College football coaches on the hot seat: Who is facing a make-or-break season?

The hot seat has turned into a virtual cottage industry in college football. Agents posture around it. Search firms position themselves for six-figure assistance. Web sites speculate and reap endless clicks. Few things in college sports speak to the allure of possibility more than the college football hot seat, an intersection of fan bases’ wants, needs and fantasies.

Here’s some bad news for the Hot Seat Industry. In 2017, the market is cool. After interviews with more than a dozen agents, search firms and athletic directors, the consensus this August is that this projects as an unusually slow year for college coaching turnover. “We’ve had a few big years, and the market is due for a correction,” said an industry source who studies the coaching markets. “If Todd Graham is due $12 million, is Arizona State going to bite the bullet? Can Texas A&M pay $10 million [in a buyout] and then go get someone dramatically better than Kevin Sumlin?”

Over the last five seasons, an average of 22.6 FBS college coaching jobs have opened each year. Over the last 10 seasons, that number is virtually the same. (The number of jobs has increased slightly). Last year, 22 jobs changed.

Feel free to screenshot this bear market prediction for mockery come December, as the college coaching market has proven to be more volatile than investing in Bitcoin. But that’s the general industry feeling right now. Not a single person interviewed predicted an above-average year in coaching turnover. (And the industry is inherently biased toward turnover thanks to the financial opportunity that comes with it).

There are no jobs one could definitively rank in the top half of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12 that appear in imminent danger of opening. There will be a lot of speculation about Notre Dame, but there’s a big buyout and little institutional appetite for change there.

Why is the carousel expected to spin slower? Consider it a confluence of circumstances. There’s a collision of the rising cost of buyouts, the lack of a clear market driver – think Texas, Michigan, USC and Florida in recent years – and the increasing cost to move a coach between high-end Power Five jobs. This is also a weaker crop of mid-major coaches, as there’s no sure-fire Group of Five coach like Chris Petersen at Boise State or Tom Herman at Houston that could prompt schools to pass the hat.

The status of Jim Mora at UCLA illustrates the conundrum of this coaching market. He went 4-8 last season and could be considered in must-win mode. But the reality is that UCLA would have to pay nearly $12 million to fire him at the end of the season. And if they whiff on Chip Kelly or Greg Schiano – clearly the top head coach and assistant in this market – there’s a distinct lack of rising coaches out West. (The UCLA conundrum can be said for large buyouts looming at Arizona State, Notre Dame, Arkansas and others.) The early lesson of 2017 is that the temperature of the seat is directly proportional to how much it will cost to remove the person from it.

Will UCLA’s Jim Mora rebound after the Bruins’ 4-8 season last year? (Getty)

How safe is your coach? Here’s an analysis of what the coaching market looks like for 2017.

INDEPENDENT

The future at Notre Dame will be the subject of much speculation, but there doesn’t appear to be much reality to Brian Kelly’s job being in extreme danger. Surely, another 4-8 season would change the paradigm. But Irish officials didn’t so much as consider making a change last year and spent the offseason building a better support cocoon around him. Notre Dame hired three new coordinators, a new strength coach and overall brought in 19 new football hires to help Kelly succeed. The re-energized staff has shown up in recruiting, where Notre Dame is No. 8 in the Rivals.com 2018 rankings. The internal desire to go long with Kelly at the helm is clear. “I have enormous confidence in the way we rebuilt this thing,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Yahoo Sports. “I want to give it some time.”

Kelly signed a new contract through the 2021 season prior to 2016. The contract is private, but it’s reasonable to speculate that the buyout for the four remaining seasons would be substantial. Notre Dame can afford it, as it showed paying Charlie Weis nearly $19 million to no longer utilize his schematic advantages. Contrast Swarbrick’s comment with Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward’s below, and it’s clear where Notre Dame sits on Kelly.

ACC

No jobs opened in the ACC last year, as every coach returned. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if that happened for a second consecutive season.

WORTH MONITORING
N.C. STATE – Both Dave Doeren at N.C. State and Steve Addazio at Boston College need to continue winning. Putting both in imminent danger would be unfair after bowl seasons, but neither can afford a 4-8 clunker. Doeren’s middling tenure at N.C. State has him 25-26 after four years. He may have his best team since arriving in Raleigh, and there’s need for an uptick as the program tries to break out of the malaise of mediocrity it endured under Tom O’Brien, Chuck Amato and Mike O’Cain. Hard to imagine N.C. State allowing Debbie Yow to make a new hire in her twilight, as she’s scheduled to cycle out of the job in 2019. (The buyout is less than $2 million, with an offset). A loss to South Carolina in the opener could change the tenor, as greater talent leads to greater expectations.

