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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Coaching Moves

Thinking About Who’s Next at Arizona

Where does Arizona go next? Defensive coordinator Tim Kish will run the show for the rest of 2011, but we know the track record of interim coaches becoming the permanent replacement at the end of their partial-season audition: there have been coaches who parlayed a short stint into the full-time position, but it’s a short list. Barring the near-impossible, the overwhelming odds point towards athletic director Greg Byrne and Arizona opening up the job formerly held by Mike Stoops to a nationwide search. Does the university want someone with prior head coach experience? An offensive-minded coach, a defense-first coach? Perhaps the only certainty is that Arizona wants a coach with a more stoic, less demonstrative manner – the anti-Stoops, in short. Let’s look at a few names the Wildcats may consider:

Kevin Sumlin, Houston Sumlin’s name is back in the national conversation following Houston’s 6-0 start to 2011; the Cougars have already topped last year’s win total, though 2010 was dead in the water once Case Keenum was lost for the season in September. Sumlin is young, energetic and a top-notch recruiter, not to mention a coach who has embraced a frenetic, fast-paced offense since taking over at Houston. Unfortunately, he’s also a branch of the Bob Stoops coaching tree. I think Arizona would be willing to overlook that, but it doesn’t help Sumlin’s cause.

Chris Petersen, Boise State Just because you’re going to hear his name doesn’t make it valid it any way, shape or form. You’ll hear Petersen’s name for two reasons: one, because of his solid relationship with Byrne; and two, because Petersen’s name pops up with every B.C.S. conference opening along the West Coast. Petersen may consider Arizona, just as he may have considered U.C.L.A. a few years ago, for example. And if he does entertain any offers it is likely due to his familiarity with Byrne, who’s calling the shots. But it’s not going to happen, in my opinion.

Art Briles, Baylor It would be a step up for Briles, even though I’d imagine he’d have a hard time turning his back on the rebuilding project still underway in Waco. What Briles holds in his pocket is proven experience taking also-rans from the bottom into conference contention: Baylor is his trump card, the most glowing reference he can offer, but remember that Sumlin experienced immediate success at U.H. because of the foundation Briles laid over his tenure with the Cougars. Arizona would be wise to at least consider the possibility.

Mike Leach, unemployed The joke making the round yesterday evening was that Arizona “swung its sword” in firing Stoops. The punch line, of course, is that Leach’s new book, a sort of self-help book detailing his life in and out of football, is called – wait for it – Swing Your Sword. Like Sumlin, Leach is part of the Stoops coaching tree; his somewhat short stint at Oklahoma does not define Leach, however, but is rather merely a stop along the way to Texas Tech. Leach is the popular name, as he was and will be elsewhere, and like at other potential stops, he would fit Tucson like a glove. There’s a built-in support system – the administration, the program and this roster – for Leach to have immediate success. Speaking of punch lines: seeing Leach connected with most major openings is becoming so common that it’s easy to just plug him in and wait for the comments. This is a school where his candidacy needs to be taken seriously. There have been other stops about which you could say the same, of course.

Mike Bellotti, unemployed Well, not unemployed – neither is Leach, for that matter. Bellotti is currently an analyst for ESPN, but based on what I’ve heard, he’s very open to listening to potential suitors. Colorado was a school that seemed to make sense a year ago, especially with the Buffaloes’ move to the Pac-12 this fall. Arizona is another school that fits Bellotti well. The same question I asked last fall still is worth considering: what staff would Bellotti take with him should he take another B.C.S. conference position? In other words, would the staff he left in Chip Kelly’s care – Nick Aliotti and the gang – stay at Oregon or join Bellotti? He becomes only more appealing should he get the band back together.

Troy Calhoun, Air Force It’ll be tough to pry Calhoun away from his alma mater. He’s winning with the Falcons, for starters, but the whole come-to-a-B.C.S.-conference argument may soon fall null and void should A.F.A. get a Big East invite, as some have suggested. Take all that out, and Calhoun’s a prime candidate. He’d be a perfect fit, personality-wise, for what I think Arizona wants to have. Calhoun demands accountability, like Stoops, but he goes about it in a much different way. His team respond to Calhoun, in short; not to say Arizona didn’t respond to Stoops, but perhaps Stoops ruled through fear, while Calhoun rules with a far steadier hand. Even if Air Force does head to the Big East, Arizona would be a more high-profile position. It would still be a tough sell.

