Grading college football hires, round 2: Kalen DeBoer, Jedd Fisch earn high marks

As if Nick Saban didn’t create enough content opportunities for us college football-types when he retired from Alabama on Jan. 10, here’s another one – I get to re-do my annual Power 5 hires report card with four new editions.

Alabama, Washington, Arizona and Michigan have been added to the 2024 cycle since we last published our report card on Dec. 12 when Duke appeared to have pressed the ‘off’ switch on the coaching carousel with the hiring of Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. That brings the total Power 5 hires to 13 this offseason.

Sporting News has been studying where Power 5 athletic directors have been finding their next coaches for the last eight hiring cycles. Here are the updated statistics and where this year falls.

New Hire 2017-23 2024 P5 Head coach 10 4 Promoted 12 3 P5 Coordinator 15 2 P5 Assistant 3 1 G5 Head coach 24 3 Other* 13 0

* – Includes NFL assistants, coaches out of football or FCS coaches

With Carousel II of 2023-24 now in the books, the number of Power 5 head coaches switching schools climbs to four, which is solidly above the 1.4 per year average of the seven previous years. It looks like the head men are following their players with the transfer portal trend. Arizona (Brent Brennan) joined Houston and Indiana as schools that took what has historically been the most common trend – dipping into the G5 level for its new coach.

Here are our grades for the nine Power Five hires in 2023, alphabetical by school. And here are past report cards from 2021 and 2022.

MORE: Coaching carousel for all FBS schools

Grading college football coaching hires for 2024

Alabama – Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer

Plusses – the man has won everywhere he’s been, bringing with him an insane career record of 104-12 as a head coach at Sioux Falls, Fresno State and Washington. He immediately turned a Washington program that was in disarray around and led it to its best season in over 30 years.

Minuses – He’s never coached in the SEC, has no ties to the South, and just five years ago he was an obscure Big Ten offensive coordinator at a lower-level Big Ten program. The rise has been meteoric, and the internal pressure at Alabama to make the playoff every year as the floor of the program would be a challenge for anyone.

Grade: A-

Arizona – San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan

Brennan survived a disastrous 3-22 start to his San Jose State tenure and went 31-27 in his final five seasons there, making three bowl games in his final four years. He was a finalist for the Arizona job in 2020 and got it the second time around. He is inheriting a good situation with the Wildcats’ move to a seemingly wide open Big 12 and his two to stars – QB Noah Fafita and WR Tetairoa McMillin – returning to U of A. This late in the game, it is hard to see Arizona doing much better, but Brennan has little name recognition and a sub-.500 career record.

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Grade: C+

Duke – Penn State DC Manny Diaz

Diaz returns to the head coaching chair after two successful seasons as Penn State’s DC. The Nittany Lions were No. 17 last year and No. 1 this year in total defense. Diaz was head coach at Miami for three years, where he went 21-15 after replacing Mark Richt and was then replaced himself by Mario Cristobal. He’s 49 and a defensive coach, similar to his predecessor. We’ll see if he learns from his first stop and stays at Duke for a longer stretch.

Grade – B

Houston – Tulane head coach Willie Fritz

This seems to be a long timing coming for Fritz, who elevated Tulane to almost unthinkable heights the last two seasons. The Wave went 23-4 the last two years, including a Cotton Bowl win, and are off to their fifth bowl in six seasons after having just one bowl game in the previous 15. Fritz, 63, has had a ton of success at the junior college, Division II and FCS levels before arriving at Georgia Southern and Tulane. His Power 5 opportunity has been well-earned, and Houston is positioned to contend in a Big 12 that no longer features Texas and Oklahoma.

Grade – A-

Indiana – James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti

Cignetti earned a Big Ten job with a brilliant two-year run at James Madison, which was transitioning to FBS but put together a 19-4 record in the Sun Belt. Cignetti immediately announced his presence at an IU basketball game, saying “Purdue sucks, and so does Michigan and Ohio State.” Bravado aside, Cignetti, 61, brings four years of experience as Nick Saban’s recruiting coordinator at Alabama from 2007-10. Indiana is in need of some juice, and Cignetti plans to bring it.

