Monday, January 6, 2014

So who gets the job?

He began his coaching career modestly as a graduate assistant at his alma mater at the age of 23.

He later went on to become an assistant coach at four different schools before getting his first head coaching gig at the age of 36.

He took a storied college football program that hadn’t won a conference title in 11 seasons and restored it to greatness within two seasons. His teams have won eight conference championships in 15 seasons.

For years, his name has been linked at various times with the opportunity to take his coaching talents to the National Football League.

And for years, even though he chose to remain in the collegiate ranks, the linking of his name with the NFL grows exponentially.

He is clearly the most interesting man in the Browns’ search for their next head coach.

He is Robert Anthony Stoops, the most successful member of the famous football family of Youngstown, Ohio. And, according to reports, is on the Browns’ radar.

Stoops, whose college coaching record at Oklahoma University is 160-39 after his Sooners upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl recently, would be a natural fit for the Browns. He has never in his 15 seasons at Oklahoma not gone to a bowl game.

He would be a terrific public relations coup should he decide to finally make that final coaching leap. The freshness of the local kid returning to his roots (geographic latitude in effect here) would have a lingering effect.

He would be a highly popular hire. He’d become the face of the team. Anyone who dared criticize such a move would be ostracized.

Stoops has two negatives. He has never before coached in the NFL. More coaches wind up failing than succeeding while trying to make the leap from college to the NFL. And he is a virtual unknown from a coaching standpoint to Joe Banner and Mike (The Ghost) Lombardi.

Both men are strictly NFL guys. Their roots are sunk deep into the league. And while Stoops might be given some consideration should be finally acquiesce and explore the possibility of turning pro, the fact he is college might be a deterrent.

Lombardi might be a figurehead, but his input in matters such as these are not ignored. Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam III will make the ultimate coaching choice, but not without the thoughts of Lombardi and assistant GM Ray Farmer.

Stoops is being coy with regard to his immediate future. Responding to a report out of St. Louis early last week that he had the inside track on the Cleveland job, he said, innocuously, “You never know.”

Later, he told national talk show host Dan Patrick that “you never know what will come your way. Right now, I love what I’m doing. Right now, it’s not something I will pursue.”

He might not pursue, but he might wind up being the pursued. It’s entirely possible that whoever wants Stoops’ talents might be doing so in a surreptitious manner through back channels.

Now on to the other candidates.

If Stoops is the most interesting man in the Browns’ search for a new head coach, James Franklin certainly has to be the most intriguing.

Who is James Franklin? To the college football junkie who follows the sport religiously, he’s the young head coach at Vanderbilt University, a school known much more for education than football. To the average college football fan, Franklin is “who?”.

All he did when he took over a moribund Vanderbilt program in 2011 is become the first Commodores coach in 68 years to win his first three games en route to a 6-6 record and lead his team to a bowl game.

Last season alone, the Commodores knocked off bitter rival Tennessee at home for the first time in 30 years, won four straight Southeast Conference games in a row for the first time since 1949, and produced their first eight-victory season in 30 years and first nine-victory season since 1915. This past season resulted in the school’s first ever back-to-back nine-victory seasons and a third straight bowl game.

So why is he reportedly on the Browns’ radar? No one knows for certain. In some circles, he is considered a budding coaching star. Anyone who can almost magically turn around the Vandy program so quickly and successfully obviously has the kind of coaching chops that draws the attention of larger college programs.

It’s very possible the Browns’ interest in at least interviewing Franklin stems from Haslam’s knowledge of the coach. The owner is a huge supporter of Tennessee football and the Commodores have defeated his Volunteers the last two seasons. Maybe he figures if Franklin can do that at Vanderbilt, why not the Browns?

Two more points: Franklin did serve as wide receivers coach with Green Bay in 2005. So he does have some NFL experience. And Banner is not averse to tapping an unexpected unknown as his coach. He’s already done that twice; first with Andy Reid in Philadelphia and then Rob Chudzinski. He’s batting .500.

Another college coach in the field is Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Considered by many an offensive genius in the Chip Kelly mold, Malzahn also might be the luckiest coach in college football this year.

The only reason he’s in the BCS Championship game against Florida State Monday night is a lucky break on a tipped pass in the late stages of the Georgia game that turned a loss into a victory, and an iconic 109-yard return of a missed field goal in the victory over Alabama that propelled the Tigers to the title game.

Without those two fluke plays, Auburn is just another very good football team and Malzahn, who has no NFL experience, is just another coach who came close. And probably removed his face from the Cleveland radar.

Now when it comes to Todd Bowles, Dan Quinn and Adam Gase, the talk turns serious because they have NFL pedigree. You can, for all practical purposes, eliminate Bowles and Quinn from the competition, though. They are defensive coaches. The Browns are looking for an offensive-minded  head coach.

Interviewing Bowles, who one-upped Ray Horton as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator this past season, satisfies the Rooney Rule. And Quinn is the flavor of the year with his brilliant coordinating of the Seattle Seahawks’ defense. Neither man is a serious candidate.

Gase is another story. The Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator, in his fifth year with the team, is young (he’ll be 36 in March) and very progressive. Much like Chudzinski was a year ago at this time.

There are those who believe the Broncos’ real offensive coordinator is Peyton Manning, that Gase is the coordinator in name only. Manning runs every offense as though it’s his own. He did it in Indianapolis for all those years and directs it in Denver like he is conducting a symphony.

Then there are those who believe Gase is maximizing Manning’s fading physical capabilities to the point where he is setting league records for passing. He and Manning are reputed to be extremely tight.

Only problem is Cleveland does not have a quarterback who is even in the same universe as Manning. And maybe Gase wouldn’t want to put himself in such a position for his first head coaching job.

He also has made it known he will not make himself available for interviews until the Broncos are either eliminated from the playoffs or after the Super Bowl, whichever comes first. So if the Browns haven’t named a new coach by that time, you can almost bet Gase is definitely in the mix.

Unless, of course, Banner and Haslam surprise us all and tap someone whose name has not yet surfaced. The way Banner works, that wouldn't at all be surprising.

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