If Not Justin Fuente, Then Who?

Unless the tide changes in the final two games of this season, we’ve hit the beginning of the end for Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech. (Photo: Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

This season has been a colossal disappointment for the Hokies. There’s no better way to put it. There are other factors that come into play, but none that other schools aren’t also dealing with.

I spent much of the offseason as a Virginia Tech writer for Sports Illustrated, and I admittedly had high expectations for the Hokies. Shortly before joining the SI team, I had written a relatively all-encompassing article about Justin Fuente. Over the last few months, his stock has cratered.

Something needs to change within this program, and it likely starts with Fuente. That’s not the only thing that needs to be fixed, but it’s the most important. There’s no way to be a successful team if you lose to inferior competition frequently, your recruiting rankings are near the bottom of the Power Five, and the confidence in your leader from outside observers is trending in the wrong direction. You’ll never acquire personnel with the level of talent that you desire, and you’ll run the risk of losing control of your own locker room – it’s almost inevitable.

Fuente has an eight-figure buyout attached to him, which makes him very difficult to move on from. The good news is that the buyout drops in cost over time. Fuente’s dismissal might not come in the next handful of weeks. It might not even happen before next season. But it seems to be a matter of time.

The best way I know how to cope in such a disgusting situation is by hypothesizing who the next coach might be, assuming a change would take place. For the Hokies, it’s a tough question to answer. Their budgetary restrictions might require making a cheap hire, but maybe they’ll throw all the chips on the table and pick someone held in higher regard.

The approach within this piece is a bit different than what you might see from other writers. Rather than laying out the top five head coaching candidates or something along those lines, you’ll see some names that seem to make sense for the Hokies in some capacity – mostly for the head coaching job, but not in every case, because a pretty thorough cleaning of house across the staff is necessary – and discuss each of their credentials in some depth.

We’ll start with a few coaches who have clear connections to the Hokies (with their age entering – or during the majority of, in some cases – next season in parentheses). Then we’ll dive into some hot commodities across the college football landscape, some guys you might not know much about, a coach that many people view more negatively than they should, and wrap up the list with a high-profile sleeper candidate.

Shane Beamer (44)

  • 1995-99: Player at Virginia Tech
  • 2000: Georgia Tech (graduate assistant)
  • 2001-03: Tennessee (graduate assistant)
  • 2004-06: Mississippi State (cornerbacks)
  • 2007-08: South Carolina (cornerbacks)
  • 2009-10: South Carolina (linebackers and special teams)
  • 2011-15: Virginia Tech (assistant head coach and running backs)
  • 2016-17: Georgia (tight ends and special teams)
  • 2018-20: Oklahoma (assistant head coach and tight ends)

The most obvious connection is his inseparable ties to Virginia Tech. He played and coached in Blacksburg under his father, who is undeniably viewed as a legend locally. Ironically, those were also some of Tech’s worst years during the Frank Beamer era, but Shane certainly has pedigree on his side in more ways than one.

The best player at his position group during his coaching tenure with the Hokies was All-American and subsequent first-round draft pick David Wilson. But unlike a lot of other coaches within this shortlist of candidates, there isn’t much else in terms of statistics or player personnel to speak of for Beamer. The larger story in that vein is who he’s coached under at each of his stops: George O’Leary, Phillip Fulmer, Sylvester Croom, Steve Spurrier, Frank Beamer (as already mentioned), Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley. That’s quite a list of very solid head coaches.

The fact that Shane has worn numerous hats is also a plus. He’s coached multiple positions on offense and defense, handled special teams, led recruiting at South Carolina, and served as an assistant head coach. Even if he possesses a “proficient at many, expert at none” quality, his presumptive understanding of so many areas makes him a logical CEO type of head coach. And of course, being raised by one of the all-time winningest collegiate coaches only helps him.

The gig that likely helps him the most is his current one. Oklahoma is an offensive juggernaut, and anyone beneath mastermind Lincoln Riley – particularly someone with Beamer’s resumé – stands to benefit.

