Josh Heupel accepted the head coaching position at Tennessee on Wednesday, leaving the UCF Knights with a vacancy to fill. This is in addition to already needing to replace their athletic director, Danny White, who left for Knoxville last week.
What makes the upcoming hire more difficult is the timing. Usually, head coaching changes happen prior to the beginning of the new year or shortly after. For UCF, a replacement won’t be named until the end of January at the earliest, at a time when teams are finalizing their February signing day class and looking ahead to spring football. This might hurt their chances of pulling some candidates away and opens the door wider for internal candidates. Regardless, there is no denying that UCF is one of the top destinations in the Group of Five.
Here are some candidates, listed alphabetically:
The Head Coaches
Jamey Chadwell - Coastal Carolina Head Coach
The third-year head coach at Coastal Carolina burst onto the scene with the Chanticleers in 2020, putting together a most unexpected 11-1 record and Sun Belt Conference co-conference championship.
Chadwell became offensive coordinator at CCU in 2017 for their first season in the FBS and became interim head coach that year when head coach Joe Moglia had to take a medical leave of absence. Moglia came back and coached in 2018 and Chadwell became the full time head coach in 2019.
What hangs over Chadwell are NCAA violations from 2014 and 2015 during his time at Charleston Southern that included using ineligible players and players using scholarship funds to buy electronics and jewelry from the campus bookstore. The school had to vacate 18 wins and a Big South championship as a result. Chadwell has a 19-17 record at Coastal Carolina.
Lance Leipold - Buffalo Head Coach
Currently, Leipold is the only future College Football Hall of Famer on the list. Granted, that’s because of his work at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, but Leipold has shown he knows how to win. In eight seasons at Wisconsin-Whitewater, he amassed a 109-6 record with six national championships.
In 2015, he was hired by former UCF athletic director Danny White to be the new head coach at Buffalo. While it took some time to improve the Bulls’ program, they have made a bowl game three years in a row for the first time and won the MAC East division in two of the past three. In six seasons at Buffalo, he has a 37-33 record, but you also have to consider how historically bad Buffalo has been.
Billy Napier - Louisiana Head Coach
A product of both the Nick Saban school of coaching at Alabama and an early disciple of Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Billy Napier has had the opportunity to learn from some of the best.
After four seasons as Alabama’s wide receivers coach from 2013-16, he served as Todd Graham’s offensive coordinator at Arizona State. He was offered to retain his role under new head coach Herm Edwards, but he declined.
Since 2018, Napier has been head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana. Napier has been wildly successful at Louisiana, winning the West division of the Sun Belt Conference in each of his three seasons and shared a conference championship in 2020 after COVID forced the championship game to be canceled. The 2020 conference title was the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first since 2005 since they had to vacate their 2013 co-championship. Napier has a 28-11 record at Louisiana.
Tony Elliott - Clemson Offensive Coordinator
Tony Elliott has been a hot commodity for quite some time. The Clemson product and 2017 Broyles Award for best assistant coach has been a coach at his alma mater since 2011. He was the running backs coach from 2011-14 and has served as the co-offensive coordinator since 2015. In 2020, he became the sole offensive coordinator when his peer Jeff Scott was hired at South Florida.
Elliott was the man Danny White reportedly tried to hire at Tennessee before that fell through and he settled on Josh Heupel instead. Oddly enough, White tried to hire Elliott to be Scott Frost’s successor in 2017 before settling on Heupel the first time.
Graham Harrell - USC Offensive Coordinator
Graham Harrell might be the candidate most similar to Josh Heupel, offensively, on this list. At only 35 years of age, he’s also the youngest. Harrell is a product of Texas Tech and was coached by Air Raid guru Mike Leach.
Harrell owns a number of NCAA passing records as a player, including the most 400-yard games in a season and in a career. He also spent two seasons as Leach’s outside wide receivers coach in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, he moved to North Texas and became their offensive coordinator. He has been the OC at USC since 2019.
Rhett Lashlee - Miami Offensive Coordinator
A perennial offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee has been tapping the glass ceiling of head coaching for quite some time.
Since 2011, Lashlee has been employed as an offensive coordinator somewhere. It started with a year at Samford before spending a year under Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State. He followed Malzahn to Auburn as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2013-16. He left Auburn for an expanded OC role at UConn for a year before jumping to SMU in 2018. In 2020, he joined Miami’s staff as the OC.
