Nebraska football coaching hot board: 21 candidates for the job

Nebraska football coaching hot board: 21 candidates for the job

Nebraska football needs a new coach. Athletic director Trev Alberts promises a national search.

We have ideas — lots of them — for coaching candidates.

Here’s the first Huskers coaching hot board following the firing of Scott Frost.

Do we think Nebraska’s next coach could be on this list? Yes. But we lay out the reasons why a guy might work — and why he might not.

Dave Aranda

Current job: Baylor coach

Why he’d be a hit: Aranda sweats the small stuff without sweating through his shirt. A calm, thoughtful presence that points to the a new kind of college football coach, Aranda has the bonafides as a defensive coach, cutting his teeth on defensive coordinator work at Wisconsin and LSU, and has grown into an interesting head coach whose Baylor program won the Big 12 title last season. When jobs open, Aranda’s name comes up. Plus, he knows the Big Ten.

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Why he’d be a miss: Does a mild-mannered, quiet head coach really want the Husker fish bowl? Baylor may be a far better program than Nebraska at this moment, but the differences in the interest are vast. Aranda would have to want this spotlight. Further, he may have won big at Baylor for one season, but he did it with Matt Rhule’s players. Nebraska needs a total overhaul and mindset shift.

Matt Campbell

Current position: Iowa State coach

Record: 79-49 (Toledo, ISU)

Why he’d be a hit: His name has come up on big job openings time and again in recent years and it’s easy to see why after building up Toledo and Iowa State into bowl teams in eight of his combined 11 seasons at the schools. He’s always been a Midwest guy – an Ohio native who played defensive line at Pittsburgh and spent most of his coaching career in Ohio. His balanced offensive philosophy that emphasizes the tight end in the passing game also translates well to cold-weather football schools.

Why he’d be a miss: Winning nine games and playing for a conference title is impressive at a school with little historical football success. But Mike Riley arrived from Oregon State to similar logic. Campbell’s resume as a head coach includes six seasons of eight or nine wins  including his share of upsets  but no conference championships and one major bowl. At ISU, he was 0-5-1 against Iowa before breaking through this year. Would Nebraska be satisfied with a similar standard?  

Jamey Chadwell

Current position: Coastal Carolina coach

Record: 32-19 (at Coastal)

Why he’d be a hit: The 45-year-old Chadwell has rebuilt programs wherever he’s gone, from projects in Division II to leading the Chanticleers to an undefeated regular season in 2020. That campaign earned him National Coach of the Year honors and he followed with an 11-2 mark last fall. The Tennessee native runs a creative spread-option offense not all that different from what Nebraska has employed, piling up points in the Sun Belt the last two years. He’s also comfortable as a leader, balancing CEO duties with fun, outside-the-box motivational techniques across 14 seasons as a head man.

Why he’d be a miss: The resume is awfully similar to Scott Frost’s at UCF, leaving in doubt yet again whether a high-flying offense full of nearby warm-weather athletes that doesn’t rely on strong line play can translate to the Big Ten. His recruiting profile is almost entirely from the South, which isn’t necessarily an asset at a northern school. As a diehard Tennessee fan growing up, Chadwell would consistently be on SEC radars if he found success in Lincoln.

Liam Coen

Current job: LA Rams offensive coordinator

Why he’d be a hit: Aren’t they all? Sean McVay’s coaching tree has already spawned successful head coaches with the Green Bay Packers (Matt LaFleur), and Cincinnati Bengals (Zac Taylor), and Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley and Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell may not be far behind. Coen coached under McVay as an assistant wide receivers coach and an assistant quarterbacks coach from 2018-2020. This season he’s back as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, and last year, Coen led a Kentucky offense that ranked 21st in yards per play last season. 

Why he’d be a miss: Because overzealously hiring a young play caller  is how we got here in the first place, and Scott Frost had accomplished significantly more than Coen has now. Coen will have only called plays for three seasons by the end of this year. One of those years was at Maine and none were in the Big Ten. What’s that about a learning curve, again?

Dave Doeren

Current job: NC State coach 

Why he’d be a hit: Since finishing 3-9 during his first season, Doeren’s Wolfpack has posted seven winning seasons in eight years. The team is currently ranked higher than it has been in 20 years. Doeren has guided it there with only two top-30 recruiting classes during his tenure (2018 and 2019). That’s doing less with more. What he could do with a brand new football facility and strong NIL backing? He’s a veteran of the Midwest (coaching stops at Kansas and Wisconsin) and would likely take the Nebraska job, bringing with him offensive coordinator Tim Beck and offensive line coach John Garrison.

