YAKIMA, Wash. -- Central Washington’s search for a head football coach has been reduced to 10 prospects, athletic director Dennis Francois said Wednesday, and the university remains on schedule to have a coach in place by Jan. 1.

Francois would not divulge names of the 10 candidates who will be interviewed via telephone over the coming days, but said the three to five finalists he hopes to have selected by mid-month will be made known to the public.

“Right now we’re right on schedule,” Francois said. “We have 10 candidates we’ll be conducting phone interviews with, and from there we hope to reconvene as a (search) committee early next week and make a decision on three to five candidates we’ll invite to our campus.”

The first finalist could arrive in Ellensburg as soon as Dec. 16, Francois said.

Central officially began its search for a head coach earlier this fall after Francois, in his first two months as the unversity’s AD, dismissed Blaine Bennett on Aug. 9.

Longtime CWU assistant John Picha, who led the Wildcats to a 7-4 record as interim head coach, said last week he would not seek the job on a permanent basis. Bennett had been Central’s coach since 2008.

“We had a lot of quality candidates who did not make our top 10,” Francois said. “Right now we feel 10 is a pretty generous number, but we’d rather be inclusive than exclusive and ultimately get the right fit for our program.

“We have gotten a lot of calls from people speaking on behalf of candidates, and when that has happened I’ve picked the other person’s brain. I’m not a football guy, I was a wrestler. Some of these people have forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know, so it’s interesting to listen to them talk about the college game right now.”

The Wildcats have won four GNAC championships over the past six seasons and qualified for the NCAA Division II playoffs in 2007, under Beau Baldwin, and 2008-09 under Bennett.

“Ultimately we want to make the right hire,” Fancois said, “so we’re not tied to our timeline. It’s a busy time, but it’s also a very, very important hire for us.”