After a 37-15 record in four seasons at Louisville, Charlie Strong has decided to leave to take over the top spot at Texas. Strong inherited a program that won just 15 games in the three seasons prior to his arrival and quickly moved Louisville back into bowl contention, playing in four consecutive postseason games.
The Cardinals are 23-3 over the last two seasons and finished 2013 by demolishing Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Although Strong is leaving, the program is still in good shape. Louisville has one of the best athletic directors in college football in Tom Jurich, and the Cardinals are set to join the ACC in time for the 2014 season.
Louisville has good resources and facilities, so this job will garner plenty of interest from coaches around the nation.
Who will replace Strong in Louisville? Here are some possible candidates for the Cardinals:
10 Candidates to Replace Charlie Strong at Louisville
James Franklin, head coach, Vanderbilt
Admittedly, it seems unlikely Franklin would leave Vanderbilt for Louisville, especially if he has interest in Penn State or the NFL. But the Cardinals have excellent resources, good facilities and money to throw in Franklin’s direction. In three years with the Commodores, Franklin has a 24-15 record, including back-to-back bowl victories. Considering how difficult it is to maintain success at Vanderbilt, playing in three consecutive bowl games and an 18-8 record from 2012-13 is a testament to how good of a coach Franklin is. Vanderbilt has made facility improvements over the last few years, but Louisville is a better job and it’s easier to win nine games a season in the ACC. It’s a longshot, but Jurich and Louisville would be wise to inquire about Franklin.
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Herman is a rising star in the assistant coach ranks. The Cincinnati native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Texas in 1999. After two years with the Longhorns, he stayed in the Lone Star State with stops at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice. After four stops in Texas, Herman was the offensive coordinator at Iowa State from 2009-11. And after three years with the Cyclones, Herman was hired by Urban Meyer to coordinate the Ohio State offense. Under Herman’s direction, the Buckeyes averaged 37.2 points a game in 2012 and 46.3 points a contest in 2013. Much like Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Herman is due for a chance to run his own program. However, is Herman ready to take the top spot at a top 25-30 job in 2014? Or does he want to make another run at a national championship with Ohio State next season?
Mark Hudspeth, head coach, UL Lafayette
Hudspeth has quietly built an impressive resume from a handful of stops, including the last three years as the head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns. Louisiana-Lafayette is 27-12 under Hudspeth’s direction, and the Ragin’ Cajuns claimed a share of the Sun Belt title in 2013. The 27 wins under Hudspeth are the most in a three-year span in school history. Prior to taking over at Louisiana-Lafayette, Hudspeth spent two years as a receivers coach at Mississippi State (2009-10) and worked as the head coach at North Alabama from 2002-08. In seven years at North Alabama, Hudspeth recorded a 66-21 mark.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State
Lembo doesn’t have the name recognition of a Chad Morris or James Franklin, but he’s a rising star in the coaching ranks and has been a successful coach at three different stops. The New York native went 44-14 stint at Lehigh from 2001-05. From 2006-10, Lembo guided Elon to a 35-22 mark and one playoff appearance. In three years at Ball State, the Cardinals are 25-12 under his watch. Lembo has also led Ball State to back-to-back bowl games for just the second time in school history. Moving from Ball State to Louisville would be a sizeable jump, but Lembo is ready to lead a BCS program in 2014.
Derek Mason, defensive coordinator, Stanford
Mason has been a key piece of Stanford’s success under David Shaw, and some early reports seem to indicate he will be in the mix at Louisville. Prior to joining Stanford’s staff in 2010, Mason worked in the NFL with the Vikings as a defensive backs assistant from 2007-09. Mason’s first college job was in 1994 at San Diego Mesa College, followed by stops at Weber State, Idaho State, Bucknell, Utah, Saint Mary’s, New Mexico State and Ohio. Under Mason’s direction, Stanford has finished first or second in the Pac-12 in total defense in each of the last three years. Mason also has an important connection for this job. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich was at Northern Arizona when Mason was a defensive back with the Lumberjacks.
