Buck: The Candidates

Inside Carolina
Posted Oct 23, 2006


With the news that the John Bunting era at North Carolina will come to an end this season, the focus now turns to the coaching search. Inside Carolina's Buck Sanders takes a closer look at the early list of top candidates ...

BUTCH DAVIS

Davis is the biggest name coach currently unattached to a program. He is a protégé of Jimmy Johnson, coaching for Johnson at Oklahoma State, Miami, and moved with Johnson to the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys. In 1995 he took over a Miami Hurricane team rocked by NCAA probation and in chaos. He restored order, imposed discipline that had been lacking at Miami for years, and went on to post a 51-20 record there. He managed to restore Miami’s fortunes despite losing 31 scholarships early on in his tenure there due to NCAA probation. His last team finished second in the nation, with an 11-1 record, and the next season Miami won the national championship with his recruits.

Pros – A big name coach, and a “splash” hire, Davis is a proven program builder. He has strong character traits and imposes discipline on his teams, on and off the field. Davis recruited extremely well at Miami and is a proven winner at the Division 1-A level as a head coach. Davis could get to work early since he is currently unemployed.

Cons – Has been out of college coaching since 2000, when he was hired as the head coach of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. His age, 56, isn’t an ideal age for hiring a head coach. While he recruited well at Miami, he was in the heart of the richest talent base east of the Mississippi. He might be a leading candidate to return to the Miami job if Coker is fired this year.

Prognosis – Davis will be linked to nearly all the head coaching vacancies that occur this year and the competition for his services will be high. There are some indications that Davis may not even be a top candidate of those who will have influence over the decision. While he is a big name that would create a media buzz for the football, the indications are that UNC may look for what they believe will be a longer term solution.

RICH RODRIGUEZ

The highest profile active coach linked to the UNC job. Currently the head coach of the fifth-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers. Formerly an assistant at several Division 1-A programs, including Clemson as offensive coordinator, he was hired by his alma mater as head coach in 2001, posting a 39-20 record there in five years. Last year, his Mountaineers capped an 11-1 season by defeating SEC power Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. His current team is undefeated.

Pros – West Virginia is not able to recruit at the highest level of college football, but despite this disadvantage, Rodriguez has his team playing at the highest level of college football. He has the ability to get the most out of the players he has. He is a proven winner at the BCS level of Division 1-A football as a head coach. He runs an innovative offense that has proven to be successful even against teams like Georgia, who have elite speed and elite talent on defense.

Cons – It is always risky to pursue a high profile coach who feels underpaid at his current school. Rodriguez is only the fifth-best paid coach in the Big East at $850,000 per year, and might use UNC interest to encourage his current employers to loosen their wallets. He isn’t particularly well known as a recruiter.

Prognosis – There seems to be some early split of opinion in Chapel Hill about Rodriguez and the sincerity of his interest, if any, in the UNC job. This would require close scrutiny to avoid another situation such as occurred in 2000, when Frank Beamer was able to negotiate for a new salary, increased salaries for his assistants, and for improvements at Virginia Tech after coming close to taking the UNC job.

STEVE KRAGTHORPE

Kragthorpe is one of the “hot” up and coming current head coaches and indications are there is some level of interest from UNC backers. Kragthorpe has experience at the Division 1-A level as a offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, among other stops, and was the quarterback coach for the Buffalo Bills for a two-year stint before taking on the head coaching position at Tulsa. He led Tulsa to an 8-5 record in his first year there, inheriting a team that went 1-11 the year before. Though he has only been a Division 1-A coach for four years, he turned a perennial also-ran into to a conference champion in a short period of time. The Hurricanes won the Conference USA title last season, posting a 9-4 record and defeating Fresno State in the Liberty Bowl.

Pros – Kragthorpe is a young, dynamic, and energetic coach who has shown the ability to turn around a down program in short order. At 41, he could be a long-term solution to the coaching situation at UNC. Despite his youth, he has high-level experience as an offensive coordinator at the BCS level of Division 1-A football and in the NFL. His teams at Tulsa have been solid and well-balanced offensively, defensively, and on special teams.

Cons – Kragthorpe has no real ties to North Carolina or to this region. He hasn’t recruited in this area and will be unfamiliar with high school coaches and prospects. He has been impressive at Tulsa, a private school in Conference USA, but coaching in the ACC will be a different level of competition. Not much is yet known about his interest in the UNC job.

Prognosis – Kragthorpe is a person of interest in this coaching search, and his many positives seem to be swaying a lot of minds in Chapel Hill despite his lack of ties to this area. As a candidate who is not carrying a lot of baggage, if he can persuade UNC that his lack of familiarity with the area can be overcome by hiring the right assistants, he’ll become a candidate that will be hard to beat. His youth makes him a potential long-term solution, which is a factor that many UNC backers find attractive.

