College Football Coaches Facing Make-or-Break Seasons in 2015
The college football crossroads are going to be a busy and stress-filled place in 2015.
The number of coaches heading into next season with a cloud of win-or-else expectations looming over their heads is as high as it's ever been in the FBS ranks. This past offseason only saw eight coaches either get fired or pushed out, only four of which were in power conferences, which really just means there is an overabundance of program leaders with their jobs on the line in 2015.
This isn't so much a list of coaches on the hot seat as it is of those who need to show some form of forward momentum this fall in order to maintain a certain standard of living. OK, maybe it is mostly a hot-seat barometer, though a few coaches we discuss aren't likely to get fired if next season doesn't produce positive results.
Now that the 2015 recruiting classes are signed and sealed, focus moves to spring ball and preparations for the year ahead. For these coaches, that also means figuring out a way to hold back the pitchfork-wielding masses.
Tim Beckman, Illinois
Year at school: 4th
Overall record at school: 12-25
2014 record: 6-7
Tim Beckman wants you to feel bad for him and for the Illinois program that he's done very little with in his first three seasons. The coach who has become famous for his "if only" type of pre- and postgame comments feels the Fighting Illini are very close to turning a corner, but it can't happen without a little help from others.
Particularly, the local media that covers Beckman and Illinois.
"We can be successful if we’re all in this together," Beckman told reporters Wednesday while discussing his 2015 recruiting class, which 247Sports rated as the 45th-best in the country and No. 7 in the Big Ten.
Beckman believes Illinois can fare better on the field if it can recruit better, but that would require the media to remain positive in their coverage of the team in order not to scare away potential future Illini. Somehow, Beckman's 4-20 record in conference play wouldn't contribute much to such trepidation, he believes.
Given a reprieve this past season by getting bowl-eligible for the first time—then getting beat handily by Conference USA team Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl—Beckman has some talented players to work with in 2015. Receiver Mike Dudek had a huge freshman year, and defensive end Jihad Ward was one of the top junior college pickups from the season before.
Anything less than another bowl bid will be hard for him to survive, no matter what is written about Illinois.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina
Year at school: 4th
Overall record at school: 21-17
2014 record: 6-7
Nobody has scored on North Carolina's defense since just after Christmas, but only because the Tar Heels haven't played since getting steamrolled by Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl.
That game capped one of the worst seasons in recent memory by a power-conference team in terms of trying to stop teams from scoring and moving the ball. The Tar Heels ranked 120th in yards allowed and gave up 39 points per game, yielding 40-plus in half of their contests.
Larry Fedora responded by cleaning house on defense, making numerous staff changes that included bringing in former Auburn coach Gene Chizik as his coordinator.
Since moving over from Southern Mississippi, Fedora's win total has dropped by one each season. The Tar Heels must halt that backslide or they'll looking for their fourth head coach since 2010.
Al Golden, Miami (Florida)
Year at school: 5th
Overall record at school: 28-22
2014 record: 6-7
Al Golden did wonders at Temple, and that landed him a major promotion by getting tabbed in 2011 to try and return Miami's backsliding program to its old standard of excellence. That hasn't happened yet, no matter how dapper Golden looks rocking his ties on the sideline.
The Hurricanes are coming off their first losing season since 2007, and they're working on an 11-year stretch without getting to double digits in the win column. In the previous two decades, 10 or more wins happened 14 times, along with several national championships.
Golden had a chance to jump ship and go to his alma mater after the 2013 season, yet he passed on the opportunity to be the one to lead Penn State out of NCAA sanction land similar to how he did at the start of his Miami tenure. That wasn't a smart move, according to Tyler Waddell of TodaysU.com.
"Golden is no longer welcomed in South Beach," Waddell wrote. "He did a fine job leading the Hurricanes through a cloud of NCAA sanctions, but 2014 was supposed to be the turning point—and instead, they went 6-7. He'll have to win the ACC Coastal Division in 2015 to guarantee another season, and I'm not so sure Miami will be capable of doing that."
Golden's record at this point in his Miami career is exactly the same as his predecessor, Randy Shannon, per InsideTheU.com. Both had the same overall record, same mark in ACC play (16-16) and both went 0-2 in bowl games.
That got Shannon fired. What must happen this season in order for Golden not to meet a similar fate?
Mike London, Virginia
Year at school: 6th
Overall record at school: 23-38
2014 record: 5-7
Despite only one winning season in his first four, and coming off an abysmal 2-10 record, Virginia's leadership felt it important to not only give Mike London another year on the job but also announce this just two days before the biggest game of 2014.
London's Cavaliers promptly went out and lost, 24-20, at rival Virginia Tech, a game they led with less than two minutes remaining.
Virginia landed a pair of major in-state defensive recruits before the 2014 season in safety Quin Blanding and defensive tackle Andrew Brown, but this recruiting cycle London could do no better than land the Commonwealth's seventh-best prospect, 4-star linebacker Jahvoni Simmons. The offense remains a work in progress, and now he heads into a win-or-else season with arguably the toughest nonconference schedule of any Power Five program.
The Cavaliers open at UCLA, then host Notre Dame and later have Boise State come to Charlottesville. Good luck with that.
Paul Rhoads, Iowa State
Year at school: 7th
Overall record at school: 29-46
2014 record: 2-10
To look at Paul Rhoads' future with Iowa State, we first have to look into the past, as painful as