(Robert T. Barrett painting, OhVarsity illustration)
I’ve been putting this off, but I think it’s time to look at some of the coaching candidates available to UC come D-Day in December. Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure that UC will be in the market for a coach, but it’s starting to feel like a safer bet each week.
I took the time to assemble a list of names I like that have a decent chance of being lured to Clifton. You’ll notice this doesn’t include Les Miles, Charlie Strong, or Brian Kelly, three candidates that Bearcat fans would gladly welcome to UC but are more than a long-shot.
The names on this list are in a general order of preference, but it’s not hard-and-fast. Think of it as a spectrum. I like the guys at the top more than guys at the bottom, but it’s not necessarily in a strict order.
Feel free to let me know which ones you love, which ones you hate, and which ones I missed. Here goes nothing:
P.J. Fleck — Head Coach, Western Michigan
Fleck has put together an incredible run at WMU. Through the 2004 season, the Broncos made just two bowl appearances, winning neither. In 2005, Bill Cubit took over and made three bowl appearances (once losing to Cincinnati) until he was fired after the 2012 season. Fleck took over in 2013, at the same time Tuberville did. His team won just a single game, and it was a one-point victory over UMass. Flash forward two years later, and WMU wins their first ever bowl game. As of this writing, his Broncos are 9–0 and ranked 17th an America. Behold, the Power of P.J.
Despite starting with a 1–11 team that lost an FCS game, Fleck’s record at Western Michigan is 25–21 (17–11), neck-and-neck with Tuberville’s 29–18 (18–11).
He’s wonderful, and I’d keel over if he somehow wound up at UC.
Pros: He’s a rebuilding wizard, if WMU is any indication. Fans in Cincinnati would love him and his style. He’s extremely passionate, and very young. He was hired as head coach at WMU just after his 32nd birthday. He’s led the MAC in recruiting in all four seasons. His leadership style and recruiting prowess remind me of Houston’s Tom Herman. He has a pretty quirky way of running things (Row the boat!), and would want to go somewhere that would allow him free reign to run his unique brand of football. A place like Texas or Notre Dame would seem like a bad fit. He strikes me as the kind of guy that would like to go somewhere and work outside the box rather than work within one that past coaches have created.
Bonus: Fans may remember Western Michigan wearing helmet stickers following the tragic passing of Bearcat Ben Flick, thanks to P.J.
Cons: There aren’t many. He’s very young and has just three years of big program experience, so there’s a certain degree of uncertainty. However, the AAC is not the SEC. His MAC resume is more than enough for me to back up a dump truck of money if I had access to one.
The bottom line: If Mike Bohn can lure Fleck to Clifton, I might cry.
Offensive or defensive background? Offense (wide receivers)
Big program experience? Ohio State (one season, graduate assistant), Rutgers (two seasons, wide receivers)
Pro experience? Tampa Bay Buccaneers (one season, wide receivers)
Head coach experience? Western Michigan (four seasons)
Bryan Harsin — Head Coach, Boise State
I don’t get the sense that Harsin wants to rush out of Boise. They held a Top 15 ranking this season, he makes decent money ($1.25M), he’s practically got a machine running that guarantees nine wins per season, and Boise is home. Harsin was born there, played QB at the school, coached there from 2001–2010, and then returned as head coach in 2014. He left Boise once — for a co-coordinator gig at Texas and then a head job at Arkansas State. Now that he’s successfully running the show at his alma mater, I’ll bet he’s content to sit tight for a bit. Regardless, he’s someone UC would be wise to consider and try to lure away.
[Side-note: Harsin’s contract at Boise has my favorite clause ever. Each time he wins eight games in a season, the contract automatically extends itself another year. This is genius, because it establishes a concrete baseline for success that automatically rewards Harsin each time he meets it. It’s perfect for a place like Boise (or UC) where competition is low enough that winning eight games should be expected each year. I’d love if UC’s next coach had that.]
Pros: The guy wins, and only wins. Since he joined Boise as a graduate assistant in 2001, the only seven-win season he experienced was in his lone year at Arkansas State, when he went 7–5 and won the Sun Belt before the Broncos called him home prior to the Red Wolves winning their bowl game. He’s contributed to nine double-digit win seasons in 16 years with another one in the works. His team has played in a bowl game every year since 2002. There isn’t a coach on this list that’s more accustomed to winning. He’s served under seasoned veterans (Mack Brown) and fiery upstarts (Chris Petersen). He’s still young (41), but he started coaching at a high level so early that he has tons of relevant experience on the offensive side of the ball, which is what UC fans want to see.
Another upside is his bowl record. As head coach at Boise, his team is 2–0 so far, and his Arkansas State team won their bowl right after he left for Idaho.