Beamer is viewed as the front runner for South Carolina’s head coaching vacancy, and Virginia Tech could be an awkward landing spot for him anyway, but his name undeniably has to be mentioned if/when this job is in the balance.

Todd Grantham (55)

  • 1984-88: Player at Virginia Tech
  • 1990-91: Virginia Tech (defensive ends and inside linebackers)
  • 1992-93: Virginia Tech (defensive tackles)
  • 1994-95: Virginia Tech (defensive line)
  • 1996-98: Michigan State (defensive line)
  • 1999-2001: Indianapolis Colts (defensive line)
  • 2002-04: Houston Texans (defensive line)
  • 2005-07: Cleveland Browns (defensive coordinator)
  • 2008-09: Dallas Cowboys (defensive line)
  • 2010-13: Georgia (assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and outside linebackers)
  • 2014-16: Louisville (assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2017: Mississippi State (assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2018-20: Florida (defensive coordinator)

Much like Beamer, Grantham has clear Virginia Tech roots. In fact, he was also born and raised in nearby Pulaski County, so he’s certainly a logical fit within the region.

Also like Beamer, Grantham’s coaching upbringing is pretty noteworthy. After leaving Virginia Tech, he has served stints under Nick Saban, Jim Mora Sr. (Mr. “Playoffs?” himself), Dom Capers, Romeo Crennel, Wade Phillips, Mark Richt, Bobby Petrino and Dan Mullen. In summary, he was an assistant to numerous defensive masterminds before becoming the right-hand man to offensive gurus – whom generally deploy heavy spread offenses – in more recent years.

If you want to talk about what a potential coaching staff under Grantham might look like, I’ve already put some thought into it and might share it in the future, but we can save that for later.

Grantham’s a defensive line coach at his core, which might not be sexy, but he’s held in very high regard. He’s been a collegiate defensive coordinator for the last 11 seasons, primarily in the SEC, and his NFL experience also holds a bit of value. Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware each earned first-team All-Pro recognition under his watch when he was in Dallas, and his collegiate defenses have ranked in the top 25 nationally in yards allowed more often than not – and in the top 10 numerous times, most recently 2017 and 2019. His top cornerback C.J. Henderson was taken ninth overall in the most recent NFL Draft, but his list of star players certainly doesn’t end there, as their rankings would suggest.

Grantham has a very strong resumé. There are really only two questions in my mind:

  1. Would the Hokies entertain a first-time head coach in this situation?
  2. Would Grantham even take the job, or might he hold out for an SEC opening?

Regardless, he’s someone that must at least be interviewed. Worst case scenario, he says no, with no other damage caused.

Torrian Gray (47)

  • 1992-96: Player at Virginia Tech
  • 1997-99: Player for the Minnesota Vikings
  • 2000-01: Maine (defensive backs)
  • 2002-03: UConn (defensive backs)
  • 2004-05: Chicago Bears (assistant defensive backs)
  • 2006-15: Virginia Tech (defensive backs)
  • 2016: Florida (defensive backs)
  • 2017-18: Washington Redskins (defensive backs)
  • 2019-20: Florida (cornerbacks)

No, Gray probably shouldn’t be a head coaching candidate. However, he would be a great option as the defensive coordinator, due in part to his experience with the Hokies, especially if he could be paired with Grantham (his current boss) or another defensive-minded head coach.

Here’s a list of his defensive back pupils who went from Virginia Tech to the NFL: Aaron Rouse, Brandon Flowers, Macho Harris, Kam Chancellor, Roc Carmichael, Jayron Hosley, Kyle Fuller, Antone Exum, Kyshoen Jarrett, Kendall Fuller, Chuck Clark, Terrell Edmunds, Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson and Adonis Alexander. Impressive, right?

That resumé looks even better when you add his standouts from his two stints at Florida. Teez Tabor, Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson and Duke Dawson were all second-round draft picks that Gray helped develop, and C.J. Henderson has already been discussed.

