1. Gary Andersen is what happens when money meets emotion
Gary Andersen is out at Utah State, just 16 games into his second tenure with the program. Andersen came back to Logan after headbutting his way through the Power 5: He took over at Wisconsin after Bret Bielema went to Arkansas in 2013, only to leave Madison after two winning seasons because of clashes with athletic director Barry Alvarez, the Badgers’ sitting maestro. Andersen left for Oregon State, where he promptly tanked the Beavers. He resigned midway through the 2017 season with a record of 7-23, leaving his buyout money on the table and blaming himself and his coaches for the Beavers’ poor performance.
Both programs replaced Andersen with native sons, and with the subsequent success of former Badgers assistant Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and the steady rebuild of Oregon State under former Beavers QB Jonathan Smith, it’s clear Andersen tried to force his methodology in places with unique (and very local) blueprints.
That’s why Andersen’s return to Utah State last season made at least some sense on paper. He built the Aggies into a 11-game winner in 2012 as a member of the WAC. Whatever didn’t work at Oregon State and Wisconsin inarguably did work at USU, except that he coached the Aggies in a weaker conference than the Mountain West, and that USU brass weren’t necessarily interested in him returning home.
I (and many others) reported at the time that Andersen got the USU job specifically because of booster influence. When Matt Wells left the Aggies for Texas Tech, the job was considered a high-end Group of 5 gig, having sent its previous two head coaches to the Big Ten and Big 12, and drew big name interest from both former Power 5 coaches looking to rehab and young assistants.
Instead USU ended up saddled with Andersen because he was beloved by the check-writers. One source said Andersen had re-engaged USU supporters after Oregon State flamed out to slowly engineer a second stint in Logan as a career safety net.
For USU to fire Andersen this quickly during a pandemic and economic crisis signals that he’d lost the program completely, or there’s something major we don’t know about, or possibly both.
Andersen was handed an encore because he gave USU, a small school with no identity, their first two winning seasons in FBS. The significance of that feat was obviously overestimated by boosters who choked the program’s growth because of sentimentality. They were on the right path: Matt Wells worked out and current athletic director John Hartweell oversaw a successful rebuilding of Troy. Andersen should’ve never had a second act at a program where every next hire makes or breaks a program’s relevance.
2. The industry is looking for a big opening to start the cycle, and USC is the Trojan horse
Because of COVID-19’s financial impact both on college athletics and the complete American economy, prevailing logic has been that the coaching cycle this year will be very slow. From everything I’ve heard, that’s still the case. It’s not even that athletic budgets are tight; they are, but there’s a growing anxiety that a quick assembly of outside funds to cover large, lump-sum buyouts would not only be harder, but draw more negative PR than usual from critics of the current college athletics model.
Not that the cogs of the machine are content to let the cycle sit still. On the contrary: Coaches getting fired helps agents, search firms and lawyers make a lot of money, even (hell, especially) when their clients are getting canned. Those hoping to benefit from market churn have privately hoped for a “big job” to open this cycle, and after scanning the market they’ve selected Clay Helton as a potential domino.
The Trojans beat Arizona State 28-27 in wildly dramatic fashion on Saturday, scoring 14 points in the final three minutes to obscure the fact the Sun Devils commanded almost the entirety of the game. A win is a win is a win — and maybe even more so for an embattled coach in a scant six game season — but it’s obvious this is a program underperforming relative to even median expectations.
What a lot of people in the media and the industry at large are assuming is that USC would poach a sitting head coach at another Power 5 school, thus kicking off a cascade of job openings. That’s not the safest of bets. In fact, it’s a pretty bad one: Helton was an interim and and had never been a head coach; both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were former USC coordinators under Pete Carroll, and Carroll himself was out of coaching when the Trojans hired him.
Then there’s the economics. Because USC is a private school, we don’t know the exact terms of Helton’s deal, but thanks to the LA Times we can peg his current annual salary around $4.5 million on a contract that currently runs through 2023. Multiple reports have tabbed the total buyout for Helton and his staff to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million.
