College football hot seat watch 2012: Joker Phillips fired, who's next?

Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

Joker Phillips became the second FBS head coach to get canned on Sunday. Who else will likely be seeking new opportunities come December?

10. Already Gone

Robb Akey, Idaho
Joker Phillips, Kentucky

By all accounts, Joker Phillips is a genuinely good guy. He further reinforced this with the statement he provided on Sunday after he was fired by Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart.

I am very appreciative of Mitch Barnhart and Rich Brooks for providing the opportunity to have been the head coach here. Mitch is the best athletic director I’ve ever been associated with. He’s fair and honest and he’s "all in" in terms of student-athletes’ well-being. Rich is the best mentor a young coach could ever have. I learned a lot from him in terms of plowing ahead. They are dear friends. Dr. Lee Todd and Dr. Eli Capilouto have both been very supportive. I appreciate the Big Blue Nation and encourage the fans to stay behind their team going forward.

College football involves enough shady characters that you hate to see when good folks fail. But Phillips, by almost any definition, failed on the field. He inherited a team that had been to four consecutive bowl games, went 6-7 in Year 1, then went 5-7 (boosted by a rather weak schedule) in Year 2. In Year 3, with an incredibly young team, Phillips never had a chance.

His Wildcats lost to both Louisville and Western Kentucky in September (making them officially the No. 3 team in the state), then lost by the following scores in conference play: 38-0, 38-17, 27-14, 49-7, 29-24, 33-10 and 40-0. The only single-digit loss came to likely SEC East champion Georgia at home and showed at least a little bit of potential. But any growth in that game was negated by what followed: Kentucky was outscored by Missouri (on the road) and Vanderbilt (at home) by a combined score of 73-10. It's been pretty clear for a while that Phillips was going to make it to 2013 as Kentucky's head coach; those last two losses gave Barnhart no choice but to make the move.

Phillips was a decent offensive coordinator for Rich Brooks for a number of years at Kentucky. In Columbia on October 27, I was actually quite impressed with the early play-calling script that the Wildcats unveiled. The problem, of course, was that the personnel could only make it work for so long. Kentucky just didn't have the horses to do what Phillips wanted to do, and it was pretty clear that wasn't going to change.

9. Not "If," Just "When"

Gene Chizik, Auburn
Mike Price, UTEP
John L. Smith, Arkansas
Frank Spaziani, Boston College

In two years, Auburn has gone from 14-0 to 0-6 in SEC play under Gene Chizik. The Tigers did win their second game of 2012 on Saturday, but they led woeful New Mexico State by just seven at halftime before surging.

After going 8-4 in each of his first two years, Mike Price has clinched his seventh consecutive losing season at UTEP and has no contract for next year.

Arkansas was (rather foolishly) given Top 5 hype this offseason and stands at 4-5 after a narrow win over Tulsa. The Hogs need to win two of three against South Carolina (in Columbia), Mississippi State (in Starkville) and LSU to even reach bowl eligibility.

Like Joker Phillips, Frank Spaziani was a successful, longtime assistant at the school that eventually hired him, but since taking over he has overseen constant regression, from 9-5 in 2008 under Jeff Jagodzinski, to 8-5 in 2009 (Spaziani's first year), to 7-6, to 4-8, to 2-7 this season. And his biggest champion, athletic director Gene DeFilippo, retired and was replaced last month. New athletic directors tend to like to bring in their own man if there is any stagnation or regression in the football program. Well, new A.D. Brad Bates has plenty of cause to do just that.

Boston College could technically beat Notre Dame this coming Saturday (hell, the last two times a Notre Dame team reached 8-0, the Irish lost to the Eagles). Auburn could technically beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Arkansas could technically finish the season with three straight wins over ranked teams. UTEP aside, the three other coaches on this list could still make some noise if they are to be fired later than sooner. But I very much doubt that even big wins would save them at this point. There has simply been too much regression at this point.

8. Almost Certainly Can't Save Himself

Jeff Tedford, California

Take it away, Jon Wilner of the Mercury News:

It seems to me that there are three components to evaluating Tedford’s performance and determining his future.

