San Jose State took a page from the book of South Bay rival Stanford on Monday when they hired their next football coach away from the University of San Diego.
As the Cardinal did in 2007 when they hired Jim Harbaugh from USD, which competes in the FCS division, the Spartans selected his replacement, Ron Caragher, to fill the void left when Mike MacIntyre accepted the job at Colorado last week. Interim coach Kent Baer will remain in his role through the Military Bowl on December 27, but is expected to follow MacIntyre to Boulder along with offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren.
Caragher is a Bay Area native who attended high school at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose and was a quarterback at UCLA in the mid-to-late 80s, serving as a backup to Troy Aikman in his final two seasons. He returned to UCLA in 1994 as a graduate assistant and spent nine seasons there as a member of the coaching staff, tutoring wide receivers, kickers and punters. He followed that up with a four-year stint at Kentucky as a running backs coach and recruiting coordinator before getting his first head coaching job at USD, where he went 44-22 with three conference titles.
At the press conference Monday to announce the hiring, athletic director Gene Bleymaier was predictably enthusiastic about the hiring, making it clear that Caragher was one of the first names that came to his mind back when MacIntyre became one of the hot commodities on the coaching market late in the season.
“Every athletic director is always combing the country looking for the next great star, and this was no different,” Bleymaier said. “(Caragher) has always been on my radar and someone I had hoped to have an opportunity to hire for some time.”
Last week in the wake of Coach Mac’s departure, I opined that the Spartans had two ways to approach their next hire: an older coach who was garnering less attention from other schools and would likely provide more stability, or a younger candidate that could prove to be a more successful hire in the short term but is more likely to treat San Jose State as a stepping stone to a bigger opportunity.
Clearly Bleymaier has opted for the latter, and for the most part it mirrors his experiences replacing coaches during his time at Boise State, where Chris Petersen has been the only coach to last at least five seasons in the past 25 years. And while I figured Bleymaier might tap into connections from his past, it was his own alma mater—UCLA—that he looked to, not his former employer.
Given the amount of excitement Bleymaier has shown about his hire and his rather frank statement that he’s wanted to work with Caragher for a long time, it looks like the job was his the moment Mac vacated it.
Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic about the hire. The success Caragher had in San Diego is impressive to an extent, but we’d be foolish to think that it made him Harbaugh’s equal in his time with the Torreros. Two of Caragher’s best seasons at USD were his first two when he led the team to 9-2 records both years, mostly with Harbaugh’s recruits. The following two seasons he dipped to 4-7 and 5-6, before righting the ship and going 17-5 over his final two years there.
His recruiting experience at both Kentucky and UCLA (where he was in charge of recruiting from Ventura to San Francisco counties) will be valuable at SJSU, but Caragher will be going from recruiting FCS-caliber players to a non-scholarship program, to competing with the Pac-12 for division one talent.
Reasons for optimism start with Caragher’s local ties; as a Bellarmine grad, he is already connected to one of the powerhouse programs in Northern California, one that MacIntyre recruited well in recent years. One of the Spartans’ current verbal commitments in fact is from Bellarmine’s star utility player Kenneth Olugbode. Caragher should have success recruiting the rest of the West Catholic Athletic League (one of the premier high school leagues in California) as well.
Caragher himself also spoke Monday of playing high school games at Spartan Stadium, and attending Spartan football camps that were overseen by some of the most successful coaches in SJSU history, Darryl Rogers, Jack Elway and Claude Gilbert. The connection to San Jose State football history should help him get acclimated to the university and hopefully the alumni and donors as well.
He described his offense as a balanced, pro-style attack, one “built around successful quarterback play,” which creates more Harbaugh comparisons when you envision Caragher installing more of a West Coast offense featuring what he also alluded to—a power running attack. At the same time, he assured everyone that he’s not a “fit a square peg in a round hole kind of guy.” Hopefully he sticks to that assurance, because it would be foolish for any new coach to tinker with or change the potent offensive attack the Spartans had in 2012 behind David Fales and his talented group of receivers, most of whom return in 2013.
At the same time, a power running attack could be the key to turning a good offense into a championship one. While senior running back De’ Leon Eskridge has had a solid 2012 campaign (he’s eight yards shy of 1000 heading into the Military Bowl) the running game often failed to provide the balance Fales needed to stretch the field this year. The Utah St game was a glaring example, when the Aggies showed zero respect for the Spartans’ ground game and unleashed the fury on Fales, dropping him for 13 sacks.
The Spartans return some good size at running back in 2013, most notably Jalynn McCain, a 5’10, 220-pound redshirt freshman from Houston that was highly touted coming out of high school last year and for whom Spartan fans have high hopes. If utilized right, he or another power back could form a nice backfield tandem with Tyler Ervin next season and ideally allow Fales to face defenses that aren’t entirely focused on stopping the pass.
Given the strong foundation that MacIntyre and his staff have put in place for Caragher (which he acknowledged Monday), it won’t take long for us to figure out if he was a bad hire. He inherits a team that went 10-2 in the regular season and will possibly finish with a top 25 ranking. The Spartans also return much of their starting lineup and quality backups, most notably their quarterback. Granted, they are moving into a stronger conference in the Mountain West next year, but SJSU is 6-4 against teams that either were or will be in the MWC over the last two seasons and are expected to compete for a conference title right away. With the non-conference schedule not getting any tougher next year, anything less than seven or eight wins should be seen as a disappointment.
Finding out if Caragher was a good choice will take some time. Our first indication will be his first recruiting season, seeing if he can not only retain the players that have offered verbal commitments to the Spartans but also match the recruiting classes that made his predecessor so successful. We’ll have a better idea of that in two or three years from now.
In the meantime, he’d be wise to try to keep some of MacIntyre’s staff. Offensive assistant and recruiting coordinator Terry Malley should be at the top of his list, for both his local ties and stability with the current players, who by all indications are very loyal to Malley. Offensive line coach Gary Bernardi was a member of the same UCLA coaching staff that Caragher was a part of in the mid-90s, so hopefully that connection remains. Strength and conditioning coach Dave Forman is another vital piece to the coaching puzzle, though I’d be surprised if MacIntyre hasn’t already extended him a more generous offer than San Jose State can.
And if it all works out and Caragher is the “next great star” that Bleymaier anticipates he is … Spartan fans can anticipate another coaching search a few years from now.