Ralph Friedgen gave his final performance as Maryland’s head coach yesterday, beating East Carolina in the Military Bowl.  So who is set to follow him?  Despite the widespread assumption that Mike Leach had all but packed his bags for College Park, a number of intriguing candidates have emerged that might actually have a higher ceiling than Mike Leach, at least in the long run.  One of the most interesting names to me has been Gus Malzahn, architect of the Wildcat offense and top 10 attacks all over the collegiate football world.  Offense has certainly been a pattern in the coaching names currently out on the market, with noted gurus Malzahn, Leach, and June Jones being bandied around.

And that would make sense.  Maryland AD Kevin Anderson has made his goal clear from the moment he fired (let’s be honest, no other way to put it) Ralph Friedgen.  He wants to get butts in the seats and luxury boxes sold.  The way you do that, at least to the casual fan (which Maryland football fans almost universally are) is by scoring a lot of points.  While Randy Edsall of UConn is also on the short list, I don’t see a way that Edsall would leave a BCS (BCS in the Big East, but BCS nonetheless) school to make the lateral move to Maryland.  If Edsall wants to leave, he will have big name schools knocking on his door sooner rather than later. 

As for the other candidates, Gus Malzahn would be quite the revenge for Maryland.  Why’s that?  Vanderbilt was close to agreeing to a deal with Malzahn before turning to James Franklin as their second choice.  If Maryland could take the golden boy offensive assistant out from potential BCS champion Auburn’s nose, that would be quite the coup.  Despite not having served as a head coach before, Malzahn would be a solid choice.  He has been able to tailor his offenses to different personnel at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn, orchestrating offenses that have torn through SEC defenses.  At Auburn Malzahn turned an offense that ranked 110th in points scored the year before into 17th in 2009.  If it’s points Anderson is looking for, Malzahn can deliver, even without Torrey Smith. 

That said, I doubt Malzahn signs on.  He will be looking for a stepping stone gig, one to get him two or three years to show what he can do before jumping to a bigger name job.  He has done that throughout his career- he will not be at Maryland long if he has success.  He reportedly turned down $3 million a year from Vanderbilt, and with the AD’s budgetary restrictions, I doubt they can match.  While the opportunity to win is greater at Maryland, it may not be enough to sway him. 

So that brings us back to Mike Leach.  I think we are all intrigued to see the Air Raid offense in action, particularly with the Terrapins’ stable of skill position players.  He will have to assemble a better defense than he had in Lubbock however, which frequently let him down.  But that doesn’t seem to be a concern for Anderson.  It should be noted that that defense led Leach’s Texas Tech teams to never finish under .500, but only won more than 9 games once, during their 11-2 Michael Crabtree-led season. 

But in the ultra-competitive Big 12, particularly in the now defunct Big 12 South, Leach faced challenges he won’t face in the soft ACC, and may have an easier time recruiting to Maryland than trying to convince players to play in Lubbock, Texas.  Whoever takes over, he will still have his work cut out for him in trying to extricate the many out of state programs that poach what talent there is in the state.

Maryland’s next coach will certainly create a buzz to get attendance and excitement up, but the next man up will have quite a challenge to improve upon Ralph Friedgen’s work on the field.