TAMPA — USF athletic director Michael Kelly didn’t even get a chance to open his mouth Tuesday when he was asked the question that the Tampa Bay area has been buzzing about since Monday morning.
Would you hire Jon Gruden as the Bulls’ next football coach, if you have the opportunity?
“Can I make my (opening) statement, please?” Kelly responded.
Rumors about the Super Bowl champion coach are a staple of the college football coaching carousel — so much so that they have their own nickname, Grumors. The fact that Gruden won it all with the Bucs and remains a local celebrity fueled speculation and, on Tuesday, resulted in some questions about whether he could replace Jeff Scott.
“I’m not going to speak about any candidates,” Kelly said. “I’ve spoken to the (coaching) profile of what I’m looking for. I think that’s where I’ll stand for right now.”
Kelly does not have a specific resume in mind and does not yet have a serious list of candidates. But he did share some non-negotiable criteria he is seeking, beyond someone who shares his long-term vision of success and can create an elite experience for the players.
Kelly said he wants someone who can navigate “the modern situation of college sports that’s changed so much.” Specifically, that means proven recruiting success. It also means the ability to retain players in the transfer portal era and understand the rapidly evolving landscape of name, image and likeness. Kelly also said there is value in having a head coach “that’s really been in the throes of things in recent years, that understands how this has changed.”
Key phrase: “Recent years.” Gruden hasn’t been on a college staff since he was a Pitt assistant in 1991. The game has changed drastically in the last three years, let alone 30.
If we tune out the Grumors, the candidate pool is wide open as Kelly deals with a flood of phone calls and inquiries. He said previous head coaching experience would be great but isn’t a prerequisite. The fact that Scott — who had never been a college head coach and wasn’t the primary play caller when USF hired him from Clemson’s staff — failed won’t scare Kelly away from candidates with similar resumes this time. Kelly also wouldn’t rule out promoting interim coach Daniel Da Prato if the Bulls finish the final three games well, beginning Saturday against SMU.
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“I don’t discount anything right now,” Kelly said. “I haven’t even started the search. I’m getting things organized.”
Kelly can afford to keep an open mind at this stage because of the timing of Scott’s dismissal. Though Kelly would prefer not to fire a coach during the season, the Bulls’ seven-game losing streak and Saturday’s 26-point loss at Temple made it impossible to remain optimistic about a turnaround. By firing Scott on Sunday, the Bulls have a longer timeline to explore and vet candidates.
“Having a couple more weeks to be able to identify and find the right person is comforting,” Kelly said.
It is also pivotal for the program’s success. The NCAA’s transfer portal window opens Dec. 5, a day after the College Football Playoff field is set. USF needs a new coach in place by then to retain players and evaluate potential newcomers during that 45-day window. It also gives the new coach two and a half weeks to prepare for the early signing day, which begins Dec. 21.
Also of note
Kelly said he and USF’s administration will make the ultimate decision on a hire, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of using consultants for things like background checks.
Kelly remained complimentary of Scott, who went 4-26 with only one Division I-A victory in two-plus seasons. He said there was no one reason for the onfield struggles. “It was really a matter of timing and circumstances,” Kelly said.
The next coach will benefit from recent facilities upgrades; the Bulls will be using the indoor practice facility on a limited basis this week. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is expected to take place in January.
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