The 2015 college football coaching carousel will be remembered for its spate of early firings and departures, potentially pushing forward the paradigm of the coaching cycle from Thanksgiving to Columbus Day.
What will the 2016 coaching cycle bring? For starters, the jobs that could potentially open portend plenty of activity. Five potential openings—Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, Texas and Penn State—are perceived in the industry as market drivers. All five of those jobs won't open, but it's likely three of them will.
If 2015 will be remembered as the year of the early firing, the 2016 cycle could end up being remembered as the year of the buyout. The five coaches in the jobs listed above have buyouts that total nearly $60 million. At least they've earned it; we're entering a contract era in which Kentucky coach Mark Stoops will get $12 million if he's fired this year. That's a nice potential parting gift for a coach with no bowl appearances and a 12–24 career record.
Interviews with athletic directors, agents and search firm representatives indicate no slowing in the flurry of early coaching turnover after last year's accelerated cycle. In 2015, North Texas's Dan McCarney, Maryland's Randy Edsall, USC's Steve Sarkisian and Miami's Al Golden were all fired during October. (Hawaii fired Norm Chow on Nov. 1.) South Carolina's Steve Spurrier resigned on Oct. 13, UCF's George O'Leary stepped down Oct. 25 and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer announced his retirement on Nov. 1.
"I just think that people are on the hot seat before the season starts," says one industry source, who asked to remain anonymous. "If they get midway through the year, and they don't have the record they want, they pull the plug. If one athletic director does it, every other AD says, 'I'm getting behind.'"
Let's not be naïve and pretend the athletic directors at deep-pocketed, blueblood schools don't have their wish lists already written out . And don't think intermediaries haven't already begun kicking the tires of interest of top coaches. (This year's market could be perceived as the race for Tom Herman, the Houston coach who is the most sought after man outside the Power 5).
With the competition obvious, many are wondering if the firings could come even earlier this year, with schools not wanting to risk falling behind the competition. "This is going to be a sea change year in college football, particularly in the state of Texas," another industry source said. "I expect places to be unbelievably aggressive this year, especially if they've had enough at Penn State and Texas A&M. Could Texas be squeezed if it drags its feet?"
With the tone set, here's the early look at the jobs that could turn over. We'll list the coaches who may move up on Wednesday and assistant coaches on the rise on Thursday.
This is year nine for option aficionado Paul Johnson (61–44) in Atlanta. Georgia Tech plummeted from an 11–3 record and Orange Bowl victory in 2014 to a 3–9 clunker in 2015. Johnson needs a bounce back season, especially with a new athletic director evaluating him. Mike Bobinski just bailed for Purdue, not exactly an affirmation of the future of Yellow Jackets athletics. Parting ways with Johnson would cost Georgia Tech $5 million. New athletic directors are brought in to make change, which is one of the biggest reasons to expect one here.
North Carolina State
Dave Doeren enters his fourth season with an unremarkable 18–20 record. He's not in extreme danger, but he has no marquee wins and little momentum. If life without quarterback Jacoby Brissett brings more of the same, Doeren could end up sweating out this season. Will NC State allow athletic director Debbie Yow to make another coaching hire? Her contract is up in 2019, which leaves the potential for a package deal if things go sour.
Boston College's Steve Addazio has a much better team and a contract that runs through 2020, but the Eagles need a bump from their winless ACC season … If Les Miles drama kicks up in Baton Rouge again, the focus will once again be squarely on Florida State's Jimbo Fisher as his replacement … Could UNC's Larry Fedora become a B-List name for one of the SEC West blue bloods?
This is a tricky job because so much uncertainty remains in the fallout of a scandal for the university's failures to properly handle a series of sexual assault allegations. It cost the president (Ken Starr), athletic director (Ian McCaw) and coach (Art Briles) their jobs. Acting head coach Jim Grobe is just a placeholder, as the school has no intention to keep him. The job would concern most established coaches, as there's a litany of lawsuits lingering and the program will face additional scrutiny for years to come. Also, admissions should (finally) be vetting recruits and transfers more thoroughly. Can you win at Baylor without ethical and moral lapses? That's what coaching candidates need to decide.
Bill Snyder is 76, so he'll appear on this list until he retires. Snyder will be remembered as one of the elite coaches of his generation, but skepticism lingers. The Wildcats have slid to mediocrity, as they finished 6–7 in 2015 and needed three straight late-season wins to reach a bowl.
Snyder wants his son, Sean, to replace him, but there's still virtually no chance of that happening. Kansas State officials certainly don't want to force Snyder out, but the situation could get awkward if the Wildcats finish below .500.
Now that Charlie Strong (11–14) has finally settled on a definitive offensive style, he needs the Longhorns to soar with it. It's only year three for Strong, who has recruited well, established a culture and will be given every opportunity to prove himself. He has allies in the president's and athletic director's office, but he can't afford the tenor of losses like last year's lackluster efforts at Notre Dame, TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State. There's no magic number here, but Strong should be safe with more than eight victories. The cash-rich school would not flinch at paying the $10 million buyout.
West Virginia officials pondered firing Dana Holgorsen last year, but a buyout of more than $10 million made that move untenable. That thinking should change as West Virginia would only need to pay Holgorsen $3 million to fire him this season. In the industry, this job is viewed as the biggest certainty of any to open.
The juiciest speculation hovering over the season will be whether Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez would consider returning. That move was once unthinkable after his rocky exit to Michigan in 2007, but time has healed wounds on both sides. One problem is that West Virginia is a much harder job in the Big 12 than it was in the Big East.
