Sun Belt Coaching Analysis - Hot Seat Status
WKU's Willie Taggart
WKU's Willie Taggart
Posted Mar 29, 2012

If you needed a coach to take over your program, which Sun Belt coach would fit?

2012 Sun Belt Coaches

The Hot Seat Factor

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Arkansas State | Florida Atlantic | Florida International | MTSU
North Texas | South Alabama | Troy | UL Lafayette | UL Monroe | WKU

Picture this. You're a beleaguered athletic director with an opening at the top of the football organizational chart. Your checkbook is open, and your fan base is glaring at you with unwavering anticipation. Which of the Sun Belt's current head coaches would you put in charge of the program for the next five or so years? Knowing that your own job hangs in the balance, to which man would you entrust your future?

This is NOT necessarily a ranking of how good the head coaches are. This is a ranking based on who would be best to take over a program and build it up, so age is a major factor. A coach might be legendary, but he might not have another five years of greatness left. So with that in mind, who are the top candidates to run your program?

10. Todd Berry, ULM
Known as a strong offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Berry hasn't been able to translate his strengths to his jobs as a head coach. He's only 51, he's innovative, and he's fearless when it comes to changing programs around to do what he wants. However, he's not all that successful. In his ten seasons as a head man he has just two winning seasons – going 11-3 with Illinois State in 1999 and 9-4 in 1998. He was a disaster at Army, and seven years later got another chance at ULM where he's been okay, but hasn't gotten the program over the hump going just 7-9 in his two seasons for a 38-74 career record.

Hot Seat Status: He needs to win this year. He can survive one more losing season, but it can't be a disaster and there has to be a little bit of hope. A losing season, though, would make 2013 a make-or-break season before possibly going back to being a strong offensive coordinator.

9. Larry Blakeney, Troy
Blakeney's 163 career wins puts him among the top coaches nationally, and he was named the Sun Belt's 10th anniversary Most Outstanding Coach, but he'll turn 65 this football season and is coming off an awful year. Is he slipping? Troy was one of the rocks of the Sun Belt since joining the league in 2004, but his defenses have gone bye-bye over the last few seasons and the 3-9 2011 was disastrous. Giving up a ton of yards and points wasn't a problem when the offense was rolling, but last year the attack fell flat in the shockingly bad year.

Hot Seat Status: Zero. Even after the horrible season he's still the Troy program. He could survive another three-win season and be more than fine, but age and a drop in production in an improving league could turn up the pressure making 2012 an important year for the future of the program.

8. Dan McCarney, North Texas
Brought in to steady a North Texas program that fell off the map after being the Sun Belt's top program for several years, his first season was a major positive going 5-7 and turning things back around. The needle is pointing up, even though there's still a lot of work to do with the pass rush while also finding more of a scoring punch. More than anything else, though, he has to be healthy after suffering a stroke. He's still recovering, but he has a good team returning and has more of a positive attitude than ever. If nothing else, North Texas is past the Todd Dodge era and is improving.

Hot Seat Status: None, but the health problems are a concern if the goal is to find a coach who can build things up over the next five years. Considering what he was able to do with Iowa State, and with the success he had as an assistant at Florida, he was a great get for North Texas. Now he just has to make sure everything is fine.

7. Carl Pelini, Florida Atlantic
The Florida Atlantic program was built and created from scratch by Howard Schnellenberger, and now it's about to get another dose of fire and brimstone from Pelini, a defensive whiz who helped turn Nebraska back around. He has no head coaching experience at the collegiate level, but he's a proven top assistant who's extremely smart and potentially mobile. If all goes well, he revives the FAU program and makes it a player again in the Sun Belt by ramping up the recruiting and getting more out of an awful offense. Turning 47 this summer, he's young, driven, and should be just what the program needs. The only question is experience; can he run his own show?

Hot Seat Status: None. There's a major rebuilding job to be done and he'll get at least three years to try to turn things around. He has a shiny new stadium to work with on the recruiting trail, but he needs a while to crank up the talent level.

6. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
The former Florida State quarterback is a victim of his own success. He took Middle Tennessee to a bowl game and a share of the Sun Belt title in his first season and went 10-3 in a terrific 2009. The expectations were for the Blue Raiders to dominate year in and year out, but consistency has been a problem. A nasty schedule and huge personnel losses led to a 2-10 2011, and while the team should be able to bounce back quickly, his status could be up in the air if the team doesn't pick back up. While his overall coaching record might by 35-40 with just two winning seasons in six, he's been a positive for the program.

Hot Seat Status: One more year. Stockstill can survive another bad year, but four wins or fewer will put him directly on the hot seat in 2013. A 5-7 bounceback should keep him around for awhile; he's a good coach who had one bad season.

5. Joey Jones, South Alabama
The needle is pointed up for relatively young head man who has done nice things with the program since taking over in 2008. The Jaguars have gone 23-4 under his tenure including a 10-0 2010 season. The former Alabama receiver is a rising prospect who'll have to take a few lumps with the program moving up into full-time FCS/Sun Belt status, but he's not going to turn 50 until October and has proven to be solid at putting together good defenses, especially against the run. If he has any success over the next few years he'll grow into a hot name for a next-step-up job. He won't be off to a top BCS job any time soon, but if he can get more out of his offenses and the Jaguars can be more than just competitive, he could be gone for a decent Conference USA gig.

Hot Seat Status: Zero. This is the year the program has been pointing to and Jones is the one who's helping bring South Alabama to the big-time. Considering he's a year removed from a 10-0 season, he's as safe as houses.

4. Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana
How is he still in Lafayette? One more year like 2011 and he'll be one of the hottest names for a stepping-stone gig. Only 43, he's young, talented, and did wonders in his first season taking the program over the hump to a 9-4 season and a thrilling New Orleans Bowl win over San Diego State. A phenomenal high school coach going 25-1, he worked his way up the assistant ranks before taking over at North Alabama where he went 66-21 with four playoff appearances. His offense was terrific and the defense was just good enough in one of the program's best seasons ever.

Hot Seat Status: None. It was only one year, and he set the bar high, but after bring the program just its second winning season 1995 and second nine-win campaign, he's set for a while.

3. Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State
It was a strange career move. Malzahn was on everyone's list for open midrange BCS-league jobs, but instead he chose to take over at Arkansas State for Hugh Freeze, who was one-and-done after a great season. Not only did Malzahn take a job that might not quite be the step up many thought he'd take, but he has to fill the shoes of a guy who took the program to a dominant 10-3 season and a Sun Belt title. A quarterback guru who helped take a good prospect in Cam Newton and make him special, the pressure is on to be magical from the start.

Hot Seat Status: Hot seat isn't quite the right way to put it. Instead, he'll have more pressure than a coach of his stature should have at a program like Arkansas State. Freeze came up with an outstanding season, and Malzahn is supposed to keep the success going. Anything less than another Sun Belt title will be a major disappointment.

2. Willie Taggart, WKU
Western Kentucky went 2-22 in 2008 and 2009. Taggart stepped in as an untested assistant out of Stanford and struggled a bit in his first year going 2-10, but the team became more competitive. Last year, after an 0-4 start with good performances in losses to Kentucky and Arkansas State – along with a stunning clunker against Indiana State – the Hilltoppers ripped off seven wins in eight games – with the lone loss at LSU – with Taggart doing a wonderful job. At 35 he's the youngest head coach in major college football, and he's destined for a much bigger program in the near future.

Hot Seat Status: If he's not gone next year, he'll be off to a bigger job in 2014. He's a high-riser with youth, energy, and a whole bunch of promise and potential. Think of it this way; WKU won five games over a 43 game span, and then won seven of eight to close out last year. Taggart is building something great.

1. Mario Cristobal, FIU
Cristobal took over a floundering program that was trying to find its footing and trying to establish a footprint in a state loaded with top college football teams. Even Florida Atlantic was hotter when Cristobal took over FIU in 2007, and he struggled early on going 9-27 in his first three seasons. However, there were inklings that he was building a good foundation, and everything worked in a Sun Belt-winning 2010 season, finishing up with a bowl win, and a nice follow-up last year going 8-5. Only 41 years old, he's a young, energetic coach with a tremendous future.

Hot Seat Status: He's still here? He would've been a perfect fit for the Miami job that went to Al Golden, but soon some mid-level BCS program is going to snap him up and hope he can tap into the Florida pipeline of talent.