The University of South Carolina finally pulled the plug on the Will Muschamp era late Sunday – swallowing a massive $13.7 million buyout to part ways with the embattled fifth-year head football coach.
Muschamp’s firing with three games remaining on a controversially shortened Covid-19 season gives the school a head start when it comes to the annual head coaching carousel, although South Carolina had a similar advantage during its 2015 search and failed to leverage the lead time into a top tier hire.
How do we know that?
Um … Muschamp.
The 49-year-old Rome, Georgia native did a solid job during his first two seasons in Columbia, S.C. – much as he did during his first two seasons as head coach of the Florida Gators from 2011-2014 – but things quickly regressed.
After a disappointing 7-6 campaign in 2018, Muschamp’s fourth Gamecock squad turned in a disastrous 4-8 record a year ago.
Then the wheels completely fell off in 2020 … including a trio of blowout losses to end his tenure in which the Gamecocks were outscored 159-79 and gave up a shocking 1,779 yards (or 593 yards per game).
As we noted yesterday, Muschamp closed out his final two campaigns in Columbia, S.C. with a 6-13 record – including ten double-digit defeats and seven losses by margins of twenty or more points.
(Click to view)
(Via: Columbia SC Photographer Travis Bell)
These numbers were covered extensively in our post yesterday, but they bear repeating: Muschamp went 28-30 in his four-and-a-half seasons at the helm of the Gamecock program – including a 17-22 conference mark, a 3-15 record against ranked opponents and a 1-2 record in bowl games. He was 0-4 against arch-rival Clemson, 1-3 against his alma mater the Georgia Bulldogs and 1-4 against his former team, the Florida Gators.
As the Gators’ head coach from 2011-2014, Muschamp went 28-21 with a 17-15 conference record, a 5-14 mark versus ranked teams and a 1-1 bowl record. Oh, he was also 1-3 against his future team – including an overtime loss to South Carolina on November 15, 2014 that ultimately led to his firing.
One might have viewed Muschamp’s failed tenure in Gainesville (including the rapid regression of his program after a solid second season) as a red flag … but South Carolina hired him anyway.
For his career, Muschamp is 56-51 with a 34-37 conference record, 7-29 record against ranked opponents and a 2-3 record in bowl games.
(Via: Columbia SC Photographer Travis Bell)
While Gamecock fans are understandably glad to have a clean slate (despite its enormous cost), a bigger problem looms. The same university official who hired Muschamp in 2015 – and controversially awarded him a raise and contract extension after 2018’s middling results – remains at his post.
In fact, eighth-year athletics director Ray Tanner – who has presided over significant declines in multiple revenue-generating sports at South Carolina – has been empowered by university president Bob Caslen and the school’s scandal-ravaged board of trustees to manage the search process for Muschamp’s replacement.
Really? After his first hire? And after his, um, “management” of the baseball program he once coached to perennial national title contention?
Astoundingly, Tanner has the backing of both the administration and the board at South Carolina as the search for a new head coach begins.
What could possibly go wrong, right?
To be clear: This news outlet is shocked that Tanner, Caslen or anyone on the South Carolina board is being allowed anywhere within 1,000 miles of this search process.
In fact, we have argued for some time that Tanner should have been fired before Muschamp.
Meanwhile, we remain truly surprised and profoundly disappointed that state lawmakers – who had an opportunity to clean house after last year’s dumpster fire on the board – decided instead to reelect virtually every member whose name was on the ballot.
Just four days before football season kicked off …
Just last year, Tanner and Caslen doubled down on their support of Muschamp – and influential board members doubled down on their support of Tanner after we published reports that some of them were exploring options for his replacement.
One prominent option? Former Gamecock football standout Brad Edwards – the athletics director at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. We noted at the time how Edwards would have been a significant improvement over Tanner had South Carolina decided to hire him a year ago.
Unfortunately, they stuck with the former baseball coach.
Meanwhile, there is the missed opportunity involving Dan Radakovich – the hugely successful athletics director at Clemson. Radakovich was an associate athletics director at South Carolina from 1994-2000 under the late Mike McGee. He was rumored to be in the mix for the South Carolina athletics director position in 2012, but the job went to Tanner instead.
The losers in this game of musical chairs? Players and fans … two constituencies without which college football could not exist.
Nonetheless, Tanner and board members like Eugene Warr – who was instrumental in the decision to hire Muschamp – have inexplicably been entrusted with hiring his replacement. Well, along with Caslen … whose previous forays into university athletics have ended disastrously.
Again, we ask … what could possibly go wrong?
Hopefully, South Carolina will enlist the help of a headhunter in its current coaching quest – perhaps someone like Chicago-based “executive search consultant” Glenn Sugiyama.
How seriously does Sugiyama take his duties? According to a story in his hometown paper, he once sent a decoy plane to a rival airport to fool reporters and fans who were following one of the coaching searches in which he was involved.
“People say, ‘Isn’t it the athletic director’s job to find a coach?’” Sugiyama told reporter Teddy Greenstein of The Chicago Tribune last year. “No, the AD’s job is to hire the best person. The coach is often the highest-paid employee of the university and the state. Many people consider it malpractice not to use an executive search firm to make the best decision possible.”
