Forde-Yard Dash: Think Twice About Firing Your Head Coach in 2020

Looking at five hot-button coaching situations, from Texas to Michigan to Nebraska.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (extra suitcases sold separately in Palo Alto, where Stanford may be relocating to the Pacific Northwest to escape local health restrictions):

MORE DASH: Changes Abound | B1G Quandaries | Non-Heisman Standouts

SECOND QUARTER: WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T FIRE YOUR COACH

There are a lot of close calls to be made at power programs in terms of keeping or dismissing a coach. The Dash has thoughts on these.

Almost universally, the decision in this fraught economic climate should be on the side of keeping the coach and preventing further financial hemorrhaging. If it will cost tens of millions of dollars to correct an error the athletic director themselves probably made in overpaying and/or over-extending a coach who was doing mediocre work, bite the bullet and carry on for one more season. Far better to do that than making hard times harder for rank-and-file employees and nonrevenue programs.

A look at five such situations:

Texas coach Tom Herman looks on during a 2020 game

Texas (11). Tom Herman’s four seasons have very much failed to meet high expectations, while simultaneously improving the product over what he inherited. The Longhorns are now a winning program, which they were not under Charlie Strong (16–21 in three seasons). But they are nothing more than an upper-middle-class Big 12 team, better than most of the league but worse than the best.

His conference record is 21–14. In that same span, Oklahoma’s is 32–5, Iowa State’s is 23–12 and Oklahoma State’s is 19–15. Under Herman, 21 out of 35 Big 12 games (60%) have been decided by one score—which means the Longhorns are, week in and week out, just a rank-and-file league member. Those close games also magnify things like penalties, turnovers and questionable coaching decisions.

The recruiting situation is not good, either. Texans from the class of 2021 ranked by Rivals in the top 35 nationally are going to Alabama, Ohio State, USC and Oklahoma—not Texas. And the recent flip of the top 2022 quarterback prospect in the nation—Quinn Ewers, from Austin—from the Longhorns to Ohio State is significant.

So what should athletic director Chris Del Conte do? Swing for the Urban Meyer (12) fences. And if you fail to hit that specific home run—the best way to create a national championship contender—then strongly consider standing pat. At an athletic department that in September laid off 35 staffers and eliminated 35 more open positions, in addition to department-wide salary reductions and a dozen furloughs, it’s irresponsible to take on up to $24 million in buyouts of the current football staff. (To say nothing of what it would cost to hire the next staff.)

A common rationalization in times like this is that programs can’t afford not to fire a coach, because of the financial hit at the turnstiles and in donations. But at places like Texas, the fan base is large enough and loyal enough that it’s never going to dry up.

Take the official attendance figures from 2016 (Charlie Strong’s last season, an abysmal third straight losing year) through 2019 (the first three years under Herman). In 2016, Texas averaged 97,880 fans per home game. In Herman’s hotly anticipated first season, attendance dipped to 92,778, then rose to 98,713 in 2018, and slid again slightly in ’19 to 96,306.

At least in terms of tickets sold, the fans did not go away during Strong’s final season to force any kind of ruinous gate-revenue situation. Did some stay home and not use their tickets? Quite likely, but they paid for them. Did some withhold donations? Maybe, but how many, for how long, and at what cost? Many deep-pockets alums who are temporarily disgruntled will come back into the fold if they like the next hire.

Auburn (13). Gus Malzahn’s annual tightrope walk is teetering again. The Tigers are 5–3 and could easily be worse, if not for a couple of fortunate officiating breaks. They are 0–2 against currently ranked teams, with an average losing margin of 25 points. At the granular level, the former tempo innovator no longer seems a step ahead of opposing defenses, and quarterback Bo Nix has not substantially progressed as a passer from freshman to sophomore year despite having a talented receiving corps.

But this situation would cost a fortune to change. Malzahn’s buyout would be north of $21 million, and athletic director Allen Greene called for a 10% reduction in expenses in 2019—before the pandemic dropped the bottom out of the college sports market.

Still, Auburn moves in mysterious ways when it comes to athletics, and has often been irrationally urgent about football success. If the school’s infamous booster cadre is sufficiently moved, maybe that monster sum of money could be raised. If so, Hugh Freeze (14) seems like the perfect Auburn football coach.

Michigan (15). The wheels are off in Ann Arbor, after a listless loss to previously winless Penn State dropped the Wolverines to 2–4. Much like Herman in Texas, Jim Harbaugh has made the program better, but nowhere near as good as expected. Six years in, there is no reason to believe Harbaugh is going to compete for a national title at Michigan.

The celebrated Michigan Man dipped into the obfuscation well in his press conference Monday, alluding to a “disdain for the process by some.” Asked by Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News what he meant, Harbaugh said, “I think sometimes, outside the program, I think people are very results oriented and the process to us is very important. Process not as important outside the program as it is to us inside the program.” Which sounds good, except this is a results-oriented business (hence the scoreboard) and Harbaugh’s six-year process isn’t leading to the desired results.

This would not be a scandalously expensive coaching change to make, with Harbaugh having only one year left on his contract after this season. And Iowa State’s Matt Campbell (16) would be an attractive replacement without spending as much as what Michigan is paying Harbaugh (about $8 million). But there are not yet overt signs that the school is ready to end the Harbaugh tenure and move on. Maybe that will change if he endures a sixth straight loss to Ohio State—and third straight annihilation from the Buckeyes—but this situation is more quiet than you might expect at the moment.

Tennessee (17). Jeremy Pruitt’s record now stands at 15–17 through 32 games, whereas the intolerable Butch Jones went 20–12 over his final 32 games on the job. Tennessee is 2–5, and its final two games are against top-10 Florida and Texas A&M; a 2–7 record would be the Volunteers’ worst season in terms of winning percentage since—take a deep breath—1909.

Maybe Tennessee would want to get involved in the Freeze sweepstakes. However, the school’s coaching spin cycle is absolutely part of the reason why the program has been in a 12-year malaise.

With four coaches since 2008, the Vols have lacked continuity in recruiting and overall program building. With a promising recruiting class set to be landed in a few weeks, staying the course with Pruitt isn’t the worst idea at a school that has cut its athletic budget considerably (with the notable exception of some odious members of the football staff). Plus, nobody wants to see Phillip Fulmer (18) run another coaching search.

Nebraska (19). Scott Frost has been a bust, but he’s not going anywhere yet. His record is 10–19, which is just ridiculously bad by Nebraska standards—worst since Bill Jennings in the late 1950s—yet the Cornhuskers have no choice but to let this play out at least one more year. The money invested in Frost plus the budget reductions this year make it a non-discussion. Athletic director Bill Moos is tied to Frost, and the fan base loves its former star quarterback, so he will be given every opportunity to dig out of the current crater.

The turnover will likely come at the staff level, where Frost still has 13 people in major roles from his Central Florida tenure. Frost will have to suck it up and admit that the wholesale transition of his team from UCF to the Big Ten hasn’t worked and make some changes there.

If Nebraska still stinks at this point in 2021, it could well be time for coach shopping—and the school could be in for a reality check on its marketability. Maybe it could attract Chris Klieman (20) from Kansas State or a rising coordinator. But the days of Nebraska as a destination job for anyone without ties to the program continue to recede in the rearview mirror.

MORE DASH: Changes Abound | B1G Quandaries | Non-Heisman Standouts