College football’s longest head coaching search of 2020 seems to be ending, as Tulane offensive coordinator Will Hall has been reported by one local outlet to be the next hire in Hattiesburg, and mentioned as the candidate USM is “zeroing in on” by Football Scoop. If that’s the case, it wraps an extensive, circuitous search to fix the Golden Eagles: First they tried for local, then national, then back to local, and apparently landed on a candidate associated with the job from the first day it opened.
Here’s some glass-half-full optimism in 2020’s ever-widening hellscape: If you’re a FBS program whose head coach quits after the first game, you sure do get a lot of time to interview a lot of other head coaches. In Southern Miss’ case, you even get time to cycle through interim coaches. And hey, meeting people is hard to do these days.
As I tweeted on Monday, former Arkansas head coach and current New York Giants assistant Bret Bielema is/was considered a top candidate at USM. Bielema has interviewed for various openings since his firing by the Hogs in November of 2017, and has told people in the industry he wants back in college. His dream job is his alma mater, Iowa, in a scenario where Kirk Ferentz retires.
We examined the possibility of a forced-ish Ferentz “retirement” a few weeks back, but if there’s a change in Iowa City it’s highly unlikely Bielema would be the alumnus with first dibs. He does have a Hawkeye tattoo, which is entirely bitchin’ and I think more coaches should get alma mater ink. I’d like to think Nick Saban has the Kent State lightning bolt down his back like Ralph Fiennes in “Red Dragon.”
Another name in contact with Southern Miss is/was Rich Rodriguez, most recently Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator and former head coach of West Virginia, Arizona, and a small, academics-minded school in the midwest.
USM’s communication with Rodriguez followed an earlier round of meetings with coaches connected to either the program or state. The gossip in coaching circles is that USM has been exhaustive in their hunt, but they’ve also seemed to change course over the last three months: First, it was about coaches who had experience in or hail from Mississippi, and then the search widened.
Three names with more obvious connections to Mississippi are (in no order) Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson (a former USM offensive coordinator), Baylor defensive coordinator Ron Roberts (former Delta State head coach), and Tulane offensive coordinator Will Hall, a Mississippi native.
Anderson fits USM’s desire for someone familiar with the area who knows offense, but he’s already a head coach in the Group of Five. If you’re wondering whether Arkansas State to Southern Miss is a lateral move, it depends on who you ask. The Red Wolves’ total revenue is about $10 million more annually per USA Today, but as I wrote back in September, USM’s recruiting geography and giant-killer history make it an undervalued G5 job, with a potentially high ceiling if they can fix their revenue problems.
A lot of names have floated through USM, and over the last few weeks the search hit a point where everyone fashioned their own pick for who would work best in Hattiesburg. Since we’re tossing names out for fun, I’ll pick Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding. Golding is young (36), from the area (Hammond, La., about 100 miles away) played at Delta State in Cleveland, Miss., and coached in Conference USA (defensive coordinator at UTSA). There’s also the perpetual pressure of the Alabama DC job, a position coaches around the country consider less a position and more a thankless rite of passage up the ladder. Why not pivot from another playoff campaign to a strong Group of Five head coaching job in your home state?
Last week I wrote that Derek Mason wouldn’t be fired at Vanderbilt “barring a turn of events,” which showed up on Saturday in the form of a 41-0 blowout loss to Missouri. Whereas winless Vandy had shown some life in previous weeks (two one-score losses to Mississippi State and Kentucky), the Missouri loss was a total failure. Despite the obvious signs, the decision to fire Mason was not an internal consensus.
The big name immediately attached to this job is Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, a former Vandy player and Nashville native. I would offer some caution — there’s a tendency in both media and coaching to tie a name to a job based on associations rather than actual interest. Lea is a rising star at a national title contender, and “Mama called” is neither a universal standard nor even a popular concept.
Vandy blue-bloods are expecting James Franklinesque lightning to strike again without fundamental advancements in the program. Mason’s Vanderbilt consisted of two bowl bids from a pair of six-win seasons and a 10-46 record in SEC play, because Mason was a great defensive coordinator. He, like Lea, is not the kind of generational personality capable of bending Vanderbilt’s gilded wills and this sport’s general apathy to the Commodores’ advantage.
When Franklin left Nashville in 2013, a lot of boosters pushed for one of his assistants, namely defensive coordinator Bob Shoop or offensive line coach Herb Hand, to replace him. If there’s still interest in the Franklin tree, watch out for Alabama running backs coach Charles Huff, a quality control assistant at Vandy in 2011 and assistant under Franklin at Penn State. Huff has recruited the SEC at Bama and Mississippi State, and spent three years coaching at FCS Tennessee State in Nashville.
Charlotte’s Will Healy is a Tennessean and former assistant coach at UT-Chattanooga, with both a family connection (his uncle played for the ‘Dores) and the distinction of breathing life (and fundraising) into a lost cause at Austin Peay. At present, I’d suggest Healy only because he’s shown a propensity for taking on crusades — which is what Vandy is — and he’s unafraid of an aggressive social media and external communications plan, the latter of which helped Franklin temporarily change the perception of the school. I remember it well.
Healy’s resume is built squarely on his ability to install culture, and his age (35) and 9-9 record as a FBS head coach might be a concern for the school, but he’s also received a look from South Carolina; he’s probably the client CAA and Jimmy Sexton will push first. Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson is another name that Vandy might come in contact with, but if we’re going apples to apples, the Demon Deacons have done way, way more to invest in facilities and support than Vandy has.
Michigan / Texas / The Market As A Whole -
With Texas’ loss to Iowa State on Saturday — yet another close game for Tom Herman in Austin — and Michigan’s ongoing petrification under IDEAL MICHIGAN MAN Jim Harbaugh, there’s no longer any pretense among industry types that 2020 will be a “slow” season.
It’s possible that when it’s all over and done with, overall coaching changes might be down some, but with two premier brands on the brink of firings and two in-season SEC openings that aren’t Tennessee (or Auburn!), “The wheel is in motion,” as one agent put it to me on Monday.
“South Carolina spending $13 million to get rid of Will Muschamp is establishing terms [for the cycle]. Someone else is going to see that as an excuse to do the same thing or a reason not to hesitate,” the agent said.
Again, this is 2020. I hope you put your holiday lights up months in advance if it made you feel good, and if imagining the macroeconomics of this stupid sport as a giant, Will Muschamp-shaped hole in a wall like a Looney Tunes short makes you laugh, go for it.