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UCF Knights Coaching Search and Candidates: An Initial Reaction

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With George O'Leary resigning, the way is open for someone new to coach the Knights.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

It's an unusual circumstance to resign twice in rapid succession. Two weeks ago, George O'Leary resigned from his gig as UCF's interim athletic director to focus on his work as head coach of the football team. Now, O'Leary has resigned the head coach gig in the wake of a brutal loss to the Houston Cougars.

The Knights now sit at 0-8, with no reason to believe that the team will notch a win in what remains of the season.

Understandably, UCF fans are eager to turn to the question of who will occupy the head coaching job on a non-interim basis (QB Coach Danny Barrett holds the reins for now). At this early stage, most of the musings at this point are necessarily speculative.

So let's speculate, shall we?

Danny Barrett. If you're the interim guy, you've got to be at least mentioned in the conversation. Still, it seems unlikely that Barrett would get the nod. This feels more like a "caretaker" choice, similar to the Knights last interim coach, Alan Gooch (Gooch presided over two losses following the firing of Mike Kruczek in 2003, and was replaced by O'Leary in 2004). Barrett is in his fifth year on the UCF staff, having coached the RBs for four years and the QBs this season.

It would not be a flashy hire, but it wouldn't be outlandish either. Barrett has head coaching experience in the CFL with the Saskatchewan Roughriders (six years worth of it). Promoting internally would be consistent with what has often felt like a philosophy of internal loyalty at UCF. Still, it's difficult to believe that the Knights could make enough noise with Barrett at the helm to give him a serious crack at being hired as head coach.

Brent Key.

[Update: UCF has now confirmed that Brent Key will not be the next head coach. And UCF will need to pay him $700k over twenty-four months as a result. Sign].

Nope. Nope. Nope. If you're on staff and don't get named the interim guy, you're not going to get the job on a permanent basis either. And in some ways, it's too bad. Brent Key was clearly being groomed as the George O'Leary successor, and had been tremendously loyal to GOL and the UCF program. It was obvious going into this season following much staff shuffling that this was going to be Key's audition (a fact reinforced when GOL accepted the interim AD job, necessarily requiring more delegation). And despite many circumstances outside of Key's control (i.e., the terrible injury luck), that audition was a flop. Having tethered his star to GOL's ultimately ended up being the wrong call for Key.

It would be nice if loyalty, passion, and sacrifice were enough. Unfortunately, they are not. Thanks for your service Brent Key. Next man up.

Tom Herman, Justin Fuente, Matt Rhule. No, no, and no. As long as we're eliminating candidates, let's get this out of the way (because we know someone out there is curious): none of the ascendant coaching stars in the AAC are coming over. I know the Knights owned the AAC last year and in 2013 (winning the inaugural championship outright in 2013 and sharing that honor in 2014). And I get that UCF stomped Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl in 2013. But these would still be fundamentally lateral moves to a team in disarray. These are not options.

Mario Cristobal. I am firmly convinced that the Knights should jump on Cristobal. Hiring a position coach (Cristobal is the offensive line coach at Bama) sounds strange only to someone who has not followed Cristobal's career. He's (relatively) young, and certainly energetic, which presents a break from what has felt like the aging and decay of the GOL era this season.

Cristobal was the head coach at FIU from 2007-2012. He was the program architect, taking the Golden Panthers to back-to-back bowl games and a milestone road win at Louisville in a year when the Cardinals would go on to be Big East co-champs. After a bit of backsliding, FIU tossed him out in what was an undoubtedly rash move.

He's a Florida guy, which is appealing for a program that has seldom succeeded in capitalizing on Florida recruiting. In addition to his experience at FIU, Cristobal was a player at UM and also had two head coaching stints with the Canes as well. Cristobal is a heck of a recruiter and also has a track record of identifying and pursuing the kind of under-recruited guys who can become stars (T.Y. Hilton, anyone?).

Here is where I won't even pretend to be dispassionate: Cristobal is the guy the Knights need. Let's go and get him.

And let's do it before UM does.

Lane Kiffin or your favorite mercenary of choice. With his reputation, former Oakland Raiders head coach, Vols head coach, and Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin inevitably will be a name tossed out there by the commentariat. But hiring Kiffin (or any other candidate who would obviously view the job as a stepping stone) seems inconsistent with the UCF approach, which seems to be focused on a head coach who would stay at the program for a significant period of time (thus the hire of a disgraced GOL in 2004, and the unsuccessful attempt to anoint Key his successor).

That's not to say it's a bad approach necessarily, just not what I would predict UCF to do. Heck, Houston has done pretty well with hiring guys who have gotten hot and moved on (Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin, and presumably Tom Herman will follow this pattern). But consistency has seemed more appealing to the UCF athletic department.

Will Muschamp or Al Golden? Heck, when I started writing this post, Al Golden still had a job. It's natural to speculate about the two most recent head football coaches at more established programs in the state of Florida.

Muschamp's tenure at Florida was absolutely dire and characterized by stellar defenses and an offense that played not to lose. He's a great recruiter and a tremendous defensive coach. If he learned from his mistakes at UF, he could make a very fine head coach (and I expect him to get the chance again). Would he want to leave the DC role at Auburn after a year to be a head coach again? Could UCF make a serious play for him? It would be an interesting hire, but would probably leave Knights fans with some misgivings.

Al Golden: no. Please no. While there's some inevitable hey-he-was-the-head-coach-at-a-big-Florida-program appeal, he failed to accomplish anything of note at UM. Golden failed to win enough home state recruiting battles, sometimes seeming to look too much to the northeast (sound familiar, Knights fans?).

Ultimately, it's hard to guess where UCF might ultimately go with its coaching search. It's just been so long since the Knights were looking to hire a head coach, and the program has progressed far beyond where it was at that time.

For now, Knights fans are eager to have something to talk about besides this disastrous, winless season.