How Top College Football Coaches on the Hot Seat Can Get off It by End of 2014
With league media days cranking up next week—starting with the SEC’s four-day gabpalooza in Hoover, Alabama—the chatter surrounding college football will soon reach a fever pitch.
Coaches and players will be paraded before hordes of news media to talk about their team, their 2014 season and what they’re expecting this fall.
For a few coaches, the questions will be more pointed than most. College football is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of business: According to Patrick Stevens of Syracuse.com, the median hire date for all 128 FBS head coaches is Dec. 8, 2011. A total of 76 FBS coaches have spent less than three seasons in their current positions. The pressure to win is intense, and a fair share of coaches are feeling the heat.
No reporter will come out and ask the question directly, but for some coaches, there’s the question we’re all thinking: “Will you be here next year?”
Here’s a look at some coaches on the hottest of seats and what they must do to secure their positions for 2015 and beyond.
Tim Beckman, Illinois
When Illinois fired Ron Zook, Tim Beckman was hired to guide Illinois football to respectability on and off the field. The Fighting Illini have been good citizens in the community, but they’ve looked like doormats on the field. In two seasons, Illinois is 6-18 under Beckman’s watch, with only one Big Ten win to its credit.
There have been questions about his job status following both seasons, with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas issuing a public vote of confidence following 2013 to WCIA-TV in Champaign, saying, “I think you have to give Tim and his staff high marks for what they're doing off the field, but what you do off the field and winning football games aren't mutually exclusive.”
A year ago, Illinois did improve to 4-8, but that wasn’t good enough, and Beckman knows it.
“The first year was terrible,” Beckman told the Chicago Sun-Times recently. “Last year was better. This year has to be better again.”
Is Beckman coaching for his job this season? Perhaps, he told the Sun-Times.
I want to be here. I love the University of Illinois. This has been a dream for me. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I really feel that this program can be considered one of the tops in the country consistently. Is it three years? Everything I’ve wanted, I’ve been able — and I want to continue — to do here. But I don’t make that decision. It could be [made] based on how many football games we win; that would make it easy. I’m going to try my hardest to make sure that these football players who are playing for us at the University of Illinois [have] a better experience than the year before.
Illinois returns 14 starters and will install Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt at quarterback, which should help an offense that was capable a year ago. But a defense that allowed 35.4 points per game must take a huge step forward. It does return eight starters, but it must put more pressure on opposing offenses—Illinois had just 15 sacks as a team a year ago.
To relieve pressure on himself, Beckman likely must get to six wins. With a soft nonconference slate that features Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State, and a Big Ten schedule that avoids Michigan and Michigan State, six wins and a bowl bid are entirely within Illinois’ grasp.
Kyle Flood, Rutgers
Former coach Greg Schiano took Rutgers from a laughingstock into college football respectability. In two years, Kyle Flood has erased that momentum almost entirely. The Scarlet Knights are 15-11 under Flood’s watch, including last fall’s 6-7 mark, losing six of their final eight games following a 4-1 start.
Flood’s 2014 recruiting class also fell apart late, with numerous defections.
Last fall, Rutgers set program-worsts for total yards allowed and passing yards allowed, finishing No. 120 nationally in pass defense. Only one starter returns in the secondary (senior cornerback Lorenzo Waters), and maybe that’s a good thing.
Nine starters return on offense, including the entire starting offensive line from last fall. Senior Gary Nova, who was benched late last season, must show more consistency for new offensive coordinator and former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen.
Oh, and did we mention Rutgers is joining the Big Ten this fall? Rutgers opens with a game in Seattle against Washington State and must travel to Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Maryland. The Knights do host Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin, but the schedule is a significant upgrade from the AAC.
Rutgers has the talent to be a mid-pack Big Ten team. At the very least, Flood and Co. can’t afford to take another step back this season. A bowl game would be a very reasonable goal.
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia
Two years ago, Dana Holgorsen probably could have run for governor of West Virginia, and won. The Mountaineers’ 70-33 Orange Bowl mashing of Clemson was an all-time blowout, setting a record for most points scored in a BCS bowl game and largest margin of victory in a BCS bowl game.
Since then, Clemson is 22-4. West Virginia is 11-14 with records of 7-6 and 4-8, and Holgorsen is certainly feeling the heat.
Following the 2013 season, WVU athletic director Oliver Luck issued a statement backing Holgorsen.
We have high expectations at West Virginia University for success on and off the field and as Coach Holgorsen has acknowledged to me, we are not meeting those expectations on the field. … I strongly believe in our coaching staff, including the work that our strength and conditioning staff is doing. In my opinion, continuity is the key ingredient that will bring our football program back to the high level that Mountaineer fans expect.
In other words, this season is very important for Holgorsen’s future in Morgantown.
The defense must improve. A year ago, West Virginia was No. 99 nationally in scoring defense (allowing 33.3 PPG) and No. 101 in total defense (yielding 455 YPG). New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson believes the Mountaineers secondary, led by junior safety Karl Joseph, will be improved.
The offense must also become more efficient. West Virginia averaged 411 yards per game last fall but was No. 113 in third-down conversions. Former Florida State transfer Clint Trickett must display more consistency.
WVU’s schedule isn’t easy. The Mountaineers open with Alabama, travel to Maryland and host Oklahoma in the first month alone. They also travel to Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. If WVU can get bowl-eligible, it could save Holgorsen’s job. But the Mountaineers must show progress.
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Fun fact: Under Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech is 1-5 in bowl games. The popular theory is that defenses, with a month to prepare for the flexbone option, find it easy to shut down. When Tech’s offense is more familiar, it becomes less successful.
Perhaps the same could be said for Johnson’s tenure on the Flats. In Johnson’s first two seasons at Tech, the Yellow Jackets were 20-7 with an ACC title (which was later vacated due to NCAA sanctions).
