The seven candidates for the LSU head coaching job
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
A news item that felt inevitable is now official, as on Sunday, Ed Orgeron was fired as head coach at LSU.
While Coach O obviously brought the school the ultimate high - winning the 2019 national championship - the lows that have come since, simply became too much to overcome. Following last Saturday's loss to Kentucky it felt like it was over, and according to SI's Ross Dellenger, negotiations began shortly thereafter. They became official on Sunday, even after the Tigers rallied to beat Florida Saturday afternoon
So now Coach O is gone, and with it, we turn our attention to who is next at LSU.
Before we get to the candidates, one caveat: LSU AD Scott Woodward is known as the most aggressive AD in college sports. He runs an athletic department the way a fan would; when he has a job opening, no name is too big, no price tag too rich for the right man or woman. He is the man who brought Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M, when he was the AD in College Station, and also the one who lured Chris Petersen away from Boise when he was at Washington. And in one of his first big hires at LSU, he brought three-time national championship women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey from Baylor to the Bayou.
I bring it up to say that with Woodward leading the search, no name - short of Nick Saban - is really off the table.
Jimbo Fisher, head coach Texas A&M: One, there are obvious ties with Fisher to LSU, as he was Nick Saban's offensive coordinator during LSU's 2003 national title run. More importantly however, there are ties to Woodward, who, as we said above, is the man that did the impossible, and convinced Fisher to leave Florida State to come to Aggieland.
At the time, the $70+ million guaranteed, that Fisher was paid to make the move looked insane, even by college football standards. Fast forward to a No. 5 finish in last year's College Football Playoff rankings and a win over Alabama last week, and things don't look so absurd.
Therefore, given the two's relationship, you'd think that Fisher - or at least Fisher's agent - would be among the first calls made by Woodward. Also remember, in a truly insanely one-sided contract, Fisher has no buyout at Texas A&M. Which means that if he wanted to leave for LSU, he could walk away and owe A&M nothing.
Still, we have to be realistic here, and as splashy as the move would be for Woodward, it's hard to see it coming to fruition. Before the season Fisher actually got an extension and pay bump, that now makes him the second-highest paid coach in college football, behind only Nick Saban. It seems impossible that LSU could put any number on the table that A&M couldn't and wouldn't match.
Ultimately, unless Fisher really covets the LSU job, really wants to get back to working for Woodward, or really wants another major rebuild, it's hard to see him taking this gig.
Lane Kiffin, head coach, Ole Miss: Independent of what happened Saturday night in Knoxville, Tennessee, it's incredible to see Kiffin's star continue to ascend, from the guy that was fired at USC on a tarmac a few years ago, to now one that is coveted by LSU. Some have even mentioned him as a potential heir to Nick Saban when he leaves Alabama in a few years.
It's good to be Lane Kiffin, huh?
Anyway, the argument for him being a candidate at LSU is pretty simple: If he can put together college football's most explosive offense under the circumstances that he did - in the SEC, no spring practice year one, leftovers from the Matt Luke regime - imagine what he could do with the talent he could recruit to LSU?
So now, we see if Kiffin is a legitimate candidate at LSU or not.
One, it might depend on the way his season finishes in Oxford. Two, also, could his close relationship with Orgeron play a role in him not taking the job that just fired him?
On the flip side, Kiffin has messily left one SEC job before. Who's to say he won't do it again.
James Franklin, head coach, Penn State: Franklin has been flirting with other jobs for years, has emerged as the top candidate at USC, and has done little to quiet those rumors in recent weeks. It seemed like anything short of a playoff run this season could result in him potentially (and maybe likely) leaving Penn State for 'SC.
Well, with a loss last Saturday to Iowa, Penn State's playoff path just got a lot tougher. They still have games at Ohio State, at Michigan State and with Michigan at home, and even if they survive that, would likely see Iowa in the Big Ten title game again. It just isn't realistic to see the Nittany Lions winning all those games, especially now with an injured QB, which opens the side door for him to leave.
