COLUMBIA — An established defensive guru, or an offensive wunderkind? That could be the choice South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner makes to determine the Gamecocks’ next head football coach.
Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley appear to be two names on the short list Tanner has to replace Steve Spurrier, who resigned Oct. 13. Sources confirmed Thursday that Muschamp will interview for the job, and that Tanner will also speak with Riley. Interim head coach Shawn Elliott has also interviewed for the position, a source said.
And late Thursday, a name familiar in the Palmetto State joined the fray. Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, a former offensive coordinator at Clemson, will interview for the job according to a Fox Sports report. Rodriguez, 52, is 152-104-2 as head coach at West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona, including 6-6 this season with the Wildcats.
Muschamp, 44, has enjoyed success as defensive coordinator at a number of stops. He was head coach at Florida for four years, going 28-21 before being fired following a loss last season to USC. Muschamp also has a likely backer in Spurrier, who called him “a good friend in coaching” before South Carolina and Florida played last season.
Former USC defensive lineman Preston Thorne, a Summerville native, said Muschamp’s struggles at Florida likely wouldn’t matter to current Gamecocks players.
“I think today with social media, they’re aware. But I don’t think they’d read into it what adults would,” said Thorne, who played from 2000-04. “The things the kids are probably looking at are, ‘Man, he let them wear alternate uniforms,’ or, ‘They get real pumped up on the sideline.’ They’re probably not into all the minutiae that adults might be. They’re keenly aware of what went on at Florida, but I don’t think it would impact what kind of impression he could make on them.”
Riley, 32, oversees a Sooners offense which averages 45.8 points per game, third-best in the nation. While he’s served as coordinator at East Carolina as well Oklahoma, he’s never been a head coach. If hired, he would become the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
And for USC players, it would present a stark transition from the 70-year-old Spurrier.
“It would be really interesting,” said Thorne, now an educator in Blythewood. “On one hand, they don’t see a 32-year-old as a pal or a buddy, because they still see those guys as kind of old. But I definitely think there would be a level of excitement, because they’d see this new guy coming in who can relate to some of the things they’re into, like language and pop culture. Whereas the older guys don’t really care about that kind of stuff.”
Former Ohio State running back Robert Smith agreed. “I think the players would enjoy it, quite frankly,” said Smith, now an ESPN analyst. “... A guy like Lincoln Riley clearly has a great offensive mind. He’s a young, energetic, guy who would energize the team as well. So when you talk about getting in recruits and kind of changing the perception of a program that’s been completely reenergized — i think that could have a great impact for the team moving forward.”
Another head coach who has been mentioned as a potential candidate at USC, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, is working on a “long-term deal” to remain in Chapel Hill, according to a Scout website which covers the Tar Heels. Fedora and eighth-ranked UNC play No. 1 Clemson on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game.
USC has refocused its search after apparently missing on two top targets. Houston head coach Tom Herman has reportedly reached an agreement in principle to remain with the Cougars, who are offering a pay increase from $1.3 million to over $3 million annually. And Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is reportedly set to replace the fired Mark Richt at Georgia, his alma mater.
Tanner said this week he was down to a short list of candidates, and hoped to have a new coach in place by the end of next week. The Fox Sports report on Rodriguez also mentioned Cal head coach Sonny Dykes and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano as likely interviewees at USC. As for Riley, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops — another close friend of Spurrier’s — told a Dallas radio station that he supports his assistants in finding head-coaching jobs.
“I promote it,” he said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “What’ll happen, we’ll see. But I don’t ever look at it as holding on to anybody. If things are right for him, then that’s good for him. If things aren’t right for him, he’s got a great place to be with a program that appreciates him. Hopefully he can have the choice to wait for the right situation somewhere down the line.”