Blogs, Sports

Ranking the 2023 College Football Coach Hires the Smart Way

Part One: The Good

Now that the coaching carousel is officially over (thanks for making me wait Harbaugh), we can look back at and evaluate each hire. We can’t evaluate whether these hires are good or bad because that’s impossible this early. It takes years to decide that, as “home run hires” like Scott Frost have proven. It’s even too early to make any definitive statements on last year’s list. Instead of handing out grades, I ranked each coaching hire based on how well it fits. It’s pointless trying to grade schools like Nebraska and Western Michigan the same way because they need entirely different things from a coach. Sorting coaches based on fit alleviates most of these problems. As it turns out, there was a lot going on this cycle, so I split the rankings into two separates posts. This post includes the first four tiers, all of which I consider to be the good hires of the year.

Top Tier

1. Wisconsin- Luke Fickell

Just like I said last year, every cycle there seems to be one can’t-miss, A+ hire. Last year it was Lincoln Riley at USC, and we saw how that worked out. Anything is possible, but I can’t imagine that Luke Fickell will be anything but a major success at Wisconsin. He coached in the Big 10 for 14 years, all at Ohio State. He won at least 11 games in 3 straight (non-COVID) seasons at Cincinnati and was the first (and likely only) G5 coach to make the four-team college football playoff. He’s won 35 of his last 41 conference games. He built such a pristine reputation that everyone assumed he was just waiting Ryan Day to leave Ohio State so he could take over. NIL reportedly changed things, and Wisconsin are the beneficiaries. Things are about to get much harder for the current Big 10 West, and the Badgers have set themselves up for this new reality better than anyone.

2. Liberty- Jamey Chadwell

Putting aside all of the usual “Liberty” stuff, this hire seems unfair. Liberty, a school that has more money than everyone else in Conference USA, is hiring Jamey Chadwell, who has been extremely successful in the Sun Belt, a conference that is miles tougher than C-USA. He’s about to have more talent playing against worse competition. Instead of playing teams like Appalachian State (beat Texas A&M), Marshall (beat Notre Dame), and Georgia Southern (beat Nebraska), Chadwell will be matching up with the likes of Western Kentucky and UTEP. I’m not cherry picking those teams either, UTEP is probably their third toughest conference game. Chadwell is going to build a Conference USA dynasty, running roughshod through the league until a power five time finally caves and hires him.

3. FAU- Tom Herman

Why aren’t more people talking about this hire? It’s a huge deal for FAU! Tom Herman is an amazing coach! He has a better career win percentage than guys like Kirk Ferentz, Mario Cristobal, and Steve Sarkisian. He won the Sugar Bowl in his second season, their only major bowl win since 2008. He was a Will Grier scramble away from winning the Big 12 for the first time since 2009. More than anything, Herman was a victim of Texas’ unrealistic expectations (with a touch of racism). The Owls made a great hire bringing Herman in to lead their transition to the American Athletic Conference, easily making the best hire out of all the newcomers. It feels so much like when FAU brought in Lane Kiffin, who won multiple conference championships and put together the two best seasons in school history. If you’re going for a retread P5 hire, this is the kind who might work.

4. Nebraska- Matt Rhule

I went back and forth on this one a lot. On one hand, Matt Rhule has proven that he knows how to build a football program. He was the first coach in Temple history to make multiple bowl games. He took on the unenviable task of rebuilding the smoking crater Art Briles left at Baylor and had the Bears playing in the Sugar Bowl by year three. The man clearly knows how to coach. On the other hand, Rhule is coming back to a college football landscape that is unrecognizable to the one he left. When he took over the Carolina Panthers, NIL deals were outlawed and only graduate students could transfer freely. In his last season at Baylor, the Bears received $22 million from TV revenue. In 2024, Nebraska’s TV revenue will be $75 million. The typical post-firing flood of information revealed that Rhule is old-school, and fits the dictator coach archetype to a T. I have no idea how that’s going to go over with players in this day and age. It’s hard to criticize this hire because of Rhule’s impeccable track record, but out of all the hires in this group, this one has the greatest bust potential. Which isn’t great, because Nebraska cannot afford another disastrous hire.

