Pernell: Coaches Worth Vetting
We are only a few days away from the end of the Mike Riley era at Nebraska. I think the majority of fans liked Riley. He embraced the history, expectations and traditions of this program in a way Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini never did. He was genuinely grateful for the opportunity to coach at Nebraska. He was open and informative with the media and fans. But the bottom line is he didn’t do enough to earn more time in Lincoln. I think he knows that. His exit speech with his players and the media will undoubtedly be more classy and professional than his predecessor.
Bill Moos has been preparing for this next step for several weeks. During his first week on the job, Moos admitted during his radio show on Husker Sports Nightly that he was working on new coaching candidates for each sport. It’s something he’s always done, knowing that you always need to be ready to act quickly. With that comment, he added, “Not because I have any plans. I just like to be prepared if something happens. … Because nowadays, you better be ready to make your move and not take a lot of time, because there’s others who are going to be circling the wagons as well.”
I expect an announcement to be made rather quickly on who Moos has tapped to replace Riley. The sooner the better. The new coach needs to hit the ground running both filling his staff and hitting the recruiting trail. Nebraska’s once promising class has been at a standstill for weeks and a number of their commitments have begun looking elsewhere. I would expect the next coach to move quickly to try and ascertain who he can keep on board and who will be decommitting when Riley is fired.
The new coach needs to act quickly. At one point Nebraska had commitments from five players (Bookie Radley-Hiles, Joshua Moore, Chase Williams, Will Farniok, Barret Pickering) who were planning to sign early and enroll for spring ball. Radley-Hiles decommitted on Halloween, but I would expect the new coach to at least take another swing at him. The remaining commits will be immediate priorities, especially the kids who had planned on taking advantage of the early signing period, which runs from Dec. 20-22.
The recruiting dead period runs from Dec. 18-Jan. 11, so the new guy will need to be diligent. Following the regular season, teams essentially have six possible recruiting weekends before another dead period begins Feb. 5 running through National Signing Day on Feb. 7 (Dec. 1-3, Dec. 8-10, Jan. 12-14, Jan. 19-21, Jan. 26-28, Feb. 2-4).
Regardless of who is hired, I would strongly suggest they seriously consider retaining cornerbacks coach Donté Williams, wide receivers coach Keith Williams and defensive line coach John Parrella. None of these three are “Riley’s guys” in terms of being long-time assistants that have worked with him since his Oregon State days. They all began their relationships with Riley at Nebraska and could be kept on without a worry of being divisive or resistant to a new direction with the program.
Donté and Keith Williams are nationally respected for their work on the recruiting trail and how detailed and hands-on they are on the practice field. Parrella is also adept at both aspects and as a former Blackshirt (’88-’92), would represent a link to the programs glory days. His loyalty will always be to Nebraska, it doesn’t matter who is coaching. Whoever the new coach is, it’s going to be paramount that Nebraska continues to upgrade the talent on the roster. Defensive back and wide receiver are the two most important positions to fill in this class. Both position groups need to be restocked in these next few years. Nebraska already has two of the countries top overall recruiters at those spots with the Williams duo. There’s a reason they are among the highest paid coaches at their positions nationally, it would be smart to keep them around.
Well then, what traits does Moos look for when filling a head coaching position? He told us during his introductory press conference. “First and foremost, when I’m looking for a coach, are they a good teacher? Are they a good individual? Ethically, are they above board and clean? What are their records and what are their ambitions, where they want to go? And do they fit in the community? Not every community is the same.”
So who are some names Moos should have been vetting the last few weeks? I don’t particularly like the idea of a place such as Nebraska hiring a coordinator with no previous head coaching experience. Nebraska is not a school where someone should be getting their feet wet. There are far too many lessons to be learned on so many levels, and this is not a place anyone should be learning them on the fly. Yes, I know there are several examples of first-time coaches enjoying immediate success at their first gigs. Look no further than Kirby Smart and Georgia, but Nebraska can’t really afford to try and catch lightning in a bottle. They can’t suffer another miss. Personally, if I were Moos, I would be hesitant to give guys like Jeremy Pruitt (DC, Alabama), Mike Bloomgren (OC, Stanford), Brent Venables (DC, Clemson), Dave Aranda (DC, LSU), Manny Diaz (DC, Miami) or Tony Elliott (OC, Clemson) their first head coaching opportunities. All of those guys are well-deserving of a head coaching gig, don’t get me wrong, but I feel they need to make some noise elsewhere before given the keys to a program like Nebraska.
