Hot Seats

CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: Coaching Hot Seat

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Like death and taxes, another certainty in life is that, somewhere, a college coach’s backside is feeling a little toasty.

Such is the case as we get set to embark on a sparkling new football season, with a handful of coaches feeling the heat from folks off the field for their collective failures on it. Fair or not, it’s a fact of life in the coaching profession: win or you’re gone, ofttimes with a multi-million buyout serving as a very lucrative parachute.

So, just who is possibly looking at a spot in the coaching unemployment line at season’s end, or sooner? Recent history suggests that anywhere from 15 to upwards of 25 of the nearly 130 head coaches who are on the FBS sidelines when the season begins won’t be there when the calendar flips to 2017.

Last year around this time, our hot seat preview listed six head coaches feeling the heat; just one of the six survived the 2015 season.  The lone exception?  Indiana’s Kevin Wilson.

Below are but a few of the coaches who could be entering a make-or-break season at their respective schools, in order from hottest to slightly less hot.

KEVIN SUMLIN, TEXAS A&M
2015 RECORD: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD: 36-16, 17-15
Off the field, it’s been an embarrassing last few months for the university in general and the A&M football program specifically.  Two of Sumlin’s assistants were suspended after getting their Beavis & Butthead on at a women’s football clinic, leaving A&M’s president “dismayed, disappointed, angry” over their sexist presentation  and allowing a former head coach at rival Texas to crow he’s “never lost a women’s clinic.”  Another Sumlin assistant made an ass of himself with a social media hissy fit befitting a middle schooler when a recruit had the audacity to decommit from the Aggies.  In February, former A&M quarterback Kyle Allen ripped the football program’s post-Johnny Football culture.  While not on Sumlin’s watch, it wasn’t a good look for the program when a former football trainer claimed in January that coaches pressured him to rush injured players back onto the field.

On the field is where Sumlin is really feeling the heat, though.  In 2012, the first season for both Sumlin in College Station and the Aggies in the SEC, A&M went 11-2 overall and 6-2 in conference play.  Since then, they’ve gone 25-14 overall and, more importantly, just 11-13 in the SEC.

Add it all up, and given the hyper-competitive nature of the SEC West, Sumlin sits on one of the hottest seats in the country.  He does have two potential lifelines.  One, win, and win big, in 2016.  Secondly, and arguably most importantly, his contract, which runs through 2019 and averages in excess of $5 million annually, is fully guaranteed if he’s fired without cause.  That, more than anything, might buy him another season if the on-field struggles — and off-field embarrassments — continue.

CHARLIE STRONG, TEXAS
2015 RECORD: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in Big 12
OVERALL RECORD: 11-14, 9-9
While the hot seat of Strong’s counterpart at a former rival consists of on- and off-the-field issues, the Longhorns’ sidelines boss’ issues rest solely between the lines on game days.  In two seasons with the Longhorns, Strong has gone an unacceptable 11-14 overall and 9-9 in Big 12 play, the worst two-year start for a UT head coach in nearly 80 years.  At Iowa State, those numbers would get you a parade through downtown Ames; at UT, it gets you on the express lane toward the unemployment line.

The good news for Strong is that he’s recruited well enough (seventh in 2016, 10th in 2015, 16th in 2014) that the talent is there to compete in the conference.  Additionally, three of their toughest games in 2016, Baylor, Notre Dame and TCU, will be played in Austin.  Strong has to hope that the combination of a new offensive coordinator (Sterlin Gilbert) and a promising freshman quarterback (Shane Buechele) can revitalize a stagnant offense and show promise for the future — and the defense can sustain its recent level of performance.

If the ‘Horns can’t get to at least eight wins?  It may be three seasons and you’re out for Strong of a handful of boosters get their way.

DARRELL HAZELL, PURDUE
2015 RECORD: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in Big Ten
OVERALL RECORD: 6-30, 2-22
Simply put, Hazell seemingly needs to qualify for a bowl in order to get a fifth season in West Lafayette, and the raw numbers show exactly why.

Of the 30 games the Boilermakers have played in three years under Hazell, they’ve lost 24 of them.  Half of Hazell’s wins during his time at the school have come against FCS programs; in other words, he has a winning percentage of .100 against teams that play at the FBS level.  Think about that number for a second, and let it sink in, and it makes you truly wonder how he made it to the 2016 season to begin with — especially when you consider he has an even-worse .090 winning percentage in conference play.  And it’s not like they’re competitive in the league, either.

In B1G play, Hazell has lost 22 games by nearly 20 points per game (19.8).  17 of those losses were by two touchdowns or more, with exactly half of the losses, 11, coming by 20 or more points.  And the two wins?  By 10 over Nebraska last year, by 11 over Illinois the year before.

