A Comprehensive Look at Coaching Candidates
As the regular season is closing down, the coaching carousel is just ramping up.
The Hokies will look to fill their head coaching vacancy during an unprecedented hiring spree amongst the nation's top programs. Louisiana State, Southern California, and Florida are bluebloods with spots to fill, while top programs like Texas Christian and Washington are competing for some of the top names as well. The Hokies sit firmly in that second category, so Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock certainly has some competition for the biggest names in the national hiring pool.
Based on previous coaching searches by Babcock as well as the normal timeline for college football hidings, it's reasonable to deduce that the Hokies will name their next head coach sometime between Dec. 4-7, right after the conference championship games are played. However, the news of Justin Fuente leaked during the Virginia Tech game against UVA. These things have a tendency to become public knowledge at weird times, so a leak is not out of the question.
After deliberation and looking at the landscape of college football, here are some key candidates for the Virginia Tech head coaching job:
- Head Coaching Record: 38-12
- Years of P5 Experience: 15
- Current Contract: $2.0M through 2025
Billy Napier is the fan favorite. His name has been floated since the beginning of the year as having possible interest in the Virginia Tech position and nothing to that extent has ever changed. While some may have concerns about his failed tenure at Clemson, the results since then have only shown his ability to grow as a coach, who took his lumps early on and rebounded nicely as the hottest head coaching candidate for several Power 5 schools.
Napier is 42 years old. He played Quarterback for Furman and started his coaching career as a Clemson Graduate Assistant in 2003 and slowly worked his way up the ranks during the Terry Bowden era before finally being promoted to Offensive Coordinator in 2009 under Dabo Swinney at the age of 30. Was fired after the 2010 season and spent the next few years working his way back, mostly as a position coach with Alabama under Nick Saban, before finally getting to Louisiana Lafayette.
Last year alone, he DECLINED several SEC openings such as the ones at Auburn and South Carolina and was reportedly linked to the Tennessee vacancy as well. Fast forward one season and Napier is only getting hotter as a candidate among the SEC schools, as both LSU and Florida have interest, which has many in Hokie Nation believing he wants a massive deal at one of the traditional powerhouses in the nation’s best football conference.
At this point, Napier coming to Virginia Tech would be considered a coup. But why?
It’s not just his stellar performance at Louisiana, his SEC ties, or his recruiting prowess, it’s his approach to the game.
Among all the candidates, it seems Billy Napier has the most “Saban-like” qualities as the CEO-type Head Coach with a cerebral approach to building a football program designed to win ball games. Based on the list proposed by Whit Babcock, Billy Napier seemingly checks every box and with his Cookeville, TN southern drawl, humility, track record, and “Scared money don’t make money” approach to playing football, there seems to be a cultural fit with what it takes to endear yourself to the Hokie faithful.
- Head Coaching Record: 139-126
- Years of P5 Experience: 9
- Current Contract: $3.6M through 2026
Clawson has brought never-before-seen success to the Demon Deacon program. A traditionally basketball-and-soccer-oriented school with only 5,441 undergraduate students, Wake Forest had seen very little success from its football program before Clawson took the reigns. Since 1945, Wake Forest has only finished ranked in the AP Top 25 five times, and they have played in just 14 bowls. Clawson has been responsible for taking Wake Forest to five of those bowls, each coming in the last five seasons. That streak will be extended to six this year, as Wake Forest already has won nine games.
Clawson played defensive back at Division III Williams College from 1985-1988. Has been coaching football in some capacity since 1989. After a two-year GA stint at Albany, Clawson cycled through assistant jobs at Buffalo, Lehigh, and Villanova. He was hired to his first head coaching job by Fordham in 1999. He went 29-29 in five seasons at Fordham. Was hired as head coach at Richmond, where he went 29-20, including a trip to the FCS Semifinals in his final season. After spending one year as the Tennessee OC, where he was caught in the ending of the Phil Fulmer era. Clawson was hired by Bowling Green for his first FBS head coaching gig. The Falcons went 32-31 under his watch.
The 2021 season has been perhaps the most successful in Wake Forest history. The Demon Deacons are 9-2 with a chance to clinch the Atlantic Division crown on Saturday and take on Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship. The team started 8-0 and earned their first-ever top ten AP Poll ranking when they came in at No. 10 in the Week 10 rankings. Though his overall win/loss record at Wake Forest may not jump out, it is clear that Clawson is making the most out of what many would consider one of the two or three most difficult jobs in the ACC.
As mentioned earlier, Clawson has done well at Wake Forest to maximize the program’s winning potential. What could the possibilities be at a place like Virginia Tech with more money, more resources, more national prestige, and a more passionate fanbase?