Jeff Lebby - Ole Miss Offensive Coordinator
A favorite among fans and players, Jeff Lebby spent two seasons at UCF. In 2018, he was the quarterbacks coach. In 2019, he added offensive coordinator to his resume.
Lebby just signed a new two-year contract at Ole Miss that pays him $1.2M per season. Based on UCF’s history, he would get a pay bump if he came back. His offensive style would coincide with what UCF is used to, so there would be less adjusting compared to some of the other prospective hires.
Barry Odom - Arkansas Defensive Coordinator
Like Tony Elliott, Barry Odom is a product of the school where he spent the majority of his time. The former Missouri Tiger was a grad assistant in 2003 before working on the administrative side of the program. In 2009, he returned to the field as safeties coach and in 2012, he moved to Memphis to become defensive coordinator. He then returned to Missouri in 2015 as the DC before head coach Gary Pinkel had to retire due to health reasons.
Odom was then named head coach in 2016 until he was fired in 2019. Odom’s record at Missouri was 25-25 with a pair of bowl losses. He never finished better than third in the SEC East. This past season, Odom was the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Arkansas.
The Other Guys
Gene Chizik is a blast from the past for UCF. He was the Knights’ defensive coordinator from 1998-2001.
In 2002, Chizik moved to Auburn as their DC before moving to Texas in 2005. He became Iowa State’s head coach in 2007 and, after two seasons, was hired to be Auburn’s head coach in 2009.
Chizik won a national championship at Auburn in 2010 along with coach of the year honors from a number of organizations. After posting a 3-9 record in 2012 and facing allegations of NCAA violations, Chizik was fired from Auburn. His latest coaching job was a stint as the DC at North Carolina in 2015 and 2016.
Chizik has a career head coaching record of 38-38. It should be noted that Gus Malzahn was Chizik’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11. More on him in a bit.
Alex Golesh - UCF Offensive Coordinator
Alex Golesh is the least experienced head coaching candidate on this list. Prior to becoming co-offensive coordinator in 2020, Golesh was the tight ends coach at Iowa State. From 2009-11, he was the tight ends coach at Toledo before moving to Illinois where he spent three more seasons as tight ends coach from 2013-15.
While one could speculate that Golesh might follow Josh Heupel to Tennessee, he remains a possible hire as long as he stays at UCF.
Update: It’s been reported that Golesh has joined Heupel in Tennesee.
Along with Gene Chizik, Gus Malzahn represents looking at someone who isn’t locked into a particular program. From 2013-20, Malzahn was the head coach of Auburn. Under his watch, the Tigers won two SEC West Division titles, one conference championship, and peaked with an appearance in the BCS Championship game in 2013, losing to Florida State.
Prior to that, he had a one-year stint at Arkansas State, winning the Sun Belt Conference title. Malzahn has had the pleasure of being on the field for four games against UCF. Three of them came while he was the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008. UCF went 2-1 against Malzahn, including winning the 2007 Conference USA Championship Game. He was the head coach for Auburn when UCF defeated the Tigers in the Peach Bowl to cap a 13-0 undefeated 2017 season.
Malzahn is big on using a hurry-up, no huddle offense, which would coincide with UCF’s fast-paced offense since the start of 2016. Malzahn had a 66-35 record at Auburn before being let go after the 2020 season. It’s worth noting that upon being fired as Auburn’s coach, his buyout was $21.45 million, the largest buyout in college football history.
Randy Shannon - Interim UCF Head Coach
As the defensive coordinator and current interim head coach, Randy Shannon has to be mentioned. His results are polarizing among fans, but he is currently in the building.
From 1991-2010, Shannon coached in the city of Miami. Almost all of that time was spent at his alma mater, the University of Miami, aside from a three-year stint with the Miami Dolphins from 1998-2000. Shannon was the Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator when they won the national championship in 2001.
From 2007-10, Shannon was the Hurricanes’ head coach. That tenure eventually came under NCAA fire due to Nevin Shapiro providing a litany of illegal benefits to players and recruits. Shannon was one of the few people around the program who wanted nothing to do with Shapiro, but that specter has followed him. His record at Miami was 28-22. Shannon has not had a full-time head coaching opportunity since. He was the interim head coach at Florida in 2017 before joining UCF the following season when Heupel was hired.