It was thought that Hazell’s contract played a role in his getting a fourth season.  If this one’s anything like the previous three, there’s little doubt the athletic department will eat the remaining money owed to Hazell and move on to another head coach.

GUS MALZAHN, AUBURN
2015 RECORD: 7-6 overall, 2-6 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD: 27-13, 13-11
It’d be hard to get off to a much better start than Malzahn did in 2013.  All The Tigers did was run out to a 12-1 record and SEC title before losing to Florida State in the BCS championship game.  Since then?  A steady decline — and a precipitous one when it comes to conference play.

The Tigers dipped to 8-5 in 2014, and then dipped even further the following season to 7-6.  Most worrisome for those in and around the athletic department would have to be a 4-4 record in the SEC in 2014 that turned into 2-6 last season.  In fact, since beating Ole Miss in early November of 2014, Auburn has gone a miserable 2-9 in SEC games.  That’s disappointing for just about any school in the conference.  For a school that resides in the same state as a program that’s won four of the last seven national championships?  It’s downright unacceptable.

The SEC West is the most unforgiving of coaching stops.  If Malzahn doesn’t turn it around sooner rather than later, he will, fair or not, find himself on the outside of the conference looking in.

DANA HOLGORSEN, WEST VIRGINIA
2015 RECORD: 8-5 overall, 4-5 in Big 12
OVERALL RECORD: 36-28, 20-23
An eight-win season staved off the wolves for the moment, but 2016 might be a make-or-break season for Holgorsen in Morgantown.  That was never more evident than when contract talks on an extension between the two sides stalled earlier this year, leaving the coach with just one more year on his contract after this season.

Holgorsen is 35-28 in five seasons with the Mountaineers. Against Big 12 foes, however, Holgorsen is just 15-21.  Since going 10-3 in the final season in the Big East in 2011, WVU is a mere 26-25 the last four seasons. The good news for Holgorsen is that there’s some momentum from a year ago on which to build, with the Mountaineers winning five of their last six games coming off a four-game losing streak against ranked conference teams.  The lone loss in that stretch was a one-point setback at Kansas State, and also included the first bowl win since Holgorsen’s first season.

As rumors swirled surrounding Holgorsen’s future in Morgantown, athletic director Shane Lyons announced back in December that the head coach would return.  As it appears there will be no resolution to the contract issue before the new season kicks off, expect the speculation on Holgorsen’s future to ramp up exponentially if the Mountaineers struggle coming out of the 2016 gate.

MARK STOOPS, KENTUCKY
2015 RECORD: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD: 12-24, 4-20
It might be a year early to put Stoops on this list, but it shouldn’t be.

At least when it comes to recruiting, Stoops has flamed what passions for football in Lexington exists.  Prior to Stoops’ arrival, UK had just two recruiting classes — 2006 (No. 36) and 2009 (No. 41) — that finished inside the Top 50 nationally since 2002.  Since then, the Wildcats have racked up classes that ranked 34th (2016), 38th (2015), 22nd (2014) and 34th (2013).  That relative recruiting success has, thus far, failed miserably to translate into on-field success, though.

A 2-10 first season with the Wildcats gave way to a 5-7 2014 season, a mark that led to rampant enthusiasm over the future of the football program.  That push forward stalled with yet another 5-7 season in 2015.  Perhaps most distressing to followers of the team is the 4-20 mark in SEC play, a sign that the team is not even remotely ready to compete even in the weaker East Division.

If UK is fine with a .500-ish program that creates some recruiting buzz every once in a while, then Stoops might be their man.  If they’re looking to get to the next level?  2016 may portend whether Stoops can or can’t be that man.  Stoops is signed through the 2019 season, but money, at least in the SEC, should be no object when it comes to the football program.

Amidst medical mystery, Georgia’s Trenton Thompson withdraws from spring semester classes

ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 19: Anthony Jennings #11 of the Lousiana-Lafayette Rajin' Cajuns is pursued by Trenton Thompson #78 of the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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While the details are very hazy at the moment, a member of the Georgia football team has apparently suffered a health scare recently that calls into question his short-term future with the football program.

First reported by WSB-TV, defensive end Trent Thompson suffered an unspecified medical emergency very early Thursday morning and was rushed to an Athens hospital. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution subsequently confirmed the initial report.

Thompson was released from the hospital Thursday morning, his mother confirmed to the television station. No specifics have been released publicly, although the Journal-Constitution, citing sources with knowledge of the situation, is reporting that no drugs or alcohol were involved. It’s also believed that the issue isn’t related to football.

