Are we really doing this again? Only University of Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte—and perhaps some seven-figure donors—knows for sure. But UT football coach Tom Herman has been on the precipice of being “former UT football coach Tom Herman” since October, with back-to-back losses to TCU and Oklahoma compounded by the “Eyes of Texas” controversy.
My position, that Herman should stay, hasn’t changed since then. (And a statement Del Conte released Saturday in which the AD says, “I want to reiterate that Tom Herman is our coach,” suggests that for now, Herman’s job is safe.) But it was only a few weeks ago, after the Longhorns lost to Iowa State on the day after Thanksgiving—y’know, the traditional rivalry game—that Del Conte and Texas president Jay Hartzell were rumored to be in contact with former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose three national championships between 2006 and 2014 are two more than UT has won since 1970. These rumors came along with the usual message board and internet detective work: was Shelley Meyer looking at real estate in Austin? Did Urban shoot a Fox Sports segment from the Horseshoe Bay resort?
It seems that UT’s interest was not—sorry—an Urban legend. But the Longhorns also didn’t get their man. On the evening of December 6, Chip Brown of Horns247 reported that UT’s “flirtation with Urban Meyer appears over,” as did Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman a few hours later.
Can confirm earlier report by Horns247 that former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told Texas officials he has chosen not to return to coaching for health reasons. Meyer told UT this weekend. UT source tells me and @BDavisAAS UT is still "sorting through" what to do next. https://t.co/qqSjlk5THV
— Kirk Bohls (@kbohls) December 7, 2020
Missing out on Meyer has some UT boosters thinking that if the Longhorns can’t get the perfect upgrade, why make a change? But first, we need to know if Del Conte is still kicking the tires on possible replacements for Herman. Technically, the athletics director doesn’t need to announce that the football coach with three years left on a five-year, $27.75 million contract extension is keeping his job, but on Saturday, that’s just what he did. If UT were to reverse course and fire Herman, the school would surely face some criticism for paying the coach’s estimated $15 million buyout—plus $10 million for his assistants—during a pandemic and an economic crisis, to say nothing of the new coaches’ salaries.
But this is the business we’ve chosen. And with UT’s regular season now effectively over—the December 12 game at Kansas was canceled because of COVID-19 spread within the Longhorns football program—something’s gotta give.
Let’s face it, there are only two perfect coaches—Nick Saban, who already didn’t take the job, and Eric Taylor, who lacks college experience. But if change is coming, here are a few options. Some of them are more likely, and more serious, than others.
Mario Cristobal and James Franklin
If you can’t get one of the guys who already has a national championship—y’know, Meyer, Saban, Jimbo Fisher, Mack Brown—then these choices represent the next best thing: a proven coach at a big-time school who is just a little less well-endowed than Texas (all puns intended).
Cristobal is the former Florida International head coach and Alabama assistant who took over the Oregon job after Willie Taggart, in part because the Ducks players campaigned for him. Penn State’s Franklin, who was then at Vanderbilt, was a finalist to replace Mack Brown in 2014, and is said to be a favorite of Del Conte’s.
They’re both accomplished leaders, and hiring a nonwhite coach would be a statement—especially if some of the same donors who forced out Charlie Strong pick up the tab. But neither Cristobal nor Franklin is elite, in the same way that Texas, in recent years, hasn’t been elite. Last year, Oregon won the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl but was nowhere near the national championship picture, with losses to Auburn and Arizona State. Franklin has one Big 10 title in six seasons, and is 1–5 against Ohio State—i.e., his Oklahoma.
Cristobal’s Ducks were projected to go undefeated in the Pac-12’s seven-game schedule. Instead, they’re 3–2, with a rare loss to intrastate rival Oregon State. Franklin’s Nittany Lions, 11–2 with a Cotton Bowl win last year, began 2020 ranked number seven in the nation. They’re now 2–5. Would UT spend more than $50 million on buyouts and new salaries for that?
Matt Campbell and Luke Fickell
A small-market coach from UT’s conference and the top candidate from a “Group of Five” conference. Campbell, with Iowa State’s “five-star culture versus five-star players” motto, may yet win the Big 12 championship. Fickell’s Cincinnati Bearcats may deserve to be in the College Football Playoff.
Both are good choices. Both are thought to be more interested in waiting for openings at Michigan or—ahem—Penn State. And both come from the same mold as every UT coach since David McWilliams, including Herman, who came to Texas via the University of Houston after working alongside Fickell at Ohio State. Before that, Charlie Strong came from Louisville, Mack Brown from North Carolina, and John Mackovic from Illinois. Similar formula, very different outcomes.
For a while, TCU’s Patterson was very plainly the best coach in Texas. The second-longest tenured coach in college football also owns UT as sure as Red McCombs does, with a career record of 7–2 against the Longhorns, all since joining the Big 12. And Del Conte was TCU’s athletics director before coming to Austin. With just a 17–17 record over the past three seasons, however, some of the shine has come off of Patterson’s candidacy.
