by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It's a wonder that college football coaches don't decide to take up less-risky occupations. Like cliff diving. Or crocodile wrestling. After all, as far as job security goes, sometimes we're not sure which is safer.

Indeed, it never cools off on the college football "hot seat" these days, when every coach is on one of varying degrees or another. But we suppose that's to be expected, because the industry's risk/reward equation is akin those guys who put out oil rig fires in the Gulf, or in the North Atlantic. You know, do the job, and we'll pay you well. Mess up, and, well, you're dead. That rule might also start applying to school administrators who strike poorly-conceived deals in these tighter fiscal times, but it has done nothing to relieve the pressure on the coaches to produce. Especially at higher-profile locales where they’re still paying “funny money” despite the current economic crunch.

It’s also a good idea for handicappers to be aware of which coaches are in the most trouble when the season commences. With the average number of coaching changes in the low 20s over the past six years, there are inevitably going to be situations that deteriorate into a succession of predictable defeats before the season concludes. And many of those trouble spots can be identified before the campaign, as inevitably some of them involve coaches at the end of their ropes.

We’ve seen it many times over the years, as the pattern repeats on an annual basis. Teams that underachieve with coaches in trouble are apt to descend at a more rapid clip than others, especially when the handwriting appears on the wall for an under-fire coach and staff. When it appears inevitable that a change is forthcoming, wheels tend to fall off more quickly, as the staff becomes more distracted as it begins to prepare looking for new work, and players begin to wonder how they’ll fit, if they’ll fit at all, into a new regime. It would also be a surprise if we don’t see a handful of “hot seat” coaches walking the plank before the 2011 season concludes, as in recent years we’ve been apt to see numerous college mentors dismissed during the course of the season when the team jumps the rails.

Before consigning every coach in trouble to the dustbin, however, remember the handful of examples of hot seat coaches that forge unlikely turnarounds and save their jobs at the last moment. It might surprise several folks that a highly-successful mentor such as Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer was once on a very hot seat in Blacksburg, effectively working under a “win or else” ultimatum in 1993. Beamer, however, managed to turn around the Hokies that season when beginning a string of bowl appearances that continues to this day (18 and counting). For every Beamer who survives and eventually flourishes from the hot seat, however, there are usually dozens who don’t last more than a year.

With that in mind, following is an early look at coaches sitting on the hottest seats when the 2011 season commences in September. But remember, almost any coach can find themselves on this list if things begin to go pear-shaped for their teams in the fall.

Mark Richt, Georgia...Richt has won plenty over the past decade in Athens, but the Bulldogs have been losing traction the past few seasons and slipped all of the way under .500 last fall (6-7), capped by a loss to Conference USA rep UCF in the Liberty Bowl. But discontent in Bulldog Nation began to fester as far back as 2008, when a team featuring Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno fell fall short of contending for national honors as predicted by many, and the descent has been rapid since. A mere two wins over rival Florida hasn’t helped Richt, either. With the SEC East in a down phase, Richt has a realistic chance to re-establish himself this season with a team that might be favored to win that half of the league. A second straight sub-.500 finish would not be tolerated, however, and SEC sources tell us another minor bowl appearance such as the Liberty probably won’t be acceptable, either.

Luke Fickell, Ohio State...This situation goes without saying, as Fickell’s appointment is an interim one after Jim Tressel’s abrupt resignation on Memorial Day. Even if the Buckeyes succeed for Fickell, many Big Ten sources suspect that OSU will be likely to disassemble the Tressel staff (of which Fickell, promoted from co-defensive coordinator, was a part) and look elsewhere for leadership. Already, names such as Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, Bo Pelini, and Mark Dantonio have been mentioned. Regardless, with numerous player suspensions and the fallout from “Tressel-gate” likely to continue, it will be a turbulent summer and fall in Columbus. Many also suggest to not read too much into the recent vote of confidence given by school prexy Gordon Gee to embattled AD Gene Smith, as both could still be in the line of fire before the summer is complete.

