The 2016 season has come and gone, and with National Signing Day now behind us, there won’t be much in way of news between now and the spring games.
How does C-USA stand out in the meantime? And a better question, how does C-USA stand out once we get to the actual season?
The obvious answer is of course, winning, but even that didn’t result in much extra press coverage, despite WKU finishing 11-3 and ODU close behind at 10-3. When you’re an underdog, it’s not just winning that gets you where you need to go, it’s press and it’s fame.
When Lane Kiffin was named the new head football coach of Florida Atlantic earlier this offseason, it was cause for surprise. And not just in Power Five circles— who had likely never given FAU much thought before— but within G5 circles as well, including this very site. Lane Kiffin? Head coach of the Owls? How did this happen?
We covered it extensively at the time, and while Kiffin may or may not succeed, hiring a name bigger than your program is hardly a new phenomenon in Division I.
While the national media trips over itself to make Kiffin the big story (and will again, as September approaches), there are 13 other coaches worthy of your time and ours that are also putting just as much work into the job every day, and are worth you remembering their names. What follows is a list of not necessarily what we expect from them, but simply now famous they are, headed into spring games. For better or worse.
Section 1 - The Household Names
1) Lane Kiffin, FAU
The name you already know, and already a former head coach at Tennessee and USC, as well as a brief stint for the Oakland Raiders, Kiffin boasts a 35-21 head coaching record at the college level. Not too shabby by any margin, but not quite what USC was looking for in the long run. Still, his national cache coming off the offensive coordinator job at Alabama means everyone knows his name, though whether that turns into actual wins remains to be seen.
2) Butch Davis, FIU
In 2017, Butch Davis will coach his first college football game since 2010, his last season with North Carolina. After spending the ensuing years as both a special assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later a broadcaster, the Golden Panthers pulled him out of retirement (and back into a much more public eye) at a reported $1 million annual salary. This is a big name and a big get for C-USA, automatically making the Florida C-USA schools not necessarily the teams to beat, but certainly the teams to watch.
Section 2 - On the Verge
3) Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
You could almost put Holtz in the above section if you wanted, as he’s not quite a household name everywhere, but certainly is on the east coast, where he was Assistant Head Coach at South Carolina, put East Carolina on the map as head coach from 2005-09, before not quite meeting expectations at South Florida from 2010-2012.
Whatever buzz Holtz lost in Florida, he’s earned it back in multitudes at Louisiana Tech, going 31-22 over four seasons and finishing with nine wins each of the last three. If he can finally get that conference title (he’s reached the title game twice), or even get that 10th win, the national media might start to take more notice. As it stands, after years of WAC obscurity, Holtz put the Bulldogs back on the map singlehandedly— well, okay, with the help of a great staff and a great roster— and that’s something to take note of. Oh, and he’s the son of College Football Hall of Fame inductee Lou Holtz, so that doesn’t hurt.
4) David Bailiff, Rice
How do you know that name? Probably as an Associate Head Coach and later Defensive Coordinator with TCU (2001-03) before taking the top job at Texas State (2004-06). Taking over at Rice in 2007, Bailiff immediately brought the program up to speed, tying for division title in his second year (losing the tiebreaker to Tulsa), and coaching the team to its first bowl victory since 1954.
What fans are hoping of Lane Kiffin at FAU, Bailiff has already done at Rice. Not every year has been spectacular (Rice finished tied for last in their division in 2016), but Bailiff has won and won big, while not abandoning the school for greener pastures. The Owls won the conference in 2013 and despite his most recent season, this makes Bailiff a name that many already know.
5) Doc Holliday, Marshall
Coaching the Thundering Herd since 2010, Holliday has put up four winning seasons in seven at the helm. His squad won the C-USA title in 2014, and coaching for one of the more famous institutions in the conference doesn’t hurt. Also not mentioned enough? Dude has the same name as one of Wyatt Earp’s friends, which right there is name recognition other folks on this list cannot buy.
Still, Holliday underperformed in 2016, finishing 3-9 overall and 2-6 in conference. It’s tough to put a name to a face without victories to reference, and Marshall is struggling. Consecutive bowls from 2013-15 went a long way, but where Bailiff has been suggested for other higher-profile jobs, Holliday seems to still be content staying in Huntington eight years in.
6) Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
Rick Stockstill was a surprise hire by the Blue Raiders back in 2006, having never before been a head coach at any level. In the ensuing seasons, Stockstill has risen to the challenge admirably, winning 10 games in 2008, and seeing the team bowl-eligible every year since joining C-USA in 2013.
Despite the success, Stockstill has yet to really break onto the national scene, thanks in no small part to a lack of an appearance in the C-USA title game. Try as he might, WKU always has their number (except in the years Marshall does), and in truth that’s what has him a slot behind Bailiff. That could all change in a year— any year— but with the explosive offense and plethora of points scored in Murfreesboro, this is another name the country should probably know, even if they don’t. Yet.
7) Bill Clark, UAB
This is a tricky one, as Clark hasn’t exactly had nationwide success, but his name was certainly in the papers/blogosphere/sports media outlets when he took the struggling UAB Blazers to a 6-6 record and the cusp of a bowl berth before the university unceremoniously cut the program after the 2014 season.