That term would certainly apply to the South Carolina management team.
Meanwhile, super agent Jimmy Sexton – who represents almost every coach in the Southeastern Conference (including Muschamp) – is likely to play a huge role in determining who winds up filling the South Carolina job.
His influence in steering clients one way or the other could loom even larger as other vacancies come open across the country in the weeks to come …
(Via: Liberty Football)
Now that we have familiarized ourselves with the dramatis personæ responsible for choosing the next South Carolina coach, let us assess the field of candidates – a lengthy list which is likely to be whittled down to a handful of prospects within the next two or three weeks.
Before we begin, it is important to remember there are basically four types of candidates for open coaching positions – those who want the job (hot), those who are interested in the job (warm), those who would consider the position (cool) and those who would not consider it (cold).
Programs typically wind up hiring someone from one of the first categories … but there are exceptions.
The general thinking on this first official day of the Gamecock coaching search is that Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze is the top prospect for the South Carolina job.
As we previously noted, however, the 51-year-old Oxford, Mississippi native comes with baggage. Freeze resigned as head coach of his hometown Ole Miss Rebels three years ago amidst a scandal involving phone calls he allegedly placed to an escort service.
Prior to resigning, Freeze posted a 39-25 record (including a 19-21 conference mark) during his five years in Oxford from 2011 to 2016 – guiding the Rebels to back-to-back Top Twenty seasons in 2014 and 2015. His program was the focus of a major NCAA investigation, however – one this website criticized for its seemingly selective enforcement.
Ole Miss was ultimately forced to vacate 33 wins from 2010 to 2016 in connection with that inquiry – including 27 of Freeze’s victories.
Were Freeze to be considered for the South Carolina position, it would likely require the assent of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who reportedly vetoed Freeze’s hiring as an assistant at Alabama two years ago.
Also, South Carolina – which was already significantly strapped for cash before committing to Muschamp’s buyout – would likely have to shell out big bucks to get Freeze out of his current contract at Liberty, which was extended through the 2026 season just last week.
Details of that extension were not immediately disclosed, but speculation is swirling that Liberty – a private institution – made the move in response to Freeze being linked to several possible upcoming SEC openings (including the South Carolina job).
Sources close to the Ole Miss program tell us Freeze is probably among the Gamecocks’ top three options – but that another up-and-coming young head coach, Billy Napier, is the presumed frontrunner for the job.
According to our sources, Napier – a former Clemson offensive coordinator and the current head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette – is not just a coveted coaching target this season (with a much smaller buyout than Freeze), but has reportedly made it clear he wants the South Carolina job.
(Click to view)
In fact, sources close to the 41-year-old coach (above) are said to have contacted South Carolina officials following the Gamecocks’ season-opening loss to Tennessee to make sure the school was aware of his interest.
Napier has posted a 25-11 mark in two-and-a-half seasons at Louisiana and has the Ragin’ Cajuns ranked in the AP Top 25 this season. His team kicked off the 2020 season with an impressive win on the road against then-No. 23 Iowa State.
In addition to craving an opportunity to coach in the SEC, Napier also reportedly has a chip on his shoulder after he was fired by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney following the 2010 season. And while South Carolina is obviously a long way away from being able to compete with Clemson again, Napier could certainly claim some edge and sense of urgency in rebuilding the program.
Another up-and-coming middle tier college coach reportedly receiving attention from Gamecock officials is Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell.
The Chanticleers are on fire at the moment – racing to a 7-0 record and a No. 15 national ranking despite the fact the program is competing in only its fifth season in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
Chadwell has a 15-16 head coaching mark at Coastal Carolina, going 3-9 as an interim head coach in 2017 and posting a 12-7 record since taking over the reins of the program on a full-time basis prior to the 2019 season.
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(Via: Coastal Carolina Football)
Like Freeze, however, Chadwell (above) has seen his head coaching record take a hit as a result of NCAA infractions. During his tenure as head coach of Charleston Southern University from 2013 to 2016, the Buccaneers were forced to vacate 18 wins from the 2014 and 2015 seasons (as well as the 2015 Big South conference championship) due to a host of eligibility and impermissible benefit violations.
Still, Chadwell’s fans are adamant he is the man for the job.
“If they fail to hire Jamey Chadwell then we should just shut the doors to the football program until the board of trustees’ terms are up,” one of them told us bluntly.
That’s not bad advice no matter the candidate, sadly …
While Freeze, Napier and Chadwell are certainly the Gamecocks’ top tier options coming out of the gate, several South Carolina donors we spoke with expressed concern that none of them would constitute the sort of “big name hire” that eluded the program in 2015 – a class that included coaches Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley, among others.
Smart and Riley have both taken their respective teams to the College Football Playoff (CFP), with Georgia coming within a play of winning a national title following the 2017 season.
Meanwhile, Riley’s Oklahoma Sooners have made the CFP three years in a row – trailing only Clemson and Alabama for the most all-time playoff appearances.
