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Six coaching candidates who could replace Dana Holgorsen at Houston

Houston begins its first coaching search in five years after parting ways with Holgorsen. Who are the candidates?

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Tulane Matthew Hinton-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Cougars officially fired head coach Dana Holgorsen on Sunday after five seasons. Houston named tight ends coach Corby Meekins as the interim while the search for Holgorsen’s replacement begins.

This is the Cougars’ first coaching search since the 2019 offseason when they hired Holgorsen on New Year’s Day to replace Major Applewhite. Five years later, much has changed within the program. Houston since transitioned from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12, competing with the likes of TCU, Texas Tech, and Baylor not only in recruiting, but also on the gridiron. The Cougars will enter year two of Big 12 membership with new leadership, and the search for that head coach is on.

Who are potential candidates to replace Holgorsen at Houston? Here are six names to keep an eye on:

Willie Fritz

Tulane head coach

Cincinnati v Tulane
Willie Fritz won the 2022 AAC Championship Game and Cotton Bowl for Tulane, finishing No. 9 in the country.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Willie Fritz is certainly a target that will interest Houston after his success in building Tulane into an AAC juggernaut. Fritz is about to participate in his second consecutive AAC Championship Game on Saturday, and his association with that game could delay Houston’s coaching search if Fritz is the preferred candidate.

With a win over SMU on Saturday, Fritz can claim his second-straight AAC title and second-straight New Year’s Six appearance with Tulane. In 2022, he fronted the greatest turnaround in college football history, taking the Green Wave from 2-10 to 12-2 over the course of one year. He defeated USC in the Cotton Bowl to finish No. 9 in the final AP Poll. In eight seasons at Tulane, Fritz is 54-46 with four winning seasons and three bowl victories — experiencing most of his success in the past two campaigns.

Fritz also has immense ties to the Southeast Texas area. From 1984-85, he coached as an assistant at Sam Houston in Huntsville, TX. He then rejoined Sam Houston’s staff as an assistant in 1991-92 and became head coach there from 2010-13. Fritz’s other Texas jobs include an assistant gig at Willis High School in Conroe, TX and the head coaching position at Blinn College (the junior college Cam Newton attended) in Brenham, TX. The 63-year old coach was a major name in Georgia Tech’s coaching search last November, but ultimately decided to stick with Tulane. He has been stable in New Orleans for quite some time, with his most recent move transpiring during the 2016 offseason — taking the Tulane job after a stint at Georgia Southern. Houston typically leans toward air raid, passing-oriented offensive gurus with its coaching hires, but the power run game is the main identity of Fritz teams. Thus, a schematic shift could occur if the Cougars land the Green Wave frontman.

Jeff Traylor

UTSA head coach

UTSA v Temple
Jeff Traylor won back-to-back CUSA titles at UTSA, emerging victorious in 22 of his last 24 regular season conference games.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

There is plenty of familiarity between Houston and Jeff Traylor. The Cougars battled Traylor’s Roadrunners in each of the past two season openers, emerging victorious twice in hard-fought contests. In four years at UTSA, Traylor turned the young program founded in 2011 into a rising power. Prior to his arrival, the Roadrunners only participated in one bowl game, losing the 2016 New Mexico Bowl with a 6-7 record.

Traylor brought UTSA right back to bowl season in his inaugural season in 2020 and then took off from there. He claimed back-to-back CUSA championships in 2021 and 2022 and was one win away from attaining an AAC Championship Game appearance this season in UTSA’s first year in the conference. Traylor owns a 22-2 conference record in the last three seasons in San Antonio, defeating 18 consecutive league opponents at the Alamodome including the two CUSA title games.

Traylor has been parked in the state of Texas for nearly the entirety of his coaching career. The Gilmer, TX native made a name for himself at Gilmer High School where he won three state championships in a 15-year tenure. Traylor leveraged that success into assistant roles at Texas, SMU, and Arkansas before taking on the UTSA job. He signed a 10-year contract with the Roadrunners in October 2021 that pays an average annual value of $2.8 million through 2031. Still, his name frequently appears in coaching rumors due to his success in shaping UTSA. His name was brought up in the Texas A&M coaching search, although Traylor declined to comment in press conferences when asked about it. Now, Houston emerges as a potential suitor the two-time CUSA Coach of the Year.

Gary Patterson

Former TCU head coach

TCU v Oklahoma
Gary Patterson spent 22 seasons at TCU, finishing with six AP Top 10 finishes and three BCS/New Year’s Six bowl appearances.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Gary Patterson is the only name on this list that doesn’t currently hold a coaching gig. Patterson is a legend in the state for his 22-year tenure at TCU where he compiled a 181-79 record, winning 11 bowl games and seven conference titles for the Horned Frogs. He qualified for three BCS/New Year’s Six bowls, notably winning the 2010 Rose Bowl with an undefeated 13-0 record and triumphing 42-3 in the 2014 Peach Bowl after being snubbed a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Patterson’s TCU tenure finished with a rockier ending, producing three losing seasons in his final six years and he resigned in the middle of the 2021 season — one year before TCU played in the College Football Playoff Final.

