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:
- Lost to a team that entered with a crappy record
- Got blown out
- 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|
|Gary Andersen||Utah State||2020||Nevada||3||1.000||9||34||-25|
|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|
|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|
|David Beaty||Kansas||2018||Iowa State||9||0.571||3||27||-24|
|Mike Jinks||Bowling Green||2018||Western Michigan||7||0.667||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|
|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|
|Dan McCarney||North Texas||2015||Portland State||5||0.750||7||66||-59|
|Norm Chow||Hawaii||2015||Air Force||9||0.571||7||58||-51|
|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|
|Jeff Quinn||Buffalo||2014||Eastern Michigan||7||0.200||27||37||-10|
|Will Muschamp||Florida||2014||South Carolina||9||0.444||20||23||-3|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|Darrell Dickey||North Texas||2006||Louisiana Tech||9||0.250||31||34||-3|