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Chris Mortensen Archive
As NFL coaches fall, candidates are abundant

Dec. 11, 2003
Dan Reeves is the first coach to fall. Not shocking, but the timing of his abrupt dismissal by the Atlanta Falcons will trigger a lot of activity in the next month or so. When one domino goes down, the others follow. Jim Fassel of the Giants could be next. Dick Jauron in Chicago, Dave McGinnis in Arizona, Bill Callahan in Oakland and Gregg Williams in Buffalo appear to be on the shakiest ground.

Dan Reeves
Dan Reeves is the first coach to be fired this season ... which places him on the list of candidates for other jobs.
Other coaches who could feel the heat by the end of the season include Jim Haslett in New Orleans, Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego, Dave Wannstedt in Miami and, perhaps, Mike Holmgren in Seattle.

However, one team official said that owners and general managers may be a little hesitant about swinging the ax so freely because "they're not convinced that the next guy they hire will be any better ... the fact that Steve Spurrier (Redskins) and Butch Davis (Browns) have struggled hurts a lot of the college hotshots."

In the past month, we've assembled a loose list of candidates (both pro and college) that several team executives have offered informally in various conversations:

Available Ex-Head Coaches
1. Dennis Green -- You must categorize him as the most qualified of all candidates who has credentials: eight playoff seasons in 10 years with the Minnesota Vikings. He's also shown a keen eye for offensive talent -- he pulled the trigger on Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper in consecutive seasons when arguments were being made against both players. Negatives? He's had a personal issue or two, but all in all comes highly regarded.

2. Tom Coughlin -- If you're an owner concerned about a loose ship and consistently inconsistent play, Coughlin is the man. Parcells has told friends that Coughlin is the best coach he's ever had on his staff, a mouthful considering Bill Belichick was on that list, too. Coughlin has few peers when it comes to attention to detail. He's a solid player evaluator. He has integrity. He is a taskmaster, whether you consider that good or bad. Parcells and Belichick are taskmasters, too. Does anybody remember that in 1999 that Coughlin's Jaguars finished 15-1 in the regular season and that he took the expansion Jaguars to the AFC title game in just their second season?

3. Dan Reeves -- For a guy who has won 200 games, he's still only 60 years old. He kept the door open after Wednesday's dismissal in Atlanta for a return to the sidelines. When you consider the success of over-60 coaches like Dick Vermeil and Parcells -- like Reeves, coaches with winning track records -- then how can you dismiss the sixth-winningest coach in league history?

4. Jim Fassel -- True, this is cheating. Fassel still has a job. But two GMs say that Fassel's winning record with the Giants and a recent Super Bowl appearance will get him another opportunity.

Offensive Coordinators
1. Charlie Weis, New England Patriots -- Weis has the unique ability to adapt his offense to whatever the game dictates. If it's a defensive struggle, he plays it accordingly. If it's a shootout, he can have fun, too. But what I really like about him is that his entire NFL service has been under Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. He's a smart guy, so I know he's grown every year.

2. Brad Childress, Philadelphia Eagles -- Andy Reid's right-hand man on offense, more than one GM said they think the time might be right for Childress to get his chance. He has some of the same skin-tough qualities as Reid and he understands players. His success with backups Koy Detmer and A.J. Feeley during QB Donovan McNabb's injury last year doesn't hurt him.

3. Mike Mularkey, Pittsburgh Steelers -- He has been on the radar for a couple of years. In an under-reported story, he was actually offered the Bengals' job and turned it down before it went to Marvin Lewis. That's not to say he was more worthy than Lewis but he is qualified, regardless of the Steelers' losing record. Smart and innovative. Also note that Lewis and John Fox got the Carolina job a year after they were hot candidates.

4. Al Saunders, Kansas City Chiefs -- Few people seem to remember, but Saunders actually has NFL head coaching experience with the San Diego Chargers. He grew enormously as an offensive coach when exposed to Mike Martz's system, and he also has been exposed to the Dick Vermeil way of winning. You can't ignore him anymore.

5. Norv Turner, Miami Dolphins -- Don't wince. His work with the Redskins was still more respectable than ever credited, if you are willing to painstakingly dissect each season he had in Washington. Nevertheless, the Dolphins probably need to take it to another level (despite marginal offensive talent).

