Coaching Hot Seat
June 5, 2013
By Bruce Marshall
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In a sense, every college football coach is on the hot seat. But there's no question that entering every gridiron campaign, some mentors are in more trouble than others. And, in a handicapping sense, it's always a good idea to know which coaches are sitting on the "hottest" of seats, as history has shown that it has been worthwhile to identify such potential trouble spots as early as possible in anticipation of possible meltdowns and strings of point-spread losses that often result.
Following is an early look at those coaches who look to be in the most danger entering this fall...
Lane Kiffin, Southern Cal...Add this tidbit to the trail of destruction Lake Kiffin has left in his wake throughout his coaching career; some Pac-12 insiders suggest that Kiffin actually had more than a bit to do with the dismissal of Southern Cal basketball coach Kevin O'Neill last January. Not directly, mind you, but the chain of events that led to the ouster of O'Neill in January might have indeed included controversies surrounding Kiffin and the support he had received from now-embattled AD Pat Haden. Many well-heeled Trojan boosters had seen all they needed last season from Kiffin, whose supposed national title-contending squad instead dropped off the national radar in November, allowed a school-worst 62 points vs. Oregon, lost to old and nasty rivals UCLA and Notre Dame, watched QB Matt Barkley's potential Heisman Trophy campaign go up in smoke, and ended up humiliating itself at the Sun Bowl when losing to a .500 Georgia Tech side to finish a dubious 7-6. Along the way were more curious incidents involving Kiffin and rumors of internal discord that surfaced after the bowl loss, part of an embarrassing adventure to El Paso. More than a few Trojan cigars were demanding action be taken by Haden, whose public pronouncement of "150%" support for Kiffin in early November was coming back to bite him hard. Enough so, according to various sources, that Haden was likely motivated to hit the eject button early at midseason on O'Neill, who was widely expected to get his pink slip anyway once the hoop season concludes. By jettisoning O'Neill just as the criticism of Kiffin was reaching its loudest, however, Haden at least temporarily quieted his growing legion of critics who suspected he didn't have the nerve to make a bold move befitting a top-flight AD. Whatever reprieve given Haden (and Kiffin) is expected to be short-lived, however; Haden will not be able to throw his new basketball coach Andy Enfield under a similar bus to deflect criticism any criticism directed at Kiffin this fall. Now Barkley is gone and a new QB must be groomed (heir apparent Max Wittek didn't get any pulses racing when subbing for a hurt Barkley last year) and the Trojans must quickly rediscover the swagger they lost a year ago. True, Kiffin has been operating with scholarship reductions dating to the Reggie Bush-related penalties from 2010, and a more-forgiving Pac-12 schedule (no Oregon or Washington this season) might help this fall, but the program needs to rebound quickly from last year's fiasco and for Kiffin to at least stay away from more unwanted controversies for Haden to justify staying the current course.
Bobby Hauck, UNLV...Talk about a predicament! You've compiled a 6-32 record in your first three seasons on the job, and your team has yet to win a road game during that span of time. The AD who hired you, maybe the only person in your corner in the entire city of Las Vegas, issues a must-win edict (at least a 6-6 record and a bowl bid) for your upcoming fourth season. Then, just after spring practice, that AD resigns under pressure, partly due to a reported dust-up with the school president who demanded an immediate upgrade in the football program and a dismissal of the coach if things didn't turn around by the third game of the season. According to some well-placed Mountain West sources, none of the above is fiction at UNLV, with the characters involved being HC Bobby Hauck, former AD Jim Livengood, and school prexy Neil Smatresk. While no one in the region doubts the magnitude of the rebuilding job Hauck inherited from predecessor Mike Sanford in 2010, and the signs of some palpable progress being made throughout the 2012 campaign, the Rebels collapsed once more at the end of last season, with humiliating road losses at Colorado State and Hawaii capping Hauck's third straight 2-win effort. Another slow start from UNLV could put Hauck in lame-duck status or a candidate for dismissal before Columbus Day, in which case the Rebel season could go up in a mushroom cloud as the remaining staff sends out feelers for future employment and the players themselves wonder about scholarship renewals with a new regime on the way. For Hauck to survive, the defense must plug its many leaks, promising soph QB Nick Sherry and sr. RB Tim Cornett cannot succumb to injury, and every break that has gone against UNLV the past quarter-century must turn around in a hurry. Given the specifics of this dire situation, Hauck appears the coach most likely to not make it to end of the regular season.