The only question now: It's been a foregone conclusion for weeks that Franklin ends up at USC. But could LSU come in and swoop him up?
It certainly seems feasible, as over the last couple days a real debate has emerged among college football fans over which job is better. LSU clearly provides a more passionate fan-base and essentially unlimited resources in the SEC. The recruiting pools are similar, with each having its own strengths and weaknesses. USC of course offers an easier path to the playoff, and well, no Nick Saban in the same division.
We'll see if it gets to the point if Franklin gets offered either job, let alone both. But it could be an interesting decision in his household.
It's worth nothing, I discussed the pros and cons of both jobs on a recent Aaron Torres Podcast
Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers, offensive coordinator: Brady of course was the brains behind LSU's offensive explosion during the 2019 national championship run, and teamed with Joe Burrow for one of the most exciting seasons in recent college football history. And when he bolted for the Carolina Panthers just hours after LSU's title run, it was probably the first sign that this program wasn't built for long-term success.
So would Brady seriously consider coming back to college to revive the program that, well, he essentially already revived once?
Honestly, it doesn't seem like it.
One, it's been well-reported that Brady much prefers the NFL life to college, where even as a young guy that seemingly relates well to college kids, doesn't have much interest in recruiting. Two, with Brady pumping life into Sam Darnold in Carolina (sort of), there's at least the possibility the Panthers play into January for a playoff run.
Obviously LSU should make the call if some of their other options doesn't work out.
But this seems like a long shot on all accounts.
Mario Cristobal, head coach, Oregon: While the bloom has faded a tiny bit on the Cristobal rose since Oregon beat Ohio State, it's hard to argue with his credentials so far. Multiple Pac-12 titles, a Rose Bowl win, and this year, a team that is still in position to make a run for the playoff.
More importantly, he has SEC ties, after working on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama and has turned Oregon into a West Coast recruiting juggernaut in Eugene.
At the same time, he seemed very clearly unhappy about even being asked about the USC job a few weeks ago.
And the great appeal of the LSU gig, competing at the highest level in the SEC, might also be its downfall. Does Cristobal really want to leave, at worst, the second best program in the Pac-12, to butt heads with Nick Saban every year?
Mark Stoops, head coach, Kentucky: Another one that I talked about at length on the Aaron Torres Podcast, this time last week.
Ultimately, I think there are schools that make sense for Stoops some day (maybe Ohio State or Michigan, or Florida State, where he coached for years).
But his entire blueprint of building Kentucky is to raid the Midwest and bring in boatloads of talent from Ohio and Michigan to the SEC.
He'd essentially have to flip his whole recruiting philosophy at LSU. To be blunt, I'm not sure it makes sense for either side.
Hugh Freeze, head coach, Liberty: True story, I live about 20 minutes from the Rose Bowl. And as the final minutes ticked down in LSU's season-opening loss to UCLA, I got two different texts from people inside the stadium: "It's time to go get Hugh Freeze."
Freeze's star has faded just a tiny bit since then, with a couple losses this season at Liberty. Still, he is now 15-3 in his last 18 games at Liberty, a program that was transitioning from FCS to FBS when he got there.
Oh, and he has something else going for him: He is one of the few people in college football that has legitimately given Nick Saban fits through the years, with two straight wins over Alabama in 2014 and 2015.
Imagine what he could do with the types of players he'd get at LSU?
Billy Napier, head coach, Louisiana: Again, Woodward is a big-game hunter, so you'd have to think he'd go after some bigger, more prominent names first.
But if he can't get Kiffin or Fisher to budge, the answer to his questions might be right down the road in Lafayette.
Over the last few years, Napier has built Lafayette into one of the premiere Group of 5 schools in the sport of college football. The Rajun Cajuns went 11-3 in 2019, 10-1 last year and are currently 5-1 in 2021, with their only loss to Texas on the opening day of the season.
Napier has interviewed for other SEC jobs in recent years, including reportedly Mississippi State and South Carolina, but has seemingly held off, and waited for a big job where he could truly compete at the highest level.
Is this it?