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Carousel Cheat Sheet: Prodigal Gus, and other coaching notes

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Read this fast, before everything changes.

US PRESSWIRE

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AUBURN. If you had taken a poll of Auburn partisans at any point in the last four years concerning the best decision of Gene Chizik's brief, triumphant and ultimately doomed tenure as head coach, the vast majority of them would have cited his first decision back in December 2008: Hiring Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. It may be the closest Chizik comes in his life to anything that could plausibly be described as a "master stroke." Central as Cam Newton was to the Tigers' run to SEC and national championships in 2010, Malzahn's up-tempo, run-oriented spread scheme was perfectly suited to Newton's outrageous-yet-unpolished athleticism, and Malzahn exploited his übermensch quarterback just skillfully enough to overcome the most generous defense by far to claim a BCS title. Implicit in Chizik's exit last month was the conclusion that he struck lightning with Malzahn and Newton, would never come close to replicating the heights of 2010 without the second coming of one or both.

Meanwhile, Malzahn was busy two states over, at Arkansas State, overseeing the highest-scoring offense in the Sun Belt en route to a conference championship in his first season as a college head coach. So it goes without saying that Auburn fans were duly ecstatic Tuesday with Malzahn's return to replace Chizik at the top, where many of them thought he belonged all along – so much so that Chizik took much of the blame even for the decline of Malzahn's offense in 2011 (and for his departure for ASU) due to his insistence on slowing it down. Malzahn knows Auburn, he knows how to move the ball against the likes of Alabama and LSU, he's demonstrated basic head-coaching chops at the FBS level and there was zero chance he would be met by any hecklers at the airport. They'll probably go so far as to treat his wife like a normal person, even.

Even more so than the championship run with a freak talent in his second year, I think they also respect Malzahn for his first season in 2009, when the offense averaged 33 points and 432 yards per game behind a quarterback, Chris Todd, who had to improve dramatically from his abbreviated turn as a starter in 2008 just to qualify as "pedestrian." That team had no one on the level of a Cam Newton or Michael Dyer on offense, finished dead last in the conference in scoring defense and more than held its own. The 2012 edition that cost Chizik his job had at least as much talent and was a start-to-finish train wreck.

TENNESSEE.05-mike_gundy The inherent flaw in this exercise – by which I mean the exercise of writing about ongoing coaching searches, in general – is that everything you write prior to an "official" announcement is a) Subject to being embarrassingly, spectacularly wrong, and b) Subject to change by the time it's written. In the 24 hours preceding this writing on Wednesday afternoon, the Tennessee job has been Mike Gundy's to lose, Charlie Strong's to lose, Gundy's again if he wants it, and now appears to be wide-ass open as both Strong and Gundy retrench in their current locales. (All indications are that Strong has taken himself out of the running. And unless he's playing poker with his bosses, I don't even have the space here to delve into how weird it is that Gundy would consider leaving Oklahoma State.) Then there's Larry Fedora, just hanging out in North Carolina with three more years of probation and the memory of thousands of empty seats in Kenan Stadium during an 8-4 debut. All of which is probably setting the stage for the Vols to introduce Urban Meyer by the end of the day.

The point being, as Arkansas proved on Tuesday, that the reality changes so quickly, amid such (often intentional) obfuscation, that even the most accurate reports/rumors about the process are practically dead on arrival. From the inside, this is probably hilarious. From the other side, I don't really understand the instinct that sends every writer/reporter in the business stampeding toward instant obsolescence.

CALIFORNIA. Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes is the choice in Berkeley, and he has a tough act to follow in more ways than one. On one hand, he'll inherit a program coming off arguably its best decade since World War II under Jeff Tedford, who left last month as Cal's all-time winningest coach. But the Bears have become increasingly stagnant since 2006, when they won a share of their first conference championship in 31 years, gradually losing ground in the West Coast pecking order to Oregon, Washington and (worst of all) Stanford. After rising to No. 2 in the national polls in October 2007, the Bears dropped six of their next seven to close that season, and haven't finished within three games of a conference or division title since. Against their rivals, they've lost nine straight to USC, four straight to Oregon, four straight to Washington and three straight to Stanford. Since rising to No. 19 over Thanksgiving weekend, 2009, the Bears haven't appeared in the polls at any point in the last three years.

The most obvious sign of decline was at quarterback, where Tedford, once considered college football's most bankable quarterback guru for his track record of molding first-round draft picks, failed to develop a successful starter after Aaron Rodgers' departure for the draft in 2005. Dykes is another "Air Raid" disciple from the Mumme/Leach school, having worked for both at Kentucky and Texas Tech before exporting the system as offensive coordinator at Arizona. Louisiana Tech led the nation in scoring this season, and finished No. 2 in total offense, scoring at least 50 points in eight of twelve games and at least 40 points in all but one. Everything about Dykes' resumé and reputation suggest a wide-open offense reminiscent of the attacks that initially lifted Cal out of the doldrums over the first half of Tedford's tenure. He has just as far to go now as Tedford did ten years ago, but if he's remotely as successful out of the gate, this will be one of the better hires of the winter.

PURDUE. 05-darrell_hazellI thought was joking when I suggested last week that the winning coach in the MAC Championship Game would get the option to accept the Purdue job or pass it to the loser, but here we are: Less than 96 hours after Northern Illinois squeaked by Kent State Friday night in double overtime, NIU's Dave Doeren is on his way to N.C. State – passing on a chance to coach in the Orange Bowl in the process, as if he's going to get the opportunity again with the Wolfpack – and Kent's Darrell Hazell has agreed to fulfill his destiny as Danny Hope's successor in West Lafayette. Had he refused, there would have been a whole legal soap opera ending with Hazell being forced to accept the job under court order, and no one wanted that.