Why he’d be a miss: NC State’s ascent has coincided with the fall of the ACC. Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech haven’t lived up to their brands during much of Doeren’s tenure, and Doeren has only beaten Dabo Swinney once in eight tries (last season). And it’s nice to develop talent, but why haven’t the recruiting classes been better?  

Luke Fickell

Current job: Cincinnati coach  

Why he’d be a hit: Hard-nosed, defensive-minded guy who has won at Cincinnati. Terrific recruiting connections in Ohio. An understanding, based on his many years at Ohio State, of what it takes to win in the Big Ten. An eye for defensive talent that has transformed Cincy into one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.

Why he’d be a miss: Fickell is fickle. He left Michigan State at the altar a few years back  not that the Spartans, with Mel Tucker, are complaining  and he has repeatedly declined to pursue Power Five jobs he could have had. Is the former Buckeye defender waiting for the Ohio State job to open up again? Plus, there’s a big difference between the “Midwest” of Ohio and the “Midwest” of Nebraska.

Josh Gattis

Current job: Offensive coordinator at Miami (Fla.)

Why he’d be a hit: Gattis learned the ropes at some of the nation’s best programs in Penn State and Alabama before building a high-powered offense during his time at Michigan. Gattis’ high-powered pass offense helped Alabama produce multiple first-round NFL Draft picks, and he found a similar level of success at Michigan, too. The Wolverines improved from scoring 28.3 points per game in 2020 to 35.8 points per game a year ago, and Gattis chose to leave for Miami in the offseason. With exciting passing concepts, Gattis could be a good fit at Nebraska.

Why he’d be a miss: Hiring a young coach known for their high-powered passing offense didn’t work so well for Nebraska the last time around. Gattis is a hot commodity in college football right now, but is the 38-year-old ready for a head coaching job at Nebraska? There’s potential for it all to go wrong for an untested coach in over their head, a situation Gattis could avoid by taking a head coaching job with less pressure.

Alex Grinch

Current job: USC defensive coordinator.

Why he’d be a hit: The Big Ten west is about defense, right? Well, Grinch has shown he knows how to make fast improvements on that side of the ball, particularly against the run. Grinch helped turn Oklahoma’s defense, one of the worst units in college football in 2018, become a top-30 run defense and a top-60 scoring defense by the end of his tenure. He also has a sturdy recruiting track record particularly in the secondary. 

Why he’d be a miss: No head coaching experience and, frankly, not a ton of coordinator experience, either. Grinch just entered his fourth season running a unit  though he was a co-DC at Ohio State in 2018  and Trev Alberts can’t afford to deal in unknowns with this hire. What’s Grinch’s philosophy on offense? Can he find his own Lincoln Riley to call the plays? We don’t know. 

Charles Huff

Current job: Marshall coach

Why he’d be a hit: Impressive resume that includes stints with the Buffalo Bills, Alabama and Penn State. That means Huff has references from Chan Gailey, Nick Saban and James Franklin. Those guys know how to build successful college programs. 

Why he’d be a miss: Huff only just got to Marshall, and while Saturday’s upset win over Notre Dame was impressive, Marshall only finished 7-6 in Conference USA last season. Plus, the scrutiny in Huntington isn’t comparable to the Husker spotlight. Might be too soon.  







Nebraska interim head coach Mickey Joseph quarterbacked the Huskers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 




Mickey Joseph

Current job: Nebraska interim head coach

Why he’d be a hit: The 54-year-old is considered one of the elite recruiters in college football and was already reinforcing that reputation in an offseason at Nebraska, where he helped land multiple skill players from the Southeast. Deep roots in his home state of Louisiana are invaluable for mining talent, and his relationships in Omaha would be a boon for NU’s in-state recruiting efforts as well. He blends it all with a big, charismatic personality and ready-made institutional knowledge as a former Husker who played quarterback in Lincoln into the early 1990s. He would also be the first permanent Black head coach at Nebraska in any sport, ever, which is historic in its own right.

Why he’d be a miss: Nebraska just saw what happened with one former Nebraska QB turned head coach, with the reminder of how extra painful it is when things don’t work out. Joseph has almost no experience as a college head coach in his career, his two seasons at HBCU school Langston (Oklahoma) in 2011 and 2012 not withstanding. As NU has learned through the years, elite coordinators and assistants don’t always translate that success when they become the face of a program.