Anyone who worked for Nick Saban
You can’t get Saban, but maybe you’d be interested in hiring someone from his coaching tree. Cristobal, Texas A&M’s Fisher, and Georgia’s Kirby Smart are all former Saban assistants, as is hot name Billy Napier of the University of Louisiana, while the likes of Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss) and Mike Locksley (Maryland) restarted their careers in Tuscaloosa. Of course, there are also less compelling figures like Will Muschamp (recently fired by South Carolina), Jeremy Pruitt (struggling at Tennessee), and Jason Garrett (back when Saban coached the Miami Dolphins).
The top guy now is Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who was the head coach at Washington and USC (career record: 46–35) before leaving the Trojans in 2015 to enter rehab for alcohol addiction. Sarkisian has since rebuilt his career with two stints at Alabama (including his current gig) sandwiched around a couple of seasons with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
A handful of other notable names can be found lurking as “analysts” or special assistants on Saban’s staff, which means they’re not normally on the sidelines or in the press box during games: Butch Jones, a good coach until his last two years at Tennessee; Mike Stoops, who got fired as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator after Herman’s Longhorns hung 48 points on the Sooners in 2018; exiled UT legend Major Applewhite, who was also Herman’s replacement at Houston; and, uh, Charlie Strong.
Look, if the only acceptable upgrade is a coach who’s won a national championship this century …
Matt Entz and Lance Leipold
True coaching royalty is made, not poached from other schools. Nowadays, with the amount of scrutiny these talent searches receive, UT probably couldn’t even hire Darrell K. Royal, who in 1957 was coming off a 5–5 season at the University of Washington after two 6–4 seasons at Mississippi State. Before that, he coached in the freakin’ Canadian Football League!
So why not invest in a lower-profile coach who might grow into something special? Entz has helped turn North Dakota State into the Alabama of the Football Championship Subdivision. In the lower-level FCS, the Bison have won eight national championships in the last nine years. Admittedly, Entz is probably too green for UT. He’s only in his second season as head coach, having risen from assistant to replace Chris Klieman, who left for Kansas State after 2018.
Leipold, head coach at Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference, has already made the jump from smaller FCS schools to FBS competition, but he made his reputation by winning six national championships in eight years at Division III University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The model here would be Jim Tressel, who went straight from winning titles at FCS (formerly Division 1-AA) Youngstown State to winning titles at Ohio State. Coaching is coaching.
Hence, this Ted Lasso scenario, which obviously isn’t happening. But the UT football program’s failure is neither a failure of coaching nor a failure of talent. It’s a failure of culture. And Gregg Popovich is all culture. Give him a few good Xs and Os guys and he’d probably end up understanding football better than half the coaches in America. Plus, he’d take the players’ side and end “The Eyes of Texas” thing in twenty minutes.
The 49ers head coach and offensive guru took San Francisco to the Super Bowl just last year, but he’s in the rumor mill because he played wide receiver for the Longhorns, catching a grand total of fourteen passes during the Chris Simms/Major Applewhite era. And because there’s nothing more UT than thinking Austin is an upgrade from the NFL.
But besides one year as a graduate assistant at UCLA, Shanahan has never coached college football, and NFL guys who take college jobs usually only do so because they failed—Nick Saban included. Hey, Bill O’Brien’s available!
What, and give up politics?
UT’s supposed first choice could always change his mind, although the health problems that prompted Meyer to resign from both Florida and Ohio State are not insignificant.
The best reason to hire Meyer is to find out, once and for all, what ails the University of Texas football program. Is it the school, or is it the coach? Then again, Texas is already coached by one of Meyer’s former assistants in Herman, who replaced another one of Meyer’s former assistants in Strong.
And Meyer has never taken over a program in the kind of shape that UT’s been in: one 10-win season (by Tom Herman!) and zero Big 12 titles since the 2009 BCS championship game loss. When Meyer got to Gainesville, the University of Florida was just three years removed from Steve Spurrier, who won ten games in each of his last two seasons, including one SEC championship. When Meyer arrived in Columbus, Ohio State was just a year removed from six straight Big Ten championships under Tressel (though the last of them was vacated because of NCAA violations).
Tressel’s scandal was not as bad as Meyer’s. In his final season at Ohio State, Meyer served a three-game suspension for mishandling domestic abuse allegations against one of his former assistant coaches. He could easily have been fired, and yet somehow, amid the coaching gossip and with Meyer appearing on Fox Sports’s Big Noon Kickoff every Saturday, that story has been shamefully forgotten. Were UT to get serious with Meyer, they would likely have another controversy on their hands.
As I wrote at the beginning of this column, my opinion hasn’t changed. Herman’s not especially charming (to say the least) with the fans and media. He has not yet gotten Texas to where it wants to be. But neither has any other coach in Herman’s lifetime, besides Mack Brown. Does he really deserve to be replaced—with no clear upgrade on deck—for going 6–3? Particularly when those three losses were by a combined margin of thirteen points (five, if you don’t count overtime, which isn’t even football). And especially in a year like 2020.
This has been the dumbest college football season ever, so I guess we need another UT coaching circus to make it even dumber.