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Coaching Carousel 2021: Breaking Down Every Power Five Hire of the Off-Season

Brian Kelly, LSU

In the world of modern college football where NIL, the transfer portal, and conference realignment continue to shift the power structures of the sport, the coaching carousel has taken on even greater dramatic relevance. There was no greater example of this phenomenon than this off-season, with several blue bloods changing their head coaches and numerous coaches making shocking decisions to move to greener pastures. It seems like never before have we seen such a volatility in the heading coaching profession and big-money being thrown around. With that in mind, I've decided to break down each FBS coaching change that occurred this off-season, now that the carousel has stopped (for the time being). 

Duke Blue Devils

Out: David Cutcliffe

In: Mike Elko (Texas A&M DC)

After a decade-and-a-half in charge in Durham, David Cutcliffe decided it was time to step down as head coach of the Duke Blue Devils. Cutcliffe did a tremendous job building up a Duke football program that had absolutely zero winning tradition when he arrived, but the reality is that the team had seriously slipped in recent years. With a 10-25 record over the last three years, it's no surprise the Blue Devil brass wanted to go in a different direction, even with how important Cutcliffe is to the university and the world of college football in general. His replacement is 44-year old Mike Elko, a rising name in the coaching ranks who will get his first shot at running a college football program. Elko spent a lot of time under current Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson and his staff before getting a shot at Notre Dame, where he really made a name for himself. After just one season with the Irish, Texas A&M made him one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in college football, and he led the Aggie defense to brand new heights in four seasons at the helm. It will be a tough rebuild for Elko after the way things slipped the last several seasons, but Duke provides him a low-pressure place to begin crafting a program. His hire of OC Kevin Johns, who comes over from Memphis, indicates he'll want a fast-paced offense and physical defense that allows the Blue Devils to compete in the ACC Coastal. For the Blue Devils, it's quite a win to land a qualified head coach who was widely considered one of the best assistants in college football. Providing him with the necessary time and patience to turn things around should pay massive dividends. 

Florida Gators

Out: Dan Mullen

In: Billy Napier (Louisiana-Lafayette HC)

After flirting with the Auburn and South Carolina jobs last year, it seemed like only a matter of time until Billy Napier jumped to the Power Five level. He checks a lot of boxes any SEC athletic director could be looking for; he's from the Southeast and knows the area well, he's been an assistant at several big-time universities, and he went 40-12 in his time at Lafayette. Napier seems like a logical hire for a Florida program at somewhat of a crossroads. Dan Mullen won the SEC East in 2020 and gave Alabama their toughest test of the year, but his struggles on the field in 2021 combined with his poor recruiting efforts pushed UF to go in a different direction. For Napier, the on-field results obviously have to come, which won't be easy in a fast-improving division, but recruiting may be even more crucial to his future in Gainesville. Florida's main rival, Georgia, continues to recruit a historical pace and the Gators also have to compete with Florida State and Miami inside the state. Napier has been known as a strong recruiter in the past, but looks like he will have to turn it up a notch at one of the sport's most recognizable brands. 

LSU Tigers

Out: Ed Orgeron

In: Brian Kelly (Notre Dame HC)

All the rumors surrounding the LSU job following the announcement of Ed Orgeron's departure was that AD Scott Woodward was going to swing for a big name. He happened to do so, and happened to land a huge name, but perhaps not one most would have expected. After over a decade coaching at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly made the shocking decision to try his hand in the SEC and take over in Baton Rouge. It's an interesting fit, to say the least. Kelly is a Massachusetts native and nearly all his coaching gigs have been in the Midwest or Northeast. However, Kelly likely felt that he had reached his ceiling at Notre Dame, a school that has become a regular Playoff contender, but one a step below the true elites of the sport. At LSU, he will have almost unlimited resources to build a National Title contender and is smack-dab in the middle of a recruiting hot bed in Louisiana. Of course, with the benefits comes an uptick in pressure; while it may be a Top 3-5 job in college football, LSU has to deal with Alabama, A&M, Auburn, and a rising Ole Miss and Arkansas within the division. It's going to take some getting used to seeing Kelly prowling the LSU sidelines, but I actually think the job he did in South Bend is vastly underrated. This is a good football coach who knows how to build a program at the highest level. Even so, doing so in the SEC is a whole different animal altogether.

