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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...CHECKING THE COLLEGE HOT SEAT!

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There was once a time when college administrators went about pushing out coaches with a bit of subtlety. Hard as it is to believe, Notre Dame, of all places, actually once went through a period when it was attempting to de-emphasize football in the late 1940s, fearing the school was getting too much of a reputation as a gridiron factory. But firing uber-successful HC Frank Leahy, whose success approached that of his coach, Knute Rockne, would have invited public relations disaster. Instead, the school simply decided to make it tougher for Leahy to succeed, as a win-at-all-costs look was not going to be prioritized any longer by the administration...even if the support base didn't agree..

First, scholarships were cut down from 33 to 18 in the late 1940s, though by 1950, with the Korean War underway and freshmen briefly becoming eligible again as a byproduct, scholarships were reluctantly increased. But, after being named as the school’s president in 1952, Father Theodore Hesburgh, who would reportedly chafe when visiting photographers would insist he hold a fiootball for photo sessions,  began to turn the screws even tighter on Leahy. Sources have long indicated to us that one of Hesburgh’s first moves was to take away a parking concession at Notre Dame Stadium that was a significant part of Leahy’s compensation. Hesburgh would also reinstate schoalrship cuts, eliminate the phys ed major, implement more-rigid academic standards and other related moves to further undercut his coach, hoping to force Leahy out without firing him.

The ploy worked; Leahy’s health began to suffer, even collapsing in the locker room at halftime of the 1953 Georgia Tech game. Leahy’s doctors did not object when the coach retired abruptly in January of 1954, after yet another unbeaten season (9-0-1) in 1953 featuring Heisman winner Johnny Lattner. Leahy would later admit that policy decisions from the administration, making it harder to sustain success, were more of a reason than any health concerns for his resignation with two years still remaining on his contract.

Notre Dame began a decade-long football eclipse afterward, though in retrospect Terry Brennan, just 25 when hired to succeed Leahy, earned begrudging credit from most Domers under the circumstances, and certainly fared far better in his five-year tenure than successor Joe Kuharich. (Brennan, by the way, just passed away on September 7 at 93 years of age). Not until AD Moose Krause hired Ara Parseghian from Northwestern after the ‘63 season, however, did the Fighting Irish start to truly recover on the gridiron.

Fast forward to 2021, and school administrators are not resorting to the sort of tactics that Father Hesburgh did when he wanted to move out Leahy, in s-l-o-w fashion. Already this season, seven coaches (Georgia Southern’s Chad Lunsford, USC’s Clay Helton, UConn’s Randy Edsall, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich, Texas Tech’s Matt Wells, and TCU’s Gary Patterson) had been forced out for one reason or another by the start of November.

No threats of scholarship cuts or removals of soft majors for players; with big boosters calling many of the shots these days, changes can happen quickly. Even a political hot potato became involved this season with the Rolovch ouster.  Navigating the buyout language has become an art form for agents and lawyers who are often busy with such matters before a football season is complete.

Thus, the college “hot seat” is a volatile place these days, as it often is this time of the year. What we often like to do about now on the calendar is take a last look at the “hot seat list” before the final round of pink slips are inevitably handed out once the season concludes. Though in the cases of the likes of Helton, Wells and the others mentioned above, the schools didn’t wait until the end of the campaign (a dynamic that used to be much more prevalent in the pro ranks, rather than college, but not any longer).

Handicapping-wise, this has often proven a valuable exercise, because many sides with coaches on their way out can deteriorate significantly as their seasons come to a close. Occasionally, we also see teams rallying around a well-liked but embattled coach (as what might be happening at Miami-Fla right now with Manny Diaz). Either way, by identifying teams on their way to coaching changes can often uncover late-season pointspread patterns that could result in a succession of losses (or, occasionally, wins) that can be capitalized upon by the shrewd handicapper.

Following is the “hot seat list” as we see it into November. As always, keep an eye on these situations...

Butch Davis, Florida International... A situation that roughly resembles another recent scenario with another veteran coach, Bob Davie, who briefly revived New Mexico before the program deteriorated again before his departure, Davis has seen the Golden Panthers drop far and hard from a couple of bowl appearances early in his tenure at FIU. Though impacted worse than most programs by Covid last season, the on-field product has been on the decline for the past few years, and into November the Golden Panthers were 1-7, the only win in the opener vs. FCS Long Island (Long Island?). And, at 69 years old, does Davis really need this sort of aggravation?  FIshing and golf sound like a better way to go.  Butch likely gets his chance at both soon enough, and as Davis is at the end of his five-year contract, FIU need not trigger a buyout by moving at the end of the season. Though most regional observers expect Davis to beat the school to the punch and resign sometime later this month, likely to finish the season before an expected change.

Seth Littrell, North Texas... This one didn’t figure a few years ago, when Littrell was briefly regarded as a “coach du jour” early in the 2018 season, with a progressive, high-fying offense in Denton, and rumored to be on his way to a variety of locales, including Texas Tech. But the Mean Green closed that season in a funk and have continued to stumble, even considering a recent OT win over Rice, UNT’s first since the opener vs. Northwestern State. With UNT poised to leave Conference USA and take a step up in class to the American, it will likely not want to do so with a program on the slide. Some Metroplex sources aren’t even sure Littrell lasts the remainder of this season.

