Recently, anyone and everyone has weighed in on who the University of Southern California should hire to replace the recently fired Clay Helton. Our own George Wrighster is no different- see below.
These are the non-negotiables- the new head coach of USC has to be relevant, proven, a relentless recruiter, and able to bring a running game back to the Coliseum. Using that criteria and basic logic, let’s rate the legitimacy of the candidates that media members and crafty agents have put out there as potential candidates to replace Clay Helton:
Donte Williams- Interim Head Coach
Six years ago, Donte Williams was knows as a skilled California recruiter that was helping San Jose State gain relevance. His reputation and results allowed him to quickly climb the coaching ladder, jumping from SJSU to Arizona, then Nebraska, Oregon, and finally back in California at USC, where he shocked the Trojans stagnant recruiting back to life, and helped hold off Arizona State for guys like Drake Jackson and Korey Foreman.
Why he makes sense: He’s already got the job, and one thing every fan base has been susceptible to is buying into the current staff if the team is able to make a drastic improvement. Williams is one of the top 3 recruiters in the Pac-12, if not the best, and USC is not going to want to lose him no matter who they hire, so if the Trojans find some way to run the table the rest of the way an play for a Pac-12 title, it will be very hard to hire over someone that won over the fan base and the players through the results on the field.
Why it doesn’t make sense: Looking internally and not weighing your options is what has contributed to the program’s inability to meet its potential. Williams has no head coaching experience, and has never called an offense or a defense at the collegiate level. If you surround an elite recruiter with the right assistants, you could end up trending up like Oregon, but if not, you could end up trending down like Washington. Does Williams have the connections and vision for USC’s style of play on both sides of the ball? Can he manage the politics and day-to-day elbow rubbing and donor schmoozing that comes with the gig? We’re only going to find out if the Trojans run the table for the rest of 2021.
Mario Cristobal- Oregon Head Coach
Mario Cristobal took over for Willie Taggart when after one year in Eugene, he took off to try his luck at Florida State. His energy as a recruiter, and willingness to seek out support staff that will help the team improve on the field have helped Oregon become the class of the Pac-12 North.
Why he makes sense: He’s everything USC is looking for. If Athletic Director Mike Bohn could pry Cristobal away from Oregon, he would.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Oregon is likely to match whatever anyone would offer to acquire Mario Cristobal. So the only reason for Cristobal to leave would be an assumption that LA gives him a less-resistant path to winning every single week. Mario Cristobal does not strike me as a person, all other things being equal, to jump ship to make things slightly easier on himself.
James Franklin- Penn State Head Coach
James Franklin took lowly Vanderbilt to back-to-back 9-win seasons before taking over for Bill O’Brien at Penn State, leading the Nittany Lions to three top-10 finishes since 2016.
Why he makes sense: Like Cristobal, James Franklin is pretty much everything USC would want in a head coach, but with more of a track record of success. Franklin has brought several top-10 recruiting classes in a row, and is competing for the top class in the country this year.
Why he doesn’t make sense: For the same reason that he does- several top-10 recruiting classes in a row, and is competing for the top class in the country this year… would you want to leave that? Franklin has coached all over the country, but he’s a Pennsylvania man. Leaving for Southern California to pull in similar recruiting classes in a less prestigious conference might not appeal to him. Moreover, for USC fans, Franklin would be a good catch, but he’s only won one Big Ten title thus far, and one of the primary goals of this search needs to be someone who maximizes the talent they bring in.
Eric Bieniemy- Kansas City Chiefs OC
Eric Bieniemy is the first name you think of when you hear the term “next-in-line.” Bieniemy works under Andy Reid to help run the Kansas City Chiefs offense, quarterbacked by the one-and-only Patrick Mahomes.
Why he makes sense: He’s the hottest name in coaching and has been for almost two years. He has experience in the conference, albeit not great experience, and he undoubtedly would be able to assemble one of the best play-calling staffs available.