BOSTON COLLEGE – Boston College’s bigger problems are institutional. They are finally catching up in facilities, with ground breaking this summer on a much-needed new football complex. BC simply doesn’t have the budget to keep up with Clemson and Florida State right now. Does it have the desire? The athletic department has 31 sports and its limited budget is spread too thin to compete in the ACC in the two conference sports – football and basketball – that matter financially. BC will be facing changes in men’s and women’s basketball coaches this year, which makes it even more difficult to imagine any change in football.

Steve Addazio (24-27 in four years) has made bowls in three of four years, closed 2016 with three straight wins and returns a high-end ACC defense. The schedule is brutal, with five games in which the Eagles will be significant underdogs – Notre Dame, at Clemson, Virginia Tech, at Louisville and Florida State. There’s momentum on the recruiting trail, as the Eagles are No. 33 in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings. (They finished No. 66 last year).

ACC NOTES
Georgia Tech is always worth monitoring, as Paul Johnson turns 60 in August. For all the grumbles about his antiquated offense and distant personality, he went 9-4 last year and won the Orange Bowl in 2014. … UNC’s Larry Fedora will be a popular name if Kevin Sumlin gets fired at Texas A&M. … Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi will be the popular name if things stay sideways at Michigan State.

Big Ten

With three new coaches in 2017, there are no Big Ten jobs in considerable danger. Don’t be surprised if there’s no turnover.

WORTH MONITORING
MICHIGAN STATE – Mark Dantonio’s sudden drop in stature at Michigan State can be tied to the program’s significant off-field issues and a slip to 3-9 last year. The worry about Michigan State is whether there’s enough talent in the program to rise again in the Big Ten East, which has emerged as the toughest division in college football. (Or at least the most top heavy). At Big Ten media day, Dantonio hit all the right notes about turning things around. This reporter stands by his prediction that Dantonio won’t be around to collect his $4.4 million retention bonus in January of 2020. But Dantonio has more than earned the right to turn the ship in East Lansing.

BIG TEN NOTES
The annual Jim Harbaugh rumors to the NFL will continue. … Lovie Smith’s 3-9 start doesn’t project optimism for his tenure there, nor does Illinois ranking last in the 2018 Rivals.com Big Ten recruiting rankings. At 59, does he want to keeping pushing the boulder uphill?

Big 12

With Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor all rolling out first-year coaches, there’s a limited market for turnover.

IN TROUBLE
TEXAS TECH – Kliff Kingsbury’s star has fallen fast in Lubbock, as Tech finished last in total defense in 2016 and second-to-last in 2015. Coming off a 5-7 season, Kingsbury is 24-26 overall and 16-21 the past three seasons. His buyout of more than $6.7 million is certainly an unpleasant reality, but it’s not untenable. (There’s no offset). Kingsbury is popular on campus and liked by both the players and athletic department officials, so there’s no personality issues at play here. But a distinct improvement is needed on the field, and the schedule sets up poorly for Kingsbury. Tech opens with FCS power Eastern Washington, hosts Arizona State and plays at Houston. They close September by hosting Oklahoma State, which should be the best team in the Big 12. A losing record in September against those traditionally explosive offenses could fuel speculation.

Texas Tech head football coach Kliff Kingsbury listens to a reporter’s question during Big 12 media days in July. (Getty)

WORTH MONITORING
KANSAS STATE – No one except Bill Snyder’s doctor knows the details of his medical struggles after being diagnosed with throat cancer. His future in Manhattan comes down to his own stubbornness, how long he wants to deal with both the stress of coaching and fighting cancer. Snyder’s miracles in Manhattan will rank him among the best coaches of all time. But legends don’t go easy, as we’ve seen with Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier. No one around Kansas State is envisioning a clean ending here, either. Snyder, who’ll turn 78 this season, has a good chance to walk away as Kansas State should be excellent this year.

