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College football coaches may not be completely out of the woods just yet, but we’ve reached the safe-house portion of the year.
Those who are going to get fired already have been, and though there’s normally some drama that happens in late December or early January, the “silly season” has come and gone, at least as far as head coaches go.
So, there are several survivors who still have to ramp things up in order to still be employed next year.
For some, like USC’s Clay Helton, that meant a virtual vote of confidence from the athletic director and making housecleaning moves such as firing offensive coordinator Tee Martin and making a splash hire of former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury to replace him.
For others like Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Rutgers’ Chris Ash, it’s a matter of whether or not the university wants to shoulder the big buyout or balance the hope that things will improve.
Then there are small-market coaches at San Jose State, Connecticut and New Mexico State who have to determine if losing year in and year out is OK with them.
It only takes one season to turn things around, but several coaches need great offseasons and for big things to happen in 2019.
From blue bloods to Group of Five afterthoughts, these are the college coaches in need of significant turnarounds to keep their jobs.
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It’s hard to figure out Boston College.
Early in the season, it’s easy to get excited about an Eagles team that has dynamic players like running back AJ Dillon and quarterback Anthony Brown, especially after a 7-2 start. But then you look up at the end of the year, and they’ve had another very Boston College season.
They’ve been the definition of mediocrity under coach Steve Addazio, who took over in 2013 for Frank Spaziani, who’d essentially run the program in the ground.
Since then, Addazio has led the Eagles to consecutive 7-6 seasons and a 3-9 dip before surging back to 7-5 this year, with a bowl game yet to play. It’s not bad, but in the competitive ACC, it’s also not a record of which to be proud. With Boise State looming in the bowl game, frustration is again a possibility.
So while Addazio is probably going to keep his job for another season barring a massive meltdown in Chestnut Hill, you’ve got to ask just how long Boston College is going to be OK with hovering around .500.
Addazio was recently extended through 2022, but does that mean he’s really off the hot seat?
After all, the Eagles closed the season with a 27-7 loss to Clemson before a shocking 22-21 setback to Florida State before getting pummeled by Syracuse in the season finale. That does not leave a sweet taste in the mouths of BC lifers.
SB Nation’s Stephen Godfrey reported athletic director Martin Jarmond declined comment on Addazio’s situation after the late collapse, but the question remains whether the Eagles can do better.
Right now, it’s Addazio’s gig. But for how long?
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In one of the most puzzling contract situations in recent memory, Rutgers coach Chris Ash was extended by the Scarlet Knights through the 2022 season last year, per NJ.com’s Ryan Dunleavy.
Never mind the program just suffered a 4-8 season after Ash’s 2-10 debut. To Rutgers, that was progress, and the flagship program of the state of New Jersey rewarded the former Ohio State defensive coordinator.
Now, what do you do after a 1-11 record that included a 0-9 slate in the Big Ten? When you throw in the Scarlet Knights lost 55-14 to Kansas in an early-season showdown that was considered to be a tilt between two of the worst Power Five programs in the country, it’s even worse.
“This has been a difficult and disappointing year for our football program. We must and will do better,” athletic director Patrick Hobbs said in a postseason statement (h/t ESPN). “We have a great core of young talent and will recruit hard in the offseason. We’ve made significant investments and will continue to do the things necessary to bring the desired success to the Scarlet Knight faithful. I expect that under Chris’ continued leadership we will see significant improvement next season and ask for everyone’s continued support.”
If that’s not a vote of confidence, what is?
There have not been a lot of redeeming qualities in Ash’s tenure in Jersey, and there’s not a ton of positivity on the horizon.
The Scarlet Knights currently have the nation’s No. 70 recruiting class, according to 247Sports, and though there is youth, there wasn’t much of a competitive spirit in Rutgers this year. It may be encouraging that Rutgers lost just 20-7 to Penn State and 14-10 to Michigan State to close the year.
But they still lost. And until they don’t, all Ash has is an ugly 7-29 record as a head coach.
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When San Jose State tabbed former assistant Brent Brennan to be its head coach in 2016, the Spartans took a gamble on someone who’d only been a coordinator for one year.
And even then, it was as a co-offensive coordinator at SJSU in 2009.
Things haven’t paid off with that roll of the dice, at least not so far. Brennan’s teams have struggled dramatically, going just 3-22 in two seasons. At this point, it’s a stretch to say the Spartans are even competitive.
The job he held prior was as Oregon State’s outside wide receivers coach, which makes you wonder what San Jose State saw in him that made it think it could hand him an entire program. It remains to be seen if he can establish a winning culture.
San Jose State finished 2018 ranked 124th in total offense, even in the offense-happy Mountain West. If you think that’s bad, the Spartans were even worse in total defense, ranking 127th out of 130 teams.
It’s hard to be worse than the 1-11 Spartans, whose only win came against an injury-depleted UNLV team.
