Hot Seat Coaches
June 6, 2017
By Brian Edwards
The conversation about Coaches on the Hot Seat has to start in College Station going into the 2017 college football season. Also, the elephant in the room goes by the name of Chip Kelly, the former Oregon coach who saw his show-cause sanctions for NCAA violations expire while coaching for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers over the last four years.
Kelly’s last two years in the NFL were a disaster, as he tasted a pair of pink slips and combined for an abysmal 8-35 record. Therefore, college ADs need not fear that an NFL team is going to come calling even if Kelly duplicates the success he had in Eugene.
Remember, Kelly produced an offensive juggernaut at Oregon and went 46-7 overall, 33-3 in Pac-12 play. After getting fired by the 49ers, Kelly chose to take an ESPN job as a college football analyst. Not only is he on the radar of ADs galore, but he might also prompt those individuals to make a move early in order to start recruiting Kelly before others.
LSU AD Joe Alleva, a frequent and easy punching bag for this space, thought he’d do the same last season when he ousted Les Miles after a loss at Auburn before the calendar hit October. Alleva essentially found himself in the same place as the year before, however, contemplating keeping Ed Orgeron (rather than Miles) up until the regular-season finale. Of course, Kelly wasn’t available and Alleva had the audacity to think he could lure Jimbo Fisher from FSU.
He failed with Fisher and Tom Herman wanted the Texas gig ahead of LSU's, so Alleva settled for Orgeron.
Any AD using a similar ploy this season probably won’t bomb like Alleva did thanks to Kelly’s presence. And he’s not the only hot coaching name waiting for the right offer. This next-tier of coaches starts with Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who has been on the receiving end of glowing reviews from this scribe for many years.
Before helping OU’s Baker Mayfield become one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks, Riley was the OC at East Carolina and directed its Air-Raid offense. This unit had QB Shane Carden and WR Justin Hardy shredding ECU’s record books, as Carden broke all of former Jacksonville Jaguar QB David Garrard’s collegiate accomplishments.
Other coaches who could be on the move (upward) after the 2017 season include LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Memphis HC Mike Norvell, Troy HC Neal Brown and Appalachian State HC Scott Satterfield.
Enough about potential replacements…let’s get to those coaches who better produce in 2017.
**Note: We’re keeping it to Power Five coaches here, hence the absence of Kent State’s Paul Haynes, Rice’s David Bailiff, UTEP’s Sean Kugler, etc.
1 - Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) – As if his status wasn’t common knowledge already, AD Scott Woodward went on “The Paul Finebaum Show” while in Destin, Fla., at the SEC Spring Meetings last week and pulled zero punches whatsoever. When asked about Sumlin’s status, Woodward said, “Coach knows he has to win and he has to win this year.” Sumlin is 44-21 in five seasons with the Aggies, who began his tenure as SEC rookies. Year 1 was a roaring success, with A&M finishing 11-2 with a win at Alabama and a blowout win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Some dude named Johnny Football won the Heisman Trophy, prompting boosters to donate $485 million to expand Kyle Field to 105,000. Year 2 had the Aggies at 8-2 with a pair of one-possession losses to top-ranked Alabama and 24th-ranked Auburn before back-to-back losses closed the regular season.
Nevertheless, Sumlin was fielding calls from NFL clubs and turning down elite programs like Southern Cal. His salary was upped into the rarified air of the nation’s top coaches but since then, Sumlin’s teams have finished 8-5 in three straight years. Making matters worse, those teams raced out to 6-0, 5-0 and 5-0 starts only to fall apart down the stretch. Also, the school reached deep into its pockets to snag veteran SEC DC John Chavis from LSU to fix that side of the ball. Sumlin’s recruiting has not been the issue, but the exit of a pair of five-star QBs (Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray) following the ’15 campaign certainly raised eyebrows. Although Woodward wouldn’t put a number on how many wins Sumlin needs in ’17, it seems that 9-3 in the regular season might get him retained. Looking at the schedule, 9-3 also looks like the Aggies’ ceiling in a best-case scenario. They’ll be underdogs at UCLA, vs. Alabama, at Florida and at LSU. Other potential ‘dog spots include a date with Arkansas in Arlington, a home game vs. Auburn and maybe even a Nov. 18 trip to Oxford to face Ole Miss. Sumlin clearly has his work cut out for him.
2 - Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech) - Since starting his tenure 7-0, Kingsbury’s teams have limped to a 17-26 record. The Red Raiders have gone bowling twice in his four-year tenure. They’ve produced touchdowns galore while averaging 35.8, 30.5, 45.1 and 43.7 points per game. On the flip side, they’ve been deplorable on defense, giving up 41.3, 43.6 and 43.5 PPG over the last three seasons. In ’17, Kingsbury won’t have QB Patrick Mahomes, who led the dynamic offense the last two years before turning pro early and getting selected 12th overall in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Kingsbury kept DC David Gibbs around for a third consecutive season, which might not have been the best call on his part. More than anything, the defense must show improvement. Kingsbury might get another year if he wins seven games and the five defeats are competitive games. But he better aim for eight wins because his status as the school’s second all-time leading passer during his playing career (1999-2002) isn’t going to help him much at this point.