Mark Richt, Georgia Imagine Byrne, frantically refreshing ESPN, waiting for news that Georgia has foolishly opted to fire Richt after the Bulldogs go 8-4 in the regular season – let’s say Georgia loses to Georgia Tech to end the regular season. How quickly does Arizona fire up the private jet to hire Richt? All the names on the list would quickly move to the background should he become available; they should, at least. If that came to pass, Georgia’s loss would be Arizona’s enormous gain.

Jim McElwain, Alabama McElwain’s currently an SEC guy, but the majority of his career has come west of the Mississippi. He spent a year at Fresno State prior to becoming Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama. Prior to that, McElwain spent a year as the quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders. He’s been at Michigan State, Louisville and Montana State, the latter for five years as offensive coordinator from 1995-99. The lack of head coach experience is a worry, but McElwain is a hot name among B.C.S. conference assistants. And that SEC label? It wouldn’t be a problem for Byrne, who was Mississippi State’s athletic director from 2008-10.

Manny Diaz, Texas Same as above, magnified by the fact that Diaz was a prime factor behind Mississippi State’s rise under Dan Mullen a year ago. Unfortunately, Diaz’s stock isn’t sky-high after his defense allowed 55 points to Oklahoma a week ago. Ignore the one-week lull and look at the big picture, however. Nearly universally lauded as one of the nation’s rising young coaches, Diaz has major B.C.S. conference experience at two of the nation’s major hot spots: the SEC and Texas. Unlike McElwain, however, Diaz hasn’t been on the B.C.S. level for an extended amount of time – only two years to McElwain’s four. He’s a long shot, but if Arizona wants young, hungry and talented, Diaz is a nice pick.

Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette Like Diaz, but with a twist: unlike his former coaching teammate at M.S.U., Hudspeth has done a terrific job over his first half-season as a head coach. After topping Troy on Saturday, Hudspeth and Louisiana-Lafayette are 5-1, atop the Sun Belt and in the driver’s seat for the conference crown. Hudspeth is an offensive coach, one who put up enormous numbers while at North Alabama and has done a fabulous job thus far with the Ragin’ Cajuns. As a recruiter, Hudspeth has received top grades across the board. If you mention Diaz you have to mention Hudspeth. In fact, I’d say Hudspeth would be the better fit: he’s offense-first, which I think might be good for Arizona, and he’s proven himself – thus far on the F.B.S. level – as a head coach.

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  1. Kernel says:

    Paul, I implore to stop mentioning Hudspeth. I’m very aware that we won’t be able to keep him long-term, but I need more than one season. Come on! We Cajun fans have suffered enough.

  2. Andrew says:

    Not sure if he’d be willing to move his family out West, but Gus Malzahn would be an excellent hire for the Cats.

  3. Gotham Gator says:

    Arizona has a head start on most other schools with this early October firing.

    The big question is whether they can use that advantage to lure a top candidate. Arizona is not an easy sell. There are no recruiting advantages – they have to convince kids from California and Texas to come to the desert and compete with Arizona State while doing so. They also don’t have much in the way of tradition or history, save for a couple of good years under Dick Tomey.

    Mike Leach really sounds like a good candidate. He’s not landed anywhere yet, and it seems he won’t end up at a top program, despite seeming qualified based on wins and losses at Texas Tech. This could be a good fit for both parties.

  4. Eksynyt says:

    So will the week 7 Locksley be out on the 13th this week, Paul?

  5. [...] but when I heard the news about Arizona firing Mike Stoops, I had this exact thought pass through my head: … Imagine Byrne, frantically refreshing ESPN, waiting for news that [...]

  6. Parker says:

    Hi Paul –

    With Sumlin, I think the Stoops coaching tree angle runs both ways. I’m not sure Sumlin would want to follow Mike Stoops at Arizona. Especially after Mike got canned after ending their 9-year bowl drought with 3 straight bowl appearances.

    Also, and maybe I’m wrong, but Arizona always seemed like a basketball school to me. Never been to a Rose Bowl. Between the two, Arizona State seems more like a football school.

    Sumlin has turned down football jobs at basketball schools before. See Cincy and Kansas.

  7. David says:

    Jumping in late to highlight Calhoun’s contract, specifically the extremely attractive pension:

    6K/month for life if he stays through 2016, increases for longer stays, up to 10K/month if he stays through 2024

    If, after qualifying for pension, Mr. C predeceases Mrs. C, then she gets 2/3 of the above amounts

  8. Paul says:

    I think McElwain. He has been mentioned often and interviewed a good bit. Sooner or later it has to be his turn.

    Leach – maybe, but I think he may be after bigger game.

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