Five new coaches will have the opportunity to lead their programs to the Conference USA Championship this season. Tulane, Houston, Memphis, UAB and Southern Miss all hired new head coaches in 2012, creating plenty of new faces for head coach George O’Leary and his UCF Knights to get familiar with for their final season in the league.
Houston hired its special teams coordinator Tony Levine as its full-time head coach. Levine led the Cougars to a bowl win over Penn State last season after Kevin Sumlin left the school for the Texas A&M job. The Cougars are truly entering a new era after record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum and Sumlin left in the same offseason. Levine has no prior head coaching experience and will have high expectations, taking over a program that was ranked for much of 2011. Houston was 13-1 last season.
Despite his familiarity with the program, Levine’s experience is limited. There is not a long history of special teams coaches making successful transitions to head coaches, and Levine’s prior experience was in strength and conditioning.
Ellis Johnson has taken over the reins at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles won the conference last season with a 12-2 record. Perhaps the most notable hiring of the five, Johnson is one of the nation’s top defensive minds with coordinator experience at Alabama, Mississippi State and Southern Miss. Johnson also spent time as the head coach at The Citadel. The Golden Eagles find themselves now in good hands and likely will be in position to compete to repeat as conference champs.
Johnson brings immediate credibility as a head coach. His track record speaks for itself and will likely have the Golden Eagles ready to compete at a high level from Day One.
Garrick McGee left Arkansas in a much less controversial manner than his former boss Bobby Petrino — McGee left for the UAB head coaching job.
McGee was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the fourth-best passing attack in the country at Arkansas, including a Sugar Bowl victory. McGee has the most potential of this group and with a few good recruiting classes could have UAB out of cellar of both C-USA and the football subdivision ranks.
At 2-11 last season, Tulane needed positive energy and excitement to bring to its fan base — especially with a new stadium in the works. The Green Wave may have done just that when it landed Curtis Johnson, the former New Orleans Saints wide receivers coach. Previously Johnson worked at the University of Miami in the same capacity for 10 seasons.
For a 2-11 program, where the job isn’t overly attractive to big name coaches, Tulane did well in finding a local face with NFL experience.
Justin Fuente is a mystery hire for the University of Memphis. The former co-offensive coordinator at TCU is the least experienced of the 2012 Conference USA new-coaches class. Fuente is a former quarterback and has experience as both a quarterbacks coach and a running backs coach.
Memphis went 2-10 last season and will need Fuente to get the turnaround rolling quickly, with the Tigers set to make the move to the Big East in 2013 alongside the Knights, SMU and Houston.