The coaching carousel stealth candidate: rejuvenated Jeff Tedford

As the coaching carousel spins faster and Power Five conference athletic departments scour the landscape in search of home-run hires, one name should be getting more run than it has so far.

Jeff Tedford.

That’s not to say the first-year coach of the Fresno State Bulldogs is itching to leave his alma mater, and a school that also employs his two sons. (Quinn is working in the football recruiting office and Taylor is working in university development — both were already at Fresno before dad was hired last winter.) He’s got a pretty good gig right now.

But if a school is looking for a guy who is an immediate turnaround artist and has a national top-10 finish on his résumé, Tedford’s name should be on a lot of lists. He’s 56 years old, he’s rejuvenated after four years away from the college game — and what he’s done at Fresno this season is national Coach of the Year award-worthy.

The Bulldogs were 1-11 last year, bottoming out after a three-year slide under Tim DeRuyter. What has followed has been a worst-to-first leap. The 2017 Bulldogs are 8-3, have clinched the Mountain West Conference’s West Division and will play Boise State the next two weekends — first to end the regular season and then in the MWC championship game.

FSU head coach Jeff Tedford, left, talks with quarterback Marcus McMaryion during the first half of a win over SJSU. (AP)

The Fresno renaissance follows a basic blueprint of what Tedford did earlier this century at California. He took over a 1-10 program and immediately upgraded it to 7-5 in 2002, launching a string of eight straight winning seasons. Tedford had a pair of 10-win seasons at Cal, in 2004 (when the Golden Bears finished ninth in the final polls behind a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers) and two years later in ’06, when they tied for the Pac-10 title.

It eventually went sideways on Tedford in Berkeley — his record the final three seasons was 15-22, and the football program became an academic anchor at a scholastically renowned school. In firing Tedford in 2012, then-Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour noted a sub-50 percent graduation rate for football players who entered the school between 2002-05.

After sitting out 2013, the game called Tedford back — first as an NFL offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, then a head coach in the Canadian Football League and last season as a consultant to Chris Petersen at Washington. When Fresno ousted DeRuyter in the middle of the 2016 season, Tedford was positioned to come back to his alma mater.

“I have a great sense of pride in the tradition here,” Tedford said, noting the success of former coach Jim Sweeney and his successor, Pat Hill, before the program floundered. “I know what the [San Joaquin] Valley is about. The support in the community is very good.

“It’s a really good fit, coming back home, so to speak. It was a real natural transition — from Day One it felt like home. It’s a ‘Back to the Future’ type thing.”

Part of modernizing Fresno in the last year has been an increased institutional commitment to off-field areas: strength and conditioning, player nutrition and academic support. Tedford mentioned the academic component multiple times, undoubtedly mindful of the knock on his Cal program in that department.

“Everything needed to have some adjustments made to it,” Tedford said. “We needed to make an emphasis that we care about the players, and the administration has done that.”

But as much as Tedford is enjoying the present, and the fit in Fresno, what does his future hold? There are two Pac-12 jobs open — Oregon State and UCLA — and there could be at least one more depending on what happens with Todd Graham at Arizona State. Chip Kelly could well fill the UCLA vacancy, but Tedford would seem a slam dunk at Oregon State and an attractive option if Arizona State opens.

And that’s just on the West Coast. The job market is active elsewhere, as well.

“There’s going to be so many openings,” noted ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “I’d think he would be an attractive option. I’ve always been a huge fan of his. I’m happy to see him resurface.”

The mid-50s Jeff Tedford says he is different from the early 40s Tedford who had it rolling at Cal. An angioplasty procedure while at Tampa Bay helped him recalibrate, both physically and mentally.

That experience, coupled with the season watching Petersen work at Washington, has made him work more efficiently and delegate more.

“Early on at Cal I was the play caller and the head coach and the whole bit,” Tedford said. “I probably overworked myself in terms of grind, grind, grind, grind. We still grind really hard, but we’re smarter about it.”

Perhaps the smartest thing Tedford has done at Fresno was hiring defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer out of the CFL. The 44-year-old West Coast native played and coached in Canada from 1996-2016, the last three years as defensive coordinator of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. It was during Tedford’s one season as a head coach in the CFL that he became a fan of Steinauer’s work.

“I knew if I ever got a head job, I’d ask him if he’d be interested in joining me,” Tedford said.

Steinauer came aboard and has been a key part of the immediate turnaround. Fresno is 12th nationally in total defense at 308 yards allowed per game — and that’s after games against powerhouses Alabama and Washington.

In conference play, Fresno moves up to seventh nationally in that category and is sixth in yards allowed per play at 4.34. The Bulldogs have held four MWC opponents to 10 points or less, including a couple of defensive masterpieces on the road, limiting San Diego State to three points and Wyoming to seven.

But it’s been more than just defense at Fresno. Tedford, renowned quarterback tutor, has done good work with Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion. He’s improved his accuracy (up to 63 percent) and decreased his interceptions (just three on the year) since moving over from the Pac-12.

Like his quarterback, Jeff Tedford’s transition from Pac-12 to Mountain West has been a success. And it’s been a comforting return to his roots. But don’t be surprised if a Power Five conference athletic director tries to bring him back to the big time in the coming weeks.