Even his NFL-specific resumé is strong. In 2017, Washington’s pass defense – which Kendall Fuller was one of the leaders of – ranked in the top 10 in the league by most metrics, the Bears’ pass defense ranked fifth in the league in 2005, and Nathan Vasher and Mike Brown each earned Pro Bowl selections that season.

No one truly knows whether he’d be willing to return to Virginia Tech, but he likely would under the right circumstances, especially with a coaching change and a promotion – which it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve. If the Hokies could bring him back, it’s easy to imagine the success that he would lead his unit to. He is a Florida native, though, so there is some appeal to staying where he is.

Barry Odom (44)

  • 1996-99: Player at Missouri
  • 2000: Ada High School (assistant)
  • 2001-02: Rock Bridge High School (head coach)
  • 2003: Missouri (graduate assistant)
  • 2004-05: Missouri (director of recruiting)
  • 2006-08: Missouri (director of football operations)
  • 2009-11: Missouri (safeties)
  • 2012-14: Memphis (defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2015: Missouri (defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2016-19: Missouri (head coach)
  • 2020: Arkansas (assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and safeties)

This is partly – although not entirely – for comedic value, since Odom was a direct subordinate to Fuente at Memphis, yet he didn’t select him as Tech’s new defensive coordinator entering this season. There’s a slim possibility of that being revisited if Fuente sticks in Blacksburg past this year, but Odom’s credentials are solid enough to merit consideration for a head coaching job, potentially even the one Fuente might vacate.

Odom’s unique front office and recruiting background gives him additional value, and it’s been evident since his return to coaching. He also quickly proved himself to be a really solid coach. Missouri’s passing yards allowed per game improved from 104th in the nation (2009) to 37th (2010). The Tigers also finished 2010 in the top 20 in passer rating allowed, interceptions, touchdowns allowed, and yards per attempt.

Memphis’ total defense ranked 117th prior to Odom’s arrival. Over his three seasons, the defense gradually improved to 50th, 39th, and 22nd in yards allowed per game. And that’s in the high-flying American Athletic Conference, where offenses run the show and defense is typically viewed as optional. Memphis won 10 games in Odom’s final season there and closed as the No. 25 team in the nation.

In his lone season as defensive coordinator at Missouri, he led the unit to a top-10 total defense for the first time in program history. That earned him the head job, and while his defenses remained very strong, you’re evaluated by wins and losses in that position, and he was average at best in that sense. His only losing season was his first season, but he failed to win a bowl game, and a regression to 6-6 in 2019 was ultimately his undoing in Columbia.

As everyone knows, the SEC West is a gauntlet. It might be the toughest division in college football. Even with that considered, Arkansas got about the roughest draw it possibly could have in 2020. Imagine facing the entire West division, and then add Florida and Georgia to that. That’s hurt their defensive rankings, but the Razorbacks are tied for 10th in the FBS in turnovers forced – and all but one of the teams above them have played at least one more game than them – and tied for second in interceptions.

Barry Odom deserves a second chance at being a head coach, ideally in a conference that doesn’t start with “S” and end with “C”.

Brent Pry (51)

  • 1988-91: Player (Maryville College and Buffalo)
  • 1992: Buffalo (student coach)
  • 1993-94: East Stroudsburg (outside linebackers and defensive backs)
  • 1995-97: Virginia Tech (graduate assistant)
  • 1998-99: Western Carolina (defensive line)
  • 2000-01: Western Carolina (defensive backs and special teams)
  • 2002-06: Louisiana (assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2007-09: Memphis (defensive line)
  • 2010: Georgia Southern (defensive coordinator and safeties)
  • 2011-13: Vanderbilt (assistant head coach, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2014-15: Penn State (assistant head coach, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2016-20: Penn State (defensive coordinator and linebackers)

Penn State recruits the state of Virginia better than the Hokies do. That’s not the only factor in deciding on a head coach, but it’s certainly noteworthy and enough to get someone from Penn State in the mix.