True, even amid the ongoing watering down of the competition in the B1G, Purdue is not the sturdiest rung on the ladder – even less so after it gave Hope the boot despite back-to-back bowl bids. Barely qualifying for the postseason in 2012 may not mean what it used to, but unless the starting quarterback is Drew Brees, it's still about as good as it gets for Purdue over the last 30 years. And as far as Hazell is concerned, that's still significantly better than the prospects for sustaining his sudden success with the Golden Flashes, who were 40 years removed from their last bowl game before this season's miracle turnaround. Whatever the bar at Purdue, the longer he stayed in the MAC, the narrower the window for getting out.

BOSTON COLLEGE.Finally free from the dismal administration of Frank Spaziani, the Eagles have turned to another mustachioed Italian, Steve Addazio, to get the trains running on time again after an entirely predictable, 2-10 catastrophe in Spaziani's fourth season. Addazio is coming from a two-year stint at Temple, which just finished a 4-7 campaign that included five consecutive Big East losses – all by double digits – in the Owls' first season back in the conference. (Temple finished dead last in the league in every major defensive category.) Prior to his stint in Philly, Addazio was better known for overseeing the depressing decline of Florida's warp-speed offense under Urban Meyer, even with a senior Tim Tebow at his disposal in 2009. Minus Tebow in 2010, the Gators were a low-octane wreck.

On the other hand, Addazio knows the Northeast: He grew up in Connecticut, played college football at Central Connecticut State and turned Cheshire High into a Connecticut powerhouse in his first head coaching job in the early nineties. His first college job was at Syracuse under fellow Nutmeg State native Paul Pasqualoni; he also recruited heavily in the Northeast as one of Meyer's fellow assistants at Notre Dame, and helped attract some of the best Northeastern talent (most notably Aaron Hernandez) to Florida. He is not a home run hire, but at this point B.C. fans will be satisfied with safe.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL. I can't tell the future (obviously), so I'm not going to like guarantee the Panthers will regret their decision to fire Mario Cristobal. But seriously, why in hell did you fire Mario Cristobal? The program he inherited in 2006 was by far, without a doubt THE WORST in the nation, one known pretty much exclusively for throwing down in a massive brawl against Miami en route to an 0-12 finish the previous season. Not long after Cristobal was hired, the program was slapped with scholarship losses for falling short of the NCAA's new academic standards under his predecessor, Don Strock. FIU played in a stadium with a capacity of 17,000 and routinely drew less than a third of that for home games.

05-mario_cristobalAfter five years under Cristobal – a Miami native, a former Hurricane and the only Hispanic-American coach in the FBS ranks – the Golden Panthers had righted the ship academically and played in back-to-back bowl games, claiming a share of the Sun Belt championship in 2010. After an 8-5 run last year, Cristobal turned down a chance to replace his old boss at Rutgers, Greg Schiano, to stay in his hometown for what was shaping up as a breakthrough season this fall. Instead, the Panthers were plagued by injuries and slumped to a disappointing, 3-9 finish. But if any coach in college football has earned a mulligan, it's Mario Cristobal.

As of Wednesday morning, the prevailing assumption is that FIU athletic director Pete Garcia plans to replace Cristobal with his old friend, Butch Davis, with whom Garcia worked during Davis' stints as head coach of both Miami and the Cleveland Browns. Although Davis ultimately took the fall for a multitude of NCAA violations on his watch at North Carolina, he was never directly implicated, and (unlike Jim Tressel) is not facing any formal barriers to returning to a college sideline. He has years of experience in South Florida as a head coach and an assistant. He may also be at a point in his career where he's no longer looking to jump ship for a bigger job even if he could. But it's hard to imagine where FIU thinks Davis can take the program that Cristobal could not.

SOUTH FLORIDA. Bielema to Arkansas was big. But easily the most important coaching news of the past 24 hours is the possibility – however remote – that former Boise State/Arkansas/Ole Miss coach and part-time lunatic Houston Nutt could soon be back in the people-heppin bidness at USF. Nutt is reportedly set to interview for the vacancy left by Skip Holtz's departure over the weekend, as his Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, who has achieved a Cristobal-like turnaround with the Hilltoppers and appears to be much more willing to cash in on it while he has the chance. Taggart grew up near Tampa, has hands-on turnaround experience at both WKU and Stanford, where he was an assistant under Jim Harbaugh, and has been officially endorsed by Dick Vitale, for some reason.

So he's got that going… uh, for him?

WISCONSIN. Taggart is also reportedly in the mix to replace Bielema in Madison, along with former Badger offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, whose return to Wisconsin would send his current bosses at Pittsburgh on their fourth head coaching search in three years. In the meantime, there's the matter of who will stand on the sideline clapping authoritatively in Bielema's stead in the Rose Bowl, a role for which program patriarch/athletic director Barry Alvarez appears to be favoring the man who hand-picked Bielema for the job: Barry Alvarez. In that case, maybe the Badgers will get back to actually winning the Rose Bowl.

COLORADO. In the second-most interesting news of the day involving a grown man named "Butch," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones expects to make a decision "pretty soon" re: Colorado's reported offer of $13.5 million over five years to replace the improbably lamented Jon Embree. On Tuesday, Jones threatened to walk out of a news conference for the Belk Bowl – an actual thing which exists, and will feature Cincinnati and Duke in front of a sparse crowd that may or may not have thought it was buying tickets to a basketball game – after two questions about his pending departure. A Denver Post report on Wednesday that Jones had accepted the job is "absolutely false," per Jones, or at least premature. A more definitive answer is likely to come on Thursday, if "likely" still has any meaning in this context.

If Jones passes on the offer, the Buffs could move on to their reported standby, Fresno State's Tim DeRuyter, which would be just fine, I guess. Just… fine.