Tyrone Nix among candidates for USM job

Working as an assistant coach under Steve Spurrier has historically been a great launching pad for coaches to move up to the next level as head coaches themselves. Will USC defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix be the next Spurrier assistant to move up? Read inside for Nix's prospects at Southern Miss, his alma mater, and a look at his competition for that job.

Most assistant coaches want to be a head coach someday. Tyrone Nix has not made it a secret in his three seasons at South Carolina that he strives to be a head coach, and soon. Nix spent ten years as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Southern Miss, and was the youngest defensive coordinator in the nation when he was named to the position in 2001 at age 29. Today at 35, he is still one of the youngest coordinators in the country.

He would also be one of the youngest head coaches in the country. Pat Fitzgerald just completed his second season at Northwestern, and will turn 33 on Sunday. He was only 31 when he was named the head coach of the Wildcats.

Southern Miss is not the most attractive head coaching position due to the smaller paycheck that goes with coaching a smaller school in a mid-major conference. Many young coaches use mid-major programs like USM as a stepping stone to bigger schools and bigger paychecks.

Jeff Bower, who just resigned after 17 years as the head coach at USM, had a total annual package worth $475,000, not much more than Nix currently earns as a coordinator at USC, and less than some coordinators make at other SEC schools. Bowers' salary was clearly substandard, the second lowest paycheck in Conference USA, where coaches earn significantly less than the bigger conferences like the SEC and the ACC.

Al Jones, a local newspaper columnist who covers the USM program, asked the question Tuesday, "Why would any coach take a job where the previous coach got the ax after 14 consecutive winning seasons, three outright conference titles and a graduation rate near 90 percent?" His is not the only critical voice directed at USM for dumping Bower.

Despite the national scrutiny over how the last coach left, the job is attractive to up and coming coaches, and Nix will not be without major competition for the job.

Another young coach that may be serious competition to Nix for the job is current Auburn defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Will Muschamp. Muschamp is also being mentioned as a candidate for the vacant Georgia Tech head job, but his lack of experience as a head coach may prevent him from being a serious candidate for that much higher profile job, making the USM job attractive to him as the missing piece in his resume.

Muschamp is one of the highest profile young coaches in the country, and would be a more attractive candidate to fans of most schools because of his resume than would Nix, though Nix's ties to USM may help. Muschamp has just completed his second year as the defensive coordinator at Auburn. He was the defensive coordinator at LSU during its national championship season in 2003. Like Nix, he is only 35, and was a very young defensive coordinator when he took that position at LSU in 2002. He was the linebacker coach at LSU for one season before being promoted, and coached at LSU from 2001-04 before moving to the Miami Dolphins in January 2005.

Another name well known to Carolina fans is current Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who held the same position at South Carolina under former head coach Lou Holtz. In 1999 Strong became the first African-American coordinator in Southeastern Conference history when Holtz named him defensive coordinator. There are currently only six African-American head coaches out of the 117 big-time college football programs. Strong has been a perennial also-ran as a head coaching candidate. Last season he was a finalist to become the head coach at Minnesota, but like the other head jobs he has applied for, he didn't get the job. Strong is 47, and starting to get old enough that his age may soon be a factor in schools looking at him for his first head coaching job.

Another SEC coordinator who needs to move up soon before the opportunity to be a head coach passes him by is current Arkansas offensive coordinator David Lee. Lee is 54, and is a 31-year coaching veteran, who does have time as a head coach at UTEP from 1984-88 on his resume. The strength of his resume however, is as an assistant coach. He returned to Arkansas a year ago to take the job as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He spent the previous four years with the Dallas Cowboys as an offensive assistant. It was his third stint on the Razorback staff after serving under both Ken Hatfield and Nutt previously. Lee worked as the quarterbacks and fullbacks coach from 1984-88 before taking the head coaching job at the University of Texas at El Paso. Nutt hired Lee as the quarterbacks coach again in 2001. He spent two seasons with the Hogs in that position before accepting an offer to join the Cowboys. He served seven seasons at Rice University (1994-2000) as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach on Hatfield's staff. Lee also spent five seasons at Ole Miss from 1978-82.

Ironically, another candidate for the head job at USM may be the man Lee replaced at Arkansas, Gus Malzhan. Malzhan also only served one year as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas, and the tumult he was involved in that resulted in his bolting for another coordinator job at Tulsa was a large part of Houston Nutt's resignation as the Hawgs' head coach this week. Nutt was named Tuesday as the new head coach at Ole Miss.

Malzahn joined Nutt's staff in December of 2005, going straight from being a high school coach to an SEC offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. His impressive five-year run at Springdale High School in Arkansas was capped by one of the most dominant seasons by any high school in 2005. Malzahn left the Razorbacks after the 2006 season in which they won the SEC Western Division championship, but ended with three straight losses to LSU, Florida in the SEC Championship Game, and Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, to finish with a 10-4 record.

There was a widely reported tension between Nutt's reliance on the ground game and Malzahn's philosophy of spreading the field with a no-huddle offense. The poor ending of the season only added stress to the already tense coaching relationship. Malzahn left the Razorback program in January 2007 and joined the University of Tulsa and new head coach, Todd Graham. Malzahn took the Tulsa job to be the school's offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. In his first season there, Malzahn's offense at Tulsa was ranked 1st in the nation in total yards per game.

Fan reaction to Nix at both his current school and at his alma mater is mixed. While acknowledging the challenges he has had to face with injuries and young players playing before they were fully ready for the rigors of an SEC schedule, South Carolina fans are holding Nix accountable to some degree for the second half struggles of the defense this season. Nix understands, and takes some responsibility. After the Florida loss for example, he said, "The things that we did on third downs, a lot of them were mistakes, missed tackles," Nix said. "And then some of it was poor calls or game plan. Some of it was me."

His players refuse to lay the blame at Nix feet, however. Senior defensive back Brandon Isaac said Nix's schemes are not the problem. "We just aren't making plays, we aren't getting off blocks." Isaac said. "We're missing a lot of tackles; we aren't running to the ball. We've got to make plays to win."

Fans on USM message boards are vocal in their like and respect for Nix, yet largely express a desire for a more proven candidate as their next head coach.

Sources close to the South Carolina program have confirmed that Steve Spurrier's given Nix his blessing to pursue the head job at USM. Stay tuned to GamecockAnthem.com for all the latest on Nix's prospects of landing the Southern Miss head coaching position.

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