USC coaching search stock watch: Could Mike Tomlin be a candidate?
With every passing week, it becomes clearer what a significant rebuild the next USC head football coach is going to have on his hands.
This weekend’s loss to Notre Dame was a classic 2021 football performance: Discipline issues that result in a multitude of penalties, a quarterback under frequent duress, red-zone failures by the offense, missed tackles by the defense, questionable special teams decisions and some fourth-quarter scores to make the final result slightly more respectable.
Whoever is the next coach will not be set up for overnight success in 2022. But you don’t get to be a successful college football coach without rebuilding a program or two from the ground up, and the coaches on USC’s theoretical short list are no exception.
Here’s a look at a few potential candidates for the USC job who went through a shakeup this weekend, and a new dark horse who was revealed:
Matt Campbell, Iowa State
Saturday was a Campbell special for the previously-unranked Cyclones, upsetting undefeated No. 8 Oklahoma State 24-21. “Upset” might be too strong a term, because Iowa State actually entered the game as seven-point betting favorites, a good indicator of the confidence in the Cyclones under Campbell. The three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year is now won 4-4 against top-10 opponents while at Iowa State, a program that previously was 8-98-2 in such games.
Campbell is a proven team builder; Iowa State didn’t win more than three games in any of the three seasons prior to his hiring. After going 3-9 in his first season, the Cyclones have won at least seven games in each of the last four years, culminating in last year’s 9-3 record and first Big 12 title game appearance since 2004.
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
Fleck still probably deserves the most scrutiny of any coach on the list of potential USC candidates. But a Minnesota win over Maryland combined with Purdue’s loss to Wisconsin left the Gophers in a tie with Iowa atop the Big Ten West standings. So if Minnesota wins out, including the game against Iowa in three weeks, Fleck would lead his team into the conference championship game. The Week 4 loss to Bowling Green is still confounding, but a strong finish to the season could make that a distant memory and rocket Fleck back to the top of coaching short lists for premium openings.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Super Bowl-winning coach was not on anyone’s radar until Monday morning, when former USC quarterback Carson Palmer went on the Dan Patrick Show and revealed that Tomlin was someone being bandied around by USC decision makers. As Palmer put it, “That’s what’s so great about the job is it can lure an NFL guy that’s tired of their current situation and is worried about, is Ben Roethlisberger gone, is he done? Who do we have to draft? Does Mike Tomlin have to start over with a first-round rookie quarterback?”
It goes without saying that if Tomlin wants the USC job, he should immediately vault to the top of the list for the Trojans. It’s been 21 years since he coached in the college game, but Tomlin is a proven winner who can manage the winning expectations of a storied franchise.
And in case you think Palmer was speaking hypothetically, when Patrick said this was the first anyone had heard of Tomlin as a potential candidate, Palmer’s immediate reaction was, “Uh oh. Oops.”
Matt Aranda, Baylor
The Bears had a bye this week, so nothing new to report. But the win over Iowa State looks even better this week.
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
The Bearcats overcame a scare from Navy, a team that due to its triple-option offense can sneak up on opponents in the American Conference. But Cincinnati got the win to stay undefeated.
James Franklin, Penn State
Of all the questions that arose out of college football this weekend, the strangest was probably, “How do you only score 18 points in a nine-overtime game?” Even with the new overtime format that forces teams to trade two-point conversion attempts starting with the third overtime, it was a head-shaking performance by Penn State in the loss to Illinois, and seemed to support those that question Franklin’s in-game acumen as a head coach. The Nittany Lions have now lost two straight, fallen to No. 20 in the AP poll and are all-but-officially eliminated from playoff contention.