Temperature Rising: Big Time Coaches on the Hot Seat

The college football coaching carousel is a constantly spinning wheel, year in and year out and no program is immune to having to clean house. Bobby Petrino set the gold standard for crashing and burning, by doing it literally, and sparking a domino effect that has four new coaches at the helm in the SEC this fall.  We’re only a couple of years removed from Joe Paterno’s Shakesperean fall from grace in the most notorious scandal in college football history.  Still, it’s unlikely that by mid-September that the future of a head coach is all but decided, especially at a perennial powerhouse program.  There are notable exceptions, like Tennessee’s Derek Dooley last season, who was essentially a dead man walking before the season kicked off, but less than a month into the 2013 NCAA season, some big names at even bigger universities may be walking the plank come December (or sooner).

mack brown
Mack Brown could be on the way out in Austin.

It’s often said that blue blood programs playing out of conference opponents without their own pedigree, or from a lesser conference, on the road is not a risk worth taking.  Sure, nine times out of ten Texas pummels Brigham Young, or at worst, gives the BYU faithful three and a half quarters of close football before putting the nail in the coffin and heading forward with their season.  This year Longhorn fans saw firsthand why scheduling an out of conference road game against a solid, but not spectacular program leaves you with almost nothing to gain, but a Texas sized ton to lose.  Had Texas squeaked out a win instead of taking a 19 point beating in a game that was never in doubt from the start, nobody would be talking about Mack Brown’s job (yet).  Instead, Texas got pummeled in Provo and followed it up with another disappointing loss, this time at home, to Ole Miss, who the Horns destroyed in Oxford last season.  Maybe it was payback from a well coached, young and talented Rebel program but given the embarrassing loss to BYU, the firing of Texas DC Manny Diaz and the resurgence of criticisms head coach Mack Brown has been hearing for years, the Ole Miss game was a must-win, if such a game ever existed in September.  Mack Brown is a great coach.  If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have won a national title, a pair of conference titles and Big XII coach of the year awards and produced two players in Vince Young and Colt McCoy who will be remembered as some of the best quarterbacks the college game has ever seen.  That being said, Mack Brown has a built in advantage that nobody outside of Tuscaloosa is privileged with, almost a literal pick of the litter, each year.  Mack Brown’s backyard is likely per capita the single most fertile recruiting ground in all of America.  And it’s not just that Texas produces a surreal amount of D1 talent, it’s that the vast majority of those players grow up dreaming of wearing burnt orange.  Mack Brown’s recruiting classes speak for themselves, as does the number of players he’s pumped into the NFL.  The guy can pick ’em out, but when a quarter of the 2017 pro bowl roster is banging on your door to sign a letter of intent maybe a graduate assistant could piece together a top 15 recruiting class.  This season Texas had lofty expectations, being picked to win the Big XII and be a team that could possibly reclaim some respect for the Big XII come January.  This, coming off of a nine win 2012 campaign seemed natural, Brown had righted the ship that went off course and missed a bowl in 2010 and won a meager (by UT standards) eight games in 2011.  But, after a home shellacking to Ole Miss, something Texas fans thought they’d never hear, Brown likely has to make and win the Big XII Championship in December to keep boosters happy and some sense of forward momentum.  The firing of Manny Diaz is a quick fix in explaining the Longhorn defense getting lit up like a Christmas tree the past few years, but it only makes the weight on Brown’s shoulders heavier as each week, or loss mounts up.  Another beat down in the Red River Rivalry game and coach might be asked to find his own ride home.

How detrimental is Pelini’s temper to Nebraska football?

