Tracking the Rumors

NASCAR has its Silly Season, the name given to the time of the year when teams begin shuffling driver and crew chief lineups in the hopes of sparking improvement and excitement for the next season.

College football has a similar time, usually beginning in the last two or three weeks of the season and continuing through the bowl games. But college football is different than NASCAR; coaching changes in college football affect recruiting classes mightily, and the NFL provides another distraction, as teams in the pro leagues may be setting their sights more frequently on individuals with head coaching experience rather than play roulette with career assistants.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as many as nine of the 12 Southeastern Conference head coaches, according to how much stock you put in rumors, could be changing addresses before the 2005 season. Some of the rumors are believable, and some are, quite frankly, just silly. Remember that the words "Silly Season" apply here, and nothing that follows should be taken as carved-in-stone fact.

SEC East

RON ZOOK, FLORIDA

The Rumor: No rumor. Zook has already been fired.

The Replacements: Bob Stoops (HC, Oklahoma), Steve Spurrier (unemployed), Urban Meyer (HC, Utah), Bob Petrino (HC, Louisville), Dan Hawkins (HC, Boise State), Tommy Tuberville (HC, Auburn), Nick Saban (HC, LSU), Dirk Koetter (HC, Arizona State)

Best Guess: Probably Meyer, but don't discount Petrino or Stoops just yet.

Summary: Zook proved to be in over his head in Gainesville, but it wasn't all his fault. Zook followed the immensely popular and successful Steve Spurrier, and like other coaches that have followed other legends in the past, things just didn't work out. As for a replacement, Urban Meyer is probably at the head of Florida's list, but Meyer has other options. He covets three jobs – Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame – and any or all of those jobs might come open in the offseason depending on retirement (in UM's Lloyd Carr's case) or firings. Meyer's family also seems to like Western living, and with job openings at Washington and possibly Stanford, he'll have other options. A couple of NFL teams are also considering Meyer, so he could wait the process out indefinitely – perhaps to a point where Florida has to make a move for recruiting's sake. Florida's fan base also needs to settle down, or risk scaring a good coach off. The positives, however, are many: Florida has a young team that returns mostly intact for 2005, the school self-recruits and the climate is fine. There are no NCAA troubles on the apparent horizon.

Prediction: Spurrier turned the school down, but isn't completely out of the picture yet. Bob Stoops is a darkhorse candidate, but strongly denied any interest. Louisville may block Florida from going after Bob Petrino. Expect Florida to go after Meyer, but if things fall through with him, the picture gets muddy. Hawkins' resume isn't as extensive as Florida would prefer, although his offense is intriguing and Florida fans definitely want a high-powered offense. Florida could target a current SEC coach – Tommy Tuberville's name will come up with every open job in the region – or take a chance on someone like Randy Edsall from Connecticut. Bet on Meyer until the next moves are known.

MARK RICHT, GEORGIA

The Rumor: Richt is a candidate for both the Florida State and Miami jobs, if either comes open.

The Replacements: Since this is a long shot rumor, there isn't a list yet, but if Richt left it would be hard to overlook defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder.

Best Guess: Van Gorder, unless Richt stays.

Summary: Richt is a hot name in coaching because he is young, a protégé of FSU's Bobby Bowden, has recruited well at Georgia and knows how to develop quarterbacks. He has ties to both Florida State and Miami, but neither job is open. With Bobby Bowden approaching retirement, however, keep your eye on the situation. If a change is made in Miami – a long shot, but still possible – Richt will be at the top of the Hurricanes' list. If a change is made at Florida State, expect Richt and N.C. State's Chuck Amato to battle for the job.

Prediction: It's hard to say if Richt would leave Georgia, where he is well-compensated, for either FSU or Miami. But Richt's team has underachieved in 2004, and Georgia might not be terribly inclined to match an extravagant compensation package from a competitor. Expect this rumor to stay afloat until Bowden retires.

RICH BROOKS, KENTUCKY

The Rumor: Brooks' program is flailing, and Kentucky might buy out his contract and fire him.