“USC is a strange place, and they’ll just as soon drag out an alumnus or NFL coach as they would make a good hire, or make a run at someone off the market like Urban [Meyer]” a Power 5 head coach told me.
3. It’s a very good time to be at a good job-before-the-job
As a matter of decorum and function, rising star coaches always speak publicly about how great their current jobs are. Some talk about how they’ve got everything they need, or that everything you need to win is at Current Job X, despite the fact we all know they’re vying for that major gig around the bend.
But sometimes there’s a little bit of truth to this idea, and for aspirational coaches who’ve established consistency at their current gigs, the potentially locked 2020-’21 cycle is making them look all the smarter right now. This goes especially for Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Billy Napier. Both have developed and recruited so well that if they wind up “stuck” in their current positions for a few more years, their programs will keep right on winning and their relevance won’t wane. Contrast these jobs with, say, a MAC school, where it’s just as possible to go 10-2 one season as it is 6-6 the next, followed by a fade from the spotlight. Think of a Mark Hudspeth.
Fickell’s situation is even better, honestly. Even though most of us bitter hacks believe no G5 program can break through into the playoff, there’s a semi-decent chance Cincinnati and/or BYU will merit real consideration to make the bracket. If this were to happen, the change in valuation for jobs like Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, et al would be seismic — actual proof of concept that you can compete for a national title makes a school like UC a more sensible long-term play for Fickell, at least until Ohio State or Notre Dame calls.
A strong comp for Fickell and UC is Chris Petersen and Boise State: The key-in-a-lock combination of that particular school and that particular coach increased each other’s value year over year, which meant Pete could be picky about his eventual next gig — and he was very, very picky, courted by multiple programs over multiple years before leaving for Washington.
4. Breaking: Defensive coaches still grumpy
The sole current FBS opening is C-USA’s Southern Miss, where multiple sources have indicated there’s a desire in Hattiesburg to bring in an “offensive-minded guy,” which is a milquetoast way that ADs communicate “score a bunch of points so we can sell tickets.”
This, understandably, infuriates candidates with defensive backgrounds. That they’re mad is, unsurprisingly, a key component of why new-age athletic directors (I mean the corporate fundraiser types here, not retired coaches) don’t like them “We’re usually grumpy assholes,” one P5 defensive coordinator explained.)
Is there an attractiveness to hiring hotshot, offensive-minded, public-facing head coaches? Absolutely. Look no further than Oxford, Miss., where a forlorn booster corps has been charmed to death by Lane Kiffin despite the fact the Rebels are an ugly-but-engaging 2-4. Sure, it’s the first year of a new regime, and the Rebels shot the lights out against Alabama, but that notoriously… involved… group of monied fans have bought in on Kiffin as if he were currently undefeated. It’s hard to think they’d be this excited if he was Kentucky’s version of 2-4.
Is there a real bias against hiring DCs? Probably not. DCs who broke through in recent years have recognized they have to evolve their personal brands past the yesteryear, aggro bullshit that used to charm university decision makers. Geoff Collins, the former Mississippi State and Florida DC who’s hyper-aware of social media and branding, gets it. Dave Aranda turned his reputation as “cerebral” and “weird” into a sort-of savant status, and leapfrogged consideration at places like Utah State and Colorado State into a first-time HC job in the Big 12.
In industry circles, Michigan State’s Mel Tucker was valued first for his recruiting and culture-building above his defensive acumen. And while he’s yet to coach a game, Washington’s Jimmy Lake is the Huskies former DC, and was promoted to head coach after Chris Pedersen stepped down. It’s arguable that Lake was more of a public character than the notoriously quiet Petersen, despite serving as the offensive architect of some of the wildest moments in college football history at Boise.
So the real answer here is that a DC can certainly become a HC, but you can’t ignite a successful hiring campaign with simply “being a good DC.”