Staff picks: Who’s on the cusp of emerging as the next ‘it’ coach in college football?


Every silly season, there are always a small handful of coaches who emerge at the top of the rumor mill. They’re the up-and-comers, coaches who are shooting their way to the very top of the college football coaching ladder. In recent years, names like Matt Campbell, Luke Fickell, Mike Norvell, Tom Herman and P.J. Fleck have been synonymous with coaches on the rise. 

As we head into the 2020 season, our staff picked their new “it” coach to watch. Whether they’re on the verge of landing a Power Five job or moving even further up the chain, these coaches have already proven they can win; soon, they’ll be asked to win at the highest level. Is there a new Dabo Swinney or Jimbo Fisher in this group? Our team gave us their takes. 

David Cobb: Justin Wilcox, Cal

The refreshing thing about the coaches on this list is that, unlike other fairly new faces on the head-coaching scene, they are not spawns of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops. No offense to Kirby Smart, Ryan Day or Lincoln Riley, but it’s nice to see a coach make something of himself for reasons that don’t chiefly include who served as his former boss. Sure, Justin Wilcox spent some time working for Chris Petersen, but the 43-year-old’s resume is more diverse than that of almost all his peers, and that’s paying dividends. Cal has improved its win total in each of Wilcox’s three seasons, and the Bears are poised for a breakout season in 2020.

Cal might not be a place where Wilcox can compete for the Pac-12 championship every year. But if he can string together a couple of 10-win seasons over the next few years, which his current trajectory certainly suggests is possible, then look out. With experience as a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC, he could be a candidate to land a USC, Michigan, Auburn or Virginia Tech-caliber job and become one of the sport’s most powerful coaches.

Chip Patterson: Scott Satterfield, Louisville

All he does is win. Over the last five seasons, Satterfield’s teams have won 48 games and three conference championships. When Satterfield was tasked with bringing energy and commitment back into the heart of the Louisville football program, his six-game turnaround in Year 1 was the best among all Power Five programs. It was a no-brainer that he was named ACC Coach of the Year, but his first season with the Cardinals showed was that he’s going to be a coaching force at the Power Five level just like he was in the Sun Belt. 

A former Appalachian State quarterback who cut his teeth on the staff of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Moore, Satterfield has a coaching foundation that’s been proven to succeed outside of the friendly confines of Boone, North Carolina. Maintaining success in the ACC Atlantic is tough with Clemson at the peak of its powers and Florida State looking to get back on track with Mike Norvell, but Satterfield is the kind of “it” coach that can make it happen. 

Barrett Sallee: Mike Norvell, Florida State

Florida State isn’t some down-trodden program that has no chance to regain long-term, sustained success. It’s a blue blood, top-tier program that has fallen on hard times. Norvell has proven during his short career as a head coach that he not only can maximize talent with a wide-open, up-tempo scheme, but he can do it in a ground-and-pound, ultra-physical style that will create massive headaches in the ACC. 

Simply put, Norvell does everything imaginable to take advantage of the high-level athletes in the state of Florida. He inherited a Memphis program from Justin Fuente that had arguably reached its all-time height. All he did was win 38 games in four years culminating with a berth in the Cotton Bowl last season. He’s doesn’t have many steps to be the next big thing, and that will happen sooner rather than later. 

Tom Fornelli: P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

P.J. Fleck hasn’t even reached the age of 40, yet he has led two different FBS programs to double-digit win seasons. After leading Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and a Cotton Bowl appearance in 2016, Fleck rowed his boat west to Minnesota. He went 12-13 in his first two seasons with the Gophers, but the team broke through in 2019, finishing 11-2 and defeating Auburn in the Outback Bowl. 

His personality and approach have shown to rub some people the wrong way, but it’s clear that for those who vibe with it, it’s an effective approach. The one thing Fleck still must prove is that he can maintain the success he’s had at his two stops. If he can do that at Minnesota, bigger jobs will come calling.

Ben Kercheval: Will Healy, Charlotte

Wow. I can’t believe I’m the only one with the onions to go outside the Power Five to the land where “it coaches” grow on trees. Healy is going to be ripe for the plucking in a few years. In exactly one year at Charlotte, Healy took the 49ers to their first bowl game: the Bahamas Bowl which, if you’ve never been to a bowl game before, is a hell of a place to start. In fact, Charlotte’s 7-6 effort was the first winning season for the program since it rebooted in 2013. 

This was not a one-time fluke, either. Healy took over Austin Peay as a first-time head coach in December, 2015, at a time when the program had won just a single game in the previous three seasons. After going winless in 2016, Austin Peay won 13 games in the next two seasons under Healy while recruiting well at the FCS level. At just 35 years old, Healy is one of the best-kept secrets in college football. All he’s done is taken downtrodden programs and turn them into winners. And his best years are still ahead of him. Healy will become a Power Five program-builder before his career is done. 





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