Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:58 AM

Hot Seat - College Coaches

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Before we get into our annual conference previews, we usually like to take a quick look at how the college “hot seat” is warming up in the summer.

We’ve been doing this long enough to realize in advance the potential benefits of recognizing these situations that often deteriorate during the course of an upcoming season. Every year, we see teams begin to lose altitude, and fast, when it is apparent their coach is on his way out the door. And these days, schools often don’t wait (read Louisville a season ago with Bobby Petrino) before hitting the eject button after the damage has been done.

When taking a look at the “hot seat” we also have to caution about reading too much into the “buyout” dynamics which come in various shapes and sizes. Moreover, the entire “buyout” game can be significantly misunderstood by the masses who don’t have all of the pertinent info at their fingertips. Which, admittedly, is a bit difficult because no two contracts are drawn exactly alike. Especially in “buyout” terms.

Generally speaking, contract buyouts only include base salaries, and not the added perks such as compensation for radio and TV shows, shoe company kick-ins, performance bonuses, and any general sweetening of the pot that might be offered by alumni. Still, “buyout” provisions can differ wildly from contract to contract. Remember, any buyout, effectively, tries to protect both parties, including an employer that will try hard to keep a coach it likes in the fold and use the buyout to hopefully dissuade a suitor from poaching their in-demand mentor (read Iowa State’s rising star Matt Campbell, whose hefty buyout has reportedly spooked some potential suitors the past two winters).

Often, however, the buyout is financial protection for a coach who is at risk of being terminated before a contract is completed. (It’s worth noting that almost every coaching dismissal these days involves a buyout of sorts; the days of an entry such as Notre Dame seeing out a contract like Gerry Faust’s until it concludes, and not providing extensions along the way, is rare nowadays.) In past summers, we spent some extra time talking to various college football insiders, many of whom either boosters themselves or with booster/administrator contacts, regarding buyouts. Their observations have been as enlightening as they have been informative.

A particular situation, one with a not-insignificant buyout, involves Illinois and Lovie Smith, who has made little headway in three years at Champaign-Urbana, has had staff turnover and defections, and has proven a wildly unpopular hire with the support base, which began to get mutinous a year ago. Generally speaking, most Power 5 schools these days can absorb a buyout in the $10-12 million range without too much trouble. Especially entities like Illinois from the Big Ten, which are further enriched to the tune of up to $50 million simply by TV contracts and the expanding reach of their proprietary Big Ten Network. Well-heeled boosters and, more recently, shoe company sponsors are also often glad to chip in to help with (or even fund) the buyout of an underperforming/unpopular coach.

In 2017, using UCLA as an example, its HC Jim Mora was also thought by some to be “un-fire-able” because of a hefty buyout. But Mora got the boot anyway; if sources are to be believed, much of the Mora buyout was taken care of by new shoe partner Under Armour as well as mega-booster Casey Wasserman (though Bruin AD Dan Guerrero, when announcing Mora’s dismissal, claimed that it was “athletic department funds” taking care of any buyout. While perhaps technically true, much was from dollars that were only shortly before in the accounts of Under Armour and boosters like Wasserman).

Moreover, there are other factors to consider when weighing a buyout, specifically how much the current coach might be costing the school. In the case of Illinois, which has often been playing in front of 20-25,000 empty seats at Memorial Stadium for much of the Lovie regime (as well as for predecessors Bill Cubit and Tim Beckman), the yearly loss in attendance revenue due to an underperforming coach reaches into the low seven-figures (if assuming near-capacity attendance should the football team perform better with a more-capable coach). Donations also drop, as do related revenues such as merchandising. According to our Big Ten sources, Illinois keeping Lovie (or another major school keeping an underperforming coach) is probably costing the program and athletic department at least an extra couple of million dollars a year, not much (if any) more than the annual terms of a buyout.

Finally, there are the all-important “offsets” which are fairly standard in coaching contracts. Again, the specifics can differ, but our research indicates that there are only a handful of college head coaching contracts minus the “offset” provision, which simply reduces the amount of the eventual buyout (almost always prorated, usually for the duration of the terminated contract) by whatever amount of money a coach might earn in his next job. Thus, again using Lovie Smith as an example, should Illinois decide to part ways, and Lovie hooks on as an assistant with an NFL team, Lovie’s buyout would be further lessened, and offset by earnings from his next gig. (Assuming he would rather get back to work than play golf or fish for a couple of years.)

The bottom line? Buyouts do not usually end up costing what the public believes, and money owed is not often an impediment if a big school really wants to get rid of a coach. Though there are limits; Gus Malzahn’s buyout at Auburn is reportedly near $30 million, and Willie Taggart, proving intensely unpopular in just his first year at Florida State, would have cost the Noles roughly $20 mill if they pulled after last season (his buyout has since dropped). As for Lovie, his buyout dropped from roughly $12.6 mill to a more-palatable $8 mill on February 1. So, money won’t stop Illinois from getting rid of him...if it wants to, that is, as AD Josh Whitman, the man whose first move on the job was to hire Lovie at top dollar against no competition and gave Smith a Charlie Weis-like contract to boot, remains in Lovie's corner, at least for now (that’s an understatement; read more abour Illinois and Lovie below). But if enough boosters and money people at Illinois voice displeasure (and they are rumbling), the dynamics can change quickly.

