Which college football coaches are on the rise? Which of today’s head coaches in college football are poised for huge promotions with another year or two of solid results on the field?
If you had to select 10 head coaches with the highest ceiling in the profession, who would they be? We’re talking younger guys, most of whom are under 50 and can use their current position as a launching pad to a larger program. A shortcut to a bigger payday and significantly more national attention.
Because no one knows what the future holds. Athletic directors always maintain a wish list, formal or otherwise, of coaching candidates. Just in case ADs need a little outside input, we’ve provided a list of coaches who’ll continue to be red-hot commodities in the coming years.
10. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Fritz needed only two seasons at Georgia Southern to attract the attention of Tulane. Breathe life into the Green Wave and the coach’s agent will be fielding offers once again in a couple of years.
Fritz is 55, so his window is a little tighter than the rest of the coaches cited here. However, he has the track record to warrant attention, highlighted by 17 winning seasons in 19 years at three different stops. And at a program that’s been over .500 just three times this century, the opportunity is there to deliver the kind of message that draws interest from Power Five ADs looking for a pro’s pro.
9. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
You need a coach to energize a sagging program? Fleck could be your guy.
Fleck is a rah-rah kind of leader who’s succeeding in initiating a cultural shift in Kalamazoo, Mich. In three seasons with the Broncos, he’s had a profound impact, on Saturdays, on Signing Day and in terms of overall fan interest and engagement. After going 1-11 in his debut, Fleck has won eight games in consecutive years, capped by last season’s first bowl win in school history. He’s still only 35 years old, and he possesses a lot of the intangible qualities found in difference-making head coaches.
8. Jeff Brohm, WKU
The last two Hilltopper head coaches, Willie Taggart and Bobby Petrino, were promoted to higher profile jobs. Brohm is poised to make it three in a row.
Brohm has made a steady climb up the ranks, hitting the fast track by winning 20 games, as well as the 2015 Conference USA title, in two years. He was in the discussion for Power Five openings last fall. To remain there, he’ll need to keep WKU potent on offense, despite the graduation of quarterback Brandon Doughty. Brohm is an outstanding play caller and designer of attacks, encouraging news for Doughty’s former backer Nelson Fishback.
7. Matt Rhule, Temple
The last coach to beat the odds at Temple, Al Golden, parlayed his success into the Miami job. Rhule, too, might use Philly as a stepping-stone to college football’s big leagues.
Rhule is really enjoying leading the Owls, so he didn’t jump when schools like Mizzou and Syracuse kicked his tires last fall. But talented young coaches remain at the Temples of the world for only so long. At some point, Rhule will go where he can deposit bigger paychecks and work in a broader national spotlight. The 41-year-old won 10 games and the AAC’s East Division a year ago, and his best days as a head coach are ahead of him.
6. Willie Taggart, South Florida
Taggart has turned the corner in Tampa. And not a moment too soon.
Taggart’s third year began shrouded in uncertainty, the result of winning only six games in his first two seasons. However, it ended on a very different note, with the Bulls breaking through with an 8-5 mark and their first bowl game since 2010. He’s young. He’s winning on the recruiting trail, and he comes from the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree. If South Florida becomes the latest noisemaker out of the AAC, the school will have a difficult time keeping Taggart on the payroll.
5. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
Good or bad, you never want to judge a coach based on a single year. In Harsin’s case, that’s a good thing.
The Broncos are coming off a down year by their usual standards, losing four times in 2015 when the bar was set at a return to a New Year’s Six bowl game. But don’t expect disappointing seasons to become the norm for Harsin. He’s already won 28 games and back-to-back bowls before hitting his 40th birthday. And he’ll have a Power Five ceiling as soon as Boise State gets back to being Boise State again.
4. Matt Wells, Utah State
Few coaches have endured worse luck behind center than Wells the past three years. Yet, he’s endured, which is not going to be lost on athletic directors at larger programs.
Wells hasn’t been able to catch a break, often needing to survive with someone other than fragile Chuckie Keeton at quarterback. In fact, the Aggies have leaned on backups in each of Wells’ seasons but are 25-16 with three bowl invitations over that time. The 42-year-old, who was interviewed by Missouri last year, is a rising star who might be one season of uninterrupted health from punching his ticket out of the Mountain West.
3. Pat Narduzzi, Pitt
Pitt finally has its man. But can it keep him?
The Panthers have struggled with a revolving door on the sidelines — no fault of their own. Now, the program wants to put its claws into Narduzzi, who’s off to a great start as a first-time head coach. His team overachieved in 2015, employing toughness en route to eight wins and Coastal Division contention. And he and his staff performed well on National Signing Day. But Pitt is not a destination job for a rising coach, and it’s fair to wonder if Narduzzi would consider, say, a return to the Big Ten if interest was shown.
2. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Chris Petersen left Boise State. Longtime BYU head guy Bronco Mendenhall surprisingly took the UVA job. Someday, Fitz will express an interest in leaving his alma mater. And when he does, there will be a bidding war for his services.
The only thing keeping Fitzgerald from coaching at a school with title potential is Fitzgerald. He’s elected to remain at Northwestern for a decade, shunning interest from prominent football powers. Over those 10 years, he’s won 70 games while finishing ranked twice in the last four years. Fitzgerald is overachieving at one of the most challenging Big Ten schools, so it’d be interesting to see what he could achieve with a higher caliber of athletes.
1. Tom Herman, Houston
No young coach in college football has more upward mobility or bargaining power than Herman, and it’s not even close.
Herman is a borderline household name in coaching circles after leading the Cougars to an American Athletic Conference title, a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Florida State and a top-10 ranking. The exclamation point came on National Signing Day with a historic class for Houston. Right now, Herman, who’s just 40 and won a national title as an assistant with Ohio State, can write his own ticket. It’ll be up to the Cougars to turn the program into a destination spot. It’s getting there. Although, somehow joining the Big 12 is a must to get to that next level.