Report card time: Letter grades for every new FBS coach for 2023
A handful of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s new head coaches for 2023 look like can’t-miss hires right off the bat, including Luke Fickell at Wisconsin, Hugh Freeze at Auburn and Matt Rhule at Nebraska.
But beware: Three or four years down the road, what seemed like a home run at the introductory press conference can be revealed as a big swing and a miss.
Nebraska knows this all too well. Five years ago, the hire of former quarterback Scott Frost was greeted with widespread acclaim after his unbeaten final season at Central Florida. After the Frost era landed with a major thud, the Cornhuskers pray Rhule’s history of rebuilding downtrodden programs yields another impressive turnaround.
Hope springs eternal for every FBS program that believes its latest hire will pay off. On paper, there’s at least something to like about every newcomer, including the two head coaches who bring very limited experience to the table: Colorado’s Deion Sanders and Alabama-Birmingham’s Trent Dilfer have the name recognition without the coaching track record.
USA TODAY Sports evaluated the résumés of the new FBS coaches and gave each hire a letter grade based on immediate fit and chance for long-term success. The list begins with A grades for two Big Ten newcomers and ends with barely passing marks for two new additions in the American.
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Luke Fickell, Wisconsin
Wisconsin pulled off a surprising coup nabbing Fickell away from Cincinnati, which seemed even more likely to retain the former Ohio State assistant for the foreseeable future with next season’s move to the Big 12. But the Badgers were able to sell an opportunity to leap back into the Big Ten’s familiar territory with a strong foundation upon which to build a tough and physical team with an updated offensive scheme.
Matt Rhule, Nebraska
Rhule is an out-of-the-park triumph for Nebraska at another crucial juncture in the program’s history — the Cornhuskers have continued to fall down the Big Ten standings and need someone with Rhule’s impressive track record of quickly flipping losing teams into some of the hottest commodities in the country. As he did at Temple and Baylor, look for Rhule to build from the bottom up and bring Nebraska back to the forefront.
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Jeff Brohm, Louisville
Brohm is finally back at Louisville after years of being connected to the Cardinals’ opening. The former Purdue coach will install an attractive offensive system that should make the program a trendy landing spot for the region’s top skill talent. The only question is whether Louisville’s defense will rise to the challenge. Purdue never finished higher than seventh in the Big Ten in yards per play during his six-year tenure.
Tom Herman, Florida Atlantic
Two years after being let go at Texas, Herman resurfaces at a Group of Five spot that offers the opportunity to rebuild his once-impeccable reputation. Much like Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin before him, Herman could parlay three or four years with the Owls into a return to the Power Five. It has somehow been forgotten that Herman is 54-22 as a head coach with four ranked finishes in six seasons.
Hugh Freeze, Auburn
After winning at least eight games in each of his four years at Liberty, Freeze is back in the SEC at a program with wonderful resources and an insatiable desire to beat Alabama, win the conference and win the national championship. He’s equipped to bring the Tigers back into SEC contention but may need time to rebuild a roster decimated by attrition and overall mismanagement.
Jamey Chadwell, Liberty
What seems like a lateral move is more an indication of Chadwell betting on himself after a very strong stretch at Coastal Carolina. Like Freeze before him, Chadwell can use a successful run at Liberty as an entry point to the Power Five after failing to gain much traction for open positions across the past two hiring cycles. Combining the Flames’ returning talent and Chadwell’s offensive system could make for a potent mix.
Deion Sanders, Colorado
One of the most intriguing hires in Power Five history, Sanders has the reputation, recruiting draw and recent track record to reverse Colorado’s status as one of the worst programs in the country. He went 27-5 at Jackson State by compiling one of the most impressive rosters in the Championship Subdivision and should follow the same blueprint to make the Buffaloes appointment viewing beginning next September. The hire is a gamble, and like all gambles it could blow up in Colorado’s face. But the potential reward far outweighs the risk.
Eric Morris, North Texas
The former Texas Tech wide receiver and assistant coach knows the state as well as anyone, which should help North Texas regain a foothold in recruiting circles, and his deep knowledge of the Air Raid scheme guarantees the Mean Green will have one of the most prolific passing offenses in the Group of Five. His four-season run at Incarnate Word gives Morris enough experience to hit the ground running for a program that has reached six bowl games in the past seven seasons.
Troy Taylor, Stanford
There’s plenty to like about Taylor, who played at California. He was the offensive coordinator at Utah from 2017-18 and went 30-8 over three seasons as head coach of Sacramento State, losing only once in Big Sky Conference play. The concern is he’s not a deeply experienced head coach; given the state of roster development in the age of the transfer portal and NIL, there could be a very steep learning curve as he gets started at Stanford.
G.J. Kinne, Texas State
The 34-year-old has quickly climbed the ranks since entering coaching as an SMU graduate assistant in 2017. After serving as Hawaii’s offensive coordinator in 2020 and the co-coordinator at UCF in 2021, Kinne is currently 12-1 and in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs in his single season as Morris’ successor at Incarnate Word. Two things he’ll do from the start are improve Texas State’s offense and rekindle the program’s local recruiting connections. The previous staff signed just three in-state high school prospects across the last two cycles.