First-year Old Dominion head coach Ricky Rahne (previously at Penn State) would serve essentially the same purpose, but this is only his third year at the offensive coordinator level or higher. He’d be a stronger candidate if he had another year or two in one of those roles.

It also helps than Pry has experience at Virginia Tech already, under Frank Beamer and Bud Foster. If you haven’t picked up on the trend, that’s something Whit Babcock should consider bringing back to Blacksburg. With that said, I haven’t heard anyone other than myself bring up Pry as a candidate for this job, and there are reasons for that.

The idea that Penn State’s coaching staff is on the hot seat is almost entirely false, though. The season the Nittany Lions are having falls well short of their expectations, but it’s predominantly because of a substandard active roster. And by the way, there’s a much larger buyout situation there, too.

This doesn’t even include their next three running backs behind Brown falling out of the picture due to either injuries (Noah Cain and Devyn Ford) or the decision to transfer (Ricky Slade), or the season-ending injury to their starting tight end and potential first-round draft pick Pat Freiermuth. The opt-out of Micah Parsons (a likely top-10 draft pick) has also crippled the defense. Pry and the coaches can’t honestly be blamed for that.

The real challenge is how attached at the hip Pry and PSU head coach James Franklin are. Pry’s father (Jim) coached and mentored Franklin at East Stroudsburg as a player, while the younger Pry was on the coaching staff. Pry is now in his 10th season on Franklin’s staff, between Vanderbilt and Penn State.

There’s a chance that the two of them are unwilling to split up at any point, especially since Fry is a native of central Pennsylvania. But Virginia Tech is a solid first stop as a head coach, and it wouldn’t be his first stint with the program.

He’s a little old for a potential first-time head coach, but that shouldn’t make anyone overly uncomfortable with him. His father was a long-time Division I coordinator, and he wouldn’t have been Franklin’s right-hand man for so long if he wasn’t held in high regard.

Luke Fickell (48)

  • 1993-96: Player at Ohio State
  • 1997: Player for the New Orleans Saints
  • 1999: Ohio State (graduate assistant)
  • 2000-01: Akron (defensive line)
  • 2002-03: Ohio State (special teams)
  • 2004: Ohio State (linebackers)
  • 2005-10: Ohio State (co-defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2011: Ohio State (full-season interim head coach)
  • 2012-16: Ohio State (co-defensive coordinator and linebackers)
  • 2017-20: Cincinnati (head coach)

Fickell arguably should be Tech’s top target. He’s only ever coached in Ohio, but he shares experience at Cincinnati with athletic director Whit Babcock – although the connection between them otherwise isn’t particularly strong, aside from potential shared relationships with advisory staff that have remained since Babcock left the school in 2014.

Much like Fuente and Memphis, Cincinnati resides in the American Athletic Conference, which seems to be the top springboard from the Group of Five schools to the Power Five, especially for coaches. That, along with his successful track record, will make Fickell very appealing to a lot of schools. He’s seemingly on the top tier in this cycle (along with the coach that will be discussed next).

Jumping to 2002 and beyond, Fickell was an assistant under Jim Tressel before replacing him for a season amidst an NCAA scandal. Due in large part to significant sanctions, Ohio State went only 6-7 in 2011, and Fickell was passed over for the full-time gig in favor of Urban Meyer. Fickell did stay on the Buckeyes staff, though.

His defenses at OSU were typically ranked within the top 25 in the nation (and often much higher) across the board. His teams were also fixtures in major bowl games, including three National Championship appearances, one of which (2015) the Buckeyes were victorious in.

At Ohio State, Fickell produced four first-round picks at linebacker alone (A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee), as well as second-rounder James Laurinaitis.

Fickell’s success didn’t really stop when he left Ohio State, although his tenure as Cincinnati’s head honcho did begin with a rough patch – a season in which the Bearcats went 4-8. But he recovered, and then some. His team won 11 games the following two seasons, and they are currently undefeated and the No. 7 team in the country.

