It's really no surprise North Carolina decided to end Butch Davis' tenure. However, the timing of his firing was odd. With the 2011 season just a month away, the Tar Heels are scrambling and enter the year with a lot of uncertainty.
Although North Carolina's last season of double-digit wins came in 1997, this is still a top five job in the ACC. There's really no natural replacement that jumps to mind in Chapel Hill, but Athlon has 15 names to watch and some wildcards in the coaching search for 2012.
Troy Calhoun, head coach Air Force
Pros: Calhoun has a solid record in his four seasons at his alma mater, with a 34–18 record, including a 21–11 mark in the Mountain West. He has a winning record in league play all four seasons. And he isn’t just an option coach, having served as the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans in 2006.
Cons: Has spent 15 of his 18 years as a college coach at a service academy (nine years) or in the MAC (six years). Hasn’t had to recruit elite-level talent.
Mario Cristobal, head coach, Florida International
Pros: Cristobal had very little to work with when he took over at FIU. The Golden Panthers were coming off an 0-12 season and dealing with NCAA sanctions. Cristobal has slowly turned FIU into a Sun Belt contender. FIU is coming off its first bowl appearance and winning season in school history. Cristobal is regarded as a good recruiter and his connections in Florida could pay off at his next stop. Could remind some of Al Golden – resurrecting a bad program into a bowl team.
Cons: Limited coaching career outside the state of Florida. Cristobal coached from 2001-03 at Rutgers, but most of his experience has come from Miami or FIU. Although he raised the profile of FIU, Cristobal has a 16-33 overall record in four years. If FIU has another 5-7 or 6-6 year, he could be a tough sell to the fanbase.
Larry Fedora, head coach Southern Miss
Pros: Has a great track record for producing entertaining offenses both as a coordinator (Middle Tennessee, Oklahoma State) and head coach (Southern Miss). Known as a very strong recruiter.
Cons: There’s nothing overly impressive about his stint as the head at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are 22–17 overall and 14–10 in C-USA. You’d like to see a bit more success at a school that has such a strong history in that league.
Bud Foster, defensive coordinator, Virginia Tech
Pros: If North Carolina is looking for someone who might settle into a job for the next 10 years, Foster would certainly fit that profile. He has been at Virginia Tech since 1987 and was named defensive coordinator in 1995. Under Foster’s watch, the Hokies have frequently ranked among the top defenses in the nation. Regarded as one of the top assistant coaches in college football.
Cons: Although Foster has been a very successful coordinator, he has no head coaching experience. Foster’s age (52) could work against him. Although Foster has expressed interest in previous open jobs he might want to stick around at Virginia Tech to see what happens when Frank Beamer retires. Foster is well-known in the ACC, but would not be a flashy hire.
Skip Holtz, head coach, South Florida
Pros: A proven winner at a few different stops. Holtz posted winning overall records at Connecticut and East Carolina and led South Florida to an 8-5 season last year. Seems to run a clean program, and his outgoing personality would be a hit with the North Carolina fanbase. Holtz seems to be the perfect candidate for any BCS job.
Cons: Holtz is entering his second season at South Florida. Would he want to bolt for Chapel Hill if the Bulls contend for the Big East title? A path to a BCS game could be easier in the Big East. Also, Holtz’s teams do not play the most exciting brand of football.
Bobby Johnson, retired
Pros: Highly respected for his work at both Furman and Vanderbilt, two schools with high academic standards. Clean slate with the NCAA — something that should be important for North Carolina. Led Vanderbilt to a win in the 2008 Music City Bowl, the school’s first bowl game since 1982.
Cons: Despite that bowl win, his overall record at Vanderbilt was 29–66. He’d be a very tough sell to the UNC faithful.
June Jones, head coach, SMU
Pros: Jones has turned around two struggling programs in a short time. He took Hawaii from 0-12 to 9-4 in his first year. After winning one game in his first season at SMU, Jones led the Mustangs to back-to-back bowl appearances and a berth in the Conference USA title game last year. Would bring an exciting style of play to Chapel Hill. At 58 years old, could be looking for an opportunity to lead a BCS program.
Cons: Most of his career has been spent in the Midwest and on the West Coast. Although he has produced immediate results at two different schools, the ACC is a much tougher conference than the WAC or Conference USA. Even though SMU isn’t one of the top jobs in the nation, Jones may be reluctant to leave for a school that could lose scholarships as a result of NCAA penalties. Jones also makes around $2 million a season at SMU - very similar to what Butch Davis was making at North Carolina. Pulling Jones away from SMU will require a big financial commitment.
Mike Leach, television/radio analyst
Pros: Leach was very successful at Texas Tech, compiling an 84-43 record in 10 seasons. He posted a winning season and led the Red Raiders to a bowl game every year in Lubbock. Leach runs an exciting pass-happy offense and would not be afraid to light up the scoreboard on opponents. Does not have any previous coaching experience in the ACC, but expressed interest in the Maryland job last offseason.