Rick Neuheisel, UCLA...In Neuheisel’s defense, he’s coached in some bad luck the past three years since returning “home” to Westwood, where he was QB of a colorful UCLA Rose Bowl team once upon a time, in 1983. Cluster injuries, especially at QB, have not helped, but the product on the field has been subpar, indicated by Rick’s 15-22 mark that includes a pair of 4-8 finishes, the last of which a year ago prompting some Bruin honks to demand a change. The offense, supposedly an area of expertise for Neuheisel, has been a mess since his arrival, and Rick’s Bruins have achieved less than predecessor Karl Dorrell’s teams did in their first three years between 2003-05. Neuheisel also set himself up for trouble when arriving with lots of bravado in 2008 and claiming that the “college football monopoly was over” in Los Angeles as it related to crosstown Southern Cal’s recent domination. But that hasn’t changed, with Neuheisel 0-3 against the Trojans, and the Bruins a far cry from glory days that now seem almost ancient history. Word from Pac-12 scouts is that AD Dan Guerrero might also be under the gun and could sink or swim in his job based upon what Neuheisel, who threatens to be his second straight blown football hire after Dorrell’s failed tenure, does this fall.

Mike Locksley, New Mexico...Under most circumstances, Locksley would have been dismissed halfway through his first season of 2009, having already been charged in a sex discrimination suit against Lobo staffer Sylvia Lopez and suspended for the 2009 UNLV game after punching assistant coach J.B. Gerald. Not to mention the fact his first two Lobo teams have been unspeakably bad, with a 1-11 mark each season, making predecessor Rocky Long’s teams almost look Boise State-like in comparison. Mountain West sources say that Locksley could probably have been dismissed in ‘09 for cause and spared UNM from a buyout, but the man who hired him, AD Paul Krebs, decided to stick with Locksley, only to be rewarded by another 1-11 in 2010. Buyout issues are all that saved Locksley a year ago, and with that amount decreasing after this season, Locksley has no more contract safety net to save him. Some Lobo backers are openly campaigning for Mike Leach to succeed Locksley, but Leach would not come cheaply, and the Lobo athletic department is not exactly rolling with cash and a plethora of deep-pocketed benefactors these days.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson...Swinney was a default hire from the outset in Death Valley, promoted as he was in the middle of the 2008 season after Tommy Bowden’s tenure unraveled. ACC sources report a cash crunch at the school and within the IPTAY support group limited the scope of securing a higher-profile permanent replacement for Bowden, and Swinney kept the gig, partly because he was willing to work for less than other interested candidates. Dabo has done just well enough to stay on the Tiger job and has made it into a bowl game each of the past three years, but last season it merely was another “L” in a 6-7 campaign that ended with a loss to South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. They expect more in Death Valley, and the fact that Rich Rodriguez, who coordinated the Tiger offenses in the exciting early years of the Bowden regime, is available once more (though admittedly damaged goods these days after the Michigan fiasco) has the IPTAY bunch taking note...and seeking more donations.

Mack Brown, Texas...Say it ain’t so! Can Brown really be in trouble at Austin, just two years removed from a BCS title game appearance? Maybe, especially if the Horns again sink beneath .500 as they did a year ago when finishing an unsightly 5-7, with humbling home losses to the likes of UCLA, Iowa State, and Baylor. Supposed coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp also bailed out after 2010 to take the job at Florida, so the apparent line of succession has been interrupted, but that will probably not provide Brown any cover if he slips beneath .500 again. And judging from how mediocre the Horns looked last season, a quick bounce back is no guarantee. A second straight subpar season is not out of the question, and remember, immediate predecessors Fred Akers, David McWilliams, and John Mackovic were all dismissed at Texas for less.

Dennis Erickson, Arizona State...The Sun Devils were one of the hard-luck teams of 2010, losing 4 games by 4 points or fewer, but the fact is that ASU hasn’t been to a bowl or finished above .500 since Erickson’s first year in the desert back in 2007. Plenty of empty seats at Sun Devil Stadium prompted lots of speculation about Erickson surviving beyond last season, but he’s been given one more chance (partially, according to Pac-12 sources, due to financial considerations) to forge a turnaround. The good news is that ASU is regarded as a favorite in the new Pac-12 South, with a defense considered perhaps the best in the conference. They’re also going to be wearing new uniforms this fall in Tempe; anything to change recent luck will surely be welcomed by Erickson, who assuredly cannot survive another non-winning or bowl-less campaign.

