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Ranking coaching hot seats

10/24/2012
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On The Mark: Coaches On The Hot Seat

Mark Schlabach looks at the 4 coaches right now who need to win to save their jobs.

Former Boise State and Colorado coach Dan Hawkins cringed Tuesday while we were doing "The Experts" show at ESPNU. Hawkins declined to participate in the sliver of the show we dedicated to coaches on the hot seat. Having been in that position, he isn't exactly fond of it.

It's sensitive; we understand. But when coaches are making millions -- even if everyone doesn't have the same resources and recruiting bases -- it's natural for fans, media members and, most importantly, athletic directors to eventually question performance.

Hey, I'd sign up for a job, no matter how difficult, if I knew getting canned would still net me $7.5 million. Wouldn't you? A head coaching job at an FBS program is a tremendous opportunity, but heavy scrutiny, expectations and consequences come with it.

On Sunday, Idaho's Robb Akey became the first coach to lose his job this season. Will others follow? We'll mix sports metaphors a bit and assign a "Going," "(Really) Going" or "Gone" rating to each coach in danger as the stretch run begins.

Going

These coaches are not in imminent danger, but should watch their step and make some statements -- on and off the field -- about the direction of their respective programs.

1. Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss Golden Eagles

It's the first season for Johnson, but the Eagles don't take kindly to losing seasons. They'd had 18 straight winning campaigns until this year's 0-7 start made a winning season an impossibility.

The reception wasn't necessarily kind in the first place -- some questioned his age (60), some wondered about his lack of experience as an FBS-level head coach -- and the results have made a faction of the fan base incredibly restless. So restless, in fact, the athletic director has seen fit to address them.

There's been some turnover with the higher administration, the president and the AD, and that's always a concern for a sitting coach who is struggling: The new hires might have their own coach in mind. The Eagles need some wins to at least calm the fans and administrators. The players are so young and banged-up, however, that it's going to be difficult.

If Johnson gets a second year, he'll be on the hook to get above .500. That's the standard in Hattiesburg, regardless of circumstances.

2. Mark Richt, Georgia Bulldogs

Richt's OK right now, but he'd better be careful or he'll be back in similar position to where he started the 2010 season.

Losing 35-7 at South Carolina was a major setback, a loss that seemed to count for multiple ones. Georgia is now 6-15 since 2008 against teams ranked at the time of the game. Junior quarterback Aaron Murray has never beaten a top-20 team.

What's perplexing are the issues on defense. They're currently 10th in the SEC in yards allowed per play, with many of the same players back from a unit that was seventh nationally in that metric last season.

Beating Florida this week certainly would curb frustration, but there are few reasons to believe UGA actually will. Its own fans will tell you that, despite their remaining embers of hope.

Richt's job security is still all right, but this was a season in which the Bulldogs were supposed to waltz to the SEC title game because there were no Western powers on the schedule. Finishing third in the East would be unacceptable to many and put added pressure on Richt heading into the offseason.

3. Bo Pelini, Nebraska Cornhuskers

This week's Michigan game is a huge one for Pelini and his program. The Huskers were 8-2 last year going to Ann Arbor -- and then they were hammered by 28 in the Big House.

They turned a 31-point loss last year at Wisconsin into a close home win this season, so Pelini is surely hopeful of a similar result. Beating the Wolverines would give the Huskers a leg up as they vie for their first berth in the Big Ten conference title game -- with the winner headed to Pasadena.

With the division, and league, as wide-open as it is, there's no reason why Nebraska shouldn't hang around in the race for the roses. If it doesn't, beginning with Saturday's game, there will be a number of grumpy fans.

And the lopsided road losses in the bigger league games -- Ohio State as a recent example -- are something to watch moving forward. Note, too, that Pelini has a new AD, Shawn Eichorst. Eichorst was previously at Miami, so reuniting with Hurricanes coach Al Golden is something that's been buzzed about. Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren is another name to watch, given Eichorst's and Doeren's links to the state of Wisconsin.

