College football is the most popular sport in America, and it’s no surprise that there are a lot of coaches who have been fired or are on their way out. With college football season just around the corner, it’s time to look at which coaches could be in trouble this year.
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The hot seat for college football coaching in 2021 was expected to be crowded.
When the coronavirus epidemic struck last year, experts predicted that colleges would be reluctant to make coaching changes because of the expense to already-strapped sports departments. They advised waiting until 2021. It’ll be a crazy ride.
Then South Carolina dismissed Will Muschamp, and Vanderbilt fired Derek Mason not long after. Following that were Illinois (Lovie Smith) and Arizona (Kevin Sumlin). Then came a huge, unexpected domino at Auburn, when long-time hot-seat occupant Gus Malzahn was fired. Two significant job openings in Texas and Tennessee were announced in January. Although Virginia Tech and Texas Tech chose to keep their sacked coaches, and Michigan modified Jim Harbaugh’s contract, the carousel took more coaches (and payoff money) than anticipated.
Despite the epidemic, the hot seat for 2021 is likely to be a little lighter. There are some well-known individuals listed below, but if specific positions do not become available, 2018 may be a rather quiet year for layoffs. The carousel, on the other hand, is always full of surprises.
I’m sticking with the league-by-league approach I used before the 2019 season, which identifies coaches who are on the hot seat and may face pressure if things don’t go well this fall. This breakdown offers a realistic picture of the positions that may open anytime before the 2022 season, based on interviews with various industry sources. Coaches who are expected to retire soon (e.g., Duke’s David Cutcliffe) and those who are likely to move on to other positions aren’t featured in this list.
Let’s begin with the Power 5 before moving on to the Group of 5.
Clay Helton of USC and Chip Kelly of UCLA are on the hot seat. Keep an eye on Arizona State’s Herm Edwards.
This year’s coaching carousel may be centered on the Pac-12. Helton is a well-known name on this list, and he will remain so until he leads USC to its first College Football Playoff participation and conference championship since 2017. In 2020, Helton led the Trojans to a South Division title, but his squad was far from dominating and prone to errors and sloppy play. USC seems to have turned a corner in recruiting and made long-awaited improvements in important areas of the program. “We’re certainly better, but how much better?” a USC insider recently told me. The amiable Helton has aided his case by causing little drama for his superiors, particularly while the institution deals with other problems. But, in order to win over a sceptical fan base, he’ll have to demonstrate championship results this year.
Clay Helton is in hot water once again. AP Rick Bowmer/Flickr
Kelly’s UCLA career has fallen well short of expectations as he enters his fourth year with a record of 10-21. (10-15 in Pac-12 play). Another season without a bowl game may push athletic director Martin Jarmond, who did not hire Kelly, to move, particularly with several interesting prospects on the market. Kelly’s buyout is still $9 million until January 15, 2022, which isn’t ideal timing and may have an effect on how the school moves forward.
Arizona State is still dealing with the fallout from a massive NCAA investigation that resulted in the suspension of three coaches. The investigation may take some time, and ASU should have a strong squad come fall. However, early signs do not bode well for Edwards and his team, and a clean-up after the season is conceivable. Louisiana coach Billy Napier, a former Sun Devil offensive coordinator, may help Arizona State recruit a good applicant pool.
Jonathan Smith (9-22) of Oregon State has to produce soon, and Washington State’s Nick Rolovich made some bad headlines by refusing to be immunized, but I haven’t heard that either coach is under any pressure this year.
Jim Harbaugh’s contract at Michigan was modified this summer. Icon Sportswire/Rich Graessle
Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Nebraska’s Scott Frost are on the hot seat. None to keep an eye on
Even when Michigan struggled to win any home games in 2020, I received the same word from Ann Arbor: Jim Harbaugh would not be dismissed. Harbaugh’s position as a former star athlete and a successful coach elsewhere doesn’t make him an apparent hot-seat candidate, but I still hear some of the same things. Harbaugh, who had just one year remaining on his original deal before signing a new, team-friendly pact in January, is anything from ordinary. Michigan not only pays Harbaugh considerably less each year, but if he leaves in 2021, he will only owe him $4 million. If the Wolverines can’t handle a schedule that includes road games against Wisconsin and Northwestern in the West Division, as well as road games against Penn State and Michigan State, plus a home game against Ohio State, athletic director Warde Manuel may have no choice.
