James Franklin may no longer be Vanderbilt's head coach, but more than 20 candidates have already reached out to AD David Williams to express interest in the job.
That alone is a win for a football program that was resigned to scouring I-AA teams to find a leader over a decade ago. Franklin may have spurned the fanbase he helped build when he left for Penn State last week, but he undoubtedly left this team in better condition than how he found it back in 2010. Williams noted that of the coaches that had contacted him regarding the position, at least five had previously turned down a chance to interview with the Commodores following Bobby Johnson's retirement.
That means that the school will have a chance to pull some hot names into their coaching search. The 'Dores will have the opportunity to kick the tires on a long list of leaders whose experience range from the Sun Belt to the NFC West. Today, we've put together a list of six coaches who have been discussed the most in concert with Vandy's vacant position. Here's a brief look at the gentlemen who could be the next head coach to drop anchor in Nashville.
The Smart-School Coordinators:
Greg Roman. Roman is currently the San Francisco 49ers' Offensive Coordinator, but he previously teamed with coach Jim Harbaugh in 2009 and 2010 to lead Stanford to 20 wins and an Orange Bowl victory. He'll be a tough interview to lock down with the NFC Championship Game looming, but the young assistant has shown interest in returning to the college game as the head coach of a major-conference program.
Like James Franklin before him, Roman is a 41-year old rising star who is known for his offensive prowess (he also had the chance to interview with Penn State before the Vandy coach ultimately took the position). He has played a key role in developing players into stars despite a harsh academic environment and a fanbase that isn't known for filling stadiums. That's the kind of track record that Vanderbilt officials will be looking for this winter. There are questions regarding whether or not Roman would be interested in coming to Nashville due to his high profile in the NFL, but Williams will do his best to make Natchez Trace an enticing destination if he decides that the 49ers coach is his guy.
Derek Mason. Mason is Stanford's Defensive Coordinator and the only defensive specialist (aside from a Bob Shoop mention) to dot today's list. Like James Franklin, he's a coaching nomad who has risen through the ranks to become a top coordinator after several stops along the way. Mason had coached for Weber State, Utah, St. Mary's, Ohio, the Minnesota Vikings, and others before earning the associate head coach role for the Cardinal.
Mason put together a defense that allowed just 19 points per game in 2013. That includes a three-game stretch where his team held UCLA, Oregon, and Oregon State to just 42 combined points (their 2013 combined scoring average? 116). That would be a good fit for the Commodores, who have a roster full of talented defensive players despite losing seven starters from last year's 9-4 team. Mason has a history of developing athletes and creating defensive schemes that work. Imagine what he could do with guys like Kyle Woestmann, Caleb Azubike, Adam Butler, Darreon Herring, and Paris Head in 2014.
Chad Morris. Morris engineered Clemson's high octane offense as Dabo Swinney's coordinator from 2011 to 2013. In that span, he's been named OC of the Year (in 2011, by Rivals.com), helped the Tigers get to a pair of BCS bowl games, and overseen 32 wins in three years. Before that, he - like Vandy's own Herb Hand - took a successful turn running Tulsa's offense and helping the Golden Hurricane score more than 41 points per game in 2010. After turning Tahj Boyd into a beast, he'd have the opportunity to develop Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary into similarly scary quarterbacks for the Commodores.
Clemson officials have gone on record to suggest that they'll work overtime to retain their highly-touted assistant, but the lure of a head coaching job in the SEC could be too much for them to compete with. The school has already made him the highest-paid coordinator in the NCAA thanks to a $1.3m annual salary. Can the Tigers provide Morris with the opportunities they'd need to if Morris were offered the Vandy position? With Swinney firmly entrenched at Clemson, a head coaching offer in Nashville could be enough to pull one of the ACC's rising stars to the real south.
The Small School Coaches:
Pete Lembo. Lembo, the head coach at Ball State, has earned praise as a player favorite in his three years with the Cardinals. In that span, he's led his team to two bowl games (two losses) and a 25-13 record. He's gone 17-7 against the MAC and beaten four BCS opponents, though two of those wins came against Indiana. He's a big part of the trend they call "MAC-tion," thanks to a high-powered offense (38.5 ppg in '13) that helped make Tuesday night football a piece of weekday pigskin salvation over the past three years.
Lembo has a trait that Vanderbilt has relied on in the past; a successful FCS background. He has taken both Lehigh and Elon to the I-AA playoffs in his career. His teams finished in the final top 25 rankings in six of his 10 years as a FCS coach. Lembo had previously applied for the vacant head coach position at Wake Forest, so he believes that he can handle the challenge of running a program with tough academics and a fan base that lags behind the rest of the conference.
Mark Hudspeth. Hudspeth has made the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns relevant in the Sun Belt, guiding them to the most successful stretch of football in school history. He's notched three-straight nine-win seasons at Louisiana after making the jump from Division II North Alabama, and he may be looking for another challenge now that he's proven himself in the shallow end of D-I football.
Hudspeth doesn't have a series of quality wins to hang his hat on. He's 0-6 against teams from BCS auto-qualifier conferences in his career. He did, however, hold Arizona and Florida to one-possession wins on the road despite having a severely outmatched roster. The young coach has a track record of success at the lower levels, but that may no longer be enough to earn the top job at Vanderbilt. The Commodores may instead look at candidates with more experience working with bigger programs.
The In-House Fan Favorite:
Herb Hand. Hand, Vandy's Offensive Line Coach, Twitter hype specialist, and cooking savant, is expected to interview for the Vanderbilt job in the coming days. He and DC Bob Shoop earned praise as the team's most influential and effective assistants under Franklin, and the former Tulsa coordinator has become a favorite among fans due to his vivacious personality. With Shoop likely headed to Happy Valley, Coach Hand may be the most likely member of the VU staff to earn a promotion.
Hand actually predates the Franklin era, having come to Nashville in 2009. He stuck it out through Bobby Johnson's resignation and what must have been endless Robbie Caldwell turkey insemination jokes to help build a successful program on West End. He was responsible for building up an offensive line that transformed from cheesecloth into iron and turning players like Wesley Johnson and Ryan Seymour into leaders that you can build an offense around. Additionally, his Tulsa teams, with their Air Raid offense, once scored 661 points in a single season.
So, Herb Hand would be fun, at the very least.
Todd Graham. Because if there's a head coaching vacancy out there, Graham is already on the phone, discussing how to best screw over his current team to get it.