Illini Inquirer ranks the top candidates for the Illinois football coaching job

Illini Inquirer ranks the top candidates for the Illinois football coaching job

With Tim Beckman fired seven days before the season started, Illinois now is in the midst of an unprecedented coaching search.

Illini athletic director Mike Thomas may have said confidently that he will make the next, but that is an uncertainty as well. His program is in turmoil following a summer of investigations into abuse and three years of mostly disappointment by his hires. And with turmoil above him at the university level -- Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned amid an e-mail scandal fit for politicians -- Thomas doesn't seem to have many allies above him.

All these factors will make this seasonlong search for the next Illini coach even more compelling.

Illini Inquirer will continue to stay on top of it and provide the latest rumors and hottest names to lead the next era of Illini football.

Sept. 5: Illini Coaching Hot List Version 2.0

Aug. 29: Illini Coaching Hot List Version 1.0

Illini Coaching Hot List v3.0

Dino Babers | Bowling Green head coach | Age 54

Dino Babers

Why he fits: For the last few decades, Illinois football has lacked an identity. Babers, who comes from the Art Briles' coaching tree at Baylor, would immediately give the Illini a high-octane offensive system to build around and sell. Babers also would provide the Illini with an articulate, energetic public spokesman who can connect with fans and donors. Babers has bounced around a lot in his career and didn't get a head coaching chance until he took over at Eastern Illinois in 2012. But with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB, Babers led the Panthers to a 19-7 record (14-1 OVC) and two FCS playoff appearances, including a quarterfinal in 2013. He's also done well in his year and change at Bowling Green, leading the Falcons to the MAC Championship Title game last year. The Falcons upset Maryland 48-27 on Sept. 12 and are the favorites to win the MAC East. There are a few questions about Babers, though. His staff is very green, so he might need to find an experienced FBS defensive coordinator to come with him. But Babers likely would have high interest in the job.

Justin Fuente | Memphis head coach | Age 39 

Justin Fuente 

Why he fits: This one might be setting the sights a little high, but Illinois needs to approach the best candidates. Fuente has the pedigree (he comes from TCU coach Gary Patterson's coaching tree) and has had enough success at a traditionally tough school at which to have success (he led the Tigers to a Conference USA title and 10-3 overall record in 2014) that he looks like a coach-in-waiting for an SEC, ACC or big-time Big 12 program. His Tigers squad crushed Kansas 55-23 in Week 2 to improve to 2-0 and has a big gameat Bowling Green this week. Fuente mostly recruits the South but spent 2001-2006 on the Illinois State coaching staff as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.

Bill Cubit | Illinois interim head coach | Age 61

Bill Cubit

Why he fits: Cubit has the respect of current Illini players and administrators, especially after a 2-0 start during which Illinois has outscored its two inferior opponents 96-3. Cubit is a top-notch power-five conference offensive coordinator. He had some success in his seven-year tenure as head coach at Western Michigan (51-47 overall, 36-27 MAC) but never could quite reach the top of the conference. If Cubit leads the Illini to seven or eight wins, Illinois must consider chopping off the interim label and giving him a four-plus year contract. Cubit would be able to keep together a pretty strong assistant coaching staff and try to continue some recruiting momentum built up in recent seasons. But Cubit also was on staff when this alleged medical misconduct took place. What did he know? Did he partake in any of the misconduct? Thomas said none of the assistants have been implicated, but Illinois may want to start fresh.

Tom Herman | Houston head coach | Age 40

Tom Herman

Why he fits:Herman, the former Ohio State offensive coordinator, would have been on the short list of candidates for the Illinois job if Beckman had been fired following the 2014 season -- along with former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With Narduzzi at Pitt, Illinois appears to have missed its opportunity with the rising defensive-minded coach. Have they also missed their chance at Herman, recipient of the Broyles Award (nation's top assistant) last season? Herman, who runs a "smashmouth spread" offense predicated on mixing a power-run game with a quick passing game, is off to an impressive 2-0 start, including a 34-31 upset win at Louisville. Even after one year, he's a hot name for power-five teams looking to fill a vacancy.

P.J. Fleck | Western Michigan head coach | Age 34

P.J. Fleck

Why he fits: Fleck is young and insanely energetic. The transition to Fleck from Bill Cubit, the previous WMU head coach and now interim Illinois head coach, was rough and Fleck went just 1-11 in his first season. But the Broncos rebounded to an 8-4 record (5-3 MAC) last season, but he's off to an 0-2 start this season (including a 43-17 loss to Georgia Southern). Fleck is so eccentric that he either rubs people the wrong way or turns them into believers, and more often than not it seems like the latter. The Sugar Grove, Ill., native is a top-notch recruiter who has ties to the state, especially the Chicago area. WMU signed the highest-ranked recruiting class in WMU history in 2015 and currently has the 44th-ranked class in the nation, nine spots ahead of Illinois. But Fleck needs to prove his coaching chops this season in a loaded MAC West, which includes Northern Illinois and Toledo.

