Substantive coaching changes are part of the annual college football offseason cycle. With the early signing period becoming pivotal, athletic directors have pushed forward their timelines, not just when it comes to hiring coaches but firing them as well. Despite that, it took 11 weeks into the 2023 season for an FBS coach to be fired for their on-field performance, the latest that has happened in recent memory.
Michigan State acted quickly to find its successor to Mel Tucker by hiring Jonathan Smith away from Oregon State after Smith's success at his alma mater. Smith is taking over a Spartans program that needs a massive overhaul after a disappointing 4-8 season. Texas A&M hired Duke's Mike Elko to replace Jimbo Fisher, a familiar move for a coach with intimate knowledge of the Aggies program after spending four seasons as Fisher's defensive coordinator from 2018-21. Indiana's new coach, Curt Cignetti, comes to the Hoosiers after overseeing a wildly successful transition to the FBS for James Madison.
Again, this process is just getting started. Here's a look at the coaching carousel as it continues to spin. Grades will eventually be added once coaches begin to fill these vacancies.
College football coaching carousel
|Mike Elko (Duke head coach)
|Elko is familiar with the program after spending four seasons as Fisher's defensive coordinator (2018-21). He's aware of the expectations. His 16-9 record at Duke shows that he is able to develop players who can compete at a high level. However, he only has two years of head coaching experience and will have to create top-down unity at a program with a lot of chefs in the kitchen. Mark Stoops would have been a better option, and Elko would be graded higher had the deal with Stoops not imploded. We will have to wait a few years to see if this hire works out, but Elko shares similar coaching characteristics as Stoops. Grade: B+
|Jonathan Smith (Oregon State)
|Mel Tucker (cause)
|Smith is the perfect hire for Michigan State. The former Oregon State quarterback rebuilt the Beavers program into a consistent team despite challenges in the recruiting department. Michigan State is bound to be a developmental program in the new-look Big Ten, and Smith has proven that he's one of the best at developing talent throughout his coaching career. Grade: A+
|Jeff Lebby (Oklahoma offensive coordinator)
|Lebby has been successful as an offensive coordinator at Ole Miss, UCF and Oklahoma. However, finding success in the new-look SEC that includes Texas and Oklahoma will be almost impossible for a first-year coach at a program that is constantly fighting an uphill battle like Mississippi State. Grade: C
|David Braun (Northwestern interim head coach)
|Pat Fitzgerald (cause)
|Fitzgerald was dismissed after an investigation revealed a culture of hazing within the program. He was 110-101 in 17 seasons leading the Wildcats. Braun was tabbed as the team's interim coach at the beginning of the season and has surpassed all expectations, guiding the Wildcats to the brink of bowl eligibility. Northwestern rewarded Braun by removing the interim tag and making him the full-time head coach. Sure, the Wildcats could have tried for a splashier hire, but it's hard to argue with the job Braun has done so far. Grade: B
|Fran Brown (Georgia defensive backs coach)
|This is a big jump for Brown, going from a position coach to a head coach in a Power Five conference. It's going to be a tall order for Brown to succeed early on, especially in the expanded ACC. However, the New Jersey native is currently ranked as the top recruiter in the nation, according to 247Sports, and finished No. 8 last year. He will help the Orange replenish that roster through high school recruiting and the transfer portal. Grade: B-
|Trent Bray (Oregon State defensive coordinator)
|Bray has taken over for Jonathan Smith after Smith left to take the Michigan State job. This is an interesting hire because Bray, who was the Nebraska interim coach for one week as it made the transition from Mike Riley to Scott Frost after the 2017 season, has never actually coached an FBS game. There are two ways to look at this hire. The continuity he provides after being serving on the Beavers staff since 2018 will help them make the transition out of the Pac-12. However, these are uncharted waters for a program that has no home. There's no way to gauge what the blueprint is for this program, so keeping it in-house is probably the right move. Grade: B-
|Curt Cignetti (James Madison coach)
|Cignetti was the talk of the college football world during the first two-plus months of the season as he led James Madison into the national conversation with 10 straight wins to open the campaign. He has three double-digit win seasons since taking over the program in 2019, finished in the top three in the final FCS rankings from 2019-21 prior to the program moving up to FBS. It's going to be tough for him to rebuild Indiana, but he is the right man for the job. Grade: A
|Sean Lewis (Colorado offensive coordinator)
|Brady Hoke (retired)
|Lewis was bound to be a hot commodity at the Group of Five level, and San Diego State struck while the iron was hot. Lewis' one-year tenure as the Colorado offensive coordinator failed not due to anything that he did, but because the Buffaloes simply couldn't block. He has one division championship in four years at Kent State and will give the Aztecs an offensive identity that it lacked last season. Grade: A-
|Willie Fritz (Tulane head coach)
|This is a perfect hire for a program that has enormous upside in the Big 12. Fritz turned Georgia Southern around as it transitioned to FBS. Then he transformed the Green Wave into a New Year's Six bowl contender. Houston needs a coach that can succeed fighting a tough battle, and Fritz is the best in the country at that. Grade: A+
|Spencer Danielson (Boise State interim head coach/defensive coordinator)