The Replacements: Ron Zook (HC, Florida), Charlie Strong (defensive coordinator, Florida), Gregg Brandon (HC, Bowling Green), Walt Harris (HC, Pittsburgh), Rick Minter (defensive coordinator, South Carolina), Joe Novak (HC, Northern Illinois)

Best Guess: Zook or Brandon, if Brooks is fired

Summary: Rich Brooks, who did a fine job building the program at Oregon, hasn't found success so easy to come by at Kentucky. Even though the Wildcats are in the throes of NCAA probation, there was enough talent on the roster going into the season to at least beat Ohio and Mississippi State, and Kentucky did neither. It's saying something when Vanderbilt is made a favorite in its game, even though the game was in Lexington. Why Brooks hasn't done well at Kentucky is a mystery, as he is a good coach and had assembled a veteran staff. Sometimes, people simply don't work out, which appears to be the case here. In addition to Brooks' prohibitive buyout, the next coach will have to recruit to a virtually empty roster, and will need a long-term commitment from the school. Ron Zook, who will be out at Florida after this season, has risen to the top of several rumor lists due to his recruiting ability. But Zook is out at Florida for a reason. Kentucky might be better served to take a chance on a young coach.

Prediction: It's 50/50 at best that Brooks will be back, and he could be fired by the time this article goes to print. If he does get fired, look for Zook to get a long look from Kentucky administration. His offense suits Kentucky personnel perfectly. Zook is also a candidate for the Penn State job, should Joe Paterno retire or be fired. A young coach might not want to get involved with the Wildcats until they show some stability, else the experience be a resume-killer.

LOU HOLTZ, SOUTH CAROLINA The Rumor: Holtz, citing age and family medical issues, may be retiring at the end of 2004.

The Replacements: Steve Spurrier (unemployed), Skip Holtz (QB coach, South Carolina)

Best Guess: If Holtz does retire, look for USC to make a full-on press for Spurrier.

Summary: Lou Holtz entered the 2004 season hanging on by his fingernails to this job. While South Carolina administration wouldn't admit it, the fan base was getting restless following a pair of five-win seasons. Holtz unburdened himself completely by getting a sixth win in 2004 and qualifying for a bowl, but his age (67) coupled with the health of his wife and the realization that old coaches aren't getting long leashes these days – call it the Joe Paterno Effect – may convince Holtz to hang up the whistle. If he does go, the wish list has two names. Skip Holtz, Lou's son, was at one time supposed to take over for his father, but he was demoted from offensive coordinator before the season began and unfortunately for his career, the South Carolina offense only got better. Lou Holtz's friendship with Steve Spurrier has led to much speculation that the former Florida coach could take the USC job, especially with Columbia being reasonably close to Spurrier's boyhood homeland of eastern Tennessee. The only foreseeable monkey wrench could be the disposition of John Bunting, the head coach at North Carolina. If Bunting is fired – which he most likely will be if North Carolina fails to qualify for the postseason – the North Carolina job will be much more attractive. South Carolina is facing a rebuilding year in 2005.

Prediction: It all depends on Holtz. The bowl game has allowed Holtz to write his own ticket. Holtz seems to be leaning towards retirement, and if he does call it quits, Spurrier has to be considered a heavy favorite.

PHIL FULMER, TENNESSEE

The Rumor: Fulmer, a party to an indefinite number of lawsuits, will either be fired or shamed into retirement, if you believe the wildest of Internet rumor-mongering.

The Replacements: John Chavis (defensive coordinator, Tennessee), Walt Harris (HC, Pittsburgh), David Cutcliffe (HC, Ole Miss)

Best Guess: If you care about your money, don't place it on any of the three guys listed above. Forced to make a call, take Harris.

Summary: Going into the Nov. 13 weekend, Tennessee was all but guaranteed of a trip back to the SEC Championship Game. Given that the Vols beat Alabama, Georgia and Florida, Phil Fulmer's job is safe from a coaching standpoint even with the slip-ups against Auburn and Notre Dame. If Fulmer is forced out at Tennessee, it will be because of something that might come out in one of the various court cases that involves him. Given Tennessee's Teflon-coated reputation in the face of scandal, expect Fulmer to be back in 2005. If for some strange reason he is not, Chavis has been mentioned in connection with other head coaching jobs, but if scandal forces Fulmer out, the same would likely take out any current staff members. David Cutcliffe is revered by the Tennessee faithful for his work with Peyton Manning and Tee Martin, and he could be back in Knoxville soon – most likely, however, as offensive coordinator if he gets canned at Ole Miss. With Ole Miss struggling, Cutcliffe probably won't have the push to get the head job at Tennessee. Walt Harris, the architect of the offense Tennessee has used seemingly since the first Easter, is wanting out at Pitt and would probably be courted heavily for this job.

Prediction: Expect Fulmer back on the sidelines at Tennessee in 2005.

BOBBY JOHNSON, VANDERBILT

The Rumor: Johnson's team, which was picked by many to make a bowl game this year, sputtered and underachieved. Johnson is almost certainly safe for 2005, but beyond that, all bets are off.