(Really) going

It's getting away from these coaches in a hurry. They need wins, and maybe several of them, to keep their gigs.

1. Gene Chizik, Auburn Tigers

Auburn's spiraling season went into a nose dive after losses at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss -- and the Rebels hadn't won an SEC game since 2010.

"I like Gene, the times I've been around him," one SEC coach told me recently. "The guy won a national championship two years ago. That doesn't just happen, even if you have Cam (Newton). But you also can't lose to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Everyone knows that. He knows that."

And the Tigers lost to those two teams in back-to-back weeks.

If Chizik's buyout were less than $7.5 million, this would likely be a foregone conclusion. He'd be in the "Gone" category. As it is, Auburn returned a number of players from what was a young team in 2011 -- and his highly rated recruiting classes have not yet returned any dividends.

The SEC schedule doesn't make things any easier the rest of the way: Auburn plays Texas A&M at home this weekend, Georgia at home Nov. 10 and at Alabama on Nov. 24. An 0-8 SEC finish looks very realistic at this point.

If Auburn does bite the bullet on the buyout, does that mean it has to go for a younger, cheaper coach so that it can afford both?

Bobby Petrino still seems like a long shot for this particular job, although he might come at a discount. This could be where Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes gets a look. He's this year's version of Kevin Sumlin.

2. Jeff Tedford, California Golden Bears

The tone was set for Tedford when the Bears opened a remodeled home stadium with a loss to Nevada. That was crushing.

The Bears have lost four more games, but to teams better than they are (Ohio State, USC, Arizona State and Stanford). There's little harm in that, on the surface, but this is pressure that has built over time for Tedford.

The issue is that the majority of the other teams in the conference -- even Oregon State this year, with Mike Riley and his formerly warm seat -- have managed to be competitive in the league and its new divisions, while Cal is a step or three off the pace.

The Bears (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) have won 15 games in the past two-plus seasons. This is another season of stagnation, even when the talent level isn't grossly behind some of the others in the league.

This is the same sort of thing Steve Sarkisian and Washington (3-4, 1-3) could begin to face next season if its talented skill players, doesn't perk up. The league isn't controlled so fiercely by the top third that it becomes impossible to compete every few years, at the least.

3. Derek Dooley, Tennessee Volunteers

Some familiar with the program's inner workings have told me they think Dooley already is out. I think he gets another year if the Vols finish the regular season at least 7-5 -- specifically, if the team goes 4-0 in November.

Let's presume Tennessee loses this week at South Carolina, falling to 3-5 and 0-5 in the SEC. It would need wins against Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to get to 7-5 and a bowl game. The Vols are better than those teams. If they beat them, demonstrating some level of progress, Dooley gets a stay of execution. If it's 6-6 or below it, it's likely over for him.

I asked Dooley back in September, before the Florida game, about coaching in the face of this sort of scrutiny.

"I have to face that guy in the mirror," he said. "I'm trying to take control of the things I can, do the best job I can from day to day. I can't worry about what's being said outside.

"What if I did? What would it do? Don't you think the players would see that? That's not the sort of thing I can to pass on to them, make them play tighter out there."

The Vols seem to be closer this season, but Dooley still hasn't defeated a ranked team. This week is the last shot at that in 2012.

Gone

It's too late. The ADs at these spots are already looking for replacements.

1. John L. Smith, Arkansas Razorbacks

There wasn't much to smile about early in the season, but give Smith credit for the Razorbacks smashing the worst two teams in the league, Auburn and Kentucky, by a combined score of 73-14.

With three ranked teams (at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, LSU) and Ole Miss and Tulsa remaining, however, the 3-4 Hogs will have to work like heck to get to a bowl game.

Even that isn't going to save Smith, the 10-month man. Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said last week that he hopes to have a new coach in place by December.

