Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where pink slips are flying:
THE SEC SAUSAGE FACTORY ROARS BACK INTO ACTION
Last year at this time, the famously impatient and demanding Southeastern Conference did an amazing thing—it fired none of its coaches. All 14 who led programs in 2018 led the same programs in 2019.
This year the league is working hard to make up for that benevolent lapse. Three coaches have been fired, two of them by their alma maters. Three others have survived despite vocal fan criticism. And there almost certainly will be coordinator bloodletting in multiple locales.
The most surprising SEC firing was the most recent: Mississippi (1) canned Rebel alum Matt Luke Sunday. It wasn’t a surprise because Luke was some sort of accomplished coach; his record declined from 6–6 to 5–7 to 4–8 in three seasons, and he was just 6–18 in the SEC. The surprise generated from the cost of what it would take to buy out Luke and his staff, which included long-term contracts for coordinators Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre.
That buyout number has been reported at anywhere from $12 million to $17 million—a massive amount for a school like Ole Miss. Yet the Rebels are ready to pay it, perhaps because of alarm about the number of players said to be ready to transfer out of the program—or perhaps because of competition within the league for a targeted next coach.
(We will get to him in a minute.)
The news of Luke’s firing certainly came as a surprise to Luke himself, who reportedly was on an in-home visit with a recruit when he learned he was terminated. Which seems like a vintage Ole Miss kind of move.
Beyond price tag, the curious thing about Luke’s dismissal is that it runs counter to comments made recently by current Ole Miss AD Keith Carter to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger: "I think our football program is headed in a great direction. I’m so excited about Coach Luke. He's our coach. We couldn't be more excited about the opportunity we have next week in Starkville."
Ah, yes. That opportunity in Starkville.
It ended with Rebels receiver Elijah Moore lifting his leg and losing the Egg Bowl in an epic flourish of tragicomic grandstanding. The ripple effect from Moore’s fake urine puddle is slightly less hilarious now, because it apparently played a part in a number of coaches losing their jobs. Which might make the entire episode the ultimate SEC football story.
A day before Luke was nuked, Missouri (2) got rid of alum Barry Odom after four seasons. Odom departed with a 25–25 record, 13–19 in the SEC, having failed to win big with 12,000-yard career passer Drew Lock in his first three seasons and a very easy schedule in his fourth.
The Tigers started 5–3 this year despite being favored by more than a touchdown in all of those first eight games.
Those two moves follow the early November firing of Chad Morris at Arkansas (3), after less than two seasons. Morris was an underwhelming hire after a mediocre run at SMU, then turned out to be even worse than expected by going 4–18 and failing to win an SEC game.
Elsewhere in the league, Joe Moorhead barely survived at Mississippi State (4), Derek Mason was controversially retained at Vanderbilt (5) and Will Muschamp held onto his job at South Carolina (6). Moorhead has coached the Bulldogs for two seasons, Muschamp has led the Gamecocks for four, Mason at Vandy for six.
So if you’re scoring at home, Luke was whacked after 36 games, Odom got 50 and Morris got 22. Moorhead was nearly let go after 25. Muschamp has made it to 51. Mason has lasted for 74. The latter three will all start 2020 on the hottest of hot seats.
These are not easy jobs. They are competing against programs with significant inherent advantages, and major breakthroughs are usually short-lived. (Missouri’s two SEC East titles in 2013–14 and South Carolina’s in 2010 were largely the result of underachieving from the power programs in that division, and all three of them ended in emphatic defeat in the league championship games.)
But the expectations are still there, and, if anything, growing bigger all the time. The patience SEC schools exhibited this time last year was a blip, an irregularity. It’s now back to merciless business as usual.
This is what coaches sign up for in this league. One day your AD is firmly behind you; the next a sophomore wide receiver pretends he’s a dog peeing and you’re gone. Quite a profession.
ARE WE REALLY ON THE VERGE OF A LANE KIFFIN BIDDING WAR?
