Missouri fired Barry Odom on Saturday, but you can be sure MU athletic director Jim Sterk began looking at potential candidates before then.
Sterk, who arrived in 2016 shortly after Odom took the job, has not hired many coaches over his stops as an AD at Portland State, Washington State and San Diego State. He made two head football hires over that span from 1995-2016 — Rocky Long at SDSU in 2011 and Paul Wulff at WSU in 2007.
Sterk promoted Long from SDSU’s defensive coordinator position. Wulff was hired away from Eastern Washington, a move that proved disastrous. His record in four years at Washington State was 9-40. Sterk left WSU a year before Wulff was fired.
Of course, none of Sterk’s earlier stops are on the Southeastern Conference stage. So his search for Missouri’s next coach, more than the others, puts him in the spotlight like never before.
Unlike the past four years with Odom, who was hired by one of his predecessors, Mack Rhoades, Sterk will be tied much closer to the success of the next Tigers coach. The new coach will be Sterk’s guy.
So, who might that be? There’s a good chance Sterk will look to hire someone with previous head coaching experience. He said Saturday during a press conference that previous head coaching experience is not an absolute necessity, but is “something that would be very helpful.”
Someone with an offensive background might also entice Sterk after the struggles Missouri had on offense in the second half of the season. Odom was a defensive coach without any prior head coaching experience.
“I think it would depend on the candidate,” Sterk said. “Obviously, people get excited about scoring a lot of points. I hired a coach at San Diego State who is completely the opposite. You talk to Rocky Long, and 17 points is a lot of points. So I think it depends on the type of person you have and the experience you have. But it is something that may play into it. I think experience and having success is more important, whether it’s offense or defense.”
Whoever takes the job will have a few difficulties to deal with. Now that the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee has denied Missouri’s appeal of sanctions announced last January, several penalties remain in place. Those include a 5% decrease in scholarships and a seven-week ban on recruiting communication and all off-campus recruiting contacts. There is also a 12.5% decrease in official visits.
The new coach won’t have to deal with a postseason ban, though. The Tigers are sitting out this postseason, a major boost for Sterk being able to convince the next coach to take the job.
“I know we are going to have a lot of interest,” Sterk said. “We already have a lot of interest. We will be looking to hire the right person.”
So, who might Mr. Right be? Here are some potential candidates Missouri might consider or who might be worth considering, in no particular order:
1. Memphis coach Mike Norvell
Norvell is likely going to be a favorite for several head coaching jobs, namely Arkansas and Florida State. He has not had a losing season in four years at Memphis, the latest an 11-1 season and a berth in next week’s American Athletic Conference championship game. Prior to Memphis, he served as offensive coordinator at Arizona State. That offensive background combined with head coaching experience will make him an enticing option for the Tigers. Missouri might not be able to afford him, though, if multiple schools bid for his services.
Sterk was asked whether Missouri can or will pay a coach more than Odom, and Sterk said salary is something that can increase depending on level of experience.
“If we can go out there and hire someone with a lot of experience, then we are going to look at that,” Sterk said. “We are going to look at coaches that have been successful, so there will be a range, if you will, of what we are able to pay someone.”
2. Boise State coach Bryan Harsin
Harsin is another coach who has had plenty of success in his current spot. He has won at least nine games in each of his six seasons leading the Broncos. So far this season, he has put together an 11-1 record, and Boise State will play in the Mountain West title game next Saturday. He is a former Boise State quarterback, so he might not want to leave his alma mater for just any job. But if he is looking for an SEC opportunity, Missouri would provide that. Perhaps more importantly, the Tigers could pay him about double what he is making: Harsin was set to make $1.75 million this season, according to the USA Today NCAA salary database. Odom’s 2019 salary was $3.05 million.
3. Louisiana coach Billy Napier
Napier is an intriguing candidate. His two years at Louisiana have been solid with a 16-9 record, and he has a background that could interest Sterk. He served as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator prior to arriving in Louisiana. But it’s the coaching tree from which he comes that might intrigue Sterk. Napier worked under Nick Saban at Alabama when he coached the Crimson Tide’s receivers from 2013-16, and he was an offensive analyst there in 2011. Prior to that, he worked with another name you might recognize: Dabo Swinney. Napier was Clemson’s offensive coordinator from 2009-2010.
Sterk said that Power 5 and SEC experience are definitely benefits in coaching candidates.
“I’ve said before, the SEC is not for the faint of heart, so you have to know what you’re getting into,” Sterk said. “So, I think experience in the SEC and obviously competitiveness at a high level is important. Not an absolute, but it’s pretty important to have it and understand what you are getting into in this league.”
4. Appalachian State coach Eliah Drinkwitz
Drinkwitz is a former member of Harsin’s staff, and he has had success since then. In Drinkwitz’ first season as coach of Appalachian State, he led the Mountaineers to an 11-1 record. He previously worked as N.C. State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after a stint as offensive coordinator at Boise State. Drinkwitz’ previous stops have included Arkansas State and Auburn, where he was a quality control person from 2010-2011. Drinkwitz probably is not a favorite for the Missouri job, but he’s an intriguing option who has the previous head coaching experience for which Sterk will likely look. He’s young, though, at 36. Then again, age might just be a number in the coaching game these days. Minnesota hired P.J. Fleck when he was 35, and that has worked out quite well.
5. Tulane coach Willie Fritz
Fritz has no shortage of connections to the region. He started his football career as a defensive back for Pittsburg State before working as a student assistant. Then, after a stop at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in Kansas as an assistant, he later coached Central Missouri from 1997-2009. He has coached at Tulane since 2016, and is set to head to a second consecutive bowl game. This might not be the flashiest of hires, but Fritz is familiar with the area and has won at every level.
6. Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin
Here’s another coach who has worked under Saban and could be a candidate. During his three seasons at Florida Atlantic, Kiffin has a 24-13 record. It probably isn’t likely, but it might be at least worth looking into for Sterk. Kiffin has no shortage of head coaching experience, having coached at USC and Tennessee after two years in the NFL with the Raiders. He might be looking to get back into the SEC. Maybe Sterk looks to see if Missouri could be that spot.
7. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch
Grinch might be a bit of a dark horse candidate. He doesn’t have an offensive background and he does not have previous college head coaching experience, so he is likely not at the top of Sterk’s list. But Grinch has no shortage of quality coaching experience. If the name sounds familiar, it should. Grinch started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Missouri. He later returned to coach the Tigers’ safeties from 2012-2014 under Gary Pinkel, his uncle. Since then, Grinch has served as a defensive coordinator at Washington State under Mike Leach, Ohio State under Urban Meyer and Oklahoma under Lincoln Riley this season. That’s quite a coaching tree from which to have grown.
The Missourian’s Camille McManus contributed to this report.