Mack Brown, Texas...A 22-16 record over the past three seasons and a growing collection of lopsided losses to eternal rival Oklahoma (the last of those by a 63-21 wipeout margin last October) are usually not the stuff of stability for a Longhorns football coach. So it's no wonder that a growing legion of Texas-exes are starting to believe that Brown is past his sell-by date, especially since the crowning glory of his 16-season tenure in Austin (the Vince Young-led 2005 national title) is looking a lot further back in the rear-view mirror these days. In Brown's defense, the Horns did show some signs of recovery last season, improving to 9-4, but this is Texas, where standards are awfully high and where sorts such as Fred Akers, David McWilliams, and John Mackovic have been dismissed for less. Making matters more complicated for Brown is that an annual haul of top-rated recruits has not delivered as expected. Some of the recent slump since the 2009 season BCS title game vs. Alabama can be blamed on QB problems post-Colt McCoy, though jr. David Ash performed with some flair last season and appears poised for a potential breakout this fall. If he doesn't, however, the pressure ratches up exponentially on Brown. But as most Big 12 insiders are quick to remind us, Mack will have a built-in safety blanket at Austin as long as AD DeLoss Dodds stays on the job. At 73, however, Dodds would seem to be looking at retirement sooner rather than later. Their relationship likely keeps Brown safe as long as the Horns stay above .500 and continue to qualify for bowls, but a popular belief among many in the region is that whenever Dodds rides off into the sunset, Brown rides with him.
Gary Pinkel, Missouri...Pinkel's career mark with the Tigers is nothing to sneeze at, as he's 12 wins from being the all-time school leader in coaching victories. But many in Columbia are wondering if Pinkel is going to stick around long enough at Faurot Field to set the mark. That's because Mizzou's move to the SEC started off more than a bit bumpy last season, made to look even worse by comparison to Texas A&M, which also made the switch (with a new head coach and frosh Heisman winner) from the Big 12 but flourished in its new and supposedly more-treacherous environs. Another round of beatings this fall might convince Tiger backers that Pinkel is not the guy to lead Mizzou on this new and difficult SEC adventure. A forgiving non-conference slate gives Pinkel a chance to gain some momentum this fall before SEC actions swings into gear, but keeping QB James Franklin in one piece and improvements on defense will be necessary for the Tigers to get back into the postseason mix. This season looks like a referendum on Pinkel, and anything less than a bowl invitation likely puts his 13-season tenure in jeopardy.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa...Ferentz is signed thru 2020 in Iowa City, but the natives are nonetheless getting increasingly restless as the Hawkeyes have slipped to a 19-19 mark over the past three seasons and just 10-14 vs. mostly-modest Big Ten opposition during that span. Off-field issues and missing a bowl game last year have added to the angst among Iowa backers. Which has contributed to an growing belief among many Hawkeyes supporters that the program has already hit its apex for Ferentz, who was been able to keep his Iowa teams at least in Big Ten contention and in the bowl mix for most of his tenure. Not last year, however, with offensive problems looking acute in a 4-8 debacle, prompting Ferentz to answer critics by making several adjustments on his coaching staff. Ferentz, who in past years has often been the subject of interest from elsewhere (including the NFL) but has always remained loyal to Iowa, has not yet endured consecutive sub-.500 seasons with the Hawkeyes. But that could change, and soon. Expect the heat to turn up significantly if Iowa doesn't go "bowling" again this fall.
