College Football Coaching Carousel First Impressions, From Hugh Freeze To Trent Dilfer

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When Nebraska hired Scott Frost after the 2017 college football season, I thought the Huskers hit a home run. Five years later, they are hiring another coach because Frost was a complete failure as head coach of his alma mater.

This is not to say I’m always wrong because, let’s face it, I’m normally right.

But it is an illustration of how sometimes everyone can get it wrong. Because everyone loved the Frost hire at Nebraska. Everyone made a confused face when Bryan Harsin was hired at Auburn. And everyone was right to be confused. Hindsight is a powerful thing. But screw hindsight. Here are my snap judgments on every CFB hire up to this point.  

Auburn: Hugh Freeze | Judgment: Makes Sense 

I applaud the delightfully rogue nature of the Auburn football program. Only the Tigers could try to sell an attempted coup of a head coach over a consensual affair in one year while also selling the hiring of a coach that used another SEC school’s resources to procure prostitutes the next. It’s the “Loveliest Little Village on the Plains” for a reason.

I don’t care about Hugh Freeze’s personal errors in judgment and think the guy can coach offensive football. Auburn shouldn’t either. It’s just hilarious when balanced against what was taking place earlier this year. The ceiling for the Auburn hire was always Lane Kiffin. He passed. The floor was always Hugh Freeze. He would have crawled on broken glass from Jerry Falwell U to lead a War Eagle chant. The truth of this ceiling and floor is there may not be a big separation between Freeze and Kiffin. Freeze won big at Ole Miss, recruited bigger, and famously beat the great Nick Saban twice. Now he gets to lead Saban’s archrival.

This is a solid hire for Auburn and one that should pay immediate dividends with a fun and fast-paced offense.  

Wisconsin: Luke Fickell | Judgment: Winner, Winner, Bratwurst Dinner 

I spent the last two months believing Wisconsin’s coaching search was only a formality in order to eliminate the interim tag from Jim Leonhard and name him the full-time head coach. But it has been made clear that Wisconsin AD Chris McIntosh was thinking much bigger and wasn’t thrilled with Leonhard’s 4-3 record after stepping in for Paul Chryst. So McIntosh went out and made the best hire of this cycle so far.

Luke Fickell is a terrific coach and is responsible for getting Cincinnati from the AAC to the CFB Playoff and had a big hand in getting them to the Big-12. In six seasons, Fickell won 76% of his games and guided the Bearcats to bowl eligibility in all but one season. Mix that with his hard-nosed Midwest style and the former D-lineman is a perfect cultural fit in Wisconsin.  

Nebraska: Matt Rhule | Judgment: The Best They Could Get

Don’t let the failed Carolina Panthers experiment fool you. Matt Rhule is a really good college coach. And he has done it all. Over the course of Rhule’s college coaching career, he has coached LBs, D-Line, Special Teams, Running Backs, QBs, O-Line, and served as both an Offensive Coordinator and Recruiting Coordinator. He led Temple to a pair of 10-win seasons (Temple!) and resurrected Baylor from near death after the sexual assault scandal within their program.

Rhule is comfortable with a reclamation program and there’s no bigger reclamation than the Huskers. Nebraska is a proud, historic program that hasn’t gone to a bowl since 2016. Every FBS program has been bowling during Nebraska’s absence from the holiday season. With the transfer portal and a bad Big Ten West, I think Rhule will end that bowl-less streak in Year One and give Husker fans some much needed hope and autumn joy.  

Arizona State: Kenny Dillingham | Judgment: Why Not? 

The Sun Devils program took a big swing when they hired Herm Edwards. It backfired. It happens. They now find themselves in a bind with the NCAA and in need of long-term planning and loyalty to that plan. In walks Arizona State’s own Kenny Dillingham.

The 32-year-old becomes the first Power 5 head coach born in the 90s. This officially made me feel old. He also knows offense and is well-positioned to lead Arizona State for the long haul. And that’s what this program needs right now. Someone who will weather an early storm without seeking another job and get Arizona State to the other side. (I even mentioned Dillingham for Arizona State in a previous coaching column.)

Georgia Tech: Brent Key | Judgment: Georgia Tech Must Be Broke 

I don’t get it. Brent Key seems like a great guy and is incredibly loyal to his alma mater. And he did a nice job going 4-4 after Geoff Collins got fired in late September. But Tech is a program in the heart of one of the most talent-rich areas in the country and plays in a conference begging for anyone to step up and challenge Clemson. The Yellow Jackets also had a chance to bring Deion Sanders back to Atlanta and make Georgia Tech relevant again. Instead, Tech hired Brent Key.

It’s as if Tech is admitting it can’t and won’t compete for football championships. I don’t understand that mentality. But here’s to them battling it out with Wake Forest for recruits.  

UAB: Trent Dilfer | Judgment: Wow 

I’m adding one “Group of 5” hire to this list because I was shocked when I saw the news of Trent Dilfer leaving Lipscomb Academy in Nashville to take the job at UAB. The surprise was, in part, because I’m calling Lipscomb’s state championship game on TV on Thursday and also because UAB is thinking outside the box in a way that Georgia Tech should have been.

Dilfer has a lot of football street cred. He won a Super Bowl as QB of the Baltimore Ravens, crushed it as an analyst on both FOX and ESPN, played a major role in QB development with the “Elite 11” program, and turned a Nashville private high school into an absolute force in short order. He will also bring much needed publicity and energy to a program in an urban area that’s surrounded by Alabama and Auburn fans. I love this move for UAB and Dilfer.  

Written by Chad Withrow

Chad Withrow hosts OutKick 360 and has covered Nashville sports, statewide, and SEC college issues and headlines since 2004.

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