TAMPA ― As coaching searches go, USF’s pursuit of a replacement for Charlie Strong is hardly unique.
Rumors and rumblings abound. So do pipe-dream and plausible candidates. Chances are, your neighbor has a cousin who knows a realtor who showed a certain coach’s wife a New Tampa property.
Which is to say, it’s madness. And what’s madness without bracketology?
Yep, we’re busting out our speculative Sweet 16 for the Bulls coaching search. Our selection committee (okay, Times colleges reporter Matt Baker and myself) settled on the candidates (most of them viable, some marginal) and split them into four regions.
Over the next three days, we’ll pit them against one another in tournament format until the top candidate is determined. We hope you find this exercise engaging and informative.
If not a little maddening.
Let’s tip it off.
(Guys with head coaching experience)
No. 1 Willie Taggart vs. No. 4 Jim Leavitt
We know many of you were hoping to see this matchup in the finals, but our bracket shaped up differently. The language in the settlement Leavitt reached with USF following his 2010 dismissal has been well-chronicled, but there are other concerns, such as the number of conference titles his Bulls teams won (zero) in his 13 seasons.
Taggart’s no less polarizing after bolting USF for a Power Five gig before the Bulls’ bowl game in 2016. Critics also will suggest quarterback Quinton Flowers was as responsible for USF’s mid-decade resuscitation as Taggart. But who recruited Flowers specifically as a QB?
Still energetic and engaging at 43, Taggart undoubtedly would make a long-term commitment to USF if given his old job back, and like Charlie Strong, he’d probably arrive as a bargain due to the formidable buyout he’s set to receive from FSU.
Winner: Taggart. USF representatives already have spoken with him, so we know he’s in play here.
No. 2 Lane Kiffin vs. No. 3 Gene Chizik
Though already a coaching journeyman, Kiffin is only 44, and his record as a college head coach (60-34) speaks for itself. While his successful stint as Alabama offensive coordinator featured some soap-opera subplots, one can’t under-value a three-year residency under Nick Saban. Did we mention his dad knows a thing or two about defense?
Chizik, a Clearwater High alumnus and son of a legendary Pinellas County high school principal, won a national title with Cam Newton at Auburn in 2010. Subtract that year, and his collegiate head coaching record is 24-38. He hasn’t coached since his two-year stint as North Carolina defensive coordinator in 2015-16.
Winner: Kiffin. Things would never be dull with this guy. Can’t you see him annoying the UCF fan base to no end?
(Former USF players or assistants)
No. 1 Larry Scott vs. No. 4 T.J. Weist
An original Bull and former USF assistant, Scott knows the landscape (and liabilities) of his alma mater as well as anyone on this bracket. His coaching resume is solid, and he brandished some fine leadership chops with his 4-2 stint as Miami’s interim coach in 2015 after Al Golden’s firing.
Weist, currently the Baltimore Ravens special teams coach, is a wild card of sorts. He shined in his lone season as USF’s receivers coach in 2016, leading the Bulls to a Birmingham Bowl overtime victory against South Carolina as interim coach after Taggart’s exit.
But his other interim stint was even more impressive. He took over at UConn when Paul Pasqualoni was fired after an 0-4 start in ‘13, lost five more in a row, then won his last three. What does that say? The Huskies played hard for him to the bitter end.
Winner: Scott, but only by the slimmest of margins. Weist nearly busts this bracket.
No. 2 Shaun King No. 3 Kerwin Bell
Bell must take responsibility for the American Athletic Conference’s worst offense in 2019 (330.9 ypg). But if history is any indication, the Bulls would’ve operated his complex, pro-style scheme more proficiently in Year Two. Question is, will he get a Year Two?
If athletic director Michael Kelly wants short-term stability, King would be the best hire he could make, but that’s clearly not the top objective. The former Gibbs High star and Buccaneers quarterback will be a coach one day, but a coordinator gig is his next logical progression.
Winner: Bell. The legendary former Gators QB has been successful at each of his head coaching stops, and has a Division II national title on his resume.
(Play callers on the rise)
No. 1 Jeff Scott vs. No. 4 Joe Brady
A 38-year-old Florida native (and son of a USF graduate), Scott seems custom-designed for the USF gig. During his dozen years at Clemson, he has helped develop and recruit a crop of NFL-caliber receivers including bay area products Artavis Scott, Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain.
Brady, credited with helping Joe Burrow evolve into a likely Heisman Trophy winner, would be a bona fide steal for Kelly. But we see him this Everglades High alumnus landing a Power Five gig first.
Winner: Scott. Trust us, Brady is a four-seed only because his stock may be too pricey for USF.
No. 2 Tony Elliott vs. No. 3 Marcus Freeman
The 2017 Broyles Award winner as the nation’s top assistant, Elliott was prominent in the recruitment of the locals who landed at Clemson, and has served as the Tigers’ co-offensive coordinator with Jeff Scott the last half-decade.
Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker, also a star in the making. His 2019 unit is tied with USF for most takeaways (24) in the AAC, and his run defense ranks second (140.6 ypg). The potential drawback: No apparent in-state connections.
Winner: Elliott. Like Scott, we believe he’s on Kelly’s short list.
Wild Card Regional
(Names that might surprise you)
No. 1 Surprise Hire vs. No. 4 Marcus Arroyo
Arroyo, Oregon’s co-offensive coordinator, is a promising Power Five assistant who will likely become a head coach in the next year or two. He has local ties, too; he called plays for the Bucs in 2014.
But if (when) the 39-year-old Arroyo makes the leap to head coach, it probably won’t be at USF. He has much stronger ties out West. We’ll go with the unknown here, with names like first-year Appalachian State coach Eliah Drinkwitz, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Billy Napier or Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.
Winner: Surprise. Kelly might be eyeing a coordinator we’ve never even considered.
No. 2 James Coley vs. No. 3 Jim McElwain
Both have notable connections to the state. Coley, Georgia’s 46-year-old offensive coordinator, is a Miami native and FSU alumnus who has coached at FSU, FIU and Miami, plus Miami high schools.
McElwain, 57, led the Gators to two SEC East titles before his bizarre exit midway through 2017. He’s a proven Group of Five coach who improved Colorado State and took over a 1-11 Central Michigan team and has the Chippewas in the MAC title game. He also helped push for improved facilities at UF, something he’d have to do at USF.
Winner: Coley. While McElwain, mentioned as a candidate for the Missouri vacancy, would help the Bulls improve their infrastructure, USF fans know how he fared two hours north.