10 questions on the college football coaching carousel: Can USC afford to fire Clay Helton?
Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier famously nicknamed SEC media days as “Talkin’ Season,” an ode to the exchange of stale preseason air. That season extends to September and October when it comes to universities with struggling football programs.
Empty stadiums are often a better tell of a coach’s fate than empty rhetoric, and votes of confidence are ultimately worth as much as a Democratic vote in Wyoming.
The true signs of a coach’s fate are the tenor of November games, the orneriness of a fan base and an athletic director imagining the stale atmosphere from a home game being mimicked the following September. (Also, don’t discount the availability of a high-end replacement.) Sometime much closer to Veteran’s Day than Columbus Day do the real feelings of athletic departments, administrations and boards emerge. “The optics of November,” said an industry source, “get more coaches fired than the promises of October.”
That’s when the cost-benefit analysis of buying out a coach meets the reality of stomaching keeping them for another season.
A quick glance around the country shows some pretty ugly Novembers at places like USC, North Carolina, Kansas State, Kansas, Rutgers and Maryland. Here’s a look at what could happen at those places, plus a glance at Louisville, Bowling Green and the other potential Group of Five openings. Here are the 10 biggest questions looming over the college football carousel.
1. What’s next at USC?
Lynn Swann’s sole meaningful move since his stunning selection as USC’s athletic director was extending coach Clay Helton through the 2023 season. It’s easy to pick on Swann because he was completely unqualified for the job, which his lone major football decision has shown. But it’s time to start pointing the finger all around USC, as he’s the second consecutive AD they’ve hired with no on-campus experience or any clue of how to run an athletic department. USC’s dysfunction spans to the administrative side, where a massive scandal cost the president his job this spring. But it’s also worth remembering that bringing in Swann was a vote for the status quo in the athletic department at a place that willingly hired Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who were both too immature to handle the job. Not surprisingly, self-inflicted wounds ended up in back-to-back ugly departures.
Steve Lopes is a longtime USC administrator and current CFO, which means that Helton’s extension through 2023 and buyout – which is north of $15 million – has his fingerprints all over it. He certainly rode co-pilot on Pat Haden’s decision to promote Helton in 2015. But the contract extension that Swann gave earlier this year may end up akin to having a bonfire of cash on campus, as it would still be a galling amount of money if Helton is fired after 2019. With USC 5-5 and needing a win over UCLA or Notre Dame to make a bowl, that could come sooner.
(Remember, November optics are important and the Notre Dame game to finish the season could end up as a South Bend West playoff coronation for the Irish.)
There was no discernible market for Helton in February when USC extended him. And while he deserved more years and money after back-to-back strong seasons (21-6 combined in 2015 and ’16), USC treating him like a Chris Petersen or Nick Saban may lead to a strong case of buyer’s remorse.
The expectation remains that USC keeps Helton, and he overhauls the staff. But USC can afford to cut bait. Keeping him would mean the offseason and build-up to next season would serve as months of reminders about the history of incompetence in USC athletics repeating itself.
2. What’s next at North Carolina?
Top to bottom, ACC football is the worst it’s been in a long time. The moat that separated Clemson and the rest of the league for the past three seasons now resembles an ocean. Louisville is rebooting and Florida State administrators are asking hard questions about whether they made the wrong decision with Willie Taggart.
Amid all the decay and decline, it’s striking that North Carolina is in last place in a division (the ACC Coastal) that’s in an unwatchable pillow fight for the worst in the country. (The Big Ten West and Pac-12 South are also swinging their foam Tempur-Pedics.)
So the $12 million question for AD Bubba Cunningham will be whether he buys out Larry Fedora. Cunningham likes Fedora and is looking for every reason to keep him. And while word is he wants to stick with him, November optics haven’t been pretty. UNC has never cared too much about football, but can it afford an offseason of rampant pessimism, a season of little interest and the difficulty of trying to fill a staff that’s clearly on the brink?
UNC hosts Western Carolina this week and then N.C. State next weekend. There will be no juice this weekend and plenty of red the following. Money shouldn’t be an issue, as the start of ACC Network will bring extra cash flow to the league’s schools next year. (The estimates the first two years will be an extra $5 million per school and then it is expected to grow significantly from there.)
If UNC beats Western Carolina and loses to N.C. State, it will mark the third consecutive season of a decreasing win total – 11, 8, 3, 2. Hard to imagine Cunningham finding enough hope to risk a third consecutive lost season.