Wherever there was a UAB story (and there were a lot of them), Clark’s name was right there with them, as he chose to stay with the university despite a lack of job security in the ensuing years. The gamble paid off, and when the Blazers finally reinstated their football program, Clark was right there to help rebuild what he’d started. Come September, all eyes will be on him, as UAB takes its new spot in the C-USA West division.
Section 3 - On the Verge of Being On the Verge
8) Frank Wilson, UTSA
Perhaps you’ve been reading up on how the recruiting classes have been going in Texas, and if you have, you surely know the name Frank Wilson already. A name also on the rise with that of the program— the UTSA Roadrunners— Wilson just pulled in the best recruiting class in school history and ran circles around his G5 Texas brethren (minus Houston).
Previous experience aside, his name would’ve been a lot lower if we’d done this list a year ago. But a year from now, however, who can say? Between the Alamodome and the wide-open C-USA West division, Wilson’s stock seems to only be going up.
9) Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
Unlike Wilson, Hopson’s stock is going the other way— though it may only be temporary. A wunderkind at the FCS level, Hopson took over underachiever Alcorn State in 2012 and won 9 games in just his second year, won 10 games and the division in his third, and a spot in the FCS playoffs in his fourth. A jump to the FBS level seemed like a no-brainer, and while 7-6 is nothing to be ashamed of, it was still a step back from the previous year in Hattiesburg.
Had the success been immediate, this might have catapulted Hopson immediately onto the national stage of “G5 coaches to watch.” But with the table apparently set for him by the previous years 9-5 team, Hopson had some trouble adjusting and gave away some winnable games. With the support of a school like USM, Hopson could easily turn this around, or he could coast at 7 wins a year and obscurity forever. After only about a year on the job, the jury is still out.
10) Seth Littrell, North Texas
Getting a bump from the one-year turnaround in Denton, Littrell isn’t higher on the list just due to the current downswing of the program. Sure, the Mean Green have been suiting up for over 100 seasons, but since winning the Sun Belt every year from 2001-04, UNT doesn’t have much to show for it, particularly since joining C-USA.
Taking a team that was 1-11 the year before he arrived, and going to a bowl in his first year, that’s an impressive feat by any standard, but if UNT isn’t on any kind of national radar, then neither is a 5-win season. It’ll take a conference title or a more impressive non-conference win to really put Littrell in the spotlight, but for now we’ll just enjoy watching his offensive prowess in one of the best stadiums in the conference.
11) Sean Kugler, UTEP
Why is Kugler below Littrell? Well, wins mean visibility and Kugler just didn’t have many in 2016. Or 2015. Or 2014 or 2013 either.
Despite looking like a guy you would not want to meet in a dark alley, Kugler is 18-31 at UTEP over four seasons. Some might say this was bad enough to get him the boot, but nope, he’ll be back next year, and is apparently well liked despite the continued struggles of the program. After three years as offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kugler was supposed to be a top hire for the Miners, but in four seasons there hasn’t been much noise, causing Kugler to fade into obscurity like every other coach from UTEP, post-Don Haskins.
Section 4 - Literally Who?
12) Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Nothing against the Monarchs, who had an exceptional season in 2016 that saw a 10-3 record and a bowl berth in the Bahamas. But who is Bobby Wilder? Where did he come from? Did he have a career as a pop star in the 1990’s?
In order: coach at ODU since 2007, FCS and no, that’s ridiculous. The Monarchs hired Wilder before they were anywhere near FBS, plucking him from FCS Maine— where he had served as OC from 2000-06— to help start their program from scratch. Hardly a famous name or famous face, and it’s just this season that ODU finally peeked its head up from FCS obscurity. The program has been a full member of C-USA since 2013, and most fans fully expected Charlotte-level growing pains (more on them in a moment). ODU has grown quickly, so expect to see Wilder’s name in the press more often as their success continues.
13) Mike Sanford Jr, WKU
Sorry Hilltoppers, you’re an incredible program and you just can’t seem to stop winning, but prior to this offseason the only fans who could name Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator of two years would be fans of Notre Dame.
Judgments on Notre Dame’s recent fortunes (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, Mike Sanford was an encouraging choice due to his Power Five(ish) background, coming off a one-year stint as OC at Boise State prior to Notre Dame. Prior to that, he coached running backs and QBs at Stanford from 2011-2013. In 2010 he was— wait for it— QB coach at WKU. While it’s nice to see things come full circle, Sanford has yet to make any kind of name for himself at the national level. We fully expect that to change come September.
14) Brad Lambert, Charlotte
We expect big things from you in 2017, Charlotte. We genuinely do, and as Underdogs we were all, 100% of us, once upon a time in your shoes. The 49ers put up better numbers than expected this past season and finally settled into a nice rhythm during conference play. But how does Brad Lambert put himself on the map? Answer: By putting Charlotte on the map.
Lambert was a graduate assistant for Oklahoma 1988-1989 and parlayed that into an assistant gig at Marshall from 1990-1995. Another half-decade at Georgia saw him move up from assistant to defensive backs coach, before heading to Wake Forest where he again worked up from assistant to defensive coordinator from 2001-2010, before finally being named Charlotte’s first head football coach in 2011. In short: The guy does the work.
To make a name for himself at the national level will take a little more doing, but his 4-8 record last year was a step in the right direction and his best yet in C-USA. A name to watch, yes... but can’t that be said about every last name here?