Since then, Tech is 28-25 and only 19-16 in ACC play, winning six, eight, seven and seven games, respectively.
This fall, Johnson will break in a new quarterback in sophomore Justin Thomas. This was unexpected: Junior Vad Lee transferred to James Madison shortly after the 2013 season ended, telling ESPN that the “triple-option was never really my thing.”
Following the season, a report surfaced that Johnson wasn’t happy at Tech and wanted to be bought out by school officials, which he flatly denied.
Tech returns 11 starters but must replace three starting offensive linemen and nurture replacements for All-American defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu and playmaking safety Jemea Thomas.
The ACC Coastal Division is wide-open. Tech must travel to Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Georgia, but it hosts Clemson, Miami and Duke. A division title is well within Johnson’s grasp. At the very least, he must show new energy with a new group of players, something that wasn’t evident a year ago.
Mike London, Virginia
Three years ago, Virginia had what looked like a breakthrough season under Mike London. The Cavaliers finished 8-5 with a Chick-fil-A Bowl trip, and the future looked bright. Since then, the Hoos have moved steadily backward. Over the last two seasons, Virginia is 6-18, including a 2-10 record last fall.
UVA didn’t beat an FBS team after a 19-16 win over BYU in its opener and was all-around bad, averaging 19.8 points per game—No. 109 nationally—and giving up 33.3 points per game—No. 98 nationally. Only three coaches remain from London’s 2012 assistant coaching roster.
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage gave London the dreaded vote of confidence last November, according to the Daily Press.
So I don't look at it just in terms of what happens in the game, but what is it that's happening on the practice field? What is it that's happening in the meeting room? What is it that's happening in the video/film sessions? I firmly believe that Mike London is going to be successful here at the University of Virginia.
UVA does return 15 starters from that team, and it recruited well, signing a pair of 5-star prospects in defensive tackle Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding. London also made a change at quarterback, placing big-armed sophomore Greyson Lambert (voted as one of four captains for 2014) ahead of returning junior incumbent David Watford.
The offense suffered a blow when senior tight end Jake McGee transferred to Florida after finishing his degree at UVA. He was the Cavs’ leading receiver a year ago with 43 catches for 395 yards.
London will have to show significant improvement this fall to keep his job, and he probably needs to get UVA bowl-eligible. That won’t be easy. UVA opens up with UCLA and travels to BYU, and it also has Louisville, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech on the slate. Chances are, there’ll be an opening in Charlottesville come January.
Will Muschamp, Florida
Two years ago, Florida was 11-2 and made the Sugar Bowl. Gator fans weren’t necessarily thrilled with their team’s style following the Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer eras, but 11 wins has a way of salving wounds.
Last fall, an injury-riddled Gator team suffered through a miserable year. Florida lost 15 players to season-ending injuries last fall, and 10 of them were starters. The Gators finished with a 4-8 record, the program’s first losing mark since 1979.
Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel suffered a broken leg in the third game against Tennessee, ending his season in late September. His replacements, freshman Skyler Mornhinweg and junior Tyler Murphy were very ineffective. The Gators finished No. 113 nationally in total offense (316.7 YPG), No. 112 nationally in scoring offense (18.8 PPG) and No. 107 in passing offense (170.9 YPG).
The nadir was a home loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern in which the Eagles, a triple-option team, won despite piling up zero passing yards.
Florida’s offense needs to catch up with its defense. Muschamp has a defensive background, and it showed. Last fall, the Gators were eighth nationally in total defense (314.3 YPG) and 15th in scoring defense (21.1 PPG).
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was shown the door and replaced by Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who helmed a system that brought the Blue Devils their first ACC Coastal Division title, a 10-win season and a Chick-fil-A Bowl berth. The Blue Devils averaged 426.1 yards per game (No. 47 nationally) and 32.8 points per game (No. 41 nationally).
Roper’s system has spread elements and is fast-paced, two things that the Gators desperately need to attract disenchanted fans back to the program. With a healthy Driskel, tailback Matt Jones and receiver Quinton Dunbar leading a solid pass-catching group that will add tight end Jake McGee (Virginia’s leading receiver a year ago), Florida’s offense figures to be improved.
Will it be good enough to save Muschamp’s job? Florida has to travel to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida State and has permanent SEC West foe LSU on the slate (LSU visits the Swamp). Florida also hosts South Carolina and Missouri and will face off with Georgia in its annual neutral-site game in Jacksonville.
To feel secure, Muschamp needs to reverse last season’s record, at the very least. He’ll need a much bigger contribution from Roper and the revamped offense.
Charlie Weis, Kansas
In two years at Kansas, Charlie Weis has beaten the following teams: Louisiana Tech, South Dakota, South Dakota State and West Virginia. The Jayhawks are 4-20 under his watch, and while football isn’t Kansas’ No. 1 sport by any means, it’s fair to assume that Weis is being watched more closely as he enters his third season in Lawrence.
“The important thing is that we win at least six games, so we can go to a bowl. Then we build from there,” Weis told the Wichita Eagle recently.
The Jayhawks averaged just 15.3 points per game last fall, No. 118 nationally, and Weis hopes that the third quarterback in as many years is the charm. He installed dual-threat quarterback Montell Cozart as the starter, and he’ll need to spark the offense. Cozart has excellent targets in senior Tony Pierson, the Jayhawks’ best receiver, and Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell.
Weis took over a huge rebuilding project, and getting to a bowl game isn’t a necessity. Improvement is. The schedule doesn’t help. Kansas will host Texas and Oklahoma State, but it travels to Baylor, Duke, Oklahoma and Kansas State. Four wins would be a huge improvement.