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With Thursday night’s bombshell news that Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze resigned, the Rebels officially begin a search for a long-term coach.
Convincing somebody to come to Oxford in the wake of an NCAA investigation and a self-imposed bowl ban for the 2017 season with potential other sanctions to come won’t be easy.
The Rebels may not even try; they’ve already named co-offensive coordinator Matt Luke the interim coach, and that tag could stick throughout this season.
According to ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach, Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork told ESPN that “school officials found a pattern of phone calls to a number associated with a female escort service,” leading to the departure from Freeze’s tenure.
That’s yet another black eye for a football program that has been in constant turmoil for more than a year, and it will also turn up the heat on Bjork, who stood by Freeze throughout the NCAA investigation despite mounting evidence of recruiting violations.
For that reason, Bjork will swing for the fences to find Freeze’s replacement. Whether he connects with a big name remains to be seen. So, while Rebels fans everywhere will have visions of Chip Kelly and Bob Stoops dancing in their heads, we’re here to bring you realistic possibilities who may replace Freeze.
Here are eight coaches who could supplant Luke as the full-time Ole Miss coach.
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As well as Ole Miss recruits Memphis high school football players, Bjork would do well to look toward the Bluff City to recruit his next head coach.
When it comes to up-and-coming coaching stars, few shine brighter than Memphis Tigers coach Mike Norvell. He sits at the helm of a gold mine left by Justin Fuente, who was hired away by Virginia Tech. Norvell proved in 2016 that the program is in good hands.
He is an innovative young offensive mind who will be plucked away by a marquee-conference program sooner rather than later, especially considering just how loaded the Tigers expect to be this season with quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller leading the way.
His offenses put up prolific numbers when he was an assistant at Tulsa and the coordinator at both Pittsburgh and Arizona State. Getting him to Memphis was a shrewd decision, and it looks like it’ll just be a pit stop on the way to a big job.
Moving to nearby Oxford wouldn’t be much of a culture shock, especially considering he wouldn’t have to uproot his family. Also, the thought of having quarterback Shea Patterson running his offense has to be intriguing.
Norvell to Oxford makes way too much sense.
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Boy, Ole Miss fans would sure have to swallow their pride for this one.
Even so, you can learn to love anybody in college football, especially if he wins. Just ask Alabama, who hated Nick Saban when he coached LSU to a championship but love him now that he has taken the Crimson Tide to levels even Bear Bryant didn’t see.
Miles is an unemployed, former national championship-winning head coach. Yes, that championship came at the Rebels’ most hated rival LSU Tigers (sorry, Mississippi State), but this would be a hire that Bjork possibly could make right now.
And it would be a perfect one.
Though Miles’ offenses got stagnant late in his tenure in Baton Rouge, the man is a consistent winner, and he won in a big way. His career record as a head coach at Oklahoma State and LSU is 141-55. It was a controversial decision for LSU to go in a different direction during the ’16 season.
That choice became even more puzzling when the Tigers kept interim coach Ed Orgeron as the head man.
Coaching Ole Miss would give Miles the opportunity to stick it to the Tigers every single year for that, and while a lot of Rebels fans would be skeptical and maybe even angry at the hire, all it would take would be a single win over LSU to turn those frowns around.
It would be hard for Bjork to do better than this.
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Ole Miss went to this well once with Freeze, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make another trek to Jonesboro, Arkansas, to rob the Arkansas State Red Wolves of another head coach.
If Bjork wants to go the offensive innovator route, Norvell should be the first call. If he says no, Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson shouldn’t be that far down the list.
The Larry Fedora disciple was the offensive coordinator for Southern Miss when that staff turned around the Golden Eagles, and he followed the coach to North Carolina where he had success calling plays as well.
He left that job for the head coaching hotbed that is Jonesboro, where Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Freeze (Ole Miss) and Bryan Harsin (Boise State) held brief-but-successful coaching tenures before moving on to bigger and better things.
Anderson is basically a graybeard when it comes to Arkansas State coaches considering he has compiled a 24-15 record in three seasons, including a 20-4 mark in the Sun Belt.
That’s a program on firm footing, but there’s no way it could ever pay the money or offer the exposure of Ole Miss. He’d probably leap at the opportunity to go to Oxford, even with the Rebels in the midst of turmoil, and he’d likely do well there in short order with Patterson and all those offensive weapons at his disposal.
Again, Anderson may not be a hire who’d be universally lauded by the Ole Miss faithful right away, but he’d be a quality hire if given time.
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Let’s say Ole Miss wants to go in a completely different direction by choosing a defensive mind. After all, Freeze’s program rebuild was predicated on the “Land Shark” defense that was fast, athletic and smothered opponents.
Pulling Charlie Strong from South Florida wouldn’t be a bad choice, but he failed famously at Texas, so how attractive would he be at an SEC program?
Perhaps the better move would be going after Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who is one of the brightest minds in the game and is poised to have an incredible unit in 2017. He was the coordinator for Stoops at Oklahoma before joining Dabo Swinney, and the Tigers just won a national championship.
If you’re going the unproven coaching route, why not give Venables the chance to run his own program?
There’s already an offensive nucleus in place, and the Rebels defense is currently diminished. Getting Venables, who is a proven recruiter and fantastic defensive mind, wouldn’t be a bad choice.
