ACC’s quartet of new coaches adds wrinkle to wild division

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Elliott waited years before he felt it was the right moment to leave the Clemson staff and become a head coach. The timing gave him plenty of company as he takes over at Virginia.

He’s one of four new coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference, joining Duke’s Mike Elko, Miami’s Mario Cristobal and Virginia Tech’s Brent Pry. Additionally, Elliott, Elko and Pry have never been head coaches before.

“I don’t know if it makes it any easier,” Elliott said Thursday during the ACC Kickoff preseason media days. “But it is comforting to know that I’m not by myself.”

This is the fourth time the conference has traded out as many as four coaches since expanding to 12 teams in 2005 on the way to 14 football-playing members. But this is the first time that all four are in one seven-team division, adding another variable into a Coastal Division race long known for its unpredictability.

“As much as the Coastal has been fluctuating and up and down, I think pretty much everyone has either turned over their quarterback or turned over their coach – one of the two,” Elko said. “When you do those two things, you’re creating a lot of variety in terms of how the season can play out.”

The rest of the league coaches will have to guess what schemes those coaches might keep and what new tricks they’ve picked up.

“The first year, it’s very unpredictable so we can’t sit and do gameplans,” said North Carolina coach Mack Brown, whose team faces Virginia Tech, Miami and Duke in consecutive midseason weeks. “And with the transfer portal, it’s hard to even tell depth charts until we watch a couple of games.”

Of the quartet, Cristobal and Pry are returning to previous stops in hopes of restoring former glory.

Cristobal won two national championships with the Hurricanes as an offensive lineman, and later returned to Miami to work under both Butch Davis and Larry Coker.

Cristobal spent the past five seasons as head coach at Oregon, as well as a stint leading Florida International. He replaces the fired Manny Diaz as the latest coach seeking to restore the Hurricanes to the elite status of the 1980s and again at the start of the 2000s.

“The brand is a real one,” Cristobal said. “But to be a real, real one, there has to be substance. And substance meaning legitimate high-level play.”

That would be a step for a program with one 10-win season in 18 years. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke pointed to an emphasis on discipline among Cristobal’s changes to get there.

“We had a good team aspect and all that,” Van Dyke said. “But I don’t think we really had that mentality and discipline – people missing class, not doing the right things on and off the field. Now Coach Cristobal really emphasizes that because how you do anything is how you do everything.”

Pry spent three seasons as a graduate assistant under Frank Beamer in the late 1990s. The former Penn State defensive coordinator is trying to recharge a program that has gone from regular 10-win seasons under Beamer to league also-ran under Justin Fuente.

“You can go out and be a great ambassador and talk about all the things you want for your program,” said Pry, whose suit included old-school Hokies logos printed all over the jacket liner. “But the work has to be put in. We’re still trying to evaluate exactly where we’re at as a team.”

Elko and Elliott have their own ACC ties, though at other schools. Elko previously worked as a defensive coordinator at Wake Forest under current coach Dave Clawson before stops at Notre Dame and Texas A&M, while Elliott coached under current Clemson coach Dabo Swinney the past 11 seasons – including two national-title runs.

Their challenges differ. Elliott – who considered taking the Duke job before opting to replace Bronco Mendenhall after his surprise resignation – is leading a program that has four straight seasons of .500 records or better. But Elko faces a full rebuild with the Blue Devils after David Cutcliffe‘s 14-year run fizzled in the past two seasons.

That’s a lot of change for one league, let alone a division that had recently had seven different winners in as many seasons. Fittingly, it comes as the league plays a final season with its two-division format before eliminating it in 2023.

That means this quartet could help deliver one last bit of so-called “Coastal Chaos.”

“For sure that,” Elko said, “and we might go out with a bang this year.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.