Houston Turns Coaching Search Inward
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 21, 2011
Update This story was supposed to run first thing tomorrow morning, but Houston just named interim head coach Tony Levine as Kevin Sumlin’s successor. That makes this story not entirely relevant, but nonetheless, it still works — sort of.
Houston Nutt did it the best. It was Nutt, way back in 2004, who turned a rumored connection with then-Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson into a multiple-year contract extension from Arkansas. Last November, a rumor surfaced that Nutt was going to be Dan Hawkins’ replacement at Colorado, and only pure ridiculousness prevented that innuendo from being taken seriously. Even last month, when on his last legs at Mississippi, Nutt’s name surfaced as a potential replacement for Larry Porter at Memphis. No one did it better, thanks in large part to Jimmy Sexton, the chief of Nutt’s illustrious team of representatives.
It was Sexton who trumped up any hypothetical interest from outside parties, leading Arkansas to pony up seven years ago, and it was Sexton — ironically enough — who had one client, Nutt, fired at Mississippi, and another client, Hugh Freeze, hired as Nutt’s replacement.
A handful of coaches have followed in Nutt’s footsteps since the end of the regular season; two have done so at Houston’s expense. That would be the Cougars, winners of 12 games in the regular season, not Nutt: Houston has been investigating all its options in a search for Kevin Sumlin’s successor, a search that has involved candidates inside the program and out.
Two candidates, Wyoming’s Dave Christensen and Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes, have turned interest from Houston into sizable, long-term contract extensions from their current employers. Christensen signed a five-year extension hours before his team faced Temple in the New Mexico Bowl — I doubt it would have had an impact on the contract talk, but the Cowboys lost that game by 22 points.
“We had multiple calls in the last week, and (the extension is) going to put us in position where those schools aren’t going to be able to snatch him away,” Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman told The Associated Press. While Christensen certainly put himself in line for an extension based on the Cowboys’ bowl berth — the program’s second in three years — it was interest from others, most notably Houston, that provided the impetus for Burman and Wyoming to open contract negotiations.
Houston had courted Dykes heavily over the last week, leading many to project him as Sumlin’s logical replacement; in response, Louisiana Tech inked its second-year coach to an extension that runs through the 2017 season. “We are very excited to retain Coach Dykes as the leader of our football program,” said Bruce Van De Velde, Tech’s athletic director.
The actions taken by Dykes and Christensen differ from Nutt’s shenanigans in one key regard: neither instigated any discussions or interest from Houston, but were rather identified as options by the university itself. In both, Houston saw the sort of under-the-radar coaches capable of both maintaining Sumlin’s success and remaining content for the long run; for Houston, the latter point may have been the biggest draw.
But Houston is running out of options. The Cougars have seemingly exhausted all its options from outside the program, leaving the program in a delicate situation: either continue to comb the F.B.S. ranks — both head coaches and assistants — or turn its sights inside, where three solid candidates remain in the mix.
The first, defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart, seems like a long shot. This is for two reasons: one, he’s a defense-first coach, and two, he’s only been with the Cougars for two years. Houston hired Stewart, who has been a coordinator on the N.F.L. ranks, prior to the 2010 season; after an uneven debut campaign, the Cougars took a substantial step forward defensively this fall.
If the search does lead inward, Houston’s pick will come down to two key Sumlin assistants: assistant head coach, special teams coordinator and inside receivers and tight ends coach Tony Levine, who is also the team’s interim head coach; and Jason Phillips, who supplanted Dana Holgorsen at offensive coordinator prior to last season.
It’s strange: Phillips has spent eight seasons with Houston, as opposed to Levine’s four, but it’s Levine that seems like the loyal-solider type — Houston’s Bill Stewart, to make a comparison. And that, combined with his experience as Sumlin’s assistant head coach, is what has propelled Levine’s candidacy to the point where he should be considered the favorite for the job should the Cougars decide that promoting from within provides the best chance for future success.
I don’t think Houston has any other option. The top two candidates, based on the level of interest from both sides, have signed long-term contract extensions at their current university. Up until yesterday afternoon, all signs pointed towards Dykes leading Houston into the Big East. But today, Houston’s search officially turns inward.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Brian Stewart, Dave Christensen, Houston, Jason Phillips, Kevin Sumlin, Sonny Dykes, Tony Levine
Leave a Comment