Why you should care
Because the road to greener pastures never ends.
When Bob Stoops, Oklahoma’s wildly successful 18-year-veteran head coach, abruptly retired in June — absent health problems or pending NCAA sanctions — the 2017 college football coaching carousel began early. For Stoops, the time was right to transfer control of the program to 32-year-old whiz kid coordinator Lincoln Riley. Had Stoops stayed put, Riley almost certainly would have been poached by a major rival this winter.
Much like winning a Senate seat, acquiring a marquee coaching job in college football requires an affection for handshakes and backslaps. But as fast as a rising star like Riley gains favor, criticism begins to fly. The weight of a disgruntled fan base grows heavy when backed by wealthy boosters and administrative agendas. And with so much money dependent on major college football, athletic directors can’t afford to be patient. This season, 50 of the 130 Division 1-A head coaches are within the first two years of a new job. Translation? Coaching turnover is rampant, and “nearly 40 percent of all coaches have been replaced in the last two years,” says Adam Zucker, Inside College Football host at CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network.
The fact that so many coaches are in the first two years of lengthy deals means that the potential pool of dismissible coaches is notably slim. “Fewer coaches are available to be fired this season, but there are still plenty of big names feeling pressure,” says Zucker.
With that in mind, here are the names to watch.
A Hail Mary Can Turn This Thing Around
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Jim Mora, UCLA
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Three of the bigger names in college football coaching return to the hot seat this season. At 4–8, the Irish fell to their worst finish since 2007 last season, but hope remains. “[Kelly’s] problem isn’t the lack of big wins,” Zucker says. “It’s the weird losses, like losing to Duke.” Prediction? They have what it takes to bounce back and win 9 or 10 games.
During Mora’s tenure, the Bruins have failed to capitalize on rival USC’s recent inconsistency. Now, USC is back to full force, the Bruins are building on a 4–8 season and only a major rebound can save Mora. Sumlin was once one of the hottest coaching prospects in football, but after three 8–5 seasons in a row, critics are questioning whether he has peaked. That record is no cakewalk in the brutal SEC West, and Sumlin likely needs to beat that mark to be given any reassurance.
The Sitting Ducks
Steve Addazio, Boston College
Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
Ed Orgeron, LSU
Orgeron is an inspirational man and a player’s coach, but his record as a game manager is questionable and he never seems to win the trust of higher-ups. Coach O took over as interim coach last season and — to much surprise — locked down a five-year deal this off-season. But his fate had much to do with more coveted candidates landing elsewhere. If LSU stumbles and a prominent coach becomes available, Orgeron could be swiftly bought out.
Rodriguez and Addazio are both well-respected coaches at programs that have gone stagnant. Arizona totally dropped off after a 10–4 season in 2014, and Addazio may have peaked with a 7–6 record last season. A poor 2017 will spark change for both.
Head Coaches Ready for a Jump
Craig Bohl, Wyoming
Mike Norvell, Memphis
D.J. Durkin, Maryland
Bryan Harsin, Boise State
With a potential top NFL draft pick as his quarterback, Bohl is in the perfect spot for a promotion. Another year of progress at Wyoming and the proven ability to develop a star under center should lead to a big offer. D.J. Durkin, a former Florida and Michigan defensive coordinator, is a rising star in the Big Ten who could become one of the most coveted names in the country. And while former Boise State quarterback Bryan Harsin has professed that he has his dream job, it’s hard to imagine that he would turn down a fourfold salary boost in the right situation. Harsin is 31–9 in three seasons at Boise. He should get used to being recruited.
Coordinators Call Their Shots Too
Jake Spavital, West Virginia OC
Matt Canada, LSU OC
Dave Aranda, LSU DC
Chip Lindsey, Auburn OC
Orgeron brought Canada over from Pitt, a huge move that should pay dividends for the Tigers’ offense. Aranda is a holdover from Les Miles’ staff with two years left on his contract; as Zucker says, he is “a definite candidate to go elsewhere.” A team in need of a defensive improvement, like Texas A&M, would surely entertain Aranda. A big year for LSU’s offense will almost surely bring major programs to Canada’s doorstep, at which point Orgeron might have to worry about being replaced by his own OC.
Spavital, 32, enters his first year as OC at West Virginia after holding the same role, and subsequently becoming interim head coach, last season at Cal. He has a long history of coaching successful college quarterbacks and is certainly a rising star in the coaching ranks. As Spavital tells OZY, being a head coach is the end goal, but not a daily focus. “This profession is so unpredictable,” he says. “Last year I’m at Cal — next thing you know I’m the interim head coach and in the mix for the head job. You just need to focus on the task at hand and eventually you’ll get noticed.”