Two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time, and that seems to be the case at Texas Tech.
There is legitimate interest among a group of Texas Tech boosters in former Baylor head coach Art Briles as a replacement for Matt Wells. Wells was fired this week, despite a winning record this season (5-3). Briles oversaw one of the worst scandals in the history of collegiate sports at Baylor, where the athletic department and football program covered up multiple sexual assaults by student-athletes.
The path to Tech actually hiring Briles seems, and very likely is, impossible. Briles has not worked in college football since his firing, and the idea that an athletic director like Kirby Hocutt would allow or sanction this kind of move seems unfathomable. In addition, Briles would be returning to the same conference that bore the burden of the Baylor crisis. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has certainly appeared feckless as a leader in the loss of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, but this would be a new threshold of ineptitude.
So what if logic reigns and it’s not Briles? Tech finds itself at a strange crossroads at the same exact time as its conference. Will the Red Raiders just go after another head coach from the Mike Leach/Air Raid family tree?
It’s hard to argue that Tech could land a better candidate in that mold than Kliff Kingsbury, their native son who finished 35-40 before being fired at the end of the 2018 season. He’s now the head coach of the last NFL team to lose this season (the Arizona Cardinals), and his trajectory from “middling at Tech” to succeeding in the NFL begs more of a look at the institutional shortcomings than the play-calling. Hiring Wells was an attempt to break free of the Leach tree, and it too had tepid results (13-17 overall).
The most obvious candidate for Tech – or any other Power 5 Texas program – is UTSA’s Jeff Traylor. Traylor has renovated the Roadrunners in short order, using his in-state contacts as a former Texas high school football coach to build a G5 powerhouse in short order. His work hasn’t gone unnoticed – rumors out of San Antonio are swirling that UTSA won’t simply let Traylor leave for a low-tier P5 without a fight (meaning a raise). If you’re Traylor, conference affiliation comes in second to where you think you can win the most, and that comes down to where you think more in-state talent would rather be – San Antonio or Lubbock.
Washington State: Mike Leach’s other old job might be able to turn a terrible situation into a significant upgrade. WSU fired Nick Rolovich after he refused to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but on the field, the Cougars weren’t in terrible shape, and there’s plenty of interest in the job. The conversation starts with two former WSU assistants, USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Both have spent time in Pullman, and both would be notable upgrades in terms of national profile and recruiting. Harrell would likely move the Cougars offense back closer to the Leach Air Raid, which gave them their best run in two decades.
The third top-line name is Jim McElwain. The current Central Michigan and former Florida head coach is a Montana native and could be a perfect fit both culturally and schematically in an improving Pac-12 North.
Here’s a strong suggestion that’s not too far off the beaten path: Nevada’s Jay Norvell has also shown that he’s more than capable of rebuilding a west coast program and scoring points. The former assistant at Texas and Oklahoma will see his profile rise as quarterback Carson Strong’s draft prospects heat up, so expect to hear his name throughout November and December.
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– Steven Godfrey is a senior writer for Vox Media's Secret Base, and co-host of The Split Zone Duo podcast. Follow him on Twitter @38Godfrey