Since Dennis Erickson's firing a week ago, the newswire and Twittersphere has been going non-stop with reports about sources breaking news about the ASU coaching search and then seemingly contradicting it an hour later. These types of starts and stops and false trails and red herrings are normally reserved for the silver screen, but they have now made their way into the search for a new head football coach for the Sun Devils.
One of the most highly praised movies of all time is The Sting, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1974. Starring the incomparable duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, it's the tale of two Depression-era con men and their attempt to play "the big con" on a notorious gangster played by the legendary Robert Shaw. The film contains many twists, turns, double and triple-crosses as it zig-zags its way to a thrilling finish.
For all of its complexity, The Sting has nothing on the clutter of ASU's coaching search.
It began with ASU targeting Houston's Kevin Sumlin, going so far as to have Sun Devil officials plan a trip to Houston to meet with the coach after Saturday's Conference USA title game. However, once Texas A&M fired Mike Sherman and targeted Sumlin as their top target, ASU cowered, canceled the trip and broke off contact.
A series of names then poured out before SMU's June Jones became a hot rumor and ASU met with him on Saturday. His candidacy went over with the fan base and boosters as well as the Sun Devils' November performance, and recent reports indicate ASU has tapped the brakes on his candidacy.
Most recently, ASU has moved the man whose Southern Mississippi team beat Sumlin's Cougars in Saturdays game, Larry Fedora, into their top spot. They will meet with him on Tuesday, although Texas A&M will also speak with Feodra.
What could work in ASU's favor is that A&M is also looking at a number of other candidates, including Louisville's Charlie Strong. Ole Miss, which was looking at Fedora, recently hired Arkansas State's Hugh Freeze, which helps ASU.
So with all the craziness that has ensued in the last few days, where does that leave things?
One important item to note is that Athletic Director Lisa Love is not leading this coaching search. Instead, COO of Athletics Steve Patterson is spearheading the efforts. Given the recent history of hirings and management, this is generally regarding as a positive development for Arizona State.
Among likely contenders, here is my top five list.
1) Kevin Sumlin
Until his name is signed to another school's contract, he will remain my number one choice for the Sun Devils. I've gone into great detail previously extolling the virtues of Sumlin, but here is a summary.
He has an accomplished background, with his successful stint as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator leading to his current job at Houston. The Cougars have been the nation's best offense during his tenure, and his defenses, especially under new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, have improved greatly.
Sumlin is relatively young at age 47, a proven program builder and the type of man who can change the culture in Tempe. His contract buyout is only $600,000, and ASU could conceivably get him for a salary around $2.5-million.
2) Larry Fedora
Since Saturday's Conference USA title game victory, Fedora's stock has risen dramatically. He's reportedly ASU's top choice and is receiving serious looks from Texas A&M and North Carolina. The hiring of Freeze at Ole Miss helps ASU in that it eliminates a competitor, but may raise his price.
Fedora has done a magnificent job in turning around the Golden Eagles, capping his fourth season with the Conference USA crown. He is an offensive guru whose spread offense is 13th in the nation and would be a great fit in Tempe.
Fedora also brings a tough and disciplined approach, which is something ASU is in dire need of after the Erickson era.
He's making $800,000 at Southern Miss with a $400,00 buyout, but if A&M, North Carolina and ASU get into a bidding war, the Devils may be on the outside looking in.
3) Art Briles
This is a name that has jumped onto the radar screen of late, and that's a good thing for the Devils.
Briles, ironically, was Sumlin predecessor at Houston before coming to the college football wasteland that was Baylor and turning around one of the nation's perennial doormats.
This season, the Bears finished 9-3, including wins over TCU, Oklahoma and Texas, which esulted in a No.12 finish in the BCS standings.
He, like the other two candidates above him, is an offensive guru who has recruited both Case Keenum and Robert Griffin III, and his recruiting ties to the fertile Texas region would be a huge boost.
Briles is making $1.8-million this season, with a contract buyout of $1.6-million, which may give ASU a pause.
4) Mark Helfrich
Should ASU go the coordinator route, Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich could be an attractive option.
Helfrich coached on Dirk Koetter's staff for four seasons before moving onto Colorado prior to his stop in Eugene. His time in the west has allowed him to develop strong recruiting ties in the area and as another offensive coach of the spread, his system would integrate well at ASU
Conversely, he has no prior head coaching experience, so there is concern there. However, that also makes his contract cheaper, if he is the pick.
5) Justin Wilcox
Another young coordinator whose chance would likely only come if the Devils swung and missed on the other candidates.
There's no denying the job that Wilcox has done as Tennessee's defensive coordinator this season after a very successful stint in the same role at Boise State. With his engaging persona and recruiting ties to both the west and SEC areas, he could gain an advantage there.
However, he's only 35 and it's likely that his first head coaching job will come sometime soon, just not at ASU.
Also in contention but shouldn't be: June Jones
Let me say this: hiring June Jones is dressing a Dennis Erickson contract extension in a Tommy Bahama shirt.
The similarities run deep.
Both are offensive minded coaches who have impressive collegiate resumes who flamed out in the NFL and are now past their prime. One other similarity--they are not for ASU.
Jones is not the long term solution that ASU needs right now, and there is a strong probability that the Devils will be looking for another coach in four to five years after another period of mediocrity laced with passing yards.
Not in contention but should be: Butch Jones
The "good" Jones in this situation, Butch has been compared to Urban Meyer due to their offensive wizardry in coming up through the mid-major ranks.
Starting at Central Michigan, Jones posted a 20-3 conference record and won two MAC titles before coming to Cincinnati.
He's done a good job making the Bearcats a Big East contender in the wake of Brian Kelly's departure, guiding them to a 9-3 record this year and a berth in the Liberty Bowl.
Jones is making just a base salary of $1-million.
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