College football coaching grades: Which school aced the hiring spree?

Miami's Mario Cristobal, USC's Lincoln Riley, LSU's Brian Kelly, and Florida's Billy Napier are the new college football coaches. The Los Angeles Times and Associated Press are part of the same company.

USC started the coaching carousel when Clay Helton left after Week 2. Nobody, not even the most imaginative college football observer, could have predicted that nine of the top 20 head coaching jobs in the sport would open this year, and that Oregon would be looking for a new coach.

How did this happen? Things went south very quickly at Louisiana State, Florida and Washington. USC and LSU made splash hires and played their cards right to steal proven coaches from Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Miami found a window and the resources to bring Cristobal home to his mother and football mothership.

Had Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Texas Tech and Washington State hired head coaches, this carousel would have been even more crazy.

The early signing period may be to blame. The athletic directors and university presidents were eager to chart new courses after having to hold firm after the 2020 season because of the Pandemic. The conference realignment may have caused general unrest because of Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC. Or maybe it was a confluence of events that made it feel as if there were no rules at all.

The college football regular season will be the most interesting in the history of the sport, with the whole country following each week to see who is the best or the worst.

Here is my first attempt at assigning a grade to the hires made by Power Five schools.

A grade hire.

Lincoln Riley spoke at his introductory news conference. Brian van der Brug is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

The USC fan base was clinging to the hope that USC athletic director Mike Bohn could complete a deal for Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. As the days went on without USC announcing Campbell, true trepidation was setting in among the faithful, as rumors were circulating that Dave Aranda was working on an extension and Cincinnati's Luke Fickell was staying put. Then came Sunday afternoon.

Lincoln Riley was hired by the USC as their new football coach, after he had led the Oklahoma Sooners to three College Football Playoff semifinal appearances and tutored two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks. The past three years of Helton's tenure at USC have been a source of misery for fans, and it was only a matter of time before things changed for the better.

Riley is known for closing commitments on both sides of the ball, and he is right to believe he can build the country's most talented roster from right here in Southern California. There is a strong sense that Riley could make it look easy.

L.A. is a town that only pays attention to championships, and Riley has yet to climb that mountain. The good news? He gets to keep trying.

A grade hire.

Mario Cristobal is the new football coach of the Miami Hurricanes. Lynne Sladky is a reporter for the Associated Press.

This is what Oregon gets for hiring a coach whose love for his hometown and alma mater is unparalleled. After Willie Taggart left for Florida State after one season, the program was put in a tough situation, but Cristobal was able to rebuild the program, winning 35 games and one legitimate Pac-12 championship in four seasons.

Eugene was never the long-term play for Cristobal. The timing was perfect for both sides, with the Hurricanes in dire straits and the Ducks still not ready to compete for a national title.

The perfect cultural fit and Cristobal's proven ability to develop a physical backbone within a Power Five program and to recruit the best athletes in the country to play within that philosophy make this grade an A. He won't have to leave South Florida to bring in top talent like he did in Southern California.

He will have to improve to get Miami back to where it feels it belongs, because he has struggled with game management to the point that it has hurt the team.

B+ grade hires.

Billy Napier spoke at his introductory news conference. James Gilbert is the photographer.

After competing for a spot in the playoff, Florida's erosion under Dan Mullen became so glaring that athletic director Scott Stricklin had to make a move on him. While the Gators had classes in the top 10 nationally, they did not have a class that finished in the top three in the SEC. You fall behind if you don't recruit well in that conference.

Billy Napier was a hot name the last few coaching carousels who elected to stay put and wait for the right job, and he led the Cajuns to back-to-back Sun Belt Championships. The program was able to win a national championship when it had the right coach in place but still struggles when it doesn't.

While LSU was trying to get a big name, Florida got its guy, because it dropped its pin on the guy who has been under the Tigers' nose for four years. The grade honors the efficiency and clean execution in securing a coach who is ready for the big time.

When Brian Kelly bolted for LSU, Jack Swarbrick did not need to hit the panic button. Kelly had just passed Knute Rockne on the school's all-time wins list and had brought stability to the program. His exit came as a big shock as the Irish needed only a few upsets to make the semifinals.

If Kelly had left suddenly, it would have been catastrophic for the school, as many have been wrong in South Bend until Kelly. The hope is that the knowledge that Kelly gleaned about navigating this incomparable challenge was passed on to the defensive coach.

The Irish should keep their class ranked in the top 6 in the country, largely intact, as a result of the naming of the 35-year-old Freeman as Kelly's successor. If Notre Dame is going to win a playoff game, it can't afford to start over in recruiting.

The risk is that he has never been a head coach. If it becomes clear early that he is in over his head, he could conduct a national search with proper preparation. USC made a mistake when it handed itself to an overmatched interim-turned-permanent head coach for a long time.

Maybe he will be an instant star. Did you see the reaction of the Notre Dame players when they heard he was taking over? There was a lot of excitement for the future.

B grade hires.

LSU's athletic director Scott Woodward and university president William F. Tate IV introduced Brian Kelly as the school's new head coach at a news conference on December 1. The picture was taken by Jonathan Bachman.

Brian Kelly, LSU: I know, giving Notre Dame a better grade than LSU might seem crazy. I am not saying that Kelly is a better coach. When taking into account the fit between coach and program and the coach's chances to meet expectations, the Fighting Irish chose the more experienced, but less well-liked, Freeman.

