Senior College Football Columnist

Three coordinators -- Smart, Morris, Pease -- face big decision


At this moment, Kirby Smart can name his place, price and terms.

The question for the nation's hottest assistant coach: Is it time? Time for a highly paid, upwardly mobile, young (36 years old), budding genius -- those chat rooms have to know something -- to cash in on the hype.

Is it time to take the leap from being that young, budding genius Alabama defensive coordinator to being the next head coach at X. Fill in the blank. That's how Smart's career, and possibly life, will be determined as he considers The Next Move.

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There definitely will be one. Smart would be gone right now to some random school if he weren't getting good counsel from boss Nick Saban.

"Kirby talks about how much he loves winning," one FBS head coach says. "He loves working with Nick. He's got a great situation. It's going to be hard -- even though he wants to be a head guy and you know he wants to be one -- he's going to wait until it's a good one."

It's one of the toughest choicest in sports for an extremely small, extremely elite band of brothers -- those hot coordinators considering their next job. The unwritten rules of the game say you have to be a coordinator before you can be a head coach. But only a few of those coordinators snag one of the 124 FBS head coaching jobs in existence.

Fewer succeed, establishing themselves as winners. Some can trampoline to success. Bob Stoops went from coordinating a championship defense at Florida to winning his own title as head coach at Oklahoma. All within five years.

Others? Well ... ask Dan Hawkins.

"There is no utopia," said Hawkins, who was once close to Smart's level as Dirk Koetter's assistant head coach at Boise State.

Hawkins took over for Koetter when he left for Arizona State in 2001. When Colorado came calling five years later, Hawkins was considered the perfect fit. He wasn't. Hawkins was fired with three games left in the 2010 season with a 19-39 record at the big-time, Big 12, BCS job of his dreams. He has not worked as a college coach since then, calling his time out of the game, "a two-year Ph.D. in football." "I don't regret leaving Boise," said Hawkins, now a satellite radio and TV analyst. "It's not about what you did. It's about what you're doing. I do [think guys fall in love with jobs]. They want to be a head coach so bad. Look, you want to be a head coach at the right spot. Don't go jumping on a head job because you want to be a head coach."

That is the decision faced by Smart, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, and Brent Pease, the Florida offensive coordinator. We have identified those three for purposes of this discussion -- three young, accomplished coordinators whose next job should be as a head coach at a big-time program.

But where and when to leap to avoid dropping into a career chasm?

Kansas State got lucky in December 1988. The administration had developed a list of finalists -- Penn State assistant Ron Dickerson, TCU offensive coordinator Phil Thornton and Pittsburgh defensive coordinator John Fox. Fox, then only 33, was easily the best candidate of the three according to then-K-State administrator Jeff Schemmel. K-State AD Steve Miller eventually scrapped the search and started over with a little-known offensive coordinator from Iowa, Bill Snyder.

Given K-State's rotten history and Snyder's anonymity, things did not look promising.

"Bill had a game plan for just about everything," said Schemmel, who is now -- ironically enough -- managing director of the college division of JMI Sports, a search firm. "He was so prepared and so good about discussing the details of success. He was very candid about what we needed to do. I was a rookie administrator. I thought what K-State had there was terrific."

The "terrific" part took a while but Kansas State -- and Snyder -- eventually succeeded.

Will Smart and crew? Morris is the least experienced of the three with only three years of college experience. But his name is suddenly hot at North Carolina State, where AD Debbie Yow is looking to replace the dour Tom O'Brien.

"The last thing you want to do is go where it's tailor-made," said Matt Baldwin, an agent with Reno, Nev.-based Professional Sports Representation Inc. "You want to keep the bar a little bit low. You want to get into a BCS position but you want to get in a place you can build and win."

In this age, some of those assistant jobs make it doubly hard to leave. Morris is making $1.3 million a year, just $340,000 a year less than the average FBS coach, according to USA Today . That makes him part of what is believed to be the highest-paid group of assistant coaches in the country, according to the newspaper.

Smart's salary has increased 163 percent -- to $950,000 -- from three years ago when Alabama won the 2009 national championship, according to reports. The former Georgia defensive back and assistant (2005) could be a logical replacement for Mark Richt when the time comes.

"I think, personally, you've got to strike when the iron is hot," one coaches' agent said. "I've seen guys too many times hem and haw and come full circle and never get another [job]."

The three hot assistants mentioned here will have to get used to the search "process." Their names are a commodity -- able to be dropped by agents (just to get them a raise) or by ADs just looking to dress up their search.

"There was a point in time," one coach said, "where I always felt there was a Stoops [brother] on a list that just made the search look good."

Pease, 48, is in his time, having spent seven of the past 12 years as an offensive coordinator at Kentucky, Boise State and Florida. If a playoff started today, the Gators would probably be in it and Pease's role would be considerable. Pease went from guiding an offense that averaged 44 points at Boise to one that had to grind out yards a different way at Florida.

