At the end of 2021, seven of the best jobs in college football became available at roughly the same time. USC, LSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Florida, Miami and Oregon hitting the market in one season was a remarkable occurrence, one without much recent precedent. But there was one hiring cycle, two decades ago, in which nearly everyone struck gold.

Let’s rewind to the 2000 coaching carousel, which might just be the best of all time.

While the rest of the country was focused on another historically chaotic event — the Bush vs. Gore presidential election — college football was going through a dramatic period of prominent firings and brilliant hires. At the Division I-A level, 25 programs brought in new head coaches. Fourteen went on to earn conference or national coach of the year honors.

Five of the 10 most successful programs in the sport from 2001 to 2010 hired coaches in this cycle, and another nearly lost theirs. Best of all, three head coaches delivered national championships within four years.

Only a dozen coaches were making $1 million a year back in 2000. This cycle presented an opportunity for many more to hit that mark, by either taking a new job or flirting just enough to get a new deal. Athletic directors took big swings on big names. The what-ifs of this cycle are just as compelling as the actual outcomes. In some cases, these hires still impact the sport to this day.

 

The fourth choice: USC

Pete Carroll wasn’t USC’s first, second or third choice. Why was that?

The Trojans fell short of big expectations in 2000, finishing 5-7 and tied for last place in the Pac-10. Paul Hackett, fired on Nov. 27 after three seasons, believed he just needed more time and vowed, “In two years, I expect to see this team explode.”

The frontrunner from the start was Oregon State’s Dennis Erickson. The veteran head coach was Pac-10 Coach of the Year after leading the Beavers to a school-record 11 wins and the Fiesta Bowl, but he called USC athletic director Mike Garrett as soon as the job opened. Garrett later confirmed he offered Erickson the job.

On Dec. 2, Erickson declined. Oregon State AD Mitch Barnhart had already been working with Erickson on an extension and locked him up with a seven-year deal at $1 million a year.

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti pursued the job, too, but backed out 24 hours after Erickson did after securing an extension. Though Bellotti called the decision to turn down USC “the most difficult of my life,” Garrett acknowledged some coaches were more interested in leverage than leading the Trojans.

“I think it’s certainly a great opportunity for somebody,” Bellotti told the Los Angeles Times. “It has a capacity to be as good a job as there is.”