James Franklin is gone. Now, Vanderbilt Athletic Director David Williams must scramble to find a new head coach in time to salvage what remains of the 2014 recruiting class. Fortunately, Franklin left the program in much better shape than when he arrived and Williams has a plethora of viable, interested candidates to choose from.
We never actually know what’s going on in a coaching search until an offer is made, but let’s go ahead and examine the candidates anyways:
The Top Two:
We know, via various reports and sources, that these two coaches have been contacted and are being pursued by Vanderbilt for the opening. Both are likely to interview this week and will be the top choices for David Williams.
Chad Morris- Clemson Offensive Coordinator
Morris is a rising star in the coaching ranks, having been named Rivals.com Offensive Coordinator of the Year in 2011 and leading Clemson to the ninth-best scoring offense in the country this season. He is only 45, but is already the highest paid assistant coach in the country. Morris was formerly the offensive coordinator at Tulsa (following co-offensive coordinators Herb Hand and Gus Malzahn) and has put up points in all of his seasons as an OC. If you’re looking for a comparison to a current head coach, Morris reminds many of Gus Malzahn — who was offered the Vanderbilt head job in 2010 and reportedly accepted before changing his mind.
Morris has recruited the South extensively and is an offensive genius, making him an excellent fit for the head job in Nashville. He’s also a personal favorite of mine because he wears visors and speaks exactly like Steve Spurrier:
The concern with Morris is that he’ll leave again in a few years to take a bigger job. Given the way Franklin just exited that’s a realistic fear, but my thoughts are that if the new coach does a good enough job to leave for a bigger job then the Vanderbilt program will again be in a better place. Maybe ten jobs in the country are “destination jobs” and Vanderbilt likely never will be one. Almost any coach who views Vanderbilt as a destination job is one who will settle and that’s not who the Commodores want.
Morris is my top choice for the job because the Commodores have proven that you can build a good defense with a solid coordinator hire, but Vanderbilt needs an explosive offense to “take the next step” and become truly competitive in the SEC. Morris, like if Malzahn had been hired three years ago, will certainly bring that to Nashville. My ideal scenario would have Morris as the head coach, Herb hand promoted to offensive coordinator, and former Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell coming with Morris from Clemson as the new offensive line coach.
Derek Mason- Stanford Defensive Coordinator
No, not the former Titans/Ravens wide receiver. Mason is another coordinator on the rise as the architect of a stout Stanford defense since 2011. He has plenty of experience recruiting to an academically excellent school and could easily salvage, if not improve, Vanderbilt’s current recruiting class like Franklin did in 2010 and early 2011. Rightly or not, Mason will draw a lot of comparisons to Franklin as a young, energetic, African-American coordinator from an FBS school.
Like Franklin, Mason is a bit of a coaching nomad who has only recently stabilized at one school (this isn’t uncommon with position coaches and assistants). Before Stanford he coached at Mesa Community College, Weber State, Idaho, Bucknell, Utah, St. Mary’s, New Mexico State, Ohio and the Minnesota Vikings. His time at Stanford has been excellent, with the Cardinal having the tenth-ranked scoring defense in FBS this year by giving up just 19 points per game. Mason had plenty of Talent in Palo Alto, but just imagine what he could do with the young depth in Nashville.
Joe Schad, among others, has reported that Mason is locked in for an interview sometime this week.
With Bob Shoop reportedly gone to State College, only one in-house candidate remains. He has been granted an interview for the head job, but remains a long shot.
If you have ever walked past the Vanderbilt practice field on Natchez Trace, then you have heard Herb Hand’s voice. The current offensive line coach is one of the chief motivators in Nashville, and predates the Franklin era having been brought in by Bobby Johnson in 2009. Hand has stayed active on Twitter, interacting with Vanderbilt fans and staff, leading many to believe that he plans on staying in Nashville.
On the note of social media, Hand has become a favorite of both Vanderbilt fans and national football media by showcasing his gregarious personality on the interwebs. He regularly interacts with fans, athletes and writers, giving an insight into the coaching profession unseen elsewhere. If you haven’t read Spencer Hall’s profile of Hand from August, then stop looking at my website and read this right now.
Hand is my favorite college football coach not named Steve Spurrier, so I would love to see him promoted to the top job in Nashville. I was lucky enough to profile him in 2012 for The Vanderbilt Hustler, and it remains my favorite interview I’ve had with anyone in Vanderbilt Athletics. Questions remain about whether he can be the top man at a program, but Hand is certainly uniquely equipped to handle the challenge. If he were to get the promotion, it’s likely that Hand could keep at least some of the coaching staff together in Nashville, and maintain relationships with current recruits.
Oh yeah, he’s also an incredible chef.
The Small-School Longshot
Many coaches have reached out to David Williams about the opening in Nashville (20-25, by his own estimation) but with the big names already out and scheduled for interviews it seems unlikely many will be considered. One stands out, however, and could get a shot if the top choices decide not to come to Nashville.
