Quick Hooks for Chad Morris and Willie Taggart Underscore College Football's Evolution into Win-Now Mode

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The two words are still burned in Rich Brooks’ mind, just like they’re seared forever in the annals of SEC media days. Brooks, then having completed his fourth season as Kentucky’s head coach in 2007, stepped to the pulpit in the main room of the annual preseason event, hundreds of reporters before him, many of them having predicted his firing the year before, and he bellowed before anything else, “I’m baaaaaack!” Laughter ensued.

Brooks, now long retired and living in Oregon, relived that event with a reporter this Saturday from Bryant-Denny Stadium ahead of Alabama’s showdown with LSU. He was a guest of athletic director Greg Byrne, a longtime family friend, and as the Tide football team made its celebrated pregame march into the stadium, Brooks held a conversation with a reporter during which he rehearsed that 2007 SEC media days opening line – “I’m baaaaaack!” – and shook his head at how much the coaching industry has changed since it. Few coaches today would get a fourth year had they won a combined nine games in their first three seasons as Brooks did in 2003-05. “It’s changed,” he says.

This conversation was timely, because about 18 hours later Arkansas fired Chad Morris before the completion of his second season. In a span of one week’s time, two Power 5 head football coaches – Morris and Florida State’s Willie Taggart – were fired during their second season on the job, mostly if not exclusively for on-the-field performance. It is quite rare to have one firing such as this, let alone two in a matter of seven days. In fact, since 1990, only one other Power 5 coach has been fired for on-the-field performance before the conclusion of his second season. That goes to Keith Gilbertson, who Washington dismissed 20 games into his tenure in 2004. Taggart got the axe 21 games into this job in Tallahassee and Morris coached 22 games before the Hogs sent him packing.

This isn’t necessarily a column criticizing Arkansas or FSU for such a sudden hook. After all, Morris won just four games and had disastrous home losses to Western Kentucky, San Jose State, North Texas and Vanderbilt. Taggart’s teams won 10 games with losses to Boise State, a struggling Miami squad (twice) and NC State. At both places, fan interest had dipped to the lowest of levels. Seats were empty. Tickets were unsold. There are strong arguments to be made both for and against such quick firings as these places. The point here is how unique this week in college football is. It’s likely never happened before in the sport – two major college coaches canned in Year 2 because of wins and losses.

Sure, we’ve seen quicker hooks, but those were for mostly off-the-field matters. Guys like George O’Leary (Notre Dame) and Mike Price (Alabama) didn’t even make it to their first game before their respective schools ousted them. USC fired Steve Sarkisian amid his second season, but that stemmed from an alcohol-related problem that trickled into the workplace. But this, two coaches canned for on-field outings before reaching Year 3 of their contract? This is wild stuff. And just maybe it’s a trend. 

“These ADs nowadays, they’re not giving coaches enough time. Some of them don’t know what they’re doing,” says former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, now a candidate for an Alabama U.S. Senate seat.

College football has evolved into a win-now profession. The interest is high, the money is big and the pressure is heavy. It wasn’t always like this. Even some of the game’s greats struggled at first. Bill Snyder won six games in his first 22 before becoming Kansas State’s all-time wins leader. At Iowa, Kirk Ferentz won four games in his first two seasons, and Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech didn’t win more than six games until his seventh season. Hell, three of Nick Saban’s first four Michigan State teams won just six games. Are we comparing these legendary coaches to Morris and Taggart? Of course not. But these are good examples of why sometimes the trigger shouldn’t be pulled so soon. Athletic directors usually like to see an improvement from year-to-year, but there was a somewhat unwritten rule in the industry to give a coach at least three years. Maybe that’s changing? If you think it’s wild that coaches are getting fired even before their second season ends, you should see the list of coaches who don’t make it to the end of their third year. It’s short, too. In fact, Taggart and Morris join a group of just 12 Power 5 coaches since 1990 who have been canned before finishing their third season.

Taggart and Morris’ firings aren’t only unique in timing and rarity but in expense too. Taggart’s buyout is around $17 million and Morris’ is about $10 million. That cumulative $27 million price tag has those in the industry somewhat disgusted. How will this impact their coach searches? A new coach’s contract could cost more than $20 million guaranteed. And then there’s the current and future staffs. Schools must buy out remaining assistant coaching contracts (many coordinators have two to three year deals), and a new staff might cost more than $5 million in guarantees. That puts the price for a move like Florida State made at as much as $40 million. Oh yes, times have changed.

Back at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the 78-year-old Brooks is reminiscing about the good ole days. All of these coaching situations should be each taken separately. For instance, during his time at Kentucky, the Wildcats were fighting through NCAA penalties from the Hal Mumme era. UK officials gave Brooks four years to turn things around. In Year 4, he won eight games and led the Wildcats to their first bowl victory since 1984. Eight months later, he stepped up to that podium at SEC media days, smiled and spoke those two words. “I’m baaaaaack!”

Quick Hook

Within a week’s time, two Power 5 head coaches have been fired before completing their second season. That’s a rarity. Since 1990, only one other coach has been fired before finishing his second year with a Power 5 program. In fact, over the last three decades, only nine other P5 head coaches have been canned before the end of their third season. This list does not include interim coaches or coaches fired during or before Year 3 for off-the-field matters. The below coaches were fired or forced to resign before completing their third season for on-the-field performance.

Year firedNameSchoolFired after...

2004

Keith Gilbertson

Washington

20 games*

2019

Willie Taggart

Florida State

21 games

2019

Chad Morris

Arkansas

22 games

1998

Dave Roberts

Baylor

Second season

1996

Rod Dowhower

Vanderbilt

Second season

2006

Walt Harris

Stanford

Second season

2011

 Turner Gill

Kansas

Second season 

2012

John Embree

Colorado

Second season

1992

Jack Crowe

Arkansas

Game 1 of third season

2014

Charlie Weis

Kansas

Game 4 of third season

2003

John Mackovic

Arizona

Game 5 of third season

1994

Bill Lewis

Georgia Tech

Game 8 of third season

*coached the rest of second season

Others fired before or during Year 3 for mostly off-the-field matters: George O’Leary (Notre Dame, 2000); Jim McElwain (Florida, 2017); Steve Sarkisian (USC, 2015); Mike Price (Alabama, 2003); DJ Durkin (Maryland, 2018); Tracy Claeys (Minnesota, 2016).