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Grading college football’s coaching hires: USC earns ‘A’ for Lincoln Riley; LSU lags behind with Brian Kelly

After an average of 10.4 coaching changes at the Power 5 level over the last five years, that number jumped nearly 40 percent to 14 changes during and after the 2021 season.

How did athletic directors fill those vacancies, and were any lessons learned over the previous five hiring cycles?

SN studied where the 52 new hires came from over the previous five years and determined which avenues were most successful and which tended to have the highest failure rate. Promoting from within had the highest hit rate, as Ryan Day, Lincoln Riley and Mario Cristobol were among the ‘home runs’ during that five year period, and all were elevated within their current staff. Poaching another Power 5 coach, including a coach fired in the same cycle (Arizona tabbing Kevin Sumlin) had the biggest failure rate. Willie Taggart and Dan Mullen were the other misses.

So where did 2021’s 14 new coaches come from and how did it compare to the previous five years?

BENDER: Why National Signing Day needs to be moved

New Hire 2017-21 2022
P5 Head coach 5 (10 percent) 3 (21)
Promoted 8 (15 percent) 2 (14)
P5 Coordinator 9 (17 percent) 4 (29)
P5 Assistant 2 (4 percent) 1 (7)
G5 Head coach 18 (35 percent) 4 (29)
Other* 10 (21 percent) 0 (0)

* – Includes NFL assistants, coaches out of football or FCS coaches

Despite the shaky track record of hiring sitting Power 5 coaches, there was a jump in that category for the 2022 season. But all three in this cycle (Brian Kelly, Riley, Cristobol), played for either national championships or conference championships at their last stop. There was clearly an upgrade in targets in this cycle.

The other category that saw a jump was Power 5 coordinators. The recent track record there has been fairly solid, with Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee being a notable flameout and Texas’ choice of Steve Sarkisian looking like a bad one after one ugly season. Baylor’s Dave Aranda has been a home run to date.

Group of 5 coaches were not as much of a target, and two of the most prominent, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, stayed put.

It is notable that no one looked to the NFL or coaches out of football in this cycle, which has been fairly common over the last five years (Chip Kelly, Karl Dorrell, Herm Edwards to name a few).

Here are SN’s grades for the 14 new Power 5 hires for the 2022 season.

Duke – Texas A&M def. coord. Mike Elko

Elko, 44, has been highly regarded in his last two stops as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and Notre Dame. His Aggies defense was third in the nation in points allowed this season. Elko also has experience in the ACC as a defensive coordinator at Wake Forest as well. It was a matter of time before he got his shot.

GRADE: B-plus

Florida – Louisiana coach Billy Napier

Napier, 42, took over a Louisiana program that had three consecutive losing seasons and proceeded to put together a 40-12 record in four years. The Ragin’ Cajuns went 10-1 last season and 12-1 this year, with the only loss coming in the opener at Texas. Napier worked for Nick Saban from 2013-16 and was part of that legendary 2015 Alabama staff that included Kirby Smart, Lane Kiffin, Mario Cristobal and Mel Tucker (plus Dan Lanning as a graduate assistant). Napier made immediate in-roads with a better-than-expected signing class in December.

GRADE: A-minus

LSU – Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

This one was a shocker. There had been virtually no whispers that Kelly, 60, was looking to leave Notre Dame after 12 seasons, and his ties to Louisiana and the SEC are non-existent. Kelly has the most wins in Notre Dame history, but also the most losses, and he ranks eighth at Notre Dame in winning percentage among the 12 coaches that lasted five years in South Bend. Kelly was at best second choice to Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, and his failure to bring any of his staff with him to Baton Rouge may make his immediate transition that much tougher.

MORE: Kelly’s daughter pokes fun at father’s decision

GRADE: B

Miami – Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal

The Miami alum had long been thought of as a potential candidate to come home, but once he got things rolling at Oregon, there was some question whether he would be willing to come back to South Florida. A 10-year, $80 million contract swayed him and the Hurricanes made the awkward transition after letting Manny Diaz remain head coach while they pursued Cristobal. Known for his recruiting prowess, Cristobal finished first, second and first in the Pac-12 North the last three seasons, but also has suffered road upsets to Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Arizona State that wrecked potential breakthrough seasons.

GRADE: A-minus

Notre Dame – Notre Dame def. coord. Marcus Freeman

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A whirlwind 48 hours landed the 35-year-old the coveted top spot in South Bend, and it was seemingly met with universal approval among the players, fan base and much of the national media. Freeman, known as a tireless recruiter, spent just one season as ND’s defensive coordinator after leaving the same position at Cincinnati and had the fifth-ranked Irish No. 9 in points allowed. Freeman managed to keep the ND staff and much of a top 10 recruiting class in place in his frantic first two weeks. How he will handle the CEO aspects of the job and overall game management are the great unknowns.