The thing that would truly turn the carousel on its ear is if all three SEC schools now shopping for coaches are trying to land the same guy—none other than the incorrigible Lane Kiffin (7) his own self. There are reports and/or speculation that he’s on the radar of the Razorbacks, Tigers and Rebels. And if Mississippi State had opened, he might have been in the mix there as well.
Kiffin is the hot mess of a super model football executives just can’t seem to resist. He’s been fired by the Oakland Raiders and USC Trojans in previous lives, and in between those gigs made a poor decision to jilt Tennessee after one season. As offensive coordinator at Alabama he was told to take a hike in the middle of the College Football Playoff by Nick Saban, because his mind was on his next job and not on playoff business. The late SEC commissioner Mike Slive couldn’t stand Kiffin during his year at Tennessee.
Kiffin went to Florida Atlantic to rehab his image, and he’s done some winning while there—he’s 25–13 and will play for his second Conference USA title in three seasons this week. The memory of him drawing up pretty plays for Alabama a few years ago still lingers in the heads of SEC administrators. He has the unctuous charm to crush it on the recruiting trail.
But Kiffin also has a way of showing that he’s still a 15-year-old smartass at heart. Like after a loss to Marshall in October, when he tweeted a picture of ostensibly blind football officials being led by seeing-eye dogs—and tagged the C-USA office in the tweet. That earned him a fine and public reprimand.
Know this much: Kiffin is very interested in getting back into a Power 5 job, and he’s an aggressive flirt who will work any and all publicity to his advantage. So we’ll see how much of the Sunday Kiffin smoke is coming from actual SEC fires, as opposed to a smoke machine in Boca Raton.
A Kiffin return to the league would certainly up the drama factor. Kiffin at Ole Miss would be flatly hilarious, since his brother Chris literally this week is coming off a two-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA for violations he committed … while an assistant at Mississippi.
GREG SCHIANO IS THE MOST FOUGHT-OVER COACH IN RECENT COLLEGE HISTORY
At Tennessee two years ago, the fans mobilized to keep their school from hiring Greg Schiano (8). It got ugly. The fans won.
Now at Rutgers, the fans mobilized to make their school hire Schiano. It got ugly. The fans won.
Being guided by mob mentality is typically not among the best practices of executives in charge of hiring. But the fact is, Rutgers got the best guy it possibly could have landed for its disastrous football program. No idea why Schiano wanted to take on the challenge of the hardest Power 5 job not named Vanderbilt, but he did and he is.
At least he got an eight-year contract, along with some vagueness about “looking into” building a modern football facility. Chances of rekindling the magic of earlier this century, when he won like nobody has ever won at Rutgers, seem remote—that was the Big East, this is the Big Ten East. But Schiano will bring instant credibility and connections to the local recruiting ground, which is now being routinely looted by Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Notre Dame.
One mob’s reject is another mob’s savior. College football is a weird place.
IS WILLIE TAGGART ALSO GOING BACK TO HIS ROOTS?
While we wait to see what Florida State (9) is going to do—the scuttlebutt is voluminous and inconclusive—there is a chance that fired Seminoles coach Willie Taggart could land on his feet at the place where he had his greatest success.
South Florida (10) fired Charlie Strong Sunday after just three seasons—another quick hook for an African-American coach. Strong’s record had declined sharply, going from 17–2 in his first 19 games at USF to 4–14 over his last 18. Since leaving Louisville, where he went 37–15 and won the Sugar Bowl, Strong struggled through three years at Texas and three at USF with a combined record of 37–37.
Could the Bulls try their own version of the Schiano-Rutgers reunion with Taggart? He was there from 2013–16, building impressively from 2–10 to 4–8 to 8–5 to 11–2.
If Taggart does get the USF job it could save Florida State a lot of buyout money. The school’s termination agreement with Taggart is complicated by the fact that he never signed a formal contract, but financial terms indicate a buyout of about $18 million. However, if Taggart enters into “subsequent employment” it will offset the amount of the buyout, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
What exactly constitutes “subsequent employment” could be up to significant legal debate. But another FBS head-coaching job might set Florida State free—or at least make its buyout payment less scandalously huge.