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Which schools get opposing coaches fired mid-season?

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15 years of data, compiled for your benefit!

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

My colleague Steven Godfrey likes to send me on wild goose chases to distract me from pestering him about his work, and the geese he recently pointed me towards came in the form of a question: Is any one school particularly adept at getting opposing coaches fired in the middle of the season?

This question’s a bit of a red herring in a few ways. No coach ever really gets fired based on one bad result; frustration and failure build to a point of no return, when a coach loses the support of the boosters or the administration or the fans or all three. “The straw that broke the camel’s back” necessarily implies that said camel was carrying a lot of weight before the straw came along. (If your camel is suffering spinal fractures with just one straw placed upon it, please seek the aid of a qualified veterinarian immediately.)

The phrasing also precludes two kinds of games from consideration: regular-season finales and bowl games. Firing a coach after either isn’t canning them in the wake of a particular game. It’s moving on at the end of a presumably unsuccessful season. That said, finales are frequently rivalry games that can tip a coach’s fortune in either direction, and bowl games give a coach a chance to succeed or fail on very large, very visible stages. But because there’s no way to separate the “fired because of the Iron Bowl” moves from the “fired because it’s the end of the year” ones, neither can be counted.

Nevertheless, I went off in search of the data to respond to Godfrey’s question, and I wound up answering a few others. After reviewing every mid-season firing of a coach from the start of the 2006 season through 2020 – 72 total dismissals – here’s what I’ve found.

(Oh, one more note. Some of these coaches had their firings announced mid-season but coached out the year. They still count for this exercise.)

DON’T LOSE TO KANSAS, LOUISIANA TECH, OR AIR FORCE

Three coaches – Dan Hawkins in 2010, Ron Prince in 2008, and Dan McCarney in 2006 – were told they’d no longer be leading their programs after losing to the Jayhawks. Louisiana Tech has also helped usher three coaches out (Robb Akey in 2012, Brent Guy in 2008, and Darrell Dickey in 2006). And victories by the Air Force Falcons led to the canning of Mike Sanford (2009), Norm Chow (2015), and Bob Davie (2019). No other program has been responsible for more than two mid-season firings in the last 15 seasons.

2012 Vanderbilt, however, merits special recognition for an accomplishment I couldn’t find repeated by anyone else: getting two coaches fired in one year.

Kentucky announced they’d be moving on from Joker Phillips after a loss to the Commodores on November 3, 2012, and Tennessee chucked Derek Dooley to the curb a couple of weeks later, after Vandy beat the Volunteers by 23.

Speaking of the Vols!

BE CAREFUL IF YOU WORK AT TENNESSEE OR NORTH TEXAS

The Volunteers and the Mean Green have each fired three coaches mid-season. North Texas ended a trio of consecutive coaching administrations (Dickey, Todd Dodge, and McCarney) before the end of the year, while Tennessee’s streak (Phil Fulmer, Dooley, and Butch Jones) was interrupted by Lane Kiffin’s gap year trip to Knoxville.

As a matter of full disclosure, Florida’s fired two coaches early (Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain) over the last 15 seasons, but they’d be joining Tennessee and North Texas in this club if we stretched back to 2004 and included Ron Zook’s mid-season axing.

The preceding may or may not have been an excuse to bring up the following Will Muschamp Fact™:

TWO COACHES HAVE BEEN DISMISSED EARLY FROM TWO SEPARATE JOBS

South Carolina fired Will Muschamp with three games left on the schedule; Florida pulled the plug with two games left in 2014. That puts Muschamp in the company of Dan McCarney, the only other coach in this time span who was fired mid-season twice. McCarney’s first exit, from Iowa State in 2006, came after a loss to Kansas, and he repeated the experience with North Texas, when he lost by 59 points to FCS Portland State.

IT’S HARDER TO GET FIRED IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE SEASON

This isn’t all that surprising. 1-4 is bad, but 1-8 is worse, and most schools would rather see if the current guy can turn things around than commit to a new coaching search before Halloween. I charted out every mid-season firing by the game that preceded a coach’s dismissal:

If you’re going to wait 11 games to fire a coach, why not just give him the whole season? The answer, I suspect, is some mixture of “The extra week helps schools pull from a larger candidate pool,” and “Athletic directors want to get this shit done before Thanksgiving.”

