Michigan State coaching search: Best candidates remaining as Luke Fickell, top names deny Spartans

Mark Dantonio stepped down as Michigan State's head coach on Feb. 4 after 13 seasons and three Big Ten titles with the Spartans, and the coaching search that's ensued has run into as many dead ends as a 3-year-old encounters inside a 2-acre corn maze. Several high-profile coaches, as well as some not-so-high profile names, have advised the Spartans to move on, leaving them in a precarious spot as spring practice nears. 

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell made it crystal clear on Monday that he is staying with the Bearcats program after he was pegged as the top candidate to take over in East Lansing. This coming one day after he reportedly met with Michigan State officials about its opening. Fickell is 26-13 in three seasons with the Bearcats, has posted two straight 11-win seasons and landed in the final AP Top 25 in both of those years.

So who else has turned Michigan State down as the program continues its search? Who's left on the table? Let's break down the wild ride.

Who's out ...

The list of coaches who have either publicly or reportedly passed on the job reads more like Homer's epic poem "Odyssey." Here's a brief overview:

  • Iowa State coach Matt Campbell
  • Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi
  • Colorado coach Mel Tucker
  • Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell
  • Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry

Needless to say, this is a bad look for Michigan State. Typically a medium-to-high profile program in the Big Ten with plenty of money to spend should not be scrambling to find a coach, even during an odd time on the calendar. Yet, here the Spartans are -- left out in the cold in the dead of winter.

What's clear is that increased revenue generated by programs and conferences across the board has made it very easy for coaches in lower-tier Power Five jobs and higher-profile Group of Five jobs to bide their time and wait for the "perfect fit." Even highly-paid coordinators like Pry can sit back and swing for the fences. That should have been the primary concern for Michigan State when Dantonio made his decision known.

Who's left ...

Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain is one of the top names out there, and for good reason. McElwain orchestrated one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent memory last season, when he took a team that went 1-11 in 2018, posted an 8-6 record and won the MAC West title in his first season in 2019. He's 52-33 overall at stops at Colorado State (2012-14), Florida (2015-17) and Central Michigan (2019), has five bowl appearances and won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016 while with the Gators. 

Yahoo! Sports reported Monday that California's Justin Wilcox and Kentucky's Mark Stoops could be included on the new list of candidates. Alabama offensive analyst Butch Jones might be another option considering he has significant head coaching experience at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Tennessee.

Former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is another high-profile name to keep an eye on. Sources have told CBS Sports that he is interested in the job after spending the last two seasons on the New England Patriots staff. He was named the outside linebackers coach for the New York Giants last month, but would likely sprint to East Lansing to get another shot at a Big Ten job.

Who should be hired ...

Bielema just makes sense. He went 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12, earned three straight Rose Bowl berths from 2010-12 and posted four double-digit win seasons. The Arkansas experiment didn't go as planned, but he did lead the Razorbacks to three straight bowl games which, in hindsight, isn't that bad considering the depth of the hole that his successor Chad Morris dug.

Michigan State's DNA is the same as Bielema's. Its foundation is physicality at the line of scrimmage and playing fundamentally sound football on both sides of the ball. Yes, the lack of a dynamic offense has been frustrating for Spartans fans, and it's not as if Bielema is known for his offensive prowess. But, consider this: Arkansas finished third in the SEC in passing offense in 2015 and 2016, and second in passing plays of 20 or more yards in 2016 with 53. Maybe ... just maybe ... quarterback Austin Allen's mid-season injury that knocked him out of four games in Bielema's final season in 2017 had more to do with Arkansas' demise than Bielema's coaching acumen.

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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