Yes, I know, it's très gauche to talk about replacing a coach who hasn't been fired yet, but the writing is on the wall here and Harsin probably has, at most, two weeks left as Auburn's football coach. If a home loss to a mediocre LSU team doesn't do him in, getting our skeletons rearranged by the dwags in a couple of weeks certainly will. While the official Auburn media seem unwilling to speculate about the successor to a coach who's still employed (probably the right approach), I'm a random idiot on the internet who isn't beholden to such ethical restrictions, so I'm gonna speculate away. Here are my thoughts on the potential candidates to replace Harsin.
First, let me lay out my criteria for determining who's qualified for the job:
1. SEC experience. If the Harsin debacle has shown us anything, it's that it really does just mean more in the SEC, and you can't bring in a total outsider who has zero experience coaching in this conference. I don't think the new coach has to be a current or former SEC head coach, but he has to have significant experience coaching and recruiting in the SEC, and if he has ties to Auburn or the state of Alabama, then that's even better.
2. Proven success as a P5 coach. Much like the first criterion, Harsin has shown us that you can't throw a G5 lifer into one of the toughest P5 jobs in the country and expect him to succeed. I don't think that we have to poach a current or former P5 head coach, but at the very least, any serious candidate should have a track record of success as a P5 coordinator that proves his capability to work at this level of the sport.
3. Program-building experience. I don't think Auburn is looking at a complete rebuild in 2023, but it's certainly in much worse shape than it was two years ago, and most of the other teams in the second tier of the SEC have made progress while we've regressed under Harsin. The new coach probably can't expect instant success and is going to have to spend a couple of years rebuilding the roster to a talent level that can compete with the top teams in the conference. That's why I think it's important that the new coach should have proven ability in rebuilding a program, rather than just inheriting one that was already good from his predecessor.
With these three criteria in mind, I'm going to focus on the three candidates who meet all of these criteria and are likely to be given serious consideration during our coaching search. I'm presenting them in the order that I think they'll be considered, not in my order of preference.
1. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss Head Coach. Of course, we have to start with the name that's always going to come up when there's a coaching vacancy in the SEC. College football's prodigal son has put together an interesting career to say the least, with some high highs and some low lows. He checks the first two boxes above, and certainly fits the bill for what we need in a new coach: he would recruit well, put together a good coaching staff, revitalize the offense, and return some excitement to the program. His schematic preferences (up-tempo, high RPO and QB run volume) and willingness to adopt analytics certainly align with my own biases. However, he's also a lightning rod for controversy, some of it cheeky and fun and some of it less savory. More importantly, I'm not sure that he has one critical attribute that we should be looking for: stability. As I noted above, this isn't going to be a 2013-style turnaround job. The new coach will have to put in some work to get the team back to where it needs to be and take some lumps along the way. Kiffin hasn't stuck around at any job for more than a few years, and it's difficult to assess whether he's really capable of sustained success at one program. He's certainly the most likely coach to turn things around quickly here, but it's not as clear whether that change would lead to long-term success. He would also likely be the most expensive candidate on this list, since he's making $7.25M at Ole Miss ($1.25M more than Harsin is making). Kiffin would be the flashiest hire, and he probably has the highest ceiling, but he also has the lowest floor. He's high-risk, high-reward, which I'm not sure we can take a chance on right now.
2. Jeff Grimes, Baylor Offensive Coordinator. Maybe the hottest coordinator name in the country right now, Jeff Grimes' name will appear on any list of potential Auburn head coaching candidates and is likely to be one of the first people to get a call from the new AD. And it's not without justification, either. Grimes was a finalist for the Broyles Award last year and has made a name for himself at BYU and Baylor. He has SEC experience as the offensive line coach at LSU, and, of course, Auburn, where he coached the line that paved the way for the 2010 national championship team and recruited and developed the excellent 2013 offensive line. In retrospect, Gus Malzahn's decision not to retain Grimes looks like one of his most glaring mistakes. Grimes has never been a head coach before, which is obviously a concern, but he's proven his ability to build a program on the offensive side of the ball very quickly, taking a Baylor team that had been one of the worst offenses in the country in 2020 to one capable of winning 12 games in 2021. He has a clear idea of what he wants out of his offense, a run-first system he calls the RVO ("Reliable, Violent Offense"), which is premised on a physical, downhill running game based on the wide zone concept. I'm not going to get too into the weeds on the Xs and Os here (although I will if he gets the job, of course), but in general terms, his scheme would be a very good fit for Auburn's cultural identity. His experience coaching offensive line is an additional bonus, since that position group has single-handedly hamstrung Auburn for most of the last decade, and hasn't been the same since he left the Plains in 2012. His combination of SEC/Auburn experience, program-building success, and offensive line bona fides are the reason I think he's the best candidate for the job, and if I were the AD, he would be my first call. He's going to be a P5 head coach somewhere next year, might as well be here.