He’s received interest – and in some cases, offers – from a handful of other schools already, and his resumé is very strong, so he’ll be tough to get. But how many better jobs than Virginia Tech will actually be available? Will that reasoning be enough to get him? It’s tough to say with any certainty.

Matt Campbell (41)

  • 1998-2002: Player (Pittsburgh and Mount Union)
  • 2003-04: Bowling Green (graduate assistant)
  • 2005-06: Mount Union (offensive coordinator and offensive line coach)
  • 2007-08: Bowling Green (offensive line)
  • 2009: Toledo (offensive line)
  • 2010-11: Toledo (offensive coordinator and offensive line)
  • 2011-15: Toledo (head coach)
  • 2016-20: Iowa State (head coach)

Truthfully, it’s doubtful that Campbell would settle for this job. He might be the top coach on the market, so he should receive more appealing offers – whether it’s somewhere like Michigan or an NFL job. Still, he’s worth quickly highlighting, because he’s a great candidate.

Campbell is a young, well-respected offensive mind. In many respects, he’s quite similar to Fuente prior to being hired by Virginia Tech, except he already has Power Five head coaching experience.

He doesn’t have any regional experience to speak of, although he spent 13 years in the state of Ohio. The greater value he holds is his strong record as a head coach.

In four full seasons at Toledo (plus one game as an interim head coach), Campbell went 35-15, finishing above .500 every season and winning nine games three times. Logically, that earned him a promotion.

As it stands, his record at Iowa State is 33-27. For reference, no Cyclones coach has exited with a winning record while coaching at least one full season since Earl Bruce in the 1970s. Clearly, it’s not an easy environment to win in, especially since joining the Big 12. Still, they have won at least seven games in each of the last four seasons, and they are currently ranked ninth overall in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Campbell would be an absolute home run hire, despite his lack of experience within the region. His resumé is arguably stronger than Fuente’s was, especially considering that he’s worked at programs that are more difficult to recruit at.

Tony Elliott (41)

  • 2000-03: Player at Clemson
  • 2006-07: South Carolina State (wide receivers)
  • 2008-10: Furman (wide receivers)
  • 2011-14: Clemson (running backs)
  • 2015-19: Clemson (co-offensive coordinator and runnings backs)
  • 2020: Clemson (offensive coordinator and running backs)

First of all, while he’s only coached in the south, all of his experience is in South Carolina. That’s obviously not the Commonwealth of Virginia, but perhaps it would allow the Hokies to dip back into North Carolina, where they’ve had some success in recent years. That would have to be considered a big win for recruiting. And it’s also never a bad idea to poach from the team you’re trying to catch up to.

No one has to explain how great Clemson’s offense has been over the past decade, and particularly the last handful of years. Led by Tahj Boyd, Deshaun Watson, Kelly Bryant for a year, and Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers have finished in the top 25 every season since Elliott returned to his alma mater, and they’ve won the ACC and made the College Football Playoff every year since his promotion to co-offensive coordinator.

Clemson won the National Championship in 2016 and 2018, and Elliott won the Broyles Award (top assistant coach in the country) in the year between those title runs.

Since running back has been his primary positional responsibility at Clemson, here’s a list of the individual 1,000-yard rushing seasons he’s led: Andre Ellington (2011 and 2012), Roderick McDowell (2013), Wayne Gallman (2015 and 2016) and Travis Etienne (2018 and 2019). His leading rusher has topped 1,500 yards on the ground three times from 2015-2019, and Etienne has accrued 1,200 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns through nine games this season. There’s a good chance that Etienne will be the first running back selected in the upcoming NFL Draft.

But where exactly is Elliott trying to go? South Carolina makes some sense, since it’s an SEC job in a state where he’s already had immense success, but it’s also not easy to win there. If he’s holding out for a top-tier job, he might not be able to get it without any experience as a head coach.

Name some mid-to-upper-tier schools with upside and an environment where you can win and boost your stock for a few years. How many schools do you name before Virginia Tech? After all, the ACC Coastal isn’t one of the strongest divisions in the Power Five, and Tech has shown the ability to dominate it – although they haven’t done it in the last decade.

