Early Illinois Coaching Candidates
P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan (Head Coach)
- Age: 34
- D-1 HC Experience: Western Michigan (2011-Present)
- Record: 9-16 (7-9 in MAC), 0-1 in bowl games
Fleck may be the early frontrunner to land the Illinois job -- and he'd be a great hire. After going 1-11 (1-7) in his first year replacing Bill Cubit at Western Michigan, Fleck led the Broncos to a 2014 bowl birth on the back of a 8-5 (6-2) record. The program's incoming 2015 recruiting class is the highest-rated group in the MAC, which marks the third consecutive year that Fleck has accomplished that feat. Fleck is also one of seven active FBS head coaches with NFL playing experience (San Francisco 49ers WR from 2004-2005).
Justin Fuente, Memphis (Head Coach)
- Age: 39
- D-1 HC Experience: Memphis (2012-Present)
- Record: 17-20 (12-12 in AAC), 1-0 in bowl games
Fuente is coming off a huge 10-3 (7-1) season at Memphis that included a share of the American Athletic Conference championship and a bowl victory over BYU. As a result of the Tigers' incredible turnaround, Fuente was named a finalist for the 2014 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award. Before taking the Memphis job, Fuente held offensive coordinator positions at both Illinois State (2004-2006) and TCU (2009-2011).
Dino Babers, Bowling Green (Head Coach)
- Age: 54
- D-1 HC Experience: EIU (2012-2013), Bowling Green (2014-Present)
- Record: 27-13 (14-1 in OVC, 5-3 in MAC), 1-0 in bowl games
Babers has had a long career in college coaching. Starting as a graduate assistant at Hawaii in 1984, he jumped all across the country at Baylor, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Arizona before finally landing his first head coaching position at Eastern Illinois in 2012. He was shortly hired away by Bowling Green and the Falcons went 8-6 (5-3) in his first year on the job. Babers still has quite a bit to prove, but Illinois will consider him if he can post similar results in year two.
Mark Hudspeth, UL-Lafayette (Head Coach)
- Age: 46
- D-1 HC Experience: Louisiana–Lafayette (2011-Present)
- Record: 36-16 (24-7 in Sun Belt), 4-0 in bowl games
The head coach of the Ragin' Cajuns since 2011, Hudspeth was also a wide receiver coach and passing game coordinator under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State from 2009-2010. In his first year at Louisiana-Lafayette, Hudspeth led the team to their first bowl game in 41 years. Fast-forward three seasons and that's become a regular accomplishment for the program as they've reached, and won, four consecutive postseason games.
Ken Niumatalolo, Navy (Head Coach)
- Age: 50
- D-1 HC Experience: Navy (2007-Present)
- Record: 57-35, 3-4 in bowl games
Niumatalolo was named the head coach of the Midshipmen back in 2007 after handling the program's offensive coordinator responsibilities since 2002. Navy has had six winning seasons under his watch, including a 10-4 campaign in 2008. It's probably unlikely that Niumatalolo would consider leaving the service academy given the length of his tenure, but he may decide to jump ship if the right opportunity presented itself.
Scott Frost, Oregon (Offensive Coordinator)
- Age: 40
- D-1 HC Experience: None
- Record: N/A
Frost joined Chip Kelly's staff at Oregon in 2009 before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2013 when Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles. The amount of control Frost has over the Ducks' offense can be debated, but he'd surely bring the core elements of Oregon's dynamic spread attack to Champaign should he end up as the new coach.
Chris Ash, Ohio State (Defensive Coordinator)
- Age: 41
- D-1 HC Experience: None
- Record: N/A
In his first year on the job, Ash took one of the the Buckeyes' biggest weaknesses and turned it into a strength. The defense only allowed 22 points per game. Ash has also coordinated defenses at Arkansas and Wisconsin and is known for his work in the secondary, an area in which the Illini certainly could use help. Ash's work was already noticed by Colorado State as he interviewed for the head coaching job this past offseason.
Bo Pelini, Youngstown State (Head Coach)
- Age: 47
- D-1 HC Experience: Nebraska (2003 interim, 2008-14)
- Record: 67-27, 4-3 in bowls
Pelini was fired following a fourth straight 9-plus win season in Lincoln. For comparison, Illinois has only had two such seasons since 2001, and before that it was 1989. Pelini was hired by Youngstown State on Dec. 16, 2014 before Illinois had the option to scoop him up after playing the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Prior to Nebraska, Pelini had stops with the San Francisco 49ers (defensive back coach), New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers (linebackers coach), Oklahoma (co-defensive coordinator) and LSU (defensive coordinator).
Other Names to Watch
Jim Tressel, Youngstown State (President)
- Age: 62
- D-1 HC Experience: Youngstown State (1986-2000), Ohio State (2001-2010)
- Record: 229-72-2 (59-14 in Big Ten), 5-4 in bowl games
Yes, the Sweater vest! Tressel has publicly stated that he plans to continue his work as a college administrator, but he has a great relationship with Mike Thomas and an opening at another Big Ten program could persuade him to leave his current post. Tressel's NCAA violations at Ohio State are still in effect so, unless Illinois can 'show cause' otherwise, he'd still need to serve a suspension.
Greg Schiano, ESPN (CFB Analyst)
- Age: 49
- D-1 HC Experience: Rutgers (2001-2011)
- Record: 68-67, 5-1 in bowls
Schiano spent two years in professional football as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after lasting ten seasons in New Brunswick, but was fired after a lackluster 4-12 campaign. He currently serves as an NFL analyst for ESPN, but he has recently stated that he would be very interested in getting back in the coaching game. There were reports this past offseason that if Michigan was unable to land Jim Harbaugh, Schiano was high on their list of potential targets. He would bring a strong reputation with him, and would most likely be able to put together a quality coaching staff. In fact, current interim head coach Bill Cubit previously worked as an assistant to Schiano on the Rutgers staff.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama (Offensive Coordinator)
- Age: 40
- D-1 HC Experience: Tennessee (2009), USC (2010-2013)
- Record: 35-21, 0-2 in bowls
Kiffin is another candidate who's made a pass-through in professional football as well; he was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders for two seasons but only amassed a 5-15 record. He had a very successful four campaigns in southern California coaching the Trojans, but was abruptly fired following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State just five games into the 2013 season. Kiffin applied for and received the offensive coordinator job at Alabama after Michigan hired away the Crimson Tide's former OC. He would bring a strong name value and recruiting presence to the program, but it would take a lot to draw him away from Tuscaloosa.