The search for the University of Houston head football coach is underway. Truth be told, it's probably been underway from about the time Charlie Strong was losing his third or fourth game of the season at the University of Texas, with both schools knowing full well that now-former U of H head coach Tom Herman would ultimately be the target to replace Strong.
Before we get to my list of coaching candidates, based admittedly on a combination of my own speculation and preference, you should check out the interview that Rich Lord and I did with Chairman of the U of H Board of Regents (and owner of Landry's Restaurants) Tilman Fertitta yesterday on SportsRadio 610.
From the standpoint of the coaching search, the most interesting quote came when Fertitta was asked about the possibility of the next head coach's leaving after a couple of years, as Herman did. Fertitta, who championed the Herman hire harder than anyone, was noticeably emotional about the one-sidedness of college football coaching contracts:
It’s alright, it’s business, but I’m not going to accept it this time,” Fertitta told the Triple Threat about coaches leaving for bigger schools. “Internally we’re talking about, we’re not going to let someone come in here…I’m not going to let them go 10-2 next year and somebody steal them. I don’t care if there is a football coach out there listening to this, you’re not going to get your contract bought out for a couple of million dollars by a bigger school and be gone. It’s going to be a big enough number, you’re going to have to have won a national championship if they want you, because they’ll pay anything.”
The entire interview, which is a fantastic listen, can be heard here:
Okay, before we run down the list, let's lay the groundwork for this search and make sure we understand a few myths associated with the Cougars head coaching position:
MYTH No. 1: They need someone who will stay long term and be "Coogs 4 Life!"
Despite Fertitta's feelings over coaches' coming and going, seemingly as they please, I would submit that it's fine to get a coach whose goal is to be somewhere else in the next four years. As I've said many times, if your coach is getting taken by bigger, "blue blood" jobs every three or four years, you're probably winning a lot of football games.
MYTH No. 2: Tilman Fertitta will pay anything, so money is no object!
Fertitta made it clear when Herman was still with UH that money would not be a factor in retaining him. Ultimately, though, money isn't the only factor in keeping a coach. But for Coog fans thinking the Landry's checkbook is wide open to hire a new coach, my guess is that "blank check" doesn't apply to hiring a new coach the same way it does in keeping a proven current coach.
MYTH No. 3: No Power Five coach will take a backward step to a Group of Five school
Not all Power Five schools are the same, and there's no doubt that, even with the lower TV contract money and somewhat less enthralling conference schedule, Houston is a better job than several Power Five jobs. Also, Houston as a city is a better place to live and recruit in than numerous Power Five college towns. In other words, don't restrict yourself to up-and-coming coordinators.
So let's get to my ten candidates, but first let's cross one off...
NO CHANCE IN HELL: Art Briles
If Houston brings back Briles — and supposedly there is a faction of alums who are open to it — they should immediately be boycotted by all of their right-thinking season ticket holders. You can't hire a guy who put an entire female student body in danger with his poor decision making.
PURELY FOR MY ENTERTAINMENT
When we asked Fertitta about both Strong and Miles, specifically, he admitted both are on the "long list," but he couldn't say if they would be on the final "short list."
10. CHARLIE STRONG, former Texas head coach
After going 16-21 at Texas, the worst record in school history for a head coach, Strong probably wouldn't inspire a ton of confidence here (Fertitta all but said that in our conversation with him); however, the fact that Texas is on the hook for the difference between Strong's next salary and his contracted-to UT salary for 2017 and 2018 would make it hilarious if UH hired Strong for a salary of $1 annually, essentially forcing Texas to pay for Houston's head coach the next two seasons.
9. LES MILES, former LSU head coach (possible current Starbucks barista)
For the press conferences alone, I hope they hire Miles, who was LSU's most successful head coach in program history before being ousted this past September.