The Replacements: As is the case with Richt, there is no list yet. Vanderbilt isn't a great draw. Expect a long list of young Div-IA college assistants and coordinators – emphasis on "young."

Best Guess: Johnson is back for 2005, but anything short of a winning season at that point gets him fired.

Summary: Bobby Johnson came to Vandy after a successful run at Furman, and for awhile, looked to be building a winner. The 2004 season was to be the beginning of Vanderbilt's ascension to credible, but it didn't turn out that way. Not only did Vanderbilt fall short of bowl eligibility, the team played like poor Vanderbilt teams of old. Johnson will likely get the 2005 season – that will be his fourth year, and the first with his recruits completely running the show – but if no bowl comes in 2005, look for Johnson to hit the highway. His demeanor and philosophy are probably better suited for Div-IAA, where he came from, and he'll have a long list of suitors lining up at that level to hire him. A list of replacements at Vanderbilt would be different from a list of replacements anywhere else. Vandy has proven to be a career killer, and until Johnson moved up from a very successful Furman program, the Commodores usually could only attract career coordinators or washed-up coaches looking to salvage their reputation. Johnson beat out Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong for this job when he was hired, and Vandy could conceivably give Strong another shot at it. A more likely name that fits the Vanderbilt profile is someone like East Carolina's John Thompson, who will probably be job hunting this offseason, or an older coach like Gary Darnell or Rick Minter, who would be looking for second chances.

Prediction: Wait for 2005, then watch the Vandy coaching carousel spin again.

SEC West

MIKE SHULA, ALABAMA

The Rumor: The Miami Dolphins, seeking a return to the Shula glory days of old, want to hire the son of the man that made them great. But the rumor doesn't take into account the fact that Shula was part of the Dave Wannstedt staff two years ago, the same staff that Miami ownership wants to send far away from South Florida.

The Replacements: No list. The rumor simply doesn't have enough steam to merit making one. If Shula were to leave, the program is in much better shape than it was two years ago and would likely attract every top name in the college game.

Best Guess: Shula stays at Alabama a long time.

Summary: Probably the fruit of an overzealous Dolphins fan's imagination, Mike Shula's name has come up on the fringe of the Dolphins' current search for a head coach to replace Dave Wannstedt, who resigned just ahead of the firing squad in Miami. What the rumor fails to take into account, however, is that Mike Shula was formerly on Wannstedt's staff, and it's hard to believe any current or recently former Wannstedt staffer would be considered for the job. Also, Shula's record at Alabama probably isn't good enough yet to attract any interest from the pros. If Shula continues to win, interest from the pros will come, but it's doubtful Shula would want to leave the security of the Alabama job at that point for a return to the merry-go-round that is NFL coaching.

Prediction: Shula and Alabama will enjoy a long-term coach-team relationship.

HOUSTON NUTT, ARKANSAS

The Rumor: With Nick Saban at LSU reportedly looking at the NFL, and with Mack Brown's hold on the Texas job tenuous at best, Nutt may be looking to leave Arkansas for the more fertile recruiting grounds around Baton Rouge or Austin.

The Replacements: Tommy Tuberville (HC, Auburn), Danny Nutt (RB coach, Arkansas), David Wommack (LB coach, Arkansas), Tommy West (HC, Memphis), Gregg Brandon (HC, Bowling Green), Will Muschamp (defensive coordinator, LSU), Brian Van Gorder (defensive coordinator, Georgia), Jim Grobe (HC, Wake Forest)

Best Guess: Nutt stays around, but if he leaves, look for a heavy push for Tuberville.

Summary: Houston Nutt turned down Nebraska last year in a high-profile show of loyalty to Arkansas, but that might not last. With Nick Saban reportedly eyeing the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints jobs in the NFL, and with Texas alumni increasingly frustrated with head coach Mack Brown, a couple of jobs much farther up the coaching ladder could be open soon. Nutt's biggest obstacle at Arkansas is recruiting a small home state territory, coupled with having to fight Big 12 schools for Texas talent. Things would be much easier for this master motivator at LSU or Texas.

Prediction: Look for Nutt to stay put.

TOMMY TUBERVILLE, AUBURN

The Rumor: Tuberville, upset with the treatment he received from Auburn at the end of the 2003 season, is looking to take another job, any job – including the Miami Dolphins, Florida Gators, North Carolina Tarheels, Texas Longhorns, or even the LSU Tigers if Nick Saban bolts for Florida or the pros.

