The Winds of Change Are Howling

You might think that the timeline for Stanford Football's head coaching search could take weeks and stretch deep into December. While events could indeed play out that way, the tightness of Ted Leland's short list and momentum with some candidates are real. Here we divulge and discuss who sources tell us are the five or six names on that list.

You expect the gears of change to start at a grinding pace on The Farm, where committees and bureaucracy can slow down fast-moving intentions.  The Search Committee which Stanford is reportedly employing for this head coach hunting process includes a vice-provost and a senior assistant from the President's Office.  When you have arms from different parts of the University reaching into the inner circle of this decision-making process, you can expect a breadth of interviews and a range of opinions.

However, as early as Monday, less than an hour before the official press conference where he announced the firing of Buddy Teevens as head coach of Stanford Football, Ted Leland reportedly addressed the team and told them to hang tight for the next week or so while he and his committee worked on a short list.  While Leland said afterward to the assembled press that he only made the decision to fire Teevens on Sunday morning, a wealth of data suggests he was moving in that direction weeks earlier.  Furthermore, sources tell The Bootleg that Leland is operating with a short list that contains five names.  Other sources say there may be six leading candidates.  Leland told the team that if one or more of those top targets bite, they could have a new head coach by that time next week.

I will believe it when I see it.  Just five months ago, Leland conducted one of the all-time narrowest "coaching searches" when he hired Trent Johnson to succeed Mike Montgomery at the helm of the men's basketball program.  Though a previous in-house study a year earlier had already reached the conclusion that Johnson was the best successor, and data that followed last season pushed that probability to the high 99.9's when Johnson soared to new heights at Nevada, the process still took nearly a week to come to an official conclusion.  The extra days that dragged on allowed a pair of official visitors - both highly coveted Top 100 national recruits - to come and go for their 48-hour stay on campus before Johnson arrived.  One did sign with Stanford, while the other opted for North Carolina.  Leland's lack of immediacy in that environment gives me doubt that he will pull this off during a seven-day window.

There is, of course, one difference.  While it is true that Trent Johnson was the obvious candidate and consequently the only one interviewed in May, there was a great shock at the beginning of the clock when Montgomery told Leland he was leaving for the Golden State Warriors.  The surprise of that event may have been responsible for some of the lag, as Leland was scurrying to get the house in order - including signing all three assistants to new contracts.  In the case of the current football search, Leland has been operating on this project since before the clock started on Monday.

The name who has maybe been involved for the longest period of time is former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel, who is currently in somewhat of a fluff job with the Baltimore Ravens while he waits for his next big gig.  Fassel is currently a senior consultant with the Ravens, in a focused mentoring role on former Cal quarterback Kyle Boller.  The 55-year old coach is best known for his seven years as the head coach for the Giants, climaxing with their Super Bowl against Baltimore in 2001.  But he spent five formative years as an assistant at Stanford from 1979-1983.  He was credited as a primary mentor for John Elway then, and coached the living legend again a decade later with the Denver Broncos.  Fassel's time on The Farm overlapped with Darrin Nelson, who is currently Senior Associate Athletic Director at Stanford and is part of the Search Committee.  Nelson has also been named by Leland to replace Teevens in head coaching duties for the football team during this search, with players and assistant coaches reporting to him.  Current wide receivers coach Ken Margerum also played under Fassel.

Sources say that Fassel and Stanford have been talking for weeks, possibly stretching back as far as late October.  Some observers have questioned if the coach who has been in the NFL for the last 14 years would have an interest in jumping back into the wild world of college football.  Conventional wisdom has held that Fassel is qualified and interested in taking another NFL head coaching position, not satisfied with the one peak of success he had in New York.  But we are hearing that Fassel has been actively pursuing this Stanford job at a level that indicates he is quite interested.

One source opines that if Fassel were to land the job, he would likely bring former Cardinal quarterback Turk Schonert in to lead the offense. Schonert played under Fassel and won the NCAA passing title back in 1979, and the two hooked up again as a coaching tandem in 2003 at the Giants.

The other name with the most buzz right now is USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who has been a wildly successful offensive coordinator year-in and year-out for the breadth of the last three decades.  Chow cut his teeth at BYU for 27 years, with 18 seasons at the controls of the offense.  He was credited with mentoring the Cougars' bevy of all-world quarterbacks, including Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer, as well as engineering their prolific passing offense.  For years, Chow thought he would be the successor to Provo legend LaVell Edwards, but the Cougars hired Gary Crowton after Edwards retired.  Chow was the OC at North Carolina State in 2000 and made freshman quarterback Philip Rivers into a superstar, passing for more than 3,000 yards.  At USC since 2001, Chow has built arguably the nation's most powerful offense, with one Heisman Trophy winner in Carson Palmer and likely another in less than two weeks for Matt Leinart.

