Jeremy Werner: So, I'm watching the Bowling Green game intently last night and my wife asks, "Why are you watching this game?" I tell her that I'm scouting Dino Babers as a coach, and she responds, "Oh, that's the guy who coached the Patriots' hottie (Jimmy Garoppolo)?" Yes, darlin'. Yes, he did. Anyways, I of course was watching Babers because he is an Illini coaching candidate. He's the name most speculated publicly and he's the name most mentioned behind the scenes. To me, he just seems to "fit." He brings an identity (which Illinois has sorely lacked) and great communication and salesman skills (something Tim Beckman lacked). He also fits the criteria athletic director Mike Thomas has prioritized in the past (head coaching experience and head coaching success in the Midwest). Babers has shown interest in Illinois in the past, as well. Mr. Easterling, does this make too much sense not to happen or should we hesitate before focusing too much on the Bowling Green coach?
Ryan Easterling: Of all of the viable candidates out there this year, Babers probably makes the most sense of all of them. He's been mentioned each of the past couple of offseasons as a potential candidate for Illinois, spent a couple of years in central Illinois, and would solve the big ill for Illinois right now, which is putting points on the board. It's amazing to think that Illinois outscored their opponents 96-3 in their first two games this year only to take a total nose-dive on offense once Big Ten season started. I do think Illinois fans (and administration for that matter) need to be cautious to not put all their eggs in one basket, but at this point, there's a lot less doubt than there was before that Illinois will be hiring a new coach, and it would be wise to target Babers as their guy. Even more-so now with all of the other openings that have developed over the last month or so. It's really kind of crazy to think that since that late August day when Beckman was fired, that openings have formed at places like USC, Minnesota, Miami, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia Tech; and could very well form at places like Virginia, Georgia, West Virginia. Illinois has far more competition for their coaching search than they could have possibly imagined, but Babers seems to be the kind of guy who fits right in that niche they're looking for.
Werner: And Illinois can prioritize him and basically offer him the job now, while maybe schools like Maryland, Miami and South Carolina check in with bigger names. I do find it interesting that Babers has frequently mentioned that Art Briles told him, "The only jobs I've ever gotten have been the ones nobody else wanted." Boy, that seems to fit the description for the Illini. And while Maryland's resources are awesome, Illinois provides a better path to a division title in the Big Ten West. And the Illini have some offensive weapons -- Wes Lunt, Mikey Dudek, other talented receivers and a stable of running backs -- that he can succeed with early on.
But how do you think that Baylor-inspired, high tempo, pass-heavy offense will translate to Illinois? Babers has tweaked the system to the Midwest elements, running more under center and implementing more zone-read runs in the scheme. I don't think the weather will be that big of an impact. After all, his offense has succeeded at two Midwest programs (Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois). But there are bigger and faster defenders in the Big Ten. Would it work?
Easterling: You do bring up a good point with some of the other openings out there, and a school like Maryland may be looking for someone who is just as much of a brand representative as he is a coach with the strong ties to Under Armour there. As you pointed out, Illinois isn't one of the more popular jobs on the market and definitely has its challenges. To me that presents itself as somewhat of a double-edged sword. Babers would surely be up to the challenge of developing the program into something more exciting as he has done at each of his previous two stops, but would he be looking to parlay it into one more last stop at a bigger school before calling it quits? (he's 54 years old now). This would be one of the best years for him to take the Illinois job, though. He would have a senior QB in Wes Lunt who has an active arm, a go-to receiver in Mike Dudek with three years of eligibility, a very experienced offensive line with some real deal young talent in guys like Gabe Megginson and Adam Solomon, and a stud running back in Ke'Shawn Vaughn as well as a stable of other great young backs like Dre Brown. I agree with you that the weather won't be a big deal. What his system would absolutely need (and what guys like Dudek would provide) is receivers that can get separation and get open. That has been one of the big struggles for Illinois' pass-heavy offense this season. Gehrig Dieter was one of the most prolific receivers in Indiana high school history, and Roger Lewis was a one-time Ohio State commit who had to go the prep route, but ended up at Bowling Green and has been dominant for them. Those two receivers have been the go-to guys for BGSU this year because they can so consistently get open.
When I watched their game against Ohio, I was almost paying MORE attention to the run game instead of the pass game. Bowling Green's pass game is pretty much death and taxes, but I wanted to see how they were able to run the ball, and I was fairly impressed. Greene is a physical runner who was able to find gaps and score 4-5 tough yards at a time. That will undoubtedly be tougher to do in the Big Ten, but it's fascinating to see how Bowling Green actually uses the pass to set up the run and gets those safeties to back off due to the threat of the deep ball and soften the box up for those runs to keep the defense honest. If there's one thing Illinois hasn't done over the last few games, it's connect consistently on a deep ball (bearing in mind that they've only attempted a handful, anyway).
What I'm curious about, though, is their defense. I know Ohio dealt with numerous injuries, and BGSU was able to force some turnovers, but based on what you saw in that game, do you really think Babers' and/or Brian Ward's defensive philosophy work in the Big Ten?
Werner: You're leading me right into Babers' biggest questions. I have few questions about Babers. I think individually he's special. But a good coach needs a good staff. Babers staff is very green and he's moved them around to different position groups. He moved Kim McCloud, kind of his right-hand man, from defensive coordinator to assistant head coach/receivers coach to make room for new defensive coordinator Brian Ward, who was previously at Western Illinois. Most of Babers' staff has been with him since Eastern Illinois, and most coaches are pretty loyal to their staffs. There is a huge benefit to keeping a staff together (look at Minnesota for the upside or for the downside, look at Tim Beckman's first, jumbled staff). I'd expect most of Babers' offensive staff to follow him to his next stop.