Cons: Leach is an interesting personality, which can rub some people the wrong way. Is Leach untouchable by schools until his lawsuit against ESPN is resolved? Whether it’s fair or not, Leach’s firing at Texas Tech, and the fallout could work against him in any coaching search. Considering North Carolina is dealing with the effects from one scandal, they may want someone with less baggage. Although Leach was a consistent winner in Lubbock, he did not lead them to a BCS bowl and only tied for the conference title once.
Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator Auburn
Pros: Malzahn has been one of the most successful coordinators in college football over the past four seasons. Tulsa led the nation in total offense in both of his seasons at the school (2007 and ’08), and his two Auburn offenses have ranked 16th (’09) and seventh (’10). He is widely praised for his creativity and attention to detail.
Cons: Malzahn hasn’t been a head coach at the collegiate level. And while this might not be fair, North Carolina might want to stay away from a coach who has been at a school that has recently been investigated by the NCAA.
Dan Mullen, head coach Mississippi State
Pros: Mullen has done a masterful job in his two seasons at Mississippi State, with an overall mark of 14–11 and a 7–9 record in the SEC. He has a strong pedigree (he coached under Urban Meyer for eight years), and is passionate about promoting his program.
Cons: Some consider Mullen to be a bit arrogant. Can act as though he invented offensive football.
PaulPetrino, offensive coordinator, Illinois
Pros: Petrino proved last season that he can succeed without working for his brother, current Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. In his first season as the offensive coordinator at Illinois, the Illini improved from 81st to 26th in the nation in scoring offense. He is known for his work with wide receivers.
Cons: He has never been a head coach at any level. And even though his brother is highly regarded, Paul Petrino is not a big-name who would resonate with recruits.
Rich Rodriguez, television analyst
Pros: Michigan was a bad fit for Rodriguez, but that shouldn’t overshadow the rest of his accomplishments. He was 59-26 at West Virginia and led the Mountaineers to a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. Even though his tenure at Michigan didn’t go according to plan, Rodriguez improved his win total by two games in each of the last two years. Rodriguez is regarded as one of college football’s top offensive minds. After a year away from the spotlight, some of the bad feelings surrounding Rodriguez will dissipate. Has previous ACC coaching experience at Clemson (1999-2000).
Cons: Rodriguez ran into trouble with the NCAA during his time at Michigan and West Virginia. With North Carolina dealing with an NCAA investigation, Rodriguez may not be the best fit.
Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama
Pros: Smart has worked under Nick Saban, arguably the top coach in the game, for the past four two seasons. Alabama has ranked in the top 5 in total defense in each of the last three seasons. Smart has worked at three different SEC schools and at Florida State.
Cons: Has no experience as a head coach, and he is only 35 years old.
Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator, Florida State
Pros: Excellent coaching bloodlines. Stoops is regarded as one of college football’s top up-and-coming assistant coaches. Turned around a Florida State defense that ranked 94th in scoring in 2009 to 20th last year. Gained experience in the ACC at Florida State and is ready to make the jump from assistant to head coach.
Cons: Does not have any head coaching experience. Considering he is an Ohio native, Stoops could be more interested in the Ohio State job.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston
Pros: Considered a rising star in the coaching ranks. Has gathered a solid background of experience. Sumlin has served as an assistant at six schools – most notably under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma from 2003-2007. Houston has not ranked worse than 13th in scoring offense during Sumlin’s tenure. His time at Houston could open recruiting routes for North Carolina in Texas.
Cons: Losing quarterback Case Keenum certainly hurt, but Houston finished with a 5-7 record last year. Will be a hot coaching commodity in the offseason. North Carolina will have to move quick if Sumlin is their guy. No coaching experience in the ACC. All of coaching career has been spent in the Midwest or on the West Coast. Considering his background, is Sumlin waiting for a job in the Big Ten or Big 12?
Jon Gruden, ESPN analyst – Until Gruden takes a job, his name will be mentioned with every opening.
K.C. Keeler, head coach, Delaware – Could be a sleeper candidate for the job. Has led Delaware to three FCS title game appearances, with one win in 2003.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State – Very successful at the FCS level, with experience in North Carolina at Elon. Lembo could jump onto the radar with a successful year at Ball State.
Doug Marrone, head coach, Syracuse – Will be very difficult to pry away from his alma mater, but would be a home run hire for North Carolina. A longshot, but Marrone is one of the rising star in the coaching ranks.
Jim McElwain, offensive coordinator, Alabama – Not a big name, but hard to go wrong with a Nick Saban assistant.
Randy Shannon, former Miami coach - Would bring discipline to North Carolina, but tenure at Miami was not overly successful.
John Shoop, offensive coordinator, North Carolina – Offenses at North Carolina have been so-so and has no previous head coaching experience.
Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, Tennessee – Only 34 years old and has made a quick rise up the coaching ladder. Would inject some youth and energy into the program.
Kevin Wilson, head coach, Indiana - Entering his first year at Indiana, but played at North Carolina from 1980-1983.