Jim McElwain, head coach, Colorado State
McElwain is a former Louisville assistant, spending 2000-02 with the Cardinals under John L. Smith. And the Montana native has developed a solid resume since leaving the Cardinals, working from 2003-05 at Michigan State and in 2006 in the NFL with the Raiders. In 2007, McElwain coordinated the Fresno State offense to an average of 419.5 yards per game. After one season with the Bulldogs, McElwain was hired by Nick Saban to call the plays for the Crimson Tide. Alabama’s offense improved under McElwain’s watch, finishing 64th nationally in total offense in 2008 and then jumping to 31st nationally in 2011. McElwain has spent the last two years at Colorado State, guiding the Rams to a 12-14 mark. Colorado State won the New Mexico Bowl this season, which was the school’s first postseason victory since 2008.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Morris is the highest-paid assistant in college football and just finished his third season calling the plays at Clemson. Under Morris’ direction, the Tigers have averaged at least 440 yards per game in each of the last three years. Clemson has also averaged at least 40 points a contest in in back-to-back seasons. In one season as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator (2010), the Golden Hurricane averaged 505.6 yards per game and 6.5 yards per play. As if it wasn’t obvious by those numbers, Morris is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. However, his only head coaching experience was on the high school level. While Morris may experience a few ups and downs as a head coach, his offensive background is worth the risk.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi turned down Connecticut, but openings at Penn State or Louisville certainly provide intrigue for the 47-year-old coach. Narduzzi’s coaching career started at Miami (Ohio) in 1990 and continued there until 1992. From 1993-99, Narduzzi worked at Rhode Island and spent the following three years (2000-02) at Northern Illinois. Narduzzi’s first chance to coordinate a defense on the FBS level was in 2003 at Miami (Ohio), and he joined forces with Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2004. Since 2004, Narduzzi has worked under Dantonio and has coordinated some of the nation’s top defenses at Michigan State. Narduzzi won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach in 2013. The Spartans finished second nationally in total defense and allowed just 4.0 yards per play this season. Narduzzi’s defense at Michigan State was a key reason why the Spartans claimed the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory over Stanford this year. The only downside to Narduzzi’s resume is no head coaching experience.
Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama
Smart’s name has popped up for a few jobs over the last few years, but the former Georgia defensive back can afford to be patient in choosing his first head coaching gig. Smart has worked under Saban for eight years, starting in 2004 at LSU and continuing in the NFL with the Dolphins. He followed Saban to Alabama in 2007 and has served as the defensive coordinator since 2008. The Crimson Tide’s defense has ranked No. 1 in the SEC in total defense every season since 2008, and this unit led the nation in fewest points allowed in 2011-12. As we mentioned earlier, Smart does not have any head coaching experience, which seems to be the only concern on his resume. Is Smart waiting for a job in the SEC to open? Or is he willing to take a job outside of the conference?
Shawn Watson, offensive coordinator, Louisville
Watson is no stranger to Louisville fans, as he joined Charlie Strong’s staff in 2011 and served as the team’s offensive coordinator for the last three years. Prior to coming to Louisville, Watson coordinated offenses at Nebraska and Colorado, while also spending time as an assistant at Illinois, Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern. After averaging 333 yards per game in 2011, Watson’s offenses improved in 2012 and 2013 – largely due to the development of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater – as the Cardinals averaged at least 400 yards per game over the last two years. Watson has one previous stint as a head coach, recording an 11-22 mark in three years at Southern Illinois (1994-96).
Other Names to Watch
Vance Bedford, defensive coordinator, Louisville
Bedford is a Texas native and played his college ball with the Longhorns. Even though he’s paid his dues as an assistant and was a key piece to building Louisville’s defense over the last four seasons, Bedford is likely following Strong to Austin.
David Cutcliffe, head coach, Duke
Cutcliffe’s name has popped up in the rumor mill to replace Strong, but it seems unlikely he leaves Duke for another ACC school. Cutcliffe is 31-43 in six seasons with the Blue Devils, including a 16-10 mark over the last two years.
Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
Gruden is a former Louisville quarterback and has played a key role in developing Andy Dalton for the Bengals. While Gruden is a solid offensive mind, he has no head coaching experience on the college level and may be more interested in NFL jobs. And depending on the Bengals’ postseason success, Gruden may not be capable of taking a job until mid-January.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State
Mississippi State is one of the toughest jobs in the SEC, but Mullen has guided the Bulldogs to four consecutive bowl games. Mullen has a solid team returning next year, which could be the best of his tenure in Starkville. It seems like a longshot for Mullen to leave, but Louisville’s a better job and it’s easier to win in the ACC than coaching in the SEC West.
Bobby Petrino, head coach, Western Kentucky
Petrino went 41-9 in four years at Louisville from 2003-06. However, it’s hard to envision Petrino returning to a BCS job in 2014, especially since what transpired at Arkansas following the 2011 season. You never say never, but all signs seem to indicate it's a longshot for Petrino to return to Louisville.
Rich Rodriguez, head coach, Arizona
Rodriguez seems to be content (and has a pretty good job) at Arizona, but Louisville would be wise to inquire to see if there’s any interest. In two years with the Wildcats, Rodriguez is 16-10 overall. While his stint at Michigan didn’t not go particularly well, Rodriguez has been successful at each of his other stops, including a 60-26 mark at West Virginia from 2001-07.
Matt Wells, head coach, Utah State
Wells worked at Louisville in 2009 and did an outstanding job at Utah State in 2013, guiding the Aggies to a 9-5 record despite losing quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a knee injury. Although Wells was the Mountain West Coach of the Year, it’s probably too early to expect him to move to a BCS job.