Miami Hurricanes

Out: Manny Diaz

In: Mario Cristobal (Oregon HC)

Few situations exemplify the new era of the college football coaching carousel than what went done in Coral Gables early this off-season. Miami openly courted Oregon head coach and alum Mario Cristobal, despite keeping Manny Diaz on as their head coach throughout the process. Cristobal eventually agreed to return to his alma mater and the 'Canes canned Diaz, but how the hiring went down rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. In the end, Miami gets a guy who is an elite recruiter who absolutely loves the school, which seems to indicate a renewed commitment to the sport for a school desperate to return to their glory days. You can view this hire a couple different ways; on one side, Cristobal stacked elite recruiting classes on top of each other while at Oregon and delivered the school multiple Pac-12 Titles. On the other, critics argue that Cristobal's success wasn't mainly of his own doing, but chiefly because of how weak the Pac-12 has been and the recent struggles of other flagship schools in the league (ahem, USC). At the very least, Cristobal should be able to bring stability and excitement to a program that desperately needs it, and he has a good young QB to work with in Tyler Van Dyke. The ACC Coastal remains as wide open at it's every been for Miami to take control of the division but that's been the case for over a decade, and it just hasn't happened yet.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Out: Brian Kelly

In: Marcus Freeman (Notre Dame DC)

Following Kelly's shocking departure to LSU, Notre Dame chose to go with continuity and stability in their next hire with defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman promoted to head coach. It's been an impressive rise for Freeman through the coaching ranks; after a brief NFL career, he joined Ohio State as a grad assistant in 2010. After numerous stops throughout the Midwest, he got his big break with Cincinnati, running elite defenses under Luke Fickell. Freeman took the DC job at Notre Dame prior to 2021 and a future head coaching position always seemed on the near horizon. I'm not sure if anybody expected it so quickly, but Freeman seems to have the support of the team and most of Kelly's old coaching staff decided to stay on in South Bend. It still will not be easy maintaining Kelly's success, but Freeman has a ton of talent to work with for 2022, which can lay the foundation towards a strong tenure. QB Tyler Buchner, tailback Chris Tyree, and tight end Michael Mayer give the offense a potentially elite trio to work with this upcoming fall; it wouldn't be a shocker if ND is once again in the Top 10 in '22.

Oklahoma Sooners

Out: Lincoln Riley

In: Brent Venables (Clemson DC)

For awhile, there had been some thought around Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley that the coaching wunderkind might eventually make a jump elsewhere. However, most of that thought process surrounded him taking his talents to the NFL, not instead jolting to the West Coast and taking over at USC. It's a tough pill to swallow for an Oklahoma program that had been dominating the Big 12 for over a half-decade and is now beginning a transition to the SEC, but the administration went out and landed a big name replacement in Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Venables has long been a hot head coaching candidate with all the work he's done at Clemson, but he seemed to be waiting for the right opportunity to take the leap into head coaching. Oklahoma offers a lot of advantages, as a blue blood program with a long tradition of winning, and Venables knows the school well, as he was their co-DC from 1999-2003 and then their associate head coach and DC from 2004-2011. There will be an adjustment period for both sides, but Venables appears to have made a strong hire by bringing in Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby as the team's play-caller. The timeline for the move to the SEC still isn't completely clear, but OU should be in the Big 12 for at least one more season. With Venables at the helm and plenty of talent back, even with QB Caleb Williams' future uncertain, they'll be hoping to add another Big 12 Title to their trophy case.

Oregon Ducks

Out: Mario Cristobal

In: Dan Lanning (Georgia DC)

For a program that has been generally very successful for most of the 2010s and early 2020s, Oregon is breaking in their fourth head coach since Chip Kelly left town in 2012. Of course that's not a crazy high level of turnover in today's college football, but the program has to be hoping that bringing in 35-year old Dan Lanning as their next head man can provide them with the stability they need in the long term. It's not very surprising Oregon chose to go with a young up-and-comer following Cristobal's departure, and Lanning is coming off a history-setting performance as Georgia's DC, but much like Kelly, the fit is interesting. Lanning is a Missouri native who played Division II ball in the state before beginning his coaching career. As a coach, Lanning has primarily been in the Southeast, with the brief exception being a two-year pit stop at Arizona State. That doesn't mean that he can't have success at Oregon, but there's extra importance on putting together a strong staff and making important recruiting connections in the Pacific Northwest. This is a job with a bunch of potential, thanks to all the Nike money flowing through the school and the fact that the Pac-12 North is wide open. Lincoln Riley's arrival at USC complicates the Pac-12 in general, but Lanning has the tools to build a power in the North Division, especially considering all the talent Cristobal brought in during his time in Eugene.