Brennan is eternally optimistic, which is a great trait for a program that’s had to basically rebuild from scratch. His Spartans were very young, which is another reason to keep him around at least through the ’19 season.
But too many more seasons like this simply can’t be tolerated at any program. Rebuilding is one thing, but being that bad on both sides of the ball is a red flag, and it’s important the Spartans begin to prove they’re getting better. If they don’t, SJSU will have to look in another direction.
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After the Bob Diaco era failed miserably at UConn, the Huskies tried to recapture some of their previous mediocrity by hiring former coach Randy Edsall, who struggled at Maryland.
Things haven’t gone well.
Edsall went 9-4 before three consecutive 8-5 seasons from 2008-10 before heading to Maryland, where he was fired after a 22-34 record in five seasons. After returning to UConn and going 3-9, he took a major step back this season, going 1-11 with the nation’s worst defense.
It’s hard to say the Huskies are a proud program, but they were at least serviceable under Edsall the first time around. They experienced at least moderate success after moving to the FBS, but that seems like a distant memory.
After a 55-21 loss to East Carolina, the Huskies were stranded on the tarmac at the airport, which was a perfect metaphor for the season. Teams took to the air often against the Huskies and dominated a defense that routinely allowed 600-plus yards.
If they can’t stop anybody, Edsall’s second tenure will be short-lived. Rebuilding from Diaco’s disastrous tenure is one thing, but you’d think the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator would have left Edsall some weapons on that side of the ball. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
How long will UConn go letting Edsall try to recapture some of that magic from nearly a decade ago? It’s going to be interesting to see. Yes, he built some goodwill with administrators in his first go-around, but there have been no redeeming qualities this time.
He needs to change that in a hurry.
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The highest-profile coach on the list who still (stunningly) has a job is USC’s Clay Helton.
You don’t miss out on bowl games at a program as prestigious as Southern Cal and survive for very long, but athletic director Lynn Swann elected not to part ways with Helton after this disastrous season.
That may not be a bad thing.
After all, USC is still recruiting at a high level and had a major overhaul of talent in 2018, playing a slew of freshmen led by star quarterback JT Daniels, who at times looked like a high school senior (probably because that’s what he should be after reclassifying and graduating a year early).
It didn’t help that an equally dismal UCLA team beat its crosstown rival late in the season, either.
Helton has to turn things around in a hurry in 2019. He’s off to an exceptional start, making college football’s biggest offseason splash by bringing in Kliff Kingsbury as the offensive coordinator to replace Tee Martin following an awful year on that side of the ball.
The revolving door of coaches since the Pete Carroll era has included Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian. Remember, Helton was only supposed to be an interim coach, but he kept the full-time gig and now needs to prove he deserves it.
There’s still tons of Trojans talent, but most of it was young in 2018. It’s just a matter of Helton getting them to realize their immense potential. The Pac-12 was wide-open in ’18, and they were nowhere to be found.
It’s OK for that to happen once, but if there’s a repeat next year, the Trojans will be in the market for another head coach.
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When it comes to high-stakes football, there’s perhaps no conference in football with a shorter shelf life than the SEC. It may be the Nick Saban factor, but with college football’s king residing in Tuscaloosa, the tolerance for bad football is less than in other places.
And that’s why there are three coaches from that league on this list, beginning with Ole Miss’ Matt Luke.
There’s no question the former Rebels offensive lineman and assistant coach was hamstrung by recruiting restrictions and the shameful exit of former coach Hugh Freeze.
But even setting aside their postseason bowl ban, the Rebels also had plenty of on-field issues in 2018.
They started the year with a big win over Texas Tech but finished with a whimper, going 5-7 with an awful 1-7 SEC record in the rugged West division. Even with a prolific offense led by quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and a wide receiving corps that rivaled any in the nation, Ole Miss couldn’t outscore teams.
Now, it’s a major red flag that Luke is having to replace both of his coordinators moving forward. He fired embattled DC Wesley McGriff after just one season in Oxford, and offensive coordinator Phil Longo left to join Mack Brown‘s staff in the same capacity at North Carolina.
Most Rebels fans weren’t too disappointed that Longo left. Even though he led the nation’s ninth-ranked offense, Ole Miss struggled inside the red zone.
Luke must make two dynamic hires and hope rising sophomore quarterback Matt Corral can usher in the next era of Rebels football. If he doesn’t, he may be playing for another coach in 2020.
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If you want to see an unbelievable buyout, look no further than Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
If the Tigers had decided to fire him on December 1, he would be owed roughly $32.1 million, according to SB Nation’s Alex Kirshner.
After a 7-5 season that included a loss to a bad Tennessee team and a 3-5 SEC record, it’s almost assured that as the buyout keeps dropping, the Tigers won’t deal with mediocrity for long.
