Meet the first-year FBS coaches for 2021: SEC shuffle continues across Power 5, Group of 5February 16, 2021
The 2020-21 college football coaching carousel produced 15 coaching changes.
There were seven new hires made in the Power 5 and eight in the Group of 5. This cycle revolved around the SEC — past, present and perhaps future.
There are four new coaches in the SEC, including Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer. Four former SEC coaches also took new jobs. That group is Illinois’ Bret Bielema, Arkansas State’s Butch Jones, UL-Monroe’s Terry Bowden and UCF’s Gus Malzahn. The Malzahn hire filled the last vacancy in this year’s cycle, at least for now.
Sporting News sorts out the coaching changes. Meet the new coaches for 2021:
Back in the Power 5
Steve Sarkisian, Texas
Sarkisian won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant at Alabama. The offense averaged 48.5 points per game, and that earned Sark his third coaching opportunity with the Longhorns. Texas has enjoyed just one 10-win season since Mack Brown retired, and the expectations won’t change with Sarkisian’s arrival. Sarkisian, however, becomes the most interesting branch of the Nick Saban coaching tree with this move.
Bret Bielema, Illinois
Bielema is back in the Big Ten where he belongs. He served as an assistant coach in the NFL the past three seasons. Bielema played at Iowa and had a 68-24 record at Wisconsin. Now, the task is to catch up to those schools with an Illinois program that has endured nine consecutive losing seasons. Look for Bielema to upgrade the offensive and defensive lines, but it might take a few cycles to compete in the Big Ten West.
First-time Power 5 coaches
Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Heupel is Tennessee’s fifth coach since 2008, and he will join former UCF athletic director Danny White in Knoxville. Heupel is 28-8 the past three seasons with the Knights, and UCF averaged 43 points per game in that stretch. Heupel also had success as Missouri’s offensive coordinator. Expectations at Tennessee are always high, and patience is never a virtue. The Vols are just 10-24 in SEC play the past four years. Heupel faces a challenge in his first Power 5 coaching job.
Bryan Harsin, Auburn
Harsin led Boise State to three Mountain West Conference championships, and the 44-year-old coach is making the move up after compiling a 69-19 record with the Broncos. He levels up with Auburn, and the challenges of a first-time Power 5 coach in the SEC West are daunting. Keep in mind that Gus Malzahn won three Iron Bowls in eight seasons against Alabama. Harsin deserves a fair chance, but he will need to prove it on the recruiting trail first.
Clark Lea, Vanderbilt
Lea, 38, is the perfect hire for Vanderbilt. He played fullback for the Commodores from 2002 to 2004 before launching an impressive career as an assistant. That peaked as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator the past three seasons. The Irish have ranked in the top 15 in defense for the past three seasons. Vanderbilt has made five bowl appearances in the past 10 seasons. Lea faces challenges knowing that success came with just one winning season in the SEC, but the fact that Lea chose to come back shows his commitment to the program for the long haul.
Shane Beamer, South Carolina
Beamer is another hire where fit is a good start. He is the son of former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, and he was an assistant at South Carolina from 2007 to 2010. He also had stints as an assistant at Georgia and Oklahoma, so he’s learned from some of the elite programs in the FBS. He will take those lessons into a tough job. The Gamecocks are 14-20 in SEC play the past four seasons. Beamer will have to beef up the recruiting, and that won’t be easy against in-state rival Clemson, to get South Carolina back in the SEC East hunt.
Jedd Fisch, Arizona
Fisch spent the past three seasons as an assistant with the Rams and Patriots. Fisch knows offense, and he was a solid offensive coordinator at UCLA and Michigan. He’s had several stops in both the college and NFL game but has never been in the same place for more than four years. That is the challenge with Arizona, which bottomed out in the Pac-12 South the past few seasons. Fisch’s biggest immediate challenge is to remodel an offense that averaged just 17.4 points per game last season. It will not be an easy rebuild.
From Power 5 to Group of 5
Gus Malzhan, UCF
This is a big-name hire for UCF, and Malzahn should be able to maintain — and probably add to — the success that Scott Frost and Heupel have had in the American Athletic Conference. Malzahn was 68-35 at Auburn and led the Tigers to a BCS championship appearance in 2013. The Tigers averaged 39.5 points per game that season, a standard that will be expected with UCF in the American Athletic Conference. It’s a great hire for the Knights, one that other SEC schools will be watching closely.
From Group of 5 to Group of 5
Blake Anderson, Utah State
Anderson, an Arkansas native, won two Sun Belt championships at Arkansas State over a successful seven-year stint. The 51-year-old last coached in the Mountain West Conference in 2001. The Aggies slipped to 1-5 this past season, but the program had made a bowl game eight of the past 10 seasons. It’s a lateral move of sorts for Anderson, but he should be able to build a program with similar results.
Back in the FBS
Butch Jones, Arkansas State
Jones is the second Saban assistant who took a head-coaching job this cycle. Jones spent the past three seasons as an analyst/assistant with Alabama, and he’s back in the head-coaching ranks. Jones is 84-54 through stops at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Tennessee, and he should be able to maintain success at Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Conference. Jones, 53, could use this as an audition to get another shot at a Power 5 job.
Terry Bowden, UL-Monroe
Bowden, who took his first FBS head-coaching job with Auburn in 1993, is back for another run with the Warhawks, who finished 0-10 in 2020. Bowden’s last remodel was at Akron, where he led the Zips to a pair of bowl appearances in 2015 and 2017. Bowden, 64, is the oldest coach among the new hires.
First-time FBS coaches
Andy Avalos, Boise State
Avalos’ name turned up in coaching searches the past few seasons, and he was a logical choice to return to Boise State. He played linebacker there from 2001 to 2004 and was an assistant coach for the Broncos from 2013 to 2018 before taking the defensive coordinator job with Oregon the past two seasons. The standards for one of the most successful Group of 5 programs should not change with Avalos.
Charles Huff, Marshall
Marshall made the surprise move to cut ties with Doc Holliday, who had led the Thundering Herd to four consecutive winning seasons. Huff is the third former Saban assistant to take a head-coaching job in this cycle. He was Alabama’s associate head coach/running backs coach the past two seasons. Huff, 37, inherits a team that can compete for a Conference-USA championship in 2021.
Kane Wommack, South Alabama
Wommack, 33, made a quick rise up the coaching ladder after a three-year stint as an assistant coach at Indiana. Wommack was the defensive coordinator the past two seasons. The Hoosiers evolved into a top-20 defense that allowed just 20.2 points per game in 2020. Wommack was the defensive coordinator at South Alabama from 2016 to 2017, so the familiarity with the program is a plus.
Will Hall, Southern Mississippi
Hall, 40, is a good fit for a Southern Mississippi program that slipped in recent seasons. He’s a Mississippi native with ties all over the state, and he worked up the ranks as an offensive coordinator at multiple stops — the last with Tulane from 2019 to 2020. The Golden Eagles ranked 87th in points per game last season. That should change with Hall.