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Two Theories for Why College Football's Black Sunday Had So Few Firings

The final full weekend of the college football season was more about who didn't get fired (Helton, Smith and Ash) than who did (Kingsbury and Fedora), and it's difficult to decipher the true reason. Plus, thoughts on the moves that were made at the end of the regular season, a food challenge in Columbus, the latest playoff rankings debate and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.

They wanted blood. They got a statement delivered in a two-frame tweet.

“Let me be clear to everyone, our players, our recruits and our fans,” USC athletic director Lynn Swann said in that statement. “Clay Helton is our head coach and will continue to be our head coach.”

With that, the 2018 coaching carousel got a lot less spicy. A year after Florida, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas A&M and UCLA fired coaches—subsequently causing openings at Mississippi State, UCF, Florida State and Oregon—this carousel appears downright placid. Black Sunday was dark for Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, but Helton will stay at USC. Lovie Smith will stay at Illinois. (With a contract extension, no less, but more on that later.) Chris Ash is staying at Rutgers despite going 1–11.

There are two potential explanations for this. One is hopeful, the other decidedly cynical. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two and in a different spot on the continuum in each individual case.

The Hopeful Explanation

Perhaps college athletic administrators have realized constant churn rarely breeds success. This is where we always break out the Mike-Krzyzewski-would-have-been-fired-after-year-three-at-Duke-if-he’d-started-now trope, but we actually don’t need to go back to the early 1980s in a different sport to make this point. Here’s a better example from eight years ago. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, like Helton an interim coach promoted to the full-time job, went 6–7 in his second full season. The Tigers’ offense sputtered all year and they closed the regular season with a 29–7 loss to rival South Carolina to fall to 6–6. Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips heard calls to fire Swinney, but he kept him under the assumption that Swinney would make staff changes. Swinney had to fire friend Billy Napier and hire a new offensive coordinator, but the hiring of Chad Morris to run Clemson’s offense was the first major step toward making Clemson what it is today. Morris juiced the offensive tempo and ran point on the recruitment of Deshaun Watson before leaving after the 2014 season to become SMU’s head coach.

Here’s a more recent example. Brian Kelly went 4–8 at Notre Dame in 2016. Even if you didn’t watch a single Notre Dame game that season, you probably know that because typing “Notre Dame went 4–8 last year” turned into a popular meme on social media during the first six or so months of 2017. Kelly didn’t lose his job, but he fired his defensive coordinator, his special teams coach and his strength coach. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford didn’t get fired; he took the head coaching job at Western Kentucky. (Spoiler alert: Sanford got fired Sunday after going 9–16.) It was as close to a full reboot as a program could make without firing the head coach. And guess what? It worked. Notre Dame beat Helton’s USC team on Saturday to run its record to 12–0 and essentially secure a spot in the College Football Playoff.

It was interesting last week that Helton referenced the 2016 Fighting Irish when discussing the upcoming game. During an interview on SiriusXM’s Playbook with myself and Jason Horowitz, Helton talked about the difference two years made. “They were 4–8. All these kids were young,” Helton said. “We walked away from that game going, ‘Wow. When they grow up, this is going to be a really special team.’ They go 10–3 last year still with some youth. Now you look up and they’re all juniors and seniors.”

We haven’t reached the cynical portion of the festivities yet, but of course Helton was stumping for his own job with this statement. The Trojans, who finished 5–7, played a true freshman quarterback. Most of their top pass catchers are freshmen or sophomores. Two of their top four rushers were sophomores. Logic dictates that as this group matures, USC will move back toward the success of Helton’s first two seasons. The youth on the team, by the way, also showed up in the statements released by the athletic directors at Illinois and Rutgers as they explained why Smith and Ash will keep working. 

And perhaps that’s why Swann kept Helton, why Josh Whitman kept Smith and why Patrick Hobbs kept Ash. It’s a perfectly logical explanation, and it’s quite possible one or all of the three will look like a genius this time next year if their programs mature as the ADs expect. There was no obvious, gettable candidate who would bring any of these schools the kind of programs they want, so why not wait? It makes perfect sense. 

But so might this…

The Decidedly Cynical Explanation

Perhaps the schools didn’t fire their coaches because they didn’t want to pay the steep price tags the schools themselves affixed to these potential firings when they signed their coaches. Swann was bidding against himself when he extended Helton last offseason, pushing Helton’s buyout north of $15 million. Now USC has an interim president after Max Nikias was forced out earlier this year. Is Swann willing or able to spend that kind of cash without a permanent CEO in place?

Whitman, meanwhile, agreed to a contract with Smith that would have paid Smith $12 million had he been fired after this season. On Sunday, Illinois announced not only that Smith would stay but that he would receive a contract extension that runs through 2023.