Cons: Not a whole lot of experience outside the friendly, forgiving, winning confines of Boise, Idaho. He’s been great at sustaining success and racking up victories, but how would he react to what’s likely to be a rocky first year at a UC program that needs a bit of re-tooling? And would he be able to withstand heat from a fan base that’s shown it can be a bit testy? From what I can tell, he’s only spent one year of his life east of the Mississippi. Would he know how to tackle recruiting UC mainstays like Ohio and Florida?
The bottom line: For your average coach, Cincinnati is a step up from Boise State. For a local boy like Harsin, that may not be the case. I’d love him in Cincinnati, and I think he could be successful here, but I think it’s ultimately unlikely that he leaves home this year, especially for another G5 job.
Offensive or defensive background? Offense (tight ends and quarterbacks)
Big program experience? Texas (two seasons, co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks)
Pro experience? N/A
Head coach experience? Arkansas State (one season), Boise State (three seasons)
Lincoln Riley — Offensive Coordinator, Oklahoma
The Bearcats didn’t get into the Big 12, but maybe they can lure some of the Big 12 to Cincinnati. If you’re looking for the quick-rising coordinator who will catch everyone off guard as head coach, Riley may be your guy. He’s flying under the radar right now, so he’ll have the general football-watching public saying “Where did he come from?” when he finally finds the right head coaching gig. He just turned 33. He could be lightning in a bottle. He played at Texas Tech, where he also coached (mostly wide receivers) through the 2009 season. He spent three seasons at East Carolina as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before being promoted to associate head coach for the Pirates in 2014 (remember the shootout with UC at Paul Brown?). In 2015, Bob Stoops hired him as OC, which is where he is now.
Pros: In his first year in Norman, the Sooners offense was ranked 7th nationally, helping earn a playoff berth. Riley won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach. If you’re looking for an immediate impact, he has some experience against AAC teams from his stint at ECU, and he was recruiting the same types of players UC would be hunting. Between Texas Tech, ECU, and Oklahoma, he knows how to rack up yards and put points on the board. He did just get a raise at Oklahoma (to $900k), but it feels like his time has come.
Cons: Given his background, you can’t help but figure he’ll need to hit a home run on a defensive coordinator to be truly successful early in his head coaching career. Also, because he’s so young and climbing the ranks so rapidly, a potential move to UC feels like it would be in a stepping stone fashion. He’s poised for something big and his knack for high flying offensive may land him the head job at a place like Oklahoma or Texas soon. He’s spent the majority of his career in the Big 12, and I’m betting his ultimate goal is to run a program there. Not to mention, his current job at OU is good enough that he may decide to hang tight with the Sooners until a Power Five program comes knocking.
The bottom line: Riley would be a fun one, and I think he’d strongly consider a Cincinnati offer. But would he want to leave the Big 12? Also, would another Big 12 coach be a tough sell to the Bearcats fan base? He could fire up the offense like the Brian Kelly days, so I’d be pretty happy if UC made Riley the country’s youngest FBS coach.
Offensive or defensive background? Offense (wide receivers and quarterbacks)
Big program experience? Texas Tech (seven seasons, wide receivers), Oklahoma (two seasons, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks)
Pro experience? None
Head coach experience? None
(USA Today Sports Images)
Jeff Brohm — Head Coach, Western Kentucky
This is a name I can say for certain is on UC’s radar. Athletic departments keep a contingency plan in case their coach finds a new job, retires, or needs to be fired. These lists contain lots of the usual suspects, such as trendy MAC coaches and top coordinators. They also usually contain some “Hey, worth a try” candidates. That’s how Tuberville ended up in Clifton, especially so quickly after Butch Jones left for Knoxville. Brohm, per a source, was on Cincinnati’s list as of last November, along with several other coaches who landed new jobs last offseason. Given that Brohm is still at WKU, and therefore still eligible for poaching, I think it’s safe to assume he’s somewhere on UC’s map if they decide to move away from Tuberville next month.
Pros: Brohm played quarterback at Louisville before serving as an assistant coach from 2003–2008. He spent two years at Illinois and eventually returned to WKU in 2013 to serve as offensive coordinator under Bobby Petrino. He took over as coach of the Hilltoppers in 2014. What I’m saying is that Brohm understands the area very well. He’s a midwest coach and that certainly can’t hurt when it comes to recruiting. He’s also successful. He’s lost just one conference game since the start of 2015, and his 12–2 mark last season would’ve looked even better if it weren’t for a regular season game at #5 LSU. His 26–10 career mark looks good, but not unbelievable. Look closer and you’ll see the Hilltoppers have faced a lot of tough non-conference teams. He’s also 2–0 in bowl games after easily handling a USF team that rocked the Bearcats in 2015. Brohm’s resume is very solid.