Chris Klieman

Current job: Kansas State coach

Why he’d be a hit: You want tough teams? Klieman builds tough teams. Kansas State runs the ball, stops the run, and maximizes its modest recruiting classes. The Wildcats are decent on special teams, too. Klieman may well view Nebraska as a destination job more than, say, Campbell, who has been waiting for Michigan or Ohio State. Plus, Kliemann is from Waterloo. That’s Trev Territory. This looks like a fit that wouldn’t break the bank. 

Why he’d be a miss: Klieman coached at the Alabama of FCS — North Dakota State  but he’s been just OK at K-State. A 22-16 is good, not great, in the Big 12. The question of whether Klieman can recruit classes good enough to win nine or ten games is a question to ponder, too. If Klieman didn’t have the NDSU history, would he be in the mix? 

Lance Leipold

Current job: Kansas coach

Why he’d be a hit: Leipold transformed a Buffalo program from bottom-feeder to bowl regular in his six years atop the program, a process he appears to be repeating at Kansas. Buffalo had just two winning seasons in the 16 years before Leipold took over the program; he managed three in a row, including a 10-win campaign before leaving for Kansas. With the Jayhwaks off to a 2-0 start this year, Leipold has shown the ability to improve struggling programs. Plus, Leipold has ties to the state due to his time as a former UNO and Nebraska assistant from 1994-2006.

Why he’d be a miss: Leipold finished with a losing record in his first three seasons at Buffalo, and he might not get the same level of patience at Nebraska. Plus, Leipold might have won national championships with Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, but the Big Ten is a whole new challenge. Leipold’s Buffalo teams played in a poor conference, and he hasn’t shown that Kansas can consistently pick up conference wins just yet. There will be a lot of eyes on Kansas this season, because a strong campaign would lend even more credence to Leipold’s credentials.

Jim Leonhard

Current position: Wisconsin defensive coordinator

Why he’d be a hit: There’s a gritty, nothing-given quality to Leonhard’s defenses, and why not? The former Wisconsin defensive back earned everything he ever got in football, going from a walk-on to three-time All-American who eventually pieced together a decade in the NFL through a series of one-year deals. His defensive model – featuring bruising lines and big, playmaking linebackers – fares well in Midwest weather (UW has finished in the top 10 nationally in points allowed under his guidance four times in five years). The irony that a former Badger player could restore Nebraska after a former Husker (Barry Alvarez) brought Wisconsin to prominence would be poetic justice.

Why he’d be a miss: Nebraska has tried career assistant coaches before (Frank Solich, Bo Pelini), and endured the on-the-job growing pains that came with them. Does Big Red want to be the proving ground for another first-time head man? And would the 39-year-old Leonhard even consider coming to a school that would play his beloved Badgers every year? He likes it in Madison so much that he turned down an offer from the Green Bay Packers to coordinate their defense.​

Urban Meyer

Current job: Fox sports analyst

Why he’d be a hit: From the early days of his career at Bowling Green and Utah to his national championship teams at Florida and Ohio State, Meyer has improved every college program he’s been a part of. Meyer has long been considered as one of the top college football coaches in the country, and a chance to revitalize Nebraska could lure him back to the college ranks.

Why he’d be a miss: Meyer’s success has come with a price, with allegations of toxic environments and abuse following him from Ohio State to the NFL during his one-year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. While in the NFL, reports emerged that Meyer routinely belittled coaches and players, and kicker Josh Lambo said Meyer had kicked him. Meyer might be a winner, but is he worth the headache.

Pat Narduzzi

Current job: Pittsburgh coach

Why he’d be a hit: He’s basically another Bo Pelini – a hard-nosed Youngstown State guy who doesn’t take crap off many people and finds players who fit his attitude. There’s power in that  Pitt is as good as it’s been since Johnny Majors strolled the sidelines  and Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator, would love to put a proverbial knife in the Big Ten’s back.

Why he’d be a miss: He’s basically another Bo Pelini. Big chip on his shoulder, complains too much, jousts with the media, has a defensive coordinator’s grasp of game management. Plus, Narduzzi’s best season, by far, came with Mark Whipple as his offensive coordinator. If Nebraska wants to hire Narduzzi, why not just hire Whipple instead?

Jay Norvell

Current job: Colorado State coach

Why he’d be a hit: Norvell has a Midwest background – born in Wisconsin, an Iowa grad, a former Iowa State assistant – that’s a critical starting point if Nebraska is to reestablish itself as a player in the 500-mile radius. Meanwhile, the 59-year-old also has put in the time at successful national programs including Oklahoma and Texas. Remember when he was Bill Callahan’s offensive coordinator from 2004-06? Six years as a head coach between Nevada and CSU also represents more experience in such a role than any new Husker skipper since before Bob Devaney. 