Who's it going to be? Louisville's Charlie Strong, an Arkansas native, has been the popular name -- but might that be too simple? Other intriguing names to watch are Baylor's Art Briles, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Texas Tech's Tommy Tuberville. (Detect a theme there?)

Dan Mullen of the currently undefeated Mississippi State Bulldogs could get a call, too.

2. Frank Spaziani, Boston College Eagles

The Eagles have no wins against FBS programs -- and that includes a loss to otherwise winless Army. That'll do it for a coach who has seemed well in over his head.

Where does it turn?

BC's new AD came from Miami of Ohio, so he probably has a good feel for the up-and-comers in that league. Doeren, whom I mentioned earlier, fits. Toledo coach Matt Campbell, 8-1 in his first season as a head coach and who is just 32, could make a real splash in a league that could use some spice.

3. Joker Phillips, Kentucky Wildcats

A win against Georgia last week might have helped, but it's instead another disappointing loss. There are some potential wins left on the schedule -- Missouri, Vanderbilt, Samford and Tennessee remain -- but it's hard to see the Wildcats getting any more than one or two of those. And a two- or three-win regular season won't be enough when 11-14 in two seasons is what had Phillips in hot water before the year began.

This all along is where I've had a hunch Petrino could land. With John Calipari and the basketball program as the top dog in town, hiring Petrino isn't nearly as big of a risk -- or news item -- as it would be at a place like Auburn.

Some say he wouldn't go there because of his history at Louisville. Well, he'd probably prefer to work, wouldn't he? Petrino might hold out for a better job, but he could probably win -- seven- or eight-a-year level of winning -- in Lexington.

If Kentucky isn't interested in pot-stirring, maybe it looks at the same mid-level pool as BC. Dykes, if he's interested, would be an excellent hire. He might be able to do better, too. Kentucky is a tough job, though at least the pressure is relatively low. (Phillips might disagree with that last point.)

Safe

These coaches have either managed to cool their chairs, or they're not quite into the danger zone.

1. Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech Red Raiders

When the season started, we had Tubs in trouble. At 5-1 and playing this week at Kansas State, he's got the Red Raiders into the Big 12 title mix.

This underscores the importance of hiring good coordinators. (Chizik, for one, has made coordinator changes to no avail.) Art Kaufman, previously at North Carolina, has done a terrific job altering attitudes for a defense that went from 114th last season in total D to seventh, currently.

I wrote in the preseason that a bowl game might have been enough to save Tuberville's job, because the Raiders missed one last season for the first time since 1999. That looks like a lock in a nice turnaround for Tech.

2. Randy Edsall, Maryland Terrapins

Haven't heard much about him lately, have you? That's likely fine by Edsall, compared to this past summer, when the country guffawed that the school had hired a damage-control coach.

Know what really controls damage? Wins. The Terrapins already have as many ACC wins (two) as they had overall wins in 2011 -- and they nearly defeated NC State last weekend.

Edsall's bedside manner sometimes might be rough, but he seems to have done what he wanted to do by weeding out bad seeds and setting the program up for the future. In a league that isn't very good, a mediocre Maryland team can hide pretty well.

3. Mack Brown, Texas Longhorns

Make sure to read this the right away. He's safe from being fired. That's not to say he wouldn't again consider retirement, like he did after 2010. The Longhorns (5-2, 2-2 Big 12) fell on their face against Oklahoma and narrowly lost to West Virginia. Those aren't criminal losses.

Here's the final stretch for Texas: at Kansas and Texas Tech; home against Iowa State and TCU; and at Kansas State. Watch how the Horns play the rest of the way, see if they improve on the five Big 12 losses in 2011.

Brown told me all summer that he was gearing up for the 2013 season. The problem with that, though, is the '13 team was supposed to be built on defense. But the defense, which figures to return essentially intact, has been dreadfully bad this season -- as in 105th-in-scoring-defense bad.

Still, Brown likely will get 2013 to prove whether he's right about it being the year for a resurgence. If he's incorrect, for whatever reason, he very well could hang it up.