Which way is Ellis Johnson pointing?
The news from the Magnolia State is that the University of Southern Mississippi is close to naming a new head coach - perhaps as soon as today or Sunday - before the Golden Eagles leave for Honolulu to play Nevada in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl (though some disagree it will happen this weekend).
By now, most of you have seen the reports that South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson interviewed for the USM head coaching position on Thursday - apparently one of five candidates who have met with the Southern Miss search committee. According to the Hattiesburg paper, Ellis is considered one of the top candidates for the position.
The Post & Courier's new USC beat writer, Darryl Slater, wrote an excellent piece about this topic yesterday and gives background on Johnson's time at USM, his connections to South Carolina and the fact he has three young (elementary school age) children. Slater also reports on the comparative salary issues.
Johnson, of course, has not commented publicly on the interview process - which is understandable. Based on the interview and the absence of any press reports where he denies interest in USM, however, we're on solid ground to view him as a legitimate candidate. In other words, this isn't some mere flirtation. Nor does it appear to be some sort of "stalking horse" attempt to wrestle a raise out of USC.
According to Slater, Johnson wants to coach another 10 years or so which makes a head coaching position seem more desirable than if he planned on wrapping up his career sooner. Moreover, the Golden Eagles are also a very attractive ball club - having smashed Houston to win the C-USA Championship and broken into the top 25.
I think we have to face the fact that if he is offered, Johnson will likely go to USM.
Thus, the question becomes will he or won't he be offered? Having struggled to read the tea leaves from Hattiesburg, I think the only way to answer the question is to compare the resumes and interest of the other top candidates: Kirby Smart (Bama DC), Blake Anderson (USM OC), Todd Monken (OK St. DC), Chris Hatcher (Murray State HC), Jay Johnson (UL-Lafayette OC) and Tyrone Nix (former Ole Miss DC).
Read the break-downs on each after the Jump!
Kirby Smart: According to ESPN's Mark Schlabach, Smart was USM's top candidate but withdrew his name from consideration yesterday evening, following an interview with the USM search committee either Thursday or Friday. Hattiesburg American sportswriter Patrick McGee has also confirmed this news - though McGee has never thought that Smart was the committee's top choice. It's hard to make out where Smart's decision to withdraw his name affects Johnson. They're both among the SEC's top defensive coordinators. According to Schlabach, however, Smart sees himself as timber for a BCS-conference head coaching gig. Smart also makes $850,000 a year at Tuscaloosa - more than Fedora's base salary at USM in some reports - and it may simply be that Southern Miss could not meet his salary requirements and/or that Smart refused to leave Bama before the national championship game (both explanations are offered purely as speculation - we may never know why Smart withdrew his name).
Blake Anderson: Hattiesburg American sportswriter Patrick McGee has consistently written that it's a two-horse race between EJ and Anderson, with Anderson as the top candidate. So who is Anderson? He played QB at Baylor in the late '80s before transferring to Sam Houston State, where he graduated in '91; he broke into JuCo coaching in New Mexico before assistant stints with the University of New Mexico (1999-2001) and Middle Tennessee State (2002-2004). After a short hiatus from coaching, Anderson spent a year at UL Lafayette (2007) as the O.C./QB coach, before joining Southern Miss for the 2008 season - hired by Larry Fedora as a quaterbacks coach, and thereafter promoted in 2010 to offensive coordinator. Anderson's Golden Eagle offenses have been highly successful and he is a favorite with the fans, alumni and (reportedly) USM president Martha Saunders; he was also the key recruiter for QB Austin Davis and his successor - highly-touted incoming QB recruit Jonathan Wallace. Fedora also has publicly supported his candidacy, which might carry extra weight since Fedora is going to coach the Golden Eagles at the bowl game, and postpone his departure to Chapel Hill until after Christmas; which of course also means Anderson is coaching in Hawaii too. You might think Anderson is a shoo-in, but his name has recently and repeatedly come up for the O.C. vacancy at Auburn to replace outgoing Gus Malzahn; right now that is all internet board chatter, but its high frequency chatter nonetheless. Whether being associated with the Auburn offensive coordinator position helps or hurts Anderson during the USM search remains to be seen. My instinct is that he will take head coaching job at Southern Mississippi if offered, but will not hesitate to jump for Auburn if it looks like he is second fiddle.
Todd Monken: Oklahoma State's fiery first year offensive coordinator was one of the top four picks for the Golden Eagles' search committee. He likely interviewed for the job this past Tuesday. His name has also been connected to openings at Illinois, Tulane and others. McGee, however, ranks his candidacy behind Anderson and Johnson. It's difficult to gauge if Monken is really interested in Southern Mississippi. Most of the news from Stillwater has focused on their bowl game with Stanford and Gundy's contract extension negotiations, rather than whether Monken will be retained at OSU. My supposition is that Monken will stay with the Pokes unless he gets a big-time BCS-conference position; as far as USM goes, my guess is that they'd give the nod to their own O.C. rather than an outside O.C. (again that is purely speculation). Although Monken remains a legitimate candidate for Southern Miss, I think the fact that Fedora came from OK State is pushing this more than anything.
Chis Hatcher: He was considered back in 08 when USM ultimately went with Fedora. He must still have his supporter(s) on the committee, but he was terminated by Georgia Southern in 2009; Murray State had a decent 2011 campaign in the OVC (7-4 overall, T-4th in conference finish). Hatcher has more the feel of a fall-back guy, however, if all of the top echelon candidates withdraw or fall through.
Jay Johnson: Currently serving as the offensive coordinator at 8-4 UL Lafayette, Johnson spent five seasons (03-07) at Hattiesburg - the last two as O.C. under Jeff Bower. He was not retained by Fedora for '08, however. He's had a good run with the Ragin' Cajuns, but I perceive most USM fans are not looking to go back to the Jeff Bower era after the run Fedora has had.
Tyrone Nix: Another USM coaching alum, most recently at Ole Miss and not retained by new Rebels coach Hugh Freeze. A former USC assistant also, Nix will land on his feet - but not likely as head coach of an FBS program; he still has supporters (and detractors) at Southern Mississippi, but if he ends up in Hattiesburg, it would likely be as an assistant.
I should caveat by saying that the names of former USC assistant Shane Beamer - currently at Virginia Tech - and UL Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth have also been mentioned for the opening, but neither appears to be a serious candidate.
Looking over these candidates, it's pretty clear why Ellis Johnson's name is so high on the list. Ultimately, I think Southern Mississippi will go with Blake Anderson - for continuity and a commitment to continue to run the hurry-up/spread. But if USM dillies, and Anderson goes to Auburn, then it's probably going to be Johnson.