One thing this graph doesn’t show you is the recent increase in early firings. From 2006 through 2010, Tommy Bowden was the only coach I found who left after one of his first six games in a season. But from 2011 through 2015, eight coaches were fired in the first half of a year, and eight more were pulled offstage early from 2016 through 2020.

(Yes, Southern Miss, that’s you sitting alone in the Game 1 spot.)

IT DOESN’T MATTER IF YOU LOSE TO A GOOD TEAM

When I started this project, I assumed most mid-season firings would fall into one of three categories:

  1. Lost to a team that entered with a crappy record
  2. Got blown out
  3. A combination of 1 and 2

But the data doesn’t back up the first category!

Some coaches got ousted after a loss to a bad team; five of the 72 coaches in this set fell to a previously winless opponent. But plenty of them failed against solid or even great opposition; seven lost to a team that entered the matchup undefeated. I don’t think Miami decided it was done with Al Golden in 2015 because he failed to beat 6-0 Clemson. I suspect they were just tired of him doing all of his Al Golden stuff, including, but not limited to, failing to beat 6-0 Clemson.

Golden also fell under Category 2: His ‘Canes got blown out by the Tigers 58-0. On average, coaches that get fired in the middle of the year lose the pivotal game before their announced dismissal by an average of 23.5 points. Only 15 of the 72 coaches I looked at lost a one-score game on their way to a pink slip.

Wondering what that single data point in positive territory is? That’s former UNLV coach Tony Sanchez, who beat San Jose State by three before his separation from the program was announced two days later. He’s the only coach on the list to get fired before the end of the year while coming off a win.

Why did that happen? Well, the AD said she’d actually fired Sanchez the Friday before the San Jose State game but waited to announce it. That communications decision will not change my data set, however, because then every mid-season firing becomes an impossible question of when the axe really fell.

Take Ty Willingham’s exit from Washington in the middle of 2008. That was announced after the Huskies lost 33-7 to Notre Dame (symmetry is fun!), but the school said the decision had been made a week earlier, after a defeat at the hands of Oregon State.

You should have just announced it then, dummies! What Washington fan was happier experiencing an extra week of the Willingham era without a clear end in sight?

If you want to peruse the data yourself, I’ve embedded a table below for your number-crunching enjoyment.

