- As Maryland weighs D.J. Durkin's future, it's worth a look back at how teams fared without the other coaches who made surprise late-summer exits this decade.
A decision on Urban Meyer’s future at Ohio State finally came late on Wednesday night. After Meyer spent more than two weeks on paid administrative leave while the university conducted an investigation into how he handled domestic abuse allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith, the school’s Board of Trustees chose to suspend him for the first three games of the season.
Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin remains on administrative leave. He has not been fired, though his long-term future at the school is arguably more at risk than Meyer’s ever was. University administrators are still investigating his role in fostering a “toxic culture” within the program, a probe prompted by reporting into the causes behind the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, days after he collapsed at a conditioning workout in May.
The two Big Ten East programs carried different levels of expectations into a preseason that has been sidetracked by controversy, and with a discipline ruling short of the ultimate penalty handed down in Columbus, now only Maryland heads into the final week before the regular season unclear on whether its current head coach will ever represent the school again. If a final decision arrives in the coming days, the 2018 Terrapins may join a select group of teams to switch leaders so close to Week 1.
If a program is going to fire its head coach, it almost always makes that move shortly after the end of the regular season, not weeks or days before it starts. Forcing a head coach out mere weeks from the start of the season or watching one leave on short notice is the last thing a stable program wants to do, as replacements are limited and there’s little time to adjust. This is not to say that many unexpected coaching changes aren’t necessary, nor that programs are opposed to making critical decisions at inopportune times. It just doesn’t happen often in July and August. There are a few examples where this has happened in the past decade, and as to be expected, the short-term results are rarely favorable.
Ole Miss, 2017
Head coach Hugh Freeze abruptly resigned on July 20 when university officials found a “pattern of personal misconduct” after investigating his school-issued cell phone records and finding calls to numbers associated with escort services.
Freeze led the Rebels to a Sugar Bowl victory, brought the program to as high as No. 3 in the AP poll and racked up some highly ranked recruiting classes—but those recruiting successes also prompted an NCAA investigation, and when Freeze attempted to downplay the scope of the violations and place blame on the previous regime, former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt’s lawyer tipped off athletic department officials about the contents of his phone records.
Freeze resigned six weeks before Ole Miss’s season opener against South Alabama, and offensive line coach Matt Luke was promoted to interim head coach. At first, the season seemed to mirror the turmoil within the program. The Rebels started 3–5, including consecutive road losses to Alabama and Auburn by a combined score of 110–26, before rallying to finish 6–6 with an upset win over Mississippi State. Meanwhile, the program’s self-imposed 2017 bowl ban did not prevent the NCAA from tacking a bowl ban for the ’18 season onto the punishment, and several prominent players elected to transfer, led by quarterback Shea Patterson (Michigan) and wide receiver Van Jefferson (Florida).
Tim Beckman was fired on Aug. 28, 2015, one week before the season opener, amid allegations that he had influenced medical decisions and pressured players to play while injured. Although it was a necessary decision by then-athletic director Mike Thomas, it sent the program into a scramble.
Beckman, who went 12–25 overall and 4–20 in conference play during his three seasons at Illinois, called the allegations “utterly false” at that time and ultimately reached a settlement with the school worth $250,000. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit took over as interim head coach that season, and Illinois proceeded to go 5–7 with only two conference wins, killing whatever momentum and success Beckman was building the previous season when the Illini reached the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Cubit was replaced that offseason by Lovie Smith, who has gone 5–19 in his first two years in Champaign.
Coastal Carolina, 2017
There are other kinds of scenarios where coaches leave for their own unique reasons, too. Coastal Carolina coach Joe Moglia announced on July 28, five weeks before the 2017 season, that he was taking a five-month medical sabbatical due to ongoing issues with a bronchial asthmatic reaction to allergies, which caused inflammation around his lungs. It wasn’t a dangerous situation, but Moglia needed to address it and take care of himself.
The timing unfortunately coincided with the biggest moment in program history: Coastal Carolina was entering its first season as a full-time Football Bowl Subdivision member, playing in the Sun Belt. As part of a two-year integration process, the team wouldn’t be bowl eligible in the first year of its two-year integration process, but having gone 51–15 in the past five years at the helm of the program, Moglia wanted to be there and his players obviously wanted him on the sideline.
Moglia appointed offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell as the interim coach, and the ensuing season was a struggle. The Chants finished 3–9 (after going 10–2 at the FCS level in 2016), allowing seven teams to score 30 points or more. As Moglia recently told reporters, “We had like a gazillion missed tackles.”
Moglia was cleared to return in January, and now the Chants can compete for bowl eligibility in 2018. He’ll coach his seventh season this fall, which begins on the road against South Carolina.
On July 14, Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson unexpectedly announced his retirement after eight seasons in Nashville. His notice came less than a month before fall camp and was a shock to the program. Vice chancellor for athletics David Williams tried to talk Johnson into staying with no success, and Johnson’s assistants were left to steer the team through the 2010 season. In ’08 Johnson had led the Commodores to their first non-losing season since 1982, capped by a Music City Bowl victory that gave them a 7–6 record, and the program had also seen a recent uptick on the recruiting trail. In his final season, Johnson lured one four-star and 23 three-star recruits (per 247Sports Composite rankings) to join the 2010 class—a record amount of ranked talent at that point for Vandy.
Johnson’s offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell was promoted to head coach on an interim basis for the 2010 season, and although Caldwell delivered a number of memorable press conferences, the Commodores only won two games. Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin was hired after the season and proceeded to lead the program to three consecutive bowl games.
There’s no easy way to make last-minute moves likes these, whether a coach decides to leave on his own or the matter is taken out of his hands. Durkin and Meyer have now been on paid leave for the majority of the preseason while their superiors conduct investigations. Should Durkin be dismissed, leaving new offensive coordinator Matt Canada to run the show in-season, history shows the odds are against the Terrapins pulling together a memorable season.