Frost’s record at his alma school is considerably worse, with a 12-20 (9-17 Big Ten) record in his first three seasons. Frost was originally placed in the “keep an eye on” category because Nebraska wants to give him every chance to succeed and has had too many leadership transitions during the Big Ten’s difficult first decade. However, the announcement last week of an NCAA investigation into possible infractions involving Frost adds to the strain in Lincoln, particularly if it opens the door to a possible removal for reason. Trev Alberts, the new athletic director, will strive for consistency if at all feasible, but another bad season and impending NCAA problems may force his hand.
Purdue’s Jeff Brohm was also considered for “keep an eye on,” since he’s just 6-12 after signing a seven-year, $36.8 million deal in April 2019. Purdue, on the other hand, owes Brohm so much money that there’s almost no way the school will sever connections in 2021.
Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente is on the hot seat. Keep an eye on Louisville’s Scott Satterfield and Syracuse’s Dino Babers.
Before the Commonwealth Cup last year, there were rumblings regarding Fuente’s employment situation, and a second straight defeat to Virginia Tech could have prompted Virginia Tech to act. Fuente was re-signed in 2021 after a 33-15 victory against the Hokies. In announcing Fuente’s return, Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock stated in December, “We are in a jam financially, and sure, there are buyouts, but we were determined to make the right choice any way.” If Fuente does not improve his performance, Virginia Tech will make a change this year regardless of finances. He’s only gone 19-18 in the last three seasons (14-12 in the ACC), and the team’s Coastal Division championship in 2016 seems like a distant memory. If the Baylor position becomes available after the 2019 season, Virginia Tech will have a solid candidate pool (Napier, Coastal Carolina’s Jameel Chadwell, and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott) to choose from. Virginia Tech plays North Carolina, West Virginia, and Notre Dame all before mid-October, so we should learn a lot early on.
Justin Fuente has a combined record of 19-18 in the last three seasons. AP Keith Srakocic/Flickr
Babers guided Syracuse to ten victories and a No. 15 final ranking last season, but he’s just 14-33 in his previous four seasons, including a 1-10 season last autumn. Syracuse is a difficult task, and Babers has instilled some enthusiasm in the program, but he will need to create a more competitive squad in fall. Babers has three years remaining on his contract and would be due a significant guarantee if dismissed this season, according to athletic director John Wildhack, who did not hire him.
Satterfield is only here because of last year’s affair with South Carolina, which didn’t go down well with Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra and others. Satterfield will be OK if he can recreate the magic of 2019, particularly with a deal that runs through 2024. However, a repetition of last season’s (4-7) results may raise the stakes.
Texas Tech’s Matt Wells is on the hot seat. None to keep an eye on
Despite consecutive four-win seasons, athletic director Kirby Hocutt and university president Lawrence Schovanec addressed Wells’ situation shortly after the 2020 season, stating the coach will remain for a third season. Wells hopes that this is the last time his employers hold a press conference like this. With three years remaining on his $18.8 million contract, he has to win this fall or Texas Tech will likely move on. Kliff Kingsbury was dismissed by Texas Tech for failing to win more games and compete in the Big 12, yet he got to three bowl games in six seasons and, somehow, went from fired college coach to hired NFL coach in the same summer. Wells isn’t as tethered to Texas Tech as his predecessor, and with in-state alternatives like UTSA’s Jeff Traylor and SMU’s Sonny Dykes — the son of legendary Red Raiders coach Spike Dykes — the school is likely to take a risk if better results aren’t forthcoming this fall.