3. Is Jeff Brohm to Louisville a foregone conclusion?
He’s certainly the top target for Louisville, and no one will blink if he drives his 2004 Honda Accord down I-65 back home. The trump card Purdue has here is its affiliation with the Big Ten. If the Boilermakers decide to go all-in on Brohm and offer him $7 million or $8 million per year, it’d be difficult for Louisville to match. (Big Ten money makes this notion feasible, as the ACC lags well behind.) Plus, Purdue already has a top-five football facility and could promise a deep financial reservoir for on-field and ancillary staff. Louisville, meanwhile, is wading its way out of buyouts and lawsuits and waiting on ACC Network money to start coming in next year.
How much will sentimentality pull Brohm when he has a strong team, loaded recruiting class ranked No. 22 on Rivals.com and a transcendent player in freshman receiver Rondale Moore? Plus, it’s easier to compete historically with Iowa and Northwestern than Clemson and Florida State.
If Purdue can leverage its literal assets, it may offer the best chance to keep Brohm. One last thing to remember, Brohm has never been a job hunter. He irked ADs and search firms by holding off interviewing for jobs while at Western Kentucky until after they played in the Conference USA title game. He turned down a chance to work for Nick Saban at Alabama to stay at Louisville as an assistant.
Ultimately, no one will be surprised if he leaves. But any notion this is either simple or done is incorrect.
4. What’s next at Kansas State?
This is the best way to sum up the end for Bill Snyder at Kansas State. The other programs in the Big 12 are rooting for him to keep winning so he’ll stay, as he’s no longer a threat to the top of the league. Many administrators internally have started to root for him to lose, so it can hasten the transition to the next coach.
Snyder’s gift of nationally relevant football in an isolated American backwater has come with the price of Snyder holding the university hostage to his whims. He’s 79, has battled cancer and looks frail. He’s a Hall of Fame coach deserving of every accolade, but that same indomitable will and tunnel vision that allowed him to perform miracles in Manhattan, Kansas, is preventing him from having the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to realize it’s time for him to go.
Expect some tough conversations the next few weeks, especially if Kansas State loses to Texas Tech and at Iowa State to finish 4-8.
The overwhelming expectation is that Snyder doesn’t return for next season. The most compelling drama in the industry is how that plays out.
5. What’s next at Kansas?
Smart move by Jeff Long to fire David Beaty and get a jump on the market. The Les Miles smoke is real, as he’s viewed as an asset as a fundraiser to help Kansas emerge from the facilities dark ages. (A new $26 million facility is expected to open by the end of the year.)
Miles would require two strong coordinators and a staff with deep Texas and JUCO ties, as he’s a proven CEO with the bountiful talent around him in Louisiana. But Kansas would have to invest to a level where talented young coaches wouldn’t get immediately lured away by bigger-budgeted Big 12 rivals.
Miles would give Kansas an identity, buzz and some vision, all of which it’s lacked churning through the ghastly trinity of Turner Gill, Charlie Weis and Beaty the past nine seasons. None of those three coaches managed to reach four wins in a single season.
Long hasn’t cast a wide net in this search, as the more days that pass increase the belief that Miles will get the job. The other names to watch are Utah State’s Matt Wells, Army’s Jeff Monken and N.C. State coach Dave Doeren.
6. What’s next at Rutgers?
Rutgers is 1-9, winless in the Big Ten and closes this season with Penn State and Michigan State. When Jim Harbaugh misspoke and called Rutgers coach Chris Ash by the wrong first name this weekend, it marked another instance where Rutgers ended up as a punchline.
The November optics here are akin to former N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s family trip to a closed state beach he’d shut down.
The Rutgers administrators are asking whether some staff changes – including hiring people with more local ties – could jumpstart the program on the steep climb up the Big Ten East standings.
Rutgers is in a terrible spot: It has an athletic department steeped in debt, won’t cash in on full Big Ten money until 2020-21 and its last stint of relevancy under Greg Schiano, who left in 2011, happened long enough ago where it doesn’t register with recruits. Expect Ash to keep his job, as he has the support of athletic administrators who know how far behind Kyle Flood left the program.
7. What’s next for Maryland?
The classic hiring conundrum exists in College Park. How do you project who the next coach will be when you don’t really know who is hiring the coach? President Wallace Loh is leaving this spring. Athletic director Damon Evans has somehow escaped the flurry of firings, but for how long? Will the next president want him around? That’s no sure thing.
Under Armour’s Kevin Plank hasn’t exerted nearly as much power on micro decisions here as many assume. Maybe he should start, considering how things have gone. (If Plank does get heavily involved, don’t forget he has a long bromance with Mike Leach and could conceivably back his candidacy with his wallet.)
It will be a prodigious leap of faith for an established coach to land here and expect any kind of administrative stability. The past few weeks have felt like a satire of ineptitude in modern higher education, with a board dueling with the president and the flip-flop on bringing back D.J. Durkin and firing him the next day.