There are two coordinators with previous head coaching experience who do intrigue me, though. The first, Greg Schiano, is currently the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Ohio State. He came to Columbus after an unsuccessful two-year run as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prior to that, he spent 11 seasons at Rutgers and took a hapless program and built them into a pretty formidable team. Rutgers had been playing football since 1869 and had been to just one Bowl game (1978) prior to his arrival. Schiano took them to a bowl game in 6 of his last 7 years and even had an 11-win team in 2006. Prior to leaving for the NFL, Schiano had turned down overtures from Miami twice (2006, 2010) and Michigan (2007). In July, Urban Meyer said that Schiano turned down “two significant head coaching jobs” following the 2016 season to stay in Columbus. One of those jobs is believed to have been Oregon. Schiano is going to be selective, but he’ll be running his own program again soon.
Another compelling coach is Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Before he came to State College and built a dangerous Nittany Lion offense, Moorhead had a very successful four-year tenure as head coach at Fordham University. Moorhead led the Rams to the FCS playoffs the last three years he was there and went 32-8 in that span. He is a creative offensive mind and is probably the reason James Franklin is still at Penn State. He’ll get his chance on the FBS level soon enough as well. I could see Moos taking a hard look at these two.
No doubt Moos paid close attention to some of the up-and-coming coaches who are currently at mid-level Power 5 or non-Power 5 schools. I’m sure there are several A.D.’s around the country keeping tabs on guys like Charlie Strong (South Florida), Dave Doeren (N.C. State), D.J. Durkin (Maryland), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Mike Norvell (Memphis), Jeff Brohm (Purdue), Dino Babers (Syracuse), P.J. Fleck (Minnesota), Jason Candle (Toledo), Bryan Harsin (Boise State), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia), Chad Morris (SMU), Neal Brown (Troy), Seth Littrell (North Texas) and Bill Clark (Alabama-Birmingham). All promising, but in my opinion, none are quite Husker-caliber. At least not yet.
Ideally, you would hope that Moos at least used intermediaries to send out feelers on guys who are probably pipe dreams. Why not? Gary Patterson interviewed for the Husker job in 2007. Would he give Nebraska another look? I’d have found out, that’s for sure. I’d also make sure to have taken swings at Jimbo Fisher, David Shaw, Mark Richt, Chris Petersen and Gus Malzahn – heck, I would have even asked Bob Stoops how much he was enjoying his retirement. Leave no stone unturned. But when it’s all said and done, I personally identified five coaches who I feel would be A) Great hires and B) Legit options. I will run down each one and rank them in order of personal preference.
Chip Kelly (free agent). I think the top candidate for any college coaching job should be Kelly. Most believe he is the top choice of both Florida and UCLA. He has met with both schools and ESPN is reporting he is set to decide between the two. He has more than 25 years of coaching experience and led the Oregon football program to its most successful run in program history before making the move to the NFL. Kelly would come back to the college game and be among the top 3-5 coaches in the entire country. He was 46-7 in four-years in Eugene, with four BCS Bowl Games, including a BCS National Championship Game appearance. Oregon won the Pac-12 three times and finished ranked 11th, 3rd, 4th and 2nd in Kelly’s time (2009-12) as head coach. He was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year twice and National Coach of the Year in 2010. The Ducks finished 9th in 2013 and played in the 2014 CFB Playoffs, losing to Ohio State in the title game. Kelly laid the foundation for those seasons. He is one of the most innovative and brightest offensive minds in coaching. His up-tempo, no-huddle spread and it’s concepts revolutionized college football much the same way Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense influenced and changed the NFL in the early 1980s. Kelly’s offense is being replicated in some facet on every level of football from high school to the pros.
In his six years (2007-12) running the offense in Eugene, the Ducks were one of the most explosive and feared offenses in college football. In that six-year span, Oregon averaged 38.2 (12th), 41.9 (7th), 36.1 (8th), 47.0 (1st), 46.1 (3rd) and 49.6 (2nd) points per game. Kelly had four different starting quarterbacks combine to average a 61% completion percentage. With a 61-39 run-pass ratio, his teams averaged 277 yards on the ground and 215 yards through the air. He is the kind of coach that you offer $7 million a year and make him say no. Bill Moos and former Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti have a good relationship from their days in Eugene. Bellotti respects Moos a lot and if the Husker A.D. decides to push for Kelly (or Scott Frost), you can expect a glowing endorsement.
Scott Frost (Central Florida). Frost is the hottest-rising coach on the market, and for good reason. He has put together one of the most impressive rebuilds in the country after he got to Orlando in 2016. He inherited an 0-12 UCF program, which had inferior facilities and the recruiting competition that comes from being in Florida. Not only did he have to contend with the “Big Three” of Florida State, Florida and Miami, but every school in the SEC and ACC mine the Sunshine State for talent. Realistically, nearly every team in the country shines a light on Florida to see if they can pull talent out of the state. In short order, Frost has done at UCF what TCU accomplished working around the same obstacles in Texas. If he stuck it out at UCF, I have no doubt the Knights would mirror the longevity and success the Horned Frogs have enjoyed under Gary Patterson.
