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CFB Coaching Carousel 2023-24: Breaking Down Every Power Conference Hire of the Offseason

Kalen DeBoer, Alabama

The college football coaching carousel is constantly spinning, but the festivities this year felt a bit flat for most of the late fall and early winter. There was a real lack of big names moving on, dampening the drama and intrigue that has become one of the most exciting times on the college football calendar. Even at a place like Texas A&M, a program that will shell out tens of millions of dollars for Jimbo Fisher not to be their head coach, they settled on a familiar, relatively uninteresting name in Duke head man Mike Elko (who was formerly their defensive coordinator). 

Then, the Nick Saban news broke. The retirement of the greatest coach in college football history sent the carousel into a frenzy and impacted programs across the country. And then the Jim Harbaugh news, that he would finally be making his return to the NFL with the Los Angeles Chargers. With two of the biggest names in the sport moving on, the college football coaching world has gone a radical transformation in a matter of weeks. With that in mind, it's time to break down this year's carousel, with the assumption that the chaos has died down, for at least the time being. There's still plenty left to decide at this juncture, here's my take on each of the power conference jobs that changed hands this offseason. 

Alabama Crimson Tide

Out: Nick Saban (retirement)

In: Kalen DeBoer, Washington HC

It was only a matter of time before Nick Saban called it a career and although I always imagined him riding out on top with a National Title, it didn't come as a complete shock when he announced his retirement in December. For all of his success, Saban has made it clear he hasn't been a huge fan of the direction college football has taken in recent years, and the unrelenting pace of recruiting, NIL, and transfers is enough to burn out even the most accomplished of head coaches.

Now, Kalen DeBoer will be tasked with replacing one of the sport's eternal legends. It's quite a tall task, to put it mildly, but the 49-year old appears up for the challenge after an impressive two-year run at Washington. It's been an impressive rise up the coaching ladder for DeBoer, culminating in arguably FBS football's most prestigious gig, as he's gone from offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois to Alabama head coach in just over a decade. Sandwiched in there were several assistant pit stops, along with head coaching jobs at both Fresno State and Washington, but he is now confronting a whole different animal in Tuscaloosa. I have little question DeBoer has the football knowledge or skills as a head coach to succeed, but recruiting is what's going to ultimately determine just how well of a job he does following up Saban. Recruiting is the lifeblood of the SEC, especially at Alabama, and we simply don't know how good of a recruiter DeBoer is at this level, at least not yet. He could come out and absolutely kill it on the trail, but the types of programs he's competing against are different than at Fresno or Washington. It's going to be quite the transition for him, and I'm curious to see how he responds. Fortunately, the prognosis for the Tide still appears promising in 2024, even with several big names entering the portal after Saban's retirement. That should give DeBoer some much-needed momentum to get this thing off the ground in his debut campaign.

Arizona Wildcats

Out: Jedd Fisch (took Washington HC job)

In: Brent Brennan, San Jose State HC

Jedd Fisch was considered by some to be an underwhelming hire by Arizona following the disastrous run by Kevin Sumlin, but he put together a marvelous three-year in charge in Tucson. After an 1-11 debut, Fisch helped Arizona climb to five wins and then ten in 2023, punctuated by an Alamo Bowl win over Oklahoma. Unsurprisingly, that type of immediate success caught the eye of suitors across the college football landscape and Fisch ultimately took advantage, taking the Washington job vacated by DeBoer.

In his stead, Arizona turns to a familiar name in Brent Brennan, who was a grad assistant with the program in 2000 and coached under Dick Tomey for years, the winningest coach in Wildcat history. It's hard to call the hire a splashy one, but it's an understandable, shrewd one. Brennan comes at a fairly cheap price for a power conference program, did a rock-solid job at San Jose State, and knows the program enough to assume he won't bolt at the earliest opportunity. That's a lot of boxes he checks, giving the program some degree of normalcy as it transitions to life in the Big 12 in 2024.

Duke Blue Devils

Out: Mike Elko (took Texas A&M job)

In: Manny Diaz, Penn State DC

The Mike Elko situation is a prime example of why building a long-term winner in college football can be so difficult. Duke made an excellent hire by bringing him on, he went out and put together two impressive seasons, and then promptly departed for greener pastures. Duke simply didn't have the money or resources to keep him town for an extended period of time, and without any connections to the school, Elko made the best decision for himself in the long-term.