Paul Wulff, Washington State...Wulff was considered a longshot to last beyond the 2010 campaign, when a 2-10 mark seemed to seal his fate, especially with new AD Bill Moos (a former Coug player) in the saddle. Moos, however, saw enough progress in last year’s Wazzu to give Wulff (also a former WSU player) another chance in 2011. There’s nowhere to go but up after winning just five games in three seasons, but the presence of touted jr. QB Jeff Tuel offers some hope for this fall, and efforts were generally far more competitive in 2010 than in 2009 or 2008. Moos also decided to cut Wulff a bit of slack, acknowledging that his coach has dealt with an uncommon rash of injuries and had inherited a carcass of a program from predecessor Bill Doba, under whom the product had deteriorated dramatically in the Palouse. Anything other than taking a couple of steps forward this season, however, and Wulff is unlikely to last into 2012.

Joe Paterno, Penn State...Shades, on the hot seat? Not in a traditional sense, as school brass is never likely to overtly force Paterno out the door. But if the Nittany Lions slip this fall, the pressure is going to begin mounting for the school to at least put a successor plan in place, something Paterno has been reluctant to embrace. Big Ten sources suggest the only situation that might placate Paterno is by naming son and assistant coach Jay as the coach-in-waiting, but administrators are unlikely to accommodate such a request, and would be more likely to name d.c. Tom Bradley as the man if they could get the elder Paterno’s blessing. Comparisons to Florida State, and the apparent rebirth of the Seminole program under Jimbo Fisher after FSU’s own awkward removal of the iconic Bobby Bowden, could put more pressure on the school and Paterno. Informed observers suggest that it will take some bold administrator(s) to finally stand up to Paterno, who is entitled to outline the details of his departure, but not to stonewall the process indefinitely. Otherwise, we suggest this apparent stalemate could turn uglier than Bowden’s forced departure in Tallahassee.

Danny Hope, Purdue...Although it’s only the third year of Hope’s regime, and his Boilermakers have risen up with spunky efforts on occasion over the past two seasons (including a memorable upset over Ohio State in 2009), indicators are not encouraging in West Lafayette. No bowls, a 9-15 overall mark, home defeats vs. MAC reps Northern Illinois and Toledo, six straight losses to end 2010, and, worst of all, sluggish ticket sales do not constitute the sort of trendline that suggests a coach is long for his job. As a starting point, keeping QBs Rob Henry and Robert Marve healthy would certainly help matters, but the feeling in Big 10 country is that the program is regressing. Hope might not even have to get to a bowl to last into 2012, but progress needs to be seen, and another 4-win (or less) season puts him into the soup.

Bob Toledo, Tulane...Many C-USA observers were surprised that Toledo survived last year’s 4-8 mark, even though it was his best in four years on the job. Although the Green Wave demonstrated slight progress a year ago, regional sources suggest that financial considerations played a large part in keeping Toledo in the fold. But the former UCLA coach can’t be feeling too comfy, because it won’t cost as much to move him out after this season, and sources say that the Wave probably has to at least finish at or near .500 for Toledo to be granted another stay of execution.

Houston Nutt, Ole Miss...Never mind that Nutt won 9 games and Cotton Bowls in each of his first two years with the Rebels. Nutt was considered to have inherited a talented nucleus of players in 2008 from predecessor and recruiting whiz Ed Orgeron, before the 2009 team was considered a bit of an underachiever, and last year’s slip to 4-8. Which, coupled with the resurgence of in-state rival Mississippi State, has suddenly turned up the heat in Oxford. Regional sources report that Nutt, loyal to a fault, begrudgingly made a couple of staff changes at the suggestion (insistence?) of AD Pete Boone, but decreasing SEC win totals in the past three years have got the war drums beating in The Grove.

Ron Zook, Illinois...Zook was considered squarely on the barbeque entering last season, before the Illini emerged as a minor surprise and advanced to the Texas Bowl, where they buried Baylor. The upgrade was considered all the more impressive because of the influx of new assistants on Zook’s 2010 staff, including o.c. Paul Petrino, considered by some to being groomed as Zook’s eventual replacement. Still, Illinois was only 6-6 in the regular season, and Zook has yet to put two winning campaigns together in six seasons at Champaign-Urbana. Although 2010 was better than expected, it wasn’t enough to keep Zook off the hot seat list indefinitely.