6. Mike Heimerdinger, Tennessee Titans -- He's been around Jeff Fisher (Titans head coach) and Mike Shanahan. He also has taken the Titans through a transition of being a predominantly run-oriented team to one that is diverse. QB Steve McNair's career has skyrocketed under his tutelage. Fisher privately is expressing fears that he could lose "'Dinger," as he's known. That should make someone curious to know about him.

7. Steve Fairchild, St. Louis Rams -- In his first season as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Mike Martz, his already-good reputation continues to grow. No way he gets a job this year, but he is a potential star on the rise.

8. Maurice Carthon & Sean Payton, Dallas Cowboys -- Carthon has the coordinator's title and Payton is the assistant head coach who handles the quarterbacks. It's probably a year early for both guys to be seriously considered, but they must be considered. Carthon has been exposed to Parcells as a player and assistant, so he has the blueprint. Payton, whose star rose during the Giants' Super Bowl season, has been a bright young offensive coach who was disgraced somewhat by Jim Fassel's public takeover of the play calling in New York last year. However, Payton still did the bulk of game planning when the Giants made their late playoff run, and Parcells didn't hesitate to hire him. What does that tell you about the guy?

Defensive Coordinators
1. Lovie Smith, St. Louis Rams -- There's a tremendous aura about this guy that smacks of leadership. There's no way he wouldn't command the respect of players. He's meticulous in detail and preparation, an inheritance from his days under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He and Weis may be the No. 1 candidates among all coordinators.

2. Jim Mora Jr., San Francisco 49ers -- You know, his Dad was a pretty darn good football coach. So is the son, who has spent several good years in San Francisco to create his own identity. He is a strong personality and smart as a whip. He's a better motivator and more diverse personality than his father. Definite head-coach material at the college or pro level.

3. Romeo Crennel, New England Patriots -- He played for Parcells. He coached under Parcells. He coaches under Belichick. He's won most of his life as a player and assistant coach. He's got to be on interview lists.

4. Rod Marinelli, Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Technically, he's the assistant head coach/defense. But he coaches the defensive line. He's in a box somewhat because the Bucs refused to let him out of his contract to join Tony Dungy in Indianapolis as a defensive coordinator. Highly regarded and players respond. Years under Dungy and Gruden make him a worthwhile interview.

5. Ted Cottrell, New York Jets -- He's been maligned for the Jets' dismal season, but he falls under the same category as Marvin Lewis and John Fox -- a solid record of success as a defensive coordinator. He was a finalist for the 49ers job.

6. Greg Blache, Chicago Bears -- Also in the running with the 49ers, Blache is considered a skilled communicator and motivator, although one exec said, "He might be a little too out there ... on his enthusiasm." He'll get some interviews.

7. Jim Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles -- His window of opportunity may have passed, but it's difficult to disregard his track record of success. Along with the Bucs' Monte Kiffin, he is the highest-paid defensive coordinator in football.

College Coaches
1. Nick Saban, LSU -- I'm not saying he's a Bill Belichick clone, but he was Belichick's defensive coordinator and he's one heck of a football coach. He says he is committed to LSU and isn't crazy about the pro game, but he may be the surest bet for success among the college guys. An owner will have to pay big bucks to get him; LSU may ante up as much as a $2.5-to-$3 million-per-year package to keep Saban in Baton Rouge.

2. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa -- He is a micro-hot candidate with an NFL background as a highly regarded offensive-line coach under Bill Belichick in Cleveland and Brian Billick in Baltimore. Combined with his success at Iowa, he will be on almost everyone's short list. NFL execs who watch him on the practice field and on the sidelines see a coach with leadership skills, organized, disciplined and communicative. Players respond to him. But he isn't anxious to jump because he's happy at Iowa and his son, a lineman, has two years remaining at the school. There has even been a suggestion that he may wait to see if he will be a candidate to succeed Joe Paterno at Penn State, although that is mere speculation and probably unfair in light of his work at Iowa.

3. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma -- He's young, he's a leader, he wins. But there has been no indication he's interested in the pro game at this time -- some believe he's two years away from contemplating such a move. As previously noted, the struggles of Steve Spurrier and Butch Davis knocks some of the luster off the desirability factor of a guy like Stoops. But his name will be bandied about.

