Firing coaches midseason is the new rage, but should it be?
Monday marked the 2-year anniversary of when Arkansas fired Chad Morris amidst a disastrous Year 2 in Fayetteville. That stunning, but inevitable move was less than a week removed from Willie Taggart getting the hook at Florida State. Significant was the fact that neither coach made it a full 2 seasons before getting fired from Power 5 jobs. Excluding off-the-field reasons for firing a coach, that had only happened once since 1990 (Keith Gilbertson was fired after 20 games at Washington).
But also significant was when that happened — early November. It didn’t matter that several games were still on the schedule, including rivalry games. Eight-figure buyouts? Sure. Pay ’em. Be done with it. It didn’t matter that those vacancies wouldn’t be filled for another month, and that neither athletic director got their first choice to fill the job.
Two years later, firing a coach with several games left on the schedule is the new norm. How much of that is the Early Signing Period? Probably a good amount (more on that in a bit).
Look at all the FBS programs who fired their head coach for on-field issues during the 2021 season (excluding Washington State with Nick Rolovich, who was fired for not complying with a vaccine mandate):
The fact that an FBS head coach was already fired and then hired for another job tells you everything you need to know. Teams are getting out ahead of this in ways that we’ve never seen before.
That even includes with assistants. This week, Florida and Nebraska both announced that they fired multiple assistants amidst disappointing seasons. In a way, it makes sense. Why send those assistants on the road to recruit another month if they were just going to get canned at season’s end? Contrary to his press conference flub about recruiting “in season,” Dan Mullen does indeed care about that.
Of course, we don’t know that Mullen will be back for another year. Nebraska, meanwhile, came out with an official statement that announced Frost would be back next year. Again, that happened in early November, not after another loss to Iowa to close the regular season.
— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers) November 8, 2021
Fail to announce something like that and whether the coach returns or not, you face uncertainty in the recruiting world for another month or so.
This is reality. The question is if reality is actually positive for the sport, or if it’s hurting it.
No 2 situations are exactly the same. For example, no Power 5 team is doing what LSU is. That is, employing an actual lame-duck head coach. And to Scott Woodward’s credit, the results have been about as good as he could’ve hoped. LSU beat Florida as a 2-score underdog and Orgeron nearly upset Alabama in Tuscaloosa as a 4-touchdown underdog. On top of that, the Tigers have the No. 12 class in the 247sports team rankings. Only 1 recruit dropped his commitment after Woodward made the move in October.
Whoever takes that LSU job is potentially going to inherit a top-10 recruiting class and even in the likely event that there’s roster turnover in this new age of the transfer portal, Orgeron’s successor will have one of the most talented rosters in the SEC in Year 1.
Again, that’s the ideal scenario. What about USC? The Trojans lost 3 commitments during the season and rank No. 52 in the 247sports composite rankings. In that time, the Trojans got a commitment from 1 non-punter recruit. That’s it. Nearly 2 months after firing Helton, USC is still without its next head coach, which isn’t necessarily a surprise. It wasn’t like Luke Fickell or James Franklin were going to leave their team midseason to join USC in late September.
It’s a lost season in LaLa Land, too. The Trojans are 4-5 and in jeopardy of missing a bowl game after starting as a top-15 team. Would that have been different had Helton been fired in mid-November? We don’t know, but it probably wouldn’t have been any worse than what 2021 turned into for USC.
Good luck telling those players that their season matters. It’s a good thing there’s a new incentive with Name, Image and Likeness. It wouldn’t be surprising if that played a part in keeping players motivated after their administration essentially told them that this was a gap year.
It’s a little bit different to fire a coach after Week 2 than to make wholesale assistant changes like Nebraska. Scott Frost fired 4 offensive assistants and agreed to a new restructured deal just 2 days after the Huskers lost their 7th game, dooming their bowl hopes. There are 2 games left on the schedule. Clearly, that move was all about 2022 because the season is essentially over.
Is that also a major bummer to a Nebraska defense that was already asked to do the heavy lifting throughout 2021? Absolutely. That’s not an easy thing for a coaching staff to communicate to a roster with guys who still want to compete. They’re the ones dealing with the present and trying to put out the best film possible to get to the next level. Now, they’ll be on the field longer and perhaps get knocked in their evaluation because the offense can’t put a drive together to give them a break.
And at Florida, where players like Dameon Pierce are now being tasked with pushing through the mid-season firing of assistants who have been in Gainesville for 4 years, you’re reminded that there’s a human element to this.
#Gators RB Dameon Pierce on if firing of Hevesy and Grantham has been difficult for players: “Of course, it’s like losing a best friend.”
— Graham Hall (@GrahamHall_) November 9, 2021
But it’s all about the business. Play better and you don’t have to deal with coaches getting fired, many would say.
It makes sense that it unfolded this way. An unintended byproduct of the Early Signing Period, which began in 2017, was starting the coaching carousel earlier than ever. Perhaps it’s good that athletic directors adjusted. Think about the alternative. That is, firing coaches in mid-December. Or even worse … waiting until after bowl season. You’d have recruits begging to get out of their National Letters of Intent, and understandably so. At least with these early firings, there’s more transparency about a coach’s job security.
(We can sit here and say “commit to a program, not a coach” until we’re blue in the face, but that’s idealistic. If I’m a pocket passer and the program I’m committed to hires a triple-option coach, I’d be crazy not to reconsider my options.)
That’s not to say that every FBS athletic director is getting out ahead of the firing process. Surely we’ll see more programs that go with the more traditional timeline and wait until after the regular-season finale to fire their head coach. Auburn did that last year with Gus Malzahn. Shoot, Tennessee waited until mid-January to fire Jeremy Pruitt because it wanted to do so with cause to avoid paying that $12.6 million buyout. Perhaps someone else will try to get creative like that this year, too.
But it’s stunning to see that of the 130 FBS head coaches who began the season, 9 are out of a job in the second week of November. That’s 7%. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that number will increase in the coming years. Maybe we’ll look back at 7% like we did with Taggart and Morris, which was at the forefront of this new coach firing calendar. It’s also possible that we could see some pushback if it doesn’t necessarily yield positive results.
Positive results would be extra vetting leading to home-run hires. Positive results would also be keeping recruiting classes afloat and having limited names entered into the transfer portal.
Who knows how realistic that is. It’s too early to tell if it’s actually working.
All we can tell is that in the early stages of the Early Signing Period, firing season now coincides with the start of fall.