BEST HIRE:Mark Richt, Miami After all the hype and hoopla from ’Cane Nation with trying to get Butch Davis back in the mix in Coral Gables ever since Al Golden got the axe in midseason, Miami jumped at the chance to bring the former Hurricanes QB home. Once Georgia let Richt go following a 9-3 season, he became the biggest name out there with, by far, the best credentials. A character guy and a quality coach whose record with the Bulldogs was 145-51 in 14 seasons, Richt brings instant credibility to a program that, braggadocio and pride aside, sorely could use some. Frankly, that Georgia fired him makes little sense other than the school wanted “change,” and Miami benefitted from that. On Thursday, he said goodbye to his players in Athens, Ga. On Friday, he was officially introduced as Hurricanes coach. Good move, Miami. Runner-up: D.J. Durkin, Maryland. Former Michigan DC may be the right guy to really tap into region’s quality recruiting base.
ODDEST HIRE: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech It’s not so much that the Hokies reached out to Fuente, one of several “hot commodities” in the American Athletic Conference, it’s that he actually accepted the gig once it was offered. Seriously, if anyone thinks Virginia Tech is a better program than the one Fuente is leaving behind at Memphis right now, they are sadly misinformed or completely blind. The guess here is that the 39-year-old believed his future prospects would be better in Blacksburg, Va., considering the Hokies’ affiliation with the power-5 Atlantic Coast Conference. But Tech hasn’t been relevant on the national scene for four years, even with the legendary Frank Beamer on the sidelines. It will be interesting to see how Fuente does there, and if his success at Memphis turns out to be his own doing or that he was just fortunate to have a talent the likes of current Tigers QB Paxton Lynch fall into his lap. Runner-up: Kirby Smart, Georgia. If the Bulldogs wanted to have someone they know run the show, why not just keep Richt?
CASE OF THE BLAHS: Multiple Not much you can say about the uninspired promotions of in-house staff at Southern Cal, Missouri and Illinois, all of which scream “make a splash” to varying degrees and none did. At least Clay Helton has done some of the HC lifting at USC already, guiding the Trojans to a 5-2 mark down the stretch and into the Pac-12 title game. But Mizzou and the Illini? Yeah, OK, Barry Odom has a history with the Tigers as a player and assistant coach, and Bill Cubit coached Illinois this season on an interim basis, but c’mon. All three of these were knee-jerk, play-it-safe decisions that, ultimately, could blow up for each school, or get them all stuck in a state of mediocrity.
BEST AVAILABLE GIG: South Carolina The fact the Gamecocks are making overtures to Will Muschamp, who failed miserably in his initial foray into HC waters with Florida, may make this a crappy outpost in short order. But, make no mistake, it is a big-time, national program with fantastic facilities and support. Playing in the SEC is a plus, when you have the right guy in charge. Will the Thrill is hardly one to handle the rigors of HC work under such a microscope. There are many better candidates out there who would be able to do so, and get the Gamecocks back to the level Steve Spurrier had them 2011-13, when each edition finished 11-2 and ranked among the nation’s top eight teams. Runner-up: Rutgers. Having seen what Greg Schiano was able to do before Kyle Flood’s tenure, this truly is a sleeping giant.
BEST AVAILABLE COACH: Matt Rhule What he has done at Temple defines miraculous as it pertains to college football, especially college football in Philadelphia. That he has made the long downtrodden Owls relevant not only nationally, but in the insanely pro-centric city, at least to some degree, is a testament to his charisma, coaching and salesmanship. Kids want to play for this guy. No matter what their background, he somehow manages to relate to them in a way that inspires and motivates in rare fashion. His passion and his genuine sincerity are the hallmarks of what has fueled a disjointed group into one happy family along North Broad that plays as tough as any team you’ll see on a fall weekend, even Sundays. Runner-up: Schiano. Everyone seems to shy away from him after his brief stint in the NFL, but he was brilliant in taking the worst program in the country and turning it into a top-25 outfit and consistent winner.
Matt Rhule has led Temple to a school-record 10 wins this regular season and a spot in the inaugural AAC championship game.
It gets a little crazy in college football.
Every year, pretty much around the same time. Teams struggle, don’t live up to expectations, and heads start to roll … on merit or not.
With that, commodities start to emerge on the coaching carousel front, or those who already were assigned such status suddenly become “hot” or “trendy” or absolute “musts” for programs in search turning things around or trying to get them started.
A friend perfectly coined the most common trains of thought for schools on this ride and whom they seek to take control of their varying degrees of dumpster fires:
The Big-Time Coordinator
The Recycled Big-Time Coach
That being the case, the American Athletic Conference has cornered the market on creating “1s” this season. Already, Justin Fuente has parlayed a solid four-year run at Memphis, including a strong final two seasons, into a new gig at Virginia Tech of the more prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference, and, frankly, he might not even carry the potential “rock star” cachet as the two guys who square off on opposing sidelines Saturday afternoon in Houston for the inaugural AAC title game.
Leave the “2s” and “3s” to the power-5 conferences, where the likes of Georgia, Miami and Alabama can fire a class guy, hire the same class guy and then replace that class guy in some sort of bizarro, almost incestuous nepotism trade that finds alums, after all the pomp and circumstance, taking over at their alma maters.
In Temple’s Matt Rhule and Houston’s Tom Herman, the AAC has what every bigger-time and better-known program wants: energy, enthusiasm, smarts, savvy, communicative skills and motivational tools all wrapped in a nice, clean, young package.
Here’s the rub, though: Neither of them may be going anywhere.
Perhaps taking an intriguing aspect away from their championship matchup, Herman and Rhule have diffused talk of impending departures in their own ways. Herman, actually, has agreed in principle to a new contract, while Rhule, as recently as Thursday, shared on the airwaves in Temple’s hometown of Philly his intention to remain on North Broad, and his, and his family’s, genuine love for not just the school, but the city.
Unlike Fuente, who seemed to jump at the first job perceived to be a step up, when, in reality, it may not be, Rhule and Herman appear to be making sound, insightful, no-rush decisions.
For starters, Herman is just in his first year as a head coach. After being named the country’s top assistant last season while serving as Ohio State offensive coordinator during its national championship run, Herman was handed the keys to pretty nice operation in Houston, where the Cougars have a beautiful, year-old, 40,000-seat, on-campus stadium and one of the most electric talents out there in quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Beefing up that resume with 11-1 start, Herman could bolt, but why now?
If he continues on his current path, opportunities will be there in the future, and, frankly, who says Houston couldn’t become a national power under his direction anyway?
Rhule’s deal is different, but no less appealing to possible suitors. A former Temple assistant who spent one season as an NFL assistant with the New York Giants, he returned to the Owls in 2013 and has quickly built up the program, jumping from 2 wins to 6 and then 10 so far this season.
If anything, he was dealt a far lesser hand than Herman in Houston, and even Fuente in Memphis, with poorer facilities and far poorer support, and, yet, here he is, going head-to-head with another 40-year-old with the opportunity to claim a conference crown and maybe a New Year’s bowl bid along with that.
The fact Rhule put together a team that not only toppled Penn State for the first time in 74 years and legitimately hung with Notre Dame for four quarters, but actually sold out 69,000-seat Lincoln Financial Field for both of those games in the most pro-centric sports town in the country is beyond mind-boggling.
He, too, is in the same boat. Stay the current path and other jobs will be offered down the road, and if the better move for him and his family is to leave Temple at that point, then do so.
But, right now, Rhule and Herman seem to recognize that they’re in pretty spots, and if nothing else, a little more seasoning as head coaches will do no harm. Leave the crazy to others.