4. Ralph Friedgen, Maryland -- He was the offensive coordinator under Bobby Ross when the Chargers went to the Super Bowl in 1994, and he has had great success in building Maryland into a winner. He's gruff and that scares some NFL types, but he can't be ignored. The Buccaneers were looking at him during their "2002: A Coach Odyssey" run. Generally regarded as a guru of offense, but he has become whole in his approach to the game.

5. Jeff Tedford, Cal -- You better keep track of this guy. At least three teams considering a coaching change have privately expressed an interest in Tedford. He is in his second season as the head coach at Cal, where he has taken a broken program and quickly turned it into a winner. USC coach Pete Carroll considers Tedford a significant rival -- Cal handed the Trojans their only loss this year after a near-upset last season. His reputation had been as a quarterback guru who helped Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Joey Harrington, A.J. Feeley, Akili Smith and Kyle Boller experience success. But he's more than a QB guy. He's organized, he's a leader, he's a teacher, he understands staffing, he's got some charisma and he's a game-planner.

6. Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame -- If you toss aside Notre Dame's disappointing season, Willingham has been a top candidate for a few years. His experience on Dennis Green's staff with the Vikings, his success at Stanford and now the exposure to the wonders and trappings of Notre Dame football should have him well-prepared for the pro game

7. Chan Gailey, Georgia Tech -- He did one of the best jobs of coaching in the ACC (consider that he beat Maryland, North Carolina State and Auburn and should have beaten Florida State with a true freshman at QB) and his resumé is impressive. Even his work as Cowboys head coach (two playoff seasons in two years) during the post-Switzer era should be respected. He has a creative side to him (see Kordell Stewart's best years in Pittsburgh) yet plays every game specifically to win, as opposed to trying to razzle-dazzle everyone. Always will find a way to run the football with success. His time in Dallas and at Georgia Tech (where an academic controversy put him under scrutiny) gives him the preferred thick skin.

8. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech -- One GM said that leadership, attention to detail and ability to manage a game are still qualities that a head coach needs, and Beamer meets the criteria. He's also a stickler for special teams -- a snapshot of his attention to detail -- and some of the best coaches in recent NFL history (Parcells, Belichick and Marv Levy) have been uncompromising when it comes to special teams.

9. June Jones, Hawaii -- He's making a million dollars at Hawaii, so what else does he need? One GM said Jones was on his short list because of his people skills, his quarterback-coaching success and his experience as an NFL head coach in Atlanta (one playoff season) and San Diego (interim). In fact, he turned down the Chargers permanent job to take the Hawaii gig. His run-and-shoot convictions hurt him with most NFL execs, though.

10. Pete Carroll, USC -- He would be way up the list but there's a general feeling among NFL execs that the former head coach of the Patriots and Jets is in the perfect arena for his personality -- at the college level. Still, he wasn't as bad an NFL head coach as people would believe, he's a few years down the road, he's done terrific work in restoring USC to national prominence. One GM said he believes that if the right West Coast job became available (Chargers?), then Carroll would contemplate a return to the NFL.

College Guys "On the Radar"
1. Jim Tressel, Ohio State -- Reluctantly, I'm putting his name on this list, only because I have heard more than one GM expressed admiration for his leadership and attention to detail. In a league where strong defense and a commitment to the run is a basic formula for success, he has a calling card. Otherwise, a stretch, despite his national-title resumé.

2. Mark Richt, Georgia -- He's among a handful of college candidates who has no NFL experience, but he has a few admirers in the NFL because of his work at Georgia. His teams are physical. His offense is balanced. He has assembled an excellent staff. He's relatively young.

3. Randy Edsall, Connecticut -- Don't blink. Edsall has enjoyed plenty of success as a former assistant under Tom Coughlin at the collegiate and pro level. And when you see what he has done at UConn in a relatively short ascension from Division I-AA to Division I, he's a pretty good sleeper candidate.

4. Houston Nutt, Arkansas -- Two general managers echoed similar admiration for Nutt. His teams generally overachieve; they are resilient, physical, they know how to run the football and he consistently wins.

5. Karl Dorrell, UCLA -- True, he's only had a year as a head coach at UCLA, but he's done a solid job and he has the NFL exposure under Mike Shanahan in Denver. It's too early, NFL execs say, but keep him in your file for a couple of years down the road.

6. Doug Williams, Grambling -- He's a former Super Bowl-winning quarterback who has played under Joe Gibbs and John McKay. He also is paying his dues as a college head coach and a well-deserved promotion to Division I-A should be in his future.

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