3. Mark Stoops, Kentucky Head Coach. To my mind, Mark Stoops is essentially the poor man's version of Jeff Grimes. That's not really a fair assessment, since Stoops has done a remarkable job building Kentucky from a basketball school where football had been an afterthought since the Hal Mumme days into a consistently competent program, and at the moment a pretty darn good one. In fact, I think there's some question about whether he'd actually leave Kentucky, where he's basically set for life, to come to Auburn, which is, uh, significantly less patient. However, it's no secret that he and John Calipari don't like each other (I'm not sure anyone likes John Calipari other than John Calipari) and Stoops may be happy to escape his greasy, pinstriped shadow to a basketball school that would prefer to be a football school and will prioritize the program accordingly. He would be a safe, unflashy hire for Auburn and I think he could be successful here. I think he has the highest floor, but also the lowest ceiling, and is the least likely of the three main candidates to actually want the job, so I'm ranking him third by default.
Good, Not Great Candidates
I'm going to list a few other names who are certainly interesting but probably shouldn't be top-tier candidates because they don't fit one of the criteria I listed above. These are in no particular order.
1. Mike Elko, Duke Head Coach. Elko, the former Texas A&M and Notre Dame DC, has proven his capabilities on that side of the ball and is off to a pretty good start at Duke, but it's still early days for him in his first head coaching job, and he doesn't have enough experience under his belt to really peg him as a future SEC head coach yet.
2. Lance Leipold, Kansas Head Coach. Another coach who's off to a strong start at a very difficult rebuild. Lance Leipold has Kansas, which has been the worst P5 program in the country for the past decade, sitting at 4-0 and with genuine optimism for the future for the first time since the Mark Mangino days. He's built his program around a dynamic and sophisticated run game that's a ton of fun to watch, and if he were more experienced and had the requisite SEC ties, I'd have included him as a top-tier candidate. He's going to end up somewhere bigger than Lawrence someday.
3. Dell McGee, Georgia RB Coach, and Travis Williams, UCF Defensive Coordinator. I'm going to group these two together because my assessment of them is basically the same. They're both Auburn alumni who would undoubtedly be popular with the fans and alumni and start with some capital because of that. They're also both known as excellent recruiters who are dynamic hype men for their respective programs, exactly the kind of guys you want as an assistant coach in this era of college football. However, they're both career assistants and I'm not sure whether either of them is really ready to be an SEC head coach. I think there's an argument for a CEO-type head coach who is an ace recruiter and hype man for the program (the Clemson model), but that model relies very heavily on the coordinators, which means you have to bat 1.000 on those coordinator hires. If you miss even once, you get what Clemson got last season. It worked well in an ACC where all of the other perennial power programs have been down for most of the past decade, but I think it's too risky and too difficult to sustain over the long term in a conference like the SEC, where that's not going to happen. They'd both be popular, unifying hires, but I'm not sure we can take that kind of risk right now.
4. Rhett Lashlee, SMU Head Coach. The most successful of Gus' large adult sons, Rhett Lashlee parlayed a relatively good stint as the offensive coordinator at Miami into his first head coaching gig at SMU. He obviously isn't experienced enough as a head coach to get serious consideration for the Auburn job, and I'm not sure Auburn would go back to the well with one of Gus' protégés so quickly, but I think he has the potential to be a good G5 head coach, if not a future P5 coach.
5. Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina Head Coach. One of the most interesting teams to watch in all of college football, Chadwell has built Coastal Carolina from the ground up with his creative option offense, and his schemes have been readily copied by coaches all over the country. However, the fact that he's never coached above the G5 level and his system hasn't been tested at the highest level (and would be subject to the same kind of negative recruiting that dogged Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech), which precludes him from serious consideration. He should be Georgia Tech's first call though, along with Jeff Monken.