Patterson remained in the coaching world after the separation, serving as the special assistant to the head coach on Steve Sarkisian’s staff at Texas in 2022. He left the role in March 2023 and has not held a football-related position on any staff since.

Patterson is 63 years old and turns 64 in February, but the longtime TCU head coach isn’t ready to hang up the headset just yet. Earlier in November, Patterson told ‘The Matt Mosley Show’ on ESPN radio: “I still have a lot of ballgames left in me... I’ve kept my eyes open. I took great notes when I was on Texas. With Sark being in the NFL and being with Coach Saban, I went down there to learn along with give.” That opportunity he seeks could be with Houston, and Patterson is certainly well-acquainted with high school coaches and the recruiting landscape in the Lone Star State.

Kliff Kingsbury

USC senior offensive analyst/quarterbacks coach

University of Southern California v University of Notre Dame
Kliff Kingsbury joined USC as an offensive analyst and quarterbacks coach following four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.
Photo by Michael Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Could it be a homecoming for Kliff Kingsbury? After a brief NFL career hopping from practice squad to practice squad as a quarterback, Kingsbury joined the coaching ranks in 2008 as Houston’s offensive quality control coach. He spent his first four years of coaching with the Cougars, serving as the program’s offensive coordinator from 2010-11. Houston finished 2011 with a 13-1 record, ranked No. 18 in the country, and situated at first in the FBS in points per game, powered by college football’s all-time passing leader Case Keenum. Kingsbury leveraged that success into an offensive coordinator role at Texas A&M, where he worked alongside Heisman winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Kingsbury completed the rapid rise to head coach in 2013 after being hired by his alma mater Texas Tech. The former Red Raider quarterback spent six years at his old stomping grounds, notably working with two-time Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes in Lubbock. Kingsbury was fired from Texas Tech in 2018 after producing a 35-40 record, peaking at 8-5 in his first season. Roughly a month and a half after his firing, the Arizona Cardinals hired Kingsbury to another head coaching role. In four seasons in the NFL with former Heisman winning quarterback Kyler Murray running his offense, Kingsbury finished 28-37-1 and qualified for the playoffs once in 2021 at 11-6, bouncing out in the Wild Card round.

Kingsbury spent this past season as a senior offensive analyst and quarterbacks coach at USC, working alongside yet another Heisman winning quarterback in Caleb Williams. The 44-year old is a Holgorsen disciple, playing under the recently dismissed coach from 2000-02 at Texas Tech and sharing the same offensive staff at Houston from 2008-09. Most of Houston’s coaching hires (Kevin Sumlin, Major Applewhite, Holgorsen) come from offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach backgrounds, and Kingsbury would likely take on a role similar to Holgorsen as both the head coach and chief offensive play-caller.

Will Stein

Oregon offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach

Louisville v Rutgers
Will Stein played quarterback at Louisville from 2008-12 before quickly rising up the coaching ranks.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Will Stein isn’t a name many people brought up in head coaching rumors prior to this November, but he’s going to be a hot commodity on the coaching market soon. Stein is 34 years old and currently serves as the first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Oregon, directing the nation’s second-best scoring offense and second-best total offense. He also works alongside quarterback Bo Nix, who has shown tremendous improvement this year to the point where he’ll be a likely Heisman finalist in New York.

But one thing to look for in a Houston coaching search is a Texas connection, and Stein actually comes from a Lone Star State background. After two years of coaching at his alma mater Louisville, where he played quarterback from 2008-12, Stein was hired as Texas’ quarterbacks coach. He then transitioned into an offensive coordinator role at Lake Travis High School in Austin, TX after three years with the Longhorns. Before joining Dan Lanning’s staff at Oregon, Stein operated as Jeff Traylor’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at UTSA. He coached Frank Harris to a CUSA MVP in 2022 and guided the Roadrunner offense to the 12th highest yardage output and 14th highest points output in the FBS.

Jeff Banks

Texas associate head coach/tight ends coach/special teams coordinator

Jeff Banks is in his third season as a member of Steve Sarkisian’s staff at Texas.
Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jeff Banks might not be a splash hire like some of the successful head coaches on this list, but that’s because he hasn’t received an opportunity to lead a program yet. Banks, 48 years old, is in his third year as the associate head coach on Steve Sarkisian’s staff at Texas. Banks currently covers a lot of ground in Austin, currently employed as both the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator for a team that recently qualified for the Big 12 Championship Game.

Prior to onboarding at Texas in 2021, Banks served assistant roles at UTEP, Texas A&M, and Alabama. He was the interim head coach for the 2017 Belk Bowl at Texas A&M, falling to Wake Forest in a 55-52 shootout after Kevin Sumlin’s firing and prior to the Jimbo Fisher era. That is the extent of Banks’ head coaching experience, but his name continues to gain more steam in coaching searches after overseeing the Longhorns’ three-year rise alongside Sarkisian.