Matt Campbell and Kyle Whittingham gaining steam
Finally, we’re mere days from the end of college football’s regular season, which means a coaching carousel that is expected to be one of the wildest in recent memory is about to start spinning. Over the weekend, Florida jumped on the ride, joining USC and Louisiana State as schools looking for fresh leadership and considered top-10 jobs. Washington, Virginia Tech and Texas Christian are open, too, and there’s reason to believe Miami is next. The dominoes will surely fall quickly, and we’ll see if USC athletic director Mike Bohn’s early move on Clay Helton set the Trojans up to get ahead of the impending chaos and be ready for winning time.
It’s been more than 10 weeks since USC fired Helton and embarked on its first coaching search since 2013. The Los Angeles Times will perform a temperature check right here as developments occur. This fourth “Heat Check” is informed more by our own reporting and intuition about the search’s direction than previous installments, and, just as in Heritage Hall, our list has narrowed at the top with the dynamics around each coach becoming more crystallized.
MOVING UP: Dave Aranda, Baylor head coach: In late October, the Heat Check registered what was then a bold reading when I placed Aranda as the most likely next leader of the Trojans. “This may not be a projected winner that excites the average USC fan, and if you’re disappointed Aranda is here instead of James Franklin, Luke Fickell or Matt Campbell, treat this as just that — a projection,” I wrote.
That projection has only gained in strength the last three weeks, as Aranda’s Baylor team knocked off Texas and Oklahoma in Waco and Kansas State on the road to put itself in Big 12 title contention heading into Thanksgiving (if the Bears beat Texas Tech and Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma, they’ll play in the conference championship game Dec. 4 against the Cowboys). With Aranda and USC, warm has now boiled into hot, but the Trojans would almost certainly not be able to finalize his hiring until Baylor is out of the Big 12 championship race.
It should take more than one good season to become USC’s head coach, but Aranda’s impressive track record as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and LSU deserves weight too. Aranda’s unit at LSU was a vital part of the 2019 national championship run, and, with Ed Orgeron now on his way out, it’s hard not to shift even more credit Aranda’s way. That makes Aranda an appealing candidate in Baton Rouge, too, but there’s reason to believe LSU won’t hire a former member of Orgeron’s staff.
My gut tells me that USC could get him to Los Angeles. Bohn pursued Aranda to be the Trojans’ defensive coordinator after 2019 and nearly had him signed before Baylor swooped in. Think Bohn hasn’t been paying attention to what Baylor is doing this year? Unlike other top names in the search, Aranda has strong local ties and could be looking to come home. The son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up in Redlands and played football at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, where he also got his start as a college coach.
If you want to know more about him, I recently wrote a story about Aranda’s Southern California roots and how they shaped him into the disciplined, obsessive, detail-oriented coach that he is today.
MOVING UP: Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: Throughout the last 10 weeks, I’ve been waiting for Campbell’s name to build some real buzz with USC. I kept him simmering on medium heat because I believe he could turn around the Trojans and wasn’t willing to move him down the list simply because it’s quiet. Well, last weekend, Campbell’s name actually started buzzing in dark corners of the web where such matters are discussed. Maybe it was the Cyclones’ latest defeat against Oklahoma — they are now 6-5 after starting the season ranked No. 7 — creating the sense that he has maxed out the program in Ames (although good luck convincing a competitor like him of that). Or maybe it’s just late November and the search needed a little spice?
After doing some reconnaissance, I am confident in saying that USC has interest in Campbell. What I do not know — which has been the case all along — is how he feels about USC and moving his young family to Los Angeles. (This may sound familiar, if you have been following our coverage of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell’s candidacy. Who would have thought it would take such convincing for USC to get good coaches out of places like Iowa State and Cincinnati? Times, they’re a changing).
Like Fickell, Campbell is an Ohio guy, raised in Massillon which is one of the beating hearts of Ohio’s football obsession. His first head coaching job was at Toledo, and he quickly moved on to coaching the Cyclones.
Campbell’s revival of Iowa State is the closest thing I’ve seen to the miracle Bill Snyder worked at Kansas State. Snyder was much older than Campbell and decided to stay in Manhattan, and now he has a stadium named after him. Campbell could do the same in Ames. Only he knows how much of an itch he has to coach at a school where the expectation is competing for a national championship (I wouldn’t read too much into his comment last week that his goal was never to win a Big 12 title — sounds like some misunderstood coach-speak gobbledygook more than anything to alarm USC fans).
This current frustrating season should not take the shine off Campbell at all. In fact, a mediocre 2021 campaign could be just what Bohn needs to persuade Campbell it’s time to move on.
Campbell can flat-out coach, and USC should want him based on his track record alone. But can it get him? That mystery keeps him from rising to Aranda-level heat — for now. Plus, according to FootballScoop, Campbell is gaining steam in LSU’s search at the momenttoo.
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach: I went to Cincinnati in late September to learn more about Fickell and assess whether he would be able to uproot his wife and six kids from their happy Ohio rhythms to step into the adventure of a lifetime in Los Angeles. I left feeling like it was unlikely — read the profile to understand why — but still possible because Fickell’s wife, mother and coaching mentors did not slam the door on USC.