Even though Ed Orgeron should be safe, keep a watch on him. AP Gerald Herbert/Gerald Herbert/Gerald Herbert/Gerald Herbert/
No one is on the hot seat. Ed Orgeron, LSU, is someone to keep an eye on.
Given how much activity the SEC usually sees, a mostly vacant hot seat is a little surprising. The league should be quiet this autumn and winter after seven coaching changes in the previous two seasons. In 2019, Orgeron coached one of the greatest teams in recent college football history to a national championship. His overall record (45-14, 28-12 in SEC play) and victories against top-10 and top-25 opponents help to raise his reputation. Orgeron should be secure with a long contract extension until 2026. The continuing Title IX inquiry and lawsuit, which included Orgeron as a defendant in June, is Orgeron’s primary worry. He also comes off a 5-5 season in which he had four double-digit defeats. LSU still boasts one of the most talented teams in the country, so Orgeron will have to improve this season. Industry insiders often mention athletic director Scott Woodward, who took over for Orgeron and has a track record of making headline-grabbing appointments (Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, Chris Petersen at Washington). Coach O is thus worth keeping an eye on, particularly early in the season.
Let’s take a look at the hot seat for the Group of 5, which will most likely be more active in 2021.
Conference in the United States
North Texas’ Seth Littrell, Middle Tennessee’s Rick Stockstill, and UTEP’s Dana Dimel all on the hot seat. Butch Davis, Florida International, is someone to keep an eye on.
If declining trends at some schools persist, Conference USA may become the most busy conference in the coaching carousel. Littrell seemed to be on the verge of joining the Power 5 following consecutive nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018. However, he has had back-to-back four-win seasons and needs to turn things around in Denton in Year 6. North Texas has the greatest resources in the league and is conveniently located between Dallas and Fort Worth. If UNT decides to make a change, athletic director Wren Baker will have a good applicant pool to select from.
Despite budgetary constraints, Stockstill has managed MTSU since 2006 and delivered a perennial winner (seven bowl berths between 2009 and 2018). However, the Blue Raiders have had three straight losing seasons, and a third may put pressure on them to make a change. Dimel’s contract at UTEP is up in two years, and although he’s just 5-27, he showed some progress last year.
Butch Davis has an 86-64 record as a collegiate football coach, including a 23-21 record at Florida International University. Icon Sportswire/Samuel Lewis
Davis, 69, is in the last year of his contract and may be considering retirement, but the Panthers were winless last season and are in desperate need of a lift.
Chip Lindsey and Troy are on the hot seat. Keep an eye on Georgia Southern’s Chad Lunsford and Texas State’s Jake Spavital.
Late last season, there were rumors regarding Lindsey’s job situation, and although those rumors never materialized, the third-year coach has to win this fall. Troy went 31-8 in coach Neal Brown’s last three seasons, then Larry Blakeney led the Trojans to five straight seasons of eight victories or more from 2006 to 2010. Despite some logistical difficulties, Troy hopes to be a consistent competitor in the Sun Belt’s increasingly competitive conference. So far, Lindsey has a score of 10-13. I was startled to hear Lunsford mentioned as a possible hot-seat candidate by industry insiders, given that he’s 25-14 with two bowl victories in the last three seasons. Athletic director Jared Benko, on the other hand, did not employ him and may seek to hire someone else if the team’s on-field performance deteriorates. Spavital had a 5-19 record at Texas State, which just appointed Don Coryell as its new athletic director. Spavital may be in danger if his transfers-only recruitment strategy fails to provide results.
Tom Arth of Akron and Scot Loeffler of Bowling Green are on the hot seat. Keep an eye on Northern Illinois’ Thomas Hammock and Eastern Michigan’s Chris Creighton.
