Grading the coaching hires: Texas Tech earns top marks
In sharp contrast to my ability to predict games or project draft prospects, I seem to have a knack for identifying both promising and disastrous coaching hires. It began with my first set of hiring grades in 2010, continued in 2011 and, while it's too soon to judge, hopefully carried over to 2012.
Sure, there was one glaring miss I'd like to have back (an A for Kansas hiring Turner Gill). In hindsight, a couple of B's (for Vandy's James Franklin and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin) actually warranted A's, and an occasional A (for Indiana's Kevin Wilson) wound up as a B. But for the most part, the hires that looked like no-brainers at the time (Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Stanford's David Shaw, Michigan's Brady Hoke) have found immediate success, while the most dumbfounding moves (Tennessee's Derek Dooley, Colorado's Jon Embree, USC's Lane Kiffin and Kansas' Charlie Weis) have played out as envisioned.
But America's athletic directors have apparently gotten smarter, making my job harder in 2013. Fifteen BCS-conference schools hired new coaches in recent months, and I can't find much fault with any of the decisions. But I also know this column would be quite boring if I gave every move an A. So, I'm establishing a hierarchy of sorts for which hires invoke the most confidence, because history tell us not all of these guys will pan out. There's a D in here somewhere. It's just not as obvious as it was in recent years.
• Texas Tech: Kliff Kingsbury, former Texas A&M offensive coordinator. Not even bringing back Mike Leach would have inspired the same level of excitement in Lubbock as the return of prodigal son Kingsbury, the fast-rising coaching star who helped groom Johnny Manziel into a Heisman winner at A&M. Kingsbury, 33, will need time to grow into the head coach's role, but he's not facing overwhelming pressure and will have time to learn as he goes. Grade: A+
• Auburn: Gus Malzahn, former Arkansas State head coach. The right man to lead the Tigers already did so from 2009-11, and has a national championship to prove it. With a year's head coaching experience under his belt, Malzahn is in perfect position to come back and reinstall the hurry-up offense Gene Chizik mysteriously abandoned prior to the 3-9 debacle in 2012. Malzahn has assembled an impressive staff, led by ace Georgia recruiter Rodney Garner. Grade: A
• Colorado: Mike MacIntyre, former San Jose State head coach. In sharp contrast to two years ago, Colorado took a smart long-term approach and hired one of the few coaches who has experience overseeing the type of massive rebuilding job necessary in Boulder. In three seasons, MacIntyre lifted the long-irrelevant Spartans from 1-12 to 11-2. Prior to that, MacIntyre, 47, spent two seasons on David Cutcliffe's Duke staff. The guy knows rebuilding. Grade: A
• Arkansas: Bret Bielema, former Wisconsin head coach. Credit Arkansas AD Jeff Long for putting the Bobby Petrino/John L. Smith debacle behind him by going in a completely different direction. Bielema, 68-24 in seven seasons at Wisconsin, is a darn good coach, despite what his many detractors in Madison will say. He'll need to make some adjustments in the SEC, though, mainly by steering a bit from the Wisconsin blueprint and recruiting more speed. Grade: A
• Temple: Matt Rhule, former New York Giants assistant. Rhule could wind up being one of the unsung gems of this hiring class. Prior to his one season in the NFL, Rhule, 37, served on Temple's staff for six seasons, the first five on program savior Al Golden's staff. Rhule, a former Penn State linebacker, gets the program and the area. This is his first high-visibility gig, so it's hard to say how he'll fare as a head coach, but it seems like a smart move. Grade: A-
• South Florida: Willie Taggart, former Western Kentucky head coach. There's a lot to like. Taggart, 36, drew raves for leading his alma mater, WKU, to consecutive 7-5 records following its 2009 move up to the FBS. He also spent three seasons as Stanford's running backs coach, mentoring Toby Gerhart. And now Taggart is returning to his native Florida. Taggart is raw. He'll energize USF fans, but he'll also rub some the wrong way. Kind of like his old boss Jim Harbaugh. Grade: A-
• Wisconsin: Gary Andersen, former Utah State head coach. AD Barry Alvarez conducted a methodical but efficient search, honing in on Andersen after the Aggies' Dec. 15 bowl game. Andersen, whose Utah State team improved from 4-8 to 11-2 in three years, was the rare mid-major coach to build a winner primarily with defense. He's smart enough to know what works at Wisconsin and won't abandon the program's trademark running game. Grade: A-
• Cal: Sonny Dykes, former Louisiana Tech head coach. Dykes was destined to jump somewhere after producing one of the nation's most explosive offenses. He'll bring the Air Raid to Berkeley and immediately spark excitement at a program desperate to reclaim some turf from surging rival Stanford. The only question is fit. While Dykes, 43, knows the Pac-12 from his time at Arizona, he's a West Texas guy moving to the vastly different Bay Area. Grade: B+
• Kentucky: Mark Stoops, former Florida State defensive coordinator. It was not realistic to think the SEC's doormat would land a big name (unless that name was Bobby Petrino). Stoops carries cachet from his time at FSU, where he produced top five defenses the past two years, and at Arizona and Miami before that. He already made one commendable move in hiring Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown to install the Air Raid that Kentucky formerly employed under Hal Mumme. Grade: B+
