…as there is a report this morning that LSU’s newly-minted head coach is going to miss out on Lane Kiffin – who he had advertised to the school’s brass he would be reeling in from a similar position at Alabama.
Houston is closing in on a decision to make Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin its next football coach, pending a Thursday meeting at which school President Renu Khator will have to give the final OK, two people with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. Those people spoke on the condition of anonymity because the school had not yet announced the move.
Kiffin would replace Tom Herman, who left for Texas after two seasons.
Houston has not officially offered the job and can’t until the president signs off on it. Though it’s possible Houston could backtrack, Kiffin has been operating as if he will become the next Houston coach as of Wednesday night.
There are conflicting reports about the finality of Kiffin’s having landed the Houston job, but barring something unforeseen it would seem to be just a matter of time. Reports earlier this week had Houston in contract negotiations with Kiffin’s agent Jimmy Sexton, with the apparent holdup being that Houston wanted to put in a sizable buyout as an inducement for Kiffin to stick around more than a year or two before jumping to a bigger job and Sexton balking at such a clause in the contract.
One would suspect that if Kiffin really is headed to Houston, that problem was papered over.
When Orgeron had his interview with LSU AD Joe Alleva and the search committee charged with hiring a permanent head coach to replace Les Miles, who yesterday was eliminated from contention as Houston’s head coach, it’s said that he advertised his ability to land Kiffin as a major selling point in “blowing away” the meeting. A day later he was announced as LSU’s head coach, leading one to wonder if Alleva opted for the Orgeron hire based on the promise of Kiffin to run the offense.
If that was the case, LSU truly has a nincompoop as an athletic director.
Kiffin shouldn’t have been much of a selling point for Orgeron. He’s had success with Alabama’s offense, to be sure, but he’s hardly been working under adverse circumstances. It’s not that hard to craft a good offense when you’ve got one of the best offensive lines in college football and you can build your offense around Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Calvin Ridley and now Jalen Hurts. Alabama has had good offenses more or less every year since Nick Saban got there, and previous coordinators Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmaier did just fine.
That isn’t to say Kiffin is bad at his job. He’s fine. Is he a savior worth $2 million a year as an assistant coach? Of course not. And the longevity, or lack thereof, involved in hiring him should have made him a non-factor as an attraction for hiring Orgeron. If the Houston job falls through and Kiffin doesn’t get it he’s quite likely to be a favorite, if not the favorite, for the South Florida job. Kiffin’s father Monte was the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996-2008; he has ties to Tampa.
In short, Orgeron would be lucky to get more than a year out of Kiffin even if he did show up for work at LSU. That’s not what you want as you’re building a program. It might be what you’d do if you’re on the hot seat and face a must-win season or else you’re getting fired, and it’s fair to say that Orgeron knows he needs to make a splash or else his tenure at LSU will be short, but ideally you want to hire someone for three years rather than one.
So if the Houston report is true, or if it’s not and the South Florida rumors turn out to be true, where does that leave LSU’s coach in searching for an offensive coordinator? Here are a few options…
Steve Sarkisian – the former Washington and USC head coach who spent this year as an “analyst” at Alabama is a personal friend of Orgeron’s, and reports this morning have it that the conventional wisdom on Sarkisian, namely that he was in Tuscaloosa biding his time before taking over for Kiffin, have been wrong.
What I've been told with Kiffin to Houston to watch for is that Sarkisian to LSU is now in play. Slim to no chance Sark is next OC at Bama.
— Mattie-Lou Chandler (@MattieLouOKTC) December 8, 2016
The negative on Sarkisian is that he has a drinking problem, and a big one. It got him fired mid-year as USC’s head coach in 2015, in just his second year on the job (he went 9-4 his first year, with a flat-out beautiful offense). Sarkisian’s ouster was ugly; reports surfaced that he had alcohol on his breath at practice and even that he might have been drunk on the sidelines during a game. If the reports are true that Nick Saban is passing on promoting Sarkisian, the first concern would obviously be that the alcohol issue resurfaced in Tuscaloosa.
Now, it should be said that Orgeron had a problem with drinking earlier in his life and has beaten the bottle – and Baton Rouge is apparently well-recognized as a place with excellent support for recovering alcoholics. So it could be that with a head coach to serve as a mentor and a community providing a good backbone the risk from Sarkisian’s drinking problem might be significantly lessened. There is no doubt Sarkisian is a talented offensive mind, and he can coach both a pro-style offensive attack and a spread offense relying on a running quarterback. If he’s the choice and Orgeron can keep him sober, he could be a winner of a hire – and because of the concerns about him, his stock might not be high enough for him to merit a move up for several years. Getting an offensive coordinator who can develop LSU’s young quarterbacks and incoming signees for the next three or four years should be a major aim of this hire, and that aim should be satisfied with Sarkisian if he holds back his personal demons.
Mark Helfrich – there are rumors, and perhaps more than rumors, that the recently-fired Oregon head coach reached out to LSU about the offensive coordinator job, and if those are true this is probably the best potential hire available to Orgeron.
You could see Helfrich in a couple of ways. One would be that he took over a gold mine from Chip Kelly and caved it in; certainly, he wasn’t given a whole lot of leeway by the administration at Oregon, who dumped him after only one bad season (4-8) this fall. A number of negatives about Helfrich have arisen; it’s said he played some favorites at certain positions, that he lost the locker room in Eugene, that his recruiting wasn’t very good. Not to mention he’s an “out west” guy – an Oregon native, his coaching stops include Boise State, Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon, and he’s never worked anywhere near the SEC.
