In a stunning development, Miami announced Monday evening that Craig Kuligowski, one of the most respected assistant coaches in college football, will not return for a third season in Coral Gables.
Kuligowski, according to a school press release, is “leaving the program to pursue other opportunities.”
Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Feldman reported there was a “good chance” Kuligowski was heading to defensive national champion Alabama, which lost defensive line coach Karl Dunbar to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Kuligowski, who also reportedly interviewed recently for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ vacant D-line spot, played for Saban at Toledo.
Two possible fits to replace him: North Carolina State’s Kevin Patrick, a Forest Hill High graduate and UM Sports Hall of Famer, and Pittsburgh’s Charlie Partridge, a Plantation native and former FAU head coach.
Head coach Mark Richt, who promoted Kuligowski to assistant head coach last February, has said that Kuligowski was his No. 1 target when hiring assistant coaches to fill out his first staff in 2016 — an even greater priority than his superior.
“If I had a [defensive] coordinator who didn’t want him,” Richt said, I figure I probably don’t have the right [defensive] coordinator.”
Monday, Kuligowski became the first of Richt’s Miami assistants to leave. His entire staff spent the last two seasons together, improving from 9-4 and a No. 20 year-end ranking to 10-3 and No. 13.
Kuligowski’s front four was arguably the strength of coordinator Manny Diaz’ defenses. The Hurricanes, who played flimsy defense under former coach Al Golden, led FBS teams in sacks per game the last two years.
Last season, the fast, aggressive Hurricanes finished fourth in tackles for loss and fifth in turnover margin. They were 12th in yards per play allowed, 23rd in opponent passer rating, 23rd in yards per carry against and 28th in points allowed.
In 2016, UM finished fifth in tackles for loss, 14th in turnover margin, ninth in yards per play, 29th in passing, 17th in rushing and 12th in points.
In 2015, Golden’s final season, Miami was 70th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss, 10th in turnover margin, 86th in yards per play, 29th in passing, 115th against the run and 77th in scoring.
Kuligowski’s departure is the latest blow to a defensive line that lost starting tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, both juniors, to the NFL draft. The Hurricanes also graduated two ends, starter Chad Thomas and key reserve Trent Harris, and a tackle, reserve Anthony Moten. Defensive end DJ Johnson, a four-star freshman Kuligowski recruited in 2017, transferred to Oregon.
UM’s most recent haul of recruits included blue-chip prospect Nesta Silvera, ranked as high as No. 2 among all defensive tackles by 247Sports, four-star end Gregory Rousseau and three-star tackle Jordan Miller. UM will be one of many programs angling for an excellent crop of defensive line recruits in the 2019 class; Diaz said recently the state of Florida’s upcoming group of seniors is “as loaded in the front seven positions as I can remember.”
But they will not have one of the best defensive line coaches in the country teaching them.
Kuligowski, a 48-year-old native of Southgate, Mich., worked 15 years at Missouri and was the longest-tenured assistant in the SEC before joining Richt’s staff. He produced four first-round NFL draft picks in a seven-year period (Ziggy Hood, Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson and Shane Ray), two SEC defensive players of the year (Michael Sam in 2013, Ray in 2014), 10 All-SEC defensive linemen since 2010 and a first- or second-team all-conference player in each of the previous 10 seasons.
He was a massive upgrade from Randy Melvin, who spent one year with UM and was not retained after Golden was fired.
Kuligowski, who made $362,500 at Mizzou in 2015 and received a significant upgrade to come to UM — Miami, a private school, is not required to disclose salaries — has been open about his desire to climb the coaching ladder.
Asked in 2016 why he has never landed a defensive coordinator gig, Kuligowski said, “I’ve asked myself that question a few times over the years,” adding that he has spoken with schools in recent seasons (reportedly Illinois, in 2015).
“God’s got a plan,” he said at the time. “If His plan is for me to be a defensive line coach the rest of my life, if He’s got a plan for me to be a coordinator and head coach later on, great. If not, that’s OK too. I’ll keep doing what I do. I love doing it. I just want to be the best at whatever I do.”
On signing day Feb. 7, he wasn’t concerned about the prospect of rebuilding his D-line on the fly.
“I think we’ll be good,” he said. “My expectation is always that we’ll be the top defensive line in the ACC and in the country. Our expectation is not going to drop. We think the future is bright with a lot of these kids we signed last class. Obviously we all know (junior-to-be) Joe Jackson is a fantastic player. We all know (redshirt senior) Gee (Gerald) Willis is a fantastic player — that doesn’t have to be proven, it’s already been seen. We like the kids we have coming back and we’ve added, and some of the guys in the middle we’ll have moving forward.”