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What's Driving All the Midseason Firings in College Football?

Five FBS coaches have been canned before November, the same total in the last four years combined. It's a sign of a growing trend in the sport.

Greg McGarity watched from behind the end zone as the final seconds evaporated in Florida’s stunning loss at Mississippi State.

This was bad, thought McGarity, then an associate athletic director at UF. Seven games into coach Ron Zook’s third season in 2004, the Gators had lost a 14th game and this was the worst of them—as 24-point favorites in Starkville. Before leaving Scott Field, McGarity turned to see his boss, athletic director Jeremy Foley, waving him over.

Still to this day, he remembers Foley’s words. As Mississippi State fans began pouring onto the field to celebrate the shocking result, Foley whispered to McGarity, “I got to make a move.”

“I thought, ‘What!?' ” McGarity recalls.

And thus ended the tenure of Zook, fired two days later in one of the sport’s highest-profile early-season firings.

“If something needs to be done eventually,” Foley rather famously pronounced then, “it must be done immediately.”

While midseason coaching dismissals have evolved into a more normal event some 17 years later, this year is challenging the annals of the sport in that category. Five FBS coaches have been fired before the calendar turns to November, the most firings over the first two months of the season in at least a decade—and maybe, experts say, ever.

Administrators at LSU, Washington State, USC, Georgia Southern and Texas Tech have already canned their leaders. In all, there are six jobs open before Halloween arrives, counting UConn, where coach Randy Edsall resigned under pressure earlier this year.

The coaching carousel has, maybe, never spun so early. Last year, zero coaches were fired before Nov. 1. In fact, in the last four years combined, five coaches lost their jobs before November.

This year’s firings are especially noteworthy, too. One man, Ed Orgeron, led his team to the national championship less than two years ago. Another, Clay Helton, coached his program in a conference championship game last year. And a third, Matt Wells, held a 5–3 record in his third season.

Former USC coach Clay Helton before a game

Helton was fired after just two 2021 games, following a loss to Stanford.

“We didn’t used to fire coaches until after the season!” barks one former athletic director who wished to remain anonymous. “When you’re thinking about firing your coach and you see five guys already having fired their coach, it makes your decision easier. In the old days, people would hang on and on to coaches.”

Not so much anymore.

While each of the five situations this year can be explained on its own, industry insiders say this is the acceleration of a trend in the sport, a direct result of heavy financial investments—coaching salaries, new facilities, etc.—producing an impatient environment. Athletic directors and school presidents exist in pressurized climates where compensation commitments have created an appetite for immediate gratification.

There is a correlation between investment and patience, says one recently retired AD. Of course, sometimes it’s just time for a change.

“For us, it was the culmination of a year-and-a-half evaluation,” says Jared Benko, athletic director at Georgia Southern. “We weren’t on the trajectory we needed to be.”

Benko fired fourth-year coach Chad Lunsford after a 1–3 start to the season that included a bizarre incident, when a viral video emerged of a GSU defensive lineman chugging a beer while riding atop the team bus. Lunsford’s teams had slipped each season in the Sun Belt, from 6–2, to 5–3, to 4–4 last season (the Eagles now sit at 1–3 in conference).

A decade ago, maybe Lunsford completes the season, is shown the door after the final game and then Georgia Southern officials spring into action to hire a coach. But why not give yourself an early start to the search?

“It can be a blessing or curse,” says Chad Chatlos, who handles coach and athletic administration searches for TurnkeyZRG, a talent recruitment/executive search firm. “If you’re going to fire someone early, you better have a plan. You’re not going to be able to engage with a lot of coaches because they are still coaching.”

At the very least, administrators can narrow their list by vetting candidates and gauging their interests. They get a jump on potential competitors, rival schools that might enter the marketplace at the traditional time—after Thanksgiving.

Benko, who’s helped operate coaching searches at Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State, describes the post-Thanksgiving flurry like “merging onto the freeway.” Traffic is high and progress can be difficult.

More than a dozen schools are searching for the right guy, some of whom are pitted against one another in bargaining showdowns that must move swiftly for recruiting purposes. The NCAA’s 2017 addition of the early signing period has expedited the hiring process and resulted in the early trigger fingers from athletic directors, insiders say. Roughly 80% of FBS prospects sign during the early period.

