As Steve Sarkisian packed up his boxes in Seattle to take the USC job, the former Washington coach closed the door on another part of his life — his 30s.
Sarkisian attained one of the best positions in college football before his 40th birthday, but just barely. Sarkisian turned 40 three months after taking the USC job, taking him off our annual list of college football coaches under the age of 40.
Even without Sarkisian, this year’s list still features some notable names. Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, despite a rocky finish to last season, claims our top spot for the final time before he joins Sark in the 40-and-up club.
Who will be poised to be the top coach under 40 next season? Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech would be a good candidate after his stock rose after one season as a head coach. A number of assistant coaches are also worth watching this season and as their careers progress in the coming years.
*ages are as of Sept. 1, 2014.
1. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern head coach
Buzz: The 2013 season ended in a tailspin as the Wildcats lost seven in a row starting with a fourth-quarter collapse against Ohio State. That’s not going to take Fitzgerald off this list in his final year of eligibility before hitting the big 4-0. The 5-7 mark in 2013 was an aberration. Just a year earlier, Fitzgerald led Northwestern to a 10-3 season, a top-20 finish and the Wildcats’ first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. With its recruiting limitations, Northwestern rarely will contend for the Big Ten title, but Fitz has the formula for reaching bowl games at Northwestern down to a science.
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach
Buzz: Kingsbury’s first team may never have been as good as its 7-0 start suggested. Texas Tech lost five in a row to close the regular season before a 37-23 win over Pac-12 South champion Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Considering the revolving door at quarterback, Kingsbury had a solid debut as a head coach. As one of the youngest coaches in the FBS, Kingsbury brings the cool factor to Lubbock, but also one of the nation’s most productive offenses. Texas Tech led the nation in plays per game last season (87.3).
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3. Willie Taggart, USF head coach
Buzz: Taggart’s record in his first season at USF was ugly at 2-10. Until further notice, Taggart should get the benefit of the doubt. He inherited a team short on talent, especially on offense. Still, USF found a way to beat Cincinnati in October and allowed 4.7 yards per play in the last four games. There's reason to believe he'll get USF turned around. Taggart also started 2-10 at Western Kentucky before building the Hilltoppers into a viable FBS program.
4. Matt Campbell, Toledo head coach
Buzz: In two seasons under Campbell, Toledo continues to be one of the MAC’s top programs and a regular fixture in those mid-week shootouts in November. Even though Toledo missed a bowl game last season, the Rockets finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the MAC. Toledo also has averaged better than six yards per play in four of five seasons with Campbell has offensive coordinator or head coach.
5. Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator
Buzz: With how much Smart’s name has been in the rumor mill, it may be tough to believe he’s still in the under-40 crowd. That’s what happens when you go from the playing field to a full-time gig for Nick Saban in six years. Smart has spent all but one season of the last decade working for Saban — the exception being one year as running backs coach at his alma mater Georgia. Saban gets his share of the credit for the defense, but he’s also made Smart the second-highest paid assistant in the country. That has to count for something.
6. Justin Fuente, Memphis head coach
Buzz: The record is not impressive at 7-17 in two seasons at Memphis, but it's a long way from where the Tigers were. Indeed, the Tigers have had a long climb from the 5-31 mark the three seasons before Fuente arrived. The Tigers are becoming more competitive, especially on defense. Memphis has lost six one-score games the last two seasons, including a 24-17 loss to Fiesta Bowl winner UCF.
7. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach
Buzz: Harsin became the third one-and-done head coach at Arkansas State, joining Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn with a short-lived tenure in Jonesboro. Programs are gobbling up Arkansas State coaches with good reason. Arkansas State earned a share of the Sun Belt title under Harsin to reach a third consecutive bowl game. Harsin returns to Boise State where the Broncos went 84-8 when he was an assistant under Chris Petersen.
8. Justin Wilcox, USC defensive coordinator
Buzz: Wilcox helped remake the Washington defense under Steve Sarkisian the last two seasons. The Huskies improved from 10th in the Pac-12 in yards per play the year before Wilcox arrived to tied for third last season. For the first time since he was at Boise State, Wilcox won’t be starting from scratch at a new job. USC returns eight defensive starters — surely a different situation than what Wilcox inherited at his last two stops at Washington and Tennessee.
9. Tom Herman, Ohio State offensive coordinator
Buzz: Even though Urban Meyer remains a spread option guru, his offensive coordinator merits attention. Herman has coached an offense that has gone 24-2 the last two seasons, despite an injury to Braxton Miller and a work-in-progress offensive line. Before that, Herman was offensive coordinator for the Iowa State team that upset Oklahoma State’s BCS championship game bid in 2011 and a Rice team that won 10 games. As a bonus, he’s a former Mensa member.
10. Scott Frost, Oregon offensive coordinator
Buzz: Frost is only a year into his job as offensive coordinator, but this post at Oregon has a pretty good track record for head coaches, including Jeff Tedford, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. Scott doesn’t have as long a coaching resume as some of the names on this list, partly because he was in the NFL until 2003. He’s made up for it as an assistant coach in four BCS games.
11. Mike Norvell, Arizona State offensive coordinator
Buzz: Todd Graham is usually associated with the offensive side of the ball even though he has a defensive background. That’s because Graham has hired Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris to run his offense. Norvell has been at the position ever since Graham went to Pittsburgh.
12. Dave Aranda, Wisconsin defensive coordinator
Buzz: Aranda is finally getting the attention he deserves now that he’s in the Big Ten. Aranda installed a 3-4 defense at Wisconsin last season as the Badgers finished second in the league in rush defense and third in total defense. Before Wisconsin, Aranda led big play-happy defenses at Utah State and Hawaii.
13. Rhett Lashlee, Auburn offensive coordinator
Buzz: Gus Malzahn received plenty of credit for Auburn’s offenses in 2013 and 2010, but it would be tough to find anyone more steeped in Malzahn’s hurry-up no-huddle than Lashlee. The 30-year-old played for Malzahn at Springdale (Ark.) and worked with him at Arkansas, Arkansas State and now Auburn.
14. D.J. Durkin, Florida defensive coordinator
Buzz: Florida’s struggles might not cut into Durkin’s career goals. He’s a standout defensive coordinator and one of the Gators’ top recruiters. His resume also goes back to Bowling Green with Urban Meyer.
15. Lincoln Riley, East Carolina offensive coordinator
Buzz: Perhaps the lowest-profile name on this list, Riley may be a target for an offensive coordinator for a major program in short order. His four seasons have produced the top four passing seasons in school history. He started his career as Texas Tech’s wide receivers coach under Mike Leach, a job that has proven to put assistants on the fast track.