After Les Miles' departure from Kansas, who might replace him?

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

The University of Kansas parted ways with coach Les Miles on Monday night after placing him on administrative leave last week.

A series of untoward allegations arose against Miles during his time coaching at LSU, which include unwelcome advances to multiple student employees and ignoring his athletic director’s orders to not contact student workers.

Miles is 3-18 in two seasons at Kansas and the allegations against him left no clear path to returning to the sideline. Miles has denied the allegations, and his attorney released a statement Saturday to The Advocate saying Kansas had "significant information" about the 2013 sexual harassment investigation.

With Miles now out the door, the first question will be who’ll make the next hire. Athletic director Jeff Long has bungled nearly every move since arriving at Kansas, including getting legally smacked down in court in the school’s attempt to avoid David Beaty’s buyout. He's also tagged with the Miles hire, which has been an epic failure on the field and showed a lack of due diligence by Long.

It’s unclear whether Kansas’ administration would decide on an interim coach for a season, or run a full-on search during a time when most programs are either running spring practice or poised to start. If Kansas can get its act together — a huge if considering the school’s recent football history — it could land a much better coach this spring than if it waits until November and faces open-market competition. But if Kansas fires Long and needs to hire an athletic director before a coach, that’s a ponderous process.

Here’s what’s known: No school over the past decade-plus has failed more miserably in hiring coaches than Kansas, which since 2010 has brought in a conga line of flops: Turner Gill, Charlie Weis, David Beaty and Miles. The school’s record over that time is 21-108 with a pair of winless seasons and no season with more than three victories.

Who could replace Les Miles as Kansas head coach? It depends greatly on who's making the hire. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Who could replace Les Miles as Kansas head coach? It depends greatly on who's making the hire. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The big X-factor here is whether Long will be around to make the hire. (The fact he also hired Bobby Petrino at Arkansas will likely loom here, too.) On campus, Long doesn’t have a ton of support. And his handling of assistant coach contracts has given him a bad reputation within the industry and hurt Kansas’ ability to recruit and retain top talent. Long’s insistence on inordinately high buyouts and one-sided deals has made staffing at one of the Power Five's hardest jobs even harder.

Here’s a look at potential successors for Miles at Kansas if the school looks to the outside. (We also examine a potential interim situation.)

1. Willie Fritz, Tulane

Fritz, 60, is the closest thing Kansas could bring in to a sure thing. He’s got deep roots in the region, as he played college ball and later coached high school and junior college in the state. Fritz has proven to be a relentless winner at every level, which gives his candidacy a high floor. His Tulane tenure includes three straight bowl games at a place that had been to three bowls in the previous 20 years.

2. Lance Leipold, Buffalo

Leipold, 56, emerged as a hot candidate in the past cycle, as his name emerged at Vanderbilt, Illinois and Tennessee. He’s led Buffalo to both bowl wins in program history and twice won MAC Coach of the Year. He also won six Division III national titles and went 109-6 at Wisconsin-Whitewater. A similar proven winner with a high floor.

3. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

Holtz, 56, has proven a paragon of consistency, reaching bowl games in each of the past seven seasons. His ability to put together staffs after a constant churn of turnover and to identify, recruit and develop strong rosters every year in an adjacent footprint would be attractive at Kansas. In 21 seasons as a head coach at hard jobs — UConn, ECU, USF and La Tech — he’s had just six losing seasons.

4. Troy Calhoun, Air Force

Calhoun, 54, has turned down a handful of Power Five jobs over the years. Perhaps this is the right fit. He’s led Air Force to 10 bowl games in 14 years and won more than 58 percent of his games. He’s got the background from the NFL and his time at Wake Forest to evolve the offense.

Is Kansas the right job to finally lure Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun into the Power 5? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Is Kansas the right job to finally lure Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun into the Power 5? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

5. Jay Norvell, Nevada

The Wolf Pack will be loaded next season, which means Norvell will be one of the hottest candidates in the 2021 cycle. Norvell, 57, has extensive Big 12 experience coaching at Iowa State, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma. He’s 22-13 the last three years with three bowl appearances.

6. Mike Elko, Texas A&M defensive coordinator

This is a tall task for an assistant, but Elko, 44, has shown the chops as part of reviving the programs at both Wake Forest and Notre Dame as an assistant. Elko projects as one of the most coveted assistants in the next cycle after fielding the SEC’s top defense in 2020. He’s the caliber of coach they’d struggle to land in a more competitive market.

7. Jeff Monken, Army

He drew interest from both Vanderbilt and South Carolina this cycle. His high school roots in Illinois give him a natural Midwestern presence. Another proven winner and rebuilder who’d provide an upgrade.

8. Sean Lewis, Kent State

His name has come in searches the past two cycles, including at UCF this year. Kent led the nation in scoring offense this season (49.8 ppg), although they only played four games. After leading Kent to the program’s first-ever bowl win, Lewis has shown the ability to execute in the most difficult circumstances.

9. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

Another proven winner at a difficult job, Niumatalolo would instill discipline and identity in a program that’s lacked both since Mark Mangino left town. Niumatalolo, 55, has gone 101-67 with 11 bowl games in 14 seasons. Those are results worth considering.

10. Jason Candle, Toledo

He’s won 65% of his games, a MAC title and appeared to solve the program’s defensive issues with a savvy DC hire last year in Vince Kehres. Candle interviewed at Missouri and Boston College two years ago, and his offense and play-calling pedigree would fit well in the wide-open Big 12.

11. Mike Neu, Ball State

The MAC champions from 2020 have a great chance to repeat, returning 20 of 22 starters on a roster that projects 16 so-called “Super Seniors.” Neu brings a dynamic passing game from his time with the New Orleans Saints and just showed the patience to endure a long rebuild at Ball State.

Interim Kansas candidates

The school hasn’t named an interim coach, though sources told Yahoo Sports that Long has tabbed new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord as the point person for the program for now.

DeBord’s chances at the interim job would depend on who is in charge, as he has a close relationship with both Miles and Long. That could hurt him if Long ends up in the crosshairs. Also, DeBord was hired a month ago and hasn’t had time to build strong relationships with the players.

If Kansas decides to fire Long, hire a new AD and then run a search after the 2021 season, the most likely internal candidate would be defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. He enters his ninth season as a DC at a Power Five school, including stints at Kentucky and Colorado. Of the returning coaches, he has by far the best résumé.

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