Scott Woodward, a Baton Rouge native, was going to be the next athletic director at LSU. Woodward brought Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M by offering him financial stability beyond his wildest dreams, and the thought was that he would just re-up with Fisher to bring him to LSU. The buzz switched to Riley when that didn't happen. Woodward moved quickly to convince Kelly that he had reached his ceiling at Notre Dame, and that he needed one final chance to reign over the sport.

Kelly is a good person for the fans of the Tigers. He was a winner at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and then Notre Dame. This move feels like desperation on the part of both sides, perhaps because the stakes are so high at a place where national champion coaches are discarded like cheap Mardi Gras beads the morning after Fat Tuesday.

Kelly is not a good fit for Louisiana's state capital. The uneasiness of the pair was on full display last week when Kelly tried out a Southern accent while giving a speech at an LSU men's basketball game. The marriage between Kelly and LSU was a joke, but it is likely that the Tigers will take notice of Kelly soon enough.

The Jimmy Lake era in Seattle was plagued by offensive ineptitude so pronounced it couldn't save Lake's sound defense. The coach who steered one of the country's most appetizing offenses this season was DeBoer, who was the head coach at the University of California, where he led the team to a 9-3 record and a thrilling win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

DeBoer was attractive to Washington because he should be able to fix the offense, like he did with Jake Haener at Fresno State. It was odd to watch Lake and Dylan Morris for so long while the other waited for his chance to show what he can do.

From 2005 to 2009, DeBoer was the head coach of his alma mater. He has risen up the profession since he led the program to three titles. The most recent program to make the playoffs in the Pac-12 is the Huskies, but they are in a bad shape. There is good reason to believe that DeBoer has the chops, and he gets to enjoy the added boost of Cristobal leaving Oregon.

A grade hire.

Venables was introduced as Oklahoma's new head coach on Monday. Sue Ogrocki is an Associated Press reporter.

After the shock of losing Riley to USC, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione and Bob Stoops, while serving as the interim head coach, decided to keep it in the Sooners family. The decision was well-received at OU, particularly among former players who saw the program going soft under Riley's leadership and wanted a return to tough-minded defense as the team's hallmark as it prepares for the upcoming move to the SEC.

Venables helped the Tigers win two national titles, and there is no question that he is a good defense coach. Venables' unit was as menacing as ever this season as the Tigers went 9-3 Venables has been watching legendary head coaches do their thing, including Stoops and Swinney. It is logical to assume that he is ready to implement what he has learned.

Something about this hire is not moving the needle. Maybe it is the question of why it took Venables so long to become a head coach. Was he not interested in running his own program until an amazing opportunity like this one came available, or was other schools put off by something?

Venables will have to find a new offensive coordinator, and he might have found one with Mississippi's Jeff Lebby, who was an Oklahoma graduate. When Lane Kiffin is his boss, how much credit should Lebby get for his performance?

C+ grade hire.

Texas Christian's new head coach Sonny Dykes speaks at his introductory news conference. The Associated Press

After three straight seasons winning less than seven games, Texas Christian finally said goodbye to Gary Patterson, who took the program from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big 12 over two decades at the helm. The Frogs didn't have to look too far for help on the offense with Dykes working his magic on Southern Methodist.

As a young assistant, Dykes worked under the creators of "Air Raid". At Cal, Dykes had only one winning season before he was removed. He did an admirable job getting SMU to three straight bowl games, but it's hard to see how he'll do at TCU.

C grade hires.

Washington State acting head coach Jake Dickert wears a headset during a game. Warren is a reporter for the Associated Press.

The Red Raiders fired Matt Wells in the third season of his tenure, so they must have been looking for a fresh start. They moved quickly to get him from a place where he had been a part of successful seasons.

His story as a former high school football coach at Cedar Hill in Dallas, where he won three state titles, was the biggest draw for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders just didn't seem like themselves under Wells, and it will be the job of the new coach to get their guns up in the Big 12.

Jake Dickert stepped into a very tense situation this season as the interim head coach at Washington State after the school fired Nick Rolovich because of his refusal to be vaccine free. The idea that Dickert was being thrown into the fire was quite shocking. Washington State beat Washington in the Apple Cup to win the Pac-12 North.

The team displayed an upward trajectory during a time when the team easily could have crumbled, so it made sense to give Dickert the permanent job. Washington State fans could be wondering why they didn't take a longer look at Jay Norvell, who moved within his own league to Colorado State, because there was so little evidence to go on with Dickert.

A grade hire.

Penn State's defensive coordinator gestures during a game. Pry is the new coach at Virginia Tech. Barry Reeger is an Associated Press photographer.

The Hokies were ranked in the top 25 at some point in each of the six seasons under the leadership of Justin Fuente, but they failed to assert themselves in a weak Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal division.

Virginia Tech should have bigger goals, which it reflected by firing Fuente, but not with the hiring of Pry, the defensive coach at Penn State who has never been a head coach.

When the divisions were drawn up, it was expected that Miami and Virginia Tech would compete most years for the Coastal. Each will break in a new leader now that neither has followed through. Pry will have a hard time against Cristobal and the recruiting machine he will install at Miami.

The story was originally published in Los Angeles Times.