But here’s the catch – Snyder has publicly stated he’d want his son, Sean Snyder, to replace him. The entire Big 12 is rooting hard for this move, as the only person who thinks this move will work is Bill Snyder. (He’s also the only person who could have willed Kansas State into a national power, his stubbornness both a strength and flaw). Sean Snyder is the special teams coach and associate head coach, but there’s zero interest in him on the open coaching market. Good luck finding someone in college sports who projects the father-son handoff turning into anything but a disaster. Don’t be surprised if Bill Snyder walks away in the spring or summer next year – a la Bob Stoops – and essentially forces new Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor to give his son a chance. Other names here would be Chris Klieman, Craig Bohl, Troy Calhoun, Jerry Kill and Jim Leavitt.

BIG 12 NOTES
If Mike Gundy’s antics didn’t distract so much from his coaching, a blue blood athletic director may be more interested in his 86-31 record since 2008. Gundy has nosed around the coaching market in recent years, but his new contract is through 2021. He said at Big 12 media days he has no desire to go elsewhere.

PAC-12

The financial realities of the conference’s struggles monetizing the Pac-12 Network have begun to manifest themselves. It showed up in Oregon’s hiring process last year, as they passed on more expensive candidates for Willie Taggart ($3.2 million annually).

IN TROUBLE
ARIZONA – The Wildcats seemingly have lost all momentum after Rich Rodriguez stumbled to 3-9 last season. It wasn’t just losing eight straight games from September to November, it was the way they lost – 69-7 to Washington State, 42-17 to Oregon State and 49-24 to Colorado. A significant issue here will be Rodriguez’s buyout, a nearly $6 million payment that must be made within 60 days, as there’s no offset. That’s a lot of money for an athletic department that lacks funds, but it’s hard to see Rodriguez making enough progress to survive.

ARIZONA STATE – Could the season finale be the final game for both coaches at Arizona and Arizona State? Don’t be surprised. Todd Graham brings a six-game losing streak, back-to-back losing seasons and a muddled quarterback situation into 2017. He also got what amounts to a vote of no-confidence by athletic director Ray Anderson, who declined to extend his contract. Graham will be an interesting test case for Pac-12 budgets, as he’s under contract through June 2021 and would be owed nearly $12 million on his fully guaranteed contract. It’s hard to imagine Arizona State sticking with Graham if the Sun Devils stumble through another middling season. At ASU, it could be the age-old conundrum: Can they afford to hire him? Can they afford to not fire him?

WORTH MONITORING
UCLA – There’s no institutional desire at UCLA to get rid of Mora. As noted above, the nearly $12 million buyout would deplete the budget. They’d need a unicorn check from an uber-booster like Casey Wasserman to get that done. That’s not a check anyone wants to write. Mora is 41-24 over six years, and after massively bungling the offensive coordinator situation last season appears to have a reasonable solution. He hired Jedd Fisch from Michigan to run a multiple system with pro-style concepts to highlight Josh Rosen. A healthy Rosen could change the negative narrative quickly in Westwood. The Texas A&M game at the Rose Bowl to open the season should be telling.

SEC

This league has the most money, which makes it an annual contender to have the most movement. One veteran observer of the market noted that the SEC West will dictate the entire coaching market, as the opening at Ole Miss and potential openings at A&M and Auburn have the ability to create an active market. (But the counter to that is that someone has to win those games, right?)

The most realistic way to size up the SEC comes from another industry source: “If there’s four jobs in danger, only two will open and after that there’s not a lot out there.”

OPEN
OLE MISS – Is athletic director Ross Bjork still around to make the hire? He remained in lockstep with disgraced former coach Hugh Freeze when few sober people outside Oxford, Miss., believed in Freeze’s character. Bjork is one of the few athletic officials in America to not at least view Freeze’s anomalous recruiting success with any shred of skepticism. The revelation of Freeze’s “pattern of misconduct,” which became public after he called a number tied to an escort on his school phone, is a damaging blow to Bjork’s career. Each of the slow drips about Freeze’s misdeeds in the news cycle is another reminder that Bjork was the only athletic administrator in the country believing in the Tooth Fairy. (And calling reporters, as Houston Nutt’s lawyer reminded us, to insist the Tooth Fairy existed). When you stick with a coach through one of this generation’s most significant NCAA investigations, he’d better not be calling escorts between thumps of his bible.