Billy Napier (42)

  • 1999-2002: Player at Furman
  • 2003-04: Clemson (graduate assistant)
  • 2005: South Carolina State (quarterbacks)
  • 2006-08: Clemson (tight ends)
  • 2008-10: Clemson (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
  • 2011: Alabama (offensive analyst)
  • 2012: Colorado State (assistant head coach and quarterbacks)
  • 2013-16: Alabama (wide receivers)
  • 2017: Arizona State (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
  • 2018-20: Louisiana (head coach)

Napier is a fun coach to evaluate, even though his resumé looks somewhat jumbled. Like Elliott, he has Clemson roots, but he’s also worked at other schools over the past decade. Elliott might provide more upside, but there’s arguably less risk associated with Napier, since he has been a head coach already. The advantage in terms of time spent in the Carolinas is also in play with Napier.

In a broad sense, Napier’s time at Clemson would seemingly play in his favor, even though results were mixed. The Tigers were mostly good – although not like they currently are – in his two stints with them under Tommy Bowden. Dabo Swinney replaced Bowden during the 2008 season, and Swinney promoted Napier to the vacant offensive coordinator position. They finished with a winning record that season and won nine games in 2009, but had a losing season – the only one of the Swinney era – in 2010, leading to some staff changes and the firing of Napier.

Clemson has thrived since Napier left, but he has certainly righted the ship himself. After spending a season in a minor role in Tuscaloosa – a National Championship season for the Crimson Tide – he followed offensive coordinator Jim McElwain to Colorado State. The Rams had an injury-riddled season at quarterback, so results weren’t amazing, but it earned Napier a full-time position back at Alabama.

As the Tide’s wide receivers coach, he made his mark in a major way. He coached future top-five draft pick Amari Cooper, who became the program’s first Biletnikoff Award (best wide receiver in the nation) winner in 2014. He also coached another future first-round pick in Calvin Ridley for two seasons, and helped Alabama earn commitments from Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and DeVonta Smith. After Napier’s departure, Jeudy went on to win the Biletnikoff Award as a sophomore, he and Ruggs were the first two wide receivers selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, and Smith is likely to be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft – and he’s also in the running for the Biletnikoff Award this year.

Alabama went to the Sugar Bowl in Napier’s first season as their wide receivers coach, and was selected into the College Football Playoff each of its first three seasons of existence. He also earned his second National Championship title to conclude the 2015 season.

He had a very solid year as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State. The Sun Devils had a winning season, led by the offense, which Pro Football Focus graded as the 14th-best in the FBS. Future first-round pick N’Keal Harry was among the players he coached, as well as running back Kalen Ballage, who has also carved out a role in the NFL.

That success earned him another promotion, to head coach at Louisiana. He won 11 games there last year, and they cracked the AP top 25 this season for the first time since 1943.

It feels like the time is now for a Power Five school to hire Napier. The South Carolina opening actually makes a lot of sense, but since Shane Beamer appears to be the front runner for it, and since there likely won’t be a ton of other B-list jobs open, Virginia Tech can probably have him if they want him.

Will Healy (36)

  • 2003-08: Player (Air Force and Richmond)
  • 2009-15: Chattanooga (offensive assistant)
  • 2016-18: Austin Peay (head coach)
  • 2019-20: Charlotte (head coach)

It’s easy to see how Healy could be appealing to some folks. He’s young, he’s an energizer, his offensive scheme is relatively innovative, and all of his experience as a coach comes from states bordering Virginia. Any hesitation surrounding Healy is almost entirely surrounding the “when” of him becoming a head coach at a Power Five school, not the “if”.

In the three seasons prior to Healy’s arrival, Austin Peay had gone 1-34. He went 0-11 in his first year there, but led the Governors to an 8-4 record in 2017, with three of their losses coming to FBS competition. He won the Eddie Robinson Award (top coach in the FCS) for his efforts.