Why he’d be a miss: Nevada was solid under Norvell, enduring a 3-9 campaign in 2017 before winning seven or eight games each of the next four years. But he’s never led a great team or even a very good one following a decorated career as a receivers coach and play-caller. Age is also a factor – consider, for example, that Tom Osborne was 60 when he retired at Nebraska. Warhorses like Nick Saban (70) tend to be the exception.

Bill O’Brien

Current job: Offensive coordinator at Alabama

Why he’d be a hit: O’Brien rose to prominence as a key offensive assistant in the New England Patriots dynasty, and he made the most of his first college football head coaching role at Penn State. The Nittany Lions were in the midst of severe NCAA sanctions when O’Brien took over in 2012, and he outperformed expectations by leading Penn State to a winning record in back-to-back seasons. A well-respected offensive mind, O’Brien is currently leading Alabama’s high-scoring offense.

Why he’d be a miss: While O’Brien found success in the NFL ranks with four playoff appearances in a six-year span, his time with the Houston Texans ended poorly. O’Brien’s decision-making as the team’s general manager and quarterback issues contributed to him reportedly losing the Houston locker room before his firing four games into the 2020 season. After a decade away from being a college football head coach, do O’Brien’s offensive concepts still fool opposing defenses? His performance with Alabama this fall will shed light on the situation.

Gary Patterson

Current job: Special assistant to the head coach at Texas

Why he’d be a hit: Patterson is one of the most respected coaches in college football due to his 22-year tenure at TCU where he led the Horned Frogs to national prominence. TCU ended the year as a top-25 team 12 times under Patterson’s leadership, including six top-10 finishes. Patterson is a two-time national coach of the year, and he showed the ability to recruit and develop talent from his days at TCU.

Why he’d be a miss: Things didn’t end so smoothly for Patterson at TCU with a record of 14-16 in his final three seasons. Yes, Patterson had plenty of success during his two-plus decades at the school, but can that translate to different conference? Perhaps there’s a reason why he stayed in the state of Texas as an assistant. Plus, how much would the 62-year-old Patterson have left in the tank? Mike Riley was a similar age when he came to Nebraska.

Chris Petersen

Why he’d be a hit: Petersen is a great coach, building Boise State from a regional to national power, then taking Washington to the College Football Playoff. His teams run the ball, hit like hell on defense and develop mid-level quarterbacks into slingshots with sharp minds. He’s a deep thinker, too, who can see the game – and life – from a lot of angles. If Petersen, 57, wants one more job, Nebraska would be intriguing. 

Why he’d be a miss: A West Coast/mountain states lifer, Petersen can be ponderous, and left Washington because he was burned out on coaching to the point of a mild existential crisis. He’s exacting, and may require a total overhaul of the football program to his liking. Not every player fits Petersen’s coaching style, either. He left Washington in kind of a tough spot, with little talent on offense and a successor who was quickly fired. 

Mark Stoops 

Current job: Kentucky coach 

Why he’d be a hit: He seems to have figured out how to succeed at a basketball school. Stoops’ teams run the ball, stop the run and punch well above their weight against teams like Florida. Plus, Stoops has one of the best recruiters in America – Vince Morrow, who has a pipeline to Ohio. Marrow, who served as a graduate assistant at NU, can develop a recruiting pipeline here too. 

Why he’d be a miss: Well, he’s not cheap. He’d cost Nebraska $7 million – at least. And he might be able to get a better job – in an easier place to recruit. Plus, he’s a buddy of Bo Pelini, who may not have the best things to say about Husker football. 

Zac Taylor  

Current job: Cincinnati Bengals coach

Why he’d be a hit: He’s a former Husker quarterback – from 2006, not the ‘90s glory days – he’s a “Rams Guy” off the Sean McVay coaching tree and, bottom line, Taylor is a good guy. Almost universally well-liked by current and former NU coaches, players and media. Taylor’s intense, but he gets it, and would fit in well at Nebraska. His offense, a pro-style system, can be tailored for run or pass. And he’s a different guy than Scott Frost. A lot different.

Why he’d be a miss: Is Taylor’s one-year success in Cincy a byproduct of having a young star QB like Joe Burrow, or is it related to Taylor’s leadership of Burrow? And why would Taylor leave Cincinnati when Burrow plans on staying in Southern Ohio a long time? Taylor’s current coaching staff may not want to reconstitute in college, either. Certainly Taylor’s receivers coach, Troy Walters, wants no particular part of it.

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