"That's what good coaches do. They identify: OK, this is who we are," Florida coach Will Muschamp said of Pease earlier this season. "Brent's not a stat guy. Most of these offensive guys are all stat guys. He cares about winning football games. ... He played to his strengths in Boise and that was Kellen Moore. Right now, we're playing good defense and special teams and running the ball."

Kevin Wilson knew the time was right when the Indiana job came open in 2010. After spending eight years with Oklahoma and 18 total as an FBS offensive coordinator, Wilson had a good working knowledge of the landscape.

Indiana is no power, but it is in the Big Ten -- which put him in the same conference with Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke. Unlike those two Big Ten counterparts, he had been a coordinator before getting his first head coaching job.

"Sometimes the hot coordinator is not much different than [Boise head coach] Chris Petersen," Wilson said. "Sometimes he's not that much different than [TCU head coach] Gary Patterson. Coach Stoops would share that with me. You just want to make sure.

"A lot of coordinators jobs are better than people think. Some of the money they're paying some of those coordinators making them really, really, nice, good jobs. They're head football [coach] jobs."

Wilson took inspiration from his mentor, the late Randy Walker. Walker led turnarounds at Miami (Ohio) and, to a lesser degree, Northwestern -- with Wilson at his side.

"Why did I come here?" said Wilson, 5-19 in two seasons with the Hoosiers. "I'm 49, 50, [now 51] -- it's time. I had a good run. I didn't want to jump on something that was bad. I got a chance to be a Big Ten head coach. I recruited there. I knew the region."

Wilson also took inspiration from his experience at Oklahoma in 2006. Quarterback Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team a month before the start of the season. Wilson had to scramble to develop a new quarterback, Paul Thompson, and -- halfway through the season -- find a replacement for the injured Adrian Peterson (broken collarbone).

"It was fun," Wilson said. "It was, 'Let's go coach now and find a way to win.' Some years it was just, 'Don't screw up.' "

It was also his first year the OC job was all his, not having to split coordinating duties with the Sooners. That season, Wilson and Oklahoma beat both Hawkins' first Colorado team and lost to the Boise team he had left behind.

The tale of those two former hot assistants continues.

"I do want to coach again, and I will," Hawkins said. "I think I'll be better in a lot of ways -- more perspective, more understanding. I think every coach believes, 'I can get it done there. I can turn it.' "

Three coordinators facing big decisions

Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator: Let's just say Smart's next move isn't going to be taking over Louisiana-Lafayette. When the time comes, he will take over a top-15 job with national championship aspirations. Either that, or a coordinator's job in the NFL. Smart already has won an assistant coach of the year award and could get another one this season. His defenses at Alabama have given up 13.2 points per game. Two national championship rings help, too. Just wish we knew more about him. Nick won't let him talk to the media.

Age: 36.
Good reference: Saban
Hotness factor: Steaming
Next job: Tennessee, if he wants it. It's doubtful, though, Smart would go head-to-head with Saban each year. ... Florida State, if Jimbo Fisher goes to Auburn. (Fisher said Monday he's staying put.) ... Speaking of which, no way on Auburn. Smart would have to live the Iron Bowl 365/24/7. ... Georgia, if Richt ever leaves. ... If Saban ever decided to go back to the NFL, Smart would get heavy consideration for the Bama vacancy. Smart is still young enough and hot enough to pick and choose.

Chad Morris, Clemson offensive coordinator: Morris is the living embodiment of college football's offensive era. Entertainment sells. Morris' six-year, $7.8 million contract -- for an assistant, mind you -- is more than a lot of BCS head coaches. Morris' star has risen meteorically from high school coach to college savant in three years. It can be argued that it was Morris' monster 2011 season (see Sammy Watkins) that essentially saved Dabo Swinney's job. This season, quarterback Tajh Boyd has accounted for 43 touchdowns for a team that won 10 games again. One of the leading gurus of tempo offenses.

Age: 43
Good reference: The rest of the ACC
Hotness factor: Boiling
Next job: N.C. State. He's familiar with the conference but his lack of overall college experience might hold him back. But if Wolfpack AD Debbie Yow is smart, she will snatch up Morris on the come.

Brent Pease, Florida offensive coordinator: Went from guiding an offense that averaged 44 points at Boise to one that was 101st in total offense. Pease was effective at both schools. At Boise, he had Kellen Moore in 2011. At Florida, he had to adjust to the SEC style. Sometimes that meant, as on Saturday, recognizing that Florida State was beat and choosing to hammer the Noles into submission with the running game.

Age: 48
Good references: Chris Petersen, Will Muschamp
Hotness factor: Simmering
Next job: Unknown. Pease has shown incredible play-calling versatility. The past two offenses he coordinated have been for teams that finished 23-2.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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