Ten years ago, Dabo Swinney began his first full season as Clemson’s head coach. This was, at the time, a controversial hire. Swinney went 4-3 in his first effort as an interim coach in 2008, and had never been more than a position coach. Yet, here in 2019, he’s one of the best coaches in all of college football, having brought a pair of national titles to the Tigers program. In hindsight, the hire was nothing short of genius.
Stories like Swinney’s are rare, but they are possible. And when the coaching carousel picks up in about five to six months, a success story like Swinney’s could be set into motion. With that in mind, I asked around the coaching fraternity and some fellow beat writers — a special thanks go to Football Scoop and Chris Vannini of The Athletic, among others — to rattle off some names who could be the next “it” coach.
There were no hard and fast guidelines — some coaches are known more for recruiting while others are more Xs and Os-based — but overall I stuck with younger coaches who still have a lot of room left to grow. As you’ll see, there are many coordinators listed, and with good reason. They’re earning the trust to call plays and lead either an offense or defense. However, there are some out-of-the-box examples as well. Obviously, there are more qualified candidates than the ones listed below, but these names should be ones to watch over the coming years.
Let’s get to it.
Alabama DC/ILB coach Pete Golding: This is a name who came up more than once among the people I spoke with. One person described Golding as having “Jimbo Fisher vibes.” That’s a strong connection seeing as Fisher was a one-time member of Nick Saban’s staff at LSU. Like a lot of others mentioned here, Golding’s worked his way up through the ranks, from Division II to the top program in all of college football. At 35, he’s leading the Crimson Tide defense after serving as the co-DC a season ago. Saban’s best assistants usually have no problem getting a head coaching job, and Golding’s turn is likely coming up soon.
Oklahoma co-OC/OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh: Lincoln Riley hasn’t built out much of a coaching tree yet, but if you had to put money down on the assistant who’ll branch out soon, Bedenbaugh’s a good bet. He’s a tremendous recruiter and developer of talent, having produced more than 10 All-American or all-conference players at Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona. He’s already been a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to college football’s top assistant, and turned the Sooners offensive line into one of the best over the past couple of seasons. He started at the NAIA level and moved up through Division II to where he is now, and it’s only a matter of time before someone hires him to be a head coach. He’s one of the most respected, well-rounded coaches out there.
Southern Miss co-OC/WR coach Scotty Walden: While we’re searching for the next Dabo, Walden has drawn more direct comparisons to Kliff Kingsbury as the next Air Raid disciple. As the offensive coordinator at Sul Ross State in 2012, his first year as a coach, Walden’s offense averaged 581.9 yards per game, which led the NCAA, and 48.8 points per game. Then in 2016, at age 25, Walden became the youngest NCAA coach at any level when he was asked to lead Division III program East Texas Baptist University, where he had been the offensive coordinator for the previous three seasons. In 2017, he went straight from Division III to Division I when he was hired by Southern Miss. This past offseason, he was promoted to co-offensive coordinator for the Golden Eagles. Walden’s a player-friendly coach, and a top offensive mind who’s ascended up the ladder in rare form. Now in his third season with Southern Miss, Walden’s gaining respect at the highest level of the game — and he’s not even 30.
Army QC assistant Matt Drinkall: This is reaching far into the bag, but Drinkall is an interesting name that came up. He’s a new offensive quality control assistant for Army, but that’s because he’s worked his way up from a successful stint at the small college level. In five years as the head coach at NAIA program Kansas Wesleyan, Drinkall accumulated a 42-17 record, including 40-8 in the final four years. He had a Chip Kelly-esque approach to his offense and practices, in that he kept things as simple as possible with the playbook while focusing on giving his players more time off during the week. The results were undeniable: the Coyotes scored 54 points per game and averaged more than seven yards per play during their undefeated regular season in 2018. You probably won’t hear Drinkall’s name much in the near future, but he’s one to keep in your back pocket for later down the road.
Oklahoma State OC Sean Gleeson: Cowboys coach Mike Gundy has a good track record with hiring offensive coordinators, but there’s palpable buzz around his latest hire. Gleeson comes to Stillwater from Princeton, where the Tigers had the highest-scoring offense in Ivy League history (470 points) during the 2018 season. In 2017, Gleeson coordinated a top-five offense in the FCS. Bill Connelly had a good breakdown of Gleeson’s Xs and Os, and like many creative minds, Gleeson is excellent at taking standard concepts and turning them upside-down. If Gleeson thrives in this promotion, it’s not going to be long before he gets a shot to run his own program.
Wisconsin DC/DBs coach Jim Leonhard: Wisconsin has had its share of excellent DCs, but Leonhard is among the fastest risers they’ve ever had on staff. He joined the Badgers in 2016 as a DBs coach, and was promoted to coordinator the following season after Justin Wilcox left to become the coach at Cal. In his first season, the Badgers finished third nationally in points per game allowed. Though they took a step back in 2018 in part due to injuries, this year’s defense could get back to form if Leonhard can coach up some new components at all three levels.
Cincinnati DC Marcus Freeman: Oddly enough, Freeman came on my radar during a 38-13 loss to UCF last November. It was, definitively, the Bearcats’ worst defensive performance of the season as it marked season-highs in points allowed and yards per play allowed (6.59). Watching that game, it was obvious Cincinnati was well-coached and initially had a decent plan in place, but God bless ’em, there’s just no coaching against speed. Overall, though, Cincy was the AAC’s best defense last year, and Freeman was briefly connected to a position coaching job at Ohio State, his alma mater, but opted to stay at Cincinnati with coach Luke Fickell. He’s risen up the coaching ladder within the last six years and has a bright future.
Notre Dame OC/TE coach Chip Long: He’s said he’s in no hurry to become a head coach, but in a way, that gives him a better opportunity to succeed when he does land that promotion because it means he’ll have jumped at the right job. Long has been connected — twice, actually — to a spot on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, which tells you that he’s a coveted assistant. Long’s decision to switch quarterbacks at Notre Dame last season paid major dividends as the Fighting Irish made an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Long only recently started calling plays in the last few years, but he’s averaged at least 30 points per game in each of those seasons.
Fresno State DC Bert Watts: A Jeff Tedford guy who’s been all over the place, from high school to the NFL and pretty much everywhere in between, rounds out the list. Watts is a young defensive mind who is finally starting to call plays at a high level of the game. His first season as Fresno State’s DC in 2018 saw the Bulldogs finish first in the Mountain West (and third nationally) in points per game allowed. He has a variety of experience at the FCS, Group of Five and Power Five levels, and Tedford has already promoted him to assistant head coach. It’s probably not going to be too long before “assistant” is removed from his title. This is low-key one of the real up-and-coming stars out west.