Why Coaches Get Judged 1 Game at a Time in Cutthroat World of College Football

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterSeptember 21, 2012

The life of a college-football head coach isn’t one I envy. The money is prodigious, the perks are magnificent and you are required to spend each day and night deep in football thought. The problem, however, is that you spend nearly every waking hour thinking about football, because if you don’t, you’ll be out of a job.

Even if you do, you’ll be out of a job, at least at some point. It’s the nature of the beast, and few coaches can avoid the axe that will eventually fall. In fact, the only way to truly run away is to run away—to retire or change scenery altogether. Otherwise, the scenery will eventually change you.

The pressure of being “the guy” has taken on a new face in recent years. Expectations are much more media-driven, and the growing popularity of the sport has created a more engulfing spotlight. This cuts both ways. Your successes are appreciated more, at least in the moment, while failures are broadcast loud and clear. If the media catches on, so will everyone else. It’s unfair in many instances, but it comes with the territory.

If you coach in a BCS conference, you’re given very little leeway. You have a year or two to get settled and bring in recruiting classes that will be nowhere near fully developed, but after that it’s gloves off. We are a very impatient group, but you knew that already.

If you land at a job at a school with football history, you’re expected to turn it around immediately. You’ll have a brief buffer phase following the smiles and handshakes in which you’ll be allowed to settle in. It won’t last, however, and judgment will be cast the moment you walk through the tunnel for the very first time. Oh God, don’t trip.

From that moment on, the clock is ticking. If you lose a handful of games you shouldn’t, it’ll speed up. If you lose to your rival—regardless of whether or not you had a realistic shot of winning the game—it’ll speed up at an alarming rate. And if that rival, or even others in the conference, are enjoying substantial success while you trend towards the unimaginable “average” or even the dreaded “slightly below average” season, well, then it’s probably best you update that resume.

It isn’t just the media that will be eagerly anticipating a change. Those that sign away large sums of money for facilities, robust contracts and other elaborate expenses have more say in this discussion than we’d like to believe. Each booster isn’t granted his or her own “DUMP” button, but they do have an influence. Their voices are heard, not by us, but by those tasked with making key decisions and through their actions.

There’s much more than “Angry Rich Donor on line one” that goes into firing a head coach, but it is a factor. Many of them are just incredibly wealthy, sometimes unhappy superfans with open lines to people with power. That’s a dangerous combination, especially when things really turn ugly.

It has already turned ugly in 2012 for a handful of head coaches whose current statuses measure well beyond “hot seat.”

John L. Smith’s chair of inferno needs no description, and there is no road map to recovery. This job, barring a miraculous championship run, was a rental to begin with. When the hammer drops is what we’re waiting to learn, and it’s quite possible we could see an interim coach replace an interim coach.

Kentucky’s Joker Phillips has lost to rival Louisville as well as Western Kentucky in the first three weeks of the year. You could argue that his fate was sealed before these games, although Western Kentucky might have been the game he had to have. With a full SEC gauntlet (albeit one on the lighter side) on the horizon, there is no help in sight.

Outside of just a handful of coaches, however, much is up in the balance. No coach endured more hot-seat chatter than Tennessee’s Derek Dooley heading into the season.

The team’s opener against N.C. State was one he absolutely had to win. The swarm of negativity surrounding his status might have been too much to overcome, although clearly there were plenty of opportunities ahead. The Vols’ performance in that game silenced this chatter, and despite an ugly loss to Florida in Week 3, Dooley’s status is on more on solid ground at the moment. As we are well aware, however, this can change rapidly. Within one week, to be exact.

It was only one game, the first game, but he had to have it. The sharks circled, waiting for the first drop of blood. It didn’t come, so they let up for the time being. They will be back, however.

Auburn head coach Gene Chizik—only a calendar removed from his national championship—knows this exercise well, and the whispers regarding a potential replacement are growing stronger. He’s gone from crystal ball to unwanted mug seemingly overnight, and his ultimate rival has won, rebuilt and now appears poised for a run at the hardware once again.

While top-ranked Alabama dismantled a dismantled Arkansas team in Week 3, Auburn struggled to get past a scrappy UL-Monroe bunch. The Tigers needed a magnificently drawn-up trick play and a Hail Mary at the end of the half to do so, but they got by.

A loss could’ve sent Chizik’s future into a tailspin. A win prevented such a thing from happening, although the whispers got a little louder and the spotlight grew a little brighter with the closeness of the outcome.

It was one game, it was a game that he won and it is completely and utterly unfair. But it doesn’t matter. Coaches know this routine of staying alive and keeping the sharks at bay. You win, you stay alive, you move on.

Until the very next week, when it starts all over again.