Why he doesn’t make sense: He’s not going to coach a college team. The news of his interest leaked through Adam Schefter, the preeminent NFL newsbreaker. So what does that tell you? Bieniemy’s team is sending a message to any NFL team out there that might be thinking about a change, that there’s competition for his services. But there isn’t- not from USC.
Joe Brady- Carolina Panthers OC
Joe Brady is credited for helping call the offense on one of the greatest college football offenses ever assembled. He left LSU after their 2019 National Championship to join Matt Rhule with the Carolina Panthers.
Why he makes sense: It doesn’t make sense! But it would be fun! Brady is too green as far as executive experience, and the example of his success is contained to one very special season. You’d want to see him duplicate that with Carolina, but if he can make Sam Darnold look like the Sam Darnold of old, I’m sure there would be some USC fans that could get behind this.
Why he doesn’t make sense: See above.
P.J. Fleck- Minnesota Head Coach
P.J. Fleck spent a year as a grad assistant at Ohio State before beginning his climb up the coaching ladder. Western Michigan made him the youngest head coach in college football, and he turned a 1-11 first year into a 13-1 fourth year before accepting the head coaching job at Minnesota, where he won 11 games by year 3.
Why he makes sense: He almost makes too much sense. I’m always a proponent of coaches that have turned around more than one program, especially programs with lower relative resources. Minnesota’s average recruiting class is between 40-50 historically, and yet he’s maximized the talent there to make the Gophers competitive. He’s only 40, a relentless recruiter, and might be the only candidate on this list outside of James Franklin and Mario Cristobal that wouldn’t need to find a way to retain Donte Williams.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Any push back on Fleck’s candidacy would have to be regional. Or if the Trojans think they have a shot at anyone else they want. It could also be affected negatively if Minnesota fails to live up to expectations this year.
Lane Kiffin- Ole Miss Head Coach
Lane Kiffin used to coach USC. He used to coach a lot of places. Some Trojans have longed for a re-do in which Kiffin is unencumbered by sanctions.
Why he makes sense: He’s proven he’s a good college coach. He moved on from his Tarmac-firing by USC to have relative success in several places, and even took time to humble himself and coach in the shadow of Nick Saban as an assistant at Alabama. He knows the LA market, and he’s built for the college grind.
Why he doesn’t make sense: While I’m sure there’s some part of Lane Kiffin that wants to be wanted by the team that unceremoniously ditched him, he’s had a taste of big boy football culture in the SEC, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for him to head west.
Luke Fickell- Cincinnati Head Coach
Luke Fickell built Cincinnati into a team worthy of a major conference invite. He’s a big name in coaching circles, and nearly knocked off mighty Georgia in a bowl game last year.
Why he makes sense: He’ll win. It’s pretty obvious that in his time as a player and coach at Ohio State, the formula for success was engrained into his DNA. You’re not going to hire Luke Fickell and get worse. No chance.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Luke Fickell has coached and played his entire career in the state of Ohio. His son is on the Cincinnati roster. He’s gotten the Bearcats into the Big 12. USC would be a pretty drastic change at this point for him and his entire family, but if the price is right…
Billy Napier- Louisiana Head Coach
Billy Napier is linked to every major job that comes available. The failed Clemson OC turned longtime Saban assistant, turned Arizona State OC, turned Louisiana Lafayette Head Coach is an intriguing name when it comes to the next round of major college jobs.
Why he makes sense: Napier spent a lot of time at Alabama before leaving to take over Arizona State’s offense. A lot of those Alabama WRs you’ve seen flood the NFL over the last few years? Napier recruits. Plus, Louisiana hadn’t had a 10+ win season in my lifetime, and under Napier they’ve done it twice.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Napier is much more likely next up for an SEC or Big Ten job than he is a return tot he Pac-12. Napier would be the guy I’d expect to get a call if USC pulled Fleck or Franklin away from their current jobs.