But seen another way, Helfrich’s downsides all have positives attached to them. Yes, he’s the Mike Archer or Larry Coker of Oregon’s program – but that doesn’t make him a bad offensive coordinator; in fact, Oregon’s downturn might mean he’s keepable for three or four years at LSU because he’s not up for head coaching jobs at major schools any time soon. Not to mention Helfrich’s salary won’t be an issue; he’s supposedly due $4 million per year from Oregon as part of his buyout for the next three years, so you don’t have to break the bank to hire him. Further, as the offensive coordinator rather than the head coach the criticisms of Helfrich aren’t that operable. Orgeron has already established that it’s the position coaches who determine who plays under his regime, so other than at the quarterback position the playing of favorites isn’t something Helfrich would be responsible for (and his record with quarterbacks is outstanding – from Bart Hendricks at Boise State, to Andrew Walter and Rudy Carpenter at Arizona State, to Derron Thomas and Marcus Mariota at Oregon, this guy turns out quality QB’s). As for player chemistry and motivation and recruiting, those are all things Orgeron is an expert with – Helfrich needs only to follow O’s lead.
And with Helfrich you’d get an outstanding offense. Since he arrived at Oregon in 2009 as the offensive coordinator, the worst national finish in total offense for the Ducks was No. 20 this year – and while Oregon did finish 4-8 they nonetheless averaged 491.7 yards per game on offense, put up 35.4 points per game, rushed for 226 yards per game on a 5.5-yard average per carry and, despite starting a true freshman at quarterback most of the season, put up some gorgeous passing statistics. Oregon’s team passing efficiency rating was 151.57, second only to Washington in the Pac-12, and the true freshman quarterback in question Justin Herbert completed 63.6 percent of his passes for a yards-per-attempt number of 7.6 and a shiny touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19-4. Those numbers represented a bit of a dropoff from an Oregon offense which averaged no less than 522.8 yards a game from 2010-15.
Helfrich didn’t call the plays at Oregon. Kelly did that when he was head coach, and Helfrich let Scott Frost and then Matt Lubick call them after he was named head coach. But Helfrich did design the game plans for Oregon’s offense and he’s been its primary architect. Further, the coaches he’s worked for – Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins and Kelly – have all called him one of the most brilliant offensive coaches in all of football.
Can a pocket passer like Danny Etling or Myles Brennan succeed in a Helfrich offense? Sure. His quarterbacks at Boise State and Arizona State weren’t runners, and the offense did fine. And if Helfrich is as smart a coach as his mentors say he is, he’ll adapt his attack to fit his personnel and the SEC as well. Fears that his offense would be long on finesse and trickery and short on a physical running game aren’t all that well-founded; if Orgeron tells Helfrich he wants to include a physical running game, then LSU will have one.
One final piece with Helfrich is he does have a connection with the LSU coaching staff. Tiger offensive line coach Jeff Grimes was on Hawkins’ Colorado staff with Helfrich from 2007 to 2008, and the two also worked together under Koetter at Arizona State.
Dan Werner – Werner’s name has come up as a possibility for the job since he served in a similar capacity for Orgeron at Ole Miss from 2006-07. Werner was back at Ole Miss and has been since Hugh Freeze has had the job in Oxford; in between Orgeron’s ouster and the current stint, Werner coached high school football in North Mississippi to give his daughters some stability after his wife died in 2009. Before Orgeron hired him Werner had been the offensive coordinator at Miami, and he had some major accomplishments there – among the quarterbacks he tutored were Gino Toretta, Ken Dorsey, Brock Berlin, Craig Erickson and Steve Walsh. The news hit this morning, though, that Werner had resigned in Oxford along with assistant athletic director Barney Farrar, whose name was prominent in the NCAA investigation into the school. Those developments would seem to make him less-than-marketable for the LSU job.
With Werner, you’d be getting the offense Ole Miss has given Alabama fits with for the past three years, and that would be an improvement over being shut out this season. But the Rebels don’t have much of a running game, and it’s not just that they’ve lacked a top-flight running back. It’s an offense predicated on a lot of short passes and having the quarterback run for his life a lot. The results the last few years have been impressive – Ole Miss has averaged at least 417 yards per game in total offense and finished no worse than 5th in the SEC in passing offense since his current stint began in 2012. But he’s not the home run hire Sarkisian or Helfrich would potentially be.
Another “negative” on Werner is he hasn’t been a head coach. It would seem that Orgeron might want someone with that experience, particularly if they’ve had some success as a head coach, to serve as a sounding board and a consigliere. The other names mentioned for the offensive coordinator position have that advantage over Werner.
Kevin Wilson – Like Sarkisian and Helfrich, Wilson is another former head coach. He was recently fired at Indiana despite accomplishing something nobody has done in quite some time – leading the Hoosiers to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1990-91. Wilson was let go anyway, because apparently his players were upset about his gruff coaching style. This probably wouldn’t be all that major a concern for Orgeron, who is a player’s coach and who would be able to tamp down Wilson’s worst excesses if those concerns actually have merit.
Indiana led the Big 10 in total offense in 2015 with 504.3 yards per game and was third this year with 433.1 yards per game this season. Since 2012, when Wilson got there, they’ve never finished worse than 5th in the conference in total offense. Last year’s quarterback Nate Sudfeld led the conference in passing with 298 yards per game and a 151.01 rating; his successor Richard Lagow was second in the league this season.
Before Wilson got the Indiana job he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 2002-10, and before that he was offensive coordinator at Northwestern from 1999-01. His offenses have been high-powered everywhere he’s been.