Back when Chip Kelly coached as an assistant at New Hampshire, they’d often play Atlantic 10 conference rival Northeastern in late September or early October in Boston. Kelly was known to walk over to Fenway Park to catch the final few innings of a Red Sox playoff game after his own game. Kelly knew a few of the security guards, and he’d watch the game from a standing-room area, blending seamlessly into the crowd.
These days, it’s a little more difficult for Kelly to blend in, as his rise from quirky coordinator at a remote school to one of the most respected offensive minds in football has been one of the most remarkable ascents in modern football. Now his decision on whether to take the job at either Florida or UCLA, both of which he’s spoken to this week and have expressed significant interest, looms over the sport.
This is a column dedicated to predictions of what will happen during what promises to be a furious post-Thanksgiving flurry of firings and hirings across college football. The most important market indicator is Kelly’s upcoming choice between UCLA and Florida, as that will dictate the rest of the hirings across the landscape.
The prediction here for Kelly is that he ends up going to coach at UCLA. Despite Kelly’s rise to stardom, there’s still part of this that’s he uncomfortable. There’s still a part of Kelly’s persona who relishes being able to catch a game at Fenway without anyone noticing him.
Kelly’s choice between UCLA and Florida is a fascinating one. From a pure football perspective, Florida is a much better job. At Florida, there’s tradition, a recent history of success and a recruiting base that would allow his spread-tempo offense to flourish. But Kelly’s guiding principle through all this has been fit and people. And as a life fit, it’s likely Kelly would be more comfortable being a star in the constellation of Los Angeles as opposed to being the most famous person in a small SEC town.
There’s also familiarity, as Kelly dominated the Pac-12 while head coach at Oregon – 46-7 in his four years as head coach between 2009 and 2012.
Florida, despite the subpar facilities, is one of the country’s top 10 jobs. UCLA is arguably one of the top 25, as it would be considered behind USC, Washington, Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12 pecking order. But after Kelly’s run at Oregon, struggles in the NFL with Philadelphia and his flop in San Francisco, his perspective is going to go much beyond where he can accumulate the most national titles. Money won’t be a driving factor, as Kelly has said all along that fit and happiness will be.
So the prediction here is UCLA, and the following predictions will all fall in line with that. UCLA has its flaws, as it’s unknown whether there’s enough support and infrastructure there to compete at the highest levels. But with sparkling new facilities, a strong local talent base and the Rose Bowl as a home venue, it would be fascinating to watch Kelly try.
We’ll leave this caveat that Kelly has been nothing if not unpredictable in his career. (Who knows? He could pass on both). But the longer this decision goes, the more clear it appears that Kelly will be heading West.
So with Kelly predicted to go to UCLA, what else happens? (Feel free to call up this story in two weeks and laugh.)
Names: Scott Frost, Dan Mullen, Matt Campbell
Prediction: Scott Frost. This one seems pretty obvious. Florida needs offense. Frost has dominated the competition, and Florida gives him a much better platform than Nebraska to win a title.
Names: Dan Mullen, Matt Campbell, Scott Frost, Greg Schiano, Mike Norvell
Prediction: Matt Campbell. Mullen has a difficult decision, as it’s perceived he’s Tennessee’s top choice. But the tricky part here is that Florida State could open, which even Peyton Manning would agree is an exponentially better job than Tennessee. Does he wait out FSU? Campbell’s buyout is huge ($9 million), but thank God for the SEC Network and creative contracts.
Names: Jimbo Fisher, Gary Patterson, Justin Fuente, Mike Gundy, Chad Morris
Prediction: Jimbo Fisher. This is a prediction made with the least confidence. Fisher had overtures from LSU the past two years and declined. That’s telling, as LSU is a much better job than Texas A&M, where they haven’t won a league title since 1998 and a national title since 1939. Fisher’s family situation is complicated, with a recent divorce and a child with a rare medical condition. If he was going to leave, wouldn’t he have taken the better gig? There’s a strong relationship with athletic director Scott Woodward, but does that trump all the other complications? The one thing we know is that A&M isn’t afraid to pay, but there aren’t a bevy of coaches on the board dying to go to College Station. Look for Fisher to break the bank if Woodward can land him.
*We’re assuming Kevin Sumlin gets fired, which will be the least surprising move of the year.
Names: Scott Frost, Mike Leach, Kevin Sumlin, Greg Schiano, Jason Candle, Bret Bielema
Prediction: Mike Leach. If Frost goes to Florida, this one gets tricky. There’s no easy answer, but new athletic director Bill Moos could end up just going with familiarity. Leach has won everywhere he’s gone, and should be able to recruit Texas well from Lincoln. The style may offend the sensibilities of Nebraska fans, but not as much as the recent rut of losing has.
*We’re assuming Mike Riley gets fired as well.
Names: Mike Norvell, Mike MacIntyre, Chad Morris, Willie Taggart, Jeremy Pruitt, Matt Luke, Frank Wilson
Prediction: Mike MacIntyre. Despite the insistence of Ole Miss officials otherwise, the NCAA ruling on the school’s massive recruiting infractions case did not come out before the end of the regular season. No one knows when it will. That hamstrings their search, as no one wants a job if they don’t know how significantly their hands will be tied around their back. This is a hard spot for a promising young coach, as they don’t want to risk rotting away their career for Hugh Freeze’s sins. Look for MacIntyre to slide over, as he’s worked there before and butted heads with administrators at Colorado.
Names: Gus Malzahn, Mike Norvell, Chad Morris, Blake Anderson
Prediction: Mike Norvell. Malzahn will be the clear-cut first choice. But he’d be difficult to lure if the Tigers upset Alabama on Saturday. The volatility at Auburn has worn on Malzahn, but he’d have a much more difficult time winning a title at Arkansas than Auburn. Complicating matters is that both schools don’t have athletic directors. Could the prospect of hiring his own guy appeal to Malzahn? For now, pulling off the Malzahn coup appears too tricky for an interim AD and band of aggressive boosters. Norvell appears the most logical fit.
*We’re assuming Bielema follows AD Jeff Long out the door.
Names: Ken Niumatalolo, Beau Baldwin, Mike Bloomgren, Jonathan Smith, Alex Grinch, Ken Norton
Prediction: Beau Baldwin. This job is all over the place right now, as they’re swinging for sitting head coaches. But when they distill to reality, look for the former Eastern Washington coach and current Cal offensive coordinator to bring a winning pedigree, distinct style and familiarity with the area. His year of Pac-12 experience is a bonus.
Names: Willie Taggart, Dan Mullen, Greg Schiano, Matt Campbell, Brian Kelly, Justin Fuente
Prediction: Since it’s not open – and may well not end up – I’m going to pass on the prediction. But this would be the most fascinating search on the board, as Florida State hasn’t run a coaching search in basically 40 years. The facilities have slipped at FSU, as Clemson’s vision and leadership have led them to build superior infrastructure. (Just ask Jimbo, who has been vocal about the Seminoles slipping behind). But this job is a monster, and there’d be plenty of people lined up for it.
*Assuming Jimbo Fisher leaves.
Names: Kevin Sumlin, Mike Norvell, Blake Anderson, Beau Baldwin, Pep Hamilton
Prediction: Kevin Sumlin: This just makes the most sense. There’d have to be a clear upgrade available, and Sumlin is certainly that. He also has a reputation for being a much better people person than Todd Graham, who has a career-long reputation of awkward exits and aggrieved administrators. This exit would cost ASU nearly $12 million.
*There’s increasing speculation that Arizona State will open, despite Graham going 6-5 so far this season with a marquee victory over Washington.