Scott Frost, Nebraska... It looked for a while about a month or so ago that the Cornhuskers were ready to turn the corner, with a  thumping win over Northwestern and a couple of narrow losses to then-unbeatens Oklahoma and Michigan suggesting that Frost finally had the Lincoln operation aimed in the right direction. But a damaging loss at Minnesota sent Nebraska reeling once again, and last week’s loss to Purdue, when the Huskers were -4 in the turnover battle and watched the Boilermakers control the ball for nearly 39 minutes, hardly eased the pressure as the Huskers fell to 3-6, and putting Frost’s SU mark at 15-26 since 2018. More ominous for Frost is the schedule that now has Ohio State and Wisconsin on deck. Meanwhile, new AD Trev Alberts has yet to give Frost a vote of confidence, but if he decides to make a move would have to swallow a near $20 million buyout with Frost inked thru 2026. (Note, however, “offset” language in buyouts likely reduces the amount owed if the deposed coach finds a new gig, which is why buyouts are rarely paid in a lump sum.) Frost, though, could have other issues with the NCAA investigating improper workouts and practices from the 2020 season. Whether any possible eventual penalties could result in Frost being temrianted for cause, and buyout voided, remain to be seen.

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech... Fuente himself said at ACC Media Days at Charlotte in July that he knew he had to win this season, but he’s running out of time. Some regional sources thought that AD Whit Babcock might have hit the eject button had the Hokies lost last week at Georgia Tech, but VPI bucked up for 26-17 win, moving to 4-4, and the prospect of wins vs. struggling BC this week and the following week vs. Duke should at least given Fuente until the end of the season to save his job, which likely come down to the final two games vs. Miami and old rival Virginia. Sources suggest anything less than 3-1 in the final four games would not be enough for Fuente to stay into 2022.

David Cutcliffe, Duke... With a couple of more years on his deal, thru 2023, the thought in Durham was that “Coach Cut” would probably be able to retire on his own terms, at the time of his choosing, and post-2023 seemed proper timing. But that was before the Blue Devils hit a downdraft the past three seasons and now looking well on their way to missing a third straight bowl. Late-season collapses, failing offenses in the post-Daniel Jones era, deteriorating defenses, and, last season, at least, incredibly sloppy play (ranking last nationally in turnover margin) are things that cannot be overlooked much longer by AD Kevin White, who might need to have a difficult discussion with Cutcliffe very soon. Safe to say whatever transition on the football side will not go as smoothly as it has in hoops with Mike Krzyzewski's pending retirement after this season, and coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer already in place.

Marcus Arroyo, UNLV... The Rebels remain winless (0-14) this decade under Arroyo, who has done the near-impossible and made what is left of the Rebel fan base wish for the days of predecessor Tony Sanchez. Needless to say things have not gone smoothly for Arroyo, hired off of the Oregon staff where he was the coordinator for an offense run by Justin Herbert. Which, in retrospect, should have made any coordinator look good. Arroyo has reportedly made few friends at UNLV and definitely has one less at the school since the AD that hired him, Desiree Reed-Francois, recently took a similar post at Missouri. With an interim (Erick Harper) sitting in the AD chair right now, it might provide Arroyo a stay of execution after this season if the Rebs continue to lose. No matter, interim AD or not, it is hard for any coach to survive two winless seasons in a row..

Others to watch: Dan Mullen, Florida...Things have suddenly gone pear-shaped for the Gators, whose demanding fan base has run out Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain in recent years. But Florida falling to 4-4 and guilty of sloppy play is not a good look for Mullen, who sources say could be at risk if the Gators lose a couple of more by the end of the season. We also wouldn’t want to be d.c. Todd Grantham or other assistants, as if Mullen survives in 2022, he likely makes staff changes along the way. Manny Diaz, Miami-Florida...As mentioned earlier in this piece, the Canes seem to be circling the wagons for Diaz, who has pulled off two rousing upsets in a row vs. bowl-bound NC State and Pitt, all behind emerging frosh QB Tyler Van Dyke. That’s only gotten Miami to 4-4, so still more work to do, though the current trajectory suggests Diaz gets one more shot to get things right in 2022. Tom Arth, Akron...Though the Zips have made a bit of progress this season, they still remain the punching bad of the MAC as they have been since Arth arrived in 2019. With just four wins on his watch, Akron has regressed substantially from the Terry Bowden years. Arth, however, might have a destination in the NFL and has been rumored to eventually land on the staff of the LA Chargers for Brandon Staley, who worked with Arth in the past when both were on the staff at John Carroll in Cleveland. Walt Bell, UMass....With the Minutemen making no progress in the third year under the watch of Bell, having won just 2 games since 2019, a change would be no surprise and maybe a good thing for the young, 37-year-old Bell, considered an up-and-comer from the Florida State staff a few years ago. Steve Sarkisian, Texas...Buyer’s remorse in Austin? The Longhorns have blown considerable leads in three games the past month, sit just 4-4 into November, and many Texas--exes are wondering if Sark really is an upgrade over the deposed Tom Herman. (There ws apparently a good percentage of the Longhron support base that did not endorse the separation from Herman.) Lose a couple more in the same fashion and the support base might be angry enough to force AD Chris Del Conte to admit he made a mistake. Buyout money is also not the problem at Texas as it might be elsewhere. Jake Spavital, Texas State... Now working for a new AD (Don Coryell) and en route to a third losing season in a row, the Bobcats are making little progress on the watch of Spavital, who has also delivered none of the high-flying offense many were expecting at San Marcos after Spavital’s apprenticeship at West Virginia under Dana Holgorsen. A humbling loss to nearby, San Antonio-based FCS member Incarnate Word in mid-September put the Spavital regime on the ropes earlier this season.


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