San Diego State needs a new head coach. Brady Hoke retired from the position on Monday, setting up SDSU for its first real coaching search since Hoke was hired for his first stint in 2009.
The Aztecs are 3-7 this year, putting Hoke at 26-19 in his second stint, highlighted by a 12-2 season in 2021. This will also be SDSU’s first losing season since 2009.
“I am very appreciative for the work Brady Hoke has done with our football program at San Diego State both on and off the field,” athletic director JD Wicker said in a statement. “Brady set the standard in 2009 when he first arrived on The Mesa that we now hold ourselves to.”
It’s second consecutive “retirement” for an SDSU head coach, after Rocky Long retired and Hoke moved back up into the job in late 2019 (Long became New Mexico’s defensive coordinator). This time, it’ll be a true coaching search.
San Diego State has long been viewed as a sleeping giant job. Recent improvements have made that title even more fitting. But the Aztecs were also just left out of conference realignment, a missed opportunity, and the offense has been dreadful.
So how good is the San Diego State job? What names could get in the mix? Here are the factors to keep in mind.
The offense has to be fixed
More than anything else, this is one of the main goals of the search. For more than a decade, San Diego State had been a winning program on the back of one of the best defenses in the country, for years led by Long as defensive coordinator and then head coach. For a while, it worked. The program won at least nine games seven times from 2010 to ’21, including multiple Mountain West championships.
But it wasn’t sustainable, and the offense fell from merely average to among the worst in the country when it no longer had running backs like Ronnie Hillman, Donnel Pumphrey or Rashaad Penny. The Aztecs haven’t finished in the top 75 in scoring offense since 2017.
This is an area of the country full of good quarterbacks and skill players. San Diego State has to tap into that and put out a more pleasing product for fans, because…
There’s a new stadium and good infrastructure
After decades of playing in the old Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego State won the right to purchase the land and build a new stadium on it. After two remote years playing up in Carson, Calif., SDSU opened Snapdragon Stadium last year. It’s a beautiful building that brings all kinds of new revenue to the school and athletic department.
Its capacity is 35,000, but it has only once seen a capacity greater than 30,000 this year, for the home game against UCLA. The Aztecs’ ugly style of football (115th in scoring this year) has certainly played a role, on top of the losses. More than 27,000 tickets were sold to see SDSU lose 6-0 to Nevada. There isn’t a football-only complex, but the program has its own floor in the athletics building.
Has the power-conference window passed?
It’s been a tough second half of the year for San Diego State. In the spring, its men’s basketball team reached the national championship game, and the Aztecs seemed destined for a Power 5 invitation from the Pac-12 or Big 12. Then the Pac-12 suddenly collapsed, the Big 12 filled up and the football team fell apart on the field.
There’s still a desire and push for SDSU to move into a bigger conference, but it’s going to be tough. It’s unknown what Oregon State and Washington State will do with the Pac-2. Will they join the Mountain West or try to poach half the league to rebuild a Pac conference? Either way, with a 5+7 model likely coming to the College Football Playoff, it may not matter.
How much is San Diego State willing to pay, and what other jobs will open?
Hoke’s salary ranked eighth in the Mountain West at $1.2 million annually, certainly on a discount because he was promoted into the job. Wyoming and San Jose State both pay their coaches more than $2 million, pacing the conference.
But the Boise State job is also open, and there might be overlap in the list of candidates. Other Mountain West or Pac-12 jobs could open as well, impacting whom SDSU is able to get and what the going rate may be for certain coaches.
So what names could get in the mix?
Based on conversations with industry sources, these are some names to keep an eye on.
Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb has led the most explosive offense in the country the last two years, with the Huskies 21-2 over that span and currently 10-0 with Michael Penix Jr. sitting as a Heisman Trophy favorite. Grubb passed on the Alabama offensive coordinator job to stay with Kalen DeBoer, knowing a big season was in store. He and DeBoer go way back, working together at Fresno State, Eastern Michigan and NAIA Sioux Falls. He’s expected to get looks to lead his own program soon. Does a top Group of 5 job fit, or will he wait for something at the Power 5 level?