David Beaty inherited a train wreck at Kansas, but he'll need to show some progress after going 0–12 in his debut season … There's a good chance that possible new Big 12 member Houston will have a new coach because of how highly regarded Herman is.
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Look for new athletic director Mark Coyle to execute the same game plan he did in his last year at Syracuse. He'll keep an extremely low profile, quietly observe the football program and then make a change at the end of the year. Tracy Claeys has a three-year contract, but his buyout is just $500,000. It's hard to envision him as a long-term answer, but he'll have a chance to prove himself with a soft 2016 schedule. The bottom line here, however, is that the entire industry expects this job to open and it would be stunning if it didn't. New athletic directors aren't brought in to keep the status quo, and Claeys's contact affirms the perception he's a placeholder.
James Franklin just hasn't been a good fit at Penn State. But would the school really pay more than $13 million to fire him? That's difficult to imagine, especially since he took over a roster still ailing from the NCAA sanctions and inevitable lackluster recruiting following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Still, Penn State officials can't be thrilled about the Nittany Lions' status as the definitive fourth-string team in the Big Ten East. Penn State lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State by a combined score of 121–42 last year, and Franklin is 0–6 against those schools.
The Nittany Lions play at Pittsburgh, host Temple and travel to Michigan during September. If they don't show a spark and better game management, things could get dicey in State College.
This job is in stiff competition with West Virginia for being the most certain to open. Darrell Hazell is 6–30, including just two Big Ten wins in the last three seasons. He is a logical candidate for a pre-Halloween firing if Purdue doesn't show any life. New athletic director Bobinski, who was hired in early August, will arrive with the intent to make changes, and he doesn't have any allegiance to Hazell. Bobinski's biggest job at Purdue is to extract the football program from a deep rut of irrelevancy, so expect him to begin shaking things up quickly.
If Mike Riley has another disastrous season, Nebraska won't be afraid to move on … Michigan's Jim Harbaugh should be in Ann Arbor for a while, but he'll always be coveted by NFL franchises.
There have been enough changes in the Pac-12 the past few years that Colorado is the only program in the conference whose coach is in danger of being fired. Mike MacIntyre is 10–27 in three seasons, with few memorable moments along the way. The Buffalos have flashed signs of potential by playing some top teams close, including Utah, USC and UCLA last year. But two conference victories in three seasons are the types of results that lead to firings. Unless Colorado earns a bowl appearance this year, don't expect MacIntyre back.
UCLA's Jim Mora will again pop up in NFL openings, especially if the Los Angeles Rams job opens up … Stanford's David Shaw is on the NFL's radar, too, but he's shown no desire to leave his alma mater … Rich Rodriguez's long flirtation with South Carolina this off-season hints that he's anxious to leave, as that's a bottom-tier SEC job … Sonny Dykes has always been an awkward fit at California, and with so many openings expected in the state of Texas, he could end up jumping ship.
Patience has never been a hallmark of Auburn administrators, and it's wearing thin on Gus Malzahn as the Tigers brace for another season with uncertain quarterback play. Auburn went 12–2 and appeared in the national title game during the 2013 season, but since then, Malzahn's record has dipped to 8–5 in 2014 and 7–6 last year. The Tigers need to show significant progress this season or Malzahn will leave with a $9 million parting gift. The state of the program is troubling off the field, too, as Auburn has lost its top offensive player due to discipline issues for two straight years. (Five arrests this off-season haven't helped matters either.)
Will Kentucky pass the hat to pay Stoops $12 million? There's no offset in the contract that would lessen the amount if Stoops got another job. That's an astonishing amount of money for a coach who has accomplished so little. Kentucky has failed to exploit the SEC East's nosedive to mediocrity the past two seasons, and there are no tangible signs the Wildcats will show imminent improvement.
Les Miles survived a palace coup last season but did little to establish himself for the long term in Baton Rouge. Instead, he's the full-time interim coach for life (or at least until he wins another national title). Miles's buyout is $12.9 million, which is tenable mostly because it can be paid over six seasons. He's in full-bloom Mark Richt mode now, hanging on until he's not quite good enough. With 17 starters back, including Heisman Trophy favorite Leonard Fournette, this team is among Miles's most talented. Brandon Harris's season will determine whether the consistent lack of quarterback development continues to hinder the Tigers.
In what's shaping up to be the year of the buyout, Texas A&M could lead the charge. Not only would the Aggies owe Kevin Sumlin $15 million if they fired him, they'd also have to pay him the full amount in 60 days. There's zero internal hesitation to make that payment if the results are bad. Consecutive 8–5 seasons have left Texas A&M in a rut of mediocrity in the rough-and-tumble SEC West. Sumlin needs to show improvement this year, especially after the flurry of quarterback transfers and staff issues. Rest assured, the administrators and boosters at Texas and Texas A&M will be watching each other closely. After all, they'll be hiring from the same pool.
It's only Derek Mason's third year, and the spin out of Vanderbilt is that former coach James Franklin left the cupboard bare. But a loss to Western Kentucky and a 34–0 shellacking at Houston last season still leave doubt that Mason has long-term viability. In a down era of the SEC East, Vanderbilt has re-established itself as a bottom-feeder. This season Mason has a manageable early schedule to improve his standing: South Carolina, Middle Tennessee, at Georgia Tech and at Western Kentucky. A poor start, though, will heat up speculation.
With so many coaches on the hot seat, all is quiet elsewhere.