The key line in that Illinois release is this one: “Terms of the extension are being finalized and, with the support of Chancellor Jones, will be presented to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees for approval at its January meeting.” If the new terms don’t change the buyout, which drops to $4 million next year, then this is a phantom extension that won’t save Smith if the Illini go 4–8 and get smoked by 63 at Senior Day again. If the new deal forces Illinois to pay more than that if the school decides to fire Smith after next season, then Whitman bid against himself for a football coach who has gone 9–27 in three seasons, and someone should hide the AD’s office keys from him as soon as humanly possible.

That sort of thing would be akin to the extension Rutgers gave Ash last season, which pushed Ash’s buyout to $10.35 million. But that extension at least has a logical explanation. When Ash was hired in 2015, the NCAA was looking into potential violations that occurred during predecessor Kyle Flood’s tenure. So Ash and his agent had it written into his contract that if the NCAA levied any sort of serious sanctions, Rutgers had to extend the contract. At the time, Rutgers didn’t have much leverage relative to the candidates. So the school had to include the clause in the original contract. Rutgers doesn’t get a full share of the Big Ten’s massive media rights distribution until the 2020–21 school year, so the athletic department isn’t about to pay a buyout as big as Ash’s.

No matter the true reason for the decisions to keep three embattled Power 5 coaches, it will be interesting to see if any of them can reverse the tide of public sentiment so we aren’t discussing their firings this time next year. And if one or more of them do improve enough to stay longer, will it inspire other schools to slow the churn and give their coaches chances to dig out of holes/work off giant buyouts?

Check back here next year for the answer.

(But please keep reading in the intervening 51 weeks as well.)

MEYER: Will Lynn Swann and USC Lose L.A. by Keeping Clay Helton?

A Random Ranking

Creed 2 hit theaters last week. Creed was an unexpectedly great reboot of the Rocky franchise, so hopefully Apollo’s son against Ivan Drago’s son will live up to the hype. Here are the top 10 movie reboots released this century.

1. Batman Begins
2. Ocean’s Eleven
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. Star Wars Episode VI: The Force Awakens
5. Casino Royale
6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
7. Creed
8. Spider-Man Homecoming
9. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle
10. Kong: Skull Island

Projected Playoff

1. Alabama (12–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Auburn, 52–21
Next game: Saturday vs. Georgia in SEC championship

Colleague Ross Dellenger put it best while writing about the Iron Bowl on Saturday. You get one shot at Alabama. Interestingly enough, the Crimson Tide are probably about to play the SEC team best designed to take that shot. Still, the Tide should play loose. They’re probably in the playoff win or lose.

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2. Clemson (12–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat South Carolina, 56–35
Next game: Saturday vs. Pittsburgh in ACC championship

Dabo Swinney wasn’t happy with his team’s defensive performance in its win against rival South Carolina, but he was equally unhappy with Clemson fans who complained about the Tigers’ fifth consecutive win against the Gamecocks. “I just want to win by one more point,” Swinney said Sunday on a teleconference. “If that ever gets to where that’s not enough, then it’s time for me to move on somewhere else. I ain’t never going to apologize for a 21-point win over a state rival, ever. You people who suggest that it felt like a loss, y’all need to check yourself, too.” Here’s guessing everyone is happy again Saturday night after the Tigers claim a fourth consecutive ACC title.

3. Notre Dame (12–0)
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat USC, 24–17
Next game: Regular season complete

The Fighting Irish didn’t look pretty finishing off their undefeated regular season, but they still finished it. They probably weren’t the first team in 2018 to book a playoff berth—that probably was Alabama with its win against Auburn—but they’re in.

4. Oklahoma (11–1)
Last week: Not ranked
Last game: Beat West Virginia, 59–56
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas in Big 12 championship

The debate between Oklahoma and Ohio State will rage all week as we assume each will win its respective conference championship game. That isn’t a safe assumption for either team. But should Oklahoma beat Texas and Ohio State beat Northwestern, my guess is the committee chooses Oklahoma. The offense is electrifying. The defense is just shocking. But you know what you’re getting with the Sooners. The Buckeyes are wildly inconsistent. The team that beat Michigan on Saturday could compete for the national title. The team that got smashed by Purdue and the one that squeaked by Maryland in overtime couldn’t. Where things could get interesting is if the Buckeyes blow the doors off Northwestern with a performance that resembles the Michigan win. Then we might have a 2014 scenario.

Big Ugly of the Week

Because offensive lines tend to be living organisms, it’s often difficult to spotlight just one performance. Sometimes, an entire unit needs to be honored. This week’s award goes to the Ohio State offensive line, which allowed zero sacks against Michigan. Thayer Munford, Malcolm Pridgeon, Michael Jordan, Demetrius Knox and Isaiah Prince gave quarterback Dwayne Haskins time to take advantage of Michigan’s man coverage and hit receivers in space who could then gain extra yardage by slipping one tackle. “I take a peek down here against that defense. Under sacks it says zero,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said, reading a stat sheet. “So I think the first thing that [Haskins] would say, and I’d be disappointed and shocked—as a matter of fact, I’m going to tell him to make sure he says that—thank the big guys up front because they won the game for us. Zero sacks.”

