Which Big East assistants are on the head-coaching track?

December, 26, 2008
12/26/08
10:45
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

On Monday, former Louisville defensive coordinator Ron English was introduced as the new head coach at Eastern Michigan. This got me to thinking about other current assistants in the Big East, and which ones look like future head coach material.

It hasn't been common for Big East assistants to get shots at leading their own programs lately. In fact, it usually goes the other way, with league teams often hiring coordinators from other conferences or levels as their head coach. See Greg Schiano, Randy Edsall, Doug Marrone, et al. Since 2005, I can't think of another case where a coordinator or assistant on a Big East team was hired as a head coach at another Division I school. (Please correct me if I'm wrong on this, loyal readers).

English appeared to be the assistant most ready to take over his own program this season. There aren't a lot of obvious candidates who jump out right now as future head coaches.

One of the most respected assistants in the league is South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. But after 34 years as an assistant at the college or pro level, Burnham seems perfectly content to remain a coordinator. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has already been a head coach, at SMU. Connecticut offensive coordinator Rob Ambrose is reportedly a leading candidate for the head coaching vacancy at Towson State of the FCS.

Here's a list, in no particular order, of some assistants in the Big East who could be on the head coaching track (the new staff at Syracuse is exempt for the time being):

John "Doc" Holliday, West Virginia: The associate head coach who's also in charge of fullbacks, tight ends and recruiting is seen by many Mountaineers fans as a potential successor to Bill Stewart someday. Holliday was also the associate head coach at Florida under Urban Meyer before coming back to his home state.

Jeff Casteel, West Virginia: The Mountaineers defensive coordinator has done tremendous work the past two seasons in making West Virginia one of the Big East's top defenses. The unit barely missed a beat this year despite losing eight starters.

Joe Tresey, Cincinnati: Head coach Brian Kelly gets most of the credit, and rightfully so, for building the Bearcats into a power the past two years. Tresey's defense has been the backbone of the team both seasons. He was a highly successful high school head coach before joining Kelly.

Jeff Quinn, Cincinnati: If someone wanted to copy the success of Kelly, they could do worse than hiring his right-hand man. Quinn, the Bearcats' offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, has spent the last 17 years alongside Kelly and has already won a bowl game as a head coach. He served as Central Michigan's interim coach for the 2006 Motor City Bowl.

Keith Gilmore, Cincinnati: Yes, there are a lot of Bearcats assistants on this list -- some feel that Mike Elson, Greg Forest and Kerry Coombs are future head coaches as well -- but that's what comes with success. Gilmore is the assistant head coach and has worked wonders with the defensive line. Just look what he did with first-year defensive end Connor Barwin this season.

Matt Cavanaugh, Pittsburgh: Though some Pitt fans have grumbled about his playcalling at times, there's little doubting Cavanaugh's pedigree. He's also been the offensive coordinator for the NFL's Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens.

John McNulty, Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach might not have made this list in early October, but the way Mike Teel and the rest of his unit played down the stretch gets McNulty a spot here. He's also been a wide receivers coach in the NFL.

Jeff Brohm, Louisville: Brohm has long been viewed as a rising star, though his first season as offensive coordinator didn't always go smoothly. Brohm has the same problem as other young playcallers who serve under offensive-minded head coaches: they get too much blame when things go wrong and not enough credit when things go right. He may have to find success somewhere other than his alma mater to get a chance to lead his own team.

Greg Gattuso, Pittsburgh: The Panthers' assistant head coach has overseen a defensive line that has turned into one of the best in the league. He's also already succeeded as a head man at a lower level, coaching Duquesne for 12 years.

Todd Orlando, Connecticut: The Huskies have been very strong fundamentally on defense in Orlando's two years as coordinator. Of course, head coach Randy Edsall is a defensive-oriented guy, so some of Orlando's work gets overshadowed.

That's my list, and it's certainly not meant to be all-inclusive. What other assistants in this league do you see as future head coaches?

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