Cons: There aren’t any major red flags, but there also isn’t much that makes you jump up and down. Brohm isn’t super young (he’s 45). He’s not super trendy. He’s never coached at a program bigger than Cincinnati. He’s been a very mediocre recruiter at WKU. He’s also in the midst of a season that isn’t phenomenal. The Hilltoppers are currently 6–3 with losses to #1 Alabama (forgivable), Vanderbilt in overtime (meh), and Louisiana Tech (ehh). I’m not saying those are red flags, but they’re there. If I’m being super picky, I want a coach who wins every winnable game. Brohm has lost a couple this year. Regardless, he’s a very fine candidate. Perhaps the biggest positive and negative when it come to Brohm is that he’s a very safe choice.
The bottom line: If I were handicapping the candidates, Brohm might be the favorite. It just seems like the most likely hire for a variety of reasons. Given that there is at least one A+ candidate on this list, it would be a slight letdown to end up with a B+, although I’d still happily give Brohm my stamp of approval.
Offensive or defensive background? Offense (quarterbacks)
Big program experience? None, but had extended time in UC’s conference when he was with Louisville (six seasons)
Pro experience? None
Head coach experience? Western Kentucky (three seasons)
(Joey Meredith/Troy University)
Neal Brown — Head Coach, Troy
Brown was on my original list when I started work on this piece, but he was much lower. Now that several people have mentioned him to me and he’s starting to gain some buzz around the country, I figured he should move up. Brown is only in his second season at the helm of the Trojans, and America is just now starting to see his prowess. He’s 10–9 overall, with a 7–5 conference mark in the Sun Belt. He’s flying silently under the radar, but we’re starting to see signs of something special.
Pros: He inherited a 3–9 Sun Belt team and went 4–8 in his first season — a good start, but nothing special. This season, the Trojans are off to a 6–1 start, and their only loss is a one-possession game on the road against #2 Clemson. Wait until this time next year and Brown may be the country’s hottest coach. If UC could pounce now, they might get a diamond in the rough before many people notice him. He’s only 36 years old and on a relatively meager salary ($700k), so he’s affordable and hasn’t even approached his peak as a head coach. He’s also worked a little magic in recruiting, turning a 3–9 team in 2014 into the #4 Sun Belt class in 2016.
Cons: A really small sample size is worrisome. If Brown can put the cap on this season and finish with 11 or more wins, would that be enough to cut a check and offer a long-term contract? With less than 20 games under his belt as a head coach, half of them losses, is there even enough tape to find a red flag? I think Brown would be a smart hire, but it would still be a bit of an adventure into the unknown. Oh, by the way, he was Tuberville right hand man for three years at Texas Tech. I don’t think that makes a huge difference, but it does kind of give me pause.
The bottom line: I’d be more than happy with Brown. Taking risks is kind of fun, and Brown isn’t a huge one. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see a guy bring an offense to Clifton that has been nicknamed the “NASCAR spread”?
Offensive or defensive background? Offense (quarterbacks and wide receivers)
Big program experience? Texas Tech (three seasons, offensive coordinator)
Pro experience? None
Head coach experience? Troy (two seasons)
(Ohio State Athletics)
Ed Warinner — Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State
The last time Cincinnati nabbed an Ohio State coordinator, it worked out pretty well. Mark Dantonio made the trek from Columbus to Clifton in 2004 and was the first step in the revitalization of Bearcats football. Now that the program seems to need a second rejuvenation, maybe UC should go back to the Ohio State well.
Pros: Warinner was co-offensive coordinator for a team that won the conference championship, the semifinal, and the national championship with a third-string quarterback. He was named the sole OC for the 2015 season, and the Buckeyes are 19–2 since. Urban Meyer obviously saw something in Warinner when he picked him for his staff after getting hired at OSU, and the offense in Columbus is now a well-oiled machine. If you’re like me and prefer some local flavor, you could do a lot worse than Warinner. He was born and raised in Ohio, played football at Mount Union, and returned home for his current stint with the Buckeyes. He knows the area, and his recruiting proves it.
Cons: Warinner has 33 years of coaching experience, but has never been a head coach. While that resume is impressive, you have to wonder why he hasn’t made the leap yet. (I should also point out that if this is the biggest red flag against a guy, he’s a pretty solid candidate.)
The bottom line: I’d be very happy with Warinner, and I think lots of Bearcat fans jealous of what Ohio State has been doing the last few years would be giddy to have one of the major cogs in their operation move to Clifton.
Offensive or defensive background? Offense (offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends)
Big program experience? Ohio State (five seasons, offensive coordinator and offensive line), Michigan State (two seasons, linebackers and secondary)
Pro experience? None
Head coach experience? None
(Greg Bartram/USA Today Sports Images)
Kerry Coombs — Cornerbacks & Special Teams Coordinator, Ohio State
Here we go. Despite my history of being outspoken against the idea of hiring Coombs, I don’t think he’d be the worst hire of all time. I understand the reason some fans are completely sold on him, and I understand the reason some fans are completely against the idea. Ready?