Three and Out

1. Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt opted to fire coach Kliff Kingsbury after the Red Raiders went 5–7 in Kingsbury’s sixth season at his alma mater. Texas Tech never finished above .500 in Big 12 play under Kingsbury, and Hocutt deemed the $4 million buyout manageable. 

As Laken Litman points out, now Texas Tech sits at a crossroads. The Red Raiders could hire another Air Raid disciple such as North Texas coach Seth Littrell, but they might get more of the same. The only Air Raid coach who we know can win at Texas Tech is Air Raid OG Mike Leach, but my guess is neither party would care for a reunion. So will Hocutt look outside the Leach tree for Texas Tech’s next coach?

2. Unlike the ADs described above, North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham did decide to pay a relatively large buyout. It will cost the Tar Heels $12 million to fire Larry Fedora, whose team went 2–9 this season.

Now Cunningham must decide what to do with a program that has dropped off the map in the past two years. The Return of the Mack (Brown) rumors are in full force. Brown hasn’t coached since getting fired at Texas following the 2013 season. Should Cunningham be looking to go younger, Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield, Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott would make fine choices.

3. This is a tough week for many in the coaching profession, but the bad news isn’t limited to firings. Please keep Wendy Anderson, the wife of Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, in your thoughts. Wendy, who has fought cancer for several years, received word last week that her cancer had come back more aggressively. So the Arkansas State football family is asking for all the prayers everyone can offer.

What’s Eating Andy?

I’d like to apologize for a terrible job of ranking. Not my ranking of football teams. I’ve always been bad at that. I’m more upset about the glaring omissions from my workout songs rankings from last week. So I’m correcting them now. 

Please place Metallica’s “One” at No. 2 and Lil’ Wayne’s “Right Above It” at No. 3 and move everything else down. Meanwhile, editor Eric Single will do up-downs while these songs play for allowing that ranking to go into print without reminding me I’d forgotten two of the best songs.

What’s Andy Eating?

The most common “Have you tried it” question I’ve gotten over the past few years is this: “Have you eaten the Thurmanator?”

This is a logical question. The Thurmanator burger at Thurman Cafe is one of the most iconic dishes in Columbus, Ohio. And Ohio State is almost always very good at football. So it would make sense that I would have already encountered the two-patty, 1.5-pounds-of-beef monster. But I had not. Sunday, I rectified that oversight. And then I spent a lot of time thinking about logistics.


As stunt burgers go, the Thurmanator is fairly reasonable. Two 12-ounce patties form the core. These sit atop lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise* and banana peppers. Bacon and cheddar get wedged between the patties. Atop them sits a pile of sautéed onions, mushrooms, ham, mozzarella and American cheese. This sounds—and looks like—a lot but is actually quite manageable if you’re a large individual who skipped lunch and came from a workout.

*I had them leave off the tomato and the mayo. There’s a reason “mayonnaise” and “malaise” sound so much alike.

What isn’t manageable? The structure. As an edible edifice, it looks amazing. But as I removed the two long toothpicks that hold a grocery store’s worth of foodstuffs together, I realized I lacked an appropriate plan of attack. As she watched me examine the burger from every angle, the bartender offered some advice. “Smash it down, pick it up and don’t put it down until you’re done,” she said. She uttered these words with such authority that I had no choice but to comply.

That method got me through one and a half bites. Then one patty broke in two and ingredients began leaking out the bottom. As I tried to stem the tide, my hands shifted. The top bun slid one direction. The bottom bun slid another. Lettuce rained onto the plate. The ham and half the mozzarella landed with a thud. A slice of bacon shook loose. Suddenly, my massive burger had become a fork-and-knife meal. I still ate it all, but not in its intended form.

I don’t blame the burger, which was delicious. I don’t blame the bartender. She has watched a lot of people eat that monstrosity, so I’m sure she gave me the best possible advice. I blame my own lack of coordination. I’ve never been known for my manual dexterity, and I’m not shocked it failed me at the most critical dining moment.

I have but one suggestion for the fine folks at Thurman Cafe. To help those of us who lack fine motor skills, please throw in an extra bun with each Thurmanator so we can turn ours into a two-burger system if our initial attempt at smashing and chomping fails. If you want to charge a $2 penalty, I’d pay.

Because while I’m sure I could master the act of eating the Thurmanator with enough practice, it’s going to take a few more delectable failures to develop the requisite skills.