Upon earning the top gig at Charlotte, Healy led the 49ers to their first winning season and bowl appearance in program history – they had no active football team until 2013, and joined the FBS in 2015. In fact, his 52-17 victory over UMass in Week 3 was their first ever win over an FBS school.

COVID-19 forced Charlotte to play a more difficult schedule to start the 2020 season than they may have otherwise, resulting in just a 2-3 start to the season. Nonetheless, they have been competitive in nearly every game, with their most decisive loss being to Duke.

Healy runs a moderately pro-style spread offense with a power running game, not too dissimilar from Urban Meyer and Gus Malzahn. With any initial success at the Power Five level, that would presumably help him recruit well at the quarterback position, if nothing else.

He also has a bit of a feisty personality. It brings back memories of a younger Dabo Swinney, or P.J. Fleck more recently. Those are pretty lofty comparisons, but that – along with his impressive level of success at very young programs – is precisely what makes him a candidate for much more prominent jobs than the one he has.

Lots of people fall in love with coaches that jump off the screen at small schools, and his resumé is strong if you truly analyze it deeply. It’s risky to assume he’s the next Lincoln Riley, though.

Willie Taggart (45)

  • 1994-1998: Player at Western Kentucky
  • 1999: Western Kentucky (wide receivers)
  • 2000: Western Kentucky (quarterbacks)
  • 2001-02: Western Kentucky (co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
  • 2003-06: Western Kentucky (assistant head coach and quarterbacks)
  • 2007-09: Stanford (running backs)
  • 2010-12: Western Kentucky (head coach)
  • 2013-16: South Florida (head coach)
  • 2017: Oregon (head coach)
  • 2018-19: Florida State (head coach)
  • 2020: Florida Atlantic (head coach)

Explaining Taggart’s qualifications requires a bit more nuance, because he’s not everybody’s cup of tea on the surface. He was hand-picked by Jack Harbaugh (who he played for at Western Kentucky), stayed there for a bit after his boss’ departure, had a strong run under Harbaugh’s son Jim (who any football fan is plenty familiar with), returned to lead his alumni for a few years, and has had a bumpy ride ever since.

The biggest variable that clouds Taggart’s resumé is expectations. That’s not a conversation some people want to have, but it’s worth considering.

Taggart took over the Hilltoppers entering their third season in the FBS and led them to bowl games in his final two seasons. That was a winless team the year before he got the job, so his accomplishments deserve more recognition than they get. He took over a similarly broken program at South Florida and improved their win total every season, culminating with a 10-win season and No. 19 finish in the polls. For what it’s worth, the program has steadily declined since he left, perhaps speaking to how valuable he was.

Then you get the uglier stuff, but it’s understandable if you dig deeper. Taggart went 7-5 at Oregon and 9-12 over parts of two seasons at Florida State. Those are two programs held in high regard, but clearly in flux. It’s one thing for a Group of Five coach to take over a Power Five job. It’s a completely different ballgame to send him to a blue blood program in win-now mode. Unfortunately, he was destined to fall short of expectations, due to no fault of his own.

He’s taken over for Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic in hopes of rebuilding his reputation. Although you could argue he’s done that, it didn’t really need to be rebuilt at all. In large part, the college football audience needed to reevaluate Oregon and Florida State, truly consider how much it takes to be “successful” there, and ask whether that’s something Taggart was legitimately qualified for at the time.

Besides, the only real success in Tallahassee has come from the Bobby Bowden/Jimbo Fisher coaching tree. Are we certain that they aren’t the main reason for that success? Maybe Jimbo bailed for Texas A&M for a reason. Even his last season at FSU was a rocky road, in which he finished 5-6 before resigning from the position.

Taggart’s been through bumps and bruises now, but his track record at smaller programs – as well as a decent one, in South Florida – is apparent. Virginia Tech would be a step (or two) up from that, but it’s also a safer job than the two he failed at – debate this claim, if you wish – and based on all available information, it’s safe to assume he took away plenty of lessons from those three years.

