Gluteal warming: College football coaches facing hotter seats than ever before

Lane Kiffin, entering Year 4 at USC - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A lot has changed in college football since the BCS began after the 1997 season. Does that include the rate at which we're firing coaches?

On its face, Southern Missisippi's decision to fire Ellis Johnson after he failed to record a single win in 2012 didn't seem unusual. The Golden Eagles dropped from 10th in the nation to 97th in yards per play allowed on defense. By the same metric, the offense fell from 25th overall to 110th. And there was the whole couldn't-even-beat-UAB-or-Memphis thing.

Historically, however, Johnson's dismissal was somewhat atypical. Before Johnson, 14 of the last 22 coaches who finished the season without a win returned to their post the following year. (This includes Duke's Carl Franks, who went 0-11 in 2000, didn't get fired, went 0-11 again in 2001, and STILL DIDN'T GET FIRED.)

But there's something even more anomalous about this particular pink slip. Look back through every firing since the end of the 1997 season, and you won't find a single instance in which a coach got canned after just one season. Until Ellis Johnson. So was Johnson just that terrible? Or is College Football Head Coach a more tenuous job than it was 15 years ago?

A few notes about methodology: First, a resignation is not a firing. That seems obvious, but two of this sport's most hilarious traditions are the coach who "agrees to resign" and its even more hilarious cousin, the athletic director who "never expected the coach to offer his resignation." If a coach's departure was publicly presented as a resignation, we didn't include it here, even if it's more than likely said coach wasn't actually leaving voluntarily. So no Bowdens were harmed in the assembling of this data.

Second, this is only an accounting of coaches who were fired based on team performance. Rick Neuheisel's dismissal from Washington is not included, for example, and neither are those of Mark Mangino, Jim Leavitt, or Mike Leach after the 2009 season.


We could just stop right here and conclude that, in the entirety of the BCS era, the last four seasons have been the most trigger-happy for athletic directors. While that's a correct conclusion, it doesn't really tell us a lot about the circumstances of those firings and whether there's any sort of emerging pattern.


Firings may be on the rise, but the more powerful schools don't appear to be leading that charge, since dismissals of coaches from automatic qualifier conferences have remained relatively flat as a percentage of overall terminations. As an aside, of the 68 teams in AQ conferences at the end of last year, only 19 haven't fired a coach since 1997, and seven have fired three coaches in that time period.


Nor -- and this is not terribly surprising -- are capable coaches more at risk. In every four-year range, about one-third of the coaches who were let go had a .500 or better record in their career at the schools that did the firing, and about one-quarter were fired after a non-losing season. (This means that former NC State head coach Tom O'Brien continues to be entirely ordinary.)


And here's where it starts to get interesting: the clock is definitely ticking much faster for coaches now than it was 15 years ago. Whereas 31 percent of those fired between 1997 and 2000 never saw Year 5, 31 percent of those fired between 2009 and 2012 never even saw Year 4.

The clock is definitely ticking much faster for coaches now than it was 15 years ago.

The raw numbers are even more stark. From 2008 until the present, 17 coaches have been canned within their first three years. Only 21 such firings occurred between 1997 and 2007. Extend that to coaches fired within their first four years, and the numbers become 32 firings in the last five seasons compared to 35 in the 11 seasons before that.

Whether or not this quicker timeline is a good or smart thing is a different question entirely. Financially, it's a major expense; Joker Phillips, Jon Embree, Skip Holtz, and Derek Dooley, all of whom were fired before coaching a fourth season, will be paid a collective $11.5 million from their former schools. There may also be an adverse effect on recruiting; if players know a program is ready and willing to axe a newly hired coach before they even become seniors, will they seek out more stable opportunities? On the other hand, aren't we better off not letting the Al Grohs of the world fester?

The 31 coaches taking the reins of a new team this season have all been, by and large, thought of as good hires. (Not FIU's Ron Turner.) But, if the pattern holds, they'll all get 1460 days, or 48 regular season games, or two recruiting classes that become upperclassmen, to turn things around.

A new season kicks off in less than two weeks. Better make the most of it, fellas.

Data collected from College Football Poll, Sports Reference, and elsewhere.

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