As we approach the summer and the college season begins to loom on the horizon, following are the coaches who appear to be in the most trouble as the 2019 campaign beckons.

Clay Helton, Southern Cal...Well, at least Helton hasn’t been fingered in the embarrassing Lori Laughlin scandal that has ensnared the school and the athletic department. Still, many figured Helton was a goner after the Trojans fell below .500 (5-7) for the first time since 2000 and missed a bowl for the first time, when not postseason-banned, since that same year under Paul Hackett. Sources say that AD Lynn Swann, who did not hire Helton (it was predecessor Pat Haden), values the Pittsburgh Steelers model of sticking with coaches, and resisted urging from a mutinous fan and alumni base while deciding to keep Helton for 2019. The subsequent hire of Kliff Kingsbury as o.c., sources tell us, provided a ready-made successor should Swann have to dump Helton later in the year. But Kingsbury’s subsequent move to the NFL and the Cardinals blew up in Swann’s face, as many alums were even more angered for not just giving Kingsbury the HC job. (Helton would subsequently hire a Kingbury "Lite" in Graham Harrelll, like Kingsbury another former Texas Tech QB most recently the o.c. for "Cowboy" Seth Littrell at North Texas). Whatever, much of the support base believes that QB Sam Darnold bailed out Helton in 2016 and ‘17, and a truer measure of Helton came this past season, when among other things, SC’s offense dropped to 11th in a poor Pac-12. There is further speculation in L.A.. that a) AD Swann could be in some trouble and b) Urban Meyer, on hiatus from coaching as he was in 2011, might be plotting a return in 2020 and is on the radar of various Trojan boosters. Stay tuned.

Kalani Sitake, BYU...They aren’t used to losing seasons at BYU, and Sitake barely avoided that fate with a win over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to get to 7-6. But memories of Gary Crowton’s aborted regime from 2001-04 are still fresh in the minds of BYU backers who are not used to mediocrity and remember Sitake’s 4-9 mess from 2017. Sitake will likely have to do better than 7-6 to stick around into 2020.

Lovie Smith, Illinois...In the end, it wasn’t as much Lovie’s buyout (addressed above) as much as an inane stubborn streak from AD Josh Whitman, whose first act on the job was to hire Smith, to maintain status quo for the Illini into 2019. And Whitman not only decided to keep Lovie after a third straight losing season, punctuated by a 63-0 loss to Iowa on November 17, but extend Smith’s contract (though still not clear if the buyout terms were altered). The support base in Champaign-Urbana is livid, as much at Whitman as Lovie, and this looks a case of an AD flying a plane into the side of a mountain to prove his point. We’d say Lovie should be in trouble in 2019, but maybe it’s his AD who should be worried. (One possible plus for Lovie is a downgraded non-conference slate featuring two MAC teams and lowly UConn, which could easily get the Illini off to a 3-0 start; sometime in September, we're planning a serious editorial feature on this sort of farcical non-conference scheduling of many FBS entries.)

Bob Davie, New Mexico...At Mountain West Media Days last summer, Davie sounded almost resigned to the fact that he might be fired at the end of the season. After all, he had been suspended from his job for 30 days earlier in the offseason, and the Lobos were not close to a bowl bid for a second straight year, finishing 3-9 once again. What gives? Being that it’s the Mountain West, and buyouts are not quite as routine or easy as at Power 5 schools, perhaps that has something to do with Davie still being on the job, but we, and a lot of regional observers, remain surprised they haven't yet made a change at Albuquerque. By next season, many Lobo backers expect Davie could be back in the broadcast booth from where he came to UNM.

Chris Ash, Rutgers...Rutgers isn’t Ohio State, from where Ash arrived in 2016, but even the Scarlet Knights have standards. And regressing to 1-11 in 2018 after making mild progress in 2017 (to 4-8) is not the sort of trajectory that keeps a coach employed for very long. Some believed Ash might walk the plank in December, but he’s being given one more season to forge a turnaround in New Brunswick.

Willie Taggart, Florida State...It would have cost the Noles in the neighborhood of $21 million to buy out Taggart after his massively-disappointing debut season, which ended FSU’s nation’s-longest bowl streak that began in 1982. But there were plenty of boosters who wanted to see the buyout triggered after the Noles regressed to the middle of the ACC pack, hard to digest for a team that was competing for (and winning) national titles for Jimbo Fisher just a few years ago. The buyout reduces after 2019, and we’d suggest to Taggart to at least get back into the bowl mix this fall; the natives are more than a bit restless in Tallahassee.

