Conference USA may not be rated as one of the top football conferences in the country, but no one can say the league doesn't have its share of quality head football coaches.
A non BSC conference, several of the head coaches have coached at bigger venues. It can be said that the conference has been the league of second chances for a couple of the conference coaches.
George O'Leary has had success in the ACC and could possibly still be coaching in South Bend if wasn't for a mistake on his resume. Instead of letting that get the experienced head coach down, he responded by turning around a Central Florida football team into a national contender.
Mike Price has coached in the PAC 10 and coached a spring in the SEC before a mental blunder sent him to the sidelines. Price has rebounded at the University of Texas at ElPaso, turning the Miners into a better football team.
June Jones enters the conference as another offensive mastermind in a league that is known for good offenses. He joins second year head coach Todd Graham at Tulsa as two of the offensive geniuses of the league. Graham pulled off a miracle year at Rice in one season, and then had great success at Tulsa last season. This year he gets to prove if he can continue his winning ways.
The coach that gets my New Comer of the Year Award goes to Southern Mississippi's Larry Fedora. Although this is his first year as a head coach, he has already proven he can assemble a quality staff and can recruit. He pulled off a major recruiting coup by hiring Ole Miss' Tony Hughes and earning DeAndre Brown's signature in the process. Brown the state's No. 1 recruit was no small prize for the Golden Eagles.
In deciding the rankings of the league coaches, I looked at the past success of each coach, in what league they had coached in and looked at the strengths and weakness of each head coach. While experience in the league is one thing, what you have done in recruiting, winning and overall control of your program was also taken into consideration.
Here is how PonyStampede.com ranks the league coaches from top to bottom.
1. George O'Leary-Central Florida After having a lot of success at Georgia Tech, the experienced head coach appeared to be headed to his dream job at Notre Dame. That job didn't last long, as it was discovered that O'Leary had falsified his resume, causing the religious school to dismiss almost immediately. He then was hired by Steve Orsini at Central Florida. Although he is 22-27 at the Orlando school, that includes his 0-11 record his first year there. He was 10-3 last fall and won the league championship. His second year at Central Florida he was named Conference USA Coach of the Year and CBS Sportsline National Coach of the year for the Golden Knights 8-5 finish.
2. June Jones- SMU- A newcomer to Conference USA, he is not a rookie head coach. Jones, who is an offensive mastermind of the run and shoot offense, coached the last nine years at Hawaii where he turned the Warriors into BSC Bowl Busters this past season. He also was the head coach for the Atlanta Falcons for two seasons and had great success in the NFL as an assistant coach for over 10 years. He has already proven in a short time on the Hilltop to be one of the best recruiters that SMU has had in a long time. The Mustangs currently have six commitments and it's only June. Jones has also assembled a very impressive coaching staff, he has surrounded himself with several coaches with NFL experience including past NFL head coach Frank Gansz. After only one spring in Dallas, he has his young Mustangs believing in themselves and having fun during spring practice for the first time in a long time.
3. Skip Holt- East Carolina- Son of Lou Holtz has proven he be a successful head coach, improving the Pirates in each of his three years as the head coach. Holtz led the Pirates to an 8-5 finish last fall and ended a five year stint as Connecticut's head coach with a 38-23 record. In eight years as a head coach Holtz is 58-40. Look for East Carolina to challenge for a spot in the conference championship this fall.
4. Todd Graham-Tulsa- A true offensive genius, he was a miracle worker in one year at Rice, taking the Owls to a 7-6 record and then returning to Tulsa to lead that team to a 10-4 record and the West Conference Championship in his first year for the Golden Hurricanes. Graham could possibly rank higher, but with only two years as a head coach, he still has a lot to prove. This fall will go along way to see if last season was a fluke or a program headed in the right direction under the right head coach.
5. Mike Price-UTEP- Coach Price spent 14 seasons as head coach at Washington State, winning two Pac 10 championships during his tenure. He left the Cougars for the SEC and Alabama, that coaching job last less than a college semester as Price decided to celebrate spring break. After a making a mental blunder and finding himself dismissed as the Crimson Tide head coach in less than six months, Price rebounded at UTEP. During his first two seasons at UTEP he led the Miners to back to back 8-4 records. After two disappointing seasons 5-7 and 4-8, look for the Miners to be improved this fall.
6. Bob Toledo-Tulane-Spent seven years as head coach at UCLA where he led the Bruins to five bowls games in seven seasons. He had a hard time beating USC, earning him a pink slip and a trip to the unemployment line. Expect him to turn his Tulane team into an improved ball club. It's a tougher job to recruit athletes to Tulane than it was to Beverly Hills.
7. Tommy West-Memphis- known as the Dean of the Conference, West's teams have endured a lot of off field tragedies this past year including one football player's death on campus. A mass exodus of quarterbacks, a total of three, would make some wonder what's happening in Memphis. The Tigers are picked to win the East Division in several pre-seasons publications. West has led the Tigers to four bowl games in seven seasons as the head coach.
8. Larry Fedora-Southern Mississippi-No one has caused more noise on his campus since his arrival. Bringing a high power offense to the Magnolia State, Fedora surrounded himself with a quality staff, reaching out and getting two coaches from the dismissed Ole Miss staff. The Golden Eagles turned in one of the best recruiting classes ever in the history of the school. Add a new offense, a new coaching staff and a new attitude in Hattiesburg, Fedora could have a higher ranking if he had any head coaching experience. This is why I named Fedora the overall New Comer of the Year Award for the pre-season.
9. Neil Callaway-UAB-A longtime assistant coach, Callaway a Bear Bryant disciple, hopes to turn the Blazers into winners. He turned to a previous head coach of the conference Kim Helton, who was the head coach at Houston when the Cougars won the first Conference USA title, as his offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. This coaching staff knows what it takes to win in this league, now they have to get the players to help them accomplish the task.
10. Kevin Sumlin-University of Houston-His first year as a head coach after a successful stint at the University of Oklahoma. The long time assistant coach takes over for Art Briles who took the Baylor job. Look for a more balanced offensive attack for the Cougars and Sumlin has already proved he can recruit. Should be interesting to see how he fares on Cullen Blvd.
11. David Baliff- Rice-His second year as head coach for the Owls. After going to their first bowl game under Todd Graham, the Owls went 3-9 last fall. In Baliff's defense, the Owls got no breaks last fall, something they took advantage of the year before. Baliff has a more balanced offensive attack and returns eight offensive and eight defensive starters from last year's squad. Look for an improved team this fall.
12. Mark Snyder-Marshall-A rebuilding process for the Thundering Herd. Coach Snyder needs to show improvement this fall, something that Marshall enthusiast feel will happen.
Publisher note: These rankings are based solely on the opinion of PonyStampede.com and its Publisher James Bryant.