Unfortunately, that left the Blue Devils making their second head coaching hire in under three years, and they ultimately decided on Manny Diaz. Diaz has had a long and winding road to Durham but knows the ACC well after serving as head coach at Miami for three seasons before being unceremoniously dumped in favor of Mario Cristobal. Diaz has rehabilitated his image with a pair of really strong seasons as Penn State's defensive coordinator, and seems like a low-risk, high-reward move by Duke brass. The Miami job always felt a bit too large and daunting for Diaz at the time, but at a place like Duke, he can settle in and take his time in building this program. There have already been some early wins for Diaz, too, as he managed to land one of the most coveted quarterback transfers on the market in Maalik Murphy from Texas. Pairing Murphy's big arm with the high-octane offenses ran by new OC Jonathan Brewer should, at the very least, put fans in the seats and give the Blue Devil faithful reason for excitement each and every Saturday. That's an awfully good starting point and if Diaz can work the portal to his advantage, it wouldn't surprise me if he ends up being one of the better hires of this cycle.

Houston Cougars

Out: Dana Holgorsen (fired)

In: Willie Fritz (Tulane HC)

It's been a steady climb up the coaching ladder for Willie Fritz as head coach, going from JUCO powerhouse Blinn College, to Division II Central Missouri, to Sam Houston State of the FCS, to Georgia Southern, to Tulane, and now his first power conference job at Houston. And the amazing thing is, he's won at every single one of those stops, including a 54-47 mark at Tulane, which saw the Green Wave go 23-4 over the last two seasons and win a New Year's Six bowl.

The jump to the Big 12 should be an interesting one for Fritz, but Houston has long been a job with significant potential. The administration has been more than willing to pay top dollars to improve the program, the NIL operation is ramping up, and it's nestled in fertile recruiting grounds. All of those factors working in favor of Fritz with his proven track record, it's hard to imagine this not working out, even with the uncertainty of the new-look Big 12. With that being said, it's typically been a slow burn for Fritz at most of his previous stops - don't expect the Cougars to be challenging for conference supremacy in 2024. He's also 63 years of age and certainly no up-and-comer, but feels like the type of steady, proven winner that Houston needs at this time after a decade-plus of instability at the head coaching position.

Indiana Hoosiers

Out: Tom Allen (fired)

In: Curt Cignetti (James Madison HC)

A basketball school through and through nestled in a Big Ten East that included Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State, the odds were always stacked against Tom Allen in Bloomington. Despite that, the Indiana native actually managed to guide the program to some notable highs, including an eight-win 2019 and strong COVID season showing in 2020. But, a 9-27 record in the last three seasons since 2020 ultimately doomed his tenure, and left Indiana brass making a much-needed change.

Enter Curt Cignetti, a 62-year old head man fresh off an incredibly successful run guiding James Madison from the FCS ranks to FBS ball. It will be Cignetti's fourth head coaching post and first at this level, but the highly accomplished coach is no stranger to big-time college ball. He was on Nick Saban's first staff at Alabama from 2007-2010 and prior to that coached Russell Wilson at NC State, building up a strong resume before taking over the head coach gig at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Much like Houston and Willie Fritz, it doesn't necessarily feel like a splashy hire by IU, but a very sensible one. They get a proven head coach on an affordable deal who has had success everywhere he's been - in the wacky world of college football coaching sometimes you don't have to overthink it. Cignetti certainly hasn't shied away from the spotlight since taking over, taking aim at Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan during his initial introduction. He will have the benefit of no longer being in the same division as several league heavyweights with the Big Ten moving on from divisions, but there's plenty of work to be done for Cignetti to live up to his bold claims.

Michigan Wolverines

Out: Jim Harbaugh (took LA Chargers job)

In: Sherrone Moore (Michigan OC)

A return to the NFL seemed inevitable for Jim Harbaugh at some point and after years of rumors, he finally made the jump to take over the Los Angeles Chargers. It felt like this was the time to do it, fresh off a National Title and after a year in which Harbaugh was suspended for a big chunk of the season. Just as important, there was a clear successor in line in Sherrone Moore, who will slide from offensive coordinator to head coach.

It will be the first true head coaching position for Moore, but the 37-year old brings a proven track record to the table. He has steadily risen up the ranks before landing at Michigan in 2018 as their TE coach, and then transitioned to the team's OC and OL coach. He completely revamped the Wolverine offensive line, a key factor into their development as a National Title-level program and kept the team steady through the uncertainty of Harbaugh's suspensions as acting head coach in 2023. He was the logical direction for the program to go in, delivering stability and continuity, with the room for growth as he matures into the position. Defending a National Title will still be an awfully tall task, especially with significant personnel turnover, but Moore has the pieces in place to succeed in 2024 and beyond. 

