Row the Boat! Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck has a bright future ahead of him
Last season was a banner year for the under-40 coaching set.
Justin Fuente coached his last season in his 30s by winning nine games at Memphis and then taking the Virginia Tech job. Kirby Smart landed one of the best jobs in college football at Georgia and then won a national title as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Willie Taggart may have saved his job with an 8-5 season at USF. Kalani Sitake landed his dream job as BYU’s head coach.
All four will start the 2016 season after hitting the big 4-0, so they’re moving off this list.
There remain plenty of head coaches and coordinators in their 30s who will make a major impact in college football this season. Two of them (Matt Campbell and Kliff Kingsbury) are in the Big 12 alone, and that doesn’t count two offensive coordinators (Lincoln Riley and Sonny Cumbie) who could add to their stash of conference championship rings.
In other conferences, 35-year-old P.J. Fleck will be in contention for a MAC title. Bryan Harsin is looking to win his second Mountain West championship at Boise State.
A number of other under-40 coaches are in tough rebuilding jobs or seeking their first head coaching gig.
All ages are as of Sept. 1, 2016
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1. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan head coach
Fleck has already been a hot commodity for also-ran Big Ten programs. It seems Fleck, a former Greg Schiano assistant, is going to pick his spot for a jump to a major job. Of course, what he’s got going now at Western Michigan is pretty good. After starting 1-11, the Broncos are 16-10 overall and 12-4 in the MAC the last two seasons. Fleck already has the reputation of a master motivator of millennials, and he’s lapped the MAC in recruiting the last three cycles.
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach
Kingsbury is 19-19 overall and 10-17 in the Big 12 since his return to Texas Tech. Despite a 7-6 record in 2015, there were signs the Red Raiders are ready to make a move. Texas Tech beat Texas and Kansas State in back-to-back weeks in November after recording just one November win (over Iowa State) in Kingsbury's first two seasons. The Red Raiders are starting to improve their defense. Tech has proven it can beat the Big 12’s lower class. Time to start putting fear in the league’s contenders.
3. Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach
Campbell has been on the ascent almost as soon as he took over at Toledo for a bowl win in 2011. In four seasons, Campbell never took the Rockets to the MAC title game, but he finished with fewer than nine wins just once, going 7-5 in 2013. Toledo has ranked in the top four in the MAC in yards per play every year since 2010, when Campbell became offensive coordinator. Iowa State hopes Campbell will bring a dose of energy to one of the toughest Power 5 jobs in the country.
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4. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach
The Broncos’ 9-4 finish and 5-3 mark in the Mountain West in 2015 were not what Boise State fans are accustomed to seeing. The bar is set plenty high, but there’s plenty of evidence that Harsin can more often than not cross it. Boise State is just two years removed from a 12-2 season, a Mountain West title and a win over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. True, four losses and losing to New Mexico and Air Force is seldom-visited territory for a Boise State coach, but there was plenty of silver lining last season. Harsin beat his mentor, Washington coach Chris Petersen, in the opener, and the Broncos crushed Northern Illinois 55-7 in the Poinsettia Bowl.
5. D.J. Durkin, Maryland head coach
Few coaches have a better pedigree than Durkin. He a native of Youngstown, Ohio, (a coaching hotbed that counts the Stoops family among others) and has spent most of his career under Urban Meyer (at Florida) and Jim Harbaugh (at Stanford and Michigan). In his last three years as a defensive coordinator with the Gators and Wolverines, his units have finished no lower than 14th in total defense. Durkin surely has picked up a ton of organizational know-how from Meyer and Harbaugh that he’ll need to apply at Maryland.
6. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma offensive coordinator
Even before arriving at Oklahoma, Riley was on course for a breakout. Air Raid coordinators tend to be on the fast track to big-time coordinator and head coaching jobs — Riley backed up Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons at Texas Tech and served under Mike Leach for six years. Riley hit his stride in his fourth season as East Carolina’s offensive coordinator, improving the Pirates from 56th in total offense to 25th and finally fifth. In his first season at Oklahoma, the Sooners improved from 25th to seventh and reached the College Football Playoff.
7. Dave Aranda, LSU defensive coordinator
Aranda’s creative defenses have made him one of the nation’s top coordinators over the last four years. Three of his last four teams at Wisconsin and Utah State have ranked in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed per play. A move to LSU puts him at the helm of enviable defensive talent. The sky’s the limit if the Tigers make a run at the SEC and national titles.
8. Sonny Cumbie, TCU co-offensive coordinator
Along with Doug Meacham, Cumbie has been credited with a major shift in TCU’s offensive philosophy to a no-huddle spread. The move turned the Horned Frogs into one of the top three teams in the Big 12 the last two seasons. Meacham is the playcaller, but Cumbie — a former Texas Tech quarterback — was courted by Texas in their OC search.
9. Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach
Two of Todd Graham’s former offensive coordinators are head coaches now: Gus Malzahn (who went to Auburn as OC) and Chad Morris (who went to Clemson). Norvell didn’t have as much notoriety as the other two, but he’s been with Graham every step of the way from Tulsa to Pitt to Arizona State.
10. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina head coach
Montgomery has only coached two places — Duke on two separate stints and with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Having bosses like David Cutcliffe and Mike Tomlin isn’t a bad start. He’s a stickler for details and discipline, which is necessary to even the odds at a place like Duke.
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11. Barry Odom, Missouri head coach
A former Missouri player, Odom worked his way from administrative roles to defensive coordinator under Gary Pinkel. Even as he ran a standout defense at Memphis, he seemed like a natural fit to take over for his mentor. He probably didn’t think it would be this soon and under difficult on- and off-field circumstances.
12. Neal Brown, Troy head coach
Troy went only 4-8 in Brown’s first season, but the Trojans improved over the course of the season. Troy went 3-3 in the final six games and took Appalachian State to overtime on the road during that span. A former offensive coordinator at Troy, Texas Tech and Kentucky, Brown actually had more success on the defensive side of the ball.
13. Mike Sanford Jr., Notre Dame offensive coordinator
Sanford was already well traveled before he landed on the staff at Notre Dame. He coached at Western Kentucky under Willie Taggart for a year, at Stanford for three under David Shaw and at Boise State for a year under Harsin. At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has his hands all over the offense, but the Sanford deserves some of the credit for the quick development of Deshone Kizer and C.J. Prosise last season. Kelly’s offensive coordinators have had little trouble getting head coaching jobs, but they have not been particularly successful. Sanford may break the mold.
14. Walt Bell, Maryland offensive coordinator
In Bell’s two seasons as Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator, the Red Wolves led the Sun Belt in total offense in conference games. He got his start under Larry Fedora at Oklahoma State, Southern Miss and North Carolina.
15. Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator
The quarterback of 1998 national champion Tennessee has been moving up the coaching ranks from high schools to Kentucky to the offensive coordinator post. He’s been in demand as a recruiter, but this will be his first season as a playcaller.
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(P.J. Fleck photo courtesy of Getty Images)