The Replacements: Neil Callaway (OL coach, Georgia), Rodney Garner (recruiting coordinator, Georgia), Pat Sullivan (offensive coordinator, UAB), Bob Petrino (HC, Louisville), Bobby Wallace (HC, Temple), Mike Bellotti (HC, Oregon), Jeff Tedford (HC, California), Rick Neuheisel (unemployed), Jim Grobe (HC, Wake Forest), Chuck Amato (HC, N.C. State), Randy Edsall (Connecticut), Jimbo Fisher (offensive coordinator, LSU)

Best Guess: If Auburn wins the national championship, Tuberville stays. All bets are off otherwise. If he leaves, look for a run at Tedford or Grobe, with Callaway the fallback candidate.

Summary: Auburn fans would like to think Tuberville is in love with the school and will stay as long as he wants to. The reality is that Tuberville has a good memory, and it hasn't been that long since Auburn trustees and school officials were flying to Louisville in the middle of the night in an attempt to steal former Auburn assistant Bob Petrino away from the Cardinals. Only some good investigative reporting on the part of Louisville media got in the way. The only way Tuberville will be able to placate the entire Auburn family – and there are still significant portions of the fan base who aren't convinced he's the real deal – is to win the national championship. Anything short of that, which as of now involves Auburn losing to a rival as a heavy favorite or getting upset in a bowl game, will give voice to the same wolves who were howling for his dismissal in 2003. Tuberville might not want to put up with that again, and it's understandable that he might like to put Auburn in the same difficult position the school put him in last year. Of the jobs expected to be available in the 2004 offseason, Tuberville has long been mentioned as a replacement for John Bunting at North Carolina. If Mack Brown loses the Texas job, Tuberville could go west. As a former assistant for Jimmy Johnson, Tuberville's name is in the middle of the Miami Dolphins' mix. If a shuffling of jobs causes Houston Nutt to leave Arkansas behind, Tuberville would be a candidate there. The darkhorse school is LSU, where Tuberville narrowly lost out to Nick Saban a few years ago. If Saban heads to the NFL, Tuberville will be on the Bayou Bengals' short list. Replacing Tuberville could prove problematic; the smart money says Tuberville, if he leaves Auburn, doesn't do it until the middle to the end of recruiting season, after a lot of the top names are off the board. Word from those close to Auburn say California's Jeff Tedford would be high on the Tigers' list, but he may be on the verge of heading to the NFL himself. Oregon's Mike Bellotti was on Auburn's short list when Tuberville was hired, and would be much easier to get now that the Ducks have run into some less dominating seasons. Wake Forest's Jim Grobe is highly regarded, and his smashmouth style fits Auburn's history well. If the ones doing the hiring listen to former coach Pat Dye, Auburn will give Georgia offensive line coach Neil Callaway and recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner very long looks. It could be an interesting offseason on the plains.

Prediction: At this point, most of the money would have to be placed on Tuberville staying in Auburn. If he leaves, look for Auburn to put their eggs in the Tedford basket if he hasn't already committed to an NFL job. If Tedford has already jumped to the NFL, look for Bellotti's name to get a lot of play. If Tedford and Bellotti decide to stay out West, bet on Grobe or Callaway. A lot will depend on how much pull Dye still has with Auburn higher-ups.

NICK SABAN, LSU

The Rumor: Saban has never gotten a reprieve from those who think a jump to the NFL is imminent, and nothing has changed this year. Last year, Saban came very close to signing with the Chicago Bears. This year, jobs in Miami and New Orleans supposedly hold his attention.

The Replacements: Jimbo Fisher (offensive coordinator, LSU), Will Muschamp (defensive coordinator, LSU), Tommy Tuberville (HC, Auburn), Houston Nutt (HC, Arkansas), Mack Brown (HC, Texas), Jeff Tedford (HC, California), Urban Meyer (HC, Utah), Gary Pinkel (HC, Missouri)

Best Guess: It's not out of the realm of possibility that an NFL team throws enough money and offer of control at Saban to convince him to make the jump, but Saban continues to say he's not interested and it's probably time to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Summary: Saban is a firebrand as a head coach and reputedly very difficult to work for. His assistant coaching staff has had a higher-than-normal turnover rate compared to the amount of success he's had. That might hint at Saban's inability to be satisfied with his current station or set of accomplishments. Saban has already won a national championship at LSU, leaving observers to wonder now that Saban has reached the pinnacle of his sport, will he be satisfied, or will he opt for new challenges? For all Saban's quirks, he'll probably be able to modify his approach if and when he goes to the NFL. One thing is certain – he won't make the jump unless he's given some control over personnel decisions. With the coach/player personnel director experiment either failing or yielding questionable results in some cities in the NFL, Saban might have to wait awhile. One thing is for sure – his job is 100 percent secure in Baton Rouge.