3 - Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) - Kelly is 59-31 and took the Fighting Irish to the BCS Championship Game in 2012. However, his team endured a nightmare 4-8 season in ’16. Kelly isn’t exactly the most affable character and has had his share of controversies over his seven-year run in South Bend. His attitude and arrogance is certainly starting to rub Notre Dame supporters wrong, but he has an excellent chance to get back in the good graces of those people with a 10-win season this year. He’d better go at least 9-3 and steer clear of negative moments with the media.
4 - Jim Mora Jr. (UCLA) - Mora’s tenure was off to a blazing start when he went 29-11 in his first three seasons. He had the Bruins racking up highly-ranked recruiting classes and there were concerns that the NFL might come calling for him. Since then, however, the Bruins have gone just 12-13 and 7-11 in conference play. Granted, the injury bug has been brutal the last two years (think Myles Jack and Josh Rosen, among others) and UCLA was struggling mightily for many years prior to Mora’s arrival. Also, four of last year’s defeats came in one-possession games and losses at Colorado (20-10) and vs. Stanford (22-13) were competitive. With Rosen expected to be healthy after season-ending shoulder surgery last year, the Bruins could be poised for a nice bounce-back year. If not, Mora’s act, which is a bit similar to that of Kelly’s at N-Dame, could lead to his dismissal.
5 - Butch Jones (Tennessee) - This clown is living on borrowed time already. If not for a fortunate season-opening victory in overtime over Appalachian St. thanks to a missed extra point and fourth-quarter field goal from the Mountaineers’ kicker, in addition to a win at Georgia on a Hail-Mary pass as time expired, Jones would’ve been gone last season. Where do we even start with his ineptitude during his four seasons so far? There were the pregame built-in excuses to lose early in his tenure when he relentlessly pointed out his team’s youth and inexperience to the media at every opportunity. There was his lack of stones for owning his egregious mistake at The Swamp two years ago when he didn’t go for two after going up 12 midway through the fourth quarter. Instead, he claimed he went for one by following his “standard two-point chart” that was obviously written by a moron. He hasn’t brought any championships to Knoxville, but he enraged his fan base by calling his first group of graduating seniors “champions of life.”
Jones has a 14-18 record in SEC play at UT despite the fact that nearly every school in the East has been down. In fairness, his ’16 club did deal with a lot of injuries, but you can’t get embarrassed by double digits at Vandy. When you have two weeks to prepare to play at South Carolina and its freshman QB (who should’ve been a senior in high school) is making his second career start while UT is in control of its destiny to win the division for the first time in a decade, you can’t lose that game. With the season coming off the rails in November, Jones was seemingly losing his composure regularly. After one particular presser in Knoxville, he felt inclined to go after a female reporter whose questions weren’t to his liking. Then after the debacle against the Commodores in Music City, he conveniently avoided the media onslaught by showing up to his presser early and leaving before most of the journalists arrived. The heat is on Mr. Jones at UT this year and it says here that he could be gone by early November.
6 - Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) - Rodriguez probably should’ve taken the South Carolina job before the school moved on to Will Muschamp. Like Sumlin, Kelly and Mora, Rodriguez was the toast of the town early in his reign. R-Rod won 10 games in 2014 for only the third time in school history and had the Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Since then, however, UA is 4-14 in league play and R-Rod now has a new AD after Greg Byrne, the man who hired him, left to take the Alabama job.
7 - Todd Graham (Arizona State) - Yet again, we have another coach who did well early on. Graham had a pair of 10-win seasons in his first three years. ASU finished ’16 on a six-game losing streak with five defeats coming by margins of 19 points or more, including a 56-35 setback at Arizona.
8 - Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) - I’ve discussed Freeze’s situation at length on guest radio spots and on my Games Galore podcast. I can’t figure out if Ole Miss is waiting for the NCAA to issue its penalties, at which point the Rebels could fire Freeze with cause and not be on the hook for his huge contract. Or are they really behind this guy no matter the consequences? Listen, nobody has survived this much NCAA trouble in modern college football history. Sure, basketball coaches like Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun have, but they were/are icons at their respective schools with national titles on their resumes. Not even Pat Dye at Auburn could get through a similar scandal in the early 1990s. If Ole Miss retains Freeze, it can’t expect much (if any) leniency from the NCAA. The Rebels have already issued a one-year self-imposed ban from going bowling in 2017, but there’s plenty more sanctions on the way. There’s no doubt Freeze is a helluva coach and he’s beyond loyal to this University, so I can understand the initial notion to stand by him. But if doing so brings a four-year bowl ban rather than one of the two-year variety and if the scholarship reductions are much greater with Freeze still on board, will it really be worth it?
Other situations to watch include Steve Addazio at Boston College, David Beaty at Kansas and Mike Riley at Nebraska. Dana Holgersen appears safe at West Virginia after winning 10 games last season, but that could always change. I believe Auburn is poised for a big year, but that’s exactly why monitoring what’s going on with Gus Malzahn would be wise because, as I’ve noted ad nauseam through the years, Auburn has the quickest pink-slip trigger than any school in the country.
One other coach that shouldn’t be (but might be) on the hot seat is Arkansas’ Bret Bielema. I think the school is fortunate to have him, but a loss at Missouri in the regular-season finale and blowing a 24-0 lead to Va. Tech in the Belk Bowl certainly didn't help his cause.
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