Pros: Coombs is the anti-Tuberville. He’s the perfect foil of the guy we’re trying to get rid of. Tuberville seems out of touch with UC? Coombs is from here and coached at UC during the five best years in program history. Tuberville has no passion? Coombs is one of the most fiery guys you’ll see. Tuberville has steadily slipped into the recruiting basement? Coombs is a great recruiter with in-depth knowledge of the area. Tuberville’s teams seem to dislike playing for him? Players will tell you Coombs is the best coach they’ve ever had.
Cons: He doesn’t have a lick of head coaching experience at the college level. He’s never even had control of an offense or defense. Not to mention, during his time at UC, many feel that his secondary was the weakest link in an otherwise sturdy defense. Are you sure you want to hand the reigns of the entire program to a guy who seemed to struggle in the minor position he held last time? The obsession with Coombs is understandable, but it seems like a knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction of Tuberville. Hire Coombs and four years later we may be looking at the same record Tuberville has, but with the opposite personality at the helm.
The bottom line: I’m willing to try just about anything at this point, so I wouldn’t burn the city down if Coombs were to get the call. There are worse things to go after than a passionate local guy who would love the job and could reignite the fan base. I just think the red flags are everywhere.
Offensive or defensive background? Defense (secondary/cornerbacks)
Big program experience? Ohio State (five seasons, cornerbacks and special teams)
Pro experience? None
Head coach experience? None
The best of the rest:
Brent Venables — Defensive Coordinator, Clemson
This guy has been hanging around the coaching hot list for a while, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody jumps on him. The Clemson Tigers have quietly assembled one of the nation’s toughest defenses under Venables, and he’s due for a head gig. It will probably take a big program to lure him away, because he’s killing it in South Carolina and just signed a contract that pays him $1.35M as a coordinator.
Gene Chizik — Defensive Coordinator, North Carolina
This guy has a national championship under his belt as head coach. Do I need to say anything else? Outside of his national title season at Auburn, he struggled in SEC play. Maybe he’s done licking his wounds at UNC and would be interested in taking another shot at head coaching, but would Cincinnati want another guy coming off a rebound?
Frank Wilson — Head Coach, UTSA
Wilson is very under the radar right now, but he could be lightning in a bottle. He has big program experience with nine total years in the SEC with Ole Miss, Tennessee, and LSU. He’s most famous for being Les Miles’ associate head coach, running backs coach, and recruiting coordinator from 2010–2015 before jumping to UTSA, where he inherited a 3–9 team and has started 4–4 in his first season at the helm. He’s on the riskier side, but he could be special.
Jason Candle — Head Coach, Toledo
Candle could be a huge hit or a total bust. He’s in his first year at Toledo after Matt Campbell left for the Iowa State job. He won Toledo’s bowl game last year and has started 6–2 this season. It looks good on paper, but you have to question how much if this is a simple continuation of the stellar job Campbell did for the Rockets. Candle could be a hot commodity if he can keep this up for another season or so. It may be early to take a flier on him now.
Scott Satterfield — Head Coach, Appalachian State
Satterfield is a lot like Boise State’s Bryan Harsin. He’s a local kid coaching at his alma mater and having good success. Could he translate that system to a larger program? Would he even want to try? Expect fans to be intrigued by his resume. He facilitated the Mountaineers’ move to FBS and won 11 games in their second season in the big show. He’d be worth an interview.
John Grass — Head Coach, Jacksonville State
Grass boasts a 29–5 record in Jacksonville, which looks pretty stellar. However, not only does Grass have zero major program experience, he doesn’t even have FBS experience. That makes his candidacy like a game of Russian roulette. He coached at the high school level as recently as 2012, which reminds me of the disaster Bowling Green brought upon themselves when they hired Mike Jinks. Grass is intruiging, but is ultimately way too risky for my liking. Give him a couple years in the MAC or Sun Belt before I take that chance.
Rich Rodriguez — Head Coach, Arizona
I never even considered Rodriguez until someone brought him up. He was great at West Virginia before finding some success at Arizona. However, the Wildcats won just seven games last year and are just 2–6 so far in 2016. If he gets fired, maybe he’d consider heading back east and coaching for one of his old division rivals. You could do a lot worse than Rich Rod, although I’d prefer to avoid a rebound candidate.
Bo Pelini — Head Coach, Youngstown State
Jeremy Pruitt (Defensive Coordinator — Alabama), Mike Sanford Jr. (Offensive Coordinator — Notre Dame), Troy Calhoun (Head Coach — Air Force), Sterlin Gilbert (Offensive Coordinator — Texas)