With the search for a new USC football coach officially underway, it’s time for the rumor mill to begin about potential candidates. One person who we know will receive eight games worth of consideration is interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who is familiar to USC fans.
Trojans athletic director Pat Haden will also cast a wide net in vetting other candidates besides Orgeron, and Haden has made it clear he will look to conduct that search as privately as possible out of respect for the current USC players.
One candidate who has been part of every short list from the media is Jack Del Rio, the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and a former USC linebacker. WeAreSC has confirmed Del Rio has already received vetting from the USC athletic department about his candidacy. It’s natural that Del Rio would get a look -- he has a long coaching history, including a stint as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars -- but it has been somewhat surprising to see how many USC fans are unfamiliar with his background. To that point, here is a primer on Del Rio and why he will be in the mix for the job.
Del Rio came to USC in 1981 out of Hayward High School in Northern California. He had also been drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 22nd round of the Major League Baseball draft out of high school and ended up playing both football and baseball at USC. As a linebacker on the football team he was a physical presence who was named a consensus All-American as a senior along with being the MVP of the 1985 Rose Bowl win over Ohio State.
Del Rio was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 1985 NFL draft and spent 11 years in the league with five different teams. He made the 1994 Pro Bowl. After he retired from his playing career, Del Rio went immediately into coaching as the strength and conditioning coach of the Saints. His next stop was as a linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens, where he was on the staff for the Super Bowl win over the New York Giants.
The next stop for Del Rio came with the Carolina Panthers, where he coached under John Fox, his current boss today with the Broncos. After a year with the Panthers, Del Rio was named the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a position he held for eight seasons. In the year prior to his arrival, the Jaguars had the No. 25 rush defense in the league; Del Rio coached them to the No. 2 ranking in that category in his first season.
In the end, however, there weren’t enough bright moments for the Jaguars under his watch and Del Rio was fired late in the 2011 season with a record of 68-71 and 1-2 in the playoffs.
There will be critics of Del Rio’s record with the Jaguars as a .500 football coach who claim that isn’t enough to warrant the head job at USC. It would be too easy -- and not entirely accurate -- to point out that Pete Carroll was also a .500 NFL coach before coaching the Trojans. Instead, consideration should be given to the state of the Jaguars franchise, one that has struggled both with Del Rio and without him.
There were many reports from his time with the Jaguars that Del Rio was offered the USC job prior to Lane Kiffin being hired. These reports are simply not true. Almost entirely from the start of his coaching search, USC athletic director Mike Garrett had been focused on bringing in the trio of Lane and Monte Kiffin along with Ed Orgeron.
After being let go by the Jaguars, Del Rio wasn’t out of work for long as his old friend Fox was now the head coach of the Broncos and he immediately brought Del Rio on as his defensive coordinator. Del Rio is now in his second season with the Broncos, who appear to be one of the favorites to make a deep run in the playoffs this year. One thing to note is that Del Rio made a two-year commitment to Fox to be on staff, a commitment which would obviously be met at the end of the season.
As far as Del Rio's abilities as a football coach, he was described to me once as a “man’s man in the NFL world.” That statement means a certain level of toughness, as well as respect from those who play the game. The fact that Del Rio has consistently been employed in the NFL since 1985 -- either as a player or coach -- should say something about how he is viewed at that level.
So if his NFL credentials are there, the next question becomes “how would be translate to the college game?” Obviously there is no way of knowing that because he has never coached in college. There is merit to the question, however, simply because it is an unknown factor. His entire coaching history is with NFL players and it’s hard to predict how he would interact with college players.
Those close to Del Rio say he has a personality that would fit well at any level. During USC spring practices in 2011, Del Rio stopped by a Trojans practice with his son, Luke, who is now a walk-on quarterback at Alabama. When practice ended, I watched as a steady stream of USC players from Matt Barkley to Khaled Holmes to Matt Kalil went over to pay their respects to Del Rio. There were wide smiles on the faces of the players as they interacted with him. I’ve also seen Del Rio on the sidelines at Elite 11 camps, where he was animated and into the on-field action. These small samples of his personality around younger players doesn’t guarantee anything but it’s notable that he seemed at ease in the environment.
As a side note, when Del Rio was on campus for that spring session, he did go into Heritage Hall afterward for a meeting with Haden. This isn’t meant to indicate they were talking about a potential job opening, it’s just to say that the two have met and sat down together in a somewhat recent time frame.
As far as his knowledge for the college game, there would undoubtedly be a learning curve because the games are different. One coach who could be of great assistance is Kennedy Polamalu, a former teammate of Del Rio’s at USC and the running back coach for the Jaguars for several years. The two are very close and Polamalu could be part of the staff if Del Rio were to end up as coach of the Trojans. From staff selection to recruiting to the nuances of the college game, Polamalu could be a tremendous resource for his old friend.
Then there is the matter of timing. Haden is in no hurry to name a full-time coach but he also doesn’t want to let it drag on too long either. Recruits are going to want to know who their next coach is and someone like Del Rio might not be available until early February if the Broncos make a run all the way to a Super Bowl. Of course, Del Rio could be hired prior to that point while staying with the Broncos and allowing USC coaches such as Polamalu or Orgeron to head up recruiting efforts during that time. If that scenario played out, it wouldn’t hurt to tell recruits “see that coach on the sideline in the Super Bowl, that would be your next coach at USC.”
This is all speculation, of course, as there is a long way to go in this coaching search but there are a lot of check marks in the positive column for Del Rio, not the least of which is that he is a Trojan. That isn’t a priority for the next coach but it doesn’t hurt if the best candidate also happens to bleed Cardinal and Gold. This isn’t a case of an NFL coach looking to return for any college job, it would be an NFL guy considering one college job only, to return to his alma mater. It should be a fascinating process to watch.