Though it doesn’t play out publicly until this time of year, the college football coaching carousel really started months ago. Even before the first games were played, the machinery for the industry was in motion as agents and search firms began to align ideas on which jobs might open and which coaches might fill them.
Much of that groundwork, of course, never comes to pass. While some moves are telegraphed weeks ahead of time, the results of the season lend themselves to some unexpected outcomes. Few would have guessed in August that both Florida State and Arkansas would part with their coaches before they reached the end of their second seasons. Likewise, it would have been difficult to predict that Clay Helton would be sitting here in late November with a legitimate chance of returning to Southern Cal in 2020.
Regardless, months of speculation and back-channel communication will come to a head over the next several days as the regular season ends and schools announce their coaching changes, a transition that takes on an even greater urgency with the Dec. 18-20 early recruiting period looming.
Here are the five questions that are being discussed within college athletics this week, with information culled from seven people across the coaching industry who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Is USC really going to stand pat?
Though USC’s season concluded Saturday, no announcement about Helton’s future is expected until after this weekend because there’s still a chance the Trojans could play in the Pac 12 title game. (Granted, it’s an unlikely scenario, as No. 6 Utah would have to lose at home to 5-6 Colorado.)
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There are lots of obvious reasons to pull the plug on Helton. Though USC has had a better season than some expected at 8-4, there’s been little evidence during his tenure to suggest he’s capable of returning the Trojans to national title contention, which is the ultimate goal for a program with USC’s resources and cachet. More troubling than the team’s record, however, is the situation in recruiting where USC is ranked 76th by 247 Sports with just two four-star recruits among its 10 commitments. That’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy, as two years of speculation about Helton’s job status has led to diminishing returns on the recruiting trail, but it’s still unacceptable for a school that should dominate the region.
Despite these obvious issues, however, there’s a growing sense within the industry that the school’s new leadership team of president Carol Folt and athletics director Mike Bohn might be inclined to let this play out another year.
There are three factors that might lead USC to that decision. First, thanks to former AD Lynn Swann rushing to extend Helton after the 2017 season, the cost of making a change now is believed to be more than $20 million. Second, there are no slam-dunks for USC. Once you take Urban Meyer out of the equation — an idea Folt has never been high on — there’s no obvious, realistic fit who checks every box USC would want. Third, Folt was hired to clean up the USC’s image after a series of scandals, and Helton is viewed as a steady and safe leader on a campus where much of her energy has gone into putting out other fires.
How that balances out with fan and booster pressure to make a change will be fascinating. And if USC ultimately opens, it will potentially create the biggest series of dominoes of any job this cycle.
What’s happening at Florida State and Arkansas?
The two big jobs that opened early got a head start on engaging with potential candidates and could move quickly after this weekend, depending on whether their targets are involved in conference championship games.
While much of the early focus was on whether Arkansas power-brokers would make another run at Gus Malzahn, that union does not appear destined to happen this time, either. Given the scale of the Arkansas rebuild, the school would prefer a coach who is more proven at the Power Five level rather than an up-and-comer. One name that has consistently come up as a potential target is Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente. Though Arkansas would be a tougher place to win, Fuente has deep family ties nearby in his native Oklahoma and could get away from a Virginia Tech fan base that hasn’t completely appreciated how difficult a job he faced after Frank Beamer let the program slip over his final few years. Arkansas could undoubtedly offer Fuente more than the $4 million a year he currently makes. If that isn’t a match, don’t be surprised if the Razorbacks take a long look at Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin, who obviously has lots of experience in the SEC and would immediately spice things up both in recruiting and on the media circuit.
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It’s more difficult to get a read on Florida State, as the school’s leadership structure is a stumbling block for some of the more high-profile candidates as both president John Thrasher and athletics director David Coburn are considered short-timers. Though the job is very attractive in a vacuum, it’s difficult for an established coach to make a move not knowing about who he’ll be working for in two years.