5. Charlotte- Biff Poggi

The first hire of the cycle was one of the more confusing ones. Not because it was a bad hire, but because nobody on earth had ever heard of Biff Poggi. That’s because he’s had one of the most unconventional career paths ever. He played football his first two years of college, and then decided he’d rather pursue finance. He founded his own hedge fund, hit it big, and was suddenly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. However, he never lost his love of football, and decided to coach and essentially fund his former high school. After thirty years in high school, Poggi joined Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan. His two years in Ann Arbor included two Big Ten titles and two playoff appearances, so Poggi clearly knows what he’s doing. Most importantly, he fits the profile of what Charlotte needed to a tee. Charlotte’s athletic department first and foremost is broke. They don’t have the resources to compete for top tier coaches, or even second tier coaches. The 49ers are entering their eleventh season of existence. It’s impossible to build up the donor base, marketing revenue, or national profile needed to compete financially. Poggi solves so many of these problems. First of all, he doesn’t need any more money, so his salary is probably low. Secondly, he is the guy to build up that donor base. He’s a former hedge fund owner moving to the banking capital of the United States. It’s a match made in heaven. Bigg Poggi probably won’t win anything big in Charlotte. It’s a brutal job and moving to the much more competitive AAC isn’t doing him any favors. But there is no doubt that he will leave the program in a much better shape than he found it.

6. Louisville- Jeff Brohm

It’s hard to turn down you alma mater once. It’s almost impossible to do it twice. Brohm, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, turned down the Cardinals back in 2018, not wanting to leave Purdue after just two seasons. He went on to have (relatively) a ton of success with the Boilermakers. Last season, he made the Big Ten Championship game for the first time ever. Now that Brohm likely feels that he’s done all he can at Purdue, he can go back home with a clear conscience. Louisville has felt like underachievers since Lamar Jackson left. That is why Scott Satterfield was re-homed. His teams were never outright bad, but it always felt like something was missing. Bringing in the hometown star with a proven track record of success to energize the program was the obvious move. Brohm is famously passionate and is likely to give everything he has to put Louisville over the top. And, looking at their schedule this year, it might be sooner rather than later.


7. Purdue- Ryan Walters

For most of the cycle, Walters seemed like the favorite to take over at Colorado, his alma mater. It would’ve made a lot of sense, as Walters has quietly been one of the best coordinators in the sport the past two seasons. Before he got to Champaign, Illinois had the 97th ranked scoring defense. In his first season, Walters bumped that up to 29th, and this past season they ended up ranking 1st in the entire nation. However, Colorado shocked everyone when they chose Deion Sanders, while Purdue suddenly found themselves in the market for a coach when Jeff Brohm left for Louisville. Purdue obviously had firsthand experience playing against Walters every year and decided to keep him in the division. Although Walters doesn’t fit the typical model of a Purdue coach, as they usually go after offensive masterminds, he was going to be a hot commodity until someone hired him. Purdue is a difficult job that is only getting harder once the LA schools join the Big 10, but Walters is a great choice to lead them into this new era.

8. Mississippi State- Zach Arnett

Mississippi State faced a nearly unprecedented situation. After the tragic passing of the legend Mike Leach, State was left without a coach or an athletic director very late in the cycle. Understandably, the Bulldogs opted for stability, immediately promoting defensive coordinator Zach Arnett to be the full-time head coach. Arnett has had a short, but very impressive career, putting together solid defenses in his five total years as a DC. In the past few off seasons, he’s been arguably the most coveted assistant in the nation. And yet, he stuck around in Starkville. At a school like Mississippi State, that is a big deal. Arnett seems to have a lot of the qualities you look for when hiring a coach to run an SEC have-not program, and it’s hard not to root for his success going forward.

9. Arizona State- Kenny Dillingham

Arizona State has to be one of the most stubborn teams in the country. Their insistence on hiring old, retread coaches who are well past their prime has been astounding. It’s a total rejection of every unique advantage the school offers. A place known for being a legendary party school located in one of the fastest growing cities in America should never hire a 64-year-old man who doesn’t even know the school’s mascot. Kenny Dillingham is finally a coach who makes sense for ASU. He’s a Phoenix native, has experience coaching at ASU before, and is incredibly young: only 32 years old. People in the industry have been clamoring for years for the Sun Devils to hire a coach that fits this mold, and they finally did.