Missouri offensive coordinator Kirby Moore is another name to watch. Kellen Moore’s younger brother spent 2017-22 as Fresno State’s offensive coordinator, where he was one of the best recruiters in the Mountain West, and the Bulldogs led the league in scoring in his last season. At Missouri, where Moore calls the plays, the Tigers are 8-2 behind an offense that has scored at least 34 points in every SEC game except against Georgia, but Mizzou’s 21 points are tied for the most anyone has scored on the Bulldogs this year.
Oregon State offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren has directed one of the most efficient offenses in the country over the last few years. The Beavers are top-10 in the polls and have the No. 14 scoring offense this year, thanks in large part to Lindgren’s work with DJ Uiagalelei, who is 16th nationally in yards per pass. The 43-year-old is a Washington native who has spent his entire career out west, also working at Colorado, San Jose State and Northern Arizona. Lindgren could also be a candidate at Oregon State if Jonathan Smith takes another job.
Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has done a good job this season while faced with numerous injuries to star offensive players, even using safety Sione Vaki at running back and seeing him rush for 158 yards against Cal. Ludwig has been at Utah since 2019 and won two Pac-12 championships. He was San Diego State’s offensive coordinator from 2011 to ’12, producing a top-50 scoring offense each time with two different 1,000-yard running backs.
Former Boise State and Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin is expected to be in the mix for multiple Mountain West jobs. Harsin went 69-19 as Boise State’s head coach from 2014 to ’20. He won the Fiesta Bowl and finished with a top-15 team in his first season but never quite reached that level again, though he did go 45-8 in Mountain West play and won three conference championships. Harsin was fired less than two years into his tenure at Auburn, a place that never made sense from a fit or culture perspective. He could have an opportunity to go back to Boise State, or he could get a look at SDSU. Or more Mountain West jobs could open.
Former Virginia and BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall was in the mix for the Colorado job last year. He went 135-81 as a head coach from 2005 to ’21, a consistent winner with 11 seasons of at least eight victories. The Utah native is plenty familiar with the region and the Mountain West. But if he’s interested in coming back after stepping away from the sport in 2021, he’d have to show he’s ready to keep up with the new era of college football.
Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks coach Tee Martin spent seven years as a USC assistant from 2012 to ’18, and there was some push for him to get the head coaching job. He was one of the best recruiters in the country as well. Martin has been with the Ravens since 2021, and he’s now the position coach for a former NFL MVP in Lamar Jackson. Martin may be focused on moving up in the NFL and sticking with a Ravens team poised to make the playoffs.
Oklahoma analyst Matt Wells had a successful run as Utah State head coach from 2013 to ’18, winning at least nine games three times. He helped develop Jordan Love into an NFL quarterback and had a 5-3 record in his third season at Texas Tech when he was fired.
Montana State head coach Brent Vigen is 32-7 in two-plus seasons, reaching the FCS national championship in 2021 and the semifinal in 2022. Before that, he was a Wyoming offensive assistant for seven seasons and a North Dakota State assistant for 16 years. He knows the Mountain West, and he’s got head coaching experience.
USC defensive backs coach Donte Williams is one of the best West Coast recruiters in the country. He went 3-7 as USC’s interim head coach in 2021, thrust into a difficult position. He has also coached at Oregon, Arizona, San Jose State and Nebraska.
If San Diego State looks at a defensive head coach, former Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett or Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White could get looks. Both are former SDSU assistants — Arnett had spent his entire career at SDSU before moving to Mississippi State in 2020. UCLA defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn has done a remarkable job in his first season as a college coach, improving the Bruins from 90th in scoring defense to ninth.
Would USC analyst Kliff Kingsbury be interested? He’s got a great track record of offensive football, and it’s in a location that could pique Kingsbury’s interest and make recruiting easier than Texas Tech. The word is that Kingsbury would rather get back into the NFL, but it might be worth looking into.
(Photo: Tony Ding / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)