Back from my mini-break. It was a draining season for various reasons, and it's been an emotional last couple of weeks with the dismissal of long time head coach Jeff Tedford and the prospect of having a new leader for the Cal program for the first time in over a decade. In the world of college football fandom, this is unfamiliar territory for a lot of folks.
There's been a lot of names for replacements floating around the webisphere the past month, and while some have been flat out ridiculous, some have been far more realistic and intriguing.
I've heard whispers of a semi-official list of coaching candidates who have been interviewed, and I must say there are some encouraging and not-so-encouraging names on the list. I'll run through my thoughts on a few of them, as well as a few others who have been mentioned though aren't in the official running, just to throw off the hounds.
In order of preference from least to most coveted...
Look, I understand that the charismatic Jackson could inject some energy into the team, but please, just...no. Jackson's name has been thrown around quite a bit, and he's been quoted to saying something to the effect that he'd take the Cal job in a heartbeat. But the guy hasn't been consistently successful at any coaching position at any level. He's bounced around from job to job, and hasn't stayed at any position for longer than three years. Look at the offenses he's run as the OC. None of them impress you. His one year as the head coach of the Raiders? 8-8. And we're supposed to buy that he was a great coach because the Raiders are back to being terrible and not just mediocre? That's one of the weakest arguments possible for a coach. And it's not like teams were lining up for Jackson's services after he was relieved of his duties in Oakland. He's currently the assistant to Special Teams and assistant to Defensive Backs for the Cincinnatti Bengals. That's right. He's not even the assistant defensive backs coach, he's the assistant to the defensive backs coach.
That's cool...if you're Dwight Schrute.
As an all-time great Cal linebacker, Rivera's built up a repuation as a stud defensive coordinator. As a head coach? Not so much. The Panthers are 8-18 under Rivera, and he's likely to be dismissed at the end of this year with the Panthers' ownership growing impatient with Rivera. We all know well that the lack of success at the NFL level doesn't necessarily mean an individual won't succeed at the college level: see Nick Saban, Pete Carroll, Bobby Petrino, etc. But here's the problem: Rivera hasn't been a head coach at the college level. I'm not sure his personality translates well to overseeing a collegiate program either. I have no doubt the guy knows his Xs and Os, and will instill a tough, defensive-minded culture on the team, but I don't have a great deal of optimism right off the bat either.
Hazell is an interesting name because I doubt many people know who he even is. That's because Kent State has gone from laughing stock to playing in the MAC championship game with a 11-2 record pretty quickly. It's an impressive turnaround for sure, but there's little to indicate that Hazell can do it consistently in the Pac-12. Prior to being the head coach at Kent State, Hazell served as the wide receivers coach for five years at Ohio State. Not quite the resume that jumps out at you. I'd like to see what Hazell can do for several more years at Kent State before handing him the keys to the Cal program.
Calhoun's a familiar name as many will remember the Bears facing off against his Air Force Squad in the 2007 Armed Forces Bowl. Remember Longshore and Riley, and that comeback? And all that? Yeah, him. Anyway, it's still an odd choice simply because Calhoun's been firmly entrenched in the Air Force program for a while now. And though he's coached the Falcons to some nice seasons (47-30 in his tenure), he's never finished better than 2nd in the Mountain West. His teams are 2-3 in bowl games. His record looks eerily like Tedford's first 6 years at Cal, except he's doing it in the Mountain West. And then there's the question of what type of offense he'd run at Cal, as he surely can't expect to run the triple option in Berkeley. I don't know, it's an odd choice and though I don't think Calhoun is a bad coach by any means, I don't see him as the type to win with the Bears.
This guy's the wild card because he's the only collegiate candidate on the list without any head coaching experience. Why's he on the list? Because his defense is playing Alabama in the national championship game. That's why. But if you look at what he's done with Brian Kelly at both Cincinnati and Notre Dame, his body of work speaks for itself. He was a semifinalist for the 2011 Broyles Award, presented annually to college football's top assistant coach. He's turned an awful Fighting Irish defense to one of the best in the country, ranking in the top 25 in most statistical categories. And Cincy's defense was in pretty good shape when he left it. Don't know what the Bearcats are up to now, but they were good.
It's an impressive resume. I have no doubt in my mind that this guy is going to be a head coach within the next few years. He's young, the ladies swoon over him, and he's got charisma. This might be a reach, but he does strike me as having a bit of a Harbaugh personality though. That is, he can be kinda...weird. Enigmatic is probably a better word, but he can be a bit awkward with the media at times. But all is forgivable if you win. That he does, but it's still a gamble to hire someone who's never been a head coach before. With the pressure to win now, I'm not sure if the Bears can afford to hire Diaco. Really intriguing, but risky.