The concerns of Clawson are clear: can he recruit? His best recruiting class at WF was ranked tenth in the ACC. What about his defense? Wake Forest has consistently struggled to hold teams in check defensively.
But are these concerns indictments on Clawson or Wake Forest? If Clawson was able to address these concerns by bringing in a competent staff that could utilize Virginia Tech’s resources, the potential is there for Clawson to find success with the Hokies just like Beamer did: elite talent evaluation/development, compounded with an ability to build a strong reputation on the recruiting trail.
- Head Coaching Record: 88-54
- Years of P5 Experience: 0
- Current Contract: $1.15M through 2027
What Chadwell lacks in major college football experience, he makes up for in charisma and energy. The 44-year-old Chanticleer head coach has taken two small programs in the Palmetto state and turned them into winners, one at the FCS level at Charleston Southern and currently at the G5 level at Coastal Carolina. An East Tennessee State alum and career coach in South Carolina, Chadwell has regional ties to fertile recruiting grounds, which is something few of the other major candidates can boast.
Chadwell is a bolt of energy, which is what has fans attracted to his name in coaching searches across the mid-Atlantic region. However, Chadwell lacks the big-time experience to make it to the “next round” of many coaching searches, and I think that will be the same case for the Virginia Tech vacancy. Mullets and post-game shenanigans may do the trick against Georgia Southern and Arkansas State, but the Hokies need a program manager in Merryman Athletic Center just as much as Lane Stadium.
Currently, the Coastal Carolina program is under the watchful eye of Joe Moglia, former head coach at the program. Moglia was 56-22 at Coastal and has leadership experience off the field as well as former Chairman of the Board and CEO of TD Ameritrade. Moglia currently runs the program's fundraising and more business decisions, allowing Chadwell to focus solely on football. It resulted in Coastal running one of the most unique and high-flying offenses in college football.
The scheme is a mixture of classic read/triple-option, made famous at Oregon under Brian Kelly, coupled with a run-n-shoot pass system. This system has worked wonders at Coastal, which has compiled wins against nationally-ranked teams in each of the past two seasons. In terms of X's and O's, Chadwell may be the most innovative and brilliant coach on the board for the Hokies. His use of the tight end and "scat back" positions would also be a great fit for what the Hokies seem to be good at developing already.
However, that sort of overwatch has many guessing at what Chadwell could do in a more public and forward-facing role as not only the head coach at a larger school but one of the most recognizable faces in the state. Is Chadwell a good football coach? Yes. Is he what the Hokies need? At this point, maybe not.
- Head Coaching Record: 15-9 (college); 54-52 (NFL)
- Years of P5 Experience: 15
- Current Contract: $1.1M through 2022
Another candidate who might be far-fetched, yet still possible, is Bill O’Brien. If Whit is looking for a coach with head coaching experience O’Brien may be the most experienced, especially at the highest level, of any of the rumored names in circulation.
While he is associated with the Houston Texans, arguably one of the worst franchises in the NFL, many forget that he was able to get the Texans into the playoffs four out of the six years he was the head coach. His win/loss records there may not have been splashy, but he was able to consistently produce results in Houston, where going to the playoffs is not an expectation like it is at other franchises like Green Bay or New England.
O'Brien is a Brown graduate and started his coaching career there as an assistant in 1993. He then went to Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Duke before moving on to the NFL to coach various offensive positions with the New England Patriots. O'Brien landed his first coaching job in 2012 at Penn State, where he took over after the scandal that led Joe Paterno to retire. He only coached Penn State for two years, going 8-4 in 2012 and 7-5 in 2013 before leaving for the NFL.
The largest question with O’Brien is how his experience would transfer to the college ranks. He only has two years of college head coach experience, 2012 and 2013, at Penn State. He has had prior assistant experience at schools like Duke and Georgia Tech, as well as currently working as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator, but it isn’t clear what having O’Brien as a head coach would look like for more than a few seasons.
Bill O’Brien has no shortage of experience, especially after spending years learning under Bill Belichick in New England, and is currently learning from the best college mind in Nick Saban. The real question is how can he recruit? O’Brien has not been a college head coach since 2013 so it is unclear how successful he would be in the position. If hired, I would have high expectations for his support staff, as he has connections all over the place. From the NFL ranks to the college ranks, there should be no shortage of people he might select as his coordinator and position coaches, which is arguably the most important aspect of the job, as we have learned from Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen.
- Head Coaching Record: 7-4 (current season)
- Years of P5 Experience: 9
- Current Contract: $0.755M through 2024
If Billy Napier is the fan-favorite, Charles Huff is second in line. While the title of Assistant Head Coach was somewhat of a clouded position, the success of Shane Beamer in Year 1 at South Carolina, who also carried the same position at several Power 5 schools, may have Athletic Directors thinking otherwise, especially if every other supporting anecdote on your ability to coach and run a program are extremely positive.