Prediction: Saban showed legitimate interest in the Chicago job last year. He's yet to get that far with Miami, and the New Orleans job isn't open yet. If he does head to the NFL, his offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, is almost a shoe-in to get the job. Lost in all the fawning over Mississippi State's hiring of Sylvester Croom as the first black head coach in the SEC is the reality that Fisher, who is white, was MSU's top choice. Fisher turned down MSU, most believe, because he saw an opening in Baton Rouge in the near future. If LSU turns to an outside candidate, look for Auburn's Tommy Tuberville or California's Jeff Tedford to be atop the list. Tuberville was nearly hired when Saban got the job, and he'd probably like to escape Auburn if he could. But Saban is probably good for at least another year or two at LSU.

DAVID CUTCLIFFE, OLE MISS

The Rumor: Fresh out of Mannings, Cutcliffe's team is again charging headlong into mediocrity. Depending on how Ole Miss finishes the 2004 season, Cutcliffe's seat could be getting warm. Another rumor has Cutcliffe giving up the reins at Ole Miss to return to Tennessee as offensive coordinator.

The Replacements: Jack Bicknell III (HC, Louisiana Tech), Chuck Driesbach (defensive coordinator, Ole Miss), Gene Chizik (defensive coordinator, Auburn), Darrell Dickey (HC, North Texas), Gregg Brandon (HC, Bowling Green), Jimbo Fisher (offensive coordinator, LSU), Dan Hawkins (HC, Boise State), Chris Scelfo (HC, Tulane)

Best Guess: Don't look for Cutcliffe to go quietly. Plus, the 10-win season he recorded in 2003 gave him a fairly comfortable buffer against criticism. But if Ole Miss has to replace a coach, expect either a lower-tier head coach or an assistant from another program. Ole Miss doesn't have the clout necessary to make a serious run at a hot coach like Dan Hawkins.

Summary: Ole Miss fans were teased in 2003, when the Rebels put up an aberration in the form of a 10-win season. Coupled with stadium expansion in Oxford, Rebel fans got restless this year as Ole Miss got off to a slow start. Part of the anger was probably justified; it's one thing to get beat, but it's another to look disorganized, which Ole Miss did. By the time Cutcliffe got the mess straightened out, Ole Miss already had three losses on the board and then dropped its next two to teams that far outclassed the Rebels (Tennessee and Auburn). The grumblings from some Ole Miss fans is that Cutcliffe has excelled only when he had the benefit of coaching a Manning, be it Peyton at Tennessee or Eli at Ole Miss. Cutcliffe is probably safe for 2005, but he probably needs a good showing next year – bowl eligibility is probably a minimum – in order to keep his job.

Prediction: It's surprising Jack Bicknell III's name doesn't come up more often in coaching searches, considering how competitive he's made his team despite the fact the Bulldogs have to operate out of Ruston, La. If Ole Miss makes a change, someone of the level of Bicknell or North Texas' Darrell Dickey is probably as high as Ole Miss can shoot. Both names have come up in connection with a couple of jobs in the SEC. More likely, Ole Miss will go after a hot young assistant. But look for Cutcliffe to be standing on the Ole Miss sideline come next September regardless.

SYLVESTER CROOM, MISSISSIPPI STATE

The Rumor: Actually, none – unless you count the half-baked rumor concerning Alabama's Mike Shula, at which point Croom automatically becomes a candidate for the UA job.

The Replacements: No list, because Croom is a dead-bang certainty to be here next year.

Best Guess: No guessing. Croom patrols the MSU sidelines in 2005.

Summary: Croom is winning hearts quickly in Starkville now that the Bulldogs have stopped losing to Maine and started showing up against SEC competition. The only thing that could affect Croom's employment at the moment, other than a scandal, is whether Mike Shula stays at Alabama, which he is virtually certain to do. Were Shula to ever leave Tuscaloosa, Croom's name would certainly crop up in Alabama's search whether Croom wanted the job or not. Such is the reality of the fallout from Alabama's most recent search process.

Prediction: Croom will likely enjoy a tenure of at least five years at Mississippi State. With Shula almost certainly staying at Alabama for the same amount of time or longer, don't expect any movement in this job. In fact, Croom probably is the most secure coach in the SEC right now.


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