2012 C-USA East Coaches
The Hot Seat Factor
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West Coaching Analysis & Hot Seat Status
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
Conference USA'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?
6. Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss
Now 60 years old, Johnson gets his third—and probably final—chance to be a head coach. The first two stints at the helm of I-AA programs didn't go all that well, resulting in four non-winning seasons. He regrouped professionally to become one of the game's better defensive coaches while at Mississippi State and South Carolina. He'd be best suited at a southern program, where he knows the terrain intimately, that needs a spark on D. However, improving his marketability outside of Hattiesburg will require proof that he can be more than just an ace coordinator. Since Southern Miss is fresh off a conference championship season, Johnson won't get any attaboys for simply the Golden Eagles in the hunt for mid-tier bowl games.
Hot Seat Status: Popular head coach Jeff Bower was relieved of his duties five years ago for perennially winning seven games, so the bar will be set relatively high for Johnson. He'll get a one-year grace period , especially with the graduation of QB Austin Davis, but will need to be back in title contention by 2013.
5. Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina
After just two seasons in Greenville, McNeill is on the verge of fumbling his first opportunity to be a head coach. The longtime Texas Tech assistant inherited a Pirates program that had won nine games and a Conference USA title in back-to-back years under Skip Holtz, yet quickly navigated it back below the .500 mark. East Carolina has gone 11-14 under the new staff, with McNeill's trademark defense absorbing a lot of the blame for the middling results. Scoring points and navigating the airways has been far less of an issue at ECU, which is why the precocious offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, is more appealing to athletic directors than the head coach.
Hot Seat Status: With the taste of league titles still on their lips, East Carolina won't tolerate losing seasons much longer. Maybe it's not do-or-die quite yet, but McNeill is facing the challenge of breaking through in a year when he has to replace playmaking QB Dominique Davis.
4. George O'Leary, UCF
In UCF, O'Leary found his final stop on the coaching journey. The Knights—and Orlando—have proven to be a perfect fit for a man who was looking for restitution almost a decade ago following the resume-padding debacle at Notre Dame. The coach and the school have been perfect for one another, blossoming into a Conference USA power and a future member of the Big East Conference. O'Leary's impact has extended well beyond the standings, reaching the classroom and the bottom line, as both the facilities and the attendance have improved dramatically. The coach is a bona fide difference-maker on campus, but he'll also be 66 years old when the 2012 season begins. Five years from now, he'll probably have traded his assistant coaches for caddies.
Hot Seat Status: Although the Knights are coming off a disappointing season, O'Leary isn't going anywhere. He's a fixture at UCF, and the guy the program wants guiding it into a new league. He'll likely retire from the job before ever being shown the door.
3. Justin Fuente, Memphis
Fuente has a bright future ahead him. He'll learn pretty quickly, though, if a stint at staggering Memphis will serve as a roadblock to his considerable potential. Larry Porter, too, was brimming with upside when he paired up with the Tigers, but lasted only two years on the sidelines. Just 35 years old, Fuente possesses the boundless energy needed to excel at a job that requires an almost non-stop, 12-month-a-year commitment. A one-time quarterback, who was instrumental in the development of current Cincinnati Bengal Andy Dalton, he'll bring fresh ideas, an inventive approach and a winning attitude from his five-year stop at TCU. If he can survive the early rounds of this title fight, he's liable to catch the eye of a much bigger program before reaching his 40th birthday.
Hot Seat Status: By wasting no time in turning the page on Porter, Memphis showed that it was serious about getting its football house in order. The pending move to the Big East upped the ante even higher for a school mired in a nasty four-year funk.
2. Garrick McGee, UAB
The Blazers ought to feel fortunate to have landed McGee, one of the up-and-coming young stars of the coaching profession. He still hasn't reached his 39th birthday, yet can already boast successful stops as the offensive coordinator at Northwestern and Arkansas. He's a player's coach, but not in an undisciplined way, who exudes the leadership and mentoring skills that reverberate throughout a program. McGee has excelled in the area of player development, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, a must regardless of the size of the program. UAB can be a coach-killer, or it can be a lottery ticket that helps catapult an inexperienced coach to a new threshold in his career.
Hot Seat Status: McGee actually has the leverage in this relationship, which means he'll get the time he needs to put the Blazers in a position to compete more effectively. Predecessor Neil Callaway lasted five seasons despite never winning more than five games, so it's not as if the Blazers are historically trigger-happy with their coaches.
1. Doc Holliday, Marshall
Holliday has gotten off to a mediocre start in Huntington, winning only 12 of his first 25 games as a head coach. To be fair, he inherited a difficult situation from Mark Snyder, and a collection of talent that fell south of the Conference USA power brokers. The primary attraction to Holliday centers on his ability to sell, attracting high-caliber talent wherever he's worked over the past three decades. His intense and energetic personality has a penchant for inspiring those around him, from assistant coaches and players to the student body and overall fan base. While not an elite X's and O's type coach, he'll go out and surround himself with quality people to help him in the gaps in his game.
Hot Seat Status: While the two-year mark isn't spiffy, Marshall plans to stick with Holliday for the foreseeable future. He helped his cause with a 4-1 finished capped by a bowl win over Florida International. He'll help it further by turning the Herd into a Conference USA contender for the first time in a decade.
West Coaching Analysis & Hot Seat Status