TCU Horned Frogs

Out: Gary Patterson

In: Sonny Dykes (SMU HC)

After two decades in charge in Fort Worth, Gary Patterson was let go in a surprising move mid-season, paving the way for a new era of TCU football. There's little denying how important Patterson was to the TCU program, but the Horned Frogs had slipped in recent years, as he had gone 21-22 since 2018. Following the decision to move on from Patterson, TCU turns to a familiar name in Sonny Dykes, who comes over from nearby SMU. A Texas native who knows the state extremely well, Dykes has been head coach at California and Louisiana Tech previously. He has familiarity with TCU after serving as an offensive analyst with the program in 2017 and will hope to bring much-needed firepower to an offense that has lagged behind in recent seasons. It's a fresh new breath of life for a program that had gone a little stale under Patterson and one that TCU is hoping will set them up for success in the new-look Big 12. Even so, it's always difficult to move on from a legendary coach, and the way that the athletic department moved on rubbed some the wrong way. It won't matter if Dykes ends up as a success, but there seems to be an added layer of pressure now for the 52-year old.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Out: Matt Wells

In: Joey McGuire (Baylor AHC/OLB Coach)

Few coaches in college football entered 2021 on as hot of a seat as Matt Wells at Texas Tech. Wells had gone 8-14 in two seasons in Lubbock, with eighth and ninth place finishes in the Big 12 to his credit. Wells actually seemed to be going in the right direction during the 2021 campaign, with a 5-3 start, but he was still dumped following a home loss to Kansas State. While interim Sonny Cumbie did an admirable job filling in as interim, Texas Tech will instead bring in Joey McGuire from Baylor to move the program forward. McGuire's a pretty interesting hire; he earned recognition as a highly successful Texas high school football coach for two decades before joining the Baylor staff in 2017. While with the Bears, he held several different roles, including associate head coach, TE coach, and OLB coach. He has never officially been a head coach in the collegiate ranks, but did briefly serve as the interim head man at Baylor when Matt Rhule accepted the Carolina Panthers job. Obviously, there's a bunch of risk hiring a coach who has never led a program at the college level, let alone a Power Five job. But, I think there's something to be said for Texas Tech willing to go outside the box to take their program in a different direction. They had a run of "Air Raid", spread-oriented coaches who couldn't get them out of the cellar in the league, but McGuire is something completely different. For one of the smaller schools in the Big 12 that has to compete with a host of other Texas schools, going different may just be what they need to get out of their slumber.

USC Trojans

Out: Clay Helton

In: Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma HC)

The longest hot seat in college football history finally concluded earlier this fall when Clay Helton was dumped following USC's 1-1 start. Such a high-profile job like USC is always going to attract big names, but I don't think even the most ambitious Trojan fan thought they had any chance at landing Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. However, Riley's frustrations with Oklahoma's move to the Big 12, along with his dream of coaching football on the West Coast, helped 'SC make one of the most cold-blooded coaching hires in recent college football memory. There's a lot to like about this marriage; Riley is a strong recruiter who will have his pick of top California talent. He brings over several key staff members from his ultra-successful run at Oklahoma, and the Trojan roster is still brimming with talent. Riley even has a young QB, Jaxson Dart, who flashed enough potential in 2021 to think that he could be one of the sport's breakout stars next fall. There's almost no reasons to think this won't work; Riley has proven he can handle the off-the-field drama that has plagued USC in the past, and the Pac-12 is wide open, especially with Oregon's future slightly more uncertain now that Cristobal is at Miami. It may take a few years for things to get rolling, but this hire was a game-changer for AD Mike Bohn, and West Coast football in general.

Virginia Cavaliers

Out: Bronco Mendenhall

In: Tony Elliott (Clemson OC)

Every single off-season, there's one or two shocking coaching changes that nobody in the general college football public see coming. Of course, Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley's departures sent major shockwaves through the sport, but Bronco Mendenhall's decision to step down at Virginia might have been even more surprising. Mendenhall took over at UVA after a long tenure at BYU and after some initial growing pains, has turned the Cavaliers into a consistent contender in the ACC Coastal. He delivered the program a Coastal Division Title in 2019 and had them playing in a New Year's Six bowl. Things tailed off slightly the past two seasons as the Cavs went a combined 11-11, but the program was still in much better shape than it had been when he took over. It's still unclear why exactly Mendenhall stepped down, but his departure opens the door for another name in the ACC, former Clemson OC Tony Elliott, to get his first shot. It will be new territory for Elliott in several different ways, as he has deep ties to Clemson, playing for them from 2000-2003 and coaching on their staff from 2011 onward. Elliott deserves plenty of respect for the work he has done with past Clemson offenses, but the fact the group struggled so much in 2021 adds a layer of intrigue to this hire. Virginia is not an easy job to win, even if they are in the talent-rich "DMV" area. The school just doesn't have the talent-rich football tradition of others in the conference and also has to deal with another big-name Power Five school in their state in Virginia Tech. This could be an uphill climb for Elliott, at least initially, but it has significant long-term potential, as he is just 42.