MORE: Why Freeman is right man at right time for ND

GRADE: A-minus

Oklahoma – Clemson def. coord. Brent Venables

Venables becomes a first-time head coach at one of the sport’s bluebloods at 50 after turning down several opportunities earlier in his career. Venables was defensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 1999-2011 and then at Clemson from 2012-2021, where he helped win national titles at each program. He stabilized OU after Lincoln Riley unexpectedly left for USC and was able to salvage some of his first recruiting class. Venables will have the extra challenge of navigating OU’s move to the SEC, but he brings instant credibility and his ties to OU are strong.

GRADE:  B-plus

Oregon – Georgia def. coord. Dan Lanning

The head of the most accomplished unit in college football in 2021, Lanning takes over for Cristobal after four years at Georgia, the last three as defensive coordinator. Georgia has ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense in two of those three years. Lanning, 35, spent two years with Arizona State as a graduate assistant and then recruiting coordinator in 2012-13, but since 2015 he’s been at Memphis, Alabama and Georgia. Lanning’s is taking over a program that has recruited very well under Cristobal.

GRADE: B

TCU – SMU coach Sonny Dykes

Dykes produced three straight winning seasons at SMU, something no other coach can claim since the Mustangs received the ‘death penalty’ from the NCAA in 1987. This is Dykes’ fourth head coaching stop after stints at Louisiana Tech, Cal and SMU. He served as an analyst for one season at TCU in 2017 after being fired by Cal and is the son of former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes. Dykes has Texas ties and will be taking over a program that has slumped the last four seasons after Gary Patterson led the Frogs to six Top 10 finishes in a 10-year span.

GRADE: B

Texas Tech – Joey McGuire

McGuire, 50, has only been in the college game as an assistant at Baylor since 2017, but his successful track record as a Texas high school coach convinced Texas Tech he was the right man to take over for Matt Wells. UTSA went a similar route with Jeff Traylor, and he led the Roadrunners to a 12-1 mark this year in just his second season. Traylor was actually TTU’s top target before signing an extension. McGuire figures to recruit well through his Texas connections, but he will be learning on the job how to run a Big 12 program.

GRADE: B

USC – Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley

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Riley has been one of the best coaches in the nation since taking over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma in 2017 at the age of 33. He went 55-10, made the college football playoff three times and had a top-10 ranked team his first four years (OU is No. 14 entering its bowl game this season). Riley is expected to halt the exodus of California talent and elevate USC to where it was when Pete Carroll was winning national titles.

GRADE: A

Virginia – Clemson off. coord. Tony Elliott

Another longtime Clemson coordinator finally decided to leave Dabo Swinney’s nest. Elliott, 42, has been at Clemson since 2011 and the offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator since 2015. From 2015-2020, Clemson had a top 10 offense in five of six years, but slumped to No. 95 this season. His entire playing career (Clemson) and coaching career has been in the state of South Carolina. He takes over a program on stable footing after six years of Bronco Mendenhall at the helm.

GRADE: B

MORE: Riley will bring elite QB play back to USC

Virginia Tech – Penn State def. coord. Brent Pry

Pry, 51, has been co-defensive coordinator or defensive coordinator under James Franklin for the past 11 seasons at Vanderbilt at Penn State. This is his first head coaching job. He recruited the state of Virginia heavily during his time at PSU, which is a plus for a program that has not protected its home turf on the recruiting front the last few years. Pry is one of the more unknown names among the hires and he is taking over a program that is listing.

GRADE: B-minus

Washington – Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer

DeBoer has had a strong five-year run, serving as offensive coordinator at Fresno State from 2017-18 (22-6), offensive coordinator at Indiana in 2019 (8-5) and then head coach at Fresno State 2020-21 (12-6). The season at Indiana is his only one at a Power 5 school, and IU finished that season second in the Big Ten in total offense. DeBoer, 47, takes over after a short but messy tenure by Jimmy Lake.

GRADE: B-plus

Washington State – Washington State def. coord. Jake Dickert

Dickert, 38, took over as interim coach unexpectedly when Nick Rolovich was fired for refusing to get vaccinated. He led the Cougars to a 3-2 record, including a 41-14 blowout of rival Washington. Dickert’s resume is thin in terms of experience at the FBS level. He was an assistant at Wyoming for three years before joining Rolovich’s staff as defensive coordinator in 2020. Recruiting to Washington State, a major challenge for every coach, is a big question.

GRADE: C-plus

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