Major college football programs often find great difficulty in replacing coaching legends, often wandering in the wilderness through multiple hires as they struggle to find another leader who can marshall their program's resources and win championships on the field.
It's commonly assumed that this is because these jobs are difficult, but in fact while these positions regularly face more scrutiny than other jobs the head coach at the University of Southern California has resources and advantages that other coaches can only dream about. The reality is that major programs often struggle to make good hires because they limit their pool of candidates in an effort to only make a big hire that will match the vanity of the program's fan base rather than one that represents a good fit.
With a job like USC it's all about finding the coach that can marshall the vast resources of the program and mitigate the risks that come from being "too big to fail" and having so much popular attention in a town like Los Angeles. Many of the popular options are not going to thrive in that role and the USC administration's predictable over-steer after hiring someone that hurt the reputation of the university also pares down the options.
Here's the check list competencies next coach at USC needs to be able to check off.
Marshalling USC's resources
Other programs in the Pac-12 will hate to admit this but the conference relies very heavily on Southern Californian players and TV sets and the Trojans are the only elite program in the region. They claim seven of the 10 national championships won since 1960 by programs within the conference and can lay claim to the most powerful dynasty/era of any program in the region with either their run in the 60's and 70's under John McKay or their run in the 2000's under Pete Carroll.
There is major buy-in for the program from their large and powerful alumni network, which is one of the most essential ingredients for a blueblood program, and then there's the local talent which is some of the very best in the nation.
What's more, the university is located in the city of stars within half an hour of Hollywood, which gives the program a celebrity feel to it:
When you're the biggest program in the most talent-rich region, with the greatest tradition, the best resources, and you are THE football team in Hollywood that makes for a pretty easy recruiting pitch. However, understanding and leveraging all these resources is an important part of why Carroll was so successful at USC.
Being brilliant with schemes takes a distant back seat at a program like USC to being able to simply take advantage of the recruiting opportunities and field the best talent in the league in systems where they can just go play.
Additionally, the region is the host of particular types of extraordinary talent. In particular, the region produces a lot of skill talent and some very good quarterbacks. Some of this is simple demographics, as the region has a massive population and thus a large pool of potential players, and some of it is due to the fact that California is home to lots of private skills coaches and wealthy parents willing to throw money their way in the hopes that their sons will become star players.
What current Athletic Director Pat Haden didn't seem to understand when cycling through Carroll's former offensive coordinators in an attempt to recapture the glorious run of the 2000's was that the Carroll era of offense was successful primarily because they were good about stockpiling talent and deploying it in simple pro-style schemes.
It wasn't the offensive coaches that made those teams special, although they were all very effective, as evidenced by the fact that Carroll cycled through a few of them himself without seeing a drop-off. Instead it was Carroll's ability to build a tough, defensively-strong culture at USC in the midst of also being the celebrity football program that every star player wanted to be a part of.
Mitigating USC's problems
That tendency towards over-exposure and hype still caught the Carroll Trojans a few times despite Pete's effective oversight over the football culture in Los Angeles and under Steve Sarkisian the program was becoming to be known for operating like "a damn country club" according to one enraged booster.
The Sarkisian era was also known for seeing the Trojans overwhelm most of their opponents with sheer talent advantages but struggling against other talented teams and getting gashed by good running games. It's easy for programs that use a fun atmosphere to lure in top talent to fall victim to build a front-running culture that struggles to play tough against the run or win against more focused premier programs. Top rated players that dream of playing in the NFL have to be convinced to buy in to a tough, team concept that lesser talents accept more easily.
USC has some other problems that will confront their new coach as well, such as the suddenly surging UCLA Bruins across town and the fact that their hiring process is probably going to be geared around hiring a hard-nosed coach who will clean up the program, instill more toughness, and rebuild the reputation of the university that was lost when their head coach was suspected of trying to coach under the influence.
The new head coach doesn't necessarily need to be a defensive coach or a disciplinarian to effectively counter USC's potential cultural problems and they don't want to end up with someone that will fail to take advantage of the regional talent's potential for creating explosive offense, yet their hiring process will likely vet out some possibly strong candidates out of caution.
The best options
With the current context and overall assets and liabilities of USC well understood it becomes easier to parse the major candidates and talk about who'd be a good fit for bringing the Trojans back to greatness.
The popular names
Nick Saban is going to come up for every major job opening until he has either retired or taken a new job outside of Tuscaloosa. This opportunity actually makes sense on both sides, although it'd be interesting to see how either USC or Lane Kiffin might respond to the possibility of him returning to Los Angeles as offensive coordinator.