Mike Leach, Washington State...After Leach became the highest-paid employee in the history of the school last fall, Wazzu backers had reason to expect more than a 3-9 record that marked a regression from the end of the troubled Paul Wulff regime that preceded Leach's hire. Making matters more complicated for Leach were a series of negative storylines and accusations (many of those unproven ones from deposed WR Marquess Wilson) that offered unneeded distractions from the actions on the field. Which on their own were bad enough, with little resemblance to the Leach "Air Raids" that terrorized foes in his previous high-profile (and controversial) tenure at Texas Tech...or, for that matter, the last year of the Wulff regime in 2011. Along the way, Leach's besieged QBs endured a nation's-worst 57 sacks, the running game gained inches per carry, and the defense wasn't much good, either. With everything having gone so unexpectedly pear-shaped in the Palouse, some Pac-12 sources wondered if Leach might get the quick hook if the Cougs didn't rally for a dramatic Apple Cup win over rival U-Dub in the regular-season finale. The off-field distractions were responsible for much of that conjecture last season, and Leach must avoid similar controversies this fall. Although Leach's defense lacked playmakers last season, it was a surprise to see the offense stumble so badly. A repeat of 2012 would seem unlikely, especially if jr. QB Conner Halliday can stay healthy, but anything resembling last year's mess could put Leach in the soup.
Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech...Believe it or not, Beamer's name has been on this list before, and near the top of it, in fact, back in 1993. That was Beamer's seventh season on the job, and at the time, the Hokies had yet to qualify for a bowl game on his watch. But '93 was a breakthrough campaign, as QB Maurice DeShazo led VPI to the postseason and a rousing Independence Bowl win over Indiana, and the Hokies had taken flight, with a bowl streak that remains intact today. Although it took a narrow season-ending win over disappointing Virginia to keep the streak alive a year ago in a terribly-disappointing campaign at Blacksburg, causing many Hokie backers to wonder if the old coach and alum might be past his sell-by date, especially with few hints of the old "Beamer Ball" (defensive and special teams opportunism) anywhere to be seen last fall. Now, the pressure will be on those old Beamer staples, as well as much-hyped QB Logan Thomas, to deliver this fall. At the least, expect some public discussion about the future of d.c. Bud Foster, long considered Beamer's heir apparent but as of yet not aligned with any official successor plan at VPI. If the Hokies continue to flounder as they did a year ago, the eventual transition to Foster might become more problematic, too, and Bud might be more tempted than usual to seek employment elsewhere (he's been rumored for several jobs in recent years, including North Carolina's opening after 2011). Some in the region suspect that Beamer might want to stay through what would be his 30th season in 2016; if that is indeed the case, don't be surprised if VPI at least announces some successor plan with Foster.
Mike London, Virginia...After what seemed a breakthrough campaign in 2011 and a Chick-Fil-A Bowl berth vs. Auburn, UVa took several steps backward last fall when slumping to an ugly 4-8 mark. The pressure thus mounts on London, now in his fourth year, to stop the bleeding ASAP. His answer is a return to his preferred power-football style which will require a lot more from his infantry than its 129 ypg (and 96th ranking nationally) from a year ago. To that end, London has revamped his coaching staff, especially on the offensive end where several former FBS head coaches (including ex-NC State HC Tom O'Brien and ex-Colorado State HC Steve Fairchild) are now on staff. Unfortunately, both of last year's QBs have left the program; Michael Rocco transferred to Richmond and former Alabama transfer QB Phillip Sims, in contention for the starting job in spring, subsequently became academically ineligible, likely leaving the job to soph David Watford. There is some encouragement, however, as another respected assistant, Jon Tenuta, takes over a defense that on paper looks to be menacing, especially with seven starters (including the entire secondary) in the fold. But ACC sources almost all suggest that another bowl miss puts London in the crosshairs.
