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10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Steve Sarkisian at USC

Steve Sarkisian

Steve Sarkisian

USC has terminated coach Steve Sarkisian just 18 games into his tenure as the program’s head coach. The move to terminate Sarkisian’s contract comes one day after the second-year coach was placed on leave. The Trojans went 12-6 under Sarkisian’s watch and are 3-2 through five games in the 2015 season.

This is an important hire for athletic director Pat Haden. By the start of the 2016 season, USC will be on its third coach in four years. Lane Kiffin’s tenure ended during the 2013 season, with Clay Helton and Ed Orgeron working as the interim coaches for the remainder of the season. Who will replace Sarkisian at USC? Here are some names to watch in Haden’s search:

10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Steve Sarkisian at USC

Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern

It would take a lot for Fitzgerald to leave Northwestern. After all, he’s a former linebacker with the Wildcats and has worked in the program as a coach since 2001. Fitzgerald took over at Northwestern in 2006 and is 65-54 as the program’s head coach. The Wildcats went to five consecutive bowl games from 2008-12 and finished with a 10-3 mark in 2012. Northwestern is not an easy job, but Fitzgerald has proven he can consistently win at an academic power. 

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James Franklin, head coach, Penn State

Franklin was reportedly in the mix when Steve Sarkisian was hired after the 2013 season. Could he get another phone call from USC this year? As a Pennsylvania native, Penn State is an attractive long-term job, but USC is arguably one of the top-five coaching destinations in the nation. Franklin went 24-15 at Vanderbilt and guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl appearances. Through 19 games at Penn State, Franklin is 12-7 and off to a 5-1 start in 2015. The Nittany Lions are coming off NCAA scholarship sanctions, so depth has been an issue and a challenge for this coaching staff. 

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Justin Fuente, head coach, Memphis

Fuente has significantly improved Memphis’ program after inheriting a mess from former coach Larry Porter. The Tigers went 3-21 under Porter’s watch from 2010-11 and showed immediate progress with a 4-8 mark in Fuente’s first season (2012). Memphis finished 10-3 with a No. 25 finish in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll last season, and Fuente has a 22-20 career record over the last four years. Prior to taking over as the Tigers’ head coach, Fuente worked from 2007-11 as an assistant under Gary Patterson at TCU. Fuente’s stock is on the rise once again this season.

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Tom Herman, head coach, Houston

Herman is one of college football’s top rising stars in the coaching ranks, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets an opportunity to run a Power 5 program. The California native worked his way through the coaching ranks as an assistant at Sam Houston State and a play-caller for Texas State, Rice and Iowa State before landing at Ohio State in 2012. Herman’s coaching ability was on display with the Buckeyes last season, as the offense never missed a beat despite starting its No. 3 quarterback (Cardale Jones) after injuries to J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller. Houston is 5-0 under Herman’s direction so far, including a non-conference win at Louisville.

Chip Kelly, head coach, Philadelphia Eagles

Full disclosure: This is a longshot. However, Kelly’s name is going to pop up in the rumor mill throughout this coaching search and USC would be wise to at least inquire. Kelly went 46-7 in four years at Oregon, including an appearance in the 2010 national championship. Under Kelly’s direction, the Ducks finished three times in the top five of the final Associated Press poll. Kelly is 22-16 with the Eagles but is 2-3 after five games. If things don’t work out this year in Philadelphia, would Kelly consider a return to the college ranks?

Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State

Mullen is a former Urban Meyer assistant and has steadily improved Mississippi State’s program since taking over in 2009. After a 5-7 mark in his first year, Mullen has guided the Bulldogs to five consecutive winning seasons. Additionally, last year’s 10-3 record was just the third season of double-digit victories in program history. Prior to taking over at Mississippi State, Mullen worked with Meyer as an assistant at Bowling Green, Florida and Utah. The SEC West isn’t getting any easier – is Mullen interested in a move up the program hierarchy in college football?

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Rich Rodriguez, head coach, Arizona

Outside of a three-year stint at Michigan, Rodriguez has been a successful coach at a high level at both of his FBS coaching stops. From 2001-07, Rodriguez went 60-26 at West Virginia, including three consecutive seasons of double-digit wins. The West Virginia native left Morgantown for Michigan and went 15-22 in three seasons before his dismissal following the 2010 campaign. Rodriguez landed at Arizona prior to the 2012 season and guided the Wildcats to back-to-back 8-5 records before a 10-4 finish last year with a Pac-12 South title. This isn’t necessarily important for this hire, but Rodriguez has experience in the Pac-12 and is winning at a high level within the conference.

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Bob Stoops, head coach, Oklahoma

Stoops might be a better fit for our longshots category, but is he ready for a change of scenery? Stoops ranks No. 2 among coaches in tenure at his current job and is 172-45 during his career with the Sooners. Oklahoma won at least 10 games in all but two seasons from 2000-13 and has never won fewer than seven contests under Stoops’ tenure. The Sooners also won the 2000 national championship and finished nine times in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. USC is an elite job – would Stoops be willing to listen?  

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Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Texas A&M

Sumlin’s name popped up in USC’s last coaching search. Is there any interest on either side to rekindle that conversation? Sumlin already has a good job at Texas A&M, and the Aggies have invested a lot of money in facilities and stadium improvements since joining the SEC. Texas A&M went 11-2 in Sumlin’s first season (2012) and has a 33-11 record in his tenure. Prior to taking over in College Station, Sumlin went 35-17 at Houston, including a 12-1 mark in 2011. He also has experience on his resume from stops at Oklahoma, Purdue and Minnesota as an assistant. 

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Kyle Whittingham, head coach, Utah

Whittingham might be the nation’s most underrated coach. The former BYU linebacker is 90-43 after taking over the program from Urban Meyer on a full-time basis in 2005. Whittingham also guided the program on a successful transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Utah recorded its first winning conference record (5-4) last season since joining the league in 2011 and is off to a 5-0 start in 2015. Sure, Whittingham isn’t the flashiest or biggest name out there, but he’s a proven winner and a solid all-around coach. 

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Three Longshots

Jack Del Rio, head coach, Oakland Raiders

Del Rio has ties to the program as a former USC player and reportedly interviewed for the job back in 2013. Would Del Rio be willing to leave after just one year as Oakland’s head coach to guide the USC program? It’s a longshot, especially when you consider the Trojans would be better off hiring someone with collegiate head coaching experience.

Jeff Fisher, head coach, St. Louis Rams

As we mentioned with Jack Del Rio, USC would be wise to hire a coach with FBS experience. Fisher played his college ball at USC but has not coached on the college level.

Bryan Harsin, head coach, Boise State

Another rising star, but he’s coaching at his alma mater.