HEAD COACH CLIMBERS
8. SETH LITTRELL, North Texas head coach
I'm always a fan of young head coaches (Littrell is 38) who go from position coach (Wikipedia lists Littrell as tight ends coach and assistant head coach at North Carolina in 2014-15) to a head coaching job anywhere in FBS. It usually means they're GREAT salespeople (read: recruiters). This was the path Urban Meyer carved back in 2000 when he went from WR coach at Notre Dame to head coach of Bowling Green. Littrell in one year has taken North Texas from one of the worst programs in FBS to a respectable 5-7.
7. PHIL MONTGOMERY, Tulsa head coach
Montgomery has done a fine job of turning Tulsa around in two years, finishing with an identical 9-3 record as Herman had this season, and nearly knocking off the Coogs at TDECU Stadium in October. Montgomery is part of the Art Briles tree, having been Briles's offensive coordinator from 2012 through 2014, which could be good or bad when it comes to getting this job, as he was obviously on campus at Baylor when several of the crimes were committed by members of the football team. It's not totally fair, but there may be schools that want to distance themselves from "anything Briles." Still, this guy can coach.
6. MAJOR APPLEWHITE, Houston offensive coordinator
If I'm handicapping the chances of the two current coordinators, I'm giving a much bigger edge to Orlando...
5. TODD ORLANDO, Houston defensive coordinator
...who was named the interim head coach, and did a tremendous job raising the level of play relative to the talent on that side of the ball. Improvement, both individually and as a unit, was rampant on the defensive side. I think you could do worse than to promote Orlando, hope he's the next Herman (or at least "Herman Lite"), and try to keep some of that lightning in the bottle for three or four more years, and maintain some continuity.
CURRENT POWER FIVE
These are three head coaches who have to ask themselves, "Do I have a better chance at making the College Football Playoff by running the table in the AAC at U of H, or trying to go 11-1 and win my conference where I currently reside?" All three would be better served here, and, oddly enough (and purely coincidentally), all three have heavy Texas Tech ties...
4. SONNY DYKES, Cal head coach
Dykes can boast two things — turning two programs around (Louisiana Tech from 4-8 to 9-3, and Cal (from 1-11 in Dykes's first season to 8-5 in 2015) and a QB who was taken No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft (Jared Goff).
3. MIKE LEACH, Washington State head coach
As personalities go, none on this list are as compelling as Leach, who is as likely to tell stories of pirates or Geronimo at a press conference as he is to discuss four wide receiver sets. As an aside, Texas Tech is on the schedule in 2017, and while revenge is not a reason for someone to change jobs, a chance to stick it to his old school might sit well with Leach.
2. DANA HOLGORSEN, West Virginia head coach
Easily the top Power Five head coach who has a good chance of saying "Yes" if Houston offered. Holgorsen has been a fascinating guy to watch evolve at West Virginia, transforming his team from the Hal Mumme "Air Raid" attack to a team built more on running the football and playing tough defense. The numbers on defense are not necessarily eye-popping, but it's hard to hold Big XII offenses down. Watch Holgorsen's teams — they play tough. Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator for Kevin Sumlin in 2008 and 2009 at UH, and is a big fan of the city of Houston and football in the state of Texas. He would be a great hire.
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THE "HERMAN" - HOT COORDINATOR
1. LINCOLN RILEY, Oklahoma offensive coordinator
I swear I didn't try to stack the top of this list with Mumme/Leach tree candidates, but I'm a big Riley fan. After walking on at Texas Tech in the early 2000s, he's carved out a nice coaching career, first as a Leach assistant in Lubbock, then as an OC under Ruffin McNeil at East Carolina, and now as the offensive coordinator the past two seasons for one of the most prolific offenses in college football at Oklahoma. Riley has maxed out the production of Baker Mayfield at quarterback, and at age 33, he would keep the young, energetic vibe of the #HTownTakeover alive. The school did pretty well last time it plucked an OC off of Bob Stoops's staff, giving Sumlin his first head coaching gig in 2008.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.