Michigan State Spartans

Out: Mel Tucker (fired)

In: Jonathan Smith, Oregon State HC

Pulling away a head coach from his alma mater is never easy to do, but Michigan State managed to do just that when they lured Jonathan Smith away from Oregon State over the offseason. It was quite the coup for the Spartans, bringing in an established name who had done a truly remarkable job rebuilding the Beavers after he was left a mess by Gary Andersen. A 34-35 record might not jump out at you, but three straight bowl appearances, including one ten-win campaign, at a place like Oregon State is incredibly hard to pull off. 

It's likely Smith felt that Oregon State's uncertain future made the decision easier and the timing does seem to work out right by for both sides. Smith gets a big pay jump and enters life in the Big Ten, while the Spartans get a fresh look after a lost season that began with Mel Tucker being fired. There have been early wins here, as well, as Smith brought a big name with him from Oregon State in rising quarterback Aidan Chiles and also filled out his staff with strong hires. Convincing Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi to leave P.J. Fleck's side was quite the statement from Smith and should set up the MSU defense up for success after several leaky years under Tucker. Plenty of work is yet to be done to get the program back on track, but this has always been a job with significant potential and Smith has the tools to make the most of it.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Out: Zach Arnett (fired)

In: Jeff Lebby, Oklahoma OC

Zach Arnett was always looked at as a short-term fix for Mississippi State after the unfortunate passing of Mike Leach following the 2022 season and after an underwhelming Year One, Bulldog brass moved quickly in firing him. His replacement seems to bring them back to their Leach roots in Jeff Lebby, an offensive-minded head coach who first made a name for himself under Art Briles at Baylor. For all the controversy surrounding Briles and many of the other members of that Bear staff, in a purely football sense there was little questioning the on-field product.

Since his time at Baylor, Lebby caught on at UCF and helped McKenzie Milton finish in the Top 10 of Heisman voting twice, before joining up with Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. After two years there, it was time to jump to Oklahoma, where Lebby engineered a pair of productive offenses under Brent Venables. Mississippi State will be his first head coaching job, but the logic seems sound - he's a rising name in the profession whose offense should match the personnel on the roster. Life in the SEC certainly won't be easy, but Lebby seems to have the right approach to the job and ultimately this is Mississippi State - nobody is expecting National Title parades in Starkville.

Oregon State Beavers

Out: Jonathan Smith (took Michigan State job)

In: Trent Bray, Oregon State DC

Much like Michigan ended up doing with Sherrone Moore after Harbaugh's departure, Oregon State chose to stay close to home by selecting defensive coordinator Trent Bray to be Jonathan Smith's replacement. Losing Smith still stings, but the Beavers are hopeful that Bray will ensure continuity, and the 41-year old head man does check plenty of boxes.

Bray is an Oregon State alum who understands the program as well as anybody, with the right knowledge about the unique challenges of building a winner in Corvallis. He's been on the coaching staff since 2018 under Smith and previously served as interim head coach at Nebraska, albeit for just one week as the program transitioned from Mike Riley to Scott Frost in 2017. He has yet to coach a college game, but has been a coach in major college football for a decade-and-a-half at big-name programs across the country. At the very least, he gives Oregon State a sense of normalcy as they wade into an uncertain future away from the Pac-12. That's important, as the 2024 schedule isn't exactly easy, even with the Beavers essentially serving as a de-facto member of the Mountain West. Arch-rival Oregon remains on the schedule, road trips to San Diego State, Boise State, and Air Force loom, and the Beavers also meet up with other power conference foes like Purdue and California. It poses an interesting challenge for Bray, and we'll learn a lot about whether he's the right man for this job throughout this fall. 

Northwestern Wildcats

Out: Pat Fitzgerald (fired)

In: David Braun (interim HC)

David Braun might not have as large of shoes to fill as Kalen DeBoer, but Pat Fitzgerald was something of a living legend himself in Evanston before being brought down by scandal just weeks before the beginning of the 2023 campaign. The scandal rocked the Northwestern community and threatens to scar Fitzgerald's reputation in the long-term, but it may end up being a good thing for the program in a pure football sense. The program had clearly tailed off under Fitzgerald in recent years, and his old-school approach threatened to leave Northwestern behind in the new-look Big Ten.

