January 25, 2010

Huguenin: Grading the Big Six coaching hires

All the coaching vacancies have been filled, and it's time to hand out grades to the Big Six athletic directors who made hires this offseason.

One thing to remember: All Big Six programs are not created equal. Florida State and Kansas, for instance, are major-college programs, but they are not on the same level. Thus, comparing grades can be dangerous. What earned one school a certain grade doesn't necessarily equate to another school.

Here are the grades.


USF and Skip Holtz
Buzz: Holtz did a great job in rebuilding East Carolina -- and rebuilding ECU rather quickly. He built ECU into the best program in Conference USA. The Pirates didn't have a flashy, point-a-minute offense. They played tough, solid football. Holtz is walking into a potential gold mine at USF. Obviously, the recruiting base is extremely fertile. Just as obviously, the Big East isn't overly strong right now. USF established a solid foundation under Jim Leavitt. Holtz's job is to build a mansion -- a Big East version of one, anyway -- on top of that foundation, and he has the goods to do so.


Notre Dame and Brian Kelly
Buzz: Kelly did unbelievable work at Cincinnati. His predecessor with the Bearcats -- Mark Dantonio -- started the rebuilding process, and Kelly topped it off with a flourish. Kelly has a big-time offensive mind. Unlike his predecessor at Notre Dame, Kelly has proved he can win in college football. He won two national Division II titles. He started Central Michigan on its path to MAC dominance. He took Cincinnati -- which doesn't even have a separate football practice field -- to back-to-back BCS bowls. He and his staff are going to have a productive offense at Notre Dame. Ultimately, though, his success will be determined by whether -- unlike his predecessor -- he can build a defense that his offense will be proud of. That means recruiting well, and the one small doubt about Kelly is whether he will be able to bring in the type of defensive talent needed to be a perennial top-10 team.


Kansas and Turner Gill
Buzz: Don't look at what Buffalo did this season to judge Gill. Instead, remember what happened in 2008 -- when Gill led the formerly woebegone Bulls to the MAC title. Gill did a great job turning Buffalo into a legitimate MAC program. His job now is to keep things going in the right direction at Kansas. The Jayhawks went to the Orange Bowl in 2007, but that was an aberration. Instead, Gill needs to focus on keeping KU in the hunt in the Big 12 North. He's a former player and assistant at Nebraska and he's a Texas native, so the recruiting area won't be foreign to him. He has to rebuild the program a bit in the wake of Mark Mangino's departure. But if Gill can give Buffalo a football pulse, he surely can keep KU on the beam.

Kentucky and Joker Phillips
Buzz: Phillips -- a UK alum -- was the Wildcats' coach-in-waiting, and he took over when Rich Brooks retired. Phillips has done good work with UK's offense of late, but perhaps the best news is that defensive coordinator Steve Brown is staying. Kentucky has gone to four consecutive bowl games -- quite an achievement for a program of its stature -- and Phillips has seen first-hand what it takes. Now, he just needs to keep the train on the tracks. Phillips is a high-energy guy. As long as he and the revamped staff stick to the established blueprint, the Wildcats are going to be fine.

Louisville and Charlie Strong
Buzz: Strong certainly has paid his dues. He worked for three coaches who have won national titles (Lou Holtz, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier) and also is known as a relentless recruiter. He is taking over a program that has fallen a long way in a short time. But it's also a program that had risen quickly, so a quick turnaround is possible. That's especially true in the Big East, which has no established "it" program right now. Strong's background is on defense, but his work with the three title-winning coaches surely has given him some interesting theories to work with on offense. To get talent, Louisville has to recruit outside its in-state borders. That should be fine for Strong, who has a background in the recruiting wars in Florida, the Mid-Atlantic states and in the upper Midwest; look for the Louisville staff to heavily mine those areas.

