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Paul Johnson is the best option for Michigan
Misunderstanding Paul Johnson
Nobody knows for certain when Michigan will be looking for its next football coach. It could be as soon as three months from now or a couple years from now. Only Lloyd Carr knows the answer to that one. However, I get the impression that this is it for Lloyd. If that ends up being the case, then the coaching search that takes place three months from now will probably be the most exciting thing to happen to the program since ’97. My preferences have changed slightly since my last list 10 months ago. Most of the names are the same but instead of focusing solely on candidates without ties to the program, I have included Les Miles who appears to be the only legitimate “Michigan Man” in contention. Any of the following coaches would be a good hire. Odds are that our next coach will be one of the guys below. If it is, recruiting likely won’t take a hit and the program will likely not miss a beat in the intermediate and likely flourish in the long run.
1). Les Miles-------LSU
I must admit that my first inclination at the thought of Miles being Michigan’s next coach was less than enthusiastic. I’ve never been an opponent of Miles in Ann Arbor but I did prefer some other names. I didn’t know much about him other than his brief tenure at Oklahoma St. and his first season at LSU. I have been dreaming (in my dreams) that Michigan’s next football coach would be an innovative tactician who could get the best out of Michigan's vast talent.
“Strategery” has never been a word used to describe the current Michigan coaching staff. Miles has never been thought of as an innovative genius of any kind, either. Whereas Jeff Tedford, Bobby Petrino, Paul Johnson, and Rich Rodriguez expose weakness with superior game-planning and play-calling, Miles keeps it relatively simple. Where Lloyd Carr attempts to coach like Bo Schembechler, it seems like Miles actually does it. Miles has proven that he is a Bo-disciple in just about every way. He favors the running game but not to a fault. He has a strong defense. He’s charismatic and he doesn’t pretend that he is a saint. Lloyd Carr—for all the goodwill that he has brought to the university—has taken everything that Bo did well and magnified it tenfold in a not-so-good way. He has taken Bo’s preference to the running game and turned it into a fixation often to the detriment of the program. He has removed virtually all surprise from the ground game often giving away the play before the ball is even snapped by using “tells” like a freshman wide receiver in the game or a fullback shuffle. He has taken Bo’s passion for UM and the comradery in the locker room and turned it into a “fort” where everything is run as if the program is protecting secrets vital to the safety of America.
The Michigan program has become stale. Bo’s success has been turned into a parody. When I first thought of Miles as Michigan’s next football coach, I envisioned just another Lloyd-type coach. I don’t see that anymore. I see a guy cut from the same cloth as Bo. He values a strong coaching staff. He can recruit with the best. He is conservative when he needs to be and risky when he needs to be. For the last five years, the term “Michigan Man” has left me ill at least when combined with the phrase “Michigan’s next football coach”. Miles is a “Michigan Man” and he would be a great fit. Some people will say he isn’t one of Lloyd’s favorite people. Others will say that Miles has had a shaky past. Don’t buy into that garbage. He was good enough for Oklahoma St., LSU, and Bo. As far as I’m concerned, that means he’s good enough for Michigan. Keep in mind that anyone who tries to discredit Miles as Michigan’s next football coach based on anything other than his coaching style probably has an agenda. Read mgoblog's profile of Miles to get a better idea of why he would be a good fit in Ann Arbor.
Best guess: Most signs point to Miles being the guy. I don’t have any reason to disagree. I think there is a better than 50% chance that Miles succeeds Carr.
2). Jeff Tedford----California
This is the third time I’ve listed the best candidates for the Michigan coaching job over the last 2+ years. Tedford has been in the top three on every list. There is little doubt that Tedford is an excellent coach. In the five years previous to his arrival at Cal in December of 2001, the Bears were 16-36 (.307 winning %). In the five and-a-half years since, Tedford has guided the Bears to a 48-21 record (.695 winning %). Tedford has turned the Cal program into a perennial BCS threat. Playing second fiddle to USC in recruiting has not made thing easy. Tedford has continued to bring top-notch talent to Berkley nonetheless. He is an offensive-guru and would be a perfect fit to open up the Michigan offense. I would certainly not be disappointed if he were the guy to take over the program. Read mgoblog’s profile of Tedford for more on Tedford’s miracle-job at Cal and his many strengths as a coach.
