For the first time since 1968, the Athletic Department is embarking on a nationwide search for its next head football coach.

Penn State’s Joe Paterno was the first choice in that hunt 39 years ago. Bo Schembechler was the eventual hire.

Now, Athletic Director Bill Martin and a search committee comprised of people he called “very experienced in the world of college football” have the task of finding a new person to lead the football program. Martin said he plans to pick the committee in the next week or so.

Whoever is hired will have a responsibility beyond wins and losses. There’s also the tradition of integrity that has long set the program apart.

“For all intents and purposes, the head football coach at the University of Michigan is the face of this institution and I know that,” Martin said after Lloyd Carr officially announced his retirement yesterday. “You have to have someone that in the height of an emotional moment will represent this institution the way we wanted it represented.”

Even before Carr made his departure official, rumors have circulated about potential replacements.

Louisiana State coach Les Miles has received a lot of press as a candidate for the position. Miles played offensive guard for the Wolverines in the mid-1970s and coached on Schembechler’s staff.

Miles came up in a number of questions during and after yesterday’s press conference, but no one would comment on that possibility.

Even in his own press conference yesterday, Miles declined to comment other than to say he is happy with his job coaching the Tigers.

Miles’s candidacy may hinge on Louisiana State’s success. The Tigers are currently ranked No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings and could play for a National Championship.

It’s unlikely Miles would take the Michigan job before Louisiana State’s season ends, forcing Martin to wait until the second week in January if he wants to hire Miles.

Louisiana State was concerned enough about Miles’s interest in the Michigan coaching job that it included a cause in his contract saying Miles would owe the university $1.25 million if he leaves to coach the Wolverines.

Miles isn’t the lone current college head coach rumored to be a candidate for the position. Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz – who was hired during University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman’s tenure as president of the University of Iowa – and California’s Jeff Tedford have been mentioned as possible successors to Carr.

Names of current NFL coaches and assistants have also surfaced. Martin didn’t rule out bringing in a professional coach, but he said it would be difficult given the importance of recruiting and NCAA compliance in modern college football.

Carr may be partial to one of his assistant coaches step up to take the reins, though he wouldn’t say so officially. If that’s the case, the attraction is mutual.

“Certainly. Who wouldn’t?” said defensive coordinator Ron English when asked if he’d be interested in taking the head coaching job.

Along with English, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is considered a possible replacement.

But Michigan ties are not a necessary condition for the job, Martin said.

English and DeBord are both under contract through the 2008 football season.

Carr will not have an official role in the search for a new head coach, but his opinion will be sought in evaluating specific coaches, Martin said.

Martin began doing investigations into the backgrounds of about “a dozen” candidates in September after Carr told him he would retire at the end of the season. The investigations look into candidate’s personal background rather than coaching experience.

Martin expects to hire a private firm that works exclusively on personal background checks to do much of the work, as he did during his two basketball coach searches.

“I’ve been watching several folks very closely this last year,” Martin said. “Not so much the wins and losses or their offensive and defensive strategy. I’ve been watching their press conferences. How do they present themselves after an emotional loss, what are they saying, how do they look? Those are the important things.”

There will be significant time pressure going forward, especially as the recruiting season comes to an end, but Martin has just one timetable.

“However long it takes to get the right person,” Martin said. “If I could get this done by the end of the (calendar) year, that would be great.”

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