Two months from now, 31 college football teams will open fall camp with a new coach on the sidelines. That's about a quarter of FBS teams, or nearly enough for the entire NFL.
We're in the midst of an age of massive turnover, of quick dismissals and departures of football coaches who often happen to be the highest-paid public employees in their states. In an era of arms races and larger piles of TV money, the stakes are higher and coaches' leashes are shorter, the contradictions that go along with the job as evident as ever.
The job gets more unstable every season with quicker firings and shorter tenures, but schools remain committed to giving contract extensions in the name of promoting stability to recruits. Coaches make more than ever, but their players continue to make as little as ever. Nick Saban is worth every penny to Alabama, but the past few seasons showed that quarterback Cam Newton was worth much more to Auburn than coach Gene Chizik.
Given last year's excessive turnover, identifying hot-seat candidates for 2013 isn't easy. It's unlikely the amount of turnover will be nearly as deep. But three high-profile, highly-paid coaches come to mind -- Lane Kiffin, Mack Brown and Kirk Ferentz -- and the futures of USC, Texas and Iowa are about to get complicated.
USC: Lane Kiffin
If it feels like Lane Kiffin's been through an entire career already, remind yourself that he's only 38 years old. Rarely does someone ascend to a head coaching job before 40, let alone burn bridges with one NFL team and one SEC team while ascending to a third prominent job. Then again, nothing about Lane Kiffin, head football coach, is normal. From abrasive public comments about opposing coaches, to clashes with Al Davis to an abrupt exit from Tennessee to spats with Los Angeles reporters, there's always a circus surrounding him, distracting from the central question: Can he actually coach?
Yes, the Trojans went 10-2 in 2011, but that's the only evidence that Kiffin is an above-average, at best, head coach. He bombed in Oakland with the Raiders, only to get the Tennessee job. He went 7-6 in Knoxville before getting tapped to replace Pete Carroll. An offensive coordinator for only two years before getting the Raiders job at age 31, he spent one of those years coaching a roster that featured Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith, Ryan Kalil, Sam Baker and Winston Justice -- a group that sounds like a terrible NFL team but was part of one of the finest collections of college talent in recent history. It's hard to give Kiffin too much credit.
Kiffin has recruited well, though, and he's done it with scholarship restrictions, something that was oddly downplayed when so many built the Trojans up as the national title favorite last preseason. Not that they didn't have talent, of course, and not that a lack of depth is the sole reason they underperformed, but there's no denying that it was part of the problem, whether it was on the offense line or in the secondary.
The front-line talent is still there, though. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who replaces Kiffin's father, Monte, has plenty of options for his new 5-2 defense, especially in the pass rush; whether he has anyway to adequately play cornerback is the big question. On offense, USC has the nation's best receiver, Marqise Lee, but an experienced yet mediocre O-line and an unsettled quarterback situation.
It would be unwise to write off Kiffin as a head coach forever at only age 38, but just because he still could have a bright future doesn't mean that bright future is at USC. Expectations have been tempered drastically thanks to last year's disappointment, and after a decade of dominance, the Trojans suddenly look like the second best team in Los Angeles and a middle-of-the-pack team in the Pac-12, which is not a place the program feels comfortable occupying.
USC's schedule is manageable yet filled with potential landmines, the kind of slate that could produce 7-5 again or 10-2. The Trojans will surely open 4-0, but at Arizona State, at Notre Dame and at Oregon State is a recipe for at least two losses, and it's a hard to imagine this USC team beating a title-contending Stanford, even at the Coliseum. So, the optimistic scenario appears to be 9-3, pending an all-important game with UCLA that could carry enough weight to decide Kiffin's future. He has years of on-field mistakes. Now's the time to learn from them.
Texas: Mack Brown
When describing the Texas job, you're legally obligated to mention that the head coach of the Longhorns has to be as much of a politician as a football coach. It's a massive program, one that requires a CEO and a senator rolled into one, and Mack Brown has admirably played the role of politician. But now on the downside of perhaps the second most successful tenure in Texas football history, time is running out on the field.
Top-10 finishers in six out of nine seasons from 2001-09, the Longhorns have been directionless, unable to establish an identity since losing the BCS national title game to Alabama in 2009. Despite continuing to field a talented roster, Texas has gone 5-7, 8-5 and 9-4 in three seasons since that runner-up finish -- improvements each year, yes, but coupled with three losses to Oklahoma by an average of 29 points, there's been little but disappointment in Austin.
