Remember when, try as he might, Charlie Strong simply couldn’t land a head-coaching position? For a long time, it looked like one of the game’s elite coordinators would never get a shot.
It should surprise nobody that Louisville AD Tom Jurich became the coach to finally give Strong his first shot as a head coach. That move has paid fairly immediate dividends – including changing his program’s conference affiliation by one letter for next year.
As is the case in many departments, everyone will try to catch the Cardinals in the coaching column.
1. Charlie Strong, Louisville
Strong’s winning personality and QB Teddy Bridgewater’s sensational talent – teamed with a convincing Sugar Bowl victory over Florida – make it easy to forget that Louisville lost two games it had no business losing and was a close game going the other way away from playing in the Pinstripe Bowl. It’s worth noting, just because Louisville should out-talent its competition to another BCS appearance this season. Strong has done an outstanding job turning around a program that slipped after Bobby Petrino left. Not only does Strong have this team in a position where it should repeat as conference champion, he should lead a competitively prepared team into the ACC.
2. George O’Leary, Central Florida
Few have experienced the fall from grace O’Leary endured after accepting a job from and getting fired from Notre Dame. It took two years for him to get a chance for image rehabilitation – an opportunity Central Florida afforded him. O’Leary has paid back the program in a big way, leading the Knights to a pair of Conference USA titles and two more appearances in the championship game. Now O’Leary has also helped steer the entire athletics department into the AAC. There are plenty of advantages to being located in Orlando – a strong metropolitan area with the added benefit of being able to recruit the Sunshine State. Just how high can O’Leary lift UCF?
3. June Jones, SMU
The pass-happy offensive guru transformed away games in Hawaii from paradise to nerve-wrecking road trips. In nine seasons as coach of the Warriors, Jones led the program to six nine-win campaigns. He also earned two conference championships and a trip to the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Whatever Jones did to immediately turn around Hawaii hasn’t translated into huge results in five seasons at SMU. Yes, Jones has restored the program to at least a regular bowl team – a distinction bestowed on more than half the FBS programs. The Mustangs, under Jones, have won eight games twice. High expectations were not met in 2012 – SMU’s last in Conference USA. With the program now in the AAC and with Jones still lacking on the results typically accompanying $2 million per year contracts at this level, patience could be running thin in Dallas. Can Jones continue his modest success at the next level?
4. Willie Taggart, South Florida
During three seasons at Western Kentucky, Taggart led his alma mater to previously unreached heights. A promotion became warranted and the Bulls came to the table with the best offer. Now Taggart, a Jim Harbaugh disciple, returns to where he grew up in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area to try to revitalize a South Florida program that has fallen on hard times since Jim Leavitt’s firing. Harbaugh, it should be noted, recruited Taggart to Western Kentucky to play for his father, Jack Harbaugh. An overall record of 16-20 might make it look like Taggart is in over his head. What Taggart inherited, though, was a program that found impossible its transition into the FBS division. The Hilltoppers were 0-20 in their first two campaigns as an official FBS program. During Taggart’s first season, they went 2-10 – a step forward, believe it or not. The next year he led WKU to a 7-5 record and a second-place finish in the Sun Belt. In 2012, Taggart led the program to another 7-5 record that included a landmark victory over Kentucky and its first bowl game.
5. Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati
How badly were things going for Tuberville at Texas Tech? Bad enough that he jumped ship for Cincinnati – a cold-weather town for a coach who famously loathes cold weather. There’s no questioning what Tuberville did at Ole Miss and Auburn, but recent seasons haven’t gone his way. Some question conservative coaching from the man once labeled “The Riverboat Gambler.” Others wonder about his recruiting prowess after his efforts on the trails proved lacking against the likes of Nick Saban, Les Miles, Mack Brown and Bob Stoops. Tuberville built his reputation on hiring great coordinators and staying out of their way. That recipe worked halfway in Lubbock, where he hired Neal Brown – considered a rising star in the coaching profession and now serving as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator. But Tuberville failed miserably at providing the Red Raiders with a long-awaited defense. Can he get back to his hiring successes in Cincinnati? He is betting on old friends initially, hiring long-time assistant Eddie Gran to direct the offense and Art Kaufman – who served as defensive coordinator for Tubs at Ole Miss and Texas Tech.
6. Kyle Flood, Rutgers
During his first year, Flood did an excellent job maintaining the momentum created by predecessor Greg Schiano. The Scarlet Knights jumped out to a 7-0 start, including a road win over Arkansas. They were the front-runners for the Big East title before dropping the final two games of the regular season, including a de facto championship game to Louisville in the last week. Flood still guided Rutgers to a 9-4 record and a four-way split of the conference championship. The thing keeping Flood from ranking higher on this list is his inexperience.
7. Paul Pasqualoni, UConn
Pasqualoni has more Big East championships to his credit (four) than anyone else on this list. However, he won all four while at Syracuse, which fired him following the 2004 season. Public perception largely landed on Pasqualoni’s side, maintaining that the Orange pulled the trigger too quickly for a coach who performed well for the program. Pasqualoni then coached in the NFL until 2011, when UConn hired him to replace Randy Edsall, who left for Maryland after leading the Huskies to a Big East title. Pasqualoni has made a mess of the program Edsall left behind. After UConn strung together four consecutive bowl appearances under Edsall, the program went 5-7 in each of the first two years under Pasqualoni. He starts the season on an undoubtedly hot seat.
8. Justin Fuente, Memphis
Considering where Memphis had been prior to the 2012 season, Fuente’s 4-8 campaign was actually a modest success. After all, the program won five total games in the three previous years. The season got off to an inauspicious start with the Tigers dropping eight of their first nine. However, Fuente gave the program hope as it enters the AAC by leading the team to three consecutive wins to finish. Fuente enjoyed a fast rise in the coaching profession as TCU coach Gary Patterson’s offensive coordinator.
9. Matt Rhule, Temple
Rhule has exactly zero head-coaching experience entering the 2013 season. For Rhule and Temple, though, this is a callback to better times. Rhule served as Al Golden’s offensive coordinator when Golden corrected the previously pathetic course set out by the Owls. Under Golden and Rhule, Temple qualified for a bowl game in 2009 – 30 years after its previous postseason appearance. Rhule will need time to readjust an offense that went to Steve Addazio’s spread attack after a more traditional, pro-style offense.
10. Tony Levine, Houston
The most uninspired hire of 2012 now looks to be among a short list of coaches capable of getting fired after two seasons. Levine inherited a machine that churned out coaches Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) and Art Briles (Baylor). The current coach, however, does not seem primed to follow in their footsteps. Houston took an enormous step back in Year 1 under Levine. His offense is loaded with potential, but must outperform a lackluster defense. Levine’s job might depend on it as the Cougars enter the AAC.