The microscope is basically reflecting the heat from Tuscaloosa onto Auburn in the football-crazed state of Alabama. With the Crimson Tide kings of college football, the proud Tigers faithful expect to be right in the mix for championships every year alongside Bama.
When they aren’t, things get heated. Malzahn was nowhere near as competitive as Auburn expects to be in 2018. There were also offensive struggles, locker room dissension and team defections, such as Asa Martin and Nate Craig-Myers.
Few programs can endure the kind of turmoil Auburn had in 2018, especially after the Tigers reached the SEC Championship Game in 2017 before losing to Georgia and ending the year with a flop in a bowl loss to UCF.
That’s led to postseason contract questions, which Malzahn recently addressed when talking to the Montgomery Advertiser‘s Josh Vitale about restructuring his deal.
“There’s nobody hamstringing me from doing our job,” Malzahn said.
With quarterback Jarrett Stidham heading to the NFL and several holes to fill in 2019, it’ll be interesting to see how Auburn responds. This is a feast-or-famine team that follows disappointing years with championship surges, so who knows what’s going to happen next year?
Malzahn needs another one of those big years to stay secure.
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During Doug Martin’s first stint as a head coach at Kent State from 2004-10, he never had a winning record for the Golden Flashes.
After a two-year stint as an assistant at New Mexico State and Boston College, the NMSU Aggies decided to bring him on as their head coach in 2013.
Things have gone similarly to his first head gig, which is to say, not very good. After back-to-back 2-10 years in which he helped usher the Aggies into the Sun Belt, he followed that up with consecutive 3-9 years before breaking through at 7-6 last year.
It’s not like the Aggies are used to winning. That victorious season and bowl win over Utah State was monumental since it was the program’s first bowl appearance in nearly 60 years. That will earn you some goodwill with a program, but just how much?
Just when you thought maybe Martin’s program was taking an upward turn, it was back to 3-9 again this season, which stunted New Mexico State’s growth and calls into question just how effective the 55-year-old can be leading a program.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Adkins took some lumps, but he can help the team moving forward, and maybe another step back this year was good for the future because it allowed the youngsters to get some experience.
Still, Martin told the Albuquerque Journal‘s Ken Sickenger the Aggies “underachieved” in 2018 after their bowl win the previous year.
“I asked our players what they learned from the season and they said that success was hard to continue,” Martin told the Las Cruces Sun-News‘ Jason Groves. “If we can learn from that as coaches and players, then I think we have a chance to be a good football program going forward.”
You have to love Martin’s attitude, and he’s led losing teams before. It just remains to be seen whether he can get them to turn it around. There’s little on his resume to indicate much success in doing so.
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There are a couple of first-year coaches already seeing more question marks pop up surrounding their tenures than should be comfortable.
One of those is Arkansas coach Chad Morris, whose Razorbacks went 2-10 in 2018 with shocking losses to North Texas and an awful Colorado State team. The only wins came over Tulsa and FCS foe Eastern Illinois.
Yeah, it was an awful year, even by the Hogs’ standard—and that’s coming off the forgettable tenure of Bret Bielema.
The bottom line is Arkansas pumps a lot of money and resources into its football program, and it hasn’t been successful since the days of Bobby Petrino. One positive for Morris is the Hogs are currently 18th in 247Sports’ composite rankings, so help is on the way.
But the question is, just how long will it take for Morris to overhaul the roster?
It appears the Razorbacks are going to go from Bielema’s hard-nosed, run-oriented offense to Morris’ pass-happy scheme that he employed while offensive coordinator at Clemson and head coach at SMU. He’ll obviously have to adjust that to the SEC, and it isn’t going to be an overnight fix.
This past year solidified that idea. Arkansas really struggled in all facets of the game, even with veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis leading that side of the ball.
Morris is most likely going to have some time to get his players in Fayetteville and develop his team the way he wants. But he’s got to do better than winning two games and looking awful in the vast majority of SEC games. If Arkansas again isn’t competitive in 2019, there could be problems.
His job is probably safest on the list, but it’s at least worth watching.
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It was a puzzling decision when UNLV tabbed Tony Sanchez to be its new football coach in 2014. From 2009-14, Sanchez served as the head coach of Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School.
So far, the results haven’t been stellar.
He’s led the Runnin’ Rebels to a 16-32 record in four years, and there hasn’t been a single winning season, despite having talented playmakers like running back Lexington Thomas and quarterback Armani Rogers.
Things haven’t translated to the next level for Sanchez, who, in his defense, has been completely restructuring a program and dealing with a lot of injuries to big-time players in the past couple of seasons.
Sanchez hasn’t been a disaster, though. Aside from spearheading the fundraising efforts for the $31 million Fertitta Football Complex, his 33.3 winning percentage is actually better than the previous two Rebels coaches, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Mark Anderson.
