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College football's greatest coaching 'What if ...' scenarios

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How coaching hires shaped the college football landscape (1:02)

The coaching "what ifs" in college football over the years reverberate to this day. Video by Chris Low (1:02)

College football is defined, in large part, by legendary coaches who become institutions at the schools they call home. But in many cases, those coaches came within an inch of never ending up at those schools in the first place. How different would the landscape of the game look if Bob Stoops had gone to Iowa instead of Oklahoma? Or if he took the Florida job in 2002 and it was never open for Urban Meyer just a few years later? What if the Head Ball Coach made his name at LSU or even Tennessee instead of The Swamp?

We talk to those coaches to get the story on just how close they came to taking different jobs and how things would have changed if they did.

Jump to: Bob Stoops and Iowa | Steve Spurrier and LSU
Urban Meyer and Notre Dame |
Ed Orgeron and USC
Les Miles and Michigan | Frank Beamer and North Carolina

What if Iowa had offered its job to Bob Stoops?

It's a question Bob Stoops doesn't have to answer now, and probably wouldn't anyway.

But what if his alma mater had offered him the head-coaching job back in 1998, when it was looking for a replacement for retiring Hall of Famer Hayden Fry, whom Stoops played for and coached under at Iowa? Would Stoops have taken it, and if so, would he have carved out the same legendary career at Iowa that he did at Oklahoma? And where would Kirk Ferentz have landed?

It's an interesting question, considering the fact that Ferentz has been an institution in Iowa City. He's set to enter his 22nd season at Iowa, and surpassed Fry in 2018 as the winningest coach in school history.

"Sometimes, things have a way of working out for the best for everybody involved," Stoops told ESPN.

Throughout his coaching career, Stoops has been a hot commodity. He was also one of the rare ones: Stoops stayed at Oklahoma for 18 seasons before retiring prior to the 2017 season, and he worked for the same president (David Boren) and the same athletic director (Joe Castiglione) all 18 seasons.

"I'm willing to bet you'll never see that happen again," Stoops said.

Stoops was only 38 when he took over what was a broken program at Oklahoma on Dec. 1, 1998, and led the Sooners to a national championship in his second season in 2000. But before saying yes to Oklahoma, he followed through on a promise he had made to interview with Iowa. Oklahoma had already offered Stoops the job a day earlier and didn't want him to visit with Iowa.

"I guess that was kind of naïve of me," Stoops said. "In hindsight, I'd tell any young coach out there, 'Take the Oklahoma job and don't take a chance on screwing it up.'"

Stoops, who had just finished his third season as Florida's defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier, realized about midway through the interview with Iowa that he wasn't going to be offered the job. At least not right then.

"And I don't know if they ever would have," Stoops said.

So he politely excused himself and went to call his agent, Neil Cornrich.

"I'm pretty sure it was a pay phone. Heck, it was 1998," Stoops joked. "I just told Neil, 'Get a hold of Oklahoma and make sure they know the second I get out of this interview that I'm going to take the job.'"

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It was hardly the first time or the last time that Stoops would be courted by another school or by an NFL organization.

After his first season at Florida -- in 1996, the year the Gators won the national championship -- Minnesota tried to hire him as head coach, but there was no university president in place at the time.

"Coach Spurrier's point to me was, 'Look, we're not going bad here. If this doesn't fit you perfectly, just stay. You're young and will have other opportunities that will fit you,'" Stoops said. "And he was right."

As fate would have it, the closest Stoops said he ever came to leaving Oklahoma was after Spurrier left Florida following the 2001 season to take the Washington Redskins' head-coaching job. Jeremy Foley, then the Florida athletic director, flew to Norman to meet with Stoops.

"We'd just won the national championship at Oklahoma [in 2000], but I also had a close relationship with Jeremy Foley and [wife] Carol and I loved our time at Florida," Stoops said. "It was hard to say no, but all the positive feelings I had about Florida were countered by the positive feelings I had about Oklahoma. They gave me my first shot.

"And had it not been for the leadership and faith I had in Joe Castiglione and David Boren, in all likelihood I probably would have gone to Florida."

With Stoops saying no thanks, Florida turned to Ron Zook, who made it three years before being fired, which led to the Gators hiring Urban Meyer. Meyer won national championships in 2006 and 2008 at Florida, then resigned following the 2009 season only to change his mind and come back for the 2010 season. He then resigned for good following the 2010 season.

