Reading between the lines of Nebraska athletics director Trev Alberts’ comments Sunday, when he announced the firing of Scott Frost, the Cornhuskers’ next coaching search will fit under these parameters:
- Nebraska will have money to spend.
As a case in point, the university will pay more than $ 16 million to toss Frost after the ugly loss to Georgia Southern rather than waiting just weeks until Oct. 1, when his buyout was set to be trimmed in half.
Along with the increasingly large payouts handed down by the Big Ten, that severe package indicates Nebraska will be motivated to go beyond Frost’s $ 5 million annual salary and come closer to or even exceed the $ 7 million mark that has become the new benchmark for top-of -the-line head coaches in the Power Five.
- Alberts will be patient (and he’ll need to be).
Getting out in front of the market can pay off if you’re evaluating candidates able to drop everything and step right into the job by midseason. In the last cycle, Texas Tech (Joey McGuire) and Georgia Southern (Clay Helton) hired new coaches in November, about a month before the market traditionally heats up.
Nebraska isn’t looking at that sort of option. While the program may be able to reset the market from a financial perspective, the likely list of contenders for this opening will still keep the Cornhuskers tethered to the end of the regular season unless the university taps an immediately available option such as former Florida coach Dan Mullen or former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall.
- The Cornhuskers want an established head coach
Meaning a current head coach or one who has been a head coach in the recent past. More specifically, this search is going to center on current Power Five head coaches with a track record of developing talent, building chemistry and establishing an identity that can serve as the bedrock of the entire program.
Regardless of money, Nebraska won’t be able to pull away a sitting head coach at a program of greater value – the athletics department must sell the opening as a chance to rebuild a once-proud brand in a coach’s image, which will be very appealing to a certain type of candidate. But the biggest names in coaching aren’t tossing aside a better situation simply for the opportunity to put their stamp on the Cornhuskers.
While things can and will almost certainly change before the end of the regular season, these are five realistic names for the Nebraska opening among current Power Five head coaches.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State
As a candidate, Campbell is a safe and sturdy pick who aces three of the Cornhuskers’ primary criteria.
He’s a proven Power Five coach who has achieved historic success under less-than-ideal circumstances by identifying prospects who fit his scheme regardless of their ranking as recruits or interest from Power Five peers. He’s established a culture at Iowa State that has played a substantial role in the best run in program history. He’s a grinder who revels in the foundation-setting portion of a coach’s tenure and would embrace the task of digging Nebraska out from the depths of recent embarrassment.
Basically, Campbell is a 300-yard drive down the fairway that leaves you in range of a birdie but with the floor of saving par. You know what you’re going to get: clean, solid, physical football that would conceivably play well in Lincoln. In terms of his availability and interest of him, Campbell has had opportunities to leave Iowa State but has been waiting for the right position to come open; Nebraska may represent the sweet spot.
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Dave Doeren, North Carolina State
Not long removed from coming under some scrutiny following a 4-8 finish in 2019, Doeren has the Wolfpack up to No. 12 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and in the mix for the most successful season in program history. He’s posted seven winning records in his nine full seasons and done a very nice job developing quarterbacks and edge rushers, two positions where Nebraska has missed far more often than not for more than a decade.
Originally from the Midwest and an assistant at Kansas and Wisconsin before being named the head coach at Northern Illinois, he would understand the landscape in the Big Ten but would need to reestablish a recruiting foothold in the Cornhuskers’ 500-mile bubble. Unflashy and reserved, Doeren’s personality would fit the ethos of Nebraska.
Like the last name on this list, however, for Doeren to choose the Cornhuskers would require that he toss aside a long building process and forego ownership of a program covered from top to bottom with his fingerprints. It could be a tough sell.
Chris Klieman, Kansas State
Few active coaches on any level have been as successful as Klieman, who took home four Championship Subdivision national championships in five years at North Dakota State and has won eight games in his two non-COVID seasons with the Wildcats. This year’s team just routed Missouri and seems ready to contend with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas for the Big 12 crown and New Year’s Six berth.
While he’s in a good spot with very solid job security, the Nebraska job ranks higher on the Power Five ladder. On the other hand, Klieman has already led the Wildcats through the early transition period and seems to have this year’s team destined for a Top 25 finish. Is he willing to restart that process in an tougher situation with the Cornhuskers?
If not the easiest decision for him to make, Nebraska can simply offer more: more money in a better conference with a deeper reservoir of resources.
Lance Leipold, Kansas
Fresh off an overtime win at West Virginia that leaves Kansas at 2-0 for the first time since 2011, Leipold has quickly reversed the Jayhawks’ losing ways and placed the program on an upward trajectory for the first time in over a decade. As an off-field Nebraska assistant in the early 2000s, he understands the program, the expectations and, importantly, the disadvantages that come with the position.
Like Klieman, he’s won big on lower levels of competition. Leipold ran a powerhouse Division III program at Wisconsin-Whitewater, winning six national championships and playing for another, and then turned Buffalo into one of the top teams in the MAC.
While Nebraska can almost certainly land him, it would become a much easier sell for Alberts and the athletics department if the Jayhawks can stay hot and make a run at bowl eligibility. Even if the search isn’t geared toward winning immediate public acclaim, there’s a matter of what sort of goodwill the new hire brings to the position: Leipold would be in a better place from the start if Kansas gets to five or even six wins during the regular season.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Stoops would represent a home-run hire for the Cornhuskers based on his work transforming Kentucky from SEC punchline to one of the toughest teams in the Power Five. He has the added track record of reeling in recruits out of Big Ten country, specifically Ohio. Schematically, Stoops and his staff di lui have developed a model designed to even the playing field with more gifted opponents, with terrific results.
Then there’s the question: Why would he leave the SEC for a spot at a historically stronger but recently far weaker program? Like Doeren, he’s spent years constructing Kentucky into an annual Top 25 contender. Leaving means giving that away, of course. But the Cornhuskers can offer money and the chance to be the biggest show in town – something he’ll never, ever get with the Wildcats, which he has worn on Stoops as evidenced by his public back-and-forth with basketball coach John Calipari .