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Ten potential coaching candidates to replace Mike Leach at Washington State

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 10, 2020

Could Washington State bring back Mike Leach’s old defensive coordinator? Will the Cougars scour Leach’s Air Raid coaching tree to hire their next coach? Or will athletic director Pat Chun go in a completely different direction?

After eight seasons on the Palouse, Leach is officially out as Washington State’s coach, accepting a position Thursday to coach Mississippi State. The next step for Chun is replacing someone who leaves Pullman as the third-winningest coach in program history.

We rate 10 potential candidates to replace Leach WSU on a 1-5 scale, with five being most likely and one being least likely.

Alex Grinch

Current job: Defensive coordinator, Oklahoma

Why it makes sense: First and foremost, because Grinch is familiar with WSU and had mounds of success in Pullman as Leach’s defensive coordinator. The Cougars allowed 46.3 points per game the year before Grinch arrived and gave up just 25.8 in his final season as WSU’s DC. Grinch has already had a taste of major Power Five football, at Ohio State and Oklahoma the past two seasons, and even after his unit was strafed by Joe Burrow and LSU in the College Football Playoff, he has the Sooners’ long-maligned defense trending in the right direction.

Likeliness: 4. Grinch surely wants to be a head coach at some point, and FootballScoop.com has reported he’ll be on the Cougars’ short list, potentially with designs on bringing Ken Wilson back as DC and Jim Mastro as OC. But he’d have to leave a great situation in Norman.

Bryan Harsin

Current job: Head coach, Boise State

Why it makes sense: From a regional standpoint, Harsin may be a good fit. The sixth-year Boise State coach has had success recruiting in the Pacific Northwest and to a greater extent, in California, where the Cougars have gone for many of their skill players in recent years. Harsin’s Boise State teams have usually held their own against Pac-12 opponents and the coach was 1-1 against the Cougars, beating them in 2016 at Albertsons Stadium before losing in three overtimes a year later at Martin Stadium.

Likeliness: 3. Is WSU a better job – or a significantly better job – than the one Harsin holds? Depends on who you ask. It’s notable that Leach made $3.75 million annually, while Harsin made just $1.75 million this past season.

Jim McElwain

Current job: Head coach, Central Michigan

Why it makes sense: McElwain has had 10 gigs since then, but the former Eastern Washington quarterback started his career as a QB/WR coach in nearby Cheney, and a Power Five coaching job may lure him back to the Inland Northwest. McElwain’s only other P-5 gig, at Florida, didn’t last long amid controversy, although the coach has rebounded at Central Michigan, where his team went 8-6 last season.

Likeliness: 3. Some would consider McElwain a risk based on his tenure in Gainesville, but the Missoula native’s ties to the region make him an intriguing fit. You’d assume McElwain would at least take a phone call from Chun and the Cougars.

Graham Harrell

Current job: Offensive coordinator, USC

Why it makes sense: A variety of Leach’s pupils will be candidates to replace the 58-year-old in Pullman, but none is more familiar with WSU than Harrell, who coached the Cougars’ outside receivers for two seasons in 2014 and ’15 before leaving to be an offensive coordinator at North Texas. Despite reports that Harrell and/or Clay Helton would not return to USC next season, both have since committed to spending 2020 with the Trojans, though the opening at WSU could persuade Harrell otherwise.

Likeliness: 3. By all accounts, Harrell, at 34 years old, has enough experience to make the next step his career and the Trojans put up impressive numbers – 32.5 points per game – with him calling the plays last season.

Nick Rolovich

Current job: Head coach, Hawaii

Why it makes sense: One way to keep Hawaiian quarterback signee Jayden de Laura on board could be to hire the coach in his home state. The well-liked Rolovich has had success transforming the Rainbow Warriors into a Mountain West contender, leading them to an 18-11 mark the past two seasons after just three wins in 2017. His 2019 team ranked 13th nationally in total offense and 24th in scoring offense.

Likeliness: 2. Rolovich has Hawaii rolling after four seasons. Would he leave the warm shores of Honolulu for the frozen hills of Pullman? He’s someone to keep an eye on if the Cougars are looking to hire someone with prior head coaching experience.

Seth Littrell

Current job: Head coach, North Texas

Why it makes sense: The second of three Air Raid disciples on this list, Littrell is relatively young at 41 years old and has a solid understanding of the offensive gospel that’s been preached in Pullman over the past eight seasons. Littrell played running back for Leach at Oklahoma and coached the position at Texas Tech from 2005 to ’08. His North Texas teams won 23 games from 2016 to ’18 before dropping to 4-8 this past season.

Likeliness: 3. If Chun is targeting someone with Air Raid and head coaching backgrounds, Littrell would fit like a glove. He developed Mason Fine, who threw for 12,237 yards and 91 touchdowns in four seasons at North Texas.

Craig Bohl

Current job: Head coach, Wyoming

Why it makes sense: If the Cougars want a completely different direction from their offense, they might consider Bohl, best known for a historic tenure at FCS North Dakota State, which rattled off three straight national championships before he was hired at Wyoming. The Cowboys won six games in his first two seasons, but haven’t won fewer than six since, and have gone to bowl games in three of the past four years.

Likeliness: 3. Bohl has certainly put his time in at Wyoming, and in general as a coach. At 61, his age could scare a few schools away, but it’s hard to imagine Bohl not succeeding in the Pac-12. In 17 years as a head coach, Bohl has had only three losing seasons.

Sonny Dykes

Current job: Head coach, Southern Methodist

Why it makes sense: WSU fans best know Dykes as the coach who led California to a 60-59 win over WSU in Pullman as Jared Goff and Connor Halliday combined to throw for 1,261 passing yards. Dykes’ 2019 SMU team won 10 games before losing to Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic in the Boca Raton Bowl. Running the offense he learned as a wide receivers coach under Leach at Texas Tech, Dykes had the nation’s seventh-best offense in 2019 (41.8 ppg).

Likeliness: 2. Dykes already had one stint in the Pac-12 and it wasn’t successful. His Cal program went 19-30 in four seasons – largely because the Golden Bears couldn’t stop anyone – but Dykes deserves credit for developing Goff and convincing Davis Webb to transfer to Berkeley.

Steve Sarkisian

Current job: Offensive coordinator, Alabama

Why it makes sense: It doesn’t, but this list needs one not-so-serious candidate. Sarkisian deserves praise for the work he’s done with Tua Tagovailoa, who was tutored by the Alabama OC in 2016 and again when Sark returned to help out Nick Saban this season, and we can assume he’d be able to maintain a potent offense in Pullman. The Crimson Tide was among the nation’s top scoring teams this season at 47.2 ppg.

Likeliness: 1. It’s been five years since Sarkisian was a head coach, and his problems away from the football field raise questions among fans and boosters as to whether he’d be able to lead a Pac-12 program after mixed success at Washington and USC.

Beau Baldwin

Current job: Head coach, Cal Poly

Why it makes sense: Former Eastern Washington and Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams advocated for his old coach on Twitter, and Baldwin’s success in Cheney is hard to overlook. But he struggled to recruit or develop a solid quarterback at Cal, and the Golden Bears’ offense scored 30-plus points just twice this season – against WSU in Berkeley and against Illinois in the Redbox Bowl.

Likeliness: 1. Could Baldwin ditch Cal Poly before coaching a game in San Luis Obispo? Legally, sure. Ethically, maybe not. Also, Paul Wulff’s tenure in Pullman would argue against going back down the EWU well for a head coach.

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