And that is the case for Charles Huff, who does not shy away from his passion for exciting the fans, recruiting at an elite level, and running his program with accountability and transparency.
Huff is a graduate of Hampton where he played fullback. His coaching career started at Tennessee State as an offensive line coach, followed by stops at Maryland, Hampton, Vanderbilt, the Buffalo Bills, Western Michigan, Penn State, Mississippi State, and Alabama.
The previous sentence says it all. Charles Huff’s personality would excite the fanbase, and if you are Whit Babcock, something to think about is not only figuring out which coach is the best “CEO-type” but also figuring out which coach the fans would empty their wallets for.
Because the one element holding back Virginia Tech’s program for years, even during the Frank Beamer era, has been donation revenue. That’s not to say Beamer wasn’t beloved as the figurehead of Hokie football, but the donation aspect never really clicked to the levels currently realized by other major Power 5 programs.
Now if you sat and listened to Charles Huff speak, it’s safe to assume that he could be the perfect antidote for the Tech faithful’s reluctance to REALLY invest back into the program, which would be the long-time missing piece that can reactivate Virginia Tech’s former success.
Oh, and not to forget, CHARLES HUFF IS THE MOST ELITE RECRUITING COACHING CANDIDATE AVAILABLE! Huff was rated as the top recruiter in the nation for the 2021 cycle while he was at Alabama, and 5th in the SEC in 2020. He signed seven 5-star recruits in three years between Penn State and Alabama, and his current 2022 at Marshall is tops in Conference USA and 5th nationally.
- Head Coaching Record: 0-0
- Years of P5 Experience: 11
- Current Contract: $2.0M through 2026
Tony Elliott has been on the radar of Hokies fans since the ODU loss in 2018. The former Clemson WR has coached some of the most potent and professional offenses in the last decade in college football, and his recruiting of the mid-Atlantic region has been superb. Elliott started coaching at South Carolina State and Furman as a WR's coach before coming back to Clemson.
As Clemson has seen its rise to prominence with two national championships, two CFP runner-ups, six consecutive CFP appearances, and six consecutive ACC Championships, Elliott has been the offensive mastermind behind it all. As Clemson’s running backs coach, Elliott has sent Andre Ellington, Wayne Gallman, and Travis Etienne to the NFL, with the latter winning ACC Offensive Player of the Year twice. As a recruiter, Elliott has five five-stars and eighteen four-stars attached to his name on 247Sports.
Elliott is one of the most highly accomplished assistant coaches in the country. He would bring championship experience and elite recruiting chops to Blacksburg. If some of the bigger names became unavailable, Elliott could be a great option. The concerns primarily lie in his lack of head coach experience (a trait Whit Babcock expressed a desire for in his post-Fuente-firing press conference) and the steps back Clemson has taken offensively in 2021. If Elliott could give Babcock confidence he can bring a strong, experienced staff with him, he could be a solid fit.
- Head Coaching Record: 76-48
- Years of P5 Experience: 6
- Current Contract: $4.0M through 2028
One of the most coveted coaches on the market, what Matt Campbell has done at perennial loser Iowa State is nothing short of a miracle. Campbell has been named Big XII Coach of the Year in 2017, 2018, and 2020. He also won MAC Coach of the Year while he was at Toledo in 2015. The 41-year-old played at Pittsburgh and D-III powerhouse Mount Union.
Matt Campbell is an under-the-radar type of coach who isn’t getting splashed across the rumor mill articles and message boards like certain others. Since taking over Iowa State he has consistently produced 8+ win seasons in a conference that is dominated by the likes of Oklahoma and Texas (for now).
Campbell took over a program that had not had a winning season since 2000. To put it bluntly, Iowa State was dreadful. From 2001 to 2016, the Cyclones won four or fewer games in 8 of those years.
Competing in the Big 12 is a tough recruiting ground too simply based on the fact that you have to draw recruits to the state of Iowa. This isn’t South Beach, South Bend, or Southern California. It is hard to convince highly touted recruits to take their talents to Ames, Iowa. Campbell is also known for his high-octane and high-scoring offenses. This year, 2021, his team has averaged roughly 32 points per game, which is something the Hokies desperately need. This season the Cyclones have scored 48, 59, 38, and 41 points in a handful of their games. This proves that Campbell is adept at developing talent and hiring coaches that can help ensure that the players make strides each and every year.
