Who will be USC's Next Head Coach (Part 1)
The USC Head Coach position is a top 5 job in college football. Yes I said it and I mean it. It’s a better job than LSU, Georgia, Clemson, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan, etc. You could definitely make a case that it’s the best job outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
USC is down right now and in a pretty bad conference. They’ve still managed 2 top 10 recruiting classes and 2 New Year’s 6 bowl appearances in the last 4 years, even with Clay Helton at the wheel. USC has the 2nd most National Championships (11), 2nd most NFL draft picks all-time (517), 4th most Heisman’s (6) and Consensus All-Americans (82), 5th most Conference Championships (37) and Bowl Appearances (53). They are a historical blue blood program and, based on what we’ve seen from their past great coaches, they are simply a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened.
When Pete Carroll was there the Trojans were seconds away from winning 3 consecutive National Championships (something even Nick Saban has been unable to do). They could have done what we’re seeing at Alabama right now based on the talent they brought in. From 2003-2011 they had 9 consecutive Top 5 recruiting classes with 6 of those being either 1 or 2 (According to 247 Sports).
USC has the money to pay the right coach whatever it takes, they’re right on the beach, they have a history of winning, one of the most talent rich recruiting grounds in the entire country right in their backyard, and they play in the weakest Power 5 conference. There is no reason that USC, with the right coach, shouldn’t be able to make the playoffs as consistently as we’ve seen Alabama do it.
Finding the “right coach” is the tough part of this sport isn’t it though? The right college football coach doesn’t just have to be a good football coach. They have to fit the local culture, they have be able to connect to the student body, manage the politics with billionaire boosters, they have to be able to walk into 17-18 year old’s homes and convince them that your school is the best one for them and convince their parents that you’ll take care of their son.
I’ve used these characteristics to grade each candidate to determine how good of a fit they’d be for USC.
Overall Coaching: How much experience does this guy have and does he have a history of winning on a big stage?
Culture Fit: USC is hollywood. Primetime and big lights all the time. The head coach at USC is a celebrity and USC needs a guy who can handle that level of attention and scrutiny. Boosters will get in your way every step of the way. Can you manage their fragile egos as well as your players, while still remaining focused on the game?
Recruiting: At USC, you could bring in a top 10 recruiting class without driving more than 150 miles, top 5 without leaving the state. Does this guy have the chops to lock down Southern California for the Trojans? Can this guy stop Nick Saban and Ryan Day and Lincoln Riley from coming into Los Angeles and taking your best players. The 3 current Heisman frontrunners (Bryce Young, Matt Corral, and Cj Stroud) all played HS ball within an hour of USC’s campus.
Who are the candidates?: I’ve put together a list of 10 possible candidates that include the names that have already been released by Carson Palmer from the USC search committee, the standard top candidates that I’m sure are being looked at, as well as a few under the radar candidates that I believe would be a great fit, even if they aren’t getting much attention. At the end of the day, USC will open their wallet to the best coaches available.
Overall Coaching (9/10): We are currently in James Franklin’s 11th season as a head coach. He spent 3 seasons at Vanderbilt (24-15) before heading to Happy Valley for the past 8 years as the Head Coach at Penn State (65-30) for a combined head coaching record of 89-45 (66.4%). He has only had 1 season where he finished the regular season below .500 which was during the 2020 COVID year in which his team was riddled with opt-outs and injuries. The fact that he has won so consistently at a school like Vanderbilt and Penn State coming off of a probationary period is a true testament to how good of a football coach James Franklin is. He is 2-1 in NY6 bowls and finished in the top 10 in all 3 of those seasons. Purely looking at his record and accomplishments as a head coach so far in his career, he would be the best coach that USC has hired since Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks.
Culture Fit (7/10): Franklin grew up in Langhorne, PA. He played QB in college at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. And he began his coaching career at another Division 2 school, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, as the Wide Receivers coach. After almost 20 years in coaching he finally returned home to his state’s powerhouse university, Penn State. He clearly fits the culture of the state of Pennsylvania, but would he have the same appeal in Los Angeles?
He’s shown that he can handle the media, fans, and boosters at a top football program. Los Angeles is a whole different animal, but as long as USC is winning (which he has done a lot of) then the fanbase should rally behind him.
Recruiting (6/10): Franklin has been a decent recruiter while at Penn State, but his teams have certainly outperformed their recruiting rankings. In his time at Penn State, he has only had 1 top ten class. The other classes that he has brought in have averaged in the middle to upper teens. Another huge piece of recruiting is understanding your recruiting grounds and having connections with the high schools in your area. If the HS coaches around you like you and trust you then you have a better chance at landing their players. James Franklin has only had 1 player from the state of California commit to play for him at Penn State. That player committed 14 days after Franklin took the job so it’s safe to say the previous staff did most of the job on that one. USC’s next head coach has to lock down Southern California and it’s not a great sign that James Franklin has almost no experience recruiting in the area.
