Like death and taxes, another certainty in life is that, somewhere, a college coach’s backside is feeling a little toasty. Or a lot.
Such is the case as we get set to embark on yet another new college 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 that provides a cushiony-soft financial landing.
So, just who is possibly looking at a spot in the coaching unemployment line at season’s end, or even sooner in some cases? Recent history suggests that anywhere from 15 to upwards of 25 of the 130 head coaches who are on the FBS sidelines when the season begins won’t be there when the calendar flips to 2018.
Last year around this time, our Hot Seat preview listed six head coaches feeling the heat; just two of them, Charlie Strong and Darrell Hazell, lost their jobs. The year before, though, five of the six on our list received their athletic director’s — or prominent boosters’ — boot.
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. And leading off? The man who was on our hottest seat nearly a year ago.
KEVIN SUMLIN, TEXAS A&M
2016 RECORD: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD AT SCHOOL: 44-21, 21-19
“Coach knows he has to win and he has to win this year. We have to do better than we’ve done in the past.”
Those were the no-gray-area-here words of A&M athletic director Scott Woodward in late May of this year. When your boss very publicly puts you on notice that you have to win now or else, and you coach in the hyper-competitive SEC, you deserve the top spot on any coaching hot seat list.
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 a middling 33-19 and, more importantly, just 15-17 in the league. More to the point, the Aggies have finished fourth, sixth, fifth and fourth the past four seasons in the even-more hyper-competitive SEC West. An even finer point? They are 9-15 against divisional foes in the same span.
Given that track record, and the AD’s public pronouncement, there’s really not much else to say.
RICH RODRIGUEZ, ARIZONA
2016 RECORD: 3-9 overall, 1-8 in Pac-12
OVERALL RECORD AT SCHOOL: 36-29, 18-26
In 2014, Rodriguez was the toast of the Pac-12, or close to it. After a 10-3 regular season that saw the Wildcats win the South Division, that record earned them a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl the first season of the College Football Playoffs.
After 2014? He might be toast if he has another year like his last.
In 2016, the Wildcats (seemingly) bottomed out in going 3-9, the program’s worst winning percentage since 2003. It was just the second time 60 years the team finished the season with a winning percentage of .250 or less. Even more distressing, just one of their wins came in conference play a mere two years removed from playing for the league championship.
Anything close to a repeat of the 2016 season will very likely end with RichRod not seeing the 2018 season on the sidelines in the desert.
BRIAN KELLY, NOTRE DAME
2016 RECORD: 4-8
OVERALL RECORD AT SCHOOL: 59-31
Where to start? Last season’s 4-8 record was the Fighting Irish’s worst since Charlie Weis went 3-9 in 2007. And it wasn’t just the record on the field as Kelly — by force on one and by a departure for the other — changed out both coordinators for good measure, not long after throwing his players under the bus for lacking “fire and grit.”
Kelly’s boss, Jack Swarbrick, gave his head football coach a vote of confidence in October… leading Kelly to express his disappointment over the athletic director having to publicly endorse his continuing employment.
Weis got two more seasons after that three-win year, ultimately getting canned after back-to-back six-loss seasons. At bare minimum, Kelly will need to get the Irish to seven or so wins for Swarbrick to justify bringing him back for an eighth season in South Bend.
TODD GRAHAM, ARIZONA STATE
2016 RECORD: 5-7 overall, 2-7 in Pac-12
OVERALL RECORD AT SCHOOL: 39-26, 25-20
Like Sumlin, Graham was on the receiving end of an offseason message from his boss regarding his standing with the university.
In June, Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson revealed that he would not be extending Graham’s contract out another season. Every year that Graham had been at ASU previously, he’s received a one-year contract extension that kept him with five years left on his contract.
In his first three seasons with the Sun Devils, Graham guided ASU to a combined record of 28-12, a total that included a pair of bowl wins as well as a Pac-12 South title in 2013. The 10 wins in 2013 and 2014 was the first time the program had done that in back-to-back seasons since a four-year stretch from 1970-73.
However, a 6-7 2015 season gave way to a 5-7 2016 mark that led to talk of Graham possibly entering the 2017 season on the hot seat. With the decision to eschew the annual contract extension, feel free to remove the word “possibly” from the previous sentence.
GUS MALZAHN, AUBURN
2016 RECORD: 8-5 overall, 5-3 in SEC
OVERALL RECORD AT SCHOOL: 35-18, 18-14
I very nearly went with another SEC coach, Tennessee’s Butch Jones, before deciding to include the second alum from the 2016 Coaching Hot Seat list.
A loss in the national championship game in Malzahn’s first season in 2013 raised the bar, perhaps too high given the fact that AU’s hated in-state rival, Alabama, has qualified for the first three editions of the College Football Playoff in running roughshod over and through the conference. There are also three-straight double-digit losses to the Crimson Tide machine in the Iron Bowl for the Tigers.
Meanwhile, during Nick Saban‘s continued run of dominance, Malzahn has watched as his Tigers have plateaued in the neighborhood of seven or eight wins the past three seasons. That’s not exactly slumming it, but it’s far from the uber-rich estate on which the Crimson Tide currently resides.
Right or wrong, Malzahn’s fate is likely very much intertwined with Alabama — and whether or not the perception is that he has, or even can, close the gap with the college football monolith that shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. At all.
DOC HOLLIDAY, MARSHALL
2016 RECORD: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in Conference USA
OVERALL RECORD AT SCHOOL: 53-37, 35-21
West Virginia’s new governor, Democrat-turned-Republican Jim Justice, has reportedly spent at least a portion of his first term in office attempting to oust Holliday and replace him with Justice’s buddy Bobby Pruett. When the sitting governor, an alum of the university no less, is pushing to have you removed, you’re automatically placed on the hot seat, right?
The 2016 season did no favors for the coach entering his eighth season in Huntington as the Thundering Herd went 3-9. It was easily the worst season of Holliday’s tenure — they went 5-7 in both 2010, his first season, and 2012 — and the program’s worst since hitting the same mark in 2007.
The three years prior to 2016, however, saw the Herd win 10 or more games in back-to-back-to-back seasons. In 2014, they tied a school record with 13 wins, and won their first-ever Conference USA championship and first conference title overall since claiming the MAC in 2002.
So, was last season just a fluke? Whether it was or the portending of a continuing downward spiral will likely determine whether Holliday survives. Well, that and the state’s governor’s whims.