Arth was on his way out of Akron to join new Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley’s staff. The former NFL, World League, CFL, and Arena League quarterback has a record of 1-17 with the Zips, who are slated to finish sixth in the MAC East Division. The dismissal of Terry Bowden and the hiring of Arth, who has three years remaining on his contract, cost Akron money. However, Arth must demonstrate his ability to win at this level, particularly since Akron got a new athletic director in May. (Charles Guthrie).
Loeffler’s contract with Bowling Green is up in three years, and the team hasn’t won more than four games since 2016. He should be given a third year if the team makes modest improvement, but Bowling Green is a football-oriented school with a lengthy tradition that can’t afford a sixth straight largely noncompetitive season.
Hammock has a 5-13 record at his alma school, which was the MAC’s flagship program from 2010 through 2014 and had just one losing regular season between 2008 and 2018. Sean Frazier hired Hammock and continues to back him, but NIU should be a bowl contender at the very least this fall.
Before going 2-4 last autumn, Creighton did an amazing job leading EMU to three bowl trips in four years. Creighton, who may have reached his peak with 7-win seasons in 2016 and 2018, was not hired by athletic director Scott Weatherbee.
No one is on the hot seat. Pay attention to the following: Houston’s Dana Holgorsen, East Carolina’s Mike Houston, and Temple’s Rod Carey
In 2021, nobody would be shocked if the AAC had no coach firings. All three of the coaches mentioned here are in their third season, with one of them being affected by COVID-19. Holgorsen, a sitting Power 5 coach who came to UH and inked a five-year, $20 million deal, was a historic appointment for Houston. A move would be costly (and perhaps humiliating), but Houston has never been shy about its program standards, and Holgorsen is just 7-13.
Dana Holgorsen moved from West Virginia to Houston, although his record since then is only 7-13. USA TODAY Sports/Reinhold Matay
East Carolina hasn’t had a winning season since 2014, while Houston is 7-14 in its third season. The school’s financial problems are likely to preclude a relocation, but another bad performance may alter the plan.
Carey is under pressure to perform since Temple will ultimately appoint a new athletic director. Carey’s overall head-coaching profile (61-41) aids him, and Temple battled with COVID-19 problems in 2020, but another low-win season in a very competitive conference may make things tricky.
West of the Mountains
No one is on the hot seat. None to keep an eye on
The Mountain West is another conference where there shouldn’t be much, if any, coaching turnover. Coach Steve Addazio had a tumultuous summer in 2020, as the university looked into accusations of racial prejudice and problems with COVID-19 procedures, but found no significant flaws in the program. In a truncated season, the squad finished 1-3, and it appears much too early to draw significant conclusions about the program’s future. Colorado State has already had to pay Addazio’s predecessor, Mike Bobo, more than $1.8 million, and is unlikely to be able to afford another large guarantee, since Addazio is due $5 million if dismissed before Dec. 1 and $3 million if fired after that date.
Independents on FBS
Randy Edsall of UConn and Doug Martin of New Mexico State are on the hot seat. Walt Bell, UMass, is someone to keep an eye on.
The seven-team group of FBS independents may be a hotbed of coaching activity in the near future. In his second season at UConn, Edsall is only 6-30 after the Huskies opted out of the 2020 season. The athletic department at UConn has been in financial trouble, football’s independent status doesn’t help, and Edsall is under contract through 2023. However, if the team does not begin to win soon, UConn may be forced to part ways with a coach who guided the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl in 2010.
Martin is in the last year of his contract at New Mexico State, where he has an overall record of 23-64 and just one season with more than three wins. Because of its location and money, New Mexico State, which did not play in 2020 but split two games earlier this season, is one of the hardest jobs in the country, and Martin has stayed for a long. A bad season, on the other hand, may indicate that it’s time to part ways.
Bell has three years remaining on his contract with UMass, which opted out of the 2020 season at first before changing direction and playing four games, all of which they lost. The 37-year-record old’s at UMass is 1-15, which looked like an odd match for a Tennessee native who had never coached in the Northeast. He’ll be back in 2022 if he makes minor improvements.
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