TOM O’BRIEN

O’Brien is the coach linked to the coaching search most familiar to UNC fans, due to Boston College’s entry into the ACC last year and Tar Heel games against BC in 2004 and 2005. O’Brien has an impressive resume that includes stops as the offensive coordinator for ACC rival Virginia, and led some very successful offenses there before being tapped as the head coach at Boston College in 1997. After a couple of rebuilding years – Boston College went 4-7 in O’Brien’s first two seasons – O’Brien hasn’t won fewer than seven games in the last seven seasons, now posting a record of 66-42. A known disciplinarian (a former Marine officer), O’Brien’s teams have a reputation for solid play in all areas. In its first full year in the ACC last season, Boston College posted a 9-3 record and defeated Boise State in the Micron Computers Bowl.

Pros – O’Brien is a proven winner at the BCS level of Division 1-A, producing consistently good teams year-in, year-out. He would be the most familiar with the recruits North Carolina competes for in the ACC, and has won a few recruiting battles against UNC in recent years. From an academic and off-the-field behavior standpoint, O’Brien will find very few critics.

Cons – O’Brien will turn 59 years old during the 2007 season. Despite being more than qualified in every other respect, he would not be seen as a long-term solution, which is believed to be one of prerequisites of the next coaching hire. Hiring O’Brien would also entail hiring from within the ACC, something UNC has never done and likely to be viewed with some reservation in Chapel Hill.

Prognosis – A nice name to be on any list, O’Brien might have some strong supporters during the search, but his age could be the deciding factor.

PAUL JOHNSON

The current head coach at Navy is certain to be considered for many head coaching vacancies this year, and UNC’s is no exception. Johnson moved to Navy after an incredible run as a national title winner/contender at the Division 1-AA level at Georgia Southern, where he won an amazing 86 percent of his games. He also has Division 1-A experience as an offensive coordinator at venues such Hawaii, where he led offenses that set numerous records. Johnson has proven to be a miracle worker at Navy, a team in a 25-year long period of decline. He’s had only one losing season there since taking over in 2002, and has won no fewer than eight games a year since. He has taken Navy to three consecutive bowl games, winning the last two, last year prevailing over Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Pros – Johnson has had success at every level of coaching he’s undertaken, whether as an assistant, coaching a Div 1-AA team, or resurrecting a program at Navy. He is a North Carolina native, and though Navy and UNC don’t recruit in the same circles, would be familiar with the recruiting landscape in this region.

Cons – Johnson has never coached or recruited at the BCS level of Division 1-A. The offense he runs at Navy has proven formidable against average competition, but hasn’t proven to be successful against traditional powers. Though in theory it is not much different than the offense that Rodriguez runs at WVU, it hasn’t proven to be as successful as WVU’s against the type of defenses he’d see in the ACC. However, this “con” could turn out to be a “pro” very easily.

Prognosis – Johnson will find a lot of support in Chapel Hill, precisely because, despite whatever negatives he might have, he’s proven to be a winner – a big winner – in every arena where he’s competed. He’s the first coach at Navy to win 10 games since 1905. It is remarkable bits of trivia such as that which will make him hard to overlook.

JIMBO FISHER

The only name on any speculative wish list without head coaching experience, Fisher’s name will come up in a lot of head coaching searches this year. Fisher has experience as an offensive coordinator at both Auburn and at LSU, and has an impressive resume as a coach who produces solid offenses. In his second year at LSU, his offense led the way to an SEC title, producing 451 yards of offense per game. He is also known as perhaps the best recruiter in the SEC and is thoroughly familiar with the type of recruits UNC wants to attract. He has worked under Terry Bowden at Auburn and under Nick Saban and Les Miles at LSU. His intimate knowledge of what it takes to win in big-time college football, including a national title, as well as his contacts and friendships with high-profile assistant coaches makes him an attractive candidate for a vacant head coaching job.

Pros – Fisher’s recruiting expertise and experience at a program that has experienced a high level of success may get his foot in the door. His youth makes him an attractive candidate as a potential long-term solution to the UNC football coaching situation.

Cons – UNC has a history of going after established Division 1-A head coaches, and since falling short of that goal during the last two searches, their determination to hire a head coach may reach new heights during this cycle. His lack of head coaching experience may leave him standing at the starting gate.

Prognosis – A long shot at best, Fisher’s name gets included here because UNC coaching searches have been incredibly forlorn in recent years in terms of landing their main targets. If some of the head coaches in line ahead of Fisher fall by the wayside, Fisher might be the guy they turn to in a pinch. The irony is that Fisher may have as much potential to be successful at UNC as any other name on the list.

Other names to watch:
Greg Schiano, head coach, Rutgers
Gary Patterson, head coach, TCU
David Cutcliffe, offensive coordinator, Tennessee
Gene Chizik, defensive coordinator, Texas
Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator, Florida
Bo Pelini, defensive coordinator, LSU
Will Muschamp, defensive coordinator, Auburn

Note: For the latest buzz on the recruiting search posted each day, be sure to visit Inside Carolina's Premium Message Board.


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