SportsPulse: Dan Wolken reacts to the second College Football Playoff rankings and believes Ohio State can get into the playoff without qualifying for the Big Ten championship game given the committee’s track record.
With a pair of Power Five jobs open already at South Carolina and Vanderbilt and more to come as the college football season winds down, the coaching carousel promises to be more robust than most people within the industry expected a few months ago.
How much more? That’s still an open question, as COVID-19 hasn’t halted frustration among fans and administrators at underachieving programs such as Michigan, Tennessee, Auburn, Texas and Virginia Tech to name a few.
But the financial ramifications and optics of making expensive coaching moves this year, as athletic departments and universities generally are cutting budgets, are very real for schools that have had to absorb a significant revenue hit. On the other hand, optimism about regaining some sense of normalcy by mid-2021 with the arrival of vaccines could prove to be all the rationalization needed for athletics directors to revert back to the familiar cycle of big buyouts and irresponsible contracts.
BOWL PROJECTIONS: Ohio State has uneasy hold on final College Football Playoff spot
Here are five questions and answers about the current state of play in college football, with information culled from eight people close to the coaching industry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic. And, as always, much of what happens behind the scenes on the coaching carousel is fluid.
1. How many more big programs could make a change?
The entire industry right now has its eyes on Texas, as last Friday’s loss to Iowa State felt like something of a turning point in the school’s ability to tolerate another year of Tom Herman. Four years in, Texas is better than when Herman got there but at just 21-13 in the Big 12, he’s failed to elevate the Longhorns above a group of programs who simply should not be as good as Texas.
The issue is whether athletics director Chris Del Conte, whose relationship with Herman is said to be pretty frosty, will throw around $20 million-plus in buyouts for that coaching staff without having a slam dunk candidate in his back pocket. And that slam dunk, of course, would be Urban Meyer.
Tom Herman’s overall record at Texas is 30-18, which may not be enough to buy him another year as head coach. (Photo: Jay Janner, USA TODAY Sports)
Very few people are actually in position to know whether Meyer wants to come back to coaching. He had very real health concerns leaving both Florida and Ohio State, and it doesn’t seem like Meyer can do the job unless he’s pushing himself to literal sickness. If he signals he wants to give it a shot at Texas, they’ll have to pull the trigger. But even if he doesn’t, Texas may be in a position where it’s just ready to move on. Would Penn State’s James Franklin be tempted to take this one? Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who understands the Big 12 from his time at Oklahoma, might be an interesting fit there too.
Meanwhile, there’s more and more chatter within the industry that Virginia Tech wants to move on from Justin Fuente, who got off to a strong start in 2016 and 2017 but has struggled to recruit, retain and manage a roster that can compete at the top of the ACC.
Fuente is an excellent coach, and Virginia Tech isn’t as good of a job as its fans think it is — the candidate pool for this one isn’t expected to be blockbuster if it opens — but at the end of the day it’s hard to out-evaluate and out-coach your competition in a league like the ACC. You need to do the work in recruiting, and Virginia Tech just hasn’t had much juice with top prospects in the region.
Auburn is an interesting case, as the Gus Malzhan era has gotten stale without bottoming out completely. The thinking around Auburn is that athletics director Allen Greene would prefer to just it out another year and see what happens as the budget fallout from a $21.45 buyout would land on his lap. But it’s unclear how much that matters to the people who really make the decisions at Auburn. If the big-money players there decide it’s time for Malzahn to go, this is a potential landing spot for Hugh Freeze, who is riding an image rehab tour with Liberty at 9-1.Billy Napier, who’s done a great job at Louisiana-Lafayette, would also be a smart hire here or for any other SEC job that opens.
The temperature at Tennessee is rising and could start to boil over if the Vols, who have lost five straight, get blown out in their next two games against Florida and Texas A&M. But Jeremy Pruitt is already the fourth head coach in Knoxville in the past 12 years, and entrusting another coaching search to Phil Fulmer, who is completely in over his head as athletics director, seems like a recipe for disaster. This one could go either way.
Then there’s Michigan, where there seems to be two options: Either Harbaugh comes back next season on the last year of his contract, which would be a completely bizarre situation, or he cuts the cord and finds a soft landing spot.(New York Jets, anyone?) The institutional will to fire him doesn’t seem to be there, but it may be almost irresponsible for Michigan not to throw everything it has at Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, who could be off the market by the time the Wolverines get around to making a move.
2. Will the NFL start a domino effect in college football?
The biggest potential driver of chaos in the coaching market this year is the NFL, which is expected to have at least seven openings. Given the positive early reviews for Matt Rhule in Carolina and the success Kliff Kingsbury has had in Arizona, you can expect NFL teams to continue to look to the college ranks for coaching talent. Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Campbell often come up in those discussions. One or two coaches jumping to the NFL — which may seem more attractive than ever given the exhaustion from COVID-19, the upcoming one-time transfer exception and the recruiting complications of new name, image and likeness rules — could really create some downstream effects on the marketplace.
3. Will college football’s pitiful record on hiring minorities change?
In a word, no. Of the 24 FBS programs that hired new coaches last year, just seven were Black or Hispanic. The year before that, it was four out of 27. (Mel Tucker, who went from Colorado to Michigan State after just one season, counts on both lists.) With Derek Mason’s firing at Vanderbilt, there are zero Black head coaches in the SEC, one in the ACC and none in the Big 12. It’s shameful.
And there’s real concern about how to fix the problem. Search firms are constantly doing background work to get a sense of who is up and coming in the profession, and identifying minorities who could be head coaching prospects is a priority. But generally speaking, it’s difficult to get an athletics director or a president to seriously consider candidates who haven’t at least been coordinators.
Coordinators are more well-known, and they have a body of work to easily identify and talk about. Make no mistake, part of hiring a coach is the athletics director being able to sell the decision to a fan base. That process doesn’t lend itself to risk.
Particularly this year, the pool of Black coordinators is small. Clemson’s Tony Elliott would be at the top of a lot of lists, but he’s been strangely blasé about engaging with searches. Cincinnati’s Marcus Freeman runs one of the best defenses in the country and could gain traction if/when more jobs open. Florida offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson has put himself in good position given the year Kyle Trask has had. And Alabama running backs coach/associate head coach Charles Huff is one of the rare non-coordinators whose name could be in the mix.
But this year’s carousel underscores what a poor job head coaches and administrators have done in developing and promoting Black coaches into coordinator positions, where they’re more likely to get serious consideration to get hired as head coaches. If that doesn’t change, this topic will keep coming up.
4. If it’s so important to be a coordinator, why is Shane Beamer considered the front runner at South Carolina?
Good question. Beamer, the son of former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, has been a special teams coordinator but hasn’t run an offense or defense. He is, though, extremely well-liked and has connections at South Carolina, where he was on staff from 2007-10 under Steve Spurrier. He seems to have a lot of traction for this job on the premise that he could put together a strong staff and recruit well. On the other hand, some people in the industry are wondering if the Beamer whispers are being purposefully exaggerated to goad another school — Virginia Tech, of course — into making a move and bringing Beamer home.
5. Any potential surprises?
There are always surprises. Given the ugliness of last offseason, is this the year Kirk Ferentz rides off into the sunset at Iowa? There could also be a school or two that feels as if they’re likely to fire their coach in 2021 but makes the calculation that their job would be more attractive this year as opposed to next when the marketplace is expected to be really crowded. Could a Texas Tech, Syracuse or Arizona fit into that category?