Saban is the ultimate program overseer, his defensive system and culture emphasizes toughness and accountability, and he'd thrive recruiting both nationally and locally under the Trojan brand. He may not particularly enjoy Hollywood media or be remotely interested in leaving a comparable program but it'd be worth giving his agent a phone call to see what's up, worst case scenario is you make him more money at Alabama.
Chip Kelly is also going to be a name that comes up with every big college coaching job unless he starts winning in Philadelphia again or he comes back to the college world. His fit in USC is somewhat suspect as he was not one that fit in well with the boosters at Oregon and might chafe against glad-handling powerful people in L.A.
His system would obviously thrive in USC as it's largely the same recruiting grounds he utilized at Oregon and the Duck option game would make it easy to get elite athletes in position to do serious damage to opposing teams. Kelly has also already shown that he adjust his system for QBs that can make pro-style progressions. The lack of cultural fit would likely be a big problem here though and neither he nor his predecessors in Eugene have quite managed to replace what his defensive assistant Nick Allioti did for him.
Kevin Sumlin was rumored to be a candidate in the last go-round at USC and would undoubtedly jump at the chance to execute his Air Raid offense with Southern Cal QBs and athletes against Pac-12 opponents rather than SEC West foes.
However, the vetting process is likely to be more intense this time around and incidents like this or this might make Sumlin a less attractive option given what will undoubtedly be a priority at USC to shore up their reputation and culture as a program.
Kyle Whittingham has Utah surging at the perfect time to be considered for a job at a major program, particularly at a program like USC. He's a defensive coach who's calling card is great DL play and who's offense is built around the run game, which are generally the best paths to dominance for major programs.
Two advantages that a program like USC has that most every other team can't match are having dominant DL play, as athletic 300 pounders are very rare, and being able to score lots of points by running the football, which is also difficult to do without a program that plugs in road-grading OL and elite athletes at RB.
Whittingham's success doing this in Utah portends well for what he could do in USC if given the chance but there are some questions about his ability to leverage USC's recruiting advantages. He's relied on under-rated Islanders while recruiting classes that were ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 thus far, which is a different game than winning battles for the top-rated players in L.A.
Tom Herman has been doing a great job thus far in Houston, and his system is designed to make the most out of a team with talent advantages. While he's an offensive coach, his emphasis on a "smashmouth spread" helps foster an overall defensive culture which would be important for USC's success.
There are problems here on both sides of the table though as USC will likely be reticent to hire a man who's only been the head coach for a single season and at a much smaller program. Similarly, Herman may be hesitant to leave Texas when the top job in that state could be open within a few years although USC is a job that would be nearly impossible to turn down.
Some other options
Justin Fuente is basically two years ahead of Tom Herman but without the championship ring as a coordinator. He was the OC and QB coach at TCU when Andy Dalton was leading the pre-Big 12 Horned Frogs to a Rose Bowl championship and then took over Memphis where he has gone 3-9, 10-3, and now stands at 5-0 in a compelling AAC.
While he should be a top name, he has little to connect him to Southern Californian recruiting or the program, just a resume as a very effective young coach.
Matt Campbell has a resume as the head coach at Toledo that will likely earn him a chance at a Big 10 job in the near future but while he's been highly successful there this season with wins over Arkansas and Iowa State, his expertise at recruiting and building teams in the Midwest isn't going to jump off the list of coaches that might be successful in L.A.
Bryan Harsin is more familiar with recruiting the area and has been an OC at a comparable program before in his 2011-2012 stint at Texas under Mack Brown. His offense would doubtlessly translate (multiple, TE-heavy, and run-centric) and Harsin knows how to build a football culture that produces physical teams. The biggest question would be whether his career goals revolve around winning big at his beloved Boise or managing a top five program.
Bob Stitt should get a chance somewhere and it'd be more than a little fun to watch his version of the Air Raid in Hollywood, although he might do better with a job where he could transform the culture with his exciting style of football rather than having to prove its merits against a time-honored tradition of doing things a particular way.
Dino Babers is an Art Briles disciple who has coached on the west coast, in the midwest, and in Texas so he's familiar with the national recruiting and west coast recruiting scene. His offense would be absolutely terrifying to Pac-12 opponents and exciting for local kids to want to come and play in.
His ability to oversee a tough, defensive culture is somewhat in question but there's no doubt that he'd usher in a fun and wildly interesting era of USC football.
The search process is going to be all about the big names and every NFL coach with a history of success in the past and a sketchy job situation currently is going to be listed as a favorite at some point for the Trojan job.
However, if the powers that be in Southern California will look past the bigger names towards the established coaches in the region such as Whittingham or Harsin or towards interesting up and comers like Dino Babers or Justin Fuente, they might find a coach that can wield the awesome power of a top three program and get this program back on top of the Pac-12 where they belong.