has made significant strides since Wommack became coordinator. My only hesitation is Wommack’s age (33), as he could take some time to grow into the role. But he has been around coaching his entire life, as his father, Dave, held defensive coordinator posts at Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Arkansas. Kane Wommack also knows the South Alabama program and loves the Mobile area.
2020 coach: Gary Andersen (fired)
Replacement: Blake Anderson (previously Arkansas State head coach)
Anderson won 7-9 games in his first six seasons at Arkansas State before the team took a step back this fall. Anderson can benefit from a fresh start, especially after a tough year in 2019 when his wife, Wendy, died of cancer shortly before the season. He’s a seasoned head coach who spent time in the Mountain West as a New Mexico assistant from 1999 to 2001. My concern here is the fit. Utah State is in a unique location, and knowledge of the state and how to recruit to Logan, Utah, is essential for success. Athletic director John Hartwell, an outsider himself from Alabama, had several good options within the state (Weber State coach Jay Hill among them). Anderson, 51, also seems to be descending a bit in his career.