Maryland athletics is also broke and won’t get the full Big Ten money until 2020-21.
The only good news – other than ambitious facilities projects – is that coaches who’ve played the Terps feel like Durkin put together a strong nucleus of young talent, as his last two recruiting classes were No. 29 and No. 17 in the Rivals.com rankings. (Maryland is No. 75 this year, fittingly one spot behind Louisville). Interim Matt Canada doesn’t have much of a chance, unless the school wants to kick the ball down the road until new decision-makers are in place. Maryland needs a safe hire, but this remains an unattractive landing spot. We did a list of 10 names last week. Experienced head coaches like USF’s Charlie Strong, Mike Houston of James Madison, Ohio State DC Greg Schiano and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo fit the profile of those potentially looking up.
8. What’s next for former Maryland coach D.J. Durkin?
There are already a lot of head coaches intrigued by the prospect of hiring Durkin as their defensive coordinator. Will administrators get on board? Yahoo Sports polled a handful of athletic directors about the prospect of hiring Durkin, who was fired in the aftermath of the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair while the head coach at Maryland. The athletic directors said laying low and out of the spotlight will help Durkin, as any decision on hiring him would likely rise to the presidential or board level.
Hiring Durkin could be tricky optics. He was not directly implicated in McNair’s death, nor did an investigation find his program had a “toxic culture,” as alleged in an ESPN report that led to his suspension two months after McNair died. But there were ugly details, including a lack of oversight of strength coach Rick Court and showing the team disturbing videos. One athletic director said a school would have to do a “ton of background” in order to hire him.
“If some remote school like Kansas State did hire him as a coordinator or some other place that isn’t that high profile, there wouldn’t be a lot of buzz,” said a Power Five athletic director.
9. What’s next in the MAC?
Bowling Green is already open. A logical name that’s emerged is former Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who has ties to AD Bob Moosbrugger from their time at San Diego State. There’s a flurry of interest in smaller-division candidates, as names like Elon coach Curt Cignetti, Mount Union coach Vince Kehres and Illinois State coach Brock Spack have been popular. Assistant coach candidates include Notre Dame’s Mike Elston and Brian Polian, and the typical MAC hiring blueprint involves Big Ten or ACC assistants. Moosbrugger has cast a wide net here. With limited finances, it will be interesting what he can pull back.
• Ball State – Diminishing results and a new athletic director put Mike Neu (9-25) in the crosshairs in his third season.
• Central Michigan – Finances are an impediment in any move. John Bonamego is 1-10 after reaching bowls his first three years.
• Miami – Chuck Martin is 20-39 in five seasons, and calling out MAC schools as cheap in a meltdown presser didn’t help matters.
• Akron – Even after beating Northwestern earlier this year, it’s worth keeping an eye on Terry Bowden here. Akron is 2-4 in MAC play and has gotten thumped by Buffalo, Miami and Eastern Michigan. He’s 35-49 in seven years.
10. What other Group of Five jobs should you be watching?
East Carolina – It is dreadful on the field and a mess in administration. Without a full-time athletic director in place, it would be hard to hire a strong replacement for Scottie Montgomery, who is 8-25 in three seasons. (AAC schools Tulsa and UConn appear safe despite ugly seasons.)
The jobs worth monitoring are Western Kentucky, Charlotte and Old Dominion. WKU has bottomed out under Mike Sanford, and a local news report emerged that he could be fired if WKU loses its final two games and finishes 1-11. (That felt like the school lobbing out the story to gauge public opinion.) Sanford would reportedly be owed $1.2 million. Could they be setting up another Bobby Petrino return, as WKU hired him after the Arkansas meltdown?
Old Dominion just came back to beat North Texas and also beat Virginia Tech this season. But it’s 3-7 overall with a slew of ugly losses. Charlotte has been better than expected, as it is 3-3 in league play and tied with Florida Atlantic. AD Mike Hill has to decide if Brad Lambert is the long-term answer.
UMass – Expect UMass to part ways with Mark Whipple at the end of the season. It’ll be interesting to see who AD Ryan Bamford can lure to one of toughest jobs in the country.
No openings are expected, as UNLV’s Tony Sanchez is too strong with the boosters and supporters for a move to be made this year. New Mexico’s finances are too sideways to move on Bob Davie.
Texas State – It is a mess on the field with Everett Withers 7-27 in three years. There’s also a movement to remove athletic director Larry Teis, including a banner flown over the stadium earlier this year.
There could be dominoes in the Sun Belt with Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield, Troy’s Neal Brown and Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson all potential candidates for bigger jobs.
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