Once again, Foley made a hard push for Stoops, who was the epitome of consistency in Norman. He won 10 conference championships at OU, and only four times in 18 seasons on his watch did the Sooners win fewer than 10 games.

"I remember Coach Spurrier always saying that after eight or 10 years, you lose a certain percentage of the people who are supporting you," Stoops said. "After a while, people just want a change. I guess at a certain point, you feel like it's time to do something different after so many years, or you can also say that it's easier to do something different. But the hardest thing sometimes is staying and continuing and continuing to have success like we did."

Stoops has also never been one to shortchange his family. His twin sons, Isaac and Drake, were entrenched in their school in Oklahoma when Florida came calling the second time, and he simply didn't want to uproot them.

"For my family and where we were in life ... I just couldn't leave," Stoops said.

Stoops, the general manager and head coach of the XFL's Dallas Renegades, is well aware that his name will continue to pop up for every high-profile coaching job that comes open, especially now that the future of the XFL is up in the air after the league suspended operations Friday and laid off nearly all of its staff.

So, yes, there is one more "what if" for Stoops, as in what if the right coaching situation presents itself in the next year or two?

"Who knows?" Stoops said. "What I'm doing right now fits my family and fits what I want to do. It's been enjoyable, and who knows what the good Lord is going to bring to you?

"Everyone wants you to define the rest of your life at every point in your life. You just can't do it."

What if Steve Spurrier hadn't gone to Florida?

In 1986, when Steve Spurrier was out of coaching following the demise of the USFL, he was, in his words, a free agent looking for work that "not a lot of people were much interested in hiring."

But he did get a call that offseason from LSU after Bill Arnsparger left as coach to become the athletic director at Florida, a move that would end up paying off handsomely down the road for the Gators.

Not so much for LSU, though.

"Yep, I talked to LSU about the job, but didn't even make the cut for the second round of interviews," Spurrier said. "Guess I was one of those coaches who didn't work hard enough, or at least didn't brag enough about how hard I worked."

Spurrier was hardly the only eventual big name that LSU talked with during the process. Some of the others included Mack Brown, Frank Beamer, Mike Shanahan and Sam Rutigliano, but the Tigers wound up promoting from within. Defensive coordinator Mike Archer was elevated to head coach.

"I said, 'Man, they wasted a lot of money flying in all those people when they hired a guy who was already there,' " quipped Spurrier, who had also met with Mississippi State officials about its head-coaching job a few weeks earlier.

The Bulldogs wound up hiring Rockey Felker.

Obviously, Spurrier eventually found his way back to the SEC, as he was hired in 1990 by Florida. The athletic director for the Gators at the time was Arnsparger, who had advocated on his way out for Archer to replace him at LSU when Spurrier was available and wanted the Tigers' job. With prominent Florida power brokers leading the charge, Arnsparger brought Spurrier back to his alma mater, but not before Spurrier spent three seasons as Duke coach and led the Blue Devils to the ACC championship in 1989, which remains their only conference title in football since 1962.

"What a great experience that was at Duke, but it certainly wasn't a place you go to climb the coaching ladder," Spurrier said. "It all worked out the way it was supposed to."

One thing's for sure. The Head Ball Coach never let LSU forget about its colossal whiff and was 11-1 against the Tigers while he was coaching at Florida. In the process, he changed the way football was played in the SEC. The Gators won six SEC championships and a national title on his watch.

LSU, meanwhile, won 10 games in Archer's first season, but it was downhill from there. Beginning with Archer's final two seasons, Curley Hallman's four seasons and Gerry DiNardo's five seasons, LSU suffered through eight losing seasons over the next 11 years before Nick Saban was hired in 2000.

When the Florida job came open heading into the 1990 season, Spurrier seemed like a natural fit, especially given what he had accomplished at Duke.

But there was another SEC school that had cast a wandering eye toward Spurrier a year earlier. Tennessee started the 1988 season 0-6 before winning its final five games and finishing 5-6. Spurrier and Duke came to Neyland Stadium that season and beat Tennessee 31-26 in the second week.

Had Johnny Majors and the Volunteers not turned it around that season, Spurrier said he was told some years later by those connected to the administration at the time that Tennessee was going to come after him.