10. Texas State- GJ Kinne

Landing GJ Kinne was a coup for Texas State. It’s one of the most overused insults among sports fans, but Texas State legitimately is a poverty program. There are high schools in Texas with better facilities. To be fair, those high schools have nicer facilities than a lot of college teams, but the point still stands. Of the twelve FBS programs in the state of Texas, the Bobcats are likely the worst. Even Rice and UTEP have been to bowl games in the past two seasons, something Texas State has never done. To make matters even worse, former coach Jake Spavital chose to almost exclusively recruit transfers and junior college players, completely ignoring high schools. Read that again. A coach in the state of Texas completely ignored Texas high school football, the sport that is so famously insane they made an entire TV show about it. San Marcos was radioactive, and it was hard to imagine any good coach would want that job. Enter GJ Kinne. The former Tulsa star finished his first year as a head coach at FCS Incarnate Word, leading the team to the best season in school history. Kinne made it all the way to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs, losing to powerhouse North Dakota State by just three points. And Kinne did things in style. Incarnate Word averaged and astonishing 51.5 points per game. Texas State finally decided to hire a young, up and coming coach that can excite the fanbase, and somehow convinced him to spurn his alma mater. If anyone is going to lead Texas State to their first bowl game in school history, it’s going to be GJ Kinne.

Deion Sanders

11. Colorado- Deion Sanders

Deion gets a unique tier because he is a completely unique coach. No other coach in college football was a genuine celebrity before they started coaching. Deion is a legitimate icon of American sports culture. He’s a magnetic personality who has proven he is capable to attract talented players, no matter where he is. He’s been incredibly successful at Jackson State both on and off the field. He’s won the SWAC the past two years. He’s signed the top 20 recruits in program history and seems to be able to land any FBS transfer looking to drop down that he wants. His 2021 class alone included five blue chip recruits, which is insane for an HBCU. That’s more than a lot of mid-tier P5 schools. For reference, NC State only signed four that same season. Deion signed the number one overall recruit in the country, and then convinced him to follow along to Colorado. He’s done so much in such a short time at Jackson State, but there are still plenty of concerns.

What I’m most concerned about when projecting Deion’s success at Colorado has nothing to do with Deion: it’s Colorado. Colorado is a terrible job that has become the subject of what the guys at Split Zone Duo have dubbed “The Colorado Fallacy.” To summarize, it’s the belief that Colorado should be a relatively easy place to recruit because it is close to both Texas and California, offers good academics, and is located in Boulder, which most people consider a great place to live. This is where the fallacy comes in. Yes, Colorado is close to the states of Texas and California, but not to where the actual talent lies. It takes 12 and a half hours to drive from Boulder to Dallas, and 18 hours from Boulder to LA. And yes, Boulder is a great place to live, but for who? If you’re dreaming of all the craft breweries and scenic hiking trails, odds are you don’t have the same priorities as the typical high school football recruit. More importantly, the school has not invested in football in recent years and has suffered the consequences. Of their 11 non-COVID seasons in the PAC-12, Colorado finished last in their division 7 times. They have had one winning season since 2005. As much as everyone likes to poke fun at Nebraska for their collapse after ‘90s dominance, Colorado has been exponentially worse.

Now, let’s talk about the Deion-specific concerns. First, the on-field elephant in the room. A side effect of Deion’s transcendent recruiting ability is that he enjoyed an unbelievable talent advantage in every game he coached in. Alcorn State, the team who ran the SWAC before Deion arrived, has signed one top 1,000 ranked recruit in the school’s entire history. Deion signed 11 in two years. Travis Hunter was always the best player on the field on both sides of the ball. Can he recruit like that to a perennial doormat like Colorado? He’s losing what seemed to be a major recruiting pitch, telling recruits that they could make a genuine difference for black culture and bring HBCU’s to national prominence. This talent gap also makes it difficult to judge Sanders’ in-game coaching ability or eye for coordinator talent. Who wouldn’t win a ton of football games with that kind of talent? Another strike against him is the fact that despite this advantage, Sanders went 0-2 in the Celebration Bowl, which is considered the HBCU national championship. If he couldn’t win the big game as the better team, will he be able to do it as one of the worst teams in the league? That’s not a veiled criticism, it’s a genuine question that he’ll have to answer. Second, Deion’s off-field record isn’t the most pristine. He ran an incredibly sketchy “prep school” in Texas which seems to have flown under the radar and is the perfect example of a story that could get dredged up if things start going wrong on the field. He also, for better or worse, essentially broadcasts everything he does, and has a habit for saying the quiet parts out loud. Once again, this is fine as long as you win, which leads to my biggest off-field concern: what happens when Deion starts losing? We’ve already established that the Buffaloes do a whole lot of losing. Last year they were the worst team in the Power 5. He’s trying his hardest to turn this around quickly, bringing in a whopping 44 new players, but will it be enough? They’ll be deeper, but it’s hard to imagine more than about five of them being real difference makers. Colorado’s schedule doesn’t do them any favors. They open the year on the road against TCU, last year’s national runners up, then play Nebraska, a team that is also rebuilding, but much more talented. The. PAC-12 didn’t help Deion out either, as they start out with Oregon and USC, the two best teams in the conference and legitimate playoff contenders. Deion is a notoriously competitive person. You can’t play two professional sports at the same time without that drive. What happens if he goes into October sitting at 1-4, coming off two total beatdowns? I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s able to rally the troops and bounce back for a solid season. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the team completely implodes. Deion Sanders is the biggest boom-or-bust hire in the history of college football, and I think we’re all excited to see how things play out.