The current head coach of Louisiana-Lafayette, Mark Hudspeth is a small-school coach that will get a big job sooner rather than later. He was the head coach at Division II North Alabama for seven years, going 66-21, before going to Mississippi State as a position coach then taking the head job of the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2011. Since starting in Lafayette, Hudspeth has gone 9-4 and won the New Orleans Bowl in all three of his seasons.
Though a long shot, Hudspeth will be a consideration for the top job. If Morris and Mason decide not to move to Nashville, Hudspeth will be thrust to the top of the pile of outside candidates. He’s been mentioned to fill several head coaching vacancies already this season, and will likely get a big job either this offseason or next. Hudspeth can win, the question is if he can recruit at the high level needed to compete in the SEC.
Just Now Heard This Name And It Won’t Happen But It Would Be Awesome
This was brought up on a sports talk radio show as I was writing this article and I loved it so I’m going to profile him even though it won’t happen.
The wide receivers and assistant head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, Culley played quarterback for Vanderbilt in the early 1970s. He was recruited to Nashville by then-linebackers coach Bill Parcells (yes, that Bill Parcells). While his playing career in Nashville was uneventful, he immediately turned to coaching and was back on West End as a wide receivers coach from 1979-1981.
Culley has been in the NFl since 1994, serving essentially as Andy Reid’s right-hand man since he was hired as the Philadelphia Eagles wide receivers coach in 1999. Culley is likely a non-candidate for this job, but it’s an interesting name with plenty of experience.
The Dark Horse No One is Talking About
Like any good coaching search, this one has borne some really juicy tidbits that we can’t confirm are actually true. As is our nature, we’ll speculate about them anyways. These are entirely things that we’ve heard through the grapevine.
A man. A man who is now 46. I didn’t expect to be placing Gundy on this list, but there are reports that the Oklahoma State head coach has supposedly reached out to Vanderbilt expressing interest in the job.
To be honest it makes no sense to me why Gundy would have any interest in leaving his alma mater for Vanderbilt. Yes, he very nearly left for Tennessee last offseason, but he makes $3.75 million coaching the school that he played quarterback for to consistent top-25 seasons. He’s been close to breaking into the national title picture for several years, and one weird loss to Iowa State in 2011 is all that kept him from breaking up the LSU-Alabama title game that year.
That said, if he is actually interested in leaving Stillwater then Vanderbilt would be extremely lucky to have a prodigal coaching talent like Gundy on the sidelines. He may only be nationally know for his famous “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, but Gundy has turned Oklahoma State into a juggernaut that has won at least nine games, and as many as 12, in five of the last six seasons.
In college football you can have no better recommendation than Nick Saban. Kirby Smart is the man that Saban has trusted with his most precious asset, his defense, since 2008. Smart is the name that comes up any time an SEC school has a vacancy, and has long been thought to be waiting on the Alabama or Georgia (his alma mater) job to open up. There are already rumors that Smart may defect to Athens as a defensive coordinator with a “head coach in waiting” tag this offseason.
Therein lies a major problem for Vanderbilt in potentially pursuing Smart: he will absolutely leave once a bigger opportunity comes along. And he will be leaving for another SEC school, that the Commodores will have to play quite frequently. As good a defensive mind as Smart is, it’s tough to see David Williams pursuing him for that very reason. Other coaches are a risk to use Vanderbilt as a stepping-stone, Smart is a certainty.
Though Smart has been a popular name among fans, we haven’t heard anything about any actual interest from the school.
This is a new name that has been linked to the coaching search, and one that many Vanderbilt fans likely aren’t too familiar with. Hamilton is currently the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, and was the OC at Stanford before that under David Shaw.
Hamilton is a young coach at just 39 years old. He played quarterback at Howard University from 1993-1996, and has been coaching ever since with stops at Howard, the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, and the Chicago Bears before Stanford. His name only came up when reported by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Hamilton fits the mold of a young guy with ties to an academic school that many at Vanderbilt are looking for, but he’s coached nearly his entire career in the NFL and would likely be looking for a return to the league if his stint in Nashville goes well. We don’t have much tying him to the vacancy other than Schefter’s tweet, but it wouldn’t be surprising for Hamilton to at least get an interview with David Williams.
This is another one brought to us by Adam Schefter’s twitter feed, as the ESPN report tells us that Schottenheimer will interview for the head coaching position Wednesday.
Schottenheimer is similar to Lane Kiffin in that neither has exactly lit the world on fire anywhere they’ve been, but they’re often hailed as talented offensive minds who keep getting jobs (you can read whatever you want into the fact that both have famous coaches as fathers). Schott is best known from his time as offensive coordinator for the New York Jets, where his teams never finished much better than league-average in offense (though they were hampered by having Mark Sanchez as a quarterback for the most part). He was forced out of New York in 2012, when he moved to St. Louis as Jeff Fisher’s offensive coordinator.
It’s hard to see a fit here, as Schottenheimer has only spent two years in the college coaching ranks, and would almost certainly return if offered an NFL head coaching position. He also played quarterback for Florida, which is kind of a deal-breaker for me. It speaks a lot to Vanderbilt’s growing influence that Schottenheimer would interview with the program, but this doesn’t feel like a good fit or a good hire.