Best guess: Tedford seems happy at Cal. I don’t think he’s actively pursuing a way out of town. He also seems happy on the West Coast as evidenced by his coaching resume. I’m not sure what the pecking order is out west in terms of most sought after positions. USC is probably number one followed by UCLA. Tedford can pretty much coach wherever he wants so anytime one of those spots open—which could be soon for both places—Tedford could have the first crack if he wants it.
3). Paul Johnson-----Navy
Johnson will be a godsend for whatever program hires him. He just might be the best college football coach in the country. There certainly isn’t a single reason to think otherwise. There are only two other teams in the country that face as many obstacles as Johnson does at Navy and those teams are the other service academies (Army and Air Force). Air Force managed to run a pretty good program under Fisher DeBerry for a number of years but has tailed off significantly since his retirement. Army—with a talent level right on par with Navy—has gone 14-67 (.172 winning %) since 2000. When I say that Navy can only recruit players that nobody else wants, that’s exactly what I mean. You will almost never find a player at Navy or even remotely interested in Navy—or any of the academies—who has a legitimate shot at the NFL. And even if you did, said player would have to be willing to delay his NFL career by five years in order to honor his five-year commitment as a Naval Officer. Johnson has an annual roster full of players who are strong on heart and short on talent. His teams are always undersized and outmatched athletically. Navy never has a personnel advantage unless they are playing Army. As frustrating as it is to say—because I root for the academies—the only way an academy can compete under the current rules is to have vastly superior coaching. Cue Johnson.
What he has done at Navy has been truly remarkable. In the four years previous to his arrival, Navy was 9-35 (.204 winning %). In the five and-a-half years since, Navy is 41-27 (.602 winning percentage). Since the last game of his first season at Navy, Johnson has guided the Midshipmen to a 40-17 record (.701 winning percentage). That turnaround puts Tedford’s miracle-job at Cal to shame. By the end of this season, Johnson will have taken Navy to five-straight bowl games. The program only went to one bowl game in the previous twenty years before Johnson signed on
Even more remarkable is what Johnson has been able to accomplish offensively with the least sought after group of players in the country. Navy leads the nation in rushing with an unbelievable average of 345 yards per game. Navy’s offensive linemen weigh an average of 270 pounds. Navy’s starting right tackle is 255 pounds. Navy never has a quarterback who can throw. Every opponent knows that Navy is undersized. Every opponent knows that they’re going to run the ball 80% of the time. Yet, nobody can stop them. Johnson’s teams are also extremely disciplined. Navy is first in the nation in fewest penalty yardage and third in the nation in fewest penalties. Navy is 8th in the nation in 3rd down conversion percentage and 9th in 4th down conversion percentage. Johnson goes for it on fourth down over two times per game and has a dazzling success rate of 71%.
Johnson has been successful at every stop. He ran a I-AA powerhouse at Georgia Southern that resulted in two National Championships and five conference titles in five years. There is no question in my mind that Johnson will resurrect a fallen program in the near future. If Nebraska had any clue what it was doing, it would expend every resource into bringing Johnson to Lincoln. Johnson’s unstoppable running game would be a perfect fit for Nebraska’s rich tradition. I don’t think Johnson is a realistic candidate for the Michigan job. I think Bill Martin would take some heat for even considering it because of Johnson’s relative obscurity. Plus, it’s way too convenient for people to make the excuse that being successful at Navy isn’t like being successful at Michigan. Frankly, it’s not. It’s much, much harder to be successful at Navy.
Best guess: Tom Osbourne may be just the guy to give Johnson a call. I am a fan of Navy so I’m hoping he doesn’t go anywhere but he certainly deserves to coach at a marquee program. He would give Texas and Oklahoma fits.
4). Rich Rodriguez-----West Virginia
Rich Rodriguez is the pioneer of the spread option. Without Rodriguez’s influence, Urban Meyer would be just another football coach, Alex Smith would just be John L. Smith’s nephew and not the first pick in the NFL draft, and Ohio St. probably would have won the National Championship in 2006. Rodriguez is easily one of the top ten coaches in college football. The talent level he has at West Virginia is nowhere near what most people would expect. The Mountaineers have only had one top-30 recruiting class since Rodriguez took over. Still, Rodriguez has managed to turn the WVU into a perennial top-ten program. The program has reached new heights in just a few short years. Rodriguez is on track to lead the Mountaineers to their third-straight 11-win season. He has led the program to two consecutive top-ten finishes for the first time in school history and is working on a third. Rodriguez has led WVU to back to back bowl wins for only the second time in school history. WVU had only won one bowl game in the previous 21 years.