Frost currently has UCF 10-0 and ranked 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings in just his second year in Orlando. He has seen his stock meteorically rise since he joined Chip Kelly’s staff at Oregon in 2009 as wide receivers coach. When Kelly left for the NFL in 2013, he was succeeded by Mark Helfrich who promoted Frost to offensive coordinator. The Ducks offense didn’t skip a beat under his watch. Oregon finished in the top five nationally in scoring offense, total offense and yards per play each of the three years he was coordinator. Frost presided over Marcus Mariota’s 2014 Heisman Trophy season and an appearance in the College Football Playoff Championship.
His experience coaching under an offensive innovator like Kelly has proven invaluable. Overall, he has an offensive foundation that is second-to-none. Frost has experience with the West Coast Offense (Bill Walsh), the Spread (Kelly) and the Option (Tom Osborne). Three schemes with tutelage from absolute geniuses in each field. The offense he has installed in Orlando has run roughshod over the AAC. The Knights currently lead the nation in scoring (48.2 ppg), are 5th in total offense (522.6 ypg), and 2nd in yards per play (7.57). In 2015, the year before Frost arrived, UCF was 126th in scoring offense and 128th (dead last) in total offense. The Knights scored a total of 167 points that season. They scored 190 points in their first four games this year.
Frost has a unique coaching background. He has experience as both an offensive and defensive coordinator. How many rising head coaches can say that? As a player, he was tutored by some of the greatest football coaches of all-time. Bill Walsh and Tom Osborne I mentioned, but also Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells. He has also been around coaches like Jon Gruden, Mike Tomlin, Monte Kiffin, Bruce Arians, Butch Davis, Chuck Pagano and Todd Bowles. He has been exposed to Hall of Fame, all-time great coaches on both sides of the ball. Frost has taken what he’s learned from these mentors and has honed and tweaked parts from all of them and developed his own way of running a program. And thus far – albeit a small sample size – he is looking more and more like a coaching prodigy.
Several people consider Frost to be the ideal candidate – and they could be right. Who else could come in from day 1 and understand the culture, the history, the expectations and what it means to do things “The Husker Way?” What other coach is going to love this place and honor the program the way Frost would? A guy who has literally given his blood, sweat and tears to the program. Frost won’t turn 43 until January. If things go well, he won’t leave for another job. He could be a 20-year guy in Lincoln.
Already considered a top recruiter, how fast would kids line up to play for him after he sells them on Nebraska? Selling probably isn’t the right word. Coaches “sell” their program when they recruit, sure, but it’s something different to share your passion for a school when the love is real and runs as deep as it does with Frost. For him, recruiting to Nebraska would be more about opening kids’ eyes to Husker Nation and everything it once was and could be again. I think he would kill it on the recruiting trail. Frost has been very calculated with his career moves. Through the years, he had multiple head coaching opportunities before accepting the job at UCF, including at least one Power 5 program, but wanted to wait for the right one. I wrote about the rumored offer already on Frost’s desk. Does he take it?
Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech). He has taken an ideal career path to get where he is now. The Oklahoma-native spent five years under Gary Patterson at TCU (’07-’11), spending the last three years as one of the more respected offensive coordinators in the country. His work got him a job at Memphis in 2012, where he engineered one of the nation’s biggest turnarounds. The Tigers had won no more than two games each of its past three seasons prior to Fuente’s arrival. He inherited a program that was one of the worst nationally and transformed the Tigers into a team that went 10-3 and 9-3 in his last two years. What’s impressive is that Memphis shifted from Conference USA to a more difficult American Athletic Conference in 2013 during the middle of the rebuild.
Those efforts got him a job with a Power 5 school. The Hokies are currently 8-3 and ranked 25th in the College Football Playoff rankings in Fuente’s second season in Blacksburg. The youngest coach in the ACC, Fuente was 10-4 in his first season, winning the Coastal Division and getting Virginia Tech back in the ACC championship game for the first time since 2011. He was named ACC Coach of the Year for his work. Nothing is more daunting than following a legend, but despite following in the footsteps of Hall of Famer Frank Beamer, Fuente has the Hokies playing better than they have since Beamer won 10 or more games from 2004-11. Fuente’s ability to develop quarterbacks is another selling point. His work with Paxton Lynch is a nice feather in his cap, and Virginia Tech redshirt freshman Josh Jackson will be in the running for All-Conference honors. Fuente makes $3.2 million and his buyout is $6 million, but Nebraska can absorb that if Fuente is their guy. I would think a 60% raise would both get his attention and be worth it.
