In a season of change, a number of coaches have the opportunity to stake their claims for the top spot on this list for next year.
1. Bill Blankenship, Tulsa
Granted, Blankenship didn’t have to build a program from the ground up, but he has done an excellent job in maintaining what Todd Graham started at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane has gone 14-2 in conference over the past two seasons, winning Conference USA a season ago.
2. Larry Coker, UTSA
As the only person on this list with a BCS national championship to his credit, Coker earns a spot toward the top. UTSA, however, isn’t exactly “The U.” Coker did a reasonably good job in the Roadrunners’ transition year into Division I. Now they will begin life in Conference USA and some tough days are sure to follow. That doesn’t necessarily reflect on Coker.
3. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
Over the last 50 years, Middle Tennessee has been to three bowl games. Stockstill got the Blue Raiders to all three. Stockstill has helped Middle Tennessee hold its own, going 43-44 overall. The Blue Raiders have been far better against comparable competition with a 32-21 mark. Last year Middle Tennessee went 8-4.
4. Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina
After two disappointing seasons, McNeill led the Pirates to a tie for the Conference USA East in 2012. McNeill, who built a reputation as a defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, has produced one of the top offenses for his alma mater. With the ever-changing landscape of the league, McNeill is one of the top coaches.
5. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
The Bulls showed promise under former coach Jim Leavitt, who was fired for disciplinary reasons. Holtz took USF to a bowl game in Year 1, but grew progressively worse in the final two seasons culminating in a 3-9 campaign that resulted in his firing. Before the USF job, though, Holtz did an excellent job turning around East Carolina and improving UConn into a playoff Division I-AA team. Holtz inherits a good situation in Ruston and will have a shot at redemption after a sour stint in Tampa.
6. Dan McCarney, North Texas
The long-time Iowa State coach took over at North Texas in 2011 and he has restored some respectability that lacked it under Todd Dodge. The Mean Green went just 6-37 in three-plus seasons under Dodge, making McCarney’s overall 9-15 record far more impressive. He has also helped UNT gain enough respect to warrant an invitation to Conference USA.
7. Doc Holliday, Marshall
Holliday hasn’t yet put the Thundering Herd back to where it was under Bob Pruett, but it’s certainly in a better position than it was in under Mark Snyder. Two of Holliday’s first three seasons have resulted in losing records, but he has an explosive offense. He could also see rapid improvement considering the team went just 2-4 in games decided by one possession.
8. Ron Turner, Florida International
A controversial hire this offseason, Turner does bring with him some credentials. He led Illinois to a Big Ten title in 2001, though he managed just an overall mark of 35-57 over his eight seasons. The 10-2 record in ’01 was certainly the exception and not the rule while in Champagne.
9. David Bailiff, Rice
Going to two bowl games in six seasons would coaches at many programs fired. Bailiff has done a good job to do that well. His successes include a split division title in 2008. That the Owls went to a bowl game last year, though, does not erase the fact that they went 10-26 over the previous three seasons.
10. Todd Monken, Southern Miss
Though Monken has never been a head coach, he has a rich pedigree that includes stops at LSU under Nick Saban, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Monken’s resume makes him an attractive first-year coaching candidate even if he faces an uphill battle by inheriting a program that went 0-12 last season.
11. Sean Kugler, UTEP
Just two bowl games over nine seasons marked the end for Mike Price’s tenure as Miners coach. Now Kugler takes his turn. The long-time NFL assistant has never been a head coach, but he comes with high compliments. Boise State coach Chris Petersen described Kugler as the best coach he’s ever been around.
12. Garrick McGee, UAB
Stops as offensive coaches for Pat Fitzgerald and Bobby Petrino certainly reflect well on McGee. His 3-9 record in Year 1 didn’t, necessarily, though few have succeeded in bringing the Blazers to respectability. The program has been to one bowl game – in 2004. McGee is another coach on this list with a long way to go with his program.
13. Curtis Johnson, Tulane
Since Tommy Bowden’s undefeated 1998 season, many have tried and many have failed to lift the Green Wave back to the ways of that magical year. The program hasn’t made a bowl game in a decade now and Johnson fell well short of that goal last season when Tulane went 2-10. The long-time New Orleans Saints coach has his work cut out for him.
14. Carl Pelini, Florida Atlantic
Pelini made his way from Nebraska defensive coordinator under brother Bo Pelini to his first head-coaching opportunity in 2012. It didn’t go as he hoped, with the Owls falling to a 3-9 mark. That they managed just a 2-6 record in the Sun Belt does not bode well as they enter Conference USA. In fairness, FAU fared better under Pelini than it did in its final season under Howard Schnellenberger, when it went 1-11 and 0-8 in conference.
Topics: Conference USA, East Carolina Pirates, Florida Atlantic Owls, Florida International Panthers, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Marshall Thundering Herd, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, North Texas Mean Green, Rice Owls, Southern Miss Golden Eagles, Tulane Green Wave, Tulsa Golden Hurricanes, UAB Blazers, UTEP Miners, UTSA Roadrunners