David Braun, who had been hired as the team's new defensive coordinator just months before the scandal, was named the interim head coach and all he did was go 8-5 and take home Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. It truly was arguably the most impressive coaching jobs anywhere in the country this year - the Wildcats looked crisp and prepared each and every week, and played with an attitude and energy that seemed to be lacking in the latter years under Fitzgerald. In the end it didn't come as any surprise that Northwestern opted to simply remove the interim tag and make Braun the new head of the program, giving them a gifted 33-year head coach with the right skillset to lead them into a new future. There are likely to be growing pains, as there are for any young head coach at this level, but the Wildcats can live with that as long as the positives we saw throughout 2023 carry forward now that he has the full-time gig. This still isn't an easy job - there are significant institutional hurdles in place - but Braun feels like the right guy at the right time in Evanston.

Syracuse Orange

Out: Dino Babers (fired)

In: Fran Brown, Georgia DB coach

A perennial hot seat candidate for most of the last several seasons, Syracuse finally decided to pull the plug on Dino Babers this fall. The decision finished off a tenure that had plenty of highlights, but was ultimately pulled down by late-season collapses, with a 41-55 record over eight years. In response, the Orange decided to go with a bit of an outside-the-box hire in Georgia defensive backs coach Fran Brown, who gets his first crack as head coach at any level. The reason Syracuse is taking a swing on a young coach like Brown? He's considered one of the premier recruiters in the sport, giving this program a fighting chance at bringing in elite talent to upstate New York.

Of course, there will be a bit of a learning curve for Brown as he adjusts to his new gig, which will certainly be quite different than his previous role at Georgia. But, Brown is no stranger to the Northeast - he's from New Jersey and spent several years at Temple and Rutgers. And, he's already made early waves, landing Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord and several big-name transfers from the portal. Still, there is a lot of risk involved with this hire, but I think it makes sense for a program like Syracuse to take a swing like this and go for a boom-or-bust name. This is one of the toughest jobs in FBS football and won't be getting any easier as the ACC changes in the coming years. Brown gives them a relentless recruiter and a new energy than Babers and even if it doesn't work out, it's clear the Orange are still pulling out the stops to build a competitive football program to match their work on the hardwood.

Texas A&M Aggies

Out: Jimbo Fisher (fired)

In: Mike Elko (Duke HC)

Jimbo Fisher's uncertain future was one of the most fascinating storylines to watch entering 2023 and despite a strong start, three losses in four games through October and November led to the program making a drastic change. Jimbo will get to ride off into the sunset with the largest buyout in college football history, at nearly $80 million, while a new figure takes over on the sidelines in College Station.

That coach happens to be a familiar name in Mike Elko, who served as Texas A&M's defensive coordinator from 2018-2021. Since his working with the Aggie defense, Elko spent the last two seasons in Durham, North Carolina, running a successful operation at Duke, with the Blue Devils going 16-9 under his leadership. His return seems to be all about building stability in a program that has gone through a wild last few years and has seen massive personnel and staff changes as of late. Elko understands the  challenges A&M is up against, and the unique aspects of the school's culture that may rub others the wrong way. He understands what the school needs to succeed, and seems to have a good handle on the external noise that will be following him throughout his tenure. With all that being said, A&m is a pressure cooker, one of the most difficult jobs in the SEC. After just two years of being a head coach at a low pressure place like Duke, is Elko truly ready for this? The good news is that the roster remains incredibly talented and there is a quarterback of the future in the fold in Conner Weigman, assuming he can recover from a foot injury that cost him the final three months of 2023. The bad news? Texas and Oklahoma arrive in the SEC, adding an elevated level of importance to each and every Saturday in College Station.

Washington Huskies

Out: Kalen DeBoer (took Alabama job)

In: Jedd Fisch, Arizona HC

Following one of the greatest two-year stretches in school history, Washington has been hit hard by attrition over the offseason. Kalen DeBoer's shocking decision to take the Alabama job, paired with Michael Penix graduating and a wave of transfers has the 2023 National Runner-up in rebuild mode as they prepare for 2024. However, the program responded in a big way by luring Jedd Fisch out of Arizona to take DeBoer's departed post.

It won't be the first time Fisch coaches in Seattle, although the first at this level, previously serving as Seattle Seahawk QB coach back in 2010. He's had an interesting journey to this position, bouncing around between NFL and college, but there is little denying what a superb job he did at Arizona, winning ten games in Year Three this fall. Washington certainly will be a different job in a multitude of ways, but he'll have more resources in Seattle, plenty of fertile recruiting hotbeds throughout the state, and an administration that is committed to building a winning football program. All of those factors will be important to consider, as the debut season could be a strange one, with the Huskies set to begin life in the Big Ten alongside USC, UCLA, and Oregon. A step-back from the heights of 2023 is almost a certainty, but this is all about the long-term play for Fisch, and he has already proven he can build up programs in a hurry.

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