Dan Mullen (Mississippi State). Urban Meyer protégé who spent 10 years on staffs with the current Ohio State coach, including Notre Dame, Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. Mullen has developed several signal callers to be selected in the NFL Draft: Josh Harris (Bowling Green), Omar Jacobs (Bowling Green), Alex Smith (Utah), Tim Tebow (Florida) and Dak Prescott (Mississippi State).
Mullen is a proven winner and arguably the second best coach in the SEC. The 2014 National Coach of the Year, Mullen is finishing up his ninth year at Mississippi State. He has gone 69-45 at a program that was long considered one of the worst jobs in the conference. The Bulldogs were 32-65 in the eight years prior to his arrival, and despite playing in the toughest division in college football, Mullen has built a formidable program in Starkville. The Bulldogs are currently 8-3 and ranked 14th in the College Football Playoff rankings. With a win this weekend against Ole Miss (5-6) or down the line in their bowl game, Mullen will have produced four seasons of at least nine victories in the last eight years, including the school’s first back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2014 and 2015. To put in perspective, there were only four nine-win seasons at Mississippi State in the 109 years prior to Mullen’s arrival. In 2014, the Bulldogs became the first team in the AP poll’s 78-year history to go from unranked to No. 1 in five weeks. It was the fastest rise to the top spot in the history of the poll. It was also the first time in school history MSU was ranked No. 1. That season, the Bulldogs became the first team since 1983 Auburn to defeat three consecutive top-10 ranked teams. Including their upcoming invitation, Mullen has led the Bulldogs to eight-straight bowl appearances and has gone 5-2 thus far in those games. The program had gone to thirteen total in the 109 years before Mullen arrived.
Mullen has taken Mississippi State about as far as anyone can. He seems like he would be open to leaving for a better job and Nebraska would clearly represent that opportunity. He signed a four-year extension with Mississippi State back in February that will pay him $4.8 million per season, but he does not have a buyout. Nebraska would likely be willing to offer him in the $5-5.5 million range, which would be enough to get him to leave Starkville in my opinion.
Matt Campbell (Iowa State). Campbell would seem to be a good fit at Nebraska on a lot of levels. His time in Ames has given him insight and perspective into the same region and 500-mile recruiting radius as what he would be dealing with at Nebraska. An Ohio-native, Campbell has plenty of experience recruiting in the Big Ten footprint as well, after coaching in his home state for 13-years. He played at powerhouse Mount Union (Alliance, OH), winners of 12 NCAA Div. III National Championships. After spending two years as a GA at Bowling Green, he returned to his alma mater and was offensive coordinator from 2005-06, winning the D-III championship both years. After that, he spent two years as the offensive line coach at Bowling Green before taking on that same position at Toledo in 2009. Campbell was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2010 and then to head coach at the end of 2011 when Tim Beckman departed to take over at Illinois. At the time, Campbell was 32-years-old and the youngest head coach in the FBS by three years.
Campbell’s first full season included an eight-game winning streak that included an upset of No. 18 Cincinnati. The Rockets earned a spot in the Top 25 for the first time in more than a decade. In all, Campbell coached four full seasons at Toledo (2012–15), amassing a record of 35–15 and winning nine games three times. He was named the MAC Coach of the Year in 2015 prior to taking the job at Iowa State. His rebuilding effort in Ames has been nothing short of incredible. Before Campbell arrived, the Cyclones hadn’t been ranked in the AP top 25 since 2005, beat Oklahoma since 1990 or won more than three games since 2012. Campbell achieved all three in his first 19 games after Iowa State defeated then-No. 3 Oklahoma – the Cyclones’ first-ever road win over a Top 3 team. Iowa State had an unbeaten and untied month of October for the first time since 1937. They became the first team since 2011 LSU to have two wins against Top 5 teams in the same calendar month, after defeating #4 TCU and peaking at No. 14 in the AP poll. This year, the Cyclones won four conference games in a row for the first time since 2005. Iowa State is currently 7-4. With a win this weekend against Kansas State (6-5) or down the line in their bowl game, Campbell will have put together ISU’s first eight-win campaign since 2000.
Campbell is only making $2.1 million this year, but the concern comes with his buyout. His contract includes a 100-percent buyout, meaning if he terminates the contract at any point before Dec. 31, 2021, Iowa State is owed the entirety of the remaining contract amount if he leaves, which would be $9.4 million after this season. That’s a pretty big number and it might scare a few teams off. Would Nebraska hesitate because of that figure? According to the Omaha World-Herald, “The cost of the Huskers’ three-year football funk could reach $16.4 million, including potential payments to Riley and ongoing payments to former athletic director Shawn Eichorst and Pelini. The total includes payouts already made to Pelini’s assistant coaches.”
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all football website N2FL.com. He served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on recruitment and talent analysis, including the NFL Draft. You can email him at N2FL@hotmail.com.