1. On-field performance: Tedford is 15-20 over the past three years with a 9-16 mark in conference play. That’s not good. But expand the window to five years and he’s 32-29; expand it to 11 years (his full tenure) and he’s 82-55.

2. Academics: Cal’s recently-release Graduation Success Rate was, in a word, abominable. The Bears checked in with a 48 percent GSR for the 2002-05 entering classes – the lowest rate in the pac-12 and lower than any school in the Southeastern Conference.

That’s right, Cal’s GSR was lower than every school in the SEC. Last I checked, Mississippi State (GSR: 60%) didn’t consider itself the finest public university in the world.

3. Money: The Bears, if you hadn’t heard, just spent $321 million renovating Memorial Stadium. Now they have to pay for it. The university’s answer to its massive debt is to sell 50-year rights to premium season tickets (with no penalty for cancelling).

The deadline is June, and sales are middling along. Convincing fans to commit tens of thousands of dollars to watch another year (or more) of Tedford football will be a tough, tough sell.

Vocal fans can be ignored. Money cannot. I put Jeff Tedford a spot below Chizik, etc., in terms of likelihood of firing. But that's only because a lot of 2012's struggles can be explained by an awful string of injuries. But after Cal's mistake- (and injury-) plagued loss to Washington on Friday night, one that clinched another losing season, I just cannot imagine Tedford being allowed to stay another year. If the men in Category No. 9 above are about 98 percent likely to be gone, put Tedford at a solid 90 percent.

7. Not Looking Great, But Not Over Yet

Derek Dooley, Tennessee
Danny Hope, Purdue

We've been talking about potential replacements for Derek Dooley for a month now, but he's not actually gone yet. And if his Volunteers can beat Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to finish the season, then win a bowl, they will finish 8-5 with some pretty good computer rankings and outstanding offensive numbers. With some changes on defense, Dooley could still finish this season a) employed and b) having built a decent amount of momentum for 2013. But anything less than that might spell doom, and after a narrow, 55-48 escape against Troy on Homecoming last Saturday -- one that saw the Vols gain 718 yards but allow 721 -- it is difficult to simply assume that UT will beat a Missouri team that almost won at Florida on Saturday or a Vandy team (in Nashville) that has won four of its last five.

As for Danny Hope, let's just say that if this had come out before I finished last week's Hot Seat column, I'd have probably put him in something more tenuous than the "Probably Not Gone" category. Like Tennessee, Purdue can finish with three straight wins (at Iowa, at Illinois, Indiana) and a bowl bid. But the last month has seen Purdue lose by 31 to Michigan, by 24 to Wisconsin, by 16 to Minnesota and by 25 to Penn State. The Boilers strangely almost won at Notre Dame and Ohio State this season, but the other seven games have not been filled with reason for optimism. And now the athletic director is on record saying that "our performance has kept us from reaching our goals." Probably not good.

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Joshua S. Kelly-US PRESSWIRE

6. New AD Could Mean Itchy Trigger Finger

Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Paul Pasqualoni, UConn

As I said above, new athletic directors often like to bring in some new blood to lead a stagnant football program. Well, since winning the 2009 ACC title, Paul Johnson has gone just 18-17 at Georgia Tech (they are 4-5 this year), and athletic director Dan Radakovich just left for Clemson. Depending on the aggressiveness of Radakovich's replacement, Johnson may have just lost his biggest advocate.

Meanwhile, since winning the 2010 Big East title under Randy Edsall, UConn has gone just 8-13 in under two seasons with Paul Pasqualoni. Pasqualoni was an odd hire to begin with -- he had been out of the college ranks for seven years when UConn brought him in, and he had just turned 62 when the 2011 season began -- and his team is an offensive nightmare in 2012. UConn has scored just 33 points in the last month and is hopeless in a less-than-elite conference. Recruiting and momentum are nonexistent, and a new athletic director came aboard in the offseason. Not a great combination.

5. Firing Is Justifiable But Not Guaranteed

Jon Embree, Colorado
Ron English, Eastern Michigan
Dan Enos, Central Michigan
DeWayne Walker, New Mexico State

Jon Embree's team just continues to get more hopeless from week to week. Yes, the Buffs have had to fight through a ton of injuries. Yes, the recent schedule has been brutal. But in the last three games against Stanford, Oregon and USC, Colorado has been outscored, 124-6, in the first half. As we discussed last week, the athletic department seems to be attempting to address its own infrastructure (read: funding and staffing) before worrying about the head coaching position. And honestly, that might be the right approach. If nothing else, you probably need to make the job more attractive before you offer it to an attractive coach.