Assuming the price tag on Penn State’s James Franklin or Iowa State’s Matt Campbell is too high, Memphis’ Mike Norvell makes a lot of sense as the top coaching prospect in the Group of Five. But is that the kind of hire that would ignite Florida State’s fan base? Does Indiana’s Tom Allen move the needle? Odell Haggins, the current interim head coach who has been on staff at Florida State since 1994, is the ultimate fallback option.
What jobs could come open this week?
There are four schools in the Power Five where the momentum for change has built significantly in recent weeks, listed from most to least likely to make a change:
1. Missouri, where Barry Odom will be 25-25 after four years assuming he beats Arkansas this weekend. This year’s team has been a massive disappointment, losing five in a row heading into the season final. Moreover, Odom has beaten just two SEC teams in his four years who finished with winning records — Florida last year and Arkansas in 2016. Odom’s buyout is more than reasonable at $2.65 million.
2. Boston College, where Steve Addazio is 43-44 and has had a few close calls in terms of his job security. But unlike last year, where it was impossible to fire him after the Eagles started 7-2, they’ve stumbled to 5-6 this year and need to win at Pitt to become bowl eligible. This could be a potential landing spot for Greg Schiano after his impending deal with Rutgers fell apart – and frankly, it’s a much better job.
3. Mississippi State, where Joe Moorhead has proven to be a terrible fit in two seasons. There is strong belief around the industry that an Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss would seal his fate, though it’s possible he could be fired even with a win. Moorhead could be on Rutgers’ list, providing a soft landing and a clean exit.
4. Arizona, where the only real question is whether the school can come up with the $10 million it would take to get rid of Kevin Sumlin. Arizona has badly regressed this year and been rife with dysfunction on its coaching staff during a six-game losing streak. Athletics director Dave Heeke has been running over options recently, but Arizona would need some donors to step up to make this happen.
5. Michigan State, where Mark Dantonio has said he intends to come back but would be faced with a tough rebuild and an almost certain mandate to shake up his coaching staff. Is it ultimately going to be his call to make?
Where else are we going to see movement?
The Group of Five level is going to see a significant shakeup. UNLV and New Mexico already announced coaching changes on Monday, and Colorado State is expected to move on from Mike Bobo. Two fairly attractive AAC jobs could open with Tulsa and South Florida, where it would be difficult for athletics director Michael Kelly to credibly bring back Charlie Strong after losing 13 of his last 17 games. In Conference USA, Old Dominion is likely to open.
Who are the names to watch?
Because of the significant Power Five movement in recent years, the ranks of up-and-comers have been pretty picked over. Outside of Norvell, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, there aren’t a lot of hot candidates coming out of the Group of Five this year, although UAB’s Bill Clark, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Billy Napier and Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich are worth a look. Charlotte’s Will Healy and Appalachian State’s Eli Drinkwitz have both been impressive in their first seasons.
Among the assistants who will generate interest are LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady, Clemson co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry and Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley.
This could also be a year where schools take a look at some retreads or coaches who have already been at the Power Five level and are working their way back up. Larry Fedora, Gene Chizik, Todd Graham, Bret Bielema and Schiano are all available and could get another shot. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre and Liberty coach Hugh Freeze have all won big in the past as head coaches, done credible jobs this year and could be attractive to the right program.
Who’s up next?
A number of big schools are unlikely to make changes this year but will enter the 2020 season on high alert. At the top of that list is Texas, which has flopped to a 6-5 record in Tom Herman’s third year. Miami’s Manny Diaz suffered a brutal loss last weekend against Florida International that ensures an offseason of misery. Vanderbilt announced that Derek Mason is coming back in 2020, but the future is unclear beyond that. Now that Ole Miss has a permanent athletics director in Keith Carter, there will be significant urgency for Matt Luke next year. South Carolina has stepped on itself repeatedly this fall in making public statements about Will Muschamp’s status, but ultimately a buyout that drops from $22 to $18.6 million after Dec. 31 will keep him safe for another year. Dave Doeren shouldn’t feel too comfortable going into next season if N.C. State can’t bounce back from a 4-7 record.