It’s not clear at this time who, exactly, will be Missouri’s next coach. But after firing Barry Odom for going 6-6 in 2019, it’s clear what aisle AD Jim Sterk is shopping in: offensive-minded FBS head coaches.
Sources told FootballScoop that Central Michigan’s Jim McElwain, Tulane’s Willie Fritz, Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, Army’s Jeff Monken and Charlotte’s Will Healy have emerged as candidates for the opening in Columbia.
McElwain is the one coach on this list with SEC experience, having gone 22-12 in three seasons at Florida. The positive: he won the SEC East in his first two seasons. The negative: he was pushed out midway through his third. After a season as Michigan’s wide receivers coach, McElwain is 8-4 in his first season at CMU, with a trip to the MAC Championship waiting Saturday. He also went 22-15 in three seasons at Colorado State and helped Alabama to two national championships as the Tide’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11.
Sources say his name is trending in this search.
I wrote about Fritz and Holtz’s plusses and minuses for the Arkansas job when it first opened early last month. All of it pretty much applies here:
Before we get to what Fritz is, let’s first acknowledge what he’s not. The 59-year-old Tulane head coach isn’t going to wow anybody. He may not win the press conference like a Lane Kiffin would, he wouldn’t impress Twitter like a Mike Leach or a Hugh Freeze would, and he might not beat Nick Saban or Ed Orgeron for many recruits on Day 1. (But then again, who does?)
But what he is is a ball coach. He’s a ball coach’s ball coach. And more than that, he’s a winner. He’s done it at literally every level of college football, except the Power 5.
Fritz went 39-5-1 with two national championships at Blinn Junior College, he went 97-47 at Division II Central Missouri, he went 40-15 with two FCS national championship appearances at Sam Houston State, he went 17-7 with a Sun Belt title at Georgia Southern, and right now he’s in the midst of a major turnaround at Tulane. Upon inheriting a Green Wave program that won either two or three games four times from 2011-15, Fritz went 4-8 in 2016, then 5-7 in 2017 (the Green Wave missed a bowl by one yard on the final play of the season), then 7-6 in 2018, and now he’s 6-3 and in the title hunt in the ultra-competitive West Division of the American, where three of Tulane’s five competitors are ranked in the CFP Top 25.
Fritz has spent now 27 consecutive seasons as a head coach at five different colleges with five different cultures, five different challenges from a resources and support perspective, five different recruiting profiles, and he’s won at all of them. You simply don’t win 68.6 percent of your games across 27 seasons at five different schools without knowing how to build a winning football program. That success does not happen by accident.
And Fritz’s profile — a 59-year-old with no Power 5 experience — explains why he’s a good fit for this Arkansas job at this time. He’s spent 37 seasons building recruiting ties across the southern midwest portion of the country, in Missouri, in Texas, in Louisiana, in Georgia. He’s also gone into areas where he had no prior ties and built them anyway, because that’s what successful head coaches do. And at 59 years old, Fritz is both experienced and hungry. He’s not in his 30s with the next two decades of his career to think about. He’s eager to prove himself at the highest level of college football, and he’s eager to do it right now.
If Fritz is too far a bridge for the Hogs to cross, another name that we hear drifting in the wind is Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz. The 55-year-old son of former Arkansas head coach Lou Holtz took Connecticut to the FCS quarterfinals, took East Carolina to two Conference USA titles and four straight bowl games and, now, after an unsuccessful 3-year run at South Florida, he’s on the verge of his sixth straight bowl trip, his third division title and perhaps a Conference USA crown with his 8-1 Bulldogs team.
The only change since is Fritz’s Tulane team dropped its final three games of the regular season — to Temple, UCF and SMU; combined record: 27-9 — and Holtz’s team went 1-2 down the stretch after circumstances forced him to suspend his starting quarterback.
Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported Tuesday that Fritz has spoken with Arkansas and “is expected to discuss” the Missouri opening this week, calling the Mizzou gig his “dream job.”
As for Calhoun, he’s 97-69 in 13 seasons at Air Force. As with any coach who’s been in one spot for 13 seasons, Calhoun has navigated his share of ups and down — a 2-10 season in 2013 turned into a 10-3 season in 2014; back-to-back 5-7 campaigns in 2017-18 were replaced with a 10-2 mark this fall.
Monken is at the opposite end of the see-saw, with a 5-7 record (the Navy game isn’t until Dec. 14, potentially complicating matters) this fall, but a glistening 21-5 mark in the two seasons preceding this one. The 2018 season saw the Black Knights set an academy record with 11 wins, and their No. 19 AP ranking was Army’s highest finish in 60 years. He snapped a 14-game losing streak to Navy in 2016 and has yet to lose since, piecing together Army’s longest winning streak in the series since the mid-90s. Overall, Monken is 78-51 in 10 seasons as a head coach, with three straight FCS semifinal trips at Georgia Southern before exiting for West Point.
Neither Calhoun nor Monken is married to their triple option schemes, but it can be tough to convince the public of that when they’ve never seen either coach run anything but the triple.
And then there is Healy. He is 34 years old with all of 46 career games under his belt. (When Fritz coached his 46th game, for instance, Healy was in middle school.) He’s got all of one season of FBS experience under his belt, going 7-5 at Charlotte.
Healy is very much a graduate of the Dabo Swinney/PJ Fleck School of Head Coaching. As it happens, the Head Coach as Chief Energy Officer model is very much en vogue right now. He’s done things like use cameras to evaluate his players’ body language and turn his locker room at Charlotte into a night club. He’s also gotten results: he went from 0-11 to 8-4 at Austin Peay, and bumped Charlotte’s win total by two victories in his first season.
His resume isn’t near the length of the others, but there’s no question that he’d unite the public and the donors behind him, and behind Missouri football.
When you’re Missouri, you don’t get to hire a coach that checks every box, so the choice becomes a conversation within the brain trust and the donor class about which boxes absolutely have to be checked and which you’re comfortable with leaving unchecked.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.
Update> Both PowerMizzou.com and St. Louis Post-Dispatch are reporting Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson is involved in the search as well. Stay tuned….
— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) December 4, 2019