Chris Petersen- Former Washington Head Coach
Chris Petersen elevated Boise State before elevating Washington before abruptly retiring before the 2020 season. He’s doing TV commentary now.
Why he makes sense: He was good at Washington. The same criteria USC used to hire Steve Sarkisian.
Why he doesn’t make sense: He’s retired. Like, actually retired.
Urban Meyer- Jacksonville Jaguars Head Coach
Urban Meyer made Utah and Florida and Ohio State into monsters. He’s probably the best college football coach on the planet not named Nick Saban.
Why he makes sense: USC fans want him.
Why he doesn’t make sense: USC, the actual school, for a hundred different reasons, does not want him. Plus, Meyer, if you take him at his word, already said there’s “no chance” he’d leave the Jaguars for USC.
Bob Stoops- Former Oklahoma Head Coach
Bob Stoops was the head coach of Oklahoma for eleven different top-10 finishes, and a national championship. He’s only 61 years old, and has been a feature on television ever since stepping down from the Sooners job after the 2016 season. He raised eyebrows with a brief return to coaching with the XFL’s Dallas Renegades- could he be looking to return?
Why he makes sense: He’s got the history of having carried a major college brand to meet expectations for almost two decades. Nobody else really has that on their resume.
Why he doesn’t make sense: College football has never had a more rapid shift in rules and culture than it has over the last five seasons. 2016-2021 is not the time to have a gap in your resume, no matter how good you were before that.
Matt Campbell- Iowa State Head Coach
Matt Campbell made Iowa State relevant. He built them up over the last five years, gave them four consecutive bowl appearances, a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oregon, and has amassed four separate Coach of the Year awards across his time with both the Cyclones and at the University of Toledo.
Why he makes sense: I’ve witnessed Matt Campbell recruit. He’s made the Pac-12 country a contributing factor to his success at Iowa State, and he’s extremely talented at making a player feel like they’re committing to something larger than themselves.
Why he doesn’t make sense: While both Toledo and Iowa State did the most they could with the talent they had under Matt Campbell’s tenure, they’ve still struggled to move past being competitive to being dominant, or even having a leg up on their rival Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s going to be tough to convince USC alumni to get behind someone they believe does better as the conductor of The Little Engine that Could than at the helm of The Giant Engine that Should.
Bill O’Brien- Alabama OC
Bill O’Brien took the goodwill that came from steering Penn State out of disaster and parlayed it into a head coaching job in the NFL, and he’s probably still be a head coach in the NFL if he didn’t consolidate power to also become the Houston Texans’ General Manager. If talent acquisition is something he’s interested in having a hand in, then a full-time return to college football might not be a bad move after graduating from the Nick Saban school of image rehabilitation.
Why he makes sense: He’s a good coach, a big name, and has the confidence and personality to handle the pressures and media scrutiny that comes with one of the most talked-about jobs in all of college football.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Close your eyes and try to imagine Bill O’Brien getting along with anyone under the age of 35, much less Southern California college kids. Can’t do it? Me neither.
Tony Elliott- Clemson OC
Tony Elliot has been at Clemson for a decade. He’s helped assemble and activate a college football giant, and was responsible for calling the offense on two different national championship teams.
Why he makes sense: He can recruit, he can coach, he has a championship pedigree, he’s young, he’s intelligent, and he’s clearly very loyal- being four years removed from winning the Broyles award for the top assistant in all of college football, and still remaining entrenched at his alma mater as an assistant. USC might be one of the only jobs in the country that Tony Elliott would be willing to abdicate his evident “in-waiting” status at Clemson in order to assume the head coaching role.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Honestly, it’s be a really good hire if the Trojans could pull it off. But I’m not sure anyone involved in the USC hiring process is going to bring someone into the fold that believes coaching USC is a secondary reward to being able to coach somewhere else, and if they brought Elliot in, that’s what they’d be getting- someone people would immediately assume would leave USC for Clemson if Dabo Swinney ever made good on his promise to quit once kids start getting paid.
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