 Mid-season Coach Firings, 2006-2020

Coach School Year Opponent Game Number Opp Win % Points For Points Against Point Differential
Coach School Year Opponent Game Number Opp Win % Points For Points Against Point Differential
Kevin Sumlin Arizona 2020 Arizona State 5 0.000 7 70 -63
Derek Mason Vanderbilt 2020 Missouri 8 0.500 0 41 -41
Gary Andersen Utah State 2020 Nevada 3 1.000 9 34 -25
Lovie Smith Illinois 2020 Northwestern 7 0.833 10 28 -18
Will Muschamp South Carolina 2020 Ole Miss 7 0.333 42 59 -17
Jay Hopson Southern Miss 2020 South Alabama 1 0.000 21 32 -11
Chris Ash Rutgers 2019 Michigan 4 0.667 0 52 -52
Chad Morris Arkansas 2019 Western Kentucky 10 0.556 19 45 -26
Bob Davie New Mexico 2019 Air Force 11 0.800 22 44 -22
Willie Taggart Florida State 2019 Miami 9 0.500 10 27 -17
Tony Sanchez UNLV 2019 San Jose State 11 0.400 38 35 3
Scottie Montgomery ECU 2018 Cincinnati 11 0.818 6 56 -50
Bobby Petrino Louisville 2018 Syracuse 10 0.778 23 54 -31
David Beaty Kansas 2018 Iowa State 9 0.571 3 27 -24
Mike MacIntyre Colorado 2018 Utah 11 0.700 7 30 -23
Mike Jinks Bowling Green 2018 Western Michigan 7 0.667 35 42 -7
Brad Lambert Charlotte 2018 FIU 11 0.700 35 42 -7
Everett Withers Texas State 2018 Troy 11 0.800 7 12 -5
Joey Jones South Alabama 2017 Georgia Southern 11 0.000 0 52 -52
Tyson Summers Georgia Southern 2017 UMass 6 0.000 20 55 -35
Jim McElwain Florida 2017 Georgia 7 1.000 7 42 -35
Butch Jones Tennessee 2017 Missouri 10 0.444 17 50 -33
Sean Kugler UTEP 2017 Army 5 0.500 21 35 -14
Jim Mora UCLA 2017 USC 11 0.818 23 28 -5
Ron Turner FIU 2016 UCF 4 0.333 14 53 -39
Tim DeRuyter Fresno State 2016 Utah State 8 0.333 3 17 -14
Trent Miles Georgia State 2016 Louisiana-Monroe 10 0.333 23 37 -14
Darrell Hazell Purdue 2016 Iowa 6 0.667 35 49 -14
Les Miles LSU 2016 Auburn 4 0.333 13 18 -5
Dan McCarney North Texas 2015 Portland State 5 0.750 7 66 -59
Al Golden Miami 2015 Clemson 7 1.000 0 58 -58
Norm Chow Hawaii 2015 Air Force 9 0.571 7 58 -51
George O'Leary UCF 2015 Houston 8 1.000 10 59 -49
Todd Berry Arkansas State 2015 Arkansas State 10 0.667 21 59 -38
Randy Edsall Maryland 2015 Ohio State 6 1.000 28 49 -21
Scott Shafer Syracuse 2015 NC State 11 0.600 29 42 -13
Paul Rhoads Iowa State 2015 Kansas State 11 0.333 35 38 -3
Charlie Weis Kansas 2014 Texas 4 0.333 0 23 -23
Jeff Quinn Buffalo 2014 Eastern Michigan 7 0.200 27 37 -10
Will Muschamp Florida 2014 South Carolina 9 0.444 20 23 -3
Paul Pasqualoni UConn 2013 Buffalo 4 0.333 12 41 -29
Don Treadwell Miami-Ohio 2013 Central Michigan 5 0.200 9 21 -12
Lane Kiffin USC 2013 Arizona State 5 0.667 41 52 -11
Robb Akey Idaho 2012 Louisiana Tech 8 0.833 28 70 -42
Joker Phillips Kentucky 2012 Vanderbilt 10 0.500 0 40 -40
Derek Dooley Tennessee 2012 Vanderbilt 11 0.600 18 41 -23
Bob Toledo Tulane 2011 UTEP 7 0.400 7 44 -37
Houston Nutt Ole Miss 2011 Kentucky 9 0.375 13 30 -17
Mike Stoops Arizona 2011 Oregon State 6 0.000 27 37 -10
Mike Locksley New Mexico 2011 Sam Houston State 4 1.000 45 48 -3
Doug Martin Kent State 2010 Western Michigan 11 0.400 3 38 -35
Todd Dodge North Texas 2010 Florida International 7 0.200 10 34 -24
Tim Brewster Minnesota 2010 Purdue 7 0.600 17 28 -11
Dan Hawkins Colorado 2010 Kansas 9 0.250 45 52 -7
Tommy West Memphis 2009 Tennessee 9 0.500 28 56 -28
Mike Sanford UNLV 2009 Air Force 11 0.600 17 45 -28
David Elson Western Kentucky 2009 Troy 9 0.750 20 40 -20
Chuck Long San Diego State 2008 Utah 11 1.000 14 63 -49
Ron Prince Kansas State 2008 Kansas 9 0.625 21 52 -31
Ty Willingham Washington 2008 Notre Dame 7 0.667 7 33 -26
Greg Robinson Syracuse 2008 UConn 10 0.667 14 39 -25
Phil Fulmer Tennessee 2008 South Carolina 9 0.625 6 27 -21
Brent Guy Utah State 2008 Louisiana Tech 11 0.556 38 45 -7
Tommy Bowden Clemson 2008 Wake Forest 6 0.750 7 12 -5
Jeff Genyk Eastern Michigan 2008 Temple 11 0.300 52 55 -3
Tom Amstutz Toledo 2008 Central Michigan 8 0.714 23 24 -1
Phil Bennett SMU 2007 Tulsa 8 0.571 23 29 -6
Don Strock FIU 2006 Louisiana-Monroe 9 0.125 0 35 -35
Dan McCarney Iowa State 2006 Kansas 10 0.444 10 41 -31
John L. Smith Michigan State 2006 Indiana 9 0.500 21 46 -25
John Bunting UNC 2006 Virginia 7 0.286 0 23 -23
Darrell Dickey North Texas 2006 Louisiana Tech 9 0.250 31 34 -3