Great Candidates Who We Can't Get
There's really only one name that I would categorize as a great fit, but probably unrealistic.
1. Dave Aranda, Baylor Head Coach. The former LSU and Wisconsin DC has done a remarkable job turning around a Baylor program that had been mired in scandal and winning the Big XII in year two. Part of this is attributable to Jeff Grimes, as discussed above, but Aranda is one of the best defensive minds in the country, as demonstrated by his success in shutting down two of the country's most dynamic offenses (Oklahoma and Ole Miss) in the postseason last year. He's not unrealistic for financial reasons (he's making the same amount of money as Harsin and we can probably offer more than Baylor could) but I don't think he's likely to leave Waco at this stage, given the success he's had there and the stability of his position, especially since the departure of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big XII is going to leave Baylor as the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. If I thought there was a realistic chance of getting him, he'd be at the top of the list, but unfortunately I just don't think it's in the cards right now.
Bad Candidates Who Should Not Be Considered
There's nothing like a coaching search to get the message board idiots foaming at the mouth, and sure enough, there have been some truly stupid ideas suggested. This list could probably go on ad infinitum, but I'm going to focus on the two that I've seen the most.
1. Hugh Freeze, Liberty Head Coach. The disgraced former Ole Miss head coach seems to come up anytime there's an SEC coaching vacancy, but I think the interest has generally been one-sided. Freeze left Ole Miss under a cloud of allegations of both sleazy professional conduct and sleazy personal conduct. He's continued to attract negative attention in his time at Liberty, which shows he hasn't learned much from the experience. Beyond his deservedly negative reputation, though, Freeze just isn't that great of a coach. Yeah, he beat Saban a couple of times, but so did Gus, and he did it without flagrant cheating and perpetual scandal. He had some success with former Auburn QB Malik Willis at Liberty during the COVID year, but even with Willis returning the next year, he couldn't recreate that success. He's basically just a worse version of Gus, and hiring him makes no sense even in pure football terms.
2. Deion Sanders, Jackson State Head Coach. Jesus Christ on roller skates. No. No. A thousand times no. I don't even have the words to describe how monumentally stupid this idea is. Deion Sanders is the antithesis of what we should be looking for right now. Sure, he managed to bribe a few top recruits to come to Jackson State with NIL money, but he has no FBS coaching experience and hasn't really proven that he's even very good at coaching football. On top of that, he's spent over three decades cultivating a reputation as a self-centered, attention-craving diva who clearly expects to be the center of attention as a coach, which might fly at a place like Jackson State, but would rapidly wear thin at Auburn. People look at the couple of recruits he's poached and just assume he could replicate that at Auburn, without thinking about whether he could actually, you know, hire good coaches and put a good team on the field, much less lead a program to sustained, long-term success. He shouldn't be considered for the Auburn job. Hell, he shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as the Auburn job. He's a completely unserious person and hiring him would be a flaming disaster.
I want to be clear that I have no inside knowledge whatsoever, and it's difficult to forecast exactly what direction Auburn will go in with no AD and with Bryan Harsin at least briefly still employed as Auburn's head coach. However, I think the top three candidates I listed are all fairly obvious and will likely be on our shortlist regardless of who we hire as the AD. Any of them would be a significant improvement over Harsin and I'd be happy with them, but I think that Jeff Grimes is the best of the three, and hopefully I've made my case for him effectively. It's really hard to stress enough how important it is that we get this hire right, because we're at a make or break point. We're one or two bad years away from depleting the roster to the point where we don't have enough talent to turn around quickly and will be looking at an Arkansas-level rebuild. We can't let that happen in an era where the gap between the haves and have nots is growing and being on the wrong side of that line can be fatal. We have to move quickly and decisively and make the right choice.
As a lagniappe, here are some of my notes on the Baylor offense from the Iowa State game last week, demonstrating how Grimes has built a diverse yet cohesive offense around his foundational wide zone concept. Needless to say I'll have a schematic breakdown of the new coach when the time comes, but I'll leave it here for now.
*one correction to this page, the bottom diagram is 12 personnel not 10 personnel; I was doing this pretty late last night