Posted: Thursday July 6, 2006 8:16PM; Updated: Friday July 7, 2006 1:08PM
"I believe that Coach Brown will be the best candidate because he's the most experienced, he knows the game and he has paid his dues,'' Vikings linebacker Napoleon Harris, who played for the Wildcats from 1997-2001, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
From a football standpoint, however, Brown may not be the most desirable choice. After serving as defensive coordinator from 1999-2001, during which the Wildcats ranked 81st, 89th and 107th nationally in total defense, he was relieved of those duties at the same time he was given the assistant head coach title. If given the interim job, Brown would most likely be viewed as a temporary caretaker. A more popular choice among Wildcats fans would be linebackers coach Pat Fitzgerald, one of the stars of Northwestern's 1995 Rose Bowl team and the program's top recruiter. Fitzgerald, however, is only 31, with just six years of coaching experience. It's widely assumed he will become a head coach one day, but is he qualified today? Currently, the youngest head coach in Division I-A is Wisconsin's Bret Bielema at 36.
Among other in-house candidates, defensive coordinator Greg Colby, 54, seems an unlikely choice, seeing as his defenses have fared as poorly as Brown's (Northwestern ranked 117th in Division I-A last season -- worst among all teams -- in total defense), and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, 33, was just appointed to that position in February.
Going through an entire season with an interim coach could also have potentially disastrous long-term effects on the program -- which Murphy acknowledged during a phone conversation this week -- due to the uncertainty that would hover over potential recruits. For example, the Cincinnati men's basketball program spent all of last season in limbo over the status of interim coach Andy Kennedy (he was eventually hired by Ole Miss) and was unable to sign any recruits during the critical fall signing period. "Not knowing who the coach is [going to be after the season] could affect a couple different [recruiting] classes," said Murphy. "Also, with an interim, you worry about the stability of your staff. Guys start to look for other opportunities."
The question, then, is whether Murphy is confident enough in one of the aforementioned in-house candidates to promote one permanently. If not, might he be able to convince someone else to leave his current school on such short notice?
One way to maintain Walker's legacy without going the interim route might be for Murphy to lure back Mike Dunbar, the Wildcats' highly regarded offensive coordinator of the past four seasons, who left in February to take the same position at Cal. Dunbar, 57, has head coaching experience, going 29-15 in four seasons at Division I-AA Northern Iowa (1997-2000), and Northwestern produced the nation's fourth-ranked offense last season (500.3 yards per game) under his direction. His defection a month before the season might not sting Cal as much it would some schools, since Bears head coach Jeff Tedford calls his own plays, and Dunbar might jump at the opportunity to become a I-A head coach. On the other hand, one reason he took the Cal job was to get closer to his native state of Washington.
Another option might be Dunbar's predecessor, Kevin Wilson, now the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, whose ties to Walker date back to his days as a graduate assistant at North Carolina in the mid-'80s (he went on to become Walker's coordinator at both Miami of Ohio and Northwestern). Wilson was instrumental in the installation of the spread offense the Wildcats run. It's highly unlikely, however, that he would bolt a potential national-title contender at Oklahoma a month before the season.
If Murphy gets rebuffed by Dunbar and/or Wilson due to the timing, he may find it best to tab Brown, Fitzgerald or Colby as interim coach and hold off until after the season to name a permanent coach. At that point his pool could expand to include such names as Eastern Michigan head coach Jeff Genyk, 45, a Northwestern staff member from 1994-2003, and Bowling Green head coach Gregg Brandon, 50, a member of Barnett's staff in Evanston from 1992-98 whose teams run a similar version of the spread offense as the Wildcats. Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, who served as the defensive coordinator for Northwestern's Rose Bowl team, has been mentioned as a possibility, but his rocky four-year stint as Maryland's head coach (going 15-29 from 1997 to 2000) likely would discourage Murphy.
Of course, depending on how the Wildcats do this season, Murphy, who has often tapped his East Coast roots in making other coaching hires at the school, may decide by then to open the job to all outside candidates. A logical target would be Colgate head coach Dick Biddle, whom Murphy hired there 10 years ago and who has since gone 84-35. Harvard's highly successful head coach, Tim Murphy, whose teams have posted two undefeated seasons since 2001, would be an attractive candidate as well.
Sadly, this is not Murphy's first experience in handling this type of situation. In December 1997, while at Colgate, revered head basketball coach Jack Bruen died from pancreatic cancer. After playing out the season under an interim coach, Murphy hired Emmett Davis, then an assistant at Navy. Davis remains in that job today, his teams consistently placing in the upper half of the Patriot League standings. If Murphy's next hire goes as successfully as that one, the Wildcats can continue building the foundation Walker started.