But most Illini fans would probably feel more comfortable if Babers hired an established FBS coordinator. There will be a ton of movement and shakeups in the coaching community during what could be the most tumultuous offseason in college football coaching history, so there should be a few intriguing DC candidates.
Also, there is a lot of unknown with this staff in terms of recruiting. Babers has had success with "another guys' recruits" at both his stops. How concerned are you about his staff?
Easterling: I'm not all that worried about his offensive staff. Losing Sterlin Gilbert and Matt Mattox to Tulsa after just one year at BGSU undoubtedly raises some questions about Babers' ability to build a cohesive staff, but at the end of the day, Babers is still the defacto offensive coordinator, and the results on the field have been the same this year regardless of who his assistant offensive coaches have been. My big question is on defense. He made significant changes to his defensive staff after year 1 at Bowling Green, bringing in Brian Ward from Western Illinois to shore things up. And while they have improved from year one to year two, it remains to be seen whether Babers and his defensive staff can form a quality defensive philosophy that could hold up in the Big Ten. Illinois fans are all-too-familiar with the confusion that new coordinators on offense caused during Beckman's first couple years in Champaign, so defensively, Babers may have to consider retaining some of the current Illinois defensive staff. The downside of that is that he continues a trend of frequent coaching turn-over, and that's a concern to me. I think Illinois fans would love the points he would put on the board, but he will need to pay special attention to defense lest Illinois turn into Indiana and Babers becomes the next Kevin Wilson. From a recruiting standpoint, Bowling Green has been pretty "middle of the pack". Toledo and WMU are really setting the precedent for recruiting in the MAC, and it could just be a matter of time before BGSU comes around, but a lot of Babers' recruiting success in the future, especially on defense, will depend on developing stability and continuity in his system, so that he can recruit the right players for those systems.
Werner: Well, we should know if Babers is the guy in a month. Inquirer subscribers know my other candidates from my Coaching Hot List -- update next week, by the way. But if not Babers, who would AD Easterling realistically pursue?
Easterling: Realistic being the key word here, there's another guy I would have at the top of my list after Babers. And that guy would be Dave Doeren. I would much prefer Doeren over a guy like Wheaton, IL native Todd Monken, but I don't think you can ignore the turn-around Monken has made at Southern Miss this year, because that program was really in the dumps when he took over.
Doeren has power five conference coaching experience, was very successful at NIU as Jerry Kill's successor, and has deep, deep Midwest ties. There has been talk that he isn't entirely satisfied at NC State and could be looking for an opportunity to make a return to the Midwest. Illinois would make a ton of sense. Consider this: Doeren, is a Shawnee, KS native, played in college at Drake in Iowa, Has coaching experience in the Big Ten while at Wisconsin, and has been fairly successful at NC State. Not only does Doeren have strong roots in the Midwest, nearly all of his assistants do, too. Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada (who I would make dang sure comes with Doeren) is from New Palatine, Indiana. Defensive Coordinator Dave Huxtable is an Elgin, IL native and attended Eastern Illinois university. TE/FB/ST coach Eddie Faulkner is from Muncie, Indiana, and attended Wisconsin. Offensive Line coach Mike Uremovich is a New Lenox, IL native and attended Providence Catholic High School. Some of the other staffers are from the North Carolina area, but a good number of the rest of the staff has been with Doeren since Northern Illinois, which is a good sign that he can both assemble and retain a staff. The question there would be if Illinois would buy out the recently-extended Doeren and bring him back to the Midwest. His other knock is that his conference record in the ACC has left an awful lot to be desired. He is currently 4-16 in ACC play, despite an 8-5 overall mark last year. NC State is on the verge of bowl eligibility again at 5-3 right now, but their best chance to make a bowl may be against Boston College with a matchup at Florida State followed by Syracuse and North Carolina closing their schedule out. Doeren had an excellent record at NIU, but how much of that was due to Jerry Kill? It's 100% possible that his struggles at NC State have purely been due to fit, and that's where the difficulty lies, because he seems to be a very good coach otherwise.
Monken is a tough one to judge. Like I mentioned before, Southern Miss was a gargantuan tire fire when he took over in 2013. After going 12-2 in 2011, the Golden Eagles didn't win a single game the next year. Monken was faced with a massive rebuilding project. The former Oklahoma State OC went 1-11 in his first season at Southern Miss, getting blown out in just about every game. USM stuck with him, despite the dismal year. Monken's team was far more competitive in 2014, despite just a 3-9 overall record, the games were far more competitive. It wasn't really until this year that the evidence of improvement could be seen. Monken has USM currently at 6-3 overall, with those three losses coming to Nebraska, Mississippi State, and Marshall. He still has a big matchup in the final week of the regular season against Louisiana Tech and HC Skip Holtz (who might be a good candidate in his own right).
I did a little digging on Skip Holtz, too, and I truly believe he could campaign for a power five job this year. He has Louisiana Tech at 6-3 as well, but his losses came to Mississippi State (same as Monken), in triple overtime at Kansas State, and by 3 points to Western Kentucky. In his habit of being a QB-fixer-upper, he turned former 5-star and Florida transfer Jeff Driskel into a statistically prolific QB, and former Texas DC Manny Diaz has the La Tech defense in a pretty respectable place, even without Houston Bates on the team anymore (couldn't pass up a chance to drop in RBOBK). While I don't think Illinois targets Holtz in their search, I think he's worth doing some homework on, and I think he's a guy who will rebound well once he gets a chance at another P5 school.
Werner: You stole my Monken thunder for the next Hot List. Darn you, Easterling.