• NC State: Dave Doeren, former Northern Illinois head coach. Like many of the coaches on this list, Doren, 41, has a limited body of work as a head coach, but what he achieved in just two seasons at NIU -- a 23-4 record and consecutive MAC titles -- is pretty remarkable. Before that he was integral to Bielema's success at Wisconsin and was on the ground floor for Kansas' rise under Mark Mangino. Doeren will energize and elevate the Wolfpack fairly quickly. Grade: B+
• Purdue: Darrell Hazell, former Kent State head coach. Hazell produced one of the more remarkable feats of 2012, leading Kent State to not only its first bowl game in 40 years but also an 11-win season and MAC championship game appearance. Hazell, 48, spent seven seasons at Ohio State under Jim Tressel, which should equip him well for a Big Ten job. The only slight hesitation is that Purdue is putting a lot of stock in two seasons of head coaching. Grade: B+
• Tennessee: Butch Jones, former Cincinnati head coach. Former Cincinnati coaches (Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly) have a pretty good recent track record and Tennessee has ample reason to believe Jones -- who's won or shared four conference titles in six seasons as a head coach -- will continue the tradition. But it's also no secret Jones was hardly the Vols' first choice. He'll need immediate success in the SEC East to win over a skeptical orange fan base. Grade: B
• Boston College: Steve Addazio, former Temple head coach. Addazio brings a championship pedigree from his time at Florida. At Temple, he employed much the same power running game for which Boston College was long known. The Connecticut native's New England recruiting ties are impeccable. But Addazio, 13-11 in two seasons at Temple, is still unproven as a head coach, and he won't cause much sizzle among an apathetic fan base. Grade: B
• Syracuse: Scott Shafer, former defensive coordinator. Syracuse AD Daryl Gross was obviously intent on continuing the momentum built by Shafer's boss of four years, Doug Marrone, and thus promoted from within. Shafer is certainly fired up for the gig and drew raves for his introductory press conference. But his past two Syracuse defenses were unremarkable. It would have been interesting to see whom Gross could have landed on the open market. Grade: B
• Cincinnati: Tommy Tuberville, former Texas Tech head coach. A month ago I would have given this hire an A, but Tuberville's tenure so far has been littered with controversy, from the way he departed Lubbock to numerous committed Bearcats recruits saying the new staff cast them off. And it now seems Tuberville hightailed it out of Texas Tech to beat his boss to the punch. This will end poorly, probably with self-professed "hired gun" Tuberville jumping ship again. Grade: C
Seeing as this year's grades were unusually kind, I'm going to break from convention and grade one mid-major's coaching hire. Congratulations, FIU, for achieving this year's sole F. First, AD Pete Garcia had the audacity to fire Mario Cristobal, who only took over the worst FBS program in the country and led it to consecutive bowls in 2010 and '11. Then, after striking out in an attempt to woo Butch Davis, Garcia turned around and hired ... Ron Turner. Yes, the same Ron Turner who went 35-57 in eight seasons at Illinois. Good going there, school that previously hired Isiah Thomas.
And now, five programs that qualify as the anti-FIU.
• Kent State: Paul Haynes. The former Kent State defensive back returns home after one season as Arkansas' DC. He spent eight seasons in the Big Ten (Michigan State, Ohio State) before that.
• Louisiana Tech: Skip Holtz. Though he flamed out at USF (16-21 in three season), he showed he can win at prior stops Connecticut (34-23) and East Carolina (38-27).
• San Jose State: Ron Carragher. After a successful six-year run at FCS San Diego (44-22), the 45-year-old former UCLA quarterback returns to the city where he grew up.
• Southern Miss: Todd Monken. Following an exceptional two-season run as Oklahoma State's OC, Monken should energize a program reeling from its 0-12 implosion last season.
• Western Kentucky: Bobby Petrino. Having weathered the initial PR backlash, WKU can now sit back and reap the benefits of hiring a proven winner at the highest levels of college football.
• Robert Anae, BYU (offense): To resurrect his program's woeful offense, Bronco Mendenhall brought back Anae, his original coordinator from 2005-10.
• Don Brown, Boston College (defense): The Massachusetts native and former FCS head coach produced a top 10 defense at Connecticut last season.
• Mario Cristobal, Miami (tight ends): Golden scored a coup in bringing back the former 'Canes tackle, who will make a splash in South Florida recruiting.
• Ellis Johnson, Auburn (defense): He was a disaster as Southern Miss' head coach but spent 12 years as an SEC defensive coordinator before that.
• Jeremy Pruitt, Florida State (defense): Nick Saban's 38-year-old secondary coach at Alabama was a highly regarded position coach and a touted recruiter.
• Jake Spavital, Texas A&M (co-offense, quarterbacks): After mentoring Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith, the Dana Holgorsen protégé, 27, takes on Manziel.
• Randy Shannon, Arkansas (linebackers): The former Miami coach and renowned defensive coordinator joined Bielema's new staff after a season at TCU.
• Ted Roof, Georgia Tech (defense): The well-traveled Roof surprisingly left Penn State after just one season to returns to his alma mater, which fired Al Groh.
• Bob Toledo, San Diego State (offense): The former UCLA and Tulane head coach brings a wealth of experience to the Aztecs' rising program.
• Dave Yost, Washington State (receivers): Leach snapped up the respected former Missouri offensive coordinator, who spent 12 years on Gary Pinkel's staff.
Note: USC has yet to fill its defensive coordinator opening.