No sooner did LSU let Les Miles go yesterday than the speculation began about his replacement as the school’s football coach. And in some cases, things went beyond speculation to outright goofiness – as there was a report Sunday night indicating LSU had already approached former Baylor head coach Art Briles and current Houston head coach Tom Herman about the job.
Herman’s reaction was dismissive, but hardly conclusive as to his level of interest should he be approached…
— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) September 26, 2016
The likelihood of Herman or Briles being contacted by now isn’t particularly strong; LSU doesn’t have to be in a hurry on this coaching search, which is one of the benefits of following the famous axiom laid down by legendary Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley that “what must be done eventually must be done immediately.” LSU is now the premier job opening in all of football, and certainly in college football, and over the course of this week the school’s athletic director Joe Alleva and his coterie of advisors on the search will have an opportunity to gauge the interest of a multitude of coaches who may or may not be candidates for the job.
Among those candidates are…
TOM HERMAN: It’s little secret that Herman is going to be the top name in the coaching search, and for good reason – he’s the top young coach in the country and he’s 17-1 in a season and change at Houston, including shocking wins over Florida State and Oklahoma. That Herman was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2014 when the Buckeyes won the national championship with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones at the reins, which included a monster playoff win over Alabama in the semifinals, makes him even more interesting.
Herman, furthermore, has some connections to LSU. His offensive coordinator Major Applewhite is a Baton Rouge native who was a star quarterback at Catholic High before going on to a solid career at Texas – and Herman was a roommate of current LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda when both were in college at Cal Lutheran. The potential of Herman as head coach and Applewhite and Aranda as coordinators is something any program would find titillating.
Herman makes $2.8 million per year at Houston, so his price is right. Should Houston make the cut for an invitation to join the Big XII, which will announce its expansion plans on Oct. 17 (one would expect Houston to earn that invitation, but there are some dicey politics involved with the non-Texas schools in the league who are wary of creating a dominant bloc of members from the Lone Star State), Herman is supposedly going to be given a $5 million bonus for staying on as coach. That would pale in comparison to the raise LSU would offer should Herman take the job, but then Houston might well up the ante to keep him.
There are those who tout the fact that UH alum and booster Tillman Fertitta, whose reported worth is $2.4 billion, has turned his fortune into a venture capital fund for UH athletics. While that’s certainly a major asset for the school and it could be enough to spearhead their membership in the Big XII, it might not be enough to stave off LSU should it be determined that Herman be had at all costs. After all, while UH might have Fertitta, LSU has former Shaw Group CEO and current owner of Brown and Root (among other companies) Jim Bernhard, who sold Shaw for some $3 billion. Whatever Houston can pay, LSU can top – that’s easily apparent considering Houston’s on-campus stadium holds 40,000 while Tiger Stadium holds 102,000.
None of which is particularly determinative; Herman might end up LSU’s coach, or he might not. If he did, Tiger fans would be ecstatic and he could well build a dynasty over the next 25 years in Baton Rouge. The idea of taking the program back to the point where the LSU-Alabama game goes a long way toward determining not just the SEC champion but the national champion, and then outlasting Nick Saban and supplanting his dynasty, has to be an ambitious coach’s dream. If Herman sees that, and LSU’s search committee is convinced he’s the man for the job, then sometime in December or January the picture at the top won’t need to be photoshopped.
THE TAINTED: Lots of message board posters and media list-makers have thrown Briles’ name into the mix, as well as Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino. Not to mention Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, who has a potential nuclear bomb ticking away under his feet thanks to the NCAA investigation there.
No. Just no.
LSU has never made it a particular practice to embrace coaches with a hint of scandal to their name, and the abovementioned four are the “bad boys” of college football at present. Briles, who might well be someone interim head coach Ed Orgeron should look into as an offensive consultant to help redesign and modernize the Tiger offense on the fly as he attempts to earn the LSU head coaching job in his own right, is all but untouchable as a college head coach following the Baylor sexual abuse scandal. Kiffin, who has been a failure at both Tennessee and USC in the college ranks as well as at Oakland in the NFL, is a personal behavior time bomb – and that’s disqualifying no matter how well he’s performed with the Bama offense.
And Petrino, who admittedly has put together a terrific team at Louisville this year, is not some spring chicken coach on his way up. He has a documented history, and a checkered one at that. When Petrino left Louisville the first time, his program was on the precipice of disaster thanks to a collection of thugs and ne’er-do-wells he had recruited, and that disaster unfolded when his successor Steve Kragthorpe took over. Meanwhile Petrino had gone to the Atlanta Falcons, where he became a laughingstock – running out on his team in the middle of the season to take the job at Arkansas. Petrino then quickly put the Razorbacks into the Top 10, but proceeded to embroil himself into a scandal involving an extramarital affair. When he was forced to resign as a result, the Arkansas program cratered; his eventual replacement Bret Bielema lost his first 15 SEC games before finally getting the program competitive again.
LSU doesn’t have to take a risk like any of the four “bad boys” would present. This program needs someone who can both conduct himself respectably and compete at the highest level.
JIMBO: Next to Herman, whose star has perhaps risen higher, the other can’t-miss candidate for the LSU job would be the man Alleva attempted to hire as Miles’ replacement last year.
But Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher managed to leverage that interest into commitments to fix a few things he didn’t like about his current job last year, and it might be more difficult to pull him away now than it was then. Not to mention this is not his best season at FSU; he’s starting a freshman quarterback and his defense is terrible, which accounts for his having to come from a three-touchdown deficit in the opener against Ole Miss and getting blown out 63-20 by Petrino’s Louisville team. Couple that with his loss to Herman in the Peach Bowl last year and Fisher might not have the leverage with the LSU brass to trade as hard as he did last year.
He might still be interested in the job but he might have to take it on terms more favorable to LSU than they may have been last November.
THE OTHERS: Realistically, once you get beyond Herman and Fisher the remaining coaches all have negatives which might make them less than perfect for the job – the key for the hiring committee would then be to find a coach whose positives make him a championship coach at LSU while his negatives are either less than material to his success or can be overcome or lived with.
Orgeron’s name belongs at the top of the list, if for no other reason than that he’s the man currently holding the job and, to some extent, it’s in his hands whether he can keep it. Realistically, to do that he’s going to need to win the SEC West with a 2-2 team averaging only 21 points a game through the soft part of the schedule. That would be a miracle. But that would also make him a miracle worker, and miracle workers, where they can be found, are deserving of consideration for the job. Orgeron nearly did that at USC in 2013, when he took over for Kiffin and put together a 6-2 record as the interim coach there. A bad loss against crosstown rival UCLA in the season finale derailed his chances of keeping the job at USC; a bad loss anywhere the rest of the way this year would probably do the same. That’s why bringing in Briles to consult with interim offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger would be such a good idea; if Orgeron is going to make a run at the job he needs that offense to come out of the Dark Ages on the fly, and it’s likely he’ll need the input of a college offense guru such as Briles is to get that going if it can happen. One thing we can say, though, is that it’s going to be fun watching the spirited Orgeron, who now has the job of his dreams, give it a shot.
Stanford’s David Shaw is outstanding, and with a salary of $3.9 million per year he’s gettable, though likely at a monster price. Shaw’s teams are sensationally coached, and he’s done a tremendous job maintaining Jim Harbaugh’s legacy there. Shaw’s offensive style isn’t all that much different from Miles’, though – it’s smash-mouth football, and one wonders if that’s really what the fans and boosters will want in the next coach.
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is similarly outstanding, and if you watched his team come from behind to beat USC on Friday you saw some great football. Whittingham brings good defense and an offense that makes maximum use of his skill talent. He’s been winning 9-10 games a year at Utah after a bit of a difficult adjustment following their joining the Pac 12, and he’s got an opportunity to win the Pac 12 South division title this season without any exceptionally marquee players. The question for Whittingham is whether as a Mormon from Utah he’d be much of a fit in South Louisiana. Then again, Nick Saban and Gerry DiNardo managed OK, so who can say that’s a deal-breaker?
North Carolina’s Larry Fedora brings a video-game offense to the table, and Fedora has managed to build winners at two different programs – first at Southern Miss, and now in Chapel Hill. But what you don’t get with Fedora is a whole lot of defense, so to make his hire one the fans would get excited about probably would require Aranda stick around. That’s hardly a difficult sell for an offensive coach, though – for most of them the fact LSU already has a highly-respected young defensive coordinator and the makings of a great defense as is could be attractive enough to leave alone as the new coach.
That could serve for a number of other coaches LSU might have a look at – among them New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was 11-17 in just under two seasons as the Denver Broncos’ head coach a few years ago, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was LSU’s wide receivers coach in 2005-06 under Miles (and Fisher, who was offensive coordinator then) and rebuilt the Southern Miss program from 2013-15 after it fell apart following Fedora’s departure, and West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, who at one time was seen as THE hot young offensive coach but who struggled in the first three years following WVU’s joining the Big XII until righting the ship a bit with an 8-5 record last year and, so far, a 3-0 mark this year. Bringing in a superstar offensive coach who doesn’t particularly know a lot about defense is a bit of a risky move, but one that might pay off with Aranda already on hand.
There are others. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen probably doesn’t excite too many people, but there is no denying the job he’s done in Starkville has been sensational. Mullen’s team isn’t very good this year, though – he might need to pull a few upsets to get bowl eligible. The other problem is that Mullen already makes upwards of $4.5 million at Mississippi State; the raise it would take to bring him in could well price him out of the market. That’s also true to an extent of TCU’s Gary Patterson; the money it would take to pull him out of Fort Worth might make him uncompetitive compared to others in the marketplace, though he’s certainly an excellent coach.
Maryland’s D.J. Durkin is in his first year there, but he’s 3-0 already and turning heads. If he keeps winning he could turn into a candidate for the job. Another up-and-coming coach who might rate an interview, though it’s fair to call him a long shot is Chris Klieman, the head coach at North Dakota State. Klieman’s victory over then-#14 Iowa earlier this season showed that he’s running a program far beyond its FCS boundaries – as the two national championships he’s won the past two seasons and the production of the NFL’s top rookie quarterback Carson Wentz shows. Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck is a sensational recruiter and big personality who so far has put together an intriguing record, but like Klieman it might be too much too soon for him to get so big a job.
But one thing is true – it’s early days for this search. Much of the candidate list is due to evolve as the season goes along.
That isn’t going to keep a lot of LSU fans from playing “what if” with Herman at the prospective helm next year, though.