We’ve crossed a significant threshold here in the 2021 version of the college football coaching carousel. In the prior years and decades, the November chatter in the sport centered on what jobs could open.
Well, Virginia Tech unceremoniously disposed of Justin Fuente as head coach Tuesday morning and agreed to pay him $8.75 million to go away. It marked the 12th coaching change of the cycle. Miami dispatched athletic director Blake James on Monday, portending the firing of Manny Diaz as an inevitability.
Then there are still plenty more jobs that could open by the end of the year — Florida, Duke and Arizona State among them. And that doesn’t count potential NFL hires, coaches who’ll exit Power Five schools for other jobs and all the Group of Five movement.
Here’s the one certainty that has emerged amid what promises to be the most chaotic carousel in recent college football history — some athletic directors, presidents and decision-makers are going to end up looking foolish.
“The best place to be right now is a coach in demand,” said one industry source. “The scariest place to be is an athletic director without one of the top two or three jobs. Someone is going to get left holding the bag.”
The coaching carousel has flipped into such an overdrive that the biggest intrigue will be which school falls on its face, victim to grand ambitions colliding with sputtering execution.
The coaching cycle has never spun this fast. That’s going to end up working against some of these athletic directors, as there’s a limited supply of qualified and experienced coaches to fill the open jobs. There have already been coaches extended in self-defense (P.J. Fleck at Minnesota, Jeff Traylor at UTSA and more to come), athletic directors talking smack on Twitter about keeping their coach (Texas A&M’s Ross Bjork) and endless denials like the ones Jimbo Fisher and Lincoln Riley have issued about LSU.
Athletic directors firing their coaches early in the cycle gives them plenty of time to do research. And for Georgia Southern (Clay Helton), Texas Tech (Joey McGuire) and Connecticut (Jim Mora), that early decision has allowed them to already put a coach in place and keep things moving. For others, it’s not going to be that simple.
Where will candidates come from? Will the up-and-coming G5 crowd get pulled to the other side of the moat — Louisiana’s Billy Napier, Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell and Nevada’s Jay Norvell will all be heavily courted. Are they splashy enough?
Coordinators like Clemson’s never-leave duo (Tony Elliott and Brent Venables), Alabama’s Bill O’Brien, Georgia’s Dan Lanning, Texas A&M’s Mike Elko, Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman and Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard will all be pursued. But can they energize a fan base?
There’s not much of a market for coaches sitting out. One name not expected to re-emerge in this cycle is former Texas coach Tom Herman, according to sources, as he’s happy working as a consultant in the NFL.
The lack of options after a few coaches are snatched up is going to leave some athletic directors exposing themselves, and that’s where the real theater awaits. Which athletic director whiffs on the first four candidates and does an awkward walk of shame to the podium with a coach the fan base is greeting like a long sip from a mug of sour milk?
“If you’re at a mid-tier Power Five job in this cycle, and you don’t go in with a strong sense of a plan and a buttoned-down framework of process, it could be like trying to a find a lost pet in the middle of a [Category 5] hurricane,” said one FBS athletic director.
And the leader in the speculative clubhouse for most likely schools to bungle things is Miami. After firing respected athletic director Blake James, Miami finds itself facing a defining moment of self-reflection.
Is a school that has long exhibited a nostalgia complex and an unhealthy obsession with the past headed backward to shape the future? Does that mean it installs an inexperienced former player like Gino Torretta or Alonzo Highsmith and risk a one-way trip to Fulmer-ville like Tennessee did a few years back?
The key figure at Miami is Rudy Fernandez, the president’s chief of staff. He’s a Harvard graduate with a decorated political career in Washington. He and Joe Echevarria, the CEO of the UHealth program at the school, are Miami athletics’ most important figures at this moment. The distinct tone from the school is that money, which has never been in large supply at Miami athletics, won’t be an obstacle. Can they provide the direction to spend it correctly?
The earliest signal for Miami’s direction will be if it hires a search firm, as hiring an athletic director and presumably a coach in a short order is tricky enough to do with experience in the space. It would be a positive sign that nostalgia isn’t the only answer if Miami seeks help.
Who would get hired as an athletic director? There are some with ties to the city, state and school – Tony Hernandez (Texas Tech associate AD and longtime Miami administrator), New Mexico’s Eddie Nuñez (a Miami native), FAU’s Brian White (most obvious local candidate).
There are other sitting ADs in the industry that could attract attention — Allen Greene (Auburn), Mack Rhoades (Baylor), Bryan Maggard (Louisiana), John Hartwell (Utah State), Graham Neff (Clemson deputy AD), Lisa Campos (UTSA), Mark Alnutt (Buffalo), Sean Frazier (Northern Illinois) and Stephanie Rempe (LSU deputy AD). All are more qualified than someone fans would recognize from the glory years.
Regardless of leadership, Miami will end up getting a referendum of its modern relevance. The answer to the question of whether Oregon’s Mario Cristobal wants to come home can be tied to another question: What’s a better job? You can bet a turnover chain that nearly every coach in the country would take Oregon’s facilities, reputation and Nike’s endless fountain of money over Miami, which has better local recruiting. And that’s where the distinct edges end for Miami. (Timing could end this before it starts if Oregon reaches the College Football Playoff, as playoff coaches will be nearly impossible to wait out.)
Another interesting wrinkle for Miami is the potential courtship of Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, who has long had an affinity for living in that area and recruiting it. Could Ole Miss muster a defense to keep a coach who Miami wants? (The ACC’s television deal, which is aging worse than a three-pack-a-day smoker, isn’t helping these matters.)
Perhaps Miami finds a capable AD, lands a big-fish coach and delivers a revival of its gilded past. That would mean the Hurricanes outfoxed a few peers, and that reality underscores the potential spectacle of this carousel.
When expensive moves are made, big results are expected. And as this carousel takes shape, there are too many jobs open for schools not to be petrified of high-profile misses.