The 46-year-old is a 21-year coaching veteran who excelled at Kansas State, Oklahoma and now Clemson. Swinney told CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd in 2016 that Venables would be great at running his own program.
“I think he’d be a great head coach,” Swinney said. “I know he’s had opportunities to be head coach. I just don’t think the right opportunity has come along that he’s wanted for whatever reason.”
Could he want the Ole Miss job with all the NCAA sharks swimming around? You won’t know unless you ask.
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You’re thinking what everybody else is: “Why in the world would a school that has the NCAA camped out in the Grove make a hire like Lane Kiffin?”
That’s a good question.
But the bottom line is, despite all his failures as a too-young head coach with the Oakland Raiders, at Tennessee and USC, he was a dynamic offensive coordinator for Alabama who learned under the tutelage of Saban for three years and kept his mouth shut.
Now, he’s getting the opportunity to run his own program at Florida Atlantic. He’s already made plenty of headlines by hiring Art Briles’ son, Kendal, whose name has been mentioned in conjunction with the Baylor mess.
He also recruited former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who was kicked off the Seminoles for punching a woman at a bar.
That may indeed be too much baggage to take on, especially when you consider Kiffin’s brother, FAU defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin, was mentioned in Ole Miss’ list of recruiting violations for his time as the Rebels defensive line coach.
Lane knows the conference, though, and maybe he’s learned his lessons. Plus, the thought of a rivalry between old friends Kiffin and Orgeron is just too juicy for college football, isn’t it? Especially with it being in the SEC.
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There may be some coaches higher on Bjork’s list, but if you want to go down a few rungs and hire a sleeper that could be a big-time coup in a couple of years, look no further than Central Florida coach Scott Frost.
Few coaches have the pedigree of Frost, who was a standout quarterback at Nebraska after transferring from Stanford. His coaches include Bill Walsh, Tom Osborne, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. During his coaching career, he’s learned under Chip Kelly, Mark Helfrich and others.
He left a prolific Oregon offense to take over an 0-12 Central Florida team and promptly took the Golden Knights to a bowl game in his first season, finishing 6-7. That may be a small body of work for a head coach, but Frost has the coaching chops.
He’s learned from some of the best, and some of that had to wear off.
Frost already has flipped the script in Orlando, as the media projects the Knights to finish second in the AAC East division behind South Florida in 2017.
“He’s a players’ coach,” UCF offensive tackle Aaron Evans told the Tampa Bay Times‘ Joey Knight. “He’s down to earth, he has experience playing and tries to relate as much as possible without blurring the line too much between friend and coach.”
Ole Miss is going to need somebody like that to help the players get through this difficult time coming up in the next year or two. Frost is the kind of young, talented coach fans can get behind, and players will want to stick around and play for him.
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Another coach who still has some bones left over from the skeletons that once hung in his closet is Bobby Petrino. But if you can get around the checkered past, the results have always been something Petrino provided.
Back at Louisville for the second time, he has benefitted from the emergence of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has the Cardinals again in the ACC title conversation.
Yet again, Petrino’s offense is putting up big numbers, much the way it did in his first tenure with the Cardinals, his scandal-marred years at Arkansas and his renaissance at Western Kentucky.
Petrino’s issues in Fayetteville may be too close to what Ole Miss is enduring in the Freeze fallout for Bjork to make that move, but with Petrino’s on-sideline success in the rugged SEC and with the knowledge that he has won everywhere he’s been, it may be a gamble worth taking.
The risk-reward of getting him in Oxford perhaps would have a higher upside than bringing on Kiffin or the public relations nightmare of Art Briles.
Most likely, Petrino won’t get a call in this situation considering what Ole Miss is going through. With Louisville already in a major conference in the ACC, it would be a stretch to think Petrino would listen, anyway. But his coaching services have been bought before, and few conferences pay like the SEC.
And if Bjork is worried most about wins and the bottom line of his job, he may open the wallet. He could do much worse than Petrino.
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An outside-the-box idea that may wind up striking up some interest would be targeting Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, who may not be the sexiest name out there, but all he has done in a short timeframe is turn around a long-dead program in Boulder.
The Buffaloes are coming off an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game, which is no small feat considering where CU has spent more than the past decade. Before getting to Boulder, MacIntyre won big at San Jose State.
He has a pedigree of turning around programs.
He also has a history in the SEC. MacIntyre’s father, George, was a longtime coach and scout who spent tenures at Miami, Tampa, Clemson and Vanderbilt. He was the head coach of the Commodores from 1979-85, and he even spent a season as Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator in 1978.
The younger MacIntyre was an assistant at Ole Miss coaching receivers and then defensive backs from 1999-2002. Though his coaching career has spanned the country, MacIntyre’s roots are in the Southeast, where his family commands a lot of respect and he still holds connections.
Would getting back to the SEC to coach in what is annually the nation’s top conference be a premier selling point for MacIntyre? How high does he believe the ceiling is for his current team in Boulder?
This would be worth a call for Bjork. MacIntyre is one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the country, and he doesn’t get enough credit. If he looks back at his time in Oxford fondly, he may want to return there and help rebuild a dilapidated program.