Halfway through the year, the optimism inherent to any college football season has collided with empirical results. And for many athletic directors, that means inboxes full of angry emails, promises not to renew season tickets and, subsequently, Pepto-inducing decisions on the future of head coaches.
While researching Jeremy Foley for a column earlier this week, an apt saying from early in his tenure at Florida stood out.
After firing a coach, Foley declared: “If something needs to be done eventually, it must be done immediately.” And that’s the uncomfortable reality that many athletic directors have as the fall chill settles in around the country. If things are trending toward not working out, can they afford another offseason of peddling hope to their fan base when that hope may not exist?
Here’s some insight into the decisions being made across college football:
BOSTON COLLEGE – A disappearing defense has plunged the Eagles below expectations. They are 3-3 with a garish 24-point loss to three-touchdown underdog Kansas. Steve Addazio is 41-41 in his seventh season and has a shot at leading BC to a bowl for the sixth time. He’s done a good job at a tough job, especially with pristine graduation rates and no off-field issues. The university will need to decide whether they aim for a higher ceiling, as Addazio has won seven games five times. (He missed a chance to win eight games last year when BC’s bowl game against Boise was cancelled.) Remaining games with Notre Dame and Clemson loom as both an opportunity for Addazio to change the narrative or, potentially, further expose the inexperienced defense ranked No. 121 nationally.
FLORIDA STATE – Credit Willie Taggart for calming the waters some in Tallahassee with victories over Louisville and NC State. There are no parades for that at FSU (3-3), but at least the sense of hopelessness has left. Between the buyout cost – nearly $18 million – and leadership changes both in the athletic department and administration, don’t expect FSU to move on Taggart unless the bottom falls out. The prediction here is that FSU finds a way to six wins and Taggart leads the 2020 Hot Seat rankings.
VIRGINIA TECH – We took a deeper dive into Fuente’s future a few weeks back, as it would cost $12.5 million to fire him after Dec. 15. That’s a lot of money for Virginia Tech, and Whit Babcock’s ultimate decision will come down to hope. Can Justin Fuente sell the fan base on improving with a new defensive coordinator and staff changes? Big-name defensive coordinators will be scared away, so there’ll be tricky calculus in luring some capable assistants to give Tech a chance. Expect Fuente to be alongside Taggart in the 2020 Hot Seat rankings, and it’s important to remember that Tech (4-2) needs seven wins to reach a bowl this year. (They play two FCS teams.)
ILLINOIS – The Lovie Smith era is slogging toward its predictable end. Illinois is 11-31 in his four years, and they’ve shown nary a glimpse of hope at competitiveness. AD Josh Whitman has attempted to compensate for his atrocious hire by at least building facilities to attract a successor. Look for an established program builder like Willie Fritz (Tulane), Jeff Monken (Army), Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Bill Clark (UAB) or Skip Holtz (Louisiana Tech) to get consideration. Could they get spicy and look at Lane Kiffin? Hot shot up-and-comers like Jason Candle (Toledo), Alex Grinch (Oklahoma defensive coordinator), Jeff Hafley (Ohio State DC), Chip Long (Notre Dame OC), Mike Elko (A&M DC) and Jim Leonhard (Wisconsin DC) may be better off passing in the long run.
MICHIGAN STATE – They are hard to watch on the field and full of drama off it. Mark Dantonio is owed $4.3 million in a retention bonus after Jan. 15, or $7 million if Michigan State fires him. If he stays, that $7 million buyout drops to $3.5 million next year. If he’s fired, Dantonio would get an additional $1 million working for the university in 2020. (This is a terrible contract for Dantonio in terms of guaranteed money, considering all his success and that his deal goes through 2025.)
Dantonio is the winningest coach in school history, and firing him could be considered extreme under normal circumstances. But things are a mess on and off the field, not an ideal time for MSU to have a placeholder athletic director. Dantonio will need to do a seven-hour deposition tied to a wrongful termination suit after the season. Questions will include Dantonio’s role in recruiting Auston Robertson to Michigan State. Robertson is in prison for sexual assault, and Dantonio has been accused of ignoring warning signs in his recruitment. (Could anything emerge that would prompt Dantonio to be dismissed for cause?) There are issues on the field, as Michigan State (4-3) was shut out against Wisconsin and Dantonio chastised a reporter’s “dumb-ass question” afterward. Michigan State’s offense is again hopeless, ranking No. 100 nationally.
