Back in August, many around the college football landscape secretly doubted whether the modified season would come to fruition. Although there were noticeable bumps along the way, the season was relatively successful and exceeded many expectations. At the end of the season when Alabama was crowned champion, the insane and obsessive practice of replacing football coaches began. Neither the backdrop of a global pandemic nor the shrinking university budgets quelled the insatiable thirst for better performances across the country.
I’m of the school of thought that there are three main reasons that Athletic Directors make changes with football programs: failure, delusion and politics. Sure, there’s overlap and other circumstances that can lead to dismissals, but firings usually fall into one of these three. Let’s first talk about those who failed and who replaced them.
Kevin Sumlin’s tenure at Arizona was an abject failure. Sumlin was released from his duties following a 0-5 season and a 70-7 defeat at the hands of in-state rival Arizona State. The Wildcats struggled throughout Sumlin’s three years in Tucson and won just nine games. Brought in with the task of fixing Sumlin’s mess is 43-year-old Jedd Fisch, most recently the quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots. Fisch, who has never been a head coach at any level, is definitely an outside-the-box hire, but it could work. Like the Wildcats of the SEC, I think basketball-crazed Arizona is happy with just fielding a competent football team.
Derek Mason and Lovie Smith are two more examples of failure. Mason went 27-55 and made just two bowl appearances in seven years at Vanderbilt. Being the Vanderbilt head coach is one of the most challenging jobs in the country, but Commodore fans expect a little more than what Mason was providing. Replacing Mason is Clark Lea, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. Lea, a 38-year-old Vanderbilt alum, served as a linebackers coach at Wake Forest in 2016 and 2017. Mason himself has jumped over to the SEC West, where he will be Auburn’s defensive coordinator.
Lovie Smith was released from his duties at Illinois following a 2-5 campaign in 2020. During Smith’s five years, The Fighting Illini went just 17-39. He’ll be replaced by Bret Bielema, who last worked in college as the head coach of Arkansas, but most recently served as the linebackers coach for the New York Giants. Bielema made three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances with Wisconsin before bolting to Arkansas, where he led the Razorbacks to three straight bowl games, a tall order in the SEC West. Bielema will not lead the Illini to the College Football Playoff anytime soon, but I like the hire. Now onto delusion.
Texas and Tennessee, two programs known for their unrealistic fan bases, made questionable coaching decisions. Texas fired Tom Herman, ponying up for a $15 million buyout. Herman won all four of his bowl games and finished ranked in the AP Top 25 in his final three seasons. Nonetheless, he was shown the door days after Texas’ 55-23 Alamo Bowl win over Colorado. Herman’s teams were good, occasionally great, but not close to the dominance expected of Texas teams of the past. Herman didn’t win a single Big 12 Championship and went just 1-3 against Oklahoma. Add to that a 2-6 record against TCU and Iowa State, programs Texas fans insist they should beat every time, and that’s how you get a coaching vacancy. Filling the job is Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian had well-publicized alcohol abuse problems as the headman at USC, and Texas won’t be a job without pressure. It’ll be interesting to see what Sarkisian can do at Texas; my hunch is he’ll struggle at times without the absurd talent he had at Alabama, and Texas will be searching for a new coach after three or four solid, but unspectacular years.
Similarly, high on the delusion scoreboard is Tennessee, who fired Jeremy Pruitt after a 3-7 season in 2020. Pruitt received a contract extension just four months before his dismissal amidst a bevy of NCAA recruiting violations. Pruitt went 16-19 overall and 0-6 against Tennessee’s three main rivals, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Tennessee expects to be competing with and beating those three dominant programs, but they haven’t for the past 20 years. It’s time to face the music, Peyton Manning isn’t walking into Knoxville anytime soon.
Auburn, another school that wins a lot but not enough, let go of Gus Malzahn. Malzahn went 68-35 in eight seasons at Auburn, including three huge wins over Alabama, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. Malzahn wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but Auburn’s always going to be the little brother as long as Nick Saban is in Tuscaloosa. Replacing Malzahn will be Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, who went 69-19 in seven seasons in Boise. Harsin was never able to bring Boise to the elite levels they were occupied under Chris Peterson, but his Broncos were consistently the cream of the crop in the Mountain West and even won the most forgettable BCS bowl in recent history, the 2014 Fiesta Bowl against Arizona. In my eyes, Harsin is a lateral move at best from Malzahn, a lateral move that will leave Auburn paying their former coach a $21 million buyout.
Finally, my favorite reason to fire a football coach: politics. Marshall’s Doc Holliday was informed in early January that his contract was not being renewed. Holliday went 85-54 in 11 seasons at Marshall, and the 2020 season was a good one for the Thundering Herd. Marshall finished 7-3 and rose to as high as No. 16 in the AP Poll, but it wasn’t good enough to save Holliday’s job. According to the West Virginia Gazette & Mail, West Virginia governor Jim Justice, a billionaire graduate of Marshall, has pressured Marshall’s President and Board of Trustees to remove Holliday since 2017.
Justice was reportedly unhappy that he was not allowed to watch the team practice in the summers. Holliday will be replaced with Alabama assistant Charles Huff, who has been lauded as a big part of the Crimson Tide’s recruiting success. Whether or not Holliday’s dismissal was a good decision remains to be seen, but it shows the overlap between state politics and college football. The coaching carousel never stops, so buckle up for another wild year of speculation.