But despite funds and staff, despite injuries, Colorado simply has to perform better than this. There is no excuse for this, and one has to hold Embree accountable. Colorado decided that hiring a Colorado Guy™ was more important than hiring a proven head coach, and it has backfired terribly.

4. Rallying

David Bailiff, Rice
Rich Ellerson, Army
Bobby Hauck, UNLV
Jeff Quinn, Buffalo

Honestly, you could still make a case for any of these men to be fired. They have combined for a record of 10-28, and only Bailiff has won more than two games this season. But all four won this past week and have begun to show some positive momentum.

Rice has won two of three. UNLV has begun to put an exciting offense on the field (31 or more points in three of five games) and get more competitive (the Rebels beat New Mexico by 28 on Saturday, lost to a solid San Diego State team on the road by just 11 the week before, and almost beat Nevada on October 13). Army whipped Air Force on Saturday. And honestly, Buffalo has been more competitive than its 2-7 record suggests, with tight losses to Toledo, Ohio and UConn and a respectable showing at Georgia. A few breaks, and the Bulls are 5-4 and in the thick of the MAC East race.

"Getting better" isn't as important as "winning football games," but while you could justify dismissing these coaches, you could also justify keeping them around.

3. Grumble Grumble (Non-Tenured Edition)

Dave Christensen, Wyoming
Skip Holtz, South Florida

Both of these coaches scored their first conference wins on Saturday, and both were in good enough standing to survive what have been a pair of frustrating 2012 seasons. Christensen's Wyoming Cowboys are 2-7 with four close losses, and Christensen just returned from a suspension that stemmed from his post-game cursing out of Air Force coach Troy Calhoun.

Holtz, meanwhile, had never really earned his reputation -- his name was tossed around for numerous job openings over the last couple of seasons despite going just 13-12 in his first two seasons at USF -- and has gone just 3-6 this year. But everything we've heard from the USF athletic director is that Holtz is safe for at least one more year. Word of advice: figure out how to close games. Before a 13-6 win over UConn on Saturday, Holtz's Bulls had lost eight of their last nine one-possession games. Win four of those, and the program's health looks completely different.

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

2. Grumble, Grumble (Tenured)

Mack Brown, Texas
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Jim Grobe, Wake Forest

Texas pulled off a nice win at Texas Tech this past weekend, and Wake Forest stands at 5-4 after a 28-14 win over Boston College. Each of these coaches has a long track record of past success and is seemingly in good standing with his respective boss.

Ferentz does, too, but wow has Iowa slipped. Athletic director Gary Barta seems to be behind Ferentz 100 percent, and Iowa is still filling the stands, but after double-digit losses to both Penn State and Northwestern, Ferentz's Hawkeyes saw an early lead disappear in a 24-21 loss to Indiana. Iowa is now 4-5 and has gone just 19-16 since winning the 2010 Orange Bowl. Ferentz has rebounded before; Iowa went just 19-18 from 2005-07, then won 20 games in 2008-09. And again, he has done enough for the program that his safety is all but ensured. But the fans had begun to turn before the loss to Indiana. And if "angry fans" turn into "fans who don't fill the stadium," sentiment could change quickly.

1. It's Only Year 1, But Yuck

Tim Beckman, Illinois
Norm Chow, Hawaii
Justin Fuente, Memphis
Ellis Johnson, Southern Miss
Charley Molnar, UMass

These five coaches were a combined 6-35 heading into Saturday. All five lost on Saturday. Brutal. I will say that Memphis has shown signs of improvement -- in the last month, the Tigers have beaten Rice and lost by respectable margins to UCF and Marshall -- but not enough to completely shake the fact that Justin Fuente's tenure began with losses to Tennessee-Martin and Middle Tennessee.

You almost never see a coach fired after one season, but when it comes to Chow and Johnson, it could almost be justified. Almost.

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