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BATON ROUGE – A few days before a slightly above average Michigan State coach named Nick Saban became LSU’s football coach on Nov. 30, 1999, his wife Terry quietly and mostly anonymously had lunch with some LSU people at TJ Ribs restaurant near the LSU campus.
She was getting introduced to the town and looking for a house.
So far in LSU’s third search for a coach since Saban left after the 2004 season with two SEC titles and a national championship, there have been no coaching candidates or coaching candidate’s wife sightings in Baton Rouge. At least none that anyone has blabbed about around town.
Now, rising Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell was in New Orleans over the weekend. His team played at Tulane and won 31-12. LSU athletic director Scott Woodward easily could have met him somewhere secretly in the Big Easy, where people often go to hide.
But it is still early in the game as the hottest college head football coaches in the country have another month of the regular season to jockey for College Football Playoff position. The first CFP rankings were just released Tuesday night.
Still, this search has been amazingly quiet for a place like LSU, which tends to keep secrets about as well as Barney Fife did when that shipment of gold was to pass through Mayberry.
Woodward has been stoic and stealth as usual. Few knew Arizona coach Jay Johnson was a candidate to become LSU’s baseball coach last summer until the late innings. Woodward’s first interview with him was on Zoom, so there was no chance of anyone seeing him.
The various lists of candidates to replace acting LSU coach Ed Orgeron that are out there and here may be no more reliable than Barney’s marksmanship. It should be noted that Saban’s name was not on the various coaching boards for the LSU job in 1999.
In the end, Woodward will likely find a great coach. He has done that throughout his athletic director career at Washington, where he hired football coach Chris Petersen from Boise State, at Texas A&M, where he hired football coach Jimbo Fisher from Florida State, and at LSU, where he hired women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey from Baylor and Johnson.
As far as we know at this time, there has been very little movement among the usual candidates for the LSU job.
Three of the top five candidates published here on Oct. 18 remain. The two out are former Washington coach Chris Petersen and Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin. Petersen is not interested in a return to coaching. Woodward wants a coach free of any off the field gossip and such, which has followed Kiffin. But Woodward is making a mistake there. Kiffin, 46, has grown up and would be an excellent hire.
Here are the two new entries to the board:
OKLAHOMA COACH LINCOLN RILEY: The most trending name of late. This would be a home run hire as Riley is just 38 and would be the first true offensive coordinator to be named LSU’s head coach ever. He is Kiffin without the baggage. Riley is also 54-8 since getting promoted from offensive coordinator with the Sooners to replace the retiring Bob Stoops in 2017. And he is 14-0 in November.
Oklahoma is 9-0 this season and ranked No. 8 in the CFP rankings. Riley has already taken the Sooners to the CFP playoffs three times. But why would he want LSU? He is already the No. 5 highest paid college football coach at $7.8 million a year, and if he can reach three playoffs at Oklahoma, he can win a national title at Oklahoma in the Big 12 or the SEC. So it could be a challenging selling job for Woodward.
MICHIGAN STATE COACH MEL TUCKER: Tucker, 49, continues to gain momentum in LSU circles after a slow start at the time Orgeron was dismissed effective after the season during the week leading up to the Florida game on Oct. 16. His Spartans are having a fantastic season and are ranked No. 3 in the CFP rankings at 8-0 on the season. Saban left Michigan State for LSU. Why not Tucker?
Well, he is only in his second season and just getting started. Saban had completed five. And Tucker does not have the one big problem Saban had at Michigan State, which was Michigan. Michigan State has defeated the Wolverines in 10 of the last 14 meetings.
Tucker is already No. 13 on the salary list at $5.5 million, and after this season, that could go up significantly – with or without Woodward’s checkbook. LSU could be seen as a lateral move in his mind, like Riley.
Here are three of the original five still in the mix:
OREGON COACH MARIO CRISTOBAL: Cristobal, 51, has the Ducks at No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings with a 7-1 record. Cristobal’s name was hot immediately as Orgeron was fired. That has quieted down somewhat, which is one reason why he remains on the list. Woodward likes to keep things quiet and lets coaching gossip take its own course while he works in the other direction. In other words, the quiet around Cristobal is loud.
Like Riley and Tucker, though, Cristobal may not be interested in what he could see as a lateral move. Woodward could change that lateral step to upwardly mobile, though, as Cristobal is just No. 26 in salary at $4.4 million. Or Woodward could convince Oregon to pay Cristobal more.
CINCINNATI COACH LUKE FICKELL: Fickell, 48, continues to have a magical season as the Bearcats are 8-0 and No. 6 in the College Football Poll rankings out of the American Athletic Conference. That is the highest ranking for a non-Power Five conference school in the history of the CFP rankings that began in 2014.
Fickell, like Cristobal, Tucker and Riley, is a no-nonsense coach with strong discipline, which would be refreshing to Woodward and much of the LSU community. LSU needs a strong disciplinarian and straight-laced coach after all the off field drama and disgrace regarding LSU’s weak discipline on former football players Drake Davis and Derrius Guice, who clearly appear to be sexual predators, along with the Title IX lawsuit against LSU regarding former coach Les Miles and to a lesser but still enabling extent, Orgeron.
Fickell is just at No. 45 on the coaching salary list at $3.4 million, and Cincinnati to LSU would clearly be a move up. This could happen. Woodward could also recoup some of his losses from the ridiculous $17 million buyout owed to Orgeron by starting Fickell a little on the lower side of the pay scale for starters.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE COACH BILLY NAPIER: An outlier candidate to be sure, but Napier could be that next great coach as soon as a major power has the guts to yank him from ULL and the Sun Belt. The reward for Woodward, if Napier can handle it, would be more of the genius tag. Woodward could also save significant money as Napier is at just $2 million a year. Napier is also only 42. Talk about stability for decades if everything works out. The risk for Woodward centers on whether or not Napier is ready to make a quantum leap in pressure and stress level. He has been in that arena as an assistant at Alabama and Clemson, but it is different at the head coach desk. Napier has the Cajuns at 7-1 this season after 11-3 and 10-1 marks in 2019 and ’20. That is 28-5 and counting, but how will that translate in the SEC West with Nick Saban making 70 look like the new 50?
In the end, that gold shipment rerouted and never made it to Mayberry, but Woodward will ship a great coach here. He will succeed either immediately or long term, even if it means Woodward gambles on someone whom the public may not accept right off.
Woodward’s best hires so far have been proven commodities. But the really good headhunters are the ones who can identify the next Saban before he is the next Saban. Former LSU chancellor Mark Emmert did that when he hired Saban. Woodward was working under Emmert then. He learned a lot, other than what a fiscally responsible buyout is.
Since Woodward is an LSU graduate and a Baton Rouge native unlikely to move again, this hire will be his most important. It will be his walking, talking, winning or losing legacy for the rest of his days in Louisiana.
He will get the right man regardless of cost, but just be careful on the buyout.