MICHIGAN – Things are thorny at Michigan for more traditional reasons – not winning enough. Michigan is 5-1 but has shown deep vulnerabilities, especially getting taken to the woodshed by Wisconsin. Games at Penn State and at home against Notre Dame will bring clarity to the Wolverines’ reality the next two weeks. Jim Harbaugh has won 74 percent of his games, which means firing him is absurd. But if the expected losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Ohio State come, will Michigan attempt with vigor to extend him? Harbaugh has just two years remaining on his contract, which is highly unusual.
RUTGERS – There’s early talk that Rutgers is going to play ball with the Big Ten big boys, including a coaching salary in the neighborhood of $4 million and, perhaps more important, a coaching staff salary pool in the neighborhood of $5 million. That type of commitment is needed to give Rutgers a prayer, as they are talent-deprived and generally hopeless after passing for one yard against Indiana. The fan, media and booster favorite here is Greg Schiano, the best coach in school history who has sat out this season. But Rutgers hired a search firm and is committed to a process. Look for the two biggest factors to be head-coaching experience and New Jersey ties, which former coach Chris Ash lacked.
BIG 12 – NONE
USC – We’ve done deep dives on both potential AD candidates, and colleague Pat Forde has dug in on coaching candidates. One factor to keep in mind that’s looming over both searches – money. USC certainly has strong athletic department revenue and robust booster support. But many of the prominent athletic directors that have declined interest already have pointed to the Pac-12’s struggling television network and lagging revenue distribution as reasons why the job scares them. Hard to chase places like Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma when your revenue from the conference is nearly half of the revenue of schools you are supposed to compete with.
UCLA – The Bruins can’t afford to fire Chip Kelly, and there’s no reason to think he’ll up and leave. But few could have envisioned things getting this ugly on the field in Westwood, as Kelly is 4-14 and 1-5 this season. Kelly has made plenty of money, which could prompt him to seek football happiness elsewhere. Status quo is expected, but Kelly’s been predictably unpredictable throughout his career. How the university and Kelly handle the embattled defensive coaching staff will be telling.
VANDERBILT – This job rocketed into the market with Derek Mason’s blowout loss against UNLV this weekend. Mason is 25-43 in Year 6 with two bowl appearances. If he kept muddling around .500, his job would likely be safe. But with Vanderbilt 1-5 and aggressive new athletic director Malcolm Turner in charge, a change here has flipped quickly from unexpected to expected.
ARKANSAS – The Hogs are winless in the SEC during Chad Morris’ tenure and 4-14 overall. And while some of that has been rebooting and changing styles from Bret Bielema’s tenure, hope has been fleeing Fayetteville at a rapid rate. At the least, changes are coming. They’ll likely start with firing defensive coordinator John Chavis, who was long past his prime when Morris brought him in. Does Morris attempt to change the narrative after the season by becoming the play-caller?
OLE MISS – The buyout for Matt Luke would be in the neighborhood of $10 million and there’s also multi-year coordinator salaries to contend with. Ole Miss (3-4) has been solid this season and is 2-2 in league play. With Luke dealing with the aftermath of Hugh Freeze’s and Ole Miss’ NCAA sins, it’s hard to not give him another year. Watch Ole Miss’ athletic director search. If it heats up to where it finishes by the end of the season, that would point to a change being more likely.
TENNESSEE – Jeremy Pruitt’s losses to Georgia State and BYU still look awful. But the upset of struggling Mississippi State delivered a sip of oxygen to an exasperated fan base. To fire Pruitt and comport itself like an actual SEC athletic department would also require removing and replacing overmatched Phillip Fulmer as athletic director. Plus, firing Pruitt and his entire staff would cost nearly $15 million. The SEC’s ground zero for dysfunction isn’t equipped to do all that within two months.
AUBURN – Only the Tigers (5-1) can be in conversation for the No. 1 team in the country and have their coach worrying about his job in the same month. It’s easy to find three more losses on the schedule, as a trip to LSU and home dates with Georgia and Alabama remain. Don’t be surprised if a four-loss season sparks some drama on The Plains.
GROUP OF FIVE
TULSA – Making a change at Tulsa would have a dramatic impact on a university that’s strapped for cash. To fire Philip Montgomery and his staff would require more than $4 million, which is daunting for a school amid a significant financial crunch. Tulsa would need significant outside assistance to pay off the contracts. Tulsa (2-4) will be an underdog in at least five of its final six games. The question the university will need to ask: Can they afford to keep Montgomery and have the fan and season ticket base atrophy?
USF – The Charlie Strong era is in the balance, and it’s hard not to forecast another ugly ending to this season. Strong lost six straight to end last year. USF (3-3) will be an underdog in five of its final six games, including a grueling closing stretch – Temple, Cincinnati, Memphis and at UCF. USF would owe Strong north of $5 million to fire him, which is a daunting amount of money for an AAC school. A strong finish is important, especially against UCF considering that’s how the Bulls are measured locally. In terms of replacements, it would be an ideal market for USF to open, as it’d be one of the most attractive jobs available: “This is a better job than Boston College and Rutgers,” an industry source said.