Wait and See

12. Stanford- Troy Taylor

Speaking of difficult jobs, woof. What David Shaw did at Stanford was nothing short of miraculous. His first few seasons as a head coach were legendary. He won three conference championships and two Rose Bowls in his first five seasons. Before he took over, the Cardinal hadn’t won a Rose Bowl since 1971. There’s no denying that Shaw is a hall of fame coach, but the results have slipped recently. No team has been hurt more by the massive upheaval in college football than Stanford. Along with their usual brutal admissions standards, Stanford now has to deal with NIL, which they aren’t very involved in, and an inability to take transfers because of the school’s academic calendar. This left Stanford with two distinct paths they could choose: hire a “Stanford guy” aka someone who has experience dealing with the school’s unique challenges or go after a more traditional candidate who has generally done more with less. They decided on the latter, hiring Troy Taylor from FCS Sacramento State. The decision was probably easier than it normally would be because none of the “Stanford guys” currently available are any good. Derek Mason failed at Vanderbilt and recently announced he was taking a sabbatical, while Rice’s Mike Bloomgren hasn’t reached the six-win threshold despite being there for five seasons and playing in a dreadful conference. Taylor, on the other hand, has had nothing but success. He’s won three conference titles in three years at Sac State and hasn’t lost a conference game since November 2nd, 2019. Whether he can adjust to all the unique challenges Stanford faces remains to be seen, but Taylor has certainly put together a resume that suggests he can.

13. North Texas- Eric Morris

The second former Incarnate Word head coach on this list, Morris has a few more question marks than Kinne. Most of his career as an offensive coordinator was spent under Kliff Kingsbury, who was the real mastermind, and his one year at Washington State wasn’t all that inspiring. He did a great job building Incarnate Word, but unlike Texas State, North Texas is a place with high expectations. Seth Littrell was fired right after playing in the conference championship game. The Mean Green have incredible facilities for a school at their level and sit in an obvious hotbed of talent. With UNT moving to the much tougher American Athletic Conference this season, the administration clearly felt like they needed a new voice to lead the team. Don’t expect Morris to have a very long leash if things go south.

14. USF- Alex Golesh

It’s always difficult to evaluate coaches like Golesh. Yes, he was the coordinator behind one of the most exciting offenses in the country at Tennessee, but that’s Huepel’s offense. He was the one calling plays, so how much credit should be given to Golesh? If you’re USF, you’re counting on him being able to seamlessly install that high-powered attack in Tampa. Golesh has at least spent most of his career as a recruiting coordinator, so that gives him a good leg up in a talent rich state like Florida. 

15. Georgia Tech- Brent Key

Will Brent Key be the head coach at Georgia Tech five years from now? Probably not. It’s a brutal job that is only getting harder. Plus, the athletic department is flat broke. New athletic director J Batt was brought in specifically to be a fundraising superstar. Unfortunately, for the football team, that money doesn’t come in overnight. After fumbling what would’ve been an A+ hire in Willie Fritz, the Yellow Jackets decided to stick with the interim. Key did a great job in his eight games in charge, but he still seems like more of a bridge coach than anything; the guy who steadies the ship before the real coach of the future comes in.

16. Kent State- Kenni Burns

I’m not going to pretend to know much about Kenni Burns. However, I’ll never fault a cash-strapped team like Kent State for taking a chance on a young, successful position coach. He’s done a great job as the running backs coach at Minnesota the past six years, including coaching Mo Ibrahim, one of the best players in school history. Who knows how it will work out, but Burns has certainly earned this opportunity.

Part two coming soon.

(Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Football)

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