Revisiting Tulsa’s January Coaching Hire
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 14, 2011
Bubba Cunningham knows what he’s doing. His first hire as North Carolina’s athletic director went swimmingly, as Cunningham hired Larry Fedora, an offense-first, energetic, go-get-‘em recruiter fresh off a Conference USA championship at Southern Mississippi. In landing Fedora, Cunningham stuck to the principles that governed the handful of coaching searches he conducted at Ball State and Tulsa, his two prior stops: go by personality and ability, not by record and name recognition. For further evidence, you need only to turn back the clock to January, when Cunningham conducted one final coaching search for the Golden Hurricane.
Tulsa was thrown for a bit of a loop by Todd Graham’s somewhat unforeseen departure for Pittsburgh early that month. If you recall, the Panthers had originally hired Mike Haywood away from Miami (Ohio), only to relieve Haywood of his duties — after 16 days — amid allegations of domestic abuse.
So the Panthers went back to the drawing board, searching for a replacement for the replacement, and eventually threw money Tulsa’s Graham, who was fresh off his third double-digit win season in four years. That Graham accepted Pittsburgh’s offer wasn’t unexpected, though if did leave Tulsa in a bit of a lurch heading into the offseason.
It also gave Cunningham once last opportunity to impress; impress he did, showing the sort of foresightedness that highlighted his past hires, such as bringing Brady Hoke to Ball State and Graham and Steve Kraghtorpe to Tulsa. One year later, Cunningham’s four finalists for the position reads like a who’s-who of burgeoning coaching prospects.
One was first-year Texas A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who had reenergized the Aggies’ defense over their six-game winning streak to end the 2010 regular season. Currently serving as the program’s interim head coach for its bowl game against Houston, DeRuyter has become the leading contender to replace Pat Hill at Fresno State.
Another was then-Arkansas assistant Garrick McGee, one of Bobby Petrino’s first hires with the Razorbacks in 2008; after coaching only the quarterbacks that fall, McGee added offensive coordinator duties from 2009-11. A native Tulsan, McGee fit many of Cunningham’s typical criteria: young, a strong recruiter and familiar with the region, McGee was purported to have been in negotiations with the Golden Hurricane before removing his name from consideration.
He’s also done DeRuyter one better, agreeing to terms to become Neil Callaway’s replacement at U.A.B. earlier this month. McGee will need to use all his qualities — his recruiting touch, his offensive background — to get the Blazers back into bowl contention.
A third finalist, Chad Morris, came from within Graham’s staff. Morris worked wonders over his sole season directing Tulsa’s offense, raising not just his profile within the program but also nationally — Clemson loved him then, loves him more now, and several other power programs inquired about his availability over the last month.
Worried that they’d lose out on his services, the Tigers just made Morris one of the highest paid assistants in college football: his six-year contract will pay Morris about $1.3 million annually, providing a pretty hefty raise over his original deal with the university. While Morris likely won’t last the duration of that contract, he’ll likely depart for a head coach position rather than make a lateral move.
Bill Blankenship, the lucky winner of the Cunningham-led sweepstakes, rounded out the quartet of finalists. Blankenship is a bit of a Tulsa institution: first as an extremely successful high school coach, later as one of Graham’s assistants, Blankenship’s familiarity with the area seemed to give him a leg up over his three prime challengers for the position.
Blankenship’s debut season went well: 8-4, 7-1 in conference play heading into the Armed Forces Bowl against B.Y.U., the Golden Hurricane were a win over Houston away from meeting Fedora’s Golden Eagles for the Conference USA championship.
Clearly, this coaching search was Cunningham’s final gift to Tulsa: one last hire seemingly worked to perfection. While this could change in the future — Blankenship could stumble, DeRuyter and McGee could crash and burn — you see the sort of careful diligence that highlighted each of his past football hires, each of which has gone according to plan. This process bodes well for Fedora and North Carolina, does it not?
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Tags: Bill Blankenship, Bubba Cunningham, Chad Morris, Garrick McGee, Larry Fedora, North Carolina, Tim DeRuyter, Tulsa
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