Saturday, July 20, 2024

UCLA coaching candidates: P.J. Fleck, David Shaw among top options to replace Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly left UCLA in a tough spot by abruptly leaving the program after six years, reportedly to become Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. From an optics perspective, it’s a blow for the Bruins to lose their sitting coach just so he can become an assistant at a future Big Ten competitor. Practically, UCLA’s options for his successor are a lot more limited this late in the coaching carousel. 

Unless UCLA pulls out all the stops to make a splash hire, it’s basically left with two options: hire an effective interim coach that can keep things stable until the 2024-25 hiring window opens, or take a chance on a young name or respected assistant coach that may have the chops to lead the program. 

Compounding the issue are the circumstances surrounding UCLA’s program. Despite the university’s ideal location and historic tradition, the Bruins stagnated under Kelly and lost any momentum they may have built in prior seasons. Their roster ranks in the bottom third nationally in terms of returning production, and the 2024 schedule is an absolute monster with games against the likes of LSU, Oregon, Penn State and Washington awaiting whoever steps in.

That’s not to say UCLA completely lacks options. There are some intriguing names that could jump at the opportunity to coach a rather prestigious Big Ten institution. Here are a few to keep an eye on as UCLA’s search unfolds. 

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota coach: Fleck might be at the top of the board for UCLA. He’s still relatively young at 43 years old and at least has tangential ties to the West Coast from a brief stint as a wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers from 2004-05. He’s also a high-energy program builder that could be the boost the Bruins need after they plateaued during Kelly’s tenure. Fleck has had success at every stop. The former NFL assistant took Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl to cap a 13-0 season in 2016 and parlayed that into his current job at Minnesota, where he’s won at least nine games three different times with bowl appearances in five out of seven seasons. He even took the Golden Gophers to the Big Ten Championship Game in 2019. 

Would he leave for UCLA? He only makes about $6 million per year, which places him quite low on the list among Big Ten coworkers in terms of salary. He could be ready for another challenge with a better location and slightly better resources after losing some of that early momentum he built at Minnesota in recent years. 

David Shaw: Here’s a name that will be intrinsically linked with almost every opening from now until he takes another job — especially for those in the state of California. It’s no wonder why. The 51-year old Shaw won and won often at Stanford, a place that’s notoriously hard to win at given its rigorous academic standards and proximity to powerhouse programs. He finished his 12-year Stanford career with a 96-54 record, leading the program to three Pac-12 titles — its first and only titles in the 21st century — and three AP top-10 finishes. UCLA even has a family connection. Shaw’s his son, Carter, is currently enrolled as a wide receiver. The challenge here is turning Shaw’s gaze away from the NFL, where he’s had his eyes firmly set since his Stanford tenure came to an end in 2022. 

D’Anton Lynn, USC defensive coordinator: Would Lynn entertain a return to UCLA so soon? Coaching opportunities are hard to pass up, even if he just left the program over a month ago to take the same position at its biggest, cross-town rival. Lynn is only 34 years old, and there’s no doubt that if he continues on this trajectory plenty of opportunities will come his way. UCLA’s defense did a complete 180-degree turn under his guidance in 2023, finishing No. 11 nationally while holding opponents to around 299 yards on average. Lynn’s youth and inexperience are the only things holding him back here. He’s only been a full-time assistant since 2020, and 2023 was his first season as a coordinator in any capacity. But UCLA could win big on a gamble like this and get ahead of the curve, especially so late into a coaching cycle. 

Eric Bieniemy: One of the most highly regarded assistant coaches in the NFL, and yet professional opportunities are running out for him. He spent the 2023 season with the Washington Commanders, but new coach Dan Quinn confirmed that the franchise would be moving forward without Bieniemy. Prior to that, Bieniemy spent five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, turning that offense into a Super Bowl-winning juggernaut with quarterback Patrick Mahomes running the show. Bieniemy could try his luck as a first-time coach. He certainly has the credentials to warrant an opportunity with deep ties to UCLA’s program. One of his first major appointments was as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator with the Bruins from 2003-05. 

Tony White, Nebraska defensive coordinator: Continuing the run on coaches with ties to the program, White actually spent his playing days as a Bruin, holding down a three-year starting linebacker spot from 2000-02. During that time, coaches often praised his football acumen and ability to assess plays on the field; no wonder he broke into coaching after a brief stint in the NFL and CFL. He started on that path as a graduate assistant at UCLA in 2007 and has since climbed the ranks as an assistant on the defensive side of the ball, working as a coordinator at Arizona State, Syracuse and Nebraska since 2019. His 2023 Nebraska unit finished fifth in the Big Ten in both total (303.5 yards per game) and scoring (18.3 points per game) defense. 

Ryan Grubb, Alabama offensive coordinator: Grubb is widely regarded as one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. Washington made it to the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2023 due to its explosive offense, which finished top-15 nationally in both yards per game (462.1) and scoring (36). Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. finished second in Heisman Trophy voting while throwing for 4,903 yards and 36 touchdowns. That was nothing new for Grubb, who has coached explosive and highly effective offenses everywhere he’s been. Though he’s been attached at the hip with new Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer for a majority of his career, drawing him away isn’t an impossible task. Recent reports have linked him to the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive coordinator vacancy. Would he prefer a head coaching spot if offered?  

Barry Odom, UNLV coach: Odom was another hot name during the height of this last coaching carousel, thanks in large part to his association with super-agent Jimmy Sexton, but his work in one year as UNLV’s coach backs the hype. He took a Rebels team that finished below .500 in each year since 2013 leading up to his hiring and immediately won nine regular-season games with an appearance in the Mountain West Championship Game. UNLV also gave a top-25 Kansas team a solid fight in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Odom’s coaching stock is trending up as a result. He also has coveted SEC experience from his time as Missouri’s coach (2016-19), where he posted a 25-25 record and took the Tigers to two bowl games. 

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