Also read updated version: Michigan's Next Football Coach 2007 Final Edition
Michigan is another year closer to hiring a new head football coach. I don't know when it's going to happen but it's going to happen sometime and I am hoping that Bill Martin is prepared. It will likely be the most important decision the Athletic Department has made since 1969. Lloyd Carr has kept the program in good standing for 12 years. That is something that cannot be overlooked by even the most ardent Carr detractors. His good traits as a head coach are obvious. He is a loyal leader of men. He has been with the program for 27 years which has helped keep Michigan football consistent. Carr's lesser traits are just as obvious. The next head coach at Michigan needs to help the program break out of its stubborn ways of playing close to the vest and being afraid to take risks. Carr is so adverse to taking risks that at times it seems as though he would rather knowingly lose by not taking risks than even attempt to take risks at all. That sounds laughable but how else can you explain Michigan avoiding the shotgun like the plague time and time again. The shotgun was the only chance Michigan had at buying enough time for Henne against USC. The shotgun represents a risk to Carr because the Michigan way is for the QB to lineup under center. Unfortunately, eliminating weapons like the shotgun all together simply because it’s not what Michigan football is about seriously handicaps Michigan’s ability to win in situations like the 2007 Rose Bowl. The University prides itself on young, innovative minds. There is no reason for the football staff to be any different. There are a handful of exceptional coaching minds just waiting for the opportunity to take Michigan to the next level.
The program needs a jolt of enthusiasm and innovation. When Carr took over the reigns in 1994, Michigan was a step above Ohio State (this is probably debatable but head to head and NC gives UM a slight edge). Now, Ohio State is unquestionably the premier program in the Midwest. Ohio State realized it needed something different to put it over the top and it made a change. That change has been haunting Michigan fans for six years. It's time for Michigan to get even. Consistency has been Michigan's hallmark. It almost seems that some fans are willing to concede greatness to continue Michigan's remarkable run at being good. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Ohio State needed to miss a bowl game before it took a good look at itself. Michigan shouldn't have to do the same. That is why it is imperative for Michigan to hire a dynamic coach from outside of the program immediately following Carr's retirement. A brief stint with a promoted-from-within "Michigan Man" could really hurt the program. There have been so many big-time football schools (Oklahoma, USC, Florida and Ohio State just to name a few) that have significantly altered the level of their programs by hiring a dynamic coach. I know some people feel that think an “outsider” would bring instability and without a "Michigan Man" at the helm the program would be like a captain-less ship. I understand the desire to hold on to the past but I also understand that Michigan's 37-year run of success started as a result of hiring a coach from Miami (OH). That same coach was also an "Ohio State" man. That alone should calm fears that a "Michigan Man" needs to lead the team. I believe that any coach that comes to Michigan and wants to be there is a "Michigan Man". I am pleading with the administration to help the Michigan football program reach unprecedented heights. Everything is in place except ingenuity. Ohio State took a chance and it paid off brilliantly. Michigan must follow. Besides, how much longer does the fan-base have to feel like this this simply because Michigan is afraid of change?
The following is a ranking of the best candidates available (IMO) to take Michigan to the next level. I only included coaches that Michigan would have an excellent shot at bringing in. I didn't waste anybody's time by putting coaches that are solid in their current locations like Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops. I also didn’t include assistant coaches not for any other reason than I just didn’t think any assistants were among the best candidates. There are way too many head coaches out there that are more than qualified to coach at Michigan. Michigan doesn't need to waste its time by looking at inexperienced or unproven coaches. It just needs to pony up the dough to bring in the best candidate possible. I did not include any of the "Michigan Men" candidates that have had their names thrown around at some point or another. I did write a bit about them at the end. The factors that I used to choose and rank these coaches were pretty simple. I looked for coaches that are innovative, that can adjust, that maximize talent, and that have proven they can win anywhere. Ohio State used those factors to bring in Jim Tressel. It's time for Michigan to strike back.
Best Candidates for Michigan Football Coach
1) Paul Johnson Navy Head Coach
With Petrino stuck in the black hole that is the NFL, Johnson becomes the top available coach on my list. I've changed my tone completely on Johnson. My initial feelings were that Johnson and his triple option attack would not be conducive to a big-time football program like Michigan. After seeing successful variations of the triple option flourish at Florida and West Virginia, there is no reason it could not work at Michigan. In fact, Johnson would allow Michigan to keep a run-oriented offense which has been a staple of the program since its infancy. It is also important to remember that using the offense Johnson runs at Navy right now is the only way Navy could ever compete. Johnson deserves credit for being innovative enough to make Navy a factor in college football again as well as the benefit of the doubt that with far better talent he could be even more effective.