Whoever is making the hire will have to figure out if they want to keep interim Matt Luke until the NCAA sanctions come down. (That’s expected to be sometime next year). That would at least enable them to attract a coach who knows exactly what he’s getting into. Don’t be surprised if Luke is back for 2018 as the administration sorts itself out after an NCAA ruling universally expected to be a bludgeoning. Luke is well liked in Oxford and was considered a promising young coach before his sudden promotion. Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre is a good long-term name here, as he’s coached there and has had enough administrative struggles at Colorado to dive into the Dumpster fire in Oxford. One factor that can’t be overlooked – the state of Mississippi can only issue four-year contracts. Administrators will need to get creative, as any sane or successful coach would ask for double that length.

IN TROUBLE
TEXAS A&M – Kevin Sumlin (44-21) hasn’t been able to recreate the magic of Johnny Manziel in 2012, when the Aggies went 11-2. Instead, Texas A&M’s seasons have fallen into a pattern of promising starts followed by a Houdini Act in November. Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward has made it clear another such November nosedive will end with Sumlin disappearing from the A&M sideline. Sumlin has submitted three consecutive 8-5 seasons, which Woodward made clear isn’t good enough when he went on the SEC Network and said: “Coach knows he has to win, and he has to win this year.” The $10 million to pay out Sumlin isn’t an issue in College Station. (He’d get paid in a lump sum as well, with no offset). Here’s an interesting question: Who would be an upgrade? After Chip Kelly and Greg Schiano, there’s not a lot of comparable names. (Would you oust Sumlin for Larry Fedora, who has a 40-25 record at UNC? Would Justin Fuente leave Virginia Tech for College Station?) And please don’t mention Chris Petersen because Woodward hired him at Washington. There’s a better chance of Bevo winning the Boston Marathon than Petersen in College Station. Expect some Dabo Swinney noise, too, as he played for former A&M coach and regent Gene Stallings. There’d be plenty of suitors for Sumlin – think Arizona and Arizona State – if Texas A&M let him go. This job offers the season’s most fascinating theatre, as A&M projects as the best job with the biggest budget to potentially lure a big fish.

WORTH MONITORING
TENNESSEE – Butch Jones has authored back-to-back 9-4 seasons, and any notion of his demise being inevitable is exaggerated. Jones’ issues at Tennessee begin off the field, as he needs to stop creating faux controversies with his constitutes. His “champions of life” and “five-star hearts” comments have led to more skewering than his teams’ on-field performance. Tennessee has ultimately failed to take advantage of a generationally bad SEC East, which is probably the biggest reason Jones should be concerned. It’s good news that Florida and Georgia haven’t raced ahead of the Vols. But signs of the Vols catching up need to begin appearing. There’s a new athletic director in charge, as no-nonsense John Currie just arrived from Kansas State. Jones is worried enough about his status that he parted ways with his agent to hire Jimmy Sexton of CAA in the off-season. (Sexton is hard-wired at Tennessee, his alma mater, and CAA also recently hired Clint Dowdle, Currie’s old lieutenant at K-State). Jones’ best positioning work will come on the field, as a slip to a .500 season would force Currie to make a move. (His $7.5 million buyout isn’t a factor in the cash-rich SEC). Basically, Jones should be fine by avoiding calamity. (Like losing to Vanderbilt again).

AUBURN – Life in the shadow of Nick Saban is cold and drafty in the state of Alabama. Auburn has sputtered through three forgettable seasons since playing for the national title after the 2013 season. Another one could lead to a change here. Yes, Auburn made the Sugar Bowl last year. But 8-5 is a danger zone in the high end of the SEC, and Auburn went 8-5 last year. There’s a lot of quiet optimism at Auburn, with a loaded defense and a quarterback, Jarrett Stidham, who projects as competent for the first time since Nick Marshall. (New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey should provide an upgrade as well). Auburn’s Week 2 game at Clemson could be dangerous if they end up in a lopsided rout. Malzahn’s buyout – $6.7 million – wouldn’t be a significant factor. Ultimately, Auburn power brokers need to decide if Alabama has distanced themselves from the Tigers so clearly that they need someone else to try and keep up.

SEC NOTES
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema’s buyout is $15.4 million until Jan. 1, which makes his firing improbable at best. (It drops to $11.7 from there).

Jobs outside the Power 5 where the coaches are in trouble:
AAC: None
Conference USA: Marshall, UTEP, Rice and Charlotte.
MAC: Kent State, Akron and Northern Illinois.
Mountain West: Utah State
Sun Belt: New Mexico State, UL Lafayette, Georgia Southern, South Alabama
Independent: UMass

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