The spread option has made West Virginia the second most prolific rushing attack in college football this season. The Mountaineers have increased their rushing totals in each of the last four seasons and they are on pace to do the same this season. Despite running the ball 50 times per game, WVU leads the nation in average yards per carry which goes a long way in demonstrating how effective Rodriguez’s scheme is. WVU also leads the nation in rushing touchdowns by a considerable margin.
The spread option doesn’t lean heavily on the running game by its nature but it can clearly manifest itself in that way. For teams with lesser talent, it is meant to even the playing field with an effective rushing attack. For teams with a quarterback who can throw, the spread option becomes even more devastating and the heavy reliance on the running game isn’t necessary. This was the case with Alex Smith in Urban Meyer’s spread option at Utah. With Alex Smith, Meyer was able to balance his attack about as evenly as possible as Utah rushed for 2,836 yards and passed for 2,694 for an amazing 51/49 ratio in 2004. That would likely be the case with Rich Rodriguez if he took over at Michigan as well. Michigan’s talent level would allow Rodriguez to run the spread option in the way it was meant to be run. Ideally, any coach—whether he runs the spread option or not—wants a balanced passing and rushing attack (unless that coach is Mike Martz). Rodriguez hasn’t had the personnel to do that at West Virginia so he leans on the running game.
The spread option is not a “gimmick” offense that can only be used with inferior talent, nor is it an offense that is designed to ignore the pass. The last two National Champions (Texas and Florida) have run the spread option. Ohio St.—with a Heisman winning quarterback—ran the spread option last season. The offense is adaptable to all teams with all talent levels.
Best guess: Rodriguez is at his alma mater. He loves West Virginia. He has the program among the elite in the nation. He turned down a gazillion dollars to coach at Alabama. I don’t think he’s going anyway—ever.
5). Brian Kelly----Cincinnati
Kelly took over the Central Michigan football program after Mike DeBord proved just how inept Michigan’s philosophy would be at a school that doesn’t have the best talent. Kelly took DeBord’s mess and turned it into a winning program in just two seasons. In 2006, Kelly led the Chippewas to their first 10-win season since 1979. The season also culminated in Central’s first ever bowl win. Considering the crop of talent he inherited from DeBord’s regime, Kelly proved his merit as a phenomenal football coach.
Kelly took over for Cincinnati in December of 2006 just in time to lead the Bearcats to only the third bowl victory in school history. Kelly has taken the Cincinnati program to a new level in 2007. The Bearcats are ranked for the first time since 1976. The Bearcats got off to a 5-0 start which was the first such start since 1935. Although Kelly is nationally recognized as an offensive mastermind, Cincinnati’s defense has stolen the show thus far ranking 6th in the nation in points allowed per game.
Kelly achieved early success in his coaching career as he dominated Division 2 football at Grand Valley St. In his last three seasons at GVSU, Kelly was 41-2 with two National Championships. His 2001-team averaged an unbelievable 58 points per game. Kelly is clearly a brilliant coach. He will not last at Cincinnati for very long. Look for his next step to be a quantum leap to a national power or possibly the NFL. Michigan will probably not look at Kelly as anything other than a fallback option. There is no question in my mind that Kelly would get the most out of the Michigan program. He maximizes talent which is just what Michigan needs.
Best guess: Kelly is in the process of pulling the Urban Meyer Trifecta. Meyer went from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida in just five years. Kelly is on an almost identical pace. He went from Central Michigan to Cincinnati and the next destination will likely be a big one. I don’t see him lasting more than three seasons at Cincinnati. I have heard that Kelly has interest in the NFL, but, who doesn’t at some point or another?