I don't think most college football fans recognize just how fantastic of a job Johnson has done at the Naval Academy. In the two seasons prior to Johnson’s arrival, Navy had a record of 1-20. After his first season in Annapolis, Navy has gone 35-15 with four bowl appearances in four seasons. If that’s not remarkable coaching, then I don’t know what is. He routinely wins with a roster full of kids that nobody recruited. No high school football player with aspirations of playing in the NFL would ever choose to play football at an academy over another D-1 school. Academy teams are slower, smaller, and significantly less athletic than 99% of D-1 teams. Nobody plays harder than the academies but no D-1 school has a bigger disadvantage in talent. Johnson routinely beats teams with superior talent. It makes you wonder how successful he could be with the most talented players in the country.
Johnson isn't a newbie. Before he was at Navy, he was at I-AA Georgia Southern where he went 62-10 in five seasons. He won two National Championships in five seasons including the 1999 season in which Johnson's Georgia Southern squad defeated Jim Tressel's Youngstown State team. Johnson won the conference championship every season he was at Georgia Southern and also collected two National Coach of the Year Awards. Ohio State has achieved unparalleled success at Ohio State by bringing in a top I-AA coach. Johnson was even more successful than Tressel during his relatively short stint in the I-AA ranks.
I think Johnson would be a fantastic fit for Michigan. He has a lot of experience against Tressel. He has proven he can beat Tressel on the big stage. He has maximized talent at Navy in a way that no other coach has duplicated in college football. I don't understand how this guy is still coaching at the Naval Academy. His resume is just as impressive as Tressel’s pre-Ohio State resume. He sounds like a perfect antidote to offset the advantage Ohio State gained by hiring Tressel. Johnson probably doesn’t have the leverage of Petrino and Rodriguez in terms of contract demands simply because he hasn’t received major interest from other big-time schools. That would allow Michigan to avoid having to substantially increase the amount of money it pays to its head football coach.
2) Rich Rodriguez West Virginia Head Coach
Rodriguez gives Michigan the opportunity to "have its cake and eat it too" just like Johnson would. What I mean by that is that Michigan could become significantly more dynamic on offense without abandoning its run first mentality. Think of it as Michigan Football 2.0. It has all of the features of the traditional Michigan program with upgrades. I actually like the sound of that idea. Rodriguez has installed a brilliant spread-option offense at West Virginia. With talent only a mid-major could love, he has elevated the WVU program to elite status. Rodriguez is clearly one of the elite young coaching candidates in college football. Whichever college reels him in will be set for the foreseeable future.
A lot will be made of the defensive struggles at West Virginia. It is much easier to make something out of nothing on offense than it is to do the same on defense. I would be shocked if these coaches wouldn't put a good defensive product on the field with Michigan-level talent. West Virginia has tried tirelessly to keep Rodriguez in Morgantown. He is compensated handsomely so it would take a generous offer to pry him away. Michigan is one of the schools that can make such an offer.
3) Jeff Tedford California Head Coach
Tedford certainly has experience coaching a top public university. He has revitalized the Cal football program. The year before he took over at Cal, the Golden Bears went 1-10. In his first season he guided Cal to a 7-5 record including a two-point loss to USC. I've always felt that the only way to know for sure the merits of a particular coach is to see that coach inherit a mess. If a coach can turn around a mess, then you know he's a fantastic coach. Most of the elite major college football coaches don't ever have to inherit a mess. Just about every coach on this list has inherited a miserable situation only to bring their school to national prominence. Those are the coaches that make the best of talent. Tedford took over one of the worst programs in football and has not experienced one losing season. I would say he gets the most out of his players.
One concern I do have with Tedford is the fact that he hasn't taken Cal to the next level. I know it's hard having to recruit against USC and UCLA. I'm sure there is a cap on how good the Cal program can be with those two traditional powers in the same state. I would be more sold on Tedford if he could put Cal over the top. What he has done thus far has been extremely impressive. I just wonder if he has the ingenuity to "drop the hammer" like Pete Carroll and Bobby Petrino.