"Could have been a Vol," said Spurrier, who went to high school in Johnson City, Tennessee, and reveled in needling the Vols when he was at Florida. "But Johnny got 'em going again, and I'm glad it worked out the way it did because that 1989 season at Duke was great and the springboard for what we did at Florida. No question about it."

And the more Spurrier won at Florida, the more he became a prime target of NFL clubs. He all but decided to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job following the 1995 season, but after a visit the next morning at his house from Florida athletic director Foley and school president John Lombardi, Spurrier changed his mind and decided to stay in Gainesville. Then, after winning the national championship in 1996, Spurrier turned down an offer to become New Orleans Saints coach.

Finally, following the 2001 season, Spurrier couldn't resist the lure of the NFL any longer and accepted the Washington job after the Redskins also had come after him the year before. Spurrier still kicks himself over the decision. It's not so much that he took his shot at the NFL, but that he went against his instincts and picked the Redskins over another opportunity with the Buccaneers.

"Daniel Snyder offered a bunch more money, about a million bucks more," Spurrier said. "So like a fool, I took the money instead of the best situation and the best organization. Then the Bucs won the Super Bowl the next year. They hired [Jon] Gruden and won the Super Bowl.

"I got greedy and got about what I deserved."

What if Urban Meyer chose Notre Dame?

After leading Utah to an unbeaten season in 2004, Urban Meyer was the toast of college football and had two of the premier programs in the country in hot pursuit.

He had his choice of Florida or Notre Dame. The Irish had just fired Tyrone Willingham, while the Gators had parted ways with Ron Zook. Charlie Strong was the Gators' defensive coordinator at the time and remembers talking to Meyer on the phone around 4 o'clock one morning.

"He told me he had both jobs and asked what I thought," Strong said. "I just told him, 'If you want to win a national title, go to Florida,' because I knew what kind of talent we had."

Strong, who stayed on to be Meyer's defensive coordinator, proved to be prophetic. Meyer won his first national championship at Florida in his second season in 2006 and then won another in 2008.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, hired Charlie Weis from the New England Patriots. Weis won nine games his first season and 10 his second season in South Bend, Indiana, but never won more than seven after that and was fired by the Irish after five seasons.

One of the more intriguing "what ifs" had Meyer chosen Notre Dame over Florida is whether the Gators could have finally pried away Stoops from Oklahoma. The timing could have been right. Stoops had been at Oklahoma for only three years when Florida came calling in 2002 and had just guided the Sooners to the national title in 2000. And following the 2010 season, when Meyer resigned and Florida came calling again, Stoops' two sons were old enough that he didn't want to uproot them from their school.

What if USC kept Ed Orgeron?

Ed Orgeron steered LSU to a national championship last season thanks to one of the more dynamic offensive seasons in college football history, so things have certainly worked out for him. But back in 2013, he was convinced he'd earned the full-time USC job.

He wasn't alone.

As USC's interim coach that season following the firing of his friend Lane Kiffin, Orgeron led the Trojans to a 6-2 finish, including a dramatic 20-17 victory over No. 4 Stanford. He had widespread support among the players and many USC fans to get the job full time. Pat Haden, then the USC athletic director, thought otherwise and passed on the man they've taken to calling Coach Oeaux on the Bayou.

"I never felt in my heart that they wanted me at USC until the very end, and then Haden pulled the plug," Orgeron told ESPN a few years ago. "I thought all the time I was fighting an uphill battle. They always saw me more as a stopgap."

That "stopgap" now has LSU on top of the college football world coming off of the Tigers' magical 2019 season, and the Trojans have struggled to stay above the .500 mark over the past two seasons. The Trojans spurning Orgeron back in 2013 and instead hiring Steve Sarkisian from Washington sent the dominoes tumbling.

For one, Sarkisian leaving Washington opened the door for the Huskies to hire Chris Petersen. And after Sarkisian was fired, USC hired Clay Helton, first as interim coach and then named him permanent coach at the end of the 2015 season. The Trojans won the Rose Bowl in 2016 and the Pac-12 championship in 2017, but Helton has come under fire of late after USC dropped off to a 13-12 record over the past two seasons.

Meanwhile, Orgeron, Kiffin and Sarkisian are all back together in the SEC -- Orgeron as LSU's head coach, Kiffin as Ole Miss' head coach and Sarkisian as Alabama's offensive coordinator.

What if Les Miles went to Michigan?

