10 coaches under the most pressure to win in 2017
- Whether because of poor performance, NCAA investigations or even a meddling governor, these 10 coaches face intense pressure to win this fall.
This week, we’re taking a look at coaches—namely, coaches who may not have jobs come December. The reasons for their instability are myriad, from NCAA investigations to persistent mediocrity to a bizarre case of a governor running his mouth. The list features big-name programs, like Notre Dame and Texas A&M, and less prominent ones like Marshall. It has coaches who won last year and coaches who lost. The so-called hot seat can be volatile, and it can cool quickly, so by week six, this might all look like nonsense—or a handful of these men may have already lost their jobs.
And so without further ado—but with the necessary caveat that we here at SI.com want everyone to remain employed and happy—here are 10 coaches with waning job security in 2017.
1. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
When Freeze took over at Ole Miss in 2012, he turned a team that had gone 2–10 (without winning a single SEC game) the year before into one that went 7–6 and beat Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. It was an impressive about-face for a program that for most of the 2000s had been an SEC also-ran.
The Ole Miss job was Freeze’s first as a head man at a major program—he was in charge at Arkansas State in 2011 and at now-closed Lambuth College from 2008–09—and he started it with several years of success. From 2012–16, the Rebels won an average of 8.5 games and went 3–1 in bowls, but by the spring of 2016, scandal surrounded the program. You remember the 2016 NFL draft, as information about former Rebels offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil’s alleged use of marijuana and reception of funds from the school went public in real-time. In February, the university announced that it faces 15 Level I violations from the NCAA and that it would impose a postseason ban in 2017.
This doesn’t look good for Freeze, who’d downplayed the NCAA investigation for months, and it certainly won’t help recruiting. The Rebels went 5–7 in 2016, winning only twice in conference play, and it’s hard to imagine them hauling in classes with players the likes of Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram going forward. Should things continue to go south in Oxford, Freeze will likely pay the price.
2. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Kelly’s Fighting Irish disappointed big time by finishing 4–8 last fall; it was Notre Dame’s worst record since Charlie Weis went 3–9 in 2007. Let’s put this in perspective: The Irish have won fewer than five games only five times since 1950. For a lot of schools, last season would have been a tough stretch. For Notre Dame, it’s almost unheard of.
That said: Kelly deserves more slack than most coaches in his position. As Andy Staples pointed out in one of his #DearAndy mailbags this spring, the Notre Dame job is harder than the head coaching job at any of the schools with which the Irish hope to compete. The academic standards weed players out, and unlike most of college football, administrators and athletic department officials in South Bend take player punishments seriously. With those standards, Notre Dame’s continued dominance is even more impressive, and it’s a bit easier to excuse a four-win season.
Regardless, the pressure to win is at its highest since Kelly took over in 2010, and another losing season will likely mean he’s out. Also working against him: The Irish have a new quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, replacing DeShone Kizer, who was talented enough to be the No. 52 pick in this spring’s NFL draft. Though Kizer struggled at times a year ago, a new man under center could lead to a further tick downward on offense.
3. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
It’s year six for Rodriguez at Arizona, and after he quickly built the program back up in 2012–14, things have taken a downturn the past two years. The Wildcats peaked in 2014, going 10–4 and 7–2 in conference play and winning the Pac-12 South. Since then, they’ve won a total of 10 games. A three-win season like the one they had in 2016 simply won’t cut it, and it doesn’t help that the athletic director who hired Rodriguez, Greg Byrne, left Arizona earlier this year for Alabama.
Rodriguez has a $9 million buyout clause after this season, which is a relatively steep price for a program like Arizona. Still should the Wildcats repeat their one-win mark in Pac-12 play or only marginally improve upon it, it’s easy to see Rodriguez being let go. And with a tough schedule coming—one of Arizona’s three non-conference games is against Houston, and the Pac-12 slate won’t yield any sure wins—the situation don’t look too rosy in Tucson.
4. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
It seems like an eternity ago that Sumlin made the jump from Houston to Texas A&M, beat Alabama, saw Johnny Manziel win the Heisman Trophy and finished 11–2. In reality, it’s been less than five years. Short of winning a national championship, it would have been hard to improve upon that blazing start, so even standing pat would have been plenty to keep Sumlin secure in College Station. Instead, his win totals ticked down and have stayed steady at 8–5 for the past three years with no more than four wins in conference play in the past four years. And after three straight bowl wins, the Aggies have lost their last two, to Louisville and then Kansas State.
Sumlin has shown little to prove he’s an 11–2 coach and a lot to establish that he’s more of an eight-win guy. Since settling into the job and recruiting his own players, Sumlin has elicited a steady level of decent play, but at Texas A&M may not be enough. Consider, too, that the Aggies were riding the post-Manziel recruiting wave in Texas for a few years; now, with Tom Herman in Austin, the competition is much stiffer.
Last winter, Texas A&M would have had to pay a $15 million buyout to fire Sumlin. After this season, that number drops to $10 million. With a job as desirable as this one, there’d be no shortage of talented candidates to replace Sumlin, and it’s easy to imagine Texas A&M snaring the next big, young name should it wave goodbye to Sumlin.