4) Greg Schiano Rutgers Head Coach
If given a choice, how many players on the Rutgers roster would the Michigan coaching staff take? One or two, maybe? It wouldn't be much more than that. Schiano proved that he is right near the top of the list of bright young coaches. Rutgers beat Louisville and barely lost to West Virginia in triple OT. Rutgers was even in the National Championship talk midway through the 2006 season which is simply unheard of for Rutgers. It took a few years for Schiano to get the program rolling but nobody in New Jersey is arguing with the results.
As impressive as Schiano's job has been at Rutgers, he has had plenty of success elsewhere. He coached for the Chicago Bears before becoming the Defensive Coordinator at the University of Miami (FL) in 1999 and 2000. That was the stretch that pushed the Canes back into the national spotlight with their trademark dominating defense. Schiano shockingly turned down overtures from Miami to remain at Rutgers. I don't think that is a sign that Schiano is unwilling to leave Rutgers. I just think he recognized the instability that is going on at Miami right now.
5) Chris Petersen Boise State Head Coach
Anybody who saw the Fiesta Bowl knows what this guy is capable of doing. Much like Paul Johnson at Navy, Petersen gets the most out of a roster littered with recruits that nobody wanted. Petersen's offense is innovative enough to keep even the best defenses in football on its toes. Oklahoma can attest to that. Also, Petersen's success in year one is a whole different feat than first-year success at a school like Miami (FL). Larry Coker inherited the equivalent of a pro football team in 2001. Petersen inherited a program full of players that big-time schools had no interest in. Even though Dan Hawkins had been extremely successful at Boise State, nothing short of spectacular coaching would have put Boise State in a BCS game this year.
Hawkins struggles in year one at Colorado may curtail the enthusiasm for Petersen somewhat but Colorado was in shambles when Hawkins took over. If a coach can beat BCS schools with weak talent at Boise State, then he can do it at Colorado or Michigan. It may be a bit premature to anoint Petersen as the next great college football coach but there is no doubt in my mind that he won't last four years at Boise State before a big-time school makes him an offer.
6) Kirk Ferentz Head Coach Iowa
The probability of Ferentz becoming the Michigan football coach likely peaked last season. The Iowa football program was supposed to take a major leap in 2006. Ferentz had started to pull in some excellent recruiting classes which should have signified more impressive on-field results. That didn't happen in '06 and I'm not sure that Iowa can make the transition to a college football power. I think the Iowa job is a lot like the California job. Both Tedford and Ferentz will struggle to get those two schools to the next level. It's hard to hold it against them. I'm not sure how much of it is the talent deficiency at Iowa and how much of it is Ferentz not yet being able to put it all together. Nonetheless, Iowa would be crazy to let him go.
I can speak from my own point of view and say that although I respect what Ferentz has done, I would much rather have a coach with a better feel for the offense. Iowa is too much like the old Michigan way of brutalizing the opposition into submission. That works against weaker competition but that doesn’t take a program to the top level of college football
7) Bronco Mendenhall BYU Head Coach
I was impressed with the job Mendenhall had done at BYU already. After reading his Wikipedia profile, I'm even more impressed. He is precisely the kind of coach that the University of Michigan covets. His X's and O's resemble the new style of college football that is required for a team to compete with the likes of USC, Florida and Ohio State. He embraces the history of his school while promising to bring it to new levels of success. Here is a brief summary from Wikipedia:
"Mendenhall's agenda at BYU has been to bring the team back to its glory days of national and conference championships with a wide-open offense and an aggressive defense. His first step in his agenda was to switch BYU's uniforms and helmets back to the 1980s look, but with the navy blue tinge. Additionally, he has reached out to alumni and former players, both in an effort to bring back tradition and to search the nation for recruits. Rather than trying to make excuses for or work around BYU's strict honor code and LDS Mission situation, he has embraced them as positives in recruiting athletes who will succeed at BYU. He also had the university paint a midfield logo at LaVell Edwards stadium and reinstituted the use of helmet stickers."