Grade – B

Michigan – Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore

Moore was an obvious choice before Jim Harbaugh’s second three-game suspension in 2023. After he led Michigan to a 3-0 record against Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State, in addition to his brilliant play-calling late in Michigan’s win over Alabama, Moore became a slam-dunk. Moore, 37, played at Oklahoma and has been on Harbaugh’s staff since 2018. He has been offensive coordinator for the last three seasons and the Wolverines finished No. 69, No. 24 and No. 24 in total offense. Being part of the Harbaugh staff will buy him a lot of cred in the Michigan family and he has held his own as a recruiter.

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Grade – B+

BENDER: Sherrone Moore will face significant challenges in Year 1

Michigan State – Oregon St. head coach Jonathan Smith

This could turn out to be the best hire of the cycle. Smith built Oregon State from the ground up, winning at a place where it was the ‘little brother’ in its own state, and had an 18-7 record the last two years. It was a bit of a slow build, but he got the Beavers in bowl games in Years 4, 5 and 6 in Corvallis. Smith is a grounded guy who should stabilize a program that has been on a roller coaster the last few years and will have a high floor even in the reconfigured Big Ten.

Grade – A-

Mississippi State – Oklahoma OC Jeff Lebby

Lebby was embraced by the Bulldog faithful immediately, but others have not been so sure. Oklahoma reportedly was not particularly heartbroken he left. Still, his Sooners ranked in the top 15 nationally the last two years and Mississippi State is ready to return to the Mike Leach days of emphasizing the pass. At 39, we’ll see if he is ready for his first head coaching job to be in the SEC competing against Kirby Smart, Lane Kiffin, Josh Heupel, Steve Sarkisian and Eli Drinkwitz in Year 1.

Grade – B-

Northwestern – DC/interim coach David Braun

Braun went from defensive coordinator to interim coach to head coach in less than 12 months in Evanston. Braun, 33, was the Big Ten Coach of the Year after guiding a Northwestern program that went 1-11 in 2022 and fired Pat Fitzgerald over the summer due to a hazing scandal to a 7-5 record. Is he ready for the Big Ten? It is hard to argue against the hire after the dramatic turnaround, but the Wildcats avoided Michigan and Ohio State and five of its seven wins were by one score. Every step of this offseason will be a new experience, but so far, so good.

Grade – B

Oregon State – DC Trent Bray 

The Oregon State job was not going to be in demand given the program’s iffy future, so staying in-house was a smart way to go. Bray was a first-team All-Pac-10 linebacker and captain at Oregon State as a senior in 2005. He coached with Mike Riley at Oregon State and Nebraska, then returned to Corvallis, where he’s been since 2018. In Bray’s two seasons as defensive coordinator, the Beavers have ranked first and fourth in the conference in total defense. How he recruits to Corvallis given Oregon State’s state of flux will be an extreme challenge. 

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Grade – B+

Syracuse – Georgia DBs coach Fran Brown

Brown interviewed for the Temple job at 35 years old and now gets his first head coaching gig at 40. The last two years, he’s been one of Kirby Smart’s primary recruiters at Georgia after spending almost all of his coaching career in the northeast at Temple and Rutgers. Brown left the Bulldogs after the SEC championship game and is doing what he does best – recruiting the northeast. Brown joins Shane Beamer (South Carolina), Sam Pittman (Arkansas) and Joey McGuire (Texas Tech) as recent assistant coaches who were hired outside of a program that were not coordinators.

Grade – C+

MORE: Latest QB news from the transfer portal tracker

Texas A&M – Duke head coach Mike Elko

After appearing to offer Kentucky’s Mark Stoops the job, and then pulling it back, the Aggies got it right with Elko. The 46-year-old had a strong two-year run at Duke, going 16-9 after that program had gone 5-18 the two seasons before he arrived. Elko was the DC in College Station for four years prior to Duke, so he knows what he’s getting into. He has a reputation as a no-nonsense football guy who should bring more organizational order to an Aggies program brimming with talent. He is ready for the rigors of the SEC.

Grade – A

​Washington – Jedd Fisch

Fisch has a wide array of coaching experience, coaching at five Power 5 schools and seven NFL teams before finally getting his first head job at Arizona. He inherited a mess and went 1-11 in his first season before going 5-7 and 10-3 the next two seasons. The Wildcats finished this season ranked No. 14, which is only the second time this century Arizona has finished in the final AP top 25. Washington was inevitably going to take a step back this year, and the late coaching change plus a bleak quarterback situation may make for a rough Year 1. But Fisch is a good long-term hire and he seems to have the chops to build the program back up after an inevitable regression in 2024.

Grade: A-

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