Virginia Tech Hokies

Out: Justin Fuente

In: Brent Pry (Penn State DC)

UVA was not the only program in the state of Virginia to change hands at head coach, as Virginia Tech will also begin a new era. Justin Fuente began his time in Blacksburg with loads of promise, as he won 19 games and delivered a Coastal Title within the first two seasons, but things went downhill fast. In addition to poor results on the field, all the transfers and roster turnover around the program seemed to indicate Virginia Tech needed a fresh start. Enter Brent Pry, a long-time James Franklin disciple at both Vanderbilt and Penn State, who will get his first opportunity as a head coach. Pry deserves a bunch of credit for the great work he did at both stops, coaching a host of future NFL defenders, including Micah Parsons, Yetur Gross-Matos, Stephen Weatherly, Zach Cunningham, and more. He also checks a box as having familiarity with the program, as he served as a grad assistant under VT legend Bud Foster from 1995-1997. With all that being said, Virginia Tech seems to be a program at an interesting spot in the ACC power structure. They experienced unprecedented success for years under Frank Beamer, but that wasn't going to be sustainable in the new ACC. It's still a program with the tools to be a regional power, but Pry will have plenty of rebuilding to do from the get-go.

Washington Huskies

Out: Jimmy Lake

In: Kalen DeBoer (Fresno State HC)

Jimmy Lake's short-lived tenure as Washington head coach is the perfect example of just how difficult it is to predict coaching success. It seems like Lake was the ideal hire for Washington following Chris Petersen's shocking retirement; he had established himself as one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, he was already on staff, and Petersen himself vouched for Lake to be the next head coach. Just 13 games later, Washington was searching for a new head man after Lake's 7-6 record on the field and numerous off-field issues. The Huskies made a sensible hire to replace him in Fresno State's Kalen DeBoer, a name that continues to rise up the coaching ranks. In his first head coaching gig, DeBoer went 67-3 with Sioux Falls of the NAIA before making the jump to FCS, then eventually FBS ball. He parlayed a successful season with Indiana as their OC in 2019 into the Fresno State HC job (he was previously their coordinator) and went 12-6 with the Bulldogs, including a 9-3 mark this year. In a lot of ways, DeBoer is quite different from Lake; while Lake was a staunch defense-first coach who loved to run the ball, DeBoer is going to want to run fun, explosive offenses. He's already landed a fairly big name through the portal in his former QB at Indiana, Michael Penix Jr., and has plenty back elsewhere. They key for him will be two-fold; rebuilding a culture that fell apart quickly under his predecessor, and proving that Washington can once again be a major recruiting force in the Pacific Northwest. The state of Washington has been one of the most underrated talent-rich areas in recent years, but has been mined by programs all across the country. Step one for DeBoer will be changing that.

Washington State Cougars

Out: Nick Rolovich

In: Jake Dickert (interim HC, former DC)

Nick Rolovich and his refusal to receive the COVID-19 led to his eventual firing and plunged Washington State's program into further chaos after a wacky few years under Mike Leach. The Cougars are hopeful that Jake Dickert, who had been their interim coach for the latter half of 2021, will provide the program with much-needed stability and direction. It will be Dickert's first run as full-time head coach at any level of college football; he began as a grad assistant with Wisconsin-Stevens Point and worked his way up the ladder, primarily working in the Midwest. After spending time under Craig Bohl at North Dakota State, Dickert rejoined him in 2017 on the Wyoming staff and eventually parlayed that into the Washington State DC spot. It's quite a transition for Washington State as a whole; they move on from two straight loud, brash head coaches who were all about offense, to the soft-spoken, defensive-minded Dickert. After going 3-3 as interim, the jury is certainly still out on the young head coach, but there's certainly potential here. Washington State is not an easy job, even with Leach's recent success, but the program would love a stable era of football where they're regularly competing for bowls and winning a few. Dickert should be able to provide that, but how he develops the staff and recruiting will determine just how high his ceiling is.

Notable Group of Five Hires

Colorado State: Jay Norvell (Nevada HC) -- After an impressive tenure at Nevada, Jay Norvell will take over a new school in the Mountain West. Although it may be considered a lateral move in terms of program prestige, Norvell will receive a major bump in salary and get another chance to craft a program in the conference.

Louisiana-Lafayette: Michael Desormeaux (Louisiana co-OC) -- Napier's unsurprising exit from ULL leaves the door open for Michael Desormeaux. An alum of the school, Desormeaux has great appreciation for the university and the entire Louisiana culture, with name that fits his team like few others in college ball.

SMU: Rhett Lashlee (Miami OC) -- Following two seasons as OC for Manny Diaz and Miami, Rhett Lashlee will get his first crack as a head coach. A Gus Malzahn disciple, Lashlee has been a journeyman in his young coaching career to this point but takes over a rising SMU program, which he has familiarity with after calling plays for the Mustangs in 2018 and 2019.

UConn: Jim Mora (former UCLA HC) -- Randy Edsall's second stint at UConn was an absolute disaster, but the school made quite the hire in Jim Mora. Mora was head coach in the NFL with Atlanta and Seattle before arriving in the college ranks, where he led UCLA for a half-decade. He went 46-30 with the Bruins and is a low-risk, high-reward hire for the Huskies.

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