In the main photo for this story (above, at the top of the page), you’ll see Larry Coker and Frank Solich, flanked by their star quarterbacks, Ken Dorsey and Eric Crouch.
Coker and Solich were preparing to lead Miami and Nebraska into the 2002 Rose Bowl, the BCS National Championship Game for the 2001 season.
Within five years of that clash, both men had been pushed out of their jobs.
The term “pushed out” is used because employment situations sometimes result in “forced resignations” as well as outright firings. Coaches aren’t always “fired,” but they are “pushed out” regardless of whether a firing or a forced resignation applies.
Why take the time to make that distinction? What might seem like an odd definitional detour is meant to set up the central topic of this piece.
Coaches can leave their jobs for a number of reasons.
Leaving due to retirement can be unpleasant. Consider the case of Bobby Bowden at Florida State; that was not a bitter sendoff, but it wasn’t the sweet and triumphant ride into the sunset a career of such stature deserved. However, retirement often isn’t a reflection of coaching acumen; more than anything, it’s usually a product of getting old or burning out. It’s not a verdict on a coach’s ability to win games.
Excluding retirements from the equation, and also excluding what are distinctly off-field episodes — scandals, incidents, NCAA investigations, violations, academic embarrassments, etc. — coaches are most commonly pushed out for failing to win enough. Other reasons enter a layered picture, but at its core, a typical instance of a “push-out” in the coaching industry comes from on-field performance — or more precisely, a lack thereof.
Having established this parameter, consider the following question: How many college football coaches in the 21st century have followed the unpleasant path carved out by Coker and Solich, as a result of being pushed out within five years of making a national championship game?
The follow-up: How does this compare to the 1990s and, for that matter, the last 25 years of the 20th century?
You might be surprised. You might not. Yet, the answers to these questions are certainly striking, and they draw a bright red line between eras in college football history.
It’s not likely that Brian Kelly will be fired at Notre Dame.
It’s becoming increasingly likely that Mark Helfrich will be fired at Oregon, but his situation ultimately remains uncertain. The administration could cut him some slack and give him one more chance to repair the UO program in 2017, alongside newly-hired defensive coordinator Brady Hoke.
Gus Malzahn of Auburn looked like a dead duck after a September loss to Texas A&M, but he hasn’t lost since. However, one of the coaches he defeated, Les Miles, was fired a day after Auburn’s win over LSU. Miles — because of his crash-and-burn 2016 season — landed himself on the Coker-Solich list of coaches who were pushed out within five years of coaching a national championship game (in the 2011 season, the 2012 BCS title game versus Alabama).
Just imagine, then, if Kelly, Helfrich and Malzahn join Miles on the unemployment line by the end of this season. If this happens, something truly remarkable in college football history will occur.
Mack Brown coached Texas in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game (at the end of the 2009 season). He was pushed out within five years.
Gene Chizik coached Auburn in the 2011 BCS title game. He was gone within five years (more precisely, within two).
Miles, as noted above, coached LSU in the 2012 BCS national title tilt. He didn’t escape the five-year barrier after that moment in the national spotlight.
See the pattern being drawn here?
Kelly coached in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game at Notre Dame.
Malzahn coached in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game at Auburn. He could follow Chizik’s path on the Plains.
Helfrich coached in the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Oregon.
There is a chance — maybe not a huge one, but it exists — that for SIX STRAIGHT SEASONS, a coach in a national championship game could be pushed out within five years of that magnificent accomplishment.
Just let that sink in.
Now, consider the 1990s, which admittedly didn’t have a guaranteed stand-alone national championship game until the 1999 Fiesta Bowl (the first BCS title game) between Florida State and Tennessee. Because of the lack of a single national championship game more years than not (the 1992 and 1995 seasons were the only exceptions in the decade), a lot more coaches coached in games with national championship implications.
For instance, the 1990 season involved two such games: Bill McCartney guided Colorado into the 1991 Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, and Bobby Ross led Georgia Tech into the 1991 Citrus Bowl against Nebraska.
Before the 1990s, New Year’s Day (or if January 1 was a Sunday, then January 2) sometimes became particularly chaotic. Consider January of 1984. The Orange, Cotton and Sugar Bowls were all games in which one team either would have or could have claimed a share of the national title with a victory. To this day, Auburn fans will say (legitimately) that they should have at least shared the 1983 national title with Miami. At any rate, one can say that in the January 1984 bowls (at the end of the 1983 season), four coaches had a “win and in” national title scenario: Miami’s Howard Schnellenberger and Nebraska’s Tom Osborne; Pat Dye of Auburn; and Fred Akers of Texas.
(Akers and 1983 are very intentionally included, for reasons you’ll soon see.)
In the 1990s, only one coach who coached in a national title game was pushed out within five years: Arizona State’s Bruce Snyder would have won the natty in the 1996 season had his Sun Devils stopped a last-minute Ohio State drive in the 1997 Rose Bowl. When Florida beat No. 1 Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl, Arizona State would have ascended to No. 1 with a victory in Pasadena. At the end of the 2000 season, Snyder was fired by current Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.
Wait a minute, you might say — Miami’s Dennis Erickson didn’t last very long after coaching for the national title in the 1992 season. Remember, though: He left because of scandal, not on-field performance.
Similarly, Bill McCartney of Colorado retired in the mid-1990s. He wasn’t pushed out. Gene Stallings of Alabama retired. Don James of Washington left because of an off-field scandal. Snyder is the only “push-out” in the entire 1990s.
In the 15 years before 1990, Akers at Texas is the only example of a push-out. Lots of national-title-game coaches in that period (1975-1989) either left for new jobs (John Robinson of USC going to the Los Angeles Rams, Johnny Majors of Pitt going to Tennessee), were forced out for off-field reasons (Barry Switzer at Oklahoma), or retired (Bear Bryant at Alabama).
Has the coaching industry changed since the turn of the century?
It’s a rhetorical question, largely because of the extent to which coaches in national title games don’t hold onto their positions in the current climate. This simply didn’t happen very often in the final 25 years of the previous century. If the ball bounces the wrong way at Auburn, Oregon and Notre Dame in the next seven weeks, a six-season streak of national title game coaches failing to last five more years could be established.
It gives one pause.