A source in Los Angeles says that Stanford may have contacted USC about Chow as early as two weeks ago, for the Stanford head coaching job.  When speculation first started about Chow for the Cardinal job, the immediate question was one of money.  The USC offensive coordinator is believed to pull in a salary that matched what Teevens was making as Stanford's head coach.  Presuming that it would take a hefty pay raise to uproot Chow, the Cardinal might be spending beyond Ted Leland's publicly stated cap.

"We will not pay an exorbitant salary for our coach," the Athletic Director declared on Monday.  "We will pay a good salary.  But we are not going to 'buy ourselves' a coach.  We will find the best coach we can who fits within Stanford's community."

There is good reason to believe that Chow could bolt for The Farm, regardless.  At the ripe age of 58, Chow is chomping at the bit for a head coaching gig - provided it is the right one.  Two years ago he turned down Kentucky, and last year he was beaten out by Mike Stoops for the Arizona opening.  Chow spun his wheels for years in Provo with the assumption that he would rise to the throne after LaVell Edwards retired at BYU, and much time passed him by the time that played out and failed.

There are obvious questions as to whether Chow would make a successful transition from career coordinator to head coach.  While he obviously has as good an offensive mind as any active coach in college football today, he is known by friends and associates as a low-energy and somewhat muted person.  It is questioned as to whether he could have the vivaciousness desired for recruiting as well as booster/fan glad-handing.  While some distant observers have concluded Chow to be dull or dour, he actually has a good sense of humor that slips under the radar because of its dry and understated manner.  One source close to the USC program speaks glowingly of Chow and his personality, though admits to its subtlety.

Ted Leland has stated publicly that he wants a coach who knows offense, and Chow would be as good a cure as any on this great green Earth for the woes Stanford has known the last three years when holding the ball.  The dry and muted personality would be a drawback for fan and booster relations, though it is unlikely that it could be any worse than what Stanford had when Tyrone Willingham was at the helm a short few years ago.  Willingham's famed no-show at the biggest booster event of the year on campus was the nadir during his fan-unfriendly final years.  Recruiting, however, would remain a real question.  Chow has a small role in that capacity currently at USC, other than being a 24-carat name that draws drool from offensive recruits.  As the head man responsible for closing deals with in-home visits, there are real questions of Chow's projected efficacy.  He would likely need a supporting cast of superstar recruiters on his staff to carry what is a critical and challenging part of the Stanford Football job.

There was a rumor yesterday that Chow came up to The Farm to meet with Leland, but that could not be confirmed and was most likely untrue.  Chow was on the field Tuesday for USC's practice, as they prepare for their regular season finale against rival UCLA.  But several sources say that Leland and Chow may be meeting today.  The Stanford Athletic Director had previous plans unrelated to the head coaching search to travel to Los Angeles today, and it is probable that he would meet with Chow while there.  Another source has stated that Chow would travel up to Stanford today, but we believe the meeting is more likely in Southern California.

Another name believed to be on the short list is current Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins.  His is a Northern California native and UC-Davis graduate, and the lead job at The Farm would be something of a homecoming for him.  Hawkins is perhaps the hottest young head coach in the country, with a perfect 11-0 record through the end of this regular season, and finishes of 13-1 and 12-1 the previous two years.  The Broncos offense ranks #2 in the nation by the slimmest of margins this year, with 49.7 points per game trailing Louisville by just one-tenth of a point.

The one great barrier to a Hawkins hire may be money.  The Boise State staff is a tight-knit one, and Hawkins is believed to be loyal to them to the point that he would only make a move if he could bring most of his staff with them and give them all substantial improvements in pay and quality of living.  The cost of living differential between Boise and Palo Alto, coupled with Leland's purported spending cap, may make it difficult to provide Hawkins with enough incentive to uproot his currently content staff.

Also on the subject of Boise State, we address the possibility of Hawkins' offensive coordinator, Chris Peterson.  Peterson is also a UC-Davis alumnus and is personally credited with making Ryan Dinwiddie into an all-world performer at quarterback.  He is also credited for bringing greater balance and consistency to the the program's offense after Dirk Koetter left to take the Arizona State head job.  Some theorize that Peterson is more of the mastermind of the Broncos offense than Hawkins, analogous to how observers today perceive what Jeff Tedford did under Mike Bellotti at Oregon.  Coincidentally, Peterson was also the receivers coach for the Ducks and overlapped with Tedford in Eugene.

There are some questions about Peterson's goals and desires currently, however.  Some say that he is content to remain attached to Hawkins at this time.  Stanford indeed contacted Peterson a year ago for the offensive coordinator position, but he was not interested.  Whether that derives from his lack of interest in leaving Hawkins/Boise or instead was a reflection of the unattractiveness of coming to the OC job under Buddy Teevens - we cannot know for sure.  We have also heard that another Division I program in the market for a head coach contacted Peterson recently, but discussions never got off the ground when the Boise State coordinator wanted to wait until after the Broncos' bowl game.

