The Marshall Thundering Herd made the controversial decision to move away from former Head Coach Doc Holliday this week, garnering shock and some reprimand from national college football prognosticators.
While the move is certainly a risk given Holliday’s steady and sustained success, the gamble comes before and not after what Marshall administrators seemed to view as an inevitable decline under Holliday’s watch. Sinking average annual attendance and a complete meltdown in the final two months of play before Holliday’s contract expired certainly didn’t do him any favors.
Holliday’s poor performance on the recruiting trail over the past two years certainly didn’t help his cause either as Marshall finished 13th in Conference USA recruiting rankings last year and are on track to finish in the bottom five this February. Marshall clearly felt that Holliday didn’t deserve a new contract given the tepid trajectory of the program which is, in my opinion, a fair stance given the Thundering Herd’s storied history and and lofty expectations.
I’ll be the first to admit that firing a winning coach can backfire tremendously, but if Marshall hires the right coach then they could dominate C-USA and work their way into the annual New Year’s Six discussion. The Thundering Herd have the strongest football tradition in Conference USA, boast some of the strongest fan support in the Group of Five, and can compete with the best of the G5 in terms of development facilities.
Marshall is teed up for success but they have to nail this hire. Settling for their current defense coordinator with a 22-48 record as a head coach won’t cut it. Mike Hamrick, the Herd’s Director of Athletics, will need to find a coach who can entrench and expand the program’s recruiting pipelines, build an explosive offense, and foster strong ties within the community. Here are five guys who I think could fit the billing.
Phil Longo - Offensive Coordinator @ North Carolina
The Mike Leach disciple has done it again. Longo made the jump to another FBS program in 2019 and again saw resounding success as an offensive coordinator. After leading explosive offenses at Sam Houston State and Ole Miss, Longo joined Mack Brown at UNC once the Matt Luke experiment at Ole Miss began to run its course.
Once Longo took the reigns at UNC the Tar Heels became the nation’s 32nd highest-scoring offense. Through 2020 UNC is currently ranked 10th in the nation in points per game at 41.7.
Also the Tar Heels' quarterback coach, Longo started Sam Howell as a true freshman in 2019 and developed him into a 2021 Heisman favorite. Howell passed for 3,586 yards on 68% passing in 2020, tossing 30 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions.
The major knock on Longo is that he hasn’t been a head coach since two disappointing seasons at La Salle in 2004 and 2005. 16 years removed from that stint, I think Longo has more than earned a shot to run an FBS program.
Brian Johnson - Offensive Coordinator @ Florida
Another offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Brian Johnson has also developed a Heisman candidate in Kyle Trask. While Longo is a veteran in the coaching ranks, Brian Johnson is one of the hottest young risers in the game. The 33-year-old interviewed for the Boise State job recently and will no doubt have many suitors over the next few years.
Johnson’s coaching ties are extremely impressive for his age. The former Utah quarterback played for Urban Meyer before working with Kyle Whittingham, Tom Herman, and Dan Mullen.
Kyle Trask isn’t the only high profile quarterback Johnson has coached up. He’s also credited with turning Dak Prescott into an NFL star and developing D’Eriq King into a monster when the two were at Houston. Johnson’s time in Florida could help Marshall’s efforts to recruit the Sunshine State, a key recruiting ground for the program.
Miami is ranked 13th in points per game (39.8) and Kyle Trask has passed for 4,283 yards on 68.9% passing. The first-round NFL draft prospect threw 43 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions in 2020.
Rhett Lashlee - Offensive Coordinator @ Miami
Also a young offensive coordinator, Lashlee has a lot in common with Johnson. While Johnson has spent most of his career learning under Dan Mullen, Lashlee was tutored by Gus Malzahn.
Lashlee is currently revitalizing Miami’s offense, but he has also had pretty resounding success at Auburn, UConn, and SMU. Johnson certainly has the edge over Lashlee in the quarterback development department but Lashlee has much more coaching experience which may have him more prepared to make the jump to head ball coach.
This year Lashlee was named a Broyles Award finalist for the third time in his career. It’s clear he’s one of the top coaches in the game as he boasts one of the most unpredictable and creative offensives in college football.
Lance Leipold - Head Coach @ Buffalo
Marshall fans should be very familiar with this guy as he just beat the Thundering Herd in the Camellia Bowl despite the Bulls’ star running back Jaret Patterson opting out of the contest. Leipold’s Bulls have finished first or second in the MAC East in each of the past three seasons and have won bowl games in their last two seasons.
Leipold made the extremely rare jump from Division III to FBS after going a shocking 109-6 at Wisconsin-Whitewater. While Leipold needed a few years to get his recruit into the Buffalo program, the Bulls are clicking on all cylinders now.
The Thundering Herd could probably double Leipold’s modest salary and provide many more football resources than Buffalo, however poaching an FBS head coach can always be difficult without a cabal of wealthy donors. Leipold’s buyout dropped from $850,000 to $600,000 on January 1st, however that would require Leipold to notify Buffalo of his intent to pursue opportunities outside of the program which could be risky on his end. If Leipold does not notify Buffalo of his intent to pursue other jobs before meeting with Marshall then Leipold would be on the hook for nearly $2,000,000.
Pete Shinnick - Head Coach @ West Florida
If Marshall can’t poach Leipold, why not follow in Buffalo’s foot steps and hire an overachieving coach from a lower division?
Unlike some of the previous candidates on this list, Shinnick has been a head coach since 1999 when he took over the Azusa Pacific program in the NAIA. Shinnick compiled a 53-22 record there, making five appearances in the NAIA playoffs in seven years.
Following his success at Azusa Pacific, Shinnick made the jump to NCAA Division II to re-start the then-dormant UNC Pembroke program. While Shinnick didn’t make a lot of noise in the postseason at Pembroke, he boasted a 50-24 record over seven years and reached a #8 ranking in the Division II national polls.
In 2013, Shinnick once again chose to jump start a new program, this time taking the reigns at West Florida. Shinnick would reach new heights at UWF following a few years building the program off the field. After a 5-6 record in UWF’s inaugural season, Shinnick shocked the nation after reaching the Division II National Championship in 2017. After a 6-5 rebuilding year in 2018, Shinnick and his Argonauts would return to finish business in 2019 with their first Division II championship in just their fourth season of play.