|Danielson served as the Broncos' interim head coach over the final three games. He led them to a 3-0 record and became the first interim head coach in FBS history to win a conference title when they topped UNLV in the Mountain West Championship Game. He has served in a variety of roles on the Boise State staff since 2017, so he knows the expectations within the fan base and administration. There is no doubt that he earned the chance to lead the program, and it'll be interesting to see if he can handle the responsibility on a permanent basis for a team that should be contending for New Year's Six bowl games every year. Grade: B+
|Scotty Walden (Austin Peay coach)
|Walden is one of the hot up-and-coming names in the coaching industry after finding success at Austin Peay, where he posted a 26-14 record in four seasons. His win total increased in each season, culminating with a 9-3 record and FCS playoff berth in 2023. Plus, his four-game stint as the interim coach at Southern Miss in 2020 allowed him to get his feet wet leading an FBS program. He is a native Texan, and the ties to the high school coaches in the state will go a long way towards rebuilding the roster with enough talent to contend in Conference USA. Grade: A-
|Bryant Vincent (New Mexico offensive coordinator)
|Vincent was 7-6 as UAB's interim coach during the 2022 season following the retirement of Bill Clark and led the Blazers to win in the Bahamas Bowl. He served as the New Mexico offensive coordinator last season and helped the Lobos average 6.21 yards per play. He has ties to the Southeastern footprint as a high school and college coach, which will help him build the roster in Monroe. He's a good fit, but this is going to be a tough rebuild. Grade: B-
|Derek Mason (former Vanderbilt head coach)
|Mason took one year off of coaching last season after serving as the Oklahoma State defensive coordinator in 2022. He was the head coach at Vanderbilt from 2014-20, so his knowledge of the landscape in central Tennessee will be vital to the rebuilding effort in Murfreesboro. He is a master salesman, is well-versed on building defenses and has SEC experience. He's a prefect fit for the Blue Raiders. Grade: A
|Bronco Mendenhall (former BYU and Virginia head coach)
|What an upgrade from Gonzales to Mendenhall. The former BYU and Virginia coach has a 135-81 record as a head coach, has led teams to Top 25 rankings in either the coaches or the AP poll six times and has ties to the "Four Corners" region of the United States. He is known for his hard-nosed approach, discipline and ability to get the most out of his players. Grade: A+
|Jay Sawvell (Wyoming defensive coordinator)
|Craig Bohl (retired)
|It's never easy to follow a legend, but that is what Sawvell is going to be tasked with after Bohl's success in Laramie. Sawvell has been on Bohl's staff as defensive coordinator and safeties coach since 2020. His previous stops include Wake Forest, Minnesota and several other FBS schools. However, it's hard to imagine a first-time head coach jumping in for a legend and quickly contending for a conference title. Grade: C+
|Bob Chesney (Holy Cross head coach)
|Chesney might not be a household name, but he did a tremendous job at Holy Cross with four straight Patriot League titles and playoff appearances from 2018-22, the last of which included an undefeated regular season. He takes over a James Madison program that thrived under Cignetti, which means that Chesney should be able to hit the ground running. Grade: A+
|Elko left to take the Texas A&M job after posting a 16-9 record in two seasons at Duke. The Blue Devils turned to Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to replace him. For Diaz, it marks his second head coaching stint in the ACC. He posted a 21-15 record at Miami. Diaz certainly knows defense and has a proven track record as a recruiter, but still has something to prove as a head coach. Grade: B-
|Wilson went 4-20 in two seasons leading the Wolf Pack.
|Fritz joined Houston after leading the Green Wave to a 54-47 record in eight years with the program.
Notable retentions, extensions
|Brown entered 2023 needing a big season. He got one. The Mountaineers finished 8-4 and will be going bowling. Brown now sits one game above .500 (30-29) after five years, but this was by far his best coaching job. Athletic director Wren Baker wanted reasons to keep Brown. He has them now.
|The two parties have agreed to a multi-year extension. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although sources have told CBS Sports that it is through the 2029 season. Lashlee has led the Mustangs to a 17-8 record in two years at the helm, including a 10-2 mark and berth in the AAC Championship Game this season.
|Aranda was under fire after a 3-9 season, the worst since 2017 in Waco, Texas. The Bears have an eight-game losing streak at home dating back to October 2022. However, Aranda will get at least one more chance to repair the program at the place that he led to 12 wins just two years ago. Major staff changes are expected.
|Malzahn helped usher in the new era of UCF in the Big 12. His new deal will pay him an average of $4 million per year over the next two seasons and will increase to an average of $5.5 million during the last two seasons of the contract. He is 23-14 in three seasons with the Knights, and the new contract should come with the expectation that he will bring them into Big 12 championship contention in the near future.
|Lanning signed a six-year, $45 million contract extension that will keep the second-year coach with the Ducks through the 2028 season. He took over in Eugene in 2022, and has kept the Ducks in the College Football Playoff discussion in each of his two years leading the program.
|Monken received a contract extension through 2027 that will pay the coach more than $2 million per year. He has been properly rewarded for flipping the script in the Army-Navy rivalry as the Black Knights have won five of their last seven games against their rivals.
|There was a question surrounding the status of Pittman after a six-game losing streak in the middle of the 2023 season. However, athletic director Hunter Yurachek announced on Nov. 19 that Pittman will be given another season to try to turn around the program. Pittman is 23-24 (11-22 SEC) in four seasons leading the Razorbacks.