Jeff Brohm | Western Kentucky head coach | Age 44

Jeff Brohm

Why he fits: There isn't much of a head coaching track record on Brohm, the former NFL and XFL quarterback. But his one season at Western Kentucky was mighty impressive. The Hilltoppers lwent 8-5 last season, won their first bowl game since 1963 (just their fourth bowl appearance in program history) and set 50 program offensive records. In Year Two, his team is off to a quick 2-0 start with impressive wins at Vanderbilt and vs. Louisiana Tech. Brohm has familiarity with Illinois, serving as QBs coach during Ron Zook's final two seasons at Illinois. But his tenure didn't end well as he and a few other Illini assistants fought a contentious contract dispute with current athletic director Mike Thomas's administration. But will Thomas ultimately be the one making this hire? Brohm's recruiting focus at WKU has centered more on Kentucky and the South. Former Illini players, especially Nathan Scheelhaase, responded to and praised Brohm -- who like Babers would bring a high-octane offensive identity.

Matt Campbell | Toledo head coach | Age 35 

Matt Campbell

Why he fits: Would Illinois really go back to the Toledo well? Doubtful, but it shouldn't dissuade them from looking at Campbell. Beckman's biggest loss in putting together his first staff was not securing Campbell as his offensive coordinator. It's hard to blame Campbell, who at 32 became the youngest head coach in the FBS. But his seamless transition and ability to keep the Rockets among the MAC's best -- following Saturday's upset of Arkansas, Campbell is 27-13 overall and 18-6 during conference play during his three seasons -- suggest he was one of the bigger reasons Beckman had success at Toledo. Campbell has never left Ohio, so he has deep Midwest roots. Some may be tiring of MAC candidates, but there is an intriguing pool of guys on the rise in that conference right now.

Pep Hamilton | Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator | Age 40

Pep Hamilton

Why he fits: Hamilton interviewed for the Oakland Raiders head coaching job this year, so maybe he'll wait for an NFL head coaching opportunity. But a college program might entice the former Stanford offensive coordinator. He prefers a pro-style offense that calls for balance and power-running schemes, which would seem to fit in the Big Ten and at Memorial Stadium. But he has shown the flexibility to adjust to his personnel and air it out. He learned under one of the better college coaches, David Shaw, and coached a rare talent, Andrew Luck. He learned from other good coaches, including Chuck Pagano and Lovie Smith. Hamilton would be a bit of a roll of the dice, however, since he has never been a head coach and hired a staff.

Scott Frost | Oregon offensive coordinator | Age 40 

Scott Frost

Why he fits: There aren't as many clear-cut coordinator candidates now that former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi finally has a head job at Pittsburgh. But Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback, is a hot name -- maybe too hot for Illinois? He has helped Oregon continue to put up monster numbers the last two seasons, culminating in the College Football Championship Game appearance last season. But how much of that is Frost and how much of that is Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich? But people said the same when Helfrich took over for Chip Kelly. Frost has no head coaching experience, but that likely will change soon.

Brock Spack | Illinois State head coach | Age 53 

Brock Spack

Why he fits: The Rockford, Ill., native rarely has been far from Illinois. He played linebacker at Purdue, coached at Illinois State and Purdue (defensive coordinator from 1997-2008) and has been the head coach at ISU since 2009. Spack (43-25 overall at ISU) gradually built up the Redbirds from a middling Missouri Valley Conference team to a national championship appearance last season, catapulted by the addition of Indiana transfer quarterback Tre Roberson. Spack wouldn't be a sexy hire, but he would bring stability and knowledge of the Illinois landscape after heavily recruiting the state for years.

Wild Cards

  • [NEW] Bret Bielema, Arkansas coach: Shocker?! This isn't a reaction to Arkansas' 16-12 home loss to Toledo last week. But there have been rumblings that Bieleman eventually wants to return to the Midwest -- especially the Big Ten. Despite three straight Big Ten titles, Bielema never felt appreciated at Wisconsin living in the shadow of former football coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez. Given his brash, outspoken style it wouldn't shock anyone if he wanted to come back to the Big Ten West to beat Wisconsin. Bielema would bring the smashmouth style he continues at Wisconsin and is building at Arkansas. But he'd come with a hefty price. His Arkansas salary for 2015 is $4.25 million and he has a massive buyout that Illinois likely can't afford. But if things don't go well this season in Fayetteville, Bielema could be one to watch.
  • Greg Schiano, ESPN analyst: The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach is abrasive but has experience building up a traditionally subpar program into a consistent competitor at Rutgers. Would Schiano, 49, want the job or will he wait for a bigger college job or an NFL defensive coordinator position?
  • Kirby Wilson, Minnesota Vikings running backs coach: Wilson, 54, is well-respected in the NFL, where he has been a running backs coach for decades. He also has had stints as a position coach in the college game at Southern Illinois (1991-92), Wyoming (1993-94), Iowa State (1995-96) and USC (2001). Wilson has the support of many former Illini players. He wants the job and supposedly had discussions with Mike Thomas during the 2011 search. But Wilson has no NFL or Division I coordinating experience, let alone head coaching experience. Wilson would be an intriguing coordinator candidate but would seem to be a big gamble as a head coach.
  • Brad Childress, Kansas City Chiefs spread game analyst; The former Minnesota Vikings head coach spent seven years as an assistant at Illinois from 1978-1984. Childress also spent eight seasons at Wisconsin, including five as the offensive coordinator under Barry Alvarez. He then jumped to the NFL and spent seven successful seasons as the offensive coordinator under Andy Reid. As head coach of the Vikings, he went 39-35 with two playoff apperances and two NFC North championships. Childress can coach but has never been a college head coach. He hasn't recruited in almost two decades.

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