Barry Odom, UNLV
Odom’s four years of experience as the head coach at Missouri separates him from the Rebels’ two previous hires of a local high school coach, Tony Sanchez, and a longtime Pac-12 assistant, Marcus Arroyo. He’ll have the facilities and resources to turn this long-suffering Group of Five program into one of the top recruiting destinations in the Mountain West. But it’s vital that he hires an offensive coordinator capable of differentiating UNLV from the rest of the conference.
Ryan Walters, Purdue
Walters, 36, was a prime candidate at Colorado before the Buffaloes’ search zeroed in on Sanders. That could be Purdue’s gain. He was extremely successful as the defensive coordinator at Illinois, crafting a unit that paced a breakout year in 2022, and he brings along a deep knowledge of the Big Ten. While the most successful coaches in recent program history came with an offensive background, Walters’ defensive pedigree makes for an interesting addition should he maintain the Brohm-era scheme.
Kenny Dillingham, Arizona State
While just 32 years old, the Arizona State graduate has already been the offensive coordinator at Memphis, Auburn, Florida State and Oregon, though the Ducks gave him his first and only opportunity to be the primary play-caller. His connection to the state and program could help beef up the Sun Devils’ lackluster NIL efforts. But he walks into a quagmire of looming NCAA sanctions, inherits an unbalanced roster and will need to quickly salvage an unimpressive recruiting class. Would ASU have been better off hiring a coach with more experience under his belt?
Brent Key, Georgia Tech
Key earned the job by going 4-4 as the interim coach in 2022 and nearly leading Georgia Tech into bowl play. While there’s no questioning the overall fit — he played at Tech and spent two separate stints on staff — how Key fills key spots on his staff will determine his tenure. The good news? Key’s relatively cheap contract of $15 million over five years will give him a deeper salary pool for assistants, so he could surround himself with a very strong group of coaches.
Scott Satterfield, Cincinnati
Satterfield was a huge success at Appalachian State as the program transitioned to the FBS but had a middling run at Louisville, going 25-24 over four seasons before grabbing the lifeline offered by Fickell’s departure for Wisconsin. In the immediate future, his background on offense could mesh well with Cincinnati’s existing talent level and defensive focus. Long term, though, Satterfield has limited connections in the program’s backyard — a single year as Toledo’s quarterbacks coach in 2009 — and brings no recruiting connections in Texas, where Cincinnati needs to gain a slight foothold as members of the Big 12.
Lance Taylor, Western Michigan
Taylor has worked under two very respected head coaches, former Stanford coach David Shaw and former Notre Dame and current LSU coach Brian Kelly. He spent this past season as the offensive coordinator at Louisville. That the offense dropped from 10th nationally in yards per play in 2021 to 45th in 2022 isn’t a huge deal given how injuries scuttled quarterback Malik Cunningham’s season. But even though Taylor has earned a reputation as a tireless recruiter and strong developer of skill talent, that he’s a first-time head coach makes this hire hard to predict.
Kevin Wilson, Tulsa
Wilson sandwiched runs as an assistant at Oklahoma (2002-10) and Ohio State (2017-22) with a fairly successful tenure at Indiana, which ended with two bowl trips in a row before running aground amid multiple investigations into his mistreatment of players. There is no questioning the offensive credentials: Wilson’s 2008 offense at OU may be the best in FBS history and his stint at OSU yielded four Heisman Trophy finalists.
Tim Beck, Coastal Carolina
The former North Carolina State offensive coordinator is familiar with the region and has extensive Power Five experience, including another nine combined seasons as the coordinator at Nebraska, Ohio State and Texas. But the track record isn’t great: N.C. State ranks 114th nationally in yards per play this season after finishing 45th in 2021 and 73rd in 2020.
Biff Poggi, Charlotte
Poggi, 63, has limited on-field experience as a college coach from short stints decades ago at Brown, Temple and The Citadel. While he was a highly decorated high school coach in the Baltimore area and drew raves for his off-field work helping Michigan win back-to-back Big Ten championships in 2021 and 2022, his hire still represents a roll of the dice. After going for youth and energy with former coach Will Healy, the 49ers’ pendulum drifts to the opposite end of the spectrum in Poggi.
Trent Dilfer, Alabama-Birmingham
Dilfer is one of the most inexperienced and untested hires in FBS history. The former NFL quarterback spent only four years in coaching, all coming at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, before now being tapped to run a program set to encounter a much higher level of difficulty as new members of the American. While he’s had both feet in talent evaluation and development through his work with the Elite 11 quarterbacks series, Dilfer has to surround himself with proven college coaches and support staffers to not get swallowed up by this transition.
Alex Golesh, South Florida
After removing Jeff Scott following four wins and less than three seasons, USF went back to a similar sort of candidate with Golesh, who spent the past two seasons as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. Golesh has worked under some very good head coaches, including Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and the Volunteers’ Josh Heupel. Like Scott, he could promise to overhaul the Bulls’ offensive scheme and make a push to reestablish the program as a destination for the state’s deep talent pool. Experience as a head coach hasn’t guaranteed success at USF — Willie Taggart was a hit, but Skip Holtz and Charlie Strong were flops — but that Golesh has only two years of being a Power Five coordinator raises concerns about his ability to create a successful infrastructure on the heels of the Bulls winning just eight games in the past four seasons.