The most notable things Texas has done in three years are holding the fate of the Big 12 hostage, fighting with Texas A&M while the rivalry falls apart on the field and starting a TV network that nobody can actually watch. And in that time Brown has changed his offensive philosophies, now settling on a more up-tempo approach under new coordinator Major Applewhite after Bryan Harsin left to take the Arkansas State head coaching job.
It's a delicate situation. Putting a head coach who has won the national title game and finished second in another in the last eight seasons on the hot seat seems rather cruel, especially when the coach has made much more significant contributions to the program than a guy like Chizik did before getting fired two years after winning a title at Auburn. And making the situation even more delicate is that it wouldn't take much for Texas to finish anywhere from first to sixth in this year's Big 12, which features no clear favorite but is deep with top-20 caliber teams (Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, TCU, Baylor, Kansas State). The Longhorns boast what appears to be the conference's most talented roster, but that doesn't always equal results, as we saw with last year's loaded defense.
The 2013 season is clearly a crossroads. Brown has been at Texas for 15 seasons, a FBS head coach for 29. The talent and schedule make 11-1 possible. Or, 7-5 with another Oklahoma loss could be just as likely. And if the latter happens, the writing would be on the wall at the center of a program surrounded by rising players on the national landscape, from Texas A&M to Baylor to TCU to Texas Tech. The talent and prestige in the rest of the Lone Star State is on the rise. The Longhorns' resources may still be unmatched, but it doesn't mean they can afford to be complacent.
Iowa: Kirk Ferentz
The worst game of football I have ever witnessed in person was in 2004, when Iowa went to Penn State and won 6-4. It can accurately be described as the most Iowa game ever: If you were unaware of that game but were told a college football team had won 6-4, your first guess would be the Hawkeyes.
How do you define success at a school like Iowa? The Hawkeyes are in the Big Ten's middle tier, a team capable of 10-win seasons but also just as capable of unwatchable mediocrity; a team that can win the Orange Bowl in 2009 but go 4-8 with the nation's No. 111 scoring offense and a loss to Central Michigan four years later.
They do this while paying Ferentz more money than all but four other coaches in the country, according to USA TODAY Sports. It may be hard to believe that Iowa pays so much for its coach, but then again it's actually one of the most valuable football teams in the nation.
At the turn of the century, Ferentz engineered a remarkable turnaround after the successful Hayden Fry era bottomed out at its end, taking the Hawkeyes from 1-10 in his first year to 31 wins from 2002-04 with three straight No. 8 finishes in the AP poll and a Heisman runner-up in Brad Banks. It's never easy for middle-class teams to permanently become frontrunners, but Iowa pays Ferentz as if he's contending for the Rose Bowl every season.
While the gargantuan contract would seem to put more pressure on Ferentz to succeed -- obviously, no one wants to pay $3.8 million for four wins -- it's that contract that ultimately saves him. Eight months after winning the 2010 Orange Bowl, Iowa rewarded Ferentz with a contract extension through 2020, and with a long contract comes a sizeable buyout -- the kind of thing that Notre Dame is still paying for after inexplicably giving Charlie Weis a 10-year extension for losing to USC.
So, Iowa can't just cut ties with Ferentz and move on easily. But after 14 seasons, where is this program headed? Iowa feels a bit like Cal under Jeff Tedford (although Ferentz has had greater success), a program that got hot the first half of last decade with a highly praised coach who appeared to have the NFL in his future. But Tedford stayed put, Cal's momentum eventually dried up and the Bears let him go after last season. After Ferentz's worst season since 2000, it's fair to ask if Iowa's heading in the same direction. Last year's new offensive coordinator, Greg Davis, directed one of the worst offenses in America, and while Iowa has suffered from unbelievably bad luck with running back injuries, that's clearly not the only problem. Iowa's record may improve this year, but "improve" might mean 5-7, based on the returning talent. If that's the case, it's rather unacceptable for a guy paid better than almost everyone in the sport.
The problem is, Ferentz's enormous buyout proves that Iowa's future may be handcuffed by a brilliant yet anomalous year of success.
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Other coaches potentially on the hot seat in 2013:
Gary Pinkel, Missouri. Like Ferentz, Pinkel has been entrenched at his school for more than a decade, winning 90 games in 12 seasons -- an impressive resume at a school without much football tradition. Still, the Tigers were overmatched in their first SEC season, and we should remember that most of Pinkel's success came in the Big 12 North, the league's much weaker division after Nebraska's 2000s slide. It doesn't change what he accomplished, but Missouri may be ready for new blood as it tries to establish itself in the SEC East.
