2012 Independent Coaches
The Hot Seat Factor
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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
independent 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?
4. Rich Ellerson, Army
His system should work at Army, but the overall execution hasn't quite been there over the first three seasons. He has improved the program and got the team to a 7-6 season and a bowl win in 2010, but things regressed last year going 3-9. Phenomenal at Cal Poly, he turned the Mustangs into a DI-AA powerhouse with seven winning seasons in eight years and three Great West titles in the final five. The difference, though, is that Cal Poly could throw the ball efficiently and effectively, while Army has been among the worst teams in America at putting the ball in the air.
At 59, he still have several good years left to turn Army into Navy. First, though, he has to beat Navy. The idea when Ellerson was hired was to hope the running game that made the archrival so successful would work for the Knights, and while it should, it might take a little bit more time. Ellerson is a good talent who'll be just creative enough to get the most out his team.
Hot Seat Status: Army went to just one bowl game from 1989 to 2009. Ellerson needed just one season to get the Knights to a post-season game, and a win. His style will work, and while Army will never get the top players needed to beat the most decent FBS teams, the formula should be good enough to get the program to bowl games.
3. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
Paul Johnson worked a minor miracle by implementing the right system to fit the personnel that Navy can get. Niumatalolo has kept the machine working, while putting his own stamp on the program and the team with a hard-nosed style and a physical attitude that helped the Midshipmen go into Notre Dame and win in 2007 and come up with a 10-4 season with a bowl win over Missouri in 2009.
However, it's still Navy, and while the system might work, the school can't get the players that other places can get. Last year the team just didn't have enough on either side of the ball to win all the close games in a 5-7 season, but Niumatalolo has vowed that Navy will get back to doing what made the team so successful. With one more big year, he's destined to get the chance at a bigger program like Johnson got at Georgia Tech.
Hot Seat Status: The Hawaii native might have been up for the job opening this offseason had his style of offense wasn't the direct opposite of what the Warriors run. 5-7 last year didn't qualify as a true clunker, and it'll take a few more losing seasons to suggest he's on a hot seat. On the flip side, Navy will be happy to keep him around as long as possible.
2. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly won two straight D-II national titles at Grand Valley State and came in second once in a three-year run going 41-2. He took over a woeful Central Michigan program and turned it into a MAC powerhouse, going 9-4 in 2006 with a conference title before going off to Cincinnati. With the Bearcats he was dominant, going 34-6 in his three season with two Big East titles, an Orange Bowl appearance, and a shot against Florida in the Sugar Bowl, which he didn't coach in because he took over the Notre Dame gig.
Known for being a taskmaster who got the most out of his quarterbacks and his offenses with flawless execution, he seemed like the right coach for finally turn the Irish into a consistent superpower again. If he could get CMU to a MAC title in three years, and if he could turn Cincinnati into a national title contender in three seasons, then what could he do with all the resources and all the advantages of being Notre Dame's head man?
Now it's his third year, and it's time to turn the corner.
Turning 51 this football season, he's just entering his prime and he appears to be hitting his stride as a recruiter. Tireless, he's bringing in some good talents, is improving the lines, and has a star-in-waiting in top QB prospect Gunner Kiel. The schedule is unfairly brutal, and he still has to figure out his quarterback situation, but unlike previous regimes, the foundation is being set for the sustained run Irish fans have been waiting for. It might just take a little while longer.
Hot Seat Status: Kelly somehow kept his job through the Declan Sullivan and Elizabeth Seeberg tragedies, but he might not have as much luck if he continues to crank out unremarkable seasons. Charlie Weis was given a few big breaks, and Kelly might be allowed one bad year considering there are signs that he's doing a great job of building up the talent level to where it needs to be.
1. Bronco Mendenhall, BYU
There might not be a better unknown head coach in college football. All he has done since taking over in 2005 is crank out two Mountain West titles and five ten-win seasons in six years. Not only has he produced at a high level every year, but he's been great in the bowl games going 5-2 with five victories in the last six seasons. At only 47, he he'll have some big decisions to make over the coming years. Does he want to be another LaVell Edwards and be a BYU lifer, or is he going to be looking to make the next jump up?
Mendenhall is already at a strong program, and he can stick around as long as he wants and should be consistently successful, but he has the talent and the potential to rock at one of the big boys. Of course, recruiting and coaching at BYU is far different than it is at other places, with the need to always take church missions into account from year to year, and it would be interesting to see what he could do if he went after the top-shelf talents at a high-level Pac-12 school. He's a whale of a defensive coach, whose offenses haven't been bad, either, and he should be just scratching the surface on what should grow more and more into a phenomenal career.
Hot Seat Status: Is Oregon State a big enough jump? The former Beaver might have a shot at the job in the near future, but even though it's in the Pac-12 It might be a step down from what he's doing at BYU. However, now that the football program is an independent and with the bowl tie-in locked up in advance, there's a hard ceiling on what he can do. Either the Cougars will be playing for the BCS title game, or it'll be off to the Poinsettia Bowl. Soon, he might be ready for more.