The one thing that may have kept Mack Brown in Austin despite a dwindling number of trophies on display is by all accounts Brown is a likable, well respected man in the community and someone Horn fans can be proud of leading their team win or lose.  The same might not be said for Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, who’s Cornhuskers, actually dawning black shirts, gave up 31 unanswered points to UCLA last Saturday in Lincoln.  Like Texas, the expectations at Nebraska revolve around winning or playing for the conference title every year, at the least.  Anything else, is a relative disappointment, which perhaps is a phrase that best describes Pelini’s time at Nebraska.  Brought in to fix the disaster that was Bill Callahan, Pelini was a tough, defensive minded coach plucked off of the Stoops coaching tree that seemed like a natural fit to revive the black shirt defensive culture at Nebraska.  While Pelini got off to a solid start making the Big XII championship game in Nebraska’s final season before jumping ship to the Big 10, the program has largely been wading water in their new home.  The Huskers won 11 games in 2012, but were pummeled to the tune of 70 points in the Big 10 championship game and last Saturday’s loss only heightened questions around Pelini’s control of the black shirt defense, questions that compliment a long line of criticisms of Nebraska’s offense under Pelini, tied to up and down quarterback Taylor Martinez.  When speaking on Bo, the play on the field is only a small part of the story.  To most fans outside of Lincoln, Bo is perhaps best known for his incredible tirades against officials, his staff, his players and as of this writing, his fans.  Pelini plays the old school, gruff, disciplinarian football coach of yesteryear, the kind of attitude you dismiss when you’re winning, even like, but it’s the same kind of attitude that can burn relationships in the press room.  This, of course, is without the leaked audio of Pelini calling out one of college football’s most legendary fanbases for being “fair weather”, peppered around inflammatory language that’s made the rounds of every blog on the internet.  It’s a lot easier to save face when a fan’s mental image of you isn’t already yelling curse words at your starting quarterback or getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Nebraska has said they won’t punish Pelini for his comments, but if the UCLA beat down is any indicator of how Nebraska’s defense will perform in conference play, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more “leaked” tapes to hit the internet and for the Huskers to go in a different direction come December.

After a tepid start to year four, USC bringing back Lane Kiffin would be a gutsy move.

Lane Kiffin’s loss to Pac-12 doormat Washington State is part indication of Kiffin’s failures at USC and an endorsement of Mike Leach’s work at Wazzu.  That being said, there should have been absolutely no reason for USC to only score seven points, much less lose, at home to the Cougs.  The talent level at USC is such that the entire team could have an off-day, miss key starters and still beat a team like Washington State by more than a touchdown at the Coliseum.  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where to begin when discussing Kiffin, because when you have a couch-burning riot to your name, maybe losing to Washington State isn’t rock bottom.  USC gave Kiffin its blessing this offseason, saying his job is secure, which deciphered means Kiffin’s days are probably numbered in Los Angeles.  USC will still likely win at least eight games, but with Oregon, Stanford and UCLA looking like legitimate BCS contenders there’s almost no room for error for the Trojans.  What’s more surprising about Lane Kiffin is the enigma surrounding him is such that once he does part ways with USC, somehow Kiffin will find himself as one of the hottest free agent coaches in all of football.  After failing in the NFL, failing at Tennessee and now at USC, there’s still enough between Kiffin’s last name, youth, recruiting prowess and swagger that makes one feel confident he’ll be out of work for a mere couple of weeks, maybe jumping at a change of scenery back to the NFL as a coordinator or assistant coach.

Kirk Ferentz was Big 10 coach of the year three times, but only won two conference games in 2012.

While markets like Los Angeles or programs like Texas draw considerable attention, some other well known coaches across the country are beginning to feel the heat.  Kirk Ferentz is another losing season away from souring what was until the last three seasons an incredibly successful run with the Hawkeyes.  In a league that has perennial blue bloods like Ohio State and Michigan, Ferentz has won two conference titles at Iowa, with a pair of BCS bowls to boot.  Iowa has declined in wins the last three seasons, winning four last year with 2013 seeming to be another uphill battle.  Another embarrassing two conference win performance from Ferentz and Iowa may test the waters this offseason.

But wait, there’s more. Another one win season could give Charlie Weis the boot at Kansas.  After a disappointing loss to a rebuilding Auburn team, Dan Mullen’s days at Mississippi State could be numbered, especially as rival Ole Miss continues to gain momentum.  There’s almost a guarantee that names will be added to the running list and some of the aforementioned coaches will either turn things around or buy enough leeway to see the 2014 season at their respective schools.  But an offseason in which Texas, USC and Nebraska are all searching for a new head coach would certainly make for an entertaining winter.  Should that day come, get ready to hear names like Nick Saban, Jon Gruden and Bobby Petrino ad nauseam and enjoy the hilarity that ensues when none of them end up leaving their current positions.