In the wake of those reports as well as others that indicated he had a run-in with Athens police immediately prior to the hospitalization, UGA released the following statement, which reveals that Thompson will be withdrawing from classes this semester because of the unspecified medical issues:

Based upon recent events, Trenton Thompson’s family has authorized UGAAA to release the following information. Trenton has been dealing with a significant medical issue which required emergency hospitalization and extended hospital stay. Trenton was recently discharged from the hospital and remains under close medical care. With respect to last night’s incident, the physical appearance and behavior described in the UGA PD report is solely related to an adverse reaction to medications prescribed specifically for his medical condition. The adverse reaction required emergency transport to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center where he was treated and released. Toxicology tests performed at the hospital were negative for OxyContin. We cannot release any further information at this time due to federal privacy laws. Due to the medical issues, Trenton is withdrawing from classes this semester, and his family requests privacy during this time.

As a sophomore last season, Thompson started seven of the 13 games in which he played. His 9.5 tackles for loss led the Bulldogs, while his five sacks were tied for the team lead and the 56 tackles with which he was credited were tops among linemen.

Capping off that breakout season, he was named MVP of UGA’s Liberty Bowl win over TCU.

Iowa State DB Mike Johnson suspended amid domestic violence arrest

AMES, IA - NOVEMBER 19: Wide receiver Keke Coutee #20 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders blocks defensive back Mike Johnson #3 of the Iowa State Cyclones as he rushed for yards in the first half of play at Jack Trice Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
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Iowa State has suspended defensive back Mike Johnson after he was arrested Thursday on the accusation that he choked his girlfriend.

As reported by the Des Moines Register, Johnson and his girlfriend were fighting over social media posts and music playing over each other’s phones when each tried to reach for the other’s device. That escalated to the point where Johnson allegedly had both hands around the woman’s throat, to the point where told police she “saw stars” and had trouble breathing.

She also had, according to police, bite marks on her right cheek, on her neck and behind her left ear, a swollen upper lip and had what appeared to be dried blood on her. Johnson also said he was bitten during the altercation.

“We are aware of Mike Johnson’s arrest and allegations associated with his arrest,” head coach Matt Campbell told the paper in a statement. “Our program has zero tolerance for domestic violence. Mike has been suspended from all team activities, including practice, under the student-athlete code of conduct policy as we gather more information. His long-term status with the team will be determined once we gain more facts.”

Johnson posted 44 tackles, three pass breakups and 1.5 tackles for loss in 12 games last season.

Report: Former Pitt RB James Conner given clean bill of health

James Conner
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James Conner will head to next week’s Combine with a clean bill of health, according to a report Thursday from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

“Pitt RB James Conner, who missed most of 2015 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, received a clean scan today, a week prior to combine, per source,” Schefter tweeted.

Conner led the ACC in rushing in 2014, rushing for 1,765 yards and 5.92 yards per carry with 26 touchdowns in 2014, before a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis caused him to miss all but one game of the 2015 campaign. (And in that one game, Conner still rushed for nearly 10 yards per carry and two touchdowns.)

He battled back to return to the field in 2016, again leading the Panthers with 216 carries for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns while finishing third on the club with 21 grabs for 302 yards and four touchdowns.

Conner will compete at the Combine for draft positioning with fellow running backs Leonard FournetteDalvin Cook and D'Onta Foreman, among others.

Willie Taggart no longer speaking with Oregon beat reporter

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 28:  Head Coach Willie Taggart walks the sidelines during the fourth quarter against the Miami Hurricanes on September 28, 2013 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Oregon strength coach Irele Oderinde is now back at work after serving a 1-month, unpaid suspension resulting from three players being hospitalized after Oderinde’s first supervised workout with the Ducks, but the story is not over in Eugene.

According to Oregon’s student paper The Daily Emerald, Taggart is no longer speaking with the reporter who broke the story, The Oregonian‘s Andrew Greif.

“When you’re not fair and honest, then to me that’s personal,” Taggart told the paper. “When you do something that’s negative and it’s going to be personal, then I won’t have shit to do with you.”

Greif, for his part, stands by the story and says the paper will not issue a retraction, as Taggart requested:

“Though the description of the workouts is understandably subjective, ultimately what has never been in doubt is that three UO players were hospitalized after the first week of offseason workouts and received treatment for several days,” Greif said in an email to the Emerald.

Complicating matters for Taggart is that the university commissioned faculty athletics rep Tim Gleason, a journalism professor, to review the report. In speaking with players, coaches, trainers and AD Rob Mullens, Gleason found the report not to be inaccurate.

“It’s not an unfair characterization; it’s just that the way it gets interpreted is regrettable,” Gleason said. “In the shorthand of journalism, it resulted in an impression that may not have been completely accurate.”

Also contradicting Taggart are members of his own staff, who said off-the-record that the workouts were “military-style.” Greif quoted them anonymously when inserting that phrase into the piece:

Players this week were required to finish the same workouts, which were described by multiple sources as akin to military basic training, with one said to include up to an hour of continuous push-ups and up-downs.

It’s not clear where the story goes from here, except that Taggart made clear twice in his interview with the Emerald he has no plans to answer questions from Greif in the future.