If Leland's leading list is truly five names long, I believe that Peterson may be outside that group.  Though one source has told The Bootleg that the short list has six names, which could encompass Peterson.  The other two names of high prominence are current Pittsburgh head coach Walt Harris and Texas Tech head man Mike Leach.  Both are, once again, highly regarded offensive minds.  Harris has his Panthers on the cusp of a BCS berth, while Leach has put up gargantuan numbers in his four years in Lubbock.  Harris has ties with Ted Leland back to the days at Pacific, when Leland was the Athletic Director and Harris was the head coach from 1989-91.  Despite the success that his Panthers are enjoying this year, there are reports that Harris and Pitt are not quite enamored of each other any longer.  The Big East is also undergoing an awkward transition in football after losing their top three football programs to the ACC, with reinforcements coming from Conference USA.

It should be noted that the professional and personal relationship between Leland and Harris could ironically work against this possible pairing in Palo Alto.  Leland admitted Monday that he would find it difficult to hire a friend again into this job, after how much criticism and distrust came immediately when he hired Buddy Teevens.

We know the least about Leach right now, other than his impressive statistics and accomplishments in recent years.  Texas Tech currently has the #1 passing offense in the nation, averaging better than 388 yards per game.  The Red Raiders averaged more than 475 yards throwing the ball last year.  Leach also had wild success as an offensive coordinator in his two jobs before taking the lead position in Lubbock.  He was the leader of the Kentucky aerial assault and #1 overall NFL draft pick Tim Couch, and he turned around the Oklahoma offense under Bob Stoops.  Leach led Josh Heupel and the Sooners to a meteoric surge in their passing attack: in 1998 OU was ranked #107 in the nation in passing offense and #101 in scoring; in 1999 in Leach's first year, the Sooners ranked #9 and #8, respectively.

One name who has been bandied about by the national media in the last 24 hours is Tyrone Willingham, who finds himself unemployed after being fired yesterday by Notre Dame.  Willingham left Stanford for South Bend three years ago, with great disaffection for the recruiting limitations of the Cardinal's admissions standards, as well as the absence of a skyscraping paycheck.  He left like a bull in a china shop and has gone out of his way to not say thank you to Stanford since.  Willingham and his staff have delivered some very unsavory messages toward competing recruits the last few years when the Irish and Card have locked horns - appalling enough to be better not detailed here.  Willingham publicly ran his team through the Stanford senior introduction proceedings in November 2003 for his lone return to coach on his former campus, and late in the game he ran a fake punt while holding a blowout 50-point lead.

While there are still some members of the Stanford community who hold great affection for the man, the current crop of rising fifth-year seniors have grown to know him as a mortal enemy.  That class was in their redshirt year in Willingham's final season in 2001, and they were blindsided to learn on ESPN that their leader had bolted for rural Indiana.  The fires of their contempt have brewed for many in the subsequent three years, and they were unabashed about how badly they wanted to beat the man this year when they traveled to South Bend.  It would be a fiasco for Stanford to bring Willingham back to a team who now lists him as a public enemy.

I do not believe that Willingham is on Ted Leland's short list, and it would be strange for the Director to bring back a man who not only has worked so villainously against the Cardinal the last three years, but it would also return a man whose lax recruiting efforts were the motivator behind Leland's hire of Teevens.  Willingham saddled Stanford with their current void of elder offensive linemen, and he was making few friends at Notre Dame with similar gaps that he began to engender.  The job would of course be publicly effacing for Willingham, given that he intended a vertical ascension by jumping to Notre Dame and would be admitting to climbing back down the ladder to lil' ol' Stanford.

The reason there is any conjecture about bringing the former Stanford assistant and head coach back to The Farm is the camp who is lobbying for him.  Current and former associates of Stanford have been placing calls the last 24 hours to urge Leland to rehire Willingham.  The most notable of this camp is current Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, who was a mentor to Willingham at Stanford and at the Minnesota Vikings from 1989-1994.

Finally, you have to ask the question about making an in-house hire.  Two Stanford alumni who are current Cardinal assistants are associate head coach and inside linebackers coach Tom Williams (Class of '92) and wide receivers coach Ken Margerum (Class of '81).  Both are very highly regarded by the Stanford community and inside the Athletic Department, but there are reasons why both may be considered longshots.  Williams was a defensive player and for the breadth of his coaching career has been a defensive coach.  Leland has stated his preference for an offensive leader in his hire.  Margerum is older by a decade but has even less college coaching experience, with just four years under his belt.  Both would like interviews with Leland and the committee for the job, but they are both in somewhat delicate situations if they would wish to remain on the Stanford staff when someone else is hired.  It is very rare for a new head coach to hold someone on his staff who obviously coveted the same position.

Should neither of them get the job, the paths for Margerum and Williams could diverge.  Williams is young and may find it attractive to continue to cut his teeth with experiences in other programs.  One source says he indeed might look elsewhere if he cannot get the Stanford head coaching job, after spending the last three years on The Farm.  Margerum would likely pursue an assistant or coordinator position with great vigor at Stanford, almost regardless of who is hired.

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