It's hard to imagine who USC would get to replace the megawatt presence that Pete Carroll became in his nine seasons as coach of the Trojans.
Then again, it was hard to imagine Carroll ever becoming as successful as he did when he succeed Paul Hackett in 2000 after a middling stint in the NFL.
After Carroll's farewell news conference at Heritage Hall on Monday, that question is no longer a hypothetical one but the most pressing issue on athletic director Mike Garrett's agenda.
The early front-runner, Oregon State's Mike Riley, pulled out of the race Sunday night by agreeing to a three-year extension to stay in Corvallis, Ore.
On Monday, Garrett zeroed in on Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, but by early Tuesday morning reports out of Jacksonville had the former USC All-American linebacker denying that he would leave for Southern Cal. The Florida Times-Union even reported that the team was set to make a formal announcement later in the day.
So who does that leave in the running for the best college program on the West Coast?
ESPN's Shelley Smith asked Pete Carroll that question directly in an exclusive interview that will air on "SportsCenter" later on Tuesday, and the former Trojans coach said he gave recommendations to prominent alumni who solicited his opinion.
"I talked to some people, yeah. I love the program so much I care and I did tell them what I think,'' Carroll told Smith. "My guess is that they'll stay in the college ranks.''
One name that won't go away is Washington's Steve Sarkisian. Despite his public denials of interest in the job, influential boosters and alumni have pushed Garrett to consider the Washington coach, according to multiple university sources.
Reached on his cell phone late Monday night, Sarkisian said that no one from USC had contacted him and reiterated that he was happy at Washington.
"There's nothing to talk about,'' Sarkisian said. "I haven't talked to anybody.''
A prominent USC source told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Monday that the school hopes to move quickly in the search and have something accomplished by the end of the week.
Who else is on Garrett's list? With early targets Riley and Del Rio out, new names like Boise State's Chris Petersen, former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, Oregon athletic director Mike Belotti and North Carolina coach Butch Davis have picked up steam.
Here are some of the names you are likely to hear a lot of in the next few days:
Steve Sarkisian, Washington
The former wunderkind offensive coordinator went 5-7 in his first season with the Huskies. One of those five wins was a huge upset of USC on Sept. 19. He recruited a lot of the current team, is a charismatic leader and could step right in for Carroll without much disruption. The question is whether he'd leave Seattle after just one year. In radio interviews Friday, Sarkisian said he already had his dream job, at Washington. Still, his name keeps coming up in USC circles as alumni and boosters think fondly of the West Torrance High graduate.
Herm Edwards, former Chiefs/Jets coach
The personable and charismatic Edwards reminds a lot of people of Carroll in style and substance: An enthusiastic ex-NFL coach who would instantly make a great recruiter but has little experience at the college level. Edwards' name has picked up a lot of steam among prominent USC boosters and alumni over the weekend. Though his background is in the NFL, he did begin his career as an assistant at San Jose State from 1987 to 1989. His primary recruiting area was Los Angeles. If hired, he'd be USC's first African-American head football coach.
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford
The fiery Stanford coach has been one of the hottest commodities this offseason, drawing interest from Notre Dame and Kansas, before signing a three-year extension to stay at Stanford. USC officials are known to think highly of the brash former NFL quarterback even though he makes controversial statements at times. When reached on his cell phone by ESPNLosAngeles.com Monday afternoon, Harbaugh declined to comment on whether he'd be interested, saying, "I don't usually talk about any other job but my own.''
Steve Mariucci, Former 49ers/Lions coach
Mariucci's name popped up in alumni circles over the weekend, but has been gaining steam as the search goes on. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that USC could continue conversations with the former 49ers and Lions coach regarding the job. Two league sources told Schefter that the two sides have had contact in recent days and that, as USC's list dwindles, his chances increase. Mariucci has also coached at California and has expressed interest in returning.
Chris Petersen, Boise State
It's kind of hard to believe Peterson's name wasn't one of the first mentioned as a possible successor. Peterson has worked magic on the blue turf at Boise State, routinely getting the Broncos into a BCS bowl despite the disadvantages of being a mid-major and recruiting players to Idaho. A school spokesperson told ESPNLosAngeles.com that, "Coach Petersen, or the university, normally does not comment on open coaching positions, and Coach Petersen is out of the office today." Petersen recently signed an extension through 2014.
Norm Chow, UCLA offensive coordinator
The offensive guru has never been a head coach before, so why should the Trojans take a chance on him to replace Carroll? For starters, Chow's image is spotless, his reputation around USC is favorable and the administration and fan base has a level of familiarity with him from his successful stint as offensive coordinator from 2001-04. After the uncertainty and possible mess that Carroll is leaving behind at Troy, a clean reputation could count for a lot. Chow's name is also frequently coming up as an offensive coordinator, being packaged with a defensive-oriented coach, as he was with Carroll.
DeWayne Walker, New Mexico State
A source close to the current New Mexico State coach said that he would definitely be interested in the USC job. Though Walker is well regarded by USC officials, he's also relatively green in terms of experience. This season was his first as a head coach and the Aggies went just 3-10. Still, USC loves his passion and personality. He's already proven himself as a recruiter at both USC and UCLA, and a defensive coordinator. If hired, he'd be USC's first African-American head football coach.
Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville Jaguars
By far the hottest name in USC circles on Monday. An also-ran by Tuesday when reports out of Jacksonville indicated the former All-American linebacker at USC (1981-84) would stay with the Jaguars next year. Del Rio never denied his interest in the job during television interviews, despite being repeatedly pressed on the subject. But the Jaguars owe him $15 million and that's probably too much to leave on the table.
Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans
Vince Young is finally looking like an NFL quarterback, Chris Johnson rushed for 2,000 yards and the Titans ended the season as one of the hottest teams in the league. So why would Fisher even entertain this job? He probably won't. Despite the allure of returning to his alma mater, the timing isn't right for former USC cornerback (1977-80).
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.