Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On The Search

Here's a quick rundown on where I think we stand with Auburn's coaching search at this particular moment. Things can (and probably will) change without notice:

The current frontrunner for the job is Buffalo's Turner Gill. Gill vaulted up to favorite status after leading the formerly hapless Bulls to an improbable MAC championship in just his third year on the job. I think I'm safe in saying that Gill is the Auburn fan favorite right now. His ascension was strongly aided by Will Muschamp's apparent decision to rely on Texas's promise that he will succeed Mack Brown in Austin--even while reports continue to circulate indicating the defensive wunderkind is still in contention at Auburn.

I would be happy with either Gill or Muschamp. The upsides are obvious; they're both widely respected among their peers, both are energetic and inspiring leaders, both are strong on their respective X's and/or O's, and both are obviously going to be major-program head coaches in the near future. The added plus for Muschamp is his life-long background in SEC football and prior stints at Auburn. In Gill's case you'd have a nationally-known figure who in addition to bringing in a wave of good PR, would arrive without the baggage of one James Sexton, Esq.

On the down side, Muschamp would return to the Plains with Sexton in tow, and given Muschamp's recent employment history, Auburn could look forward to further rounds of "will he bolt?" stories engineered by the uber-agent on a very regular basis. Given the way Muschamp did bolt from Auburn just under a year ago, there's also the question of whether Muschamp could work under current athletic director Jay Jacobs--but that's a problem easily solvable by just hiring a different AD. Jacobs is hardly indispensable. The 37-year-old Muschamp has also never been a head coach, and would bring the additional annoyance of being younger than me.

In Gill's case, the big question is whether one really good year at Buffalo is proof of head coaching genius, or just of a guy who had the ball bounce his way at the right times. The SEC quite obviously isn't the MAC, and Gill would be under pressure to produce at Auburn right now, not a few years down the line. Gill has few if any recruiting contacts in the Southeast, and nobody knows what kind of staff he would bring in as a head coach. Buffalo's defensive team was pretty awful, and questions are already being raised about whether Gill would retain his current defensive coordinator (Jimmy Williams) or bring in a "top gun" to take over the job Paul Rhoades is most likely vacating.

Regarding other names in the news recently, Rodney Garner and Patrick Nix are not serious candidates. They're getting interviews out of courtesy for their status as AU alums in the job market, and to help their future careers. Neither will be the next head coach at Auburn. As noted below, while it's possible that somebody at AU actually was stupid enough to consider Houston Nutt as a candidate, Nutt is not going to get the job, either; the flurry of Nutt-ism late last week was another example of Sexton's patented media manipulation to squeeze more money out of this clients' employers--and yet another reason not to hire another of Sexton's clients.

I don't think Ball State's Brady Hoke is a serious candidate, either, even given ESPN's apparent determination to push Hoke's name into the ring. While I agree with Jerry that Cincinnati's Brian Kelly would be a strong candidate and probably a good hire, I've seen no evidence to date that he's either being considered for or considering the job. One suspects he's holding out for the well-nigh inevitable departure of one Charlie The Hutt from Notre Dame instead.

This leaves us with but two remaining names, those of Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson. Yesterday, Phillip Marshall asked (quite reasonably) what would be wrong with a coach who's already been named as heir-apparent head coach for FSU, an undeniably big-time program. Fisher is obviously well-respected as a coach; Alabama's trustee overlord Cub Bryant was sufficiently concerned about Fisher getting the head job at UAB a couple of years back to torpedo what was considered a done deal. As I've noted in the past, Fisher is a terrific quarterback coach; anybody who could take Stan White and Patrick Nix and win nearly 30 games in three years clearly knows what he's doing.

But despite a series of non-denial denials and being the favorite of at least one Auburn trustee (one who favors a certain primary color that is not red or blue), I suspect Fisher probably isn't going to get the job. For one thing, he'd cost a fortune to get, over $5 million to buy out his FSU contract by some reports. For another, he's also a Sexton client (meaning Auburn would go through Sexton's goat-rope again when Bobby Bowden finally shambles off the field), and finally (and perhaps unfairly), because he has that Bowden stink on him. A decade after Terry Bowden's ignominious departure, much of Auburn wants nothing to do with either Bobby's brood or their disciples, and even given Fisher's obvious fondness for AU, I think that's one strike too many against him.

That leaves us with Johnson, who is apparently (and unsurprisingly) the favorite of former coach Pat Dye. There's a lot to like about Johnson. Like Gill, he's been able to win in places where normally nobody can win. His tenure at Navy and first year at Tech were inspiring to watch, and anybody who could take a bunch of players recruited by Chan Gailey for an entirely different offense and score 45 on Georgia in his first time out can damn well coach.

Thing is, as much fun as Johnson's offense is to watch (especially for those of us who grew up on option football), the general suspicion is that no matter how good you are at running a triple option attack, you're never going to break through with it in the SEC. There's a reason why nobody outside of talent-starved Vanderbilt has even tried a traditional option offense since the mid-80's. As good and accomplished as he is, a Johnson hire would be widely seen as a step back to the past for Auburn, and it's very hard for me to see how Johnson's offense would attract any more playmakers than AU has right now (which is to say, very few). And even given all that, there's no indication that Johnson would actually bolt from Atlanta after just one year.


Anonymous said...

You mean you think a bunch of witless bloggers or unknown allegiance have you thinking Gill is some kind of fan favorite. And Tubs is gone so we can hire a guy with only one winning season?

Linus said...

You know, I'm not from the South (just a huge college football fan from Idaho), but I don't get why someone in their right mind would pick Notre Dame over Auburn. Maybe I'm too young to be swayed by my memories of ND's glory days (I have none; I was 10 when they won their last championship), but I'd think, if I were Brian Kelly, and had both Auburn and ND wooing me, I'd be a Tiger. Particularly since it seems from the two games I saw, Cincinnati's system could really work at Auburn (provided, as always, that you had a quarterback -- it always comes down to that, doesn't it).