Ole Miss Football: The Coaching Candidates List Narrows

Scott McKinneyContributor IDecember 1, 2011

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 25:  Coach Charlie Strong of the Louisville Cardinals yells after a fourth-quarter touchdown against the South Florida Bulls November 25, 2011 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Cardinals won 34 - 24.   (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

When Mike Leach was hired at Washington State and Rich Rodriguez was named the new coach at Arizona, two potential candidates for the Ole Miss football job were no longer available.

Both Rodriguez and Leach had expressed interest in the Ole Miss job, but both decided to accept the offers in hand rather than wait on Ole Miss to complete its search.

Now, where does Ole Miss turn?

Among those names being mentioned most include Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Oklahoma associate head coach and defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Southern Mississippi head coach Larry Fedora, Arkansas State head coach Hugh Freeze, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.

Interestingly, all of the the named coaches are involved in postseason play with their current teams, and finding interview times has been difficult. And, obviously none of the coaches would likely want their interest in the Ole Miss job made public in consideration of their present situations.

The public choice among Rebel fans appears to be Smart, who has been instrumental in the development of the Crimson Tide defense into one of the nation's best. Alabama head coach Nick Saban has given Smart a ringing endorsement and has pledged his full support if Smart feels he wants to take the jump to being a head coach.

However, one name to watch is Strong, who has guided Louisville to a Big East Championship after a 7-5 regular season and 5-2 conference mark. Strong served on the Ole Miss staff in 1990 and is familiar with the recruiting battles in the Magnolia State.

The Batesville, Arkansas native made a national name for himself as the defensive coordinator at Florida from 2002 to 2009, molding the Gators defense into one of the nation's best and placing more defensive players in the NFL than any other NCAA team during that time span.

Ironically, one of Strong's most vocal supporters has been former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who is very close friends with the co-chair of the Ole Miss search committee, former Rebel football legend Archie Manning. That connection will certainly be beneficial for Strong as he considers his future.

Ole Miss has battled racial obstacles since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the hiring of an African-American coach would also send a loud and very clear message to the fact the university moved past those turbulent times decades ago. Ole Miss recruits have also been impressed with Strong, something not lost among Rebel fans who realize the talent level in Oxford has dipped.

Strong would bring instant credibility to Ole Miss on the field and in recruiting circles, at a time when archrival Mississippi State is riding a three-year winning streak over the Rebels. Ole Miss has been the bell cow (no pun intended) program in the state, winning three national championships in the 1950s and 1960s, but has not made it to the SEC Championship game yet.

Ole Miss is searching for a coach to not only return the Rebel football program to national respectability, but who can also reunite a divided fan base and help lead in a massive recently announced fund raising drive. There is far more at stake here than just winning football games.