Tramel: Was UCF's pick of Gus Malzahn the best move 2021 college football coaching carousel?
Only 15 major-college football jobs made coaching changes during or after the pandemic-stricken 2020 season. That’s fewer than usual.
But some schools can’t wait for normal to return, and some coaches get antsy, and just one domino falling can create a carousel.
Here are the 15 coaches who took over Division I-A jobs going into the 2021 season, ranked by the quality of the hire. Not the quality of the job, not the quality of the coach, but the quality of the fit.
1. Central Florida: Gus Malzahn replaces Josh Heupel. Great get for UCF. Malzahn has major coaching chops, with a 68-35 record as Auburn’s head coach and three of the eight SEC victories over Nick Saban in the last 10 years. But Malzahn also has experience (Arkansas State, Tulsa offensive coordinator) on the mid-major level.
2. Illinois: Bret Bielema replaces Lovie Smith. Bielema seems like a perfect fit. Played at Iowa. Defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Wisconsin. Ultra-successful head coach at Wisconsin (68-24; three straight Rose Bowls) before taking the Arkansas job. Bad career move, though Bielema’s 29-34 record in the Ozarks doesn’t seem awful in retrospect.
3. Boise State: Andy Avalos replaces Bryan Harsin. One Boise State grad replaces another. Avalos was a Bronco linebacker (2001-04) who also coached at Boise State (2012-18) before spending two years as Oregon’s defensive coordinator. Boise State is an atypical good job, so it helps to know the landscape.
4. Utah State: Blake Anderson replaces Gary Andersen. There is much to like about Anderson. Three straight Arkansas State head coaches left after one season – Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin. Anderson took over and stayed seven years, going 51-37. He has coached at a variety of mid-majors – New Mexico, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Mississippi – plus North Carolina, which launched him to Arkansas State. So he should have good perspective at Utah State.
5. Texas: Steve Sarkisian replaces Tom Herman. Sarkisian is considered one of the hottest coaches on the market. Of course, so was Herman. Sarkisian spent three years on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff, plus he was a head coach at Washington and Southern Cal. Those are two programs where a coach can win. Sarkisian was 46-35 combined as a head coach, but his first UW team went 5-7, after the Huskies were 0-12 the year before. The biggest concern? Sarkisian was fired at USC over substance-abuse issues.
6. Auburn: Bryan Harsin replaces Gus Malzahn. Harsin clearly is an excellent coach, and Boise State expatriates generally do well. Dan Hawkins not so much, but Houston Nutt, Dirk Koetter and Chris Petersen. The only trouble spot for Harsin is geography – he’s an Idahoan through and through. Can two years as Texas’ offensive coordinator (2011-12) and one year as Arkansas State’s coach (2013) prepare Harsin for the Auburn frying pan.
7. Vanderbilt: Clark Lea replaces Derek Mason. Lea was a Vandy fullback, 2002-04, so he should know the landscape of the Southeastern Conference’s sore-thumb school. It also doesn’t hurt that Lea has coached at fellow private schools Wake Forest and Notre Dame.
8. Arkansas State: Butch Jones replaces Blake Anderson. This is a change in Red Wolves protocol. Arkansas State’s recent hires were up-and-comers Blake Anderson, Bryan Harsin, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze. The latter three were hired away by Boise State, Auburn and Ole Miss. Jones, late of Tennessee, is not such a hot commodity.
9. South Carolina: Shane Beamer replaces Will Muschamp. Beamer is a premium personality with great pedigree. And not just his dad, Virginia Tech legend Frank Beamer. Beamer has been part of ultra-successful staffs at Georgia under Kirby Smart and OU under Lincoln Riley. But the lack of experience -- never a coordinator -- is a concern.
10. South Alabama: Kane Wommack replaces Steve Campbell. The 33-year-old Wommack should know how tough the job is; he coached at South Alabama in 2016-17. Wommack also has been on the staff at Ole Miss, Indiana, Jacksonville State, Tennessee-Martin and Eastern Illinois. He played at Arkansas and Southern Mississippi.
11. Tennessee: Josh Heupel replaces Jeremy Pruitt. Tough job for anyone. The Volunteers didn’t seem to have an abundance of great options. Heupel, who followed new Tennessee athletic director Danny White from Central Florida, at least will have administrative support.
12. Marshall: Charles Huff replaces Doc Holliday. Like Bill Belichick assistants in the NFL, Nick Saban lieutenants often are in demand. Huff spent the last two years as Alabama’s associate head coach. Huff, 37, has more time spent at bluebloods Penn State and Bama (six years) than smaller programs, but he did coach at Western Michigan and Tennessee State. Huff played at Hampton.
13. Louisiana-Monroe: Terry Bowden replaces Matt Viator. Bowden turns 65 this week. We think of him as the 30something coaching Auburn to great glory in the 1990s. But Bowden’s career predominantly has taken place in the shadows. Salem University (1983-85), Samford (1987-92), North Alabama (2009-11), Akron (2012-18). Bowden was a winner at all but Akron.
14. Southern Mississippi: Will Hall replaces Jay Hopson. Not that long ago, Southern Miss was one of the nation’s best mid-major jobs. No longer. The Golden Eagles went through three head coaches in 2020. Hall, a quarterback at North Alabama, has coached at Presbyterian, Henderson State, Southwest Baptist, Arkansas –Monticello, West Georgia, West Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Miss, Memphis and Tulane. And he’s only 40.
15. Arizona: Jedd Fisch replaces Kevin Sumlin. Fisch did not play high school or college football. He was a tennis player. Seems like that would be a tough sell. Fisch went to the University of Florida and eventually was hired as a graduate assistant by Steve Spurrier (1999-2000). Fisch broke into the NFL with the Houston Texans in 2002, then began an odyssey – Texans 2002-03, Ravens 2004-07, Broncos 2008, University of Minnesota 2009, Seahawks 2010, University of Miami 2011-12, Jaguars 2013-14, University of Michigan 2015-16, UCLA 2017, Rams 2018-19, Patriots 2020. That’s a lot of stops. Strange hire.