Randy Edsall, UConn...Safe to say this back-to-the-future scenario has not worked as envisioned with UConn, as “Edsall 2.0" has not fared too well for the Huskies. One of the worst defenses in memory would sabotage a 2018 campaign that would have been winless if not for a 56-49 win over FCS Rhode Island. The defense was so bad, in fact, that it set FCS records for futility in yards (7409!) and points (605!) allowed. Sheesh! Defensive coordinator Billy Crocker, who humanely dismissed by Edsall after the season, might be forced to leave the country to find work. Hopes that Edsall could rekindle the success of his first stint at UConn that included a Fiesta Bowl appearance vs. Oklahoma at the end of the 2010 season have all but disappeared the past two years. Edsall is a top contender to be among the first coaches fired in the fall if he doesn’t get things headed in the right direction by midseason.

Tony Sanchez, UNLV...Sanchez is in year five of his original five-year deal (which was extended by former AD Tina Kunzer-Murphy), yet to get the Rebels to .500 or a bowl, and having done little to dissuade his many doubters in the Valley who wondered about the wisdom of promoting a coach straight from the high school ranks (from where Sanchez led local national power Bishop Gorman). Moreover, he’s not working for the AD (Kunzer-Murphy) who was on the job when he was hired, though MW sources suggest the original Sanchez hire was greatly influenced by higher-ups at UNLV. If reports are to be believed, Sanchez has long been the preferred choice of the Fertitta clan, well-heeled Rebel boosters who own the highly-profitable Stations Casinos chain and not long ago sold their controlling interest in UFC for several billions (that’s with a “b”), the same boosters who have mostly underwritten a sparkling new football complex. And until the facility is completed, and as long as the Fertitta clan stays in the corner of Sanchez, current AD Desiree Reed-Francois, who reportedly would like to move out Sanchez (also to get another one-up on predecessor Kunzer-Murphy, with whom Desiree apparently has no love lost after firing Tina’s last significant hire, hoops coach Marvin Menzies, not long ago), is working with her hands tied. Keeping do-everything QB Armani Rogers in one piece after missing considerable time the past two years will be key. But if Sanchez can’t at least get the Rebs to .500 and a bowl in season five, does the program risk losing further credibility when it moves into the new NFL Raiders stadium next year?

Chad Morris, Arkansas...Only in year two on the job, it might be premature to put Morris on this list. Especially after a boffo recruiting haul after last season that was ranked among the nation’s best. But Morris will be testing the patience of the win-hungry Hog boosters if his 2019 edition comes anything close to the unsightly 2-10 mess of a year ago and a winless mark in the SEC. Remember, Morris was not the first choice of Arkansas backers to succeed Bret Bielema, and many in "Pig Sooey" Nation still dream of a return of native son Gus Malzahn.

Philip Montgomery, Tulsa...A few years ago, Montgomery was regarded as a rising star in the business. But that was before the past connections to Art Briles (under whom Montgomery worked at Baylor) would become regarded as something of an albatross, and two highly disappointing season that included the Golden Hurricane slumping to a combined five wins in 2017-18. Considered an avante garde offensive mind, Montgomery’s strike forces have nontheless struggled the past two seasons, ranking a lowly 103rd in scoring a year ago. All a far cry from some prolific Tulsa offenses in the first two seasons (2015 & 2016) on Montgomery’s watch. Another campaign well beneath .500 would suggest the downward trajectory is not fleeting and likely force Tulsa to look elsewhere.

Charlie Strong, South Florida...Though Strong might not enter the new campaign in as deep of the rough as some others on this list, his career in Tampa is trending the wrong way after an absolute collapse down the stretch a year ago, as the Bulls lost their last six games, one of the worst collapses in college FB history. Not the sort of entry that a coach likes to see on his resume’. Strong, whose specialty is supposed to be defense, saw his stop unit sagged to near the bottom of national rushing stats a year ago (ranking 123rd). A slew of starters (especially on offense) return, so Strong will have no alibis if the swoon continues from last fall. It is also not lost upon USF backers how Texas almost immediately recovered after Strong was run out of Austin following 2016.

Mike Bobo, Colorado State... Bobo endured a difficult 2018, not only because his Rams nosedived to 3-9, but because of medical issues that included hospitalization and treatment for nerve damage in his feet and hands that made it difficult for him to walk in much more than a slow shuffle. We can’t imagine that Bobo’s physical condition was helped by CSU’s steep decline which actually began during the later stages of the preceding 2017 campaign. Another round of staff changes has further contributed to an ongoing atmosphere of instability. With a considerable investment in a new football facility and on-campus stadium within the past couple of years, the Ram administrators and boosters are not likely to sit idly by and watch another season deteriorate.

Brent Brennen, San Jose State...The trendline is not good for the Spartans, with a decreasing win total the past four seasons (6-4-2-1), the last two of those years on the watch of Brennen, who was a surprise hire of of the Oregon State staff after 2016. Brennen’s candidacy was based mainly upon the fact he had coached at SJSU in the past and thus knew of the tightrope the program always walks to stay competitive, but thus far all the Spartans have done is regress. Even at San Jose, there are some standards, and needless to say that Brennen could be deep into the soup with another 1-or-2 win season. As usual, the schedule does SJSU no favors, with games in five different time zones this fall.

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