5. Todd Graham, Arizona State
This season will be Graham’s sixth in Tempe, which is about the time a coach either digs in or heads on his way. In this case, there’s been enough inconsistency to wonder if changes aren’t coming. Last fall, the Sun Devils went 5–7, following up a 6–7 campaign in 2015. Two losing years in a row isn’t what anyone expected from Graham after he won eight, 10 and 10 games in his first three years on the job. That could turn 2017 into a make-or-break year.
The Sun Devils won just two conference games a season ago, against Cal and UCLA, both of whom finished with disappointing years. And in their seven Pac-12 losses, the Sun Devils fell by an average of 19.7 points. None of this bodes well for Graham, a renowned defensive coach whose defense allowed an average of 39.8 points last year, good for fifth-most in the FBS.
6. Jim Mora, UCLA
Over Mora’s tenure, which began in 2012, UCLA has gone from a first-place finish in the Pac-12 South to two consecutive years tied for second to a third-place finish and then, last fall, to fifth. That’s a steady drop, but the most precipitous fall came between 2015 and 2016. Before last season, the Bruins and outspoken sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen garnered plenty of hype, which made the team’s 4–8 finish all the more shocking. Rosen did miss the final six games of the season with an injury, but even so, the team went just 3–3 in games he started.
Having Rosen back as a junior should almost certainly make a difference for the Bruins, but it’s hard to predict how much. Another sub-.500 season might be more than Mora will be able to weather.
7. Dave Doeren, NC State
Doeren was one coach who was spared firing at the end of 2016 after much speculation that he might get the boot. That translates into a short rope in 2017.
Since taking over at NC State in 2013, Doeren has yet to win more than eight games in a season, and that came in 2014, an eternity ago in college football terms. A 3–9 mark in his debut season did little in endear him to fans, and there’s been no statement season since.
The Wolfpack did finish 2016 with a big victory over in-state rival North Carolina on the road, after which NC State’s athletic director endorsed Doeren. He’ll have the administration’s support going into the fall, but he’ll likely need a winning season to keep it. In the ACC’s tougher Atlantic division, that won’t be easy.
8. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Would it be the off-season without Jones’s name appearing on one of these lists? Probably not. Here we are, yet again, wondering if this fall might be Jones’s swan song in Knoxville—and I’m betting it won’t.
That said, Jones faces pressure again going into 2017 after Tennessee won nine games for the second straight season but turned in a 4–4 conference record. Losing to Alabama is excusable. But getting blown out at home—last year’s game ended 49–10—isn’t so much. And losses to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and South Carolina can’t sit well either.
Tennessee fans and administrators know Jones can recruit, but so far, he’s failed to use those talented classes to rise to the top of the SEC. The Vols want to contend with the Alabamas of the world, not score just one touchdown against them, and so far, there’s been little evidence from Jones that he’s the guy to get them there.
That said, it feels cruel piling on a guy who has a .588 winning percentage in four years. Still, the heat is on for Jones, and his task—getting his team over that final hurdle from good to great and winning the SEC East—is tougher than that of a lot of the other coaches on this list.
9. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
Kingsbury looked like the perfect hire for Texas Tech back in 2013. The former Red Raiders quarterback was coming off helping Manziel win the Heisman, and he was a reminder of successful seasons in Lubbock, when Mike Leach’s spread offense led to bowl berth after bowl berth in the early 2000s.
Since taking over for Tommy Tuberville, though, Kingsbury has amassed a 24–26 record, and he’s gone 13–23 in Big 12 play. The Red Raiders missed a bowl game in 2016 with a 5–7 finish, and should they do so again, it’s possible to imagine the administration’s eye wandering.
Under Kingsbury, the Red Raiders have fielded one of the best offenses in football. They averaged 566.6 yards per game last year, best in the FBS, and they’ve never finished outside the top 10 in that category during his tenure. The problem is, their defense hasn’t been able to stop anyone, and without quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a first-round pick in April, there will be even less of a cushion for the team’s weaker unit.
10. Doc Holliday, Marshall
This spring, reports swirled in West Virginia newspapers that the state’s governor, Jim Justice, was trying to push Holliday out and replace him with former Marshall coach Bobby Pruett. The governor’s office eventually clarified; Justice’s chief of staff Nick Casey told the WV Metro News that his boss merely wanted Marshall to raise its profile and up its football product. Still, whatever Justice’s intentions with his statements, they’ve created a hot seat (or a perceived hot seat) for a coach who’s been largely successful in recent seasons.
In eight years at Marshall, Holliday has gone 53–37. The Thundering Herd have gone undefeated in the four bowl games they’ve played, and in 2014, they peaked at No. 18 in the AP Poll before finishing the season at No. 23.
In 2016, though, Holliday’s team finished 3–9 with a minus-106 point differential. It was a massive downturn after three seasons with double-digit wins, but it’ll likely take another disaster to push the coach out.