Charlie Weis, Kansas...Kansas is getting what it deserves with Weis, whose Notre Dame tenure ended in shambles, as did his brief stint as o.c. with the NFL Kansas City Chiefs and even more-desultory one-year run as o.c. at Florida, where HC Will Muschamp was relieved that Weis was able to escape Gainesville and become the Jayhawks' problem instead. After showing little patience for predecessor Turner Gill, the Weis hire was the brainchild of new AD Sheahon Zenger, who was rewarded with a 1-11 record (only win vs. FCS South Dakota State) in Weis' debut season that had many wondering why the plug had to be pulled so quickly on predecessor Gill. Now, Weis is banking hopes for a resurgence on BYU transfer QB Jake Heaps, who started some games for the Cougs as a frosh in 2011 before getting beaten out for the job by journeyman Riley nelson, and deciding to transfer thereafter. A bevy of juco transfers has also been enlisted for a hopeful quick fix, but this was not supposed to be the plan in Lawrence. Moreover, Weis' reputation as an offensive genius has taken quite a battering since his long-ago days as Bill Belichick's o.c. with the Super Bowl Patriots a decade ago, and the "D" didn't exactly respond to ex-Dallas Cowboys HC and d.c. Dave Campo in 2012, ranking 113th nationally. The memory of BCS-level teams in the not-so-long-ago Mark Mangino regime look a lot further back in the rear-view mirror these days. Can Weis survive another winless Big 12 season? And can AD Zenger survive another debacle with his hand-picked coach?
Tim Beckman, Illinois...The honeymoon period for new head coaches is not as long as it used to be; the aforementioned Turner Gill only got two years in Kansas, and he's not the only one who has been given a lot less rope by win-hungry fans and ADs in recent years. The next such example could be Beckman, who arrived in Champaign-Urbana amid much fanfare last season after a successful run at Toledo, but immediately had Illini fans wishing for a return to the Ron Zook years after an ugly 2-10 collapse that featured a complete meltdown on the offensive end and a winless mark in the Big Ten. Now, there are more than a few Illinois backers who wonder if Beckman is up to the job. The hope this season is that new o.c. and former Western Michigan HC Bill Cubit can straighten out the attack that floundered badly with co-coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzalez last season (both are no longer with the program). For Cubit to succeed he'll have to coax something more than inconsistency from forth-year starting QB Nathan Scheelhaase (learning his third different offensive system in four season), and the defense is also in rebuild mode after finishing a poor 93rd in scoring (32.1 ppg). Mostly, however, improvements need to happen fast with a desultory strike (out) force that ranked an awful 119th in scoring and total offense in 2012. Otherwise, more Illini backers will begin to suspect that Beckman isn't up to the job. After all, even Zook was able to get the Illini into minor-bowl territory during the later years of his tenure.
Randy Edsall, Maryland...The Terps have had egg on their face ever since the ham-handed handling of Ralph Friedgen's dismissal (engineered by new AD Kevin Anderson) following a successful 2010 campaign. Hired away from an impressive run at UConn that featured a Big East title and BCS berth (Fiesta) in 2010, Randy Edsall's College Park adventure has resulted in a 6-18 nightmare the past two seasons. Although the specifics of each campaign differed (mass defections gutting the 2011 team, eventual firing of both coordinators, and injuries that decimated the QB position wrecking 2012), no Terp backers are happy, and Edsall has to begin showing some progress this season as Maryland prepares for a move to the Big Ten in 2014. Keeping QB C.J. Brown healthy, and the ongoing improvement of homerun soph WR Stefon Diggs, would go a long way to solving many of the recent offensive woes, and the "D" performed with some flair for d.c. Brian Stewart (ex-Dallas Cowboys) last season. Still, a winning record and bowl berth are minimum expectations this season.
Others on the hot seat: Paul Pasqualoni, UConn; Jeff Quinn, Buffalo, Don Treadwell, Miami-Ohio; Ron English, Eastern Michigan; Doc Holliday, Marshall.; Kevin Wilson, Indiana.