But the early signing period is only part of the equation, says Daniel Parker, who leads Parker Executive Search’s sports division. Movement among players is at an all-time high. The transfer portal and the one-time exception—allowing players to transfer once and play immediately—make it more difficult to drag searches deep into December.

The new coach needs to be hired quickly to begin recruiting players on his own team as much as those on future teams.

“I’ve seen that the last few years,” Parker says. “It’s such an unstable environment now. That’s what is driving this.”

There are drawbacks to an extensive search. Just ask Jeremy McClain, the athletic director at Southern Miss who had the unusual situation of parting with his coach after the season opener last year. Jay Hopson approached him following Week 1 with a desire to step down.

McClain would not recommend a three-month search. It created challenges, such as his phone constantly buzzing for 12 weeks.

“A lot of people want to talk to you,” he says. “The challenge is, having real serious conversations early is real difficult to do. Sitting down with the coaches you want to visit is difficult. There are people around coaches willing to talk, but at some point, in my world, you have to sit across the table and have a conversation.”

COVID-19 has changed some of that, Parker says. Coaches are now more willing to conduct Zoom interviews, some of them even during the season. But for the most part, discussions are centered on agents, though Benko suggests a midseason phone call with a candidate isn’t unfathomable.

“There’s a window of time, hypothetically, that an individual is driving home and there’s an opportunity there,” he says.

Benko’s search may move at a different pace than, say, those at LSU and USC, Parker says. Many of the latter two's candidates will be playing through conference championship weekend and beyond. It’s an agonizing wait to the end.

Of course, they’ve been here before. In fact, USC is the only school since 2011 to have made three coaching changes before November. The Trojans left Lane Kiffin on the tarmac in September 2013, fired Steve Sarkisian in October 2015 and eschewed Helton after Game 2 this year.

LSU's Ed Orgeron and Ole Miss's Lane Kiffin

Orgeron, right, will finish out the 2021 season on LSU's sideline but will not be brought back in 2022.

Those first two decisions went beyond the on-field performance. This year, off-the-field issues bubbled up in Baton Rouge as well. The same goes for Washington State, whose former coach Nick Rolovich was fired after refusing to follow a state vaccination mandate.

“It’s not just based on a win-loss record,” McGarity says. “There are other indicators. Culture. Decisions on assistant hires. How they handle discipline.”

And there is something else to consider: Did the AD hire the coach he is firing? Three of the five fired this year—Orgeron, Helton and Lunsford—were hired by the previous athletic director. A change in leadership in the athletic department can often result, eventually, in a change in leadership in the football program.

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It comes at a cost. The five coaches fired this year are owed nearly $40 million in buyout money.

“It’s fair to say that things trickle from the professional level to college,” says Gene DeFilippo, the former athletic director at Villanova and Boston College who works for TurnkeyZRG’s sports search division. “College coaches are making a lot of money, and there appears to be less patience among presidents, ADs and fans on the college level just like there is on the professional level.”

These midseason firings have been going on for a while now. Frank Broyles, as the Arkansas athletic director, provided one of the earliest examples of an AD’s quick trigger in 1992. He fired Jack Crowe one game into his third season after an opening loss to FCS team The Citadel, more than a decade before Foley and McGarity’s conversation at Scott Field.

McGarity, 67, now the new president of the Gator Bowl, takes a more traditional approach to handling the firing of coaches. A midseason dismissal should be a last resort. His concern was always what such a decision would do to the psyche of the players and coaching staff members.

As the athletic director at Georgia, McGarity fired longtime coach Mark Richt after the 2015 season. McGarity could have fired Richt six weeks earlier when the Bulldogs dropped to 5–3 after a 27–3 loss to Florida.

Instead, he let it play out. UGA won its final four games to finish at 9–3. Some athletic directors wouldn’t have pulled the trigger. Even McGarity, years later, refers to the decision as “50–50.”

“I knew it was going to be a powder keg,” he says. “I knew that was going to be the decision you are judged by. I know how important it is for these ADs to get it right. Sometimes you only have one chance.”

Six years later, the man he hired, Kirby Smart, is presiding over a Georgia team ranked No. 1 in the country.

Says McGarity, “It’s worked out so far.”

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