6). Greg Schiano-----Rutgers
Schiano has revived the once dormant Rutgers program in astonishing fashion. Last season, Rutgers was in position to go to the BCS Championship Game as late as mid-November. This is a program that was 0-11 in 1997, 1-10 in 1999, and 1-11 in 2002. Rutgers is nowhere near a finished product considering Schiano had to build the program from scratch. Last season’s success is finally having an impact on recruiting as Rutgers finds itself in on more high-profile recruits. It has been a slow—and sometimes stagnant—process since Schiano took over in 2001. Schiano has the program in line for its third-straight bowl game which is astounding considering the program hadn’t been to a bowl in 27 years before the streak began.
Schiano turned down the Miami (FL) job to stay at Rutgers. He is clearly interested in finishing the job he started six years ago. I would be surprised if he wasn’t interested in the Michigan job, however. There is no question that he would be a great coach wherever he ends up. My guess is that he’ll take over for Joe Paterno in 2058. Schiano is kind of an unknown commodity. He is clearly a good coach but Rutgers has taken a step back this season. Building a team from the bottom up is slightly different than keeping the program among the elite year in and year out. He might be a risky hire in that regard. Then again, he’s coaching at Rutgers. He has done about as well as a coach can do there.
Best guess: Rumors have Schiano replacing JoePa at Penn St. I’m not one to buy into rumors given their 10% success rate but this one makes sense. Schiano coached at Penn St. for five years in the 90s. He’s a bright, young coach who doesn’t seem to mind coaching in obscure locations (see; Rutgers).
An additional option if Carr stays another year and the Falcons stink…
This list is predicated on the idea that this is Carr’s last season. If it’s not, more names become available. One giant name that could become available by the end of next season is Bobby Petrino. Short stints by college coaches are the norm in the NFL. Steve Spurrier lasted two seasons as the head coach of the Redskins. Nick Saban lasted two seasons with the Dolphins. Butch Davis lasted 3.5 seasons with the Browns. Dennis Erickson lasted two seasons with the 49ers. All left college football on top of the world to test their craft in the NFL and all found their way back to the college ranks quickly. No coach since Jimmy Johnson has gone from the top of the college football coaching world to a successful coach in the NFL. Pete Carroll proved that life is great after a failed NFL-stint. If Petrino doesn’t pan out in Atlanta—and I’m not sure how he can with the odds stacked against him—some upper echelon college football program will reap the benefits.
Bobby Petrino-----Atlanta Falcons
The odds of Petrino being the next coach go from about 0% to 1% if Carr stays. Petrino is just getting used to coaching in the NFL. He’ll probably not be burnt out after one bad—albeit a dreadfully bad—season in Atlanta. Ownership will give him time to implement his system. So, he’ll probably not be on the market after his first season. Plus, his contract with the Falcons—five years for $24 million—is twice as much as he would get at Michigan. Needless to say, he won’t be actively pursuing ways to give up $12 million. If things continue to stink in 2008, though, you can bet that Petrino will start to think about returning to college ala Carroll, Saban, and Spurrier. I’m pretty sure that this is Carr’s last season, and I’m pretty sure that Michigan would never hire Petrino for various “doesn’t fit in”-reasons. Nonetheless, Petrino is easily one of the ten best coaches in America. He turned Louisville—yes, Louisville—into a dominating college football program. He could turn a top 25 school into a USC-type powerhouse in the same way Pete Carroll did. Petrino at Michigan would send the program into another stratosphere.
Best guess: This is just off the top of my head but Bobby Bowden’s last season at FSU could coincide with Petrino’s last season in Atlanta which would be a perfect fit. Petrino at Florida St. would be bad news for every non-Seminoles fan.
I would be shocked if Michigan’s next coach isn’t somewhere on this list. In fact, I would be shocked if Michigan’s next coach isn’t Les Miles or Jeff Tedford. There are obviously other candidates out there worth mentioning like Mike Leach and Jim Leavitt but I don’t think either of them are realistic options. Michigan will look for a specific breed of coach who isn’t “gimmicky” or too obscure which eliminates more than a few options including Johnson and Rodriguez. I wish—but don’t have a whole lot of confidence—that Michigan could have more of an open-mind when looking for its next football coach. Regardless, I am much happier with the prospects than I was one and two years ago when Mike DeBord, Terry Malone, Jim Herrmann, and Ron English were paramount in the discussion. We’re going to get somebody good and it’s going to be awesome.