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Coaching Moves

Houston Turns Coaching Search Inward

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.

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  1. The Amateur says:

    I’m going to miss Houston Nutt being rumored for every job. Hope he gets a TV job and eventually becomes the next Corso.

  2. Parker says:

    Hi Paul

    Tony Levine was one of the frontrunners all along. I have no idea about the negotiations, if any, with Dave Christensen at Wyoming.

    I do know that Sonny Dykes received an extension at $700K per year at Louisiana Tech.

    By comparison, Houston paid Kevin Sumlin $700K per year in 2008, and after the 10-4 season in 2009 bumped him to a 6-year deal worth $1M per year in 2010-12, and $1.26M per year in 2013-15. In addition to that salary, Sumlin was to receive a $1M retention bonus if he stayed at Houston through 2012, and another $1M retention bonus if he stayed at Houston through 2015. And then there were performance bonuses. Finally, Houston was ready to reward Sumlin with a new contract worth at least $1.7M per year to stay at Houston. Some reports had the offer at $2M.

    So I sincerely doubt Sonny Dykes simply turned Houston down. We could have paid him a lot more than his raise at La Tech.

    I have reason to believe that Dykes was honest with Houston AD Mack Rhoades that his dream job is Texas Tech (where his Daddy coached and where Sonny graduated), and either:

    1. Houston did not offer (because Houston does not want to recruit in the same state against former coach Briles at Baylor, former coach Sumlin at A&M, and potential former coach Dykes at Tech), or

    2. The prohibitive buyout Houston would require of Dykes if he wanted to leave Houston for another Texas school made any further negotiations a nonstarter.

    Levine is a rising star in the business, as documented by Bruce Feldman back in November before any rumors surfaced about Sumlin leaving Houston.

    1. Levine is smart. Twice All-Academic Big 10. 2 post-grad degrees.

    2. Levine is driven and works hard. Walked on at Minnesota.

    3. Levine is detailed oriented. For example, he never leaves the office on Sunday without drawing up a kick return TD. Over the last 4 years, Houston is 2nd in the nation in returning kicks for TDs.

    4. Levine is an execellent recruiter.

    5. Levine is a great special teams coach.

    6. Levine knows the Air Raid offense inside and out. Coached inside receivers the last 4 years.

    7. Levine is a winner. In 6 years as an assistantat Louisville and Houston under Petrino and Sumlin, the two schools are 55-21 with 5 bowl trips.

    Ultimately, his success or failure will depend on what kind of staff he puts together. But from a personal standpoint, Levine has all the qualities you look for in a leader.


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