Arizona State and Texas A&M fired their football coaches on Sunday.
Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee hired new ones.
Or so we believed.
The coaching carousel is supposed to offer a silver lining after a forgettable season, with the introduction of a new coach and the promise of a new beginning meant to assuage disappointed fan bases.
Tennessee managed to use the opportunity to enrage its already disgruntled fan base. On what might have been the craziest day in the history of the coaching carousel, the Volunteers, who recently completed their first winless SEC campaign in school history, somehow fired their new coach before he was even hired.
Two weeks after the Volunteers fired Butch Jones, they added even more fuel to the dumpster fire he left behind. After missing out on Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, who was introduced as Florida’s new coach on Sunday, the Volunteers signed a memorandum of understanding to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. During Schiano’s last stint as a college head coach, he led Rutgers, one of the worst programs in the nation, to six winning seasons from 2001 to ’11. He had a miserable two-year stint as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and returned to the college game in 2016 to join Urban Meyer’s staff.
When word leaked that the Volunteers were going to hire Schiano on Sunday, Tennessee fans launched a social media campaign to try to stop it. Criticizing a coaching hire isn’t anything new, but Tennessee fans went nuclear. About 100 people gathered on the UT campus to protest the hiring, with some of them citing Schiano’s alleged connection to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Schiano, who worked as Penn State’s defensive backs coach from 1991 to ’95, denied knowing that Sandusky, the Nittany Lions’ longtime defensive coordinator, was sexually abusing children.
Court documents from a 2015 deposition of former Penn State assistant Mike McQueary included allegations that Schiano told former PSU assistant Tom Bradley about Sandusky’s behavior. According to the deposition, McQueary alleged Schiano went to Bradley in the 1990s and was “white as a ghost and said he just saw Jerry doing something to a boy in the shower.”
Bradley and Schiano have denied the allegation.
The mere accusation that Schiano might have known something about Sandusky’s behavior and didn’t alert authorities was enough reason for many Tennessee fans to demand that he not be hired. On “The Rock” on the Tennessee campus where student groups paint messages, someone wrote the words “Schiano covered up child rape at Penn State” on Sunday.
A handful of Tennessee politicians, including at least three state representatives and four Republican gubernatorial candidates, issued statements on Twitter, criticizing the potential hiring of Schiano.
Some of them might have had legitimate concerns about Schiano’s behavior at Penn State, but others likely didn’t want him coaching the Volunteers. Tennessee’s administration had planned on announcing Schiano’s hiring on Sunday night. Instead, it backed out of a memorandum of understanding it had reached with Schiano in Columbus, Ohio, earlier in the day.
If we’ve learned anything in the first couple of weeks of the coaching carousel, it’s that many schools and their fans have unrealistic expectations of how good their football programs are and should be. A large percentage of Florida fans probably weren’t happy that the Gators settled on Mullen, who is considered a safe hire, but is far less sexy than Chip Kelly and UCF’s Scott Frost, who were the Gators’ top choices. Ole Miss fans probably aren’t thrilled that the Rebels promoted interim coach Matt Luke, who guided his team to a 6-6 record this past season after former coach Hugh Freeze abruptly resigned in July. But with more NCAA sanctions possibly looming, Ole Miss officials decided to reward their homegrown interim coach, who always wanted to coach the Rebels and is very popular with his players.
As for the Volunteers, for weeks, many fans had grand (and false) illusions of hiring another former Buccaneers coach: current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden. Of course, Gruden was never coming, and he sure as hell isn’t going to Rocky Top now.
Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC football championship since 1998 and hasn’t even won the SEC East since 2007. But along with Gruden, whose name seems to emerge every time the Volunteers are looking for a new coach, Washington’s Chris Petersen, former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Kelly were mentioned as potential candidates. None of them were realistic.
And after what went down with Schiano, good luck trying to find a new coach now. Realistic candidates such as Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, SMU’s Chad Morris and Washington State’s Mike Leach might think long and hard before taking the job.
Look at the coaches the Volunteers hired since they fired Phillip Fulmer after the 2008 season: Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Jones. None of them was at the top of UT’s list when those searches started, and the Vols ended up settling when other candidates turned them down. Coaches around the country know it’s a difficult job with unrealistic expectations.
The Volunteers aren’t the only FBS program with an inflated ego. Arizona State fired coach Todd Graham on Sunday morning, one day after the Sun Devils beat rival Arizona 42-30 to finish 7-5. Graham went 46-31 in six seasons.
“We have been average,” ASU athletic director Ray Anderson said Sunday. “Seven and five and second place in a riddled Pac-12 South is not our aspiration. We deserve more.”
The Sun Devils, if you believe widespread speculation, might now be on the verge of hiring another coach who was fired Sunday, one day after his team lost five games — for the fourth straight season.
Former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who walked away with a $10.4 million buyout, which the Aggies must pay in the next 60 days under the terms of his contract, is widely considered the front-runner to replace Graham.
Talk about winning the lottery.
When the NCAA approved an early signing period for college football, which begins Dec. 20, coaches feared that schools would begin firing and hiring coaches sooner than ever before. And their fears became reality the past few weeks.
“Everybody thinks making a change is the best thing, and now with this early signing period, everybody wants to get rid of their guy early,” Alabama’s Nick Saban said. “They feel like it won’t affect them in recruiting as much. The players should be able to finish the year with the coaches they have and not go through all these changes during the season. I think that’s hard on the players, but I think it’s going to stay that way.”
The past few weeks have also revealed that firing coaches early doesn’t necessarily make it easier to find a replacement. Florida fired Jim McElwain on Oct. 29, the day after a 42-7 loss to Georgia, which dropped the Gators’ record to 3-4. By making the decision early, Florida’s brass hoped to get a jump-start on everyone else.
But then the Gators struck out on their first two choices, Kelly and Frost. Kelly chose UCLA on Saturday morning, and then Frost told the Gators he wasn’t coming, either. Frost, a former Nebraska quarterback, is expected to replace Mike Riley as the Cornhuskers’ coach after his Knights play Memphis in Saturday’s AAC championship game.
Tennessee waited a couple of more weeks to fire Jones, but its search is back on after the Schiano debacle. Texas A&M is expected to pursue Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, who flirted with LSU last year before deciding to stay with the Seminoles. Some FSU officials believe Fisher might already have one foot out the door, but he’ll wait to decide his future until after Saturday’s regular-season finale against Louisiana-Monroe.
Arkansas, which fired Bret Bielema immediately after Friday night’s 48-45 loss to Missouri, has set its sights on Auburn’s Gus Malzahn. But there’s no guarantee he’ll leave if the Tigers defeat Georgia in Saturday’s SEC championship game and make the College Football Playoff.
If Fisher and Malzahn decide to stay put, the Aggies and Razorbacks might be sifting through the same candidates the Gators and Volunteers did. If they decide to leave, even more dominoes will fall the next few weeks.
“My question about all this stuff is: Who do you hire?” Saban said. “You basically start all over. You keep starting all over.”
Here we go again.