Smart was reportedly in line to take the South Carolina job five years ago until Georgia made a bold move – firing head coach Mark Richt and offering the head coaching position to the 44-year-old who, like Muschamp, was a defensive back for the Bulldogs in the 1990s.
Riley was also interested in the South Carolina job, but Tanner opted to go with the defensive-minded Muschamp instead.
What sort of “big name hire” do donors believe the program needs?
One name we keep hearing from the lips of those stroking checks is that of 30-year-old offensive genius Joe Brady – who is currently in his first season as offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.
(Click to view)
(Via: Getty Images)
Brady (above) won the 2019 Broyles Award as college football’s top assistant coach after helping lead No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow to the Heisman Trophy and LSU to the national title (and only the third perfect 15-0 season in NCAA history).
Carolina’s offense isn’t exactly lighting up the NFL this year – ranking No. 21 in total offense and scoring offense (out of 32 teams). However, the Panthers have been forced to play most of the season without franchise tailback Christian McCaffrey, who has appeared in only three of the team’s ten games due to injury.
That will close up a playbook pretty fast … and the fact Brady has kept his team competitive without the league’s most explosive two-way threat in the backfield is impressive.
Carolina is also in its first year with a new starting quarterback following the departure of former MVP Cam Newton to New England, although so far Teddy Bridgwater has played well as the Panthers’ starter.
Our sources in the Pelican State are certainly high on the young coach …
New Orleans-based contributor Katie Brandner said she believed Brady “would be smart” to consider the South Carolina opening – and that the Gamecock program would be “lucky to have him” following his wildly successful tenure in Baton Rouge.
Our donor sources agree with that assessment … arguing Brady would represent the sort of hire that would cause opposing coaches in the SEC to stand up and take notice of the Gamecock program.
Is he interested in the job, though? Especially with so much speculation currently surrounding his possible ascension to one of several soon-to-be-vacant NFL coaching jobs?
That remains to be seen …
Certainly, there are no shortage of options for South Carolina to consider, but once again … as we noted at the outset, Gamecock fans ought to be very concerned that Tanner, Caslen and the current board are the ones managing this process.
In addition to the names mentioned above, we are told Caslen – the former superintendent at West Point – will make a strong push to have Army head coach Jeff Monken considered for the South Carolina job. There is reliable speculation Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will likely be included in the top tier of contenders, too.
Sarkisian flamed out spectacularly as head coach at Southern Cal in 2015, but successful offensive coaching stints since with Alabama and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons appear to have restored his reputation.
Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s name has been mentioned as another appealing offensive option, as have the names of Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield and Charlotte head coach Will Healy. Alabama-Birmingham head coach Bill Clark is one of the top defensive-minded coaches reportedly receiving consideration, as is Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables – although few believe South Carolina will choose a defensive coach again after the Muschamp debacle.
Also, let’s not forget first-year Gamecock offensive coordinator Mike Bobo – who will have three games as interim head coach to show Gamecock fans what he can do. We don’t think Bobo will receive serious consideration for the head job in Columbia after his tenure at Colorado State University ended with back-to-back losing seasons, but he is the only name on this list who will get a live audition for the job.
And perhaps to keep his coordinator position …
Why are we mentioning so many second tier options?
Again … because trusting Tanner and company to land a top tier coach (even with a head start) is clearly not a viable strategy. Also, as we noted yesterday South Carolina is in a terrible financial position. The school’s athletics department entered the year $168.8 million in debt (a rising tide of red ink which does not include an ongoing $22.5 million upgrade of Williams-Brice Stadium).
Not only that, the cost of assembling a staff to replace Muschamp and his assistants would likely top $8 million a year – just to get in the competitive range. Getting a head coach capable of restoring the program to where it was in 2011-2013 under former head coach Steve Spurrier?
That could cost even more …
With this much debt – and revenues projected to decline by at least $60 million this year due to the impact of the coronavirus – few believed the school could afford to pull the trigger on Muschamp.
And yet – as we reported just before he was fired – “big donors ponied up,” according to one of our sources.
(Click to view)
(Via: Fox Sports)
Who are among the long shots for the South Carolina vacancy?
Well, let’s start with this: Muschamp hasn’t even been out of his job 24 hours and we had already received our first rumor that former Florida and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has been spotted in a Columbia, S.C. airport.
The twice-retired 56-year-old – who won three national titles and seven conference championships in four previous head coaching stints – seems like a pipe dream for the Gamecocks, although our founding editor Will Folks has told anyone who will listen that Meyer is the best available option.
Still, we believe our source on that airport rumor probably needs to get their prescription lenses reexamined …
Should Meyer return to coaching, our guess is he would shoot for a higher-profile vacancy – one that would pay him the sort of salary South Carolina is unlikely to be able to offer him given its current cash crunch.
Another intriguing “outside the box” possibility for the Gamecocks? Former Houston Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien, who received plaudits for guiding Penn State through its darkest hours in 2012-2013 prior to winning four division titles as an NFL coach.
Again, we believe O’Brien would be a long shot to take the South Carolina job … but like Meyer, he is an intriguing option to consider.
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