The image of Les Miles talking about his "damn strong football team" in the hastily called news conference just prior to leading LSU to a 21-14 win over Tennessee in the 2007 SEC championship game at the old Georgia Dome in Atlanta will endure forever in college football lore.

That team went on to win the national championship, but not before Miles refuted an ESPN report the day of the SEC title game that he was headed back to his alma mater to be Michigan's coach.

As it turned out, Rich Rodriguez ended up getting the Michigan job -- the same Rich Rodriguez who turned down Alabama a year earlier. Miles has since said that he never had an offer to go back to Ann Arbor when he famously ended his news conference that day in Atlanta by walking off the podium and huffing, "Have a great day."

Last year, Miles told ESPN that he was actually a lot closer to going to Michigan heading into the 2011 season than he ever was that first time.

"I will always love Michigan and don't want to say I was offered. Let's just say I had an opportunity to go back [in 2011]," Miles told ESPN.

His wife, Kathy, says flatly that Miles was offered the job and has since been backed up by Skip Bertman, the LSU athletic director who hired Miles. Bertman said Michigan officials flew down to meet with Miles and that he turned them down.

Either way, the Wolverines wound up hiring Brady Hoke, who was fired after four seasons, opening the door for Jim Harbaugh to return to Ann Arbor.

Miles took LSU to the doorstep of another national championship that 2011 season before losing to Alabama 21-0 in the title game in New Orleans. That's after beating the Crimson Tide earlier that season in Tuscaloosa, capturing the SEC title and winning 13 straight before losing the rematch to the Tide.

In many ways, it was never the same for Miles in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after that loss to Alabama in which LSU was anemic offensively, and he was fired during the first month of the 2016 season and replaced by Orgeron on an interim basis.

Later that season, Orgeron was promoted to permanent coach and led the Tigers to an unbeaten national championship in 2019. Miles, after being out of coaching for parts of three seasons, returned in 2019 as Kansas' coach.

What if he had taken the "opportunity" and/or "offer" from his alma mater back in 2011? Would he still be at Michigan, and if so, where would Harbaugh be?

"I just remember sitting outside with Kathy [in 2011] and thinking to ourselves, 'We can repay Michigan by doing a great job here at LSU,'" Miles told ESPN last year. "And we decided to stay."

What if Frank Beamer went to North Carolina?

Frank Beamer calls it one of the worst moments of his career.

He'd built Virginia Tech's program from scratch and made the Hokies nationally relevant during his Hall of Fame career. But in late November 2000, he flew to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and agreed to a deal with UNC athletic director Dick Baddour to become the Tar Heels' next coach.

"I've always been a big believer that if you give somebody your word, you stick to it, and I had every intention of doing that," Beamer said.

That is until he went back to Blacksburg.

North Carolina wanted him to stay overnight and have a news conference the next day to announce his hiring, but Beamer was insistent on going back and telling his coaches and players himself.

"And when I got back there, I just never could get back on that plane," Beamer said. "The worst thing about the whole deal was having to go back on my word, but Virginia Tech was my home."

About a week later, Georgia also reached out to Beamer about its job after firing Jim Donnan. The Bulldogs wound up hiring Mark Richt.

"I told them, 'Look, I've just gone through this thing with North Carolina. There's no way I can get involved with another job at this point in time," Beamer recalled.

North Carolina, in the aftermath of Beamer's change of heart, offered the job to David Cutcliffe, but Cutcliffe elected to remain at Ole Miss after being in Oxford for just two seasons and having a quarterback named Eli Manning coming back for his sophomore season.

"I just couldn't leave Eli. Of course, little did I know that I was going to be fired a few years later," said Cutcliffe, who led the Rebels to 10 wins and a share of the SEC Western Division championship in 2003 and was then fired following the 2004 season.

North Carolina eventually settled on John Bunting, who was fired after six seasons and replaced by Butch Davis. The Tar Heels, who haven't won an ACC title since 1980, are now on their fifth different coach (Mack Brown) since Beamer changed his mind, and have won more than eight games only once since Brown left at the end of the 1997 season to take the Texas job.

Beamer, meanwhile, went on to win 10 or more games in nine of his final 14 seasons, including eight consecutive 10-win seasons or better from 2004 through 2011, and he won four ACC championships during that span.

"I will always hate the way everything happened with North Carolina," Beamer said. "I thought you could be very successful there and still do, but things happened pretty good for me around here, too."