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Forget about sexy hires, USF is looking for a long-term relationship

John Romano | Jon Gruden? Jim Leavitt? Yes, interest would spike with Memory Lane hires, but USF requires a coach with more permanence.
USF needs a coach that the fans can root for long-term, so a splash hire likely isn't in the cards.
USF needs a coach that the fans can root for long-term, so a splash hire likely isn't in the cards. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 8, 2022|Updated Nov. 8, 2022

TAMPA — If the goal is to win the news cycle, then USF should hire Jon Gruden.

It would be the lead story on ESPN, it would set social media ablaze, it would instantly make USF more relevant than the program has been in years.

Some boosters would be thrilled, some people would be angry, some recruits would be intrigued and, safe to say, almost every football fan in America would be paying attention.

For a week, maybe two. And then what?

Gruden hasn’t been a college coach in 30 years and has not won a playoff game in 20 years. He was barely above .500 (117-112) in 15 years in the NFL, and that’s without considering his ongoing lawsuit over the sneaky release of a batch of disturbing emails.

He obviously is a talented and charismatic guy, but he is far from a sure bet in a role — a head coach in college — that he has never before held.

So, if the goal is to be competitive long-term, then USF should look elsewhere.

The same is probably true of Jim Leavitt. Or Willie Taggart, Ed Orgeron or any other sexy, controversial, flamboyant name. This is not reality television. The goal is to win a conference title, not to trend on Twitter.

And for that, USF needs a grown-up plan with grown-up candidates. It needs a coach who is more interested in recruiting players than rehabbing an image.

Jeff Scott, a former Clemson assistant, seemed like the right hire at the time for USF and athletic director Michael Kelly, left.
Jeff Scott, a former Clemson assistant, seemed like the right hire at the time for USF and athletic director Michael Kelly, left. [ Joey Knight ]

When a program has gone as long as USF without a noticeable growth in stature or season ticket sales, it’s tempting to say a splash hire is the solution. But a splash, by its nature, is momentary.

And USF needs something sustainable.

People are right when they say this is a pivotal moment in the program’s future. They are upgrading facilities, they are trying to build a stadium and they are losing games at a ridiculous rate. Botch this hire, and the Bulls might as well exchange New Year’s party tips with FIU and FAU.

Shortcuts are enticing, but rarely effective in college football. More than professional sports, it takes years to build the kind of infrastructure, reputation and generational support to thrive in college football. There’s a reason why 12 different franchises have won the last 14 Super Bowls, while Alabama and Clemson have mostly dominated college football’s national championship picture.

So what type of coach should USF be looking for?

Athletic director Michael Kelly said Tuesday that he has already heard from dozens of agents and applicants, and that he is keeping an open mind, but I’ll bet USF is not likely to gamble again on an assistant who has never been a head coach.

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In a lot of ways, Jeff Scott was exactly who the Bulls wanted when they hired him in 2019. He was sincere, he was energetic, he built relationships and he schmoozed the boosters. But his 4-26 record also made it apparent that he was not ready to step up from his job as a co-coordinator at Clemson.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean all assistant coaches are doomed to failure but they carry a level of risk that USF probably cannot afford this time around.

So that likely means a retread, or a head coach on the rise.

Some retreads (Dan Mullen) and some up-and-coming stars (Deion Sanders) are probably out of USF’s range. But there are plenty of others who would look at the potential of a new stadium in a football-rich state in a major media market as an enticing combination of factors.

Loyalty would be nice, but USF may have to sacrifice that on the wish list. If they hire the right coach, they should probably be prepared to lose him in three to four years. That’s not ideal, but it’s the price you pay for finding that uncut diamond that everyone will eventually want to poach.

Is that Scott Frost? He was either a fluke at UCF or unlucky at Nebraska, and the trick is figuring out which is the truth.

Is that Willie Simmons? He has been a success as a head coach at both Prairie View A&M and Florida A&M, and already has connections as a recruiter in the state.

Is that Matt Rhule? He might be out of USF’s league, but his NFL tenure was such a disaster Rhule might be in play. He has an impressive track record of turning around programs at Temple and Baylor.

Is that Jamey Chadwell? He has been a success as a head coach at Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina, and his offenses have been highly entertaining.

The point is, there are plenty of intriguing names out there. Some are more familiar than others, but that should not be the deciding factor.

USF needs the best coach, not the most popular name.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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