“I appreciate the support of our administration,” Sanchez said, according to Anderson. “I thought that’s exactly the way it would come out. We’ve done a lot of great things to move this program forward. Obviously, there’s still some work to be done, but I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, which is evident, and excited to be moving forward with UNLV.”
How long can the program experience an upward trajectory without winning games, though? There’s no question Sanchez is ingrained in the Vegas football community, and the Rebels are responding to his leadership off the field.
But wins need to eventually come. You’d have to think another losing season in 2019 could spell the end of his tenure, especially since they’ve got to move on from Thomas. It’s going to be interesting to see just how long the program remains confident in Sanchez’s leadership.
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The Illinois Fighting Illini have wandered through the college football wilderness for many years now, but they made a splash hire a couple of years ago by bringing in Super Bowl coach Lovie Smith.
Though he once experienced success taking the Chicago Bears to the big game before falling just short against Indianapolis, things haven’t been quite as storybook in nearby Champaign.
While there have been some glimpses of improvement with the Illini, the conversion hasn’t been quick, and it also hasn’t been without casualties. The Illini have seen a lot of player defections as Smith tries to build his own program, and he’s gone 3-9, 2-10 and 4-8 in his three years as head coach.
Is that improvement? It’s going to need to result in a winning record in the rugged Big Ten before long, or he won’t get many more years. The school just recently extended Smith through the 2023 season, and that’s not necessarily a resounding reward for the work he’s done, either.
Athletic director Josh Whitman may have called Illinois a “program on the rise,” according to Chicago Tribune columnist Shannon Ryan, but she also wrote just how saddled the university is with his massive six-year contract that would require a $12 million buyout.
It’s not like Illinois has won a ton of football games lately, but this is a program that sits just outside Chicago and could experience plenty of success if it could just recruit well instate and stay out of its own way. Losing players to transfers isn’t helping, either.
Smith needs to fix a defense that allowed more than 60 points three times in 2018, and he needs to get more competitive on a weekly basis. If he doesn’t, that contract extension is going to be a mere formality on his way to unemployment and a big payday.
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Kevin Sumlin may have left Texas A&M, but some of the things that marred his tenure in College Station have followed him to his new job at Arizona.
So when the Wildcats entered 2018 with huge expectations in a wide-open Pac-12 and failed to even make a bowl game, that should leave plenty scratching their heads.
It also remains puzzling that Sumlin continues to hitch his once-bright coaching star to offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who failed to make much of an impact once again in his first season with the Wildcats.
Remember, Sumlin is a coach who once had elite prospect quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen with A&M, and both decided to transfer. Though Allen’s career never took off, Murray just won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma.
Now, quarterback Khalil Tate, who entered the 2018 season as one of college football’s most exciting stars, is looking to leave Tucson to play his final season elsewhere because of his inability to mesh in Mazzone’s offense, according to 247Sports’ Jason Scheer.
Disappointing seasons, transfers of important players and general unrest continue to plague Sumlin’s career. He was once one of college football’s brightest offensive minds as the head coach at Houston, but he has since failed to live up to expectations.
Of course, you have to think Arizona will give him some time to implement his system and turn things in his direction. But with Herm Edwards’ first-year success at rival Arizona State and the Wildcats failing to parlay all their talent into even a postseason berth in, there should be plenty of questions.
Another bowl-less year in 2019 may have Sumlin packing his bags.
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When Willie Taggart took his “dream job” at Florida State last year, leaving a strong gig at Oregon after just one season, there were high expectations.
Taggart left the Sunshine State after turning South Florida into a mid-major powerhouse, and he was inheriting a program with a lot of talent provided by Jimbo Fisher, who left for an oil tanker full of money at Texas A&M.
This was a Seminoles team that had elite running back Cam Akers, was returning quarterback Deondre Francois from injury and was sitting on several impressive recruiting classes in a row thanks to players flocking in droves to Tallahassee.
All of that equaled a 5-7 2018 season where the Seminoles struggled offensively, couldn’t block anybody up front and suffered a miserable year defensively as well.
Now, a team that had been to a bowl game every year since 1981 is sitting at home this holiday season, and that shouldn’t sit well with anybody who pumps money into the program. FSU has been one of the most consistently quality teams in all of college football for the better part of three decades.
Then Taggart comes along, and things go south.
He’s got to turn that around in a hurry, even if he’s been a big hit everywhere but on the field.
“The bosses remain confident in Taggart’s abilities and vision,” the Tallahassee Democrat‘s Jim Henry wrote recently. “Taggart has been described as genuine and charismatic in all the right ways, a rebuilder of programs. Nobody is going to argue those points.”
But you simply can’t lose more than you win and expect to keep your job, not in a place as used to competing for championships as FSU.
Nobody is suggesting Taggart should have been fired for a losing season in Year 1, but if he repeats the feat in Year 2, all bets are off.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.