Mike London, Virginia. Entering his fourth season since replacing Al Groh, London's not exactly trending upward. From 4-8 to 8-5 in his first two seasons, the Cavaliers plummeted back to 4-8 in 2012, missing a bowl for the fifth time in seven seasons. To make matters worse, the quarterback position is a total mess for new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, as Michael Rocco transferred in December and Phillip Sims is off the team because of academics. The coaching staff is loaded with familiar names now, from former Colorado State coach Fairchild to former Boston College/N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien (associate head coach) to Jon Tenuta, who has been the defensive coordinator for almost every school in the country (Kansa State, Ohio State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and N.C. State). But their stay in Charlottesville might not last long if the Cavaliers can't show noticeable improvement after such a disappointing 2012.
Randy Edsall, Maryland. In two seasons marred by a rash of transfers and unfortunate injuries, the Terps have gone 6-18, rubbing salt into the wounds of coach-in-waiting James Franklin's departure for Vanderbilt. Maryland needs to get to six wins and go bowling. If not, it's hardly the direction the program would like to be moving in as it joins the Big Ten in 2014.
Ron English, Eastern Michigan. OK, we're reaching into the depths of FBS football here, but English was once a hot coaching name, only to get fired as Michigan's defensive coordinator when Rich Rodriguez cleaned house. He ended up in the barren football outpost of Ypsilanti, Mich., with the shadow of Ann Arbor just a few miles up the road. Stuck in place at one of the worst programs in the MAC, English is 10-38 in four seasons and has resorted to skydiving to raise money for new bathrooms.
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Next Men Up
Of course, a coach shouldn't be fired if a better option isn't available. Places like USC and Texas are prime jobs that can attract just about anyone, so all of the following may not apply for their potential openings. Still, here are a few current head coaches and coordinators in line for promotions:
James Franklin, Vanderbilt. Both Franklin and his northern twin Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern are capable of taking over bigger programs. But Fitzgerald has deep roots at Northwestern that may prevent him for jumping; Franklin played at East Stroudsburg. Franklin is being patient, but if he puts another eight-win season together in Nashville and the Texas and/or USC jobs comes open, it's easy to see him emerging as the No. 1 candidate, and those aren't jobs you turn down to stay at Vandy.
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State. The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator took the Bulldogs from 4-9 to 9-4 in his first season. Don't be surprised if they take down Boise State for the Mountain West title behind QB Derek Carr. If so, DeRuyter would be a logical hire for someone out west.
Pete Lembo, Ball State. The 43-year-old Lembo has paid his dues, winning everywhere he's coached from Lehigh and Elon at the FCS level to a 15-10 record in two seasons at lowly Ball State. In a parity-filled MAC, a conference title isn't out of the question, and the league has sent three coaches to bigger jobs (N.C. State, Purdue, Illinois) in the last two years.
Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette. Louisiana-Monroe was everyone's obscure Louisiana darling last year, but the rival Ragin' Cajuns took the head-to-head matchup and won nine games for the second straight season under Hudspeth. The 44-year-old previously went 66-21 in seven seasons at D-II North Alabama, and in two FBS seasons he's led Lafayette to its first two bowl appearances ever -- both New Orleans Bowl wins.
Chad Morris, offense, Clemson. Morris' Clemson (and Tulsa) offenses have been brilliant, and 2013 will likely be his best chance to rise to a head coaching job after quarterback Tajh Boyd's senior season, one in which Clemson is favored to win the ACC.
Doug Nussmeier (offense) and Kirby Smart (defense), Alabama. If you're going to hire a new coach, you might as well hire one who's learning from Nick Saban. Of course, it will take a lot to lure Smart, who makes more than a million dollars per year.
Bob Diaco, defense, Notre Dame. His stock may never be higher than last December, when his Irish defense was the catalyst for a 12-0 regular season before the BCS title game dismantling. Still, Alabama game aside, the 40-year-old Diaco's defense should be among the nation's best again in 2013. One debacle doesn't ruin everything he helped build.
Scott Frost, offense, Oregon. Kliff Kingsbury won't be the only head coaching hire to make you feel old. Texas Tech wisely hired the young Kingsbury -- a protégé of Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen and Kevin Sumlin -- to re-energize Lubbock after the contentious and short Tommy Tuberville era. Frost, the 38-year-old former Nebraska quarterback, is a few years older than Kingsbury, but the Chip Kelly protégé's name will be on the rise as he gets more involved in the Ducks' play-calling under Mark Helfrich after a promotion to offensive coordinator.
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