Texas Tech and Tommy Tuberville
Buzz: Texas Tech is getting a proven head coach and one who has made his bones on the defensive side of the ball. The Red Raiders became relevant nationally because of former coach Mike Leach's offense. If you were an offensive player, you signed with Tech because of Leach's funky offense. If you were a defensive player, you signed with Tech because, for the most part, it was the best offer you received. Tuberville's mission is to keep the offensive pipeline open while also bringing in better defensive recruits. Tuberville is used to recruiting in the shadows of more established programs, but he must be prepared to do that on a different level now. Texas and Oklahoma generally have their pick of the top-flight talent in the state of Texas, and Tuberville and his staff are going to have to change some perceptions on the recruiting trail. Plus, you wonder if part of Tuberville wishes he had bypassed Tech and instead waited on something else -- and that "something else" could've been the jobs at USF and, especially, Tennessee. Recruiting for Tuberville would've been easier at those schools.


Cincinnati and Butch Jones
Buzz: Jones did a nice job taking what Brian Kelly started at Central Michigan and kept it going. And Kelly proved that you can go from CMU to Cincinnati and have great success. But Kelly's style is much more hands on, and that means Jones' learning curve at a Big Six school likely will be different than that of Kelly's. In his three seasons at CMU, Jones knew he had a big-timer in QB Dan LeFevour and he was able to recruit players to fit around LeFevour. He has no one like that at Cincy. Plus, the caliber of player he will be recruiting is different than at CMU. Kelly was able to make the adjustment. I think Jones might have some problems.

Florida State and Jimbo Fisher
Buzz: Fisher and his newly hired staff certainly have hit the recruiting trail with a vengeance. While Florida might end up with the nation's best class, FSU looks poised to sign the best class of in-state prospects. Fisher also has given the program a needed shot of intensity and seems to have a plan, which had been sorely lacking. The problem? Why did FSU feel the need to have a coach-in-waiting? FSU (and Texas, for that matter) isn't Kentucky or Maryland. FSU is a premier program. The Seminoles could have hired a proven head coach, not taken a gamble on a guy who might become a great coach.

Virginia and Mike London
Buzz: London is a former Cavs assistant who served as coach at FCS member Richmond the past two seasons; the Spiders won the national title in 2008 in London's first season as coach. London knows the landscape at Virginia, which despite good facilities and a solid recruiting base is a second-level program in the ACC (Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech, at the least, are "better" jobs). Becoming relevant again in the ACC for the Cavs means doing a better job of in-state recruiting, especially in the talent-rich Hampton Roads area. London's background in the state is a plus. But knowing what has to be done and getting it done are quite different matters.


Tennessee and Derek Dooley
Buzz: Vols AD Mike Hamilton is putting his program in the hands of a guy with a good coaching name and a background of working for one of the nation's best coaches. (Hmmm . That sounds familiar. Lane Kiffin and Dooley. Pete Carroll and Nick Saban.) The difference, of course, is that Dooley is much more low-key than his predecessor and isn't likely to rile up opposing coaches or SEC commissioner Mike Slive. Dooley and his staff have a lot of work to do to salvage this recruiting class, but we won't truly know how good they are on the recruiting trail until February 2011 or even February 2012. Dooley certainly will embrace UT traditions more than Kiffin, but will that lead to success? Tennessee has a huge stadium, great tradition and top-shelf facilities. To oversee all that, Hamilton hired a coach who had two losing seasons in three years in the WAC. If nothing else, it certainly is a leap of faith on Hamilton's part.

USC and Lane Kiffin
Buzz: The USC job is one of the nation's four or five best. So why hire Kiffin? It's like giving the keys to a Ferrari Testarossa to a 16-year-old kid who just got his license (and the reference to a 16-year-old kid is somehow apt when it comes to Kiffin, don't you think?). Kiffin and his staff are going to work like madmen on the recruiting trail, and they are going to reel in elite talent. But does Kiffin have what it takes to be an elite head coach? USC is gambling that he does. And it's a big gamble. As with Florida State, this is an elite program that didn't hire a proven head coach.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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