MacIntyre is a name that has risen up my list the past few weeks. The first time I heard the name, my honest reaction was, "the guy at San Jose State? No thank you." But the more I've looked into what he's done at SJSU, and how he's done it, I'll admit, I'm impressed. This was a terrible Spartan program that was limited in scholarships, and a pushover in the WAC. After a 1-10 start, the Spartans improved to 5-7 in his second season, and 10-2 this year with the only losses being a close 3 point loss to Stanford and to Utah State. That loss to Stanford looks a whole lot better now given what we know about the Cardinal.
If the team's transformation wasn't enough, he's gotten grad rates up, and most impressively, he never seemed to lament the limitations in taking over the program. Since SJSU couldn't hold their own recruiting camps, he and his staff hit the road, setting up regional camps to attract attention SJSU. He could have easily gone the JC route, but has been setting on building a program and not looking for short-term solutions. It's a strategy that has paid off.
It's not a sexy pick, and there's certainly no guarantee that MacIntyre could do the same at Cal. But it's hard not to look at the work that he's done there and wonder what he might be able to do with the resources and talent on this Cal team.
For a while, Sonny Dykes was a bit of my default pick. I wasn't completely sold on him, but I didn't think there'd be any other stronger candidates who we had a realistic shot at.
Let's make it clear, there's a lot to like about Sonny Dykes. How's this for starters: the opportunity to have the best offense in the country. That's what Dykes has accomplished at Louisiana Tech with the Bulldogs leading the country with a whopping 51.5 points per game. The idea of Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin working with some of Cal's explosive playmakers next year is appetizing indeed.
But there are plenty of question marks. Louisiana Tech's defense is about as awful as their offense has been prolific. Of course, this would be of less a concern if Dykes could bring on an all-star defensive coordinator.
Then you've got the issue of a lack of any signature wins under Dykes' belt. Really, getting the Bulldogs to 9-3 is really impressive given how awful LT has been for so long, but their opponents haven't been anything close to world beaters. They've been pretty bad actually. So you really have to wonder how he'll do against Top 25 teams on a regular basis.
My biggest fear? Upside. Specifically, I don't know what it is with Dykes. Best case: I can see his team putting up a whole lot of points, but I do wonder how much better they'd fare than 8 or 9 wins a season.
But all in all, I can see Dykes coming in and immediately getting this team to become competitive week after week. But I know I speak for many when I say that we didn't fire the winningest coach in Cal history to be satisfied with 7 or 8 wins a season.
Now we're talking. Let me state that I think we have very little shot at pulling Strong out to Berkeley. With that said, I'd be thrilled with Strong for obvious reasons. The former defensive coordinator for Florida has done an amazing job in pulling Louisville out of the ashes of Steve Kragthorpe's smoldering mess.
I simply really admire a lot of Strong's qualities. He's got a strong defensive mindset, instills a hard-nosed mindset in his football team, and shows an amazing ability to get the most out of his team. The loss to Syracuse was mind-boggling, but all in all, I'd be doing backflips if Strong were hired.
I end the list with my absolute top choice for the head coaching position. Here's what I wrote about him in Pacific Takes' roundtable on dream coaching candidates.
"If we’re talking about our top choices regardless of how realistic it’d be to get them to come to Berkeley, I’d be ecstatic with Chris Petersen. I know some may scoff at coaches from mid-major conferences, but I love the way he runs his football teams. They play smart, disciplined football, and he seems to be able to extract every last ounce of talent from his players. Imagine what he could do with some of the personnel on this team. The guy’s a winner and has proven it, even against the big boys. Would love to see him in Blue and Gold."
With Peterson, I see just two drawbacks: First, his flashy 82-8 record is very much the result of beating up on WAC opponents during his tenure, and a lot of teams could build up some gaudy numbers facing off against Wyoming year in and year out. With that said, it's not like Boise St. has shrunken under the spotlight. Think about the teams they've beaten in the last six years: Oklahoma, TCU, Oregon (twice), Virginia Tech, Georgia, etc. They've shown they can not only play with the big boys, but whup their asses as well. His teams never get blown out, as their rare losses are always by less than one score (the number of one or two point losses under Peterson is astounding). He gets his team ready to play. I don't care what conference you're in: that's impressive to do under seven seasons as a head coach.
The second hesitation is that he's already an established coach who may not be as hungry as a young up-and-comer who's looking to make his mark in the coaching world. Personally, I don't buy that for a second. You don't think Peterson is aware that his coaching legacy is attached with the "yeah he's a good coach, but he coaches in the WAC/MWC"? He's as driven as the next guy (any successful head coach is) and understands that he's going to need to prove it in one of the automatic qualifying conferences. I have a hard time buying that he'll come into the Pac-12 and kick up his feet. I think he'll be just as hungry, and just as driven to prove himself.
I will say this: this is an absolutely critical time. The athletic department and AD Sandy Barbour can't afford to screw this up. They know this. They understand the pressure surrounding the program, and it's clear they've got a clear set of criteria for their new coach.
And personally, I can't wait.