After Cincinnati beat Notre Dame in South Bend, I wrote a column pointing out why I think the Bearcats’ emphatic win made it even more unlikely. That said, due to the connection between Fickell and Bohn, who hired him at Cincinnati, he’s going to be perceived as a candidate up until the moment Bohn says it’s someone else.
USC fans who still have their heart set on Fickell should be rooting for Cincinnati to miss the College Football Playoff, sending Fickell the message he needs to move to a major program to win the big prize. That still wouldn’t guarantee he would say yes to USC, though.
The Bearcats are likely to be ranked No. 4 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, putting them in position to be the first Group of Five conference team in the playoff if they win their next two games to stay unbeaten.
Given his family dynamics, Fickell is likely to decide — if he hasn’t already — he’s better off continuing to build Cincinnati during its move to the Big 12 and waiting for Ohio State or Notre Dame to open in the coming years.
NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: I’ll admit it. I made a mistake not including Whittingham in the Heat Check to this point. In fact, I included the Pac-12’s best coach high up in my initial list of 13 candidates on the day Helton was fired. My logic then: Who better to clean up Helton’s mess at USC than a coach within the Pac-12 South division who has prided himself on player development, discipline, tough defense and a strong running game?
But I let someone talk me out of his candidacy in the weeks that followed, and I let recency bias creep in after the Utes lost to Brigham Young and San Diego State. Now we look up and Utah is 8-3, the South champs for the third straight nonpandemic-shortened season, and coming off a blistering blowout of Oregon Saturday.
Whittingham is more proven as a program builder than the men above him on this list, but, at age 62, that also makes him much older than Aranda, Campbell and Fickell, who are each younger than 50.
There are other reasons I’m not convinced Whittingham is a perfect fit — namely, his offensive scheme that does not accentuate the kind of skill talent that must thrive at USC — but if Bohn can’t get one of the above trio, he would be smart to give Whittingham a call.
MOVING DOWN: James Franklin, Penn State head coach: I moved Franklin down from warm to medium last time after the Nittany Lions’ unsightly loss to Illinois, but the decision was more about whether USC would consider him strongly given some red flags from his past. Franklin may not be worth the risk for USC, and I still feel that way today.
Any vetting of Franklin by Bohn and the USC administration would include a thorough review of Franklin’s handling of a gang rape by four Vanderbilt football players while Franklin was coach in 2013. There are still many questions, most of which are probably unanswerable. Plus, Franklin would be the most expensive of the candidates, and that was the case before it came out last month he added big-gun Jimmy Sexton as his agent.
There is a lot of chatter that Penn State and Franklin are about to announce a contract extension. If so, given the Nittany Lions’ 7-4 record, Sexton earned his rate.
Bill O’Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator: Nobody talks to the Alabama offensive coordinator due to Nick Saban’s rules, so the buzz on USC and O’Brien, the former Penn State and Houston Texans head coach, is likely to stay quiet by default. The Crimson Tide’s offense hasn’t lost much under his stewardship thus far, even with the losses of quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. He’s worth keeping an eye on, but O’Brien doesn’t seem to be a fit.
Jonathan Smith, Oregon State head coach: Hardly anybody noticed during the pandemic-plagued 2020 season when Oregon State beat rival Oregon. Many more people are picking up on how good of a coach Smith is this year with the Beavers 7-4 and 5-3 in the Pac-12 and challenging the Ducks in the North division. Washington’s best offenses under Chris Petersen had Smith holding the controls as offensive coordinator. He was born in Pasadena and is a Glendora High School grad.
Kalani Sitake, BYU head coach: The Cougars lost to Baylor and Boise State this month but have an impressive 4-0 record this year against the Pac-12. They will have the chance to go 5-0 by beating USC in Saturday’s season finale, which would be quite a statement by Sitake.
MOVING DOWN: Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach: Clawson has the Demon Deacons 9-2 in his eighth season in Winston-Salem. He’s shown he can build a program from the ground up, and he’s done it at a private school with higher admissions standards than most of his competitors in the ACC. Clawson isn’t exactly going to fire up the faithful, though.
MOVING DOWN: Raheem Morris, Rams defensive coordinator: Morris got his start coaching college but has been in the NFL for most of the last two decades. There’s been some talk about Morris, who was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2009-11, but I find it highly unlikely Bohn ends up hiring from the professional ranks for what may be his one shot to get this right.
MOVING DOWN: Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach: The Wildcats are 8-3, and nine wins may be Stoops’ ceiling at Kentucky. But he does make $5 million per year to coach a school with zero expectations of winning the conference. That’s cushy.
MOVING DOWN: PJ Fleck, Minnesota head coach: Fleck recently signed a big contract extension to remain with the Golden Gophers.
Jeff Hafley, Boston College head coach: I had a sense Hafley could have moved up the list with a good season, but Boston College lost its starting quarterback and hasn’t been the same.
Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator: Other than being from Southern California, there’s no logical reason to think he leaves the comforts of his life calling plays for Patrick Mahomes.
NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator and former Atlanta Falcons head coach: Quinn is a name I’ve seen bandied about, the latest mention coming Monday from Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group. I just don’t see Bohn going with an NFL coach at this critical juncture for the program.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.