I’ve talked to a lot of fans from various schools and it is very rare to find a coaching staff as reserved and covert as the Michigan coaching staff. I would love for Michigan to have a bold coach who is not afraid to say the goal is to win it all. Mendenhall seems to be that kind of coach. He's dynamic and liberal. He embraces history as well as the ever changing landscape of college football. Mendenhall's fresh approach would be a much needed break from the blandness that has become of the UM coaching staff.
8) Brian Kelly Head Coach Cincinnati
This might sound strange at first but I am convinced that this it is true--winning in I-AA and D-2 is just as impressive as winning in I-A. Coaching is coaching. That is why I am so high on Paul Johnson. Nobody was better in I-AA than Johnson. Regardless of what division you are coaching in, you have to prepare, scheme, and adjust better than the opposition. Jim Tressel, Johnson and Brian Kelly were some of the brightest minds their respective divisions had to offer. All three have revitalized I-A programs immediately. While I think Johnson would be my choice over Kelly, it wouldn't be by much.
If there is any doubt that the "Michigan way" is not the end-all consider that Mike Debord failed miserably at Central Michigan before Kelly came in to bail the program out. If Kelly can significantly out coach Debord at Central, just think of the improvements he could make with the talent that Debord currently has to work with as Michigan's Offensive Coordinator. Kelly, within two seasons, turned the Central Michigan program into a force in the MAC.
Within a season or two at Cincinnati, Kelly will have that program among the Big East's best. He'll have inroads in the state of Ohio in terms of recruiting which would be a huge asset for the Michigan football program. The Big East has become the new "cradle of coaches" with Rich Rodriguez, Greg Schiano, and Kelly just to name a few. Michigan would do well to pluck one of these bright coaches from that conference.
9) Gary Patterson Head Coach TCU
Other than Johnson, Patterson might do the most with the least. His recruiting classes aren't even in the top 50 yet his teams are always stout on defense. In six seasons at TCU, Patterson has gone 54-20 while leading the Horned Frogs to five bowl games. His TCU teams have beaten Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Louisville, and Iowa State.
I have to admit that I haven't seen nearly enough of Patterson to endorse him as a coaching candidate at Michigan. TCU's offense ingenuity is certainly nothing like that of most of the other coaches on this list. His calling card is his defense which would work well at Michigan. I like defense but, in this day and age, you have to be able to score in multiple ways to be successful. Being vanilla on offense is a recipe for disaster. Michigan proves that every year against teams with equal talent. Patterson might be more innovative than I’m giving him credit for. I wish I knew more about his style.
10) Mike Leach Head Coach Texas Tech
Last year, I viewed Leach and Paul Johnson in the same light. I thought both would be in over their heads at Michigan. While I've changed my tune on Johnson, I'm still uncertain about Leach. It's very hard to imagine Leach's pass-happy offense at Michigan. Whereas Petrino, Rodriguez, and Johnson's offenses are either predicated on the run or use the run heavily, Leach's offense is more like an air raid. His running backs usually end up with quite a few rushing touchdowns but the yardage discrepancy would be very hard to get used to for the Michigan faithful.
There is no question that Leach is a very good coach. The recruits he gets at Texas Tech are nowhere near the top 20 in college football yet his teams continue to win. Every season, Leach plugs in a quarterback who promptly throws for 3,000+ yards and 30 touchdowns. Although Leach's recruiting rankings don't jump off of the page, he does have the most talented state in America as his backyard. The second and third-tier recruits in Texas are more than enough to sustain a successful football program. I'm not sure how much recruiting influence Leach would have in the Midwest.
11) Jim Grobe Wake Forest Head Coach
I am extremely impressed with what Grobe has done at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons have something going for the first time in their history. Grobe continues the theme of maximizing talent. Wake Forest has an enrollment of 4,321. It hardly piques the interest of the nation’s top football talent. Yet, Wake won the ACC conference championship over the likes of Miami (FL), Florida State, Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Georgia Tech.
One to keep in mind if Carr sticks around a couple years...
1a) Bobby Petrino Atlanta Falcons Head Coach
If I had carte blanche over the selection of Michigan's next football coach, I would take a hard look at Bobby Petrino. Obviously the fact that he left Louisville for the NFL makes his availability shaky at best. And, questions about his willingness to stay in one place for a significant amount of time are inevitable. When a coach is interested in the NFL, the love affair almost never goes away. Regardless, his resume is as impressive as they come. He guided the Louisville Cardinals to a 41-9 record in four seasons. He parlayed minimal talent (at least according to the recruiting rankings) into one of the elite programs in college football. That is amazing considering Louisville's standing as a perennial afterthought for the first 40 years of its existence. Michigan absolutely must have a coach that can maximize talent. If Petrino can make the most of his talent and win with weak recruiting classes, then he will certainly be able to make the most of his talent and win bigger with superb recruiting classes.