Average Rating (7.33/10)
Overall Coaching (8/10): As a player, Matt Campbell won 3 Division III National Championships under coach Larry Kehres. He started coaching as a GA at Bowling Green the following year and only 3 years after graduating he was already the Offensive Coordinator at his alma mater for his old Head Coach. He is one of the sport's youngest rising stars. In less than 10 years after graduating he found his first Head Coaching gig at Toledo in 2012. After 5 seasons, he made the move to Iowa State, and has made a historical bottomfeeder program into a Big 12 title contender. He is 75-45 (62.5%) as a head coach and has only had 1 losing season, his first at Iowa State. Last year, he had his 1st top ten finish and 1st NY6 appearance in the Fiesta Bowl where he beat the Pac 12 champion Oregon Ducks 34-17. He has already shown us that he can win at multiple levels and in a variety of ways. In addition, during his tenures at Toledo and Iowa State, he has shown progressive improvement each year letting us know that this is just the beginning of things to come for Coach Matt Campbell.
Culture Fit (1/10): Matt Campbell is an Ohio guy. He grew up there and has spent his entire career, outside of his time at Iowa State, in the state of Ohio. From what I’ve seen, he is very down to earth and not a huge talker. I think that this man is a damn good football coach, but USC and Los Angeles are not really a match for him culturally. I’m afraid all of the noise around the program may be too much for him to overcome. He’s shown us that he can win football games in Ames, Iowa, but Hollywood is a whole different ball game.
Recruiting (3/10): It’s not easy to recruit players to play at Iowa State. They have almost no history of winning and, let’s face it, you’d have to go live in Ames, Iowa. His average recruiting classes have hovered around the top 50 mark. Not awful, but not great if you’re looking for someone that can beat guys like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart in recruiting battles.
Average Rating (4/10)
Overall Coaching (8.5/10): Luke Fickell played at Ohio State. Then he coached there, moving up the assistant ranks from 2002-2016. He helped them win National Championships as the Special Teams Coordinator in ‘02 and as the Co-Defensive Coordinator in 2014. He then took over the Cincinnati Bearcats program as the head coach in 2017. He had a slow start in his first season going 4-8, but has since gone 38-6 from 2018-current while finishing in the top 25 in 3 straight seasons and has the Bearcats sitting at No. 2 in this weeks AP Poll. He is the top coaching candidate from Group of 5 schools going into this off-season. He has a high likelihood of making his Bearcats the first ever Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff. As impressive as that is, there’s more. He not only has the accomplishments, but also the pedigree to say he’s the next big time coach. He has been in and around a perennial top 5 Blue Blood program in Ohio State for a decade and a half learning from National Champion coaches like Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. If there were a single candidate that looks prepared to turn USC back into a powerhouse, it’s this guy.
Culture Fit (7/10): Before taking over a program like USC, it’s important for a coach to know what they’re getting into. You don’t just get to show up at the facilities, coach your team to wins, and go home. There are a lot of people in and around that program that can’t help but try to get their grubby hands all up inside your program. It is your job to reduce outside interference and keep the outside noise to a minimum. You have to be a football coach, a celebrity, and a politician when you’re the head coach at USC. Although born and bred in Ohio, Fickell has been around a program in Ohio State that USC will need to emulate in order to become one of the nation’s top programs once again. That experience at a blue blood program for almost 2 decades has surely prepared him to take over and man the controls of any program in the country.
Recruiting (6/10): I’ve already mentioned how important it is for the next Trojans head coach to be a good recruiter who can lock down all of the homegrown talent in Southern California. Recruiting can be an incredibly difficult job for Group of 5 coaches. You don’t have the resources or the prestige that Power 5 teams bring to the table. You also can’t really even sell players the opportunity to win a championship because The College Football Playoff Committee is dead set on making sure no Group of 5 schools ever make it into the Top 10. With that said, since arriving at Cincy Fickell has been able to improve the schools recruiting immensely, finishing with 3 Top 50 classes and he is inching towards the Top 25 in the current ‘22 class. Still, most of his talent is coming from in-and around Ohio. Is that enough evidence to show you that he is capable of winning recruiting battles in one of the nations hottest recruiting grounds? Don’t forget, coaches like Dabo and Lane Kiffin, Lincoln Riley and Nick Saban, have done a great job recently at building recruiting pipelines to California. This isn’t the same old So Cal that Pete Carroll was able to dominate in the early 2000’s.
Average Rating (7.17/10)
Based on my current ratings, I’d say that James Franklin is the man best suited for the job. But it’s really splitting hairs between him and Luke Fickell. Those both found success in the Northeast, they’re both great football coaches and have managed to exceed expectations based on the talent they have been able to bring in. The only questions I have for both of them are, How well will they be able to manage all of the noise and insanity that goes on in and around the program? And will they be able to reign in the top recruits in Southern California and keep them from going down south to the SEC?