Who leads the Panthers in 2011?

John Fox will not be coaching in Charlotte next year, or whenever football is played again. Yet unknown is the name of the person who will assume Fox's place. This is a crucial hire for Jerry Richardson and Marty Hurney, as they look to gain new fans and hold on to the growingly jaded PSL holders.

Carolina's next head coach stands to inherit the first pick in the draft, a young roster, a good running game, an above-average defense and an apologetic quarterback. It's not the easiest task, but it's definitely a task.

The NFL is structured to allow for quick turnarounds, so there is hope the Panthers will return to winning sooner than later. This coaching decision will tell the fan base if Richardson is serious about "investing the resources necessary to make it happen."

The speculation will ratchet up as more coaching positions become available once the season ends. Here are some of the early candidates:

Bill Cowher
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Bill Cowher: The Super Bowl winning, former Steelers coach and current studio analyst is the biggest name out there. Hiring Cowher would take some of the attention off of the front office, as he would become the face of the team.

The North Carolina resident has been rumored to be waiting for this opening for a while now, but he's also been linked to several other teams. Would Cowher be willing to inherit a team with so many holes to fill when he could take a job with a team like the 49ers, who play in the weakest division in the league and where he may have more control over picking his players?

It's interesting to note that Cowher, while still successful, wasn't as successful without Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator. LeBeau is staying in Pittsburgh; could that mean the first ever Panthers coach, Dom Capers, reunites with Cowher and comes back to Carolina? It remains to be seen, but either way, Cowher is the "swing for the fences" choice for Richardson.

Jim Harbaugh
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Jim Harbaugh: Harbaugh spent the last year of his playing career wearing a Panthers jersey, but never played a game. Currently, he's the college coach who seems the most likely to make the jump to the NFL if he doesn't take over at his alma mater, Michigan, as has been rumored.

It almost seems too logical for him to take the Panthers job and then select his current quarterback, Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the draft. However, Harbaugh has recently been offered an extension at Stanford, which may render all of this moot.

Luck is no lock to declare for the draft, either, so Panther fans may have to look away from Stanford for any kind of savior. It would be interesting, though, if Harbaugh does take the Panthers job and passes on Luck. Thoughts of Pete Carroll passing on Taylor Mays jump to mind.

Ron Meeks: Meeks would be the hire made for continuity's sake. Richardson has stated he wants to build through the draft and keep the veteran core together. Doesn't everyone? Do you really want the continuity that is tied to a 1-15 season?

Brian Schottenheimer
Brian Schottenheimer, Rob Ryan, Kyle Shanahan: Like Harbaugh, these three have coaching in their blood. All of their fathers -- and in Ryan's case, his brother, too -- have been head coaches in the NFL. Bloodlines aside, they've all had their own successes as coordinators and figure to be interviewed for any of the potential 10 coaching vacancies this offseason.

Ryan seems to be having the most success this year with the Browns' defense, while Schottenheimer and Shanahan have both cooled after hot starts. Most of that could be blamed on the play of their quarterbacks, so they won't be dismissed from the discussion.

If Richardson was to go after a "name," but not write too many zeroes on a check, it'll be someone from this group. There is more risk here, though, as it would be the first head coaching job for any of these candidates.

Wade Phillips, Marvin Lewis, Josh McDaniels, Brad Childress, Mike Singletary, Gary Kubiak, Jeff Fisher: Some of these men are currently unemployed; the rest of them have considerable heat on their seat and could be available as soon as their last games are played. Each of them has question marks and Richardson would have some explaining to do if he named any of them to take over the Panthers.

Can you hire Phillips, who niced his way out of Dallas? This team doesn't need a nice guy. Can you hire Brad Childress, who…no, you just can't hire Brad Childress.

Marvin Lewis may just be happy to be away from Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens and decide to enjoy the silence for a year or two. Richardson can't bring in McDaniels, who cheated and also traded Peyton Hillis for Brady Quinn. Fisher is the wild card. His teams are always tough and play for him, but yet he's been in Tennessee for 17 years and hasn't won a Super Bowl.

Who should coach the Panthers in 2011? Discuss inside the message boards.

Michael Stolp is a graduate of Wilkes University with a degree in Communications. He grew up in Piscataway, N.J., and recently relocated to Charlotte, NC. To follow his personal blog, click here.

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