Coaching carousel: USC should evaluate these candidates for the head coaching job

As the search for USC’s next head coach begins, here are some of our top choices.

Photo of coach James Franklin

On Monday afternoon, USC athletic director Mike Bohn announced that the university had parted ways with head coach Clay Helton and replaced him with interim head coach Donte Williams. Bohn declared that USC will conduct a “national search” to fill the head coach position. Here are potential candidates for USC to evaluate:

Donte Williams, USC cornerbacks and interim head coach

The most obvious replacement for Helton is the Trojans’ cornerbacks coach and current interim head coach Donte Williams. USC poached Williams from Oregon before the 2020 season primarily to boost the team’s recruiting ability and instantly saw results. After signing the worst class in the Pac-12 in 2020, USC was able to sign the seventh-best class in the country in 2021 along with the No. 2 recruit in the nation, defensive end Korey Foreman. Williams is credited by many with turning around the team’s recruiting, and he will make an intriguing head coaching candidate if he is able to finish out the season with a promising record.

James Franklin, Penn State head coach

The eight-year head coach at Penn State has had a lot of success coaching for the Nittany Lions, but greener pastures could be found if he made the move to USC. Franklin’s worst season record with the exception of the abbreviated 2020 season is 9-4. Franklin has helped rebuild a program previously plagued by scandals and negative attention into one of the top programs in the country, and he could rebuild USC in the same way but with a higher floor. With USC’s extensive resources, the sky’s the limit for what Franklin could accomplish.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach

One of the most talked-about coaching candidates is the Cincinnati Bearcats’ head coach Luke Fickell. In the past four seasons, Fickell has a cumulative record of 33-6, and he shows no signs of slowing down this year. Fickell has done a lot with very little for Cincinnati, and it is easy to imagine that he could rank among college football’s top coaches if given the resources at USC’s disposal. Fickell even has a connection with Bohn, who hired Fickell for the Cincinnati head coaching job. The decision in the offseason for Fickell will be whether he should remain at Cincinnati to help the Bearcats navigate their entrance into the Big 12 by 2024 or leave for a high-profile Power Five job immediately. If Fickell believes that he can meet USC’s high standards, then the decision to move to sunny Los Angeles should be clear.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach

Few coaches could do what Matt Campbell did at Iowa State and that makes him a very attractive candidate for USC. Campbell took a team with one bowl win since 2004 to two bowl wins in his first five years at the helm. In a hurry, Campbell turned one of the worst programs in college football into an annual Big 12 contender and a team that consistently challenges blue bloods such as Texas and Oklahoma. The rebuild will not be as intense at USC, but Campbell has the knowledge from his time at Iowa State to set USC on the right course for success. Campbell may be content with his job in Ames, so USC will need to make a strong pitch if they want him in South LA.

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach

Over the past couple of years, the candidate USC fans have made the most buzz about is Urban Meyer. The current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach won a national championship at both Florida and Ohio State and suffered only nine losses in the seven seasons he coached the Buckeyes. Needless to say, Meyer would be an exceptional hire for the Trojans. The only potential problems with hiring Meyer are his recent health issues that could cut his career short and his recent hiring by the Jacksonville Jaguars which could prevent Meyer from leaving for a new job so soon. Meyer said Wednesday that there is “no chance” he would leave the NFL to coach at USC, but there is still plenty of time for him to change his mind. Meyer should be at the top of USC’s list, and it will be interesting to see if he makes a move back to the college game now that one of the top college programs is in desperate need of a head coach with championship experience.

Chris Petersen, former Washington head coach

Should Petersen decide to come out of retirement, USC would be a perfect landing spot for the accomplished offensive mind. Petersen knows the Pac-12 landscape well and is one of only two head coaches who have taken a Pac-12 team to the College Football Playoff. The roster is already there for Petersen; all he would have to do is bring his revolutionary play designs to USC and the Trojans may be unstoppable. Petersen paired with the superb recruiting prowess Donte Williams brings to the table would make for a deadly combination that would put the rest of the Pac-12 on notice.

Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach

Another former head coach who may eye a return to college football after seeing the vacancy at USC is former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops. Stoops earned 10 Big 12 titles and won a national championship during his time as the Sooners’ head coach. For a program that has clinched one Pac-12 title in the last 12 years, a decorated head coach would be a welcome change to the coaching staff. Stoops is currently a broadcast analyst for FOX Sports but came out of retirement in 2019 to coach an XFL team prior to the league collapsing due to financial issues. If Stoops was willing to coach in the XFL, he might be willing to explore the possibility of being USC’s next head coach.

Tony Elliott, Clemson offensive coordinator

It’s hard to envision USC selecting a coordinator to be the team’s next head coach, but Elliott would be a formidable hire even without any prior head coaching experience. Elliott has been at Clemson for almost the entirety of Dabo Swinney’s reign as head coach which means he knows what it takes to build a successful college football program. Elliott helped the Tigers perform well against the top opponents in the country with regularity, as Clemson averaged 36 points in its four national championship games. Elliott has shown he can perform at the highest level, and USC should heavily consider his resume despite the lack of head coaching experience.

Other potential coordinators USC may want to pursue are Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, but USC’s administration may deem a coordinator to be too low-profile of a hire for a program with the storied history that USC has.