Lane Kiffin, Southern Cal...Don’t for a second believe that many Trojans are pleased with the selection of Kiffin, whose hiring in January of 2010 was a ham-handed move by haughty school power brokers who believed Kiffin could replicate the success of one-time mentor Pete Carroll, who skedaddled to the Seattle Seahawks before the NCAA enforcers showed up with pistols drawn at Heritage Hall. But Pac-12 sources suggest that many in the Trojan family now believe Kiffin’s hire, in the wake of a trail of violations in his lone season at Tennessee, hardly helped the perception of the SC program when penalties were finally announced last year in connection to the Reggie Bush fiasco. And Kiffin, who took burning bridges to art form in departures from previous jobs with the NFL Raiders and the Vols, has hardly been embraced by old-line Cardinal & Gold backers who have had enough experience dealing with opportunists in the past. Saddled by the early stages of probation, SC, even with a very favorable schedule, slipped to 8-5 a year ago, a far cry from the standards set during the Carroll era. Moreover, Kiffin’s papa Monte, brought along as the defensive coordinator, had more than a little trouble adjusting in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12). Insiders have told us there is also no way that new AD Pat Haden would have even considered Kiffin as a head coaching candidate had he been on the job when the hire was made, and the fact Haden has assigned old chum and assistant AD J.K. McKay to “babysit” Kiffin and the football program suggests that it might not take much for Haden to pull the rug from underneath Lane. Although Kiffin fared well in recent recruiting, a subpar Trojan performance in 2011, considered very possible by regional sources, could get the ball rolling quickly against Kiffin, whom many are convinced is not the proper fit to lead the Trojans through their turbulent probationary period.

Mike Price, UTEP...Any argument against the bowl games should use last year's UTEP as Example A, as the Miners qualified for last year's New Mexico Bowl almost by default. Five of the Miners' six wins a year ago came against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, New Mexico State, Memphis, New Mexico, and Rice, and only an upset over sleepwalking SMU got UTEP bowl eligible and prevented a 6-game losing streak to close the season. Then, the Miners were cannon fodder for BYU in the bowl game. Upon inspection, that performance hardly indicated any progress being made at the Sun Bowl. Although, given UTEP's less-than-modest gridiron history, we doubt the fans are in any rush to push out Price, under whom the program peaked early in his now 8-season tenure but has still led the Miners to an unprecedented three bowls (though just one in the last five years). A subpar 2011 could foretell the 65-year-old Price making the decision on his own.

Steve Fairchild, Colorado State...This looked to be a homerun hire a couple of years ago when Ram alum and Sonny Lubick disciple Fairchild steered his first CSU team in 2008 to an unexpected 7-6 mark and a New Mexico Bowl win over Fresno State. Since then, however, it has all gone pear-shaped in Fort Collins, with back-to-back 3-9 seasons. Now Fairchild is faced with the prospects of getting the Rams back (or at least close) to a bowl bid before he can begin to feel comfy about returning for 2012.

Neil Callaway, UAB...Another coach who has likely been helped by the downturn in the economy, Callaway (15-33 in four years with the Blazers) was helped after last season’s 4-8 mark by the fact UAB was not in a position to be able to afford a buyout of his contract. Since 2007, Callaway’s Blazers have stayed fairly competitive, but even with reduced expectations at UAB, a fifth straight losing season would be hard to overcome.

Jeff Tedford, Cal...Tedford, in trouble? Perhaps, as the Golden Bear program has been in a slow but unmistakable decline since peaking early in Tedford’s tenure, back in 2004. Last year, Cal sunk beneath .500 at 5-7 and missed a bowl invitation for the first time since Tedford’s initial season at Berkeley back in 2002. He has resisted various offers (including some from the NFL) to move in recent years, and has been a key element in facility improvements (including a remodel of venerable Memorial Stadium, which is forcing the Bears to play home games across the bay at Candlestick Park and the Giants’ AT&T Park this season), but the feeling among many Pac-12 observers is that the program has gone a bit stale and that Tedford has run his course at Cal, with all parties perhaps finding benefit from a change after this season. Tedford also has not been able to insulate himself by dominating rival Stanford lately, as the resurgence down in Palo Alto has also not sat well with Golden Bear backers, a factor not to be dismissed in the Bay Area.

As always, stay tuned...

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