UCONN – The Huskies administration showed it didn’t care about football when it went to the Big East and cast the sport into the independence wilderness. Don’t expect a change here with Randy Edsall, as UConn has so many costs associated with switching leagues that it’ll be happy to let football continue to atrophy.
OLD DOMINION – Since Old Dominion restarted its program in 2009, Bobby Wilder has been the only coach. He’s headed toward his third straight season of decline, as ODU is 1-5 and will be significant underdogs in its next three games (@UAB, FAU, @FIU). Money isn’t an insurmountable factor here as Wilder’s buyout drops from $900,000 to $600,000 on Dec. 1. Wilder brought in a new defensive coordinator, new defensive line coach and strength staff after last season, and there’s been positive energy from the change. A change isn’t inevitable here, but there have to be some signs of progress on the field.
UTSA – The Frank Wilson era at UTSA continues to teeter. In the wake of a 3-9 season that included six straight defeats, they are careening toward another losing season. UTSA is 2-4 and will be significant underdogs in four more games. There’s little doubt what athletic director Lisa Campos would prefer to do if UTSA continues to sputter. The issue for UTSA becomes the more than $2 million buyout it would cost to fire Wilson. That’s significant money for a cash-strapped Conference USA school.
OHIO – Frank Solich wants a MAC title before he steps down. He’s 75 and has a new athletic director, which makes this job always one to monitor. Solich’s retirement has evolved from industry speculation to widespread expectation the past few weeks.
MIAMI UNIVERSITY (Ohio) – Chuck Martin has emerged as a late-season Houdini, saving his job with late charges the past few years. He’s 2-4 now, but the schedule is soft enough to see a path to six wins. Don’t be surprised if he ends up there. If so, the university has to decide if it wants more consistency than late-season charges.
BALL STATE – Few have helped themselves more this season than Ball State’s Mike Neu. He’s 13-29 overall at Ball State and still likely in the crosshairs. But Ball State (3-3) is 2-0 in league play and proved respectable during a non-conference slate that included losses to Indiana, NC State and Florida Atlantic.
COLORADO STATE – There’s a new $220 million stadium that’s among the nicest in the Group of Five. The issue is Mike Bobo’s team, which is 5-14 the last two seasons and giving fans little reason to show up. The other end of the financial equation is the $5.5 million owed to Bobo if he’s fired, which is steep for a school that size.
NEW MEXICO – Another cash-strapped small school – anyone see a theme here? – that’s bracing for another big financial hit. Bob Davie’s team is 2-4 and the $900,000 to buy him out will hurt – but the school will find a way to do it. The issue will be attracting someone to a school mired in a financial tar pit.
UNLV – The upset of Vanderbilt on Saturday likely did more to hurt Derek Mason’s future at Vandy than help embattled UNLV coach Tony Sanchez (18-36). Significant booster support got him this season, which is mired in more of the same at 2-4. UNLV is 0-2 in the Mountain West and would need an extreme turnaround for Sanchez to stick around. With a new $34 million facility erected and a stadium coming, expect a change without a bowl appearance.
SDSU – Rocky Long is 69, which means he could be on the cusp of retirement any year. But he’s 5-1, so there’s no drumbeat for imminent change there.
SOUTH ALABAMA – It should be a quiet year in the Sun Belt, which has dealt with significant turnover. The one job is South Alabama, as Steve Campbell is 1-5 and 0-2 in league play. On the heels of a 3-9 debut last year, there’s discontent in Mobile.
BYU – Kalani Sitake has two marquee wins this season, toppling USC and Tennessee. But injury issues have mounted and back-to-back losses to Toledo and USF have drummed up some rumblings as to whether he’s the best long-term fit at BYU. He went 7-6 and won a bowl last season, but the injuries and a difficult closing schedule make this job worth monitoring as the year closes. The athletic department also faces an existential identity crisis, as independence has been a difficult journey in terms of sustaining relevancy.
NEW MEXICO STATE – Don’t assume because Doug Martin is 0-7 that his job is in steep danger. The school’s history of losing football combined with a tenuous financial situation would make changing coaches nearly impossible. Martin would be owed $860,000, and he’s still in good graces for winning a bowl game two years ago. How bad are NMSU’s finances? They’re still paying out on the firing of former coach Hal Mumme, who was fired in 2008, basically Bobby Bonilla style. The payments continue through 2025.
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