Matt Campbell would find a similar challenge in Blacksburg to Iowa State in pulling recruits to a small town in the middle of nowhere, but he has proven to be able to turn those who do choose to attend Iowa State into elite players. This would be a step up career-wise for Campbell as the Big 12 is slowly dying with Oklahoma and Texas leaving for the SEC in a few years. He has had plenty of experience in small college towns like Blacksburg, so I think he would be a great “culture” fit that Whit is looking for, it just depends if he feels like he can succeed. However, he should be confident as Tech has a storied history and a rabid fan base that will immediately get behind him. This will be a tough rebuild, but Tech has a history of winning, which, unlike Iowa State is a positive when trying to lure a coach away from another program. One last thing here. Campbell is a young guy. At 41 years old he would be able to relate to recruits better than perhaps the older options here. When recruiting is everything in college football, it’s important to have a coach who can connect to 17 and 18-year-olds.
- Head Coaching Record: 0-0
- Years of P5 Experience: 8
- Current Contract: $2.5M through 2025
Defensive prodigy Marcus Freeman is the kind of wiz-kid that AD's daydream about. The former Ohio State Buckeye has coached at Purdue, Cincinnati, and is currently the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. Every stop he's been at, the defense has been stout. In 2020, 247Sports named Freeman their Defensive Coordinator of the Year for his work with the Bearcats on their way to the Sugar Bowl.
The 35-year-old is touted as the next Power 5 Head Coach homerun hire. Top-end recruiter. Six straight years of being an excellent Defensive Coordinator, which was a huge factor behind last year’s bidding war between LSU and Notre Dame for his services and astronomically high $2.5 million salary as a coordinator. In fact, if you think about it, had Marcus Freeman gone to LSU, then Coach Orgeron would probably still be the Head Coach given many of their issues came on the defensive side of the football.
One thing to factor in is Whit Babcock’s perspective of “risk removal”, which is the understanding that hiring a new coach without head coaching experience offers a much higher level of risk. However, the reward can be seen in Freeman’s higher ceiling, but you must be willing to accept that risk, and subsequently your job if it doesn’t work out. (Hint, it doesn’t work out most times).
Much like Charles Huff, Freeman is a stud recruiter, offers a fair amount of youthful exuberance that is coveted by the Hokie fanbase, and
But also, Freeman’s expertise aligns well with the identity of Virginia Tech football, which is playing tough physical defense. In fact, in one year, Freeman guided the Cincinnati defense from 95th overall to 9th, and they haven’t looked back ever since and is doing much of the same at Notre Dame, where the foreseeable rebuild and drop off on that side of the ball never happened, even though the Irish turned over some top-end players as well as their previous Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea.
Of all the candidates, Marcus Freeman could answer the “what if” scenario for many Virginia Tech fans that considered what a program run by Bud Foster would’ve looked like, except for a much higher ceiling for recruiting. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
- Head Coaching Record: 103-61
- Years of P5 Experience: 22
- Current Contract: : "You're Fired"
An Urban Meyer disciple, Mullen followed the legendary coach from Bowling Green to Utah and eventually to Florida, where he served as offensive coordinator and QB coach from 2005-2008, where he was part of two National Championships in 2006 and 2008. After the latter, the Pennsylvania native was given his first shot at being a head coach by Mississippi State. He coached the Bulldogs for nine seasons, going 69-46 and winning five bowl games. He was then brought back to Florida in 2018, this time as their head coach. The Mullen Era at Florida had a solid start, as they won 21 games in his first two seasons. Even the 2020 season started well as the Gators were 8-1 heading into their final regular-season matchup with LSU. But one thrown shoe signified the beginning of the end of Mullen’s tenure, as a late penalty allowed LSU to pull off the upset. This loss started a brutal 5-9 stretch for the Gators that festered all the way to their recent overtime loss last Saturday at Missouri. Mullen was fired shortly after the game, leaving him looking for a new head coaching gig.
There is no question that Mullen is the most successful coaching candidate available. At just 49 years old, he has won over 100 games in the SEC. He has also accomplished something regularly in stark contrast from the previous VT regime in a major era: QB development. Under his tutelage, Mullen has seen Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott, and Kyle Trask be drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft. Mullen has proven he can win football games, and he had been doing so for almost 12 seasons before his tenure came crashing down.
The concerns about Mullen are clear, and they sound pretty similar to those VT fans held with their previous head coach. Most credit his firing at Florida to his loyalty to underperforming assistants and a lack of emphasis placed on recruiting. Also, there is a chance Mullen would be planning to use VT as a stepping stone to get back to the SEC.
This would certainly be a risky move for Whit Babcock to make. But if Mullen can adapt his philosophies to assemble a strong staff that recruits well, he could build the VT program back to national relevance as he did at Mississippi State.