Bruce Arians (69)

  • 1970-74: Player at Virginia Tech
  • 1975-77: Virginia Tech (graduate assistant)
  • 1978-80: Mississippi State (running backs and wide receivers)
  • 1981-82: Alabama (running backs)
  • 1983-88: Temple (head coach)
  • 1989-92: Kansas City Chiefs (running backs)
  • 1993-95: Mississippi State (offensive coordinator)
  • 1996: New Orleans Saints (tight ends)
  • 1997: Alabama (offensive coordinator)
  • 1998-2000: Indianapolis Colts (quarterbacks)
  • 2001-03: Cleveland Browns (offensive coordinator)
  • 2004-06: Pittsburgh Steelers (wide receivers)
  • 2007-11: Pittsburgh Steelers (offensive coordinator)
  • 2012: Indianapolis Colts (offensive coordinator and interim head coach)
  • 2013-17: Arizona Cardinals (head coach)
  • 2019-20: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (head coach)

In full disclosure, the initial rumors of Arians returning to coaching in 2019 after taking a year off were what started my obsession with coaching resumés. I was curious what a reconstructed Arians staff would look like, and it eventually devolved into an NFL coaching trees spreadsheet, and I refer back to it more frequently than any sane person should.

Much like Taggart, opinions of Arians seem to be mixed at best, although his experience should seemingly speak for itself. Arians is approaching the twilight of his coaching career, and that’s also part of why I think he could be in play for this job, because he otherwise absolutely would not be.

Arians is a solid NFL coach, but he’s souring in the eyes of many observers. Questions began to surface when Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions under his guidance last season, and they’ve only grown as a result of the bumpy start to the #TompaBay era.

Arians loves to sling the ball downfield. There are two problems with that mentality:

  1. It isn’t Tom Brady’s style, and usually superstars of his caliber have game scripts tailored to their strengths, not vice versa.
  2. Although it creates big plays, it typically also leads to more mistakes (see Jameis Winston).

If you’re looking for more evidence of that, here’s a graphic:

It seems like this argument partially makes up context that doesn’t exist and ignores other factors – and also conveniently omits Ben Roethlisberger cutting his interception total in half in Year 1 under Arians – but interceptions have certainly been a troublesome area for Brady. With that stated, and given Brady’s standing in NFL history, it’s entirely possible that the Buccaneers aim to preserve his legacy and cut ties with Arians.

If Arians gets fired in Tampa Bay, there appear to be enough young coaches with upside for him to be passed up for an NFL head coaching job. At that point, he’d be left to decide whether he’d be interested in stepping back down to the college ranks, where he does have plenty of experience. In that event, and since the premier collegiate openings would also be handed to coaches with more long-term potential, he could fall right into the Hokies’ laps. It would also be an opportunity for his career to come full circle.

Closing Remarks

There are other coaches whose resumés are competitive. Lance Leipold (Buffalo head coach) is intriguing, but the MAC isn’t the AAC and he doesn’t have any regional experience. Graham Harrell (USC offensive coordinator) presents some upside, but Whit Babcock likely wouldn’t hire a prototypical air raid coach, and there are probably higher suitors anyway. Dan Lanning (Georgia defensive coordinator) is another rising star, but he’s very young and likely waiting to receive a bigger offer, or at least one from an SEC school. Hugh Freeze (Liberty head coach) and Steve Sarkisian (Alabama offensive coordinator) might get promotions too, but not from the Hokies.

The optics of hiring any of the coaches who get fired (or already have been) during or after this season probably precludes them from getting any consideration, given the circumstances in Blacksburg. Tech wouldn’t blow $10 million or more to get rid of a coach, all to replace him with a coach that just failed.

While we’re on the subject, regardless of who they pick, if they make a move at all, the next coach of the Hokies needs to have autonomy in the hiring of his assistants. Arguably, a big reason why Fuente hasn’t worked is that he’s never been fully able to make the Virginia Tech football program his own. That mistake can’t be made again, but the mistakes that were already made can be undone with the hiring of the next head coach. For the sake of the the program, that needs to happen.

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