Martin Has the Power
It will be interesting to see how Bill Martin approaches the job search. Without an obvious in-house candidate and tremendous pressure from alumni to go outside of the program for a dynamic coach, one would have to think that Martin would use Michigan's vast resources to bring in someone as talented as Paul Johnson. I am sure there would be some awkwardness going south to look for the next Michigan coach but that is only an excuse to avoid having to hire outside of the program. This is all just speculation. The truth is that the average Michigan fan today has no clue how the program would go about hiring a new coach since it has promoted from within for the last 37 years.
I would hope that Martin can look beyond precedent (hiring from within) and look forward to the possibilities with a coach like Johnson. Michigan gets too much talent to continue to try to bully around the elite college football teams. Every trip to Pasadena proves that doesn't work. Michigan has managed to underpay its head football coach for a long time. If it wants to bring in the brightest young coach available, it will have to be willing to double or even triple the amount of money it has paid Coach Carr. That shouldn’t be a problem for a program that routinely leads the nation in attendance and merchandising.
One of the factors that any elite college football team will want is stability. That means trying to limit the amount of head coaching changes as much as possible. With Grobe being 55 going into next season, he probably won't be around for more than 10-12 years. If there isn't an alternative, then hiring a coach for 10-12 years isn't such a bad thing. However, it would be in everyone's best interest to bring in a guy that could coach for 25 years. That combined with the fact that Grobe (like Schiano) has only really achieved success recently makes him a long shot.
As far as I know, there isn’t a single veteran coach on the Michigan football staff that hasn’t coached at another university. Yet, the myths that all of the current Michigan coaches were somehow born "Michigan Men" and, conversely, all head coaching candidates from outside of the program are not Michigan Men still get perpetuated throughout the media and fan-base. Had former Michigan AD Don Canham not gone outside of the Michigan program to look for a coach to succeed Bump Elliot, Bo Schembechler would have probably been hired as the head coach at Ohio State in 1979. Hiring outside of the program brought Michigan to the level it is at now. Every so often, the program needs a new direction. It needed a new direction in 1969 and it needs a new direction when Carr retires. I can only hope Martin makes as brilliant a move as Canham did.
There is a section of the fan-base that will undoubtedly push for a Michigan Man. Lloyd Carr has already laid the groundwork for a member of the current staff to take over. That would be the worst decision Michigan could make. Lloyd has said on occasion that if you take a look at any organization that has remained successful for a long period of time, one characteristic that is consistent across the board is promotion from within. There certainly is some merit to that. However, one thing that helps organizations reach new levels is hiring a dynamic mind from outside of the organization. Despite Michigan’s impressive won/loss record and consistent bowl streak, the program has not yet reached its potential. Carr will probably push for Mike Debord as the next head coach at Michigan. That would be a huge mistake. Debord failed miserably at Central Michigan only to have Brian Kelly come in and win immediately. There would be one reason, and one reason only to hire Debord and that would be to continue with the tradition of hiring within. That would be an awful basis to hire a new coach especially when Bo was plucked from another school in 1969.
There will also be interest by fans and alumni in Les Miles, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Trgovac, and Cam Cameron. It would be great if Harbaugh showed an affinity for maximizing talent and “dropping the hammer” at Stanford. That program is in such disarray that Harbaugh might not have things rolling by the time Michigan looks for its next coach. Cameron is also intriguing considering his monumental success calling plays for the San Diego Chargers. However, Marty Schottenheimer’s influence certainly doesn’t make me giddy about the offense that Cameron might bring to Ann Arbor.
It’s important to remember that simply being a “Michigan Man” doesn’t automatically qualify a person as being a good candidate for the head coaching position at Michigan. The school shouldn’t hire beneath itself just to fulfill the ridiculous notion that it must hire from within. Michigan deserves the best. Despite Carr’s many proclamations that fans and internet people don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about, the Michigan fan-base isn’t stupid. Games are now won as much on the sideline as they are on the field.