It's officially silly season: we here at STL spent most of the morning tracking private jets coming and going at KCHO. Some may have even tried to read tea leaves about which coaches are following which commits on Twitter. There isn't a UVa sports forum or message board that I haven't refreshed at least a dozen times today, trying to snatch up any tidbit about who the next coach is going to be.
But enough of that. Who SHOULD it be?
We published a damn-near-encyclopedic list of candidates on Sunday. Some of those have cropped up in rumors about Virginia's search process, as have some who weren't on our initial list. With Virginia's apparent criteria in mind, here are my top three choices to be the next head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers.
OK, this is almost cheating. After all, the top-viewed post on STL today has been a link to an article with one sentence saying Richt will interview with Virginia. I'm far from the only one who wants Richt in orange and blue.
But...c'mon. 145 wins in 15 seasons. Two SEC titles, and four more SEC East titles. Seven AP top-ten finishes. He's had more ten-win seasons in 15 years than Virginia has had nine-win seasons in more than a century. And he's a great leader, has run a clean program, and is by all accounts a fundamentally decent human being.
If Richt wants to coach in 2015—and there are reports that his family is lobbying against that—then Virginia needs to go all in to get him.
Dykes' contract extension talks with Cal have been a sticking point for a few months. But Cal's Ivy-esque academic standards may be driving him away even faster, as he has interviewed with Missouri for the Tigers' opening.
I’m told that Sonny Dykes has "mentally moved on" from Cal. This ending had been brewing all year, and he’s poised to take another job.— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) December 1, 2015
For any Virginia fan who balks at the idea of academic standards being a turn-off, some context. Cal's new standards are going to require that, by 2017, 80 percent of every incoming class of recruits have a high school GPA above 3.0. By comparison, Virginia's standards—which are still rigorous and well above average in the major conferences—require every incoming player to have completed four years' worth of core curriculum classes, as well as meeting the NCAA requirements for GPA and SAT scores. Dykes won renown for turning around the Cal program's focus on academics; 77% of his last recruiting class hit the 3.0 threshold. Virginia would offer Dykes a strong academic environment, but one that isn't as onerous as Cal.
So that takes care of the classroom side. On the field, oh god it would be fun to watch. Dykes is an Air Raid acolyte, having coached under Hal Mumme at Kentucky and Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Under his tutelage, Jared Goff was first-team All-Pac 12 and is considered one of the top NFL prospects among quarterbacks. Dykes has worked wonders as a turnaround artist, too: his teams at Louisiana Tech and Cal have increased their win totals every season he's coached them.
Established head coach, defined offensive system, success recruiting and developing players in rigorous academic setting—hard to find a candidate who checks more boxes than Dykes.
Mike Sanford, Jr.
If Richt is the consensus front-runner, Sanford may be the most polarizing name being floated. But the more I read about Sanford, the more I like what I see.
Brian Kelly—no offensive slouch in his own right—described Sanford as a guy who would "turn the room upside down"and challenge the other offensive coaches, keep them on their toes. For a coach like Kelly, who is notorious for hiring assistants within his own sphere of philosophy and experience, bringing in an outsider like Sanford speaks volumes about Sanford's talent.
One criticism I've seen of Sanford is that he didn't have play-calling responsibilities for Notre Dame. But the more important thing to me is not that he didn't have all of the play-calling responsibilities—it's that, under Brian Kelly, he got to have any. Kelly had only given up play-calling once in 24 years of coaching, and that was to a long-time assistant (Chuck Martin, now the head coach at Miami Ohio). Sanford is good enough he didn't just get hired, he got farther than almost any of Kelly's most trusted assistants—and in his first year.
"But he doesn't have any head coaching experience." I'll let Matt Hinton take this one.
Correction: 3 of the top 4 teams in this week's polls (Clemson, Oklahoma, Iowa) employ coaches in their first head-coaching job.— Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) December 2, 2015
See also: Stanford, FSU, TCU, Northwestern, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Houston, Navy, Utah, Temple... more than half the current Top 25.— Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) December 2, 2015
And for perspective, when Mark Richt was hired to be the head guy at Georgia, he was a 40-year-old offensive wunderkind with no head coaching experience. Oh, and Sanford recruited to Stanford and Yale.
One final point in Sanford's favor: because of his youth, there may be more of a chance for consistency among Virginia's assistant coaches. Whereas a guy like Richt or Dykes would want to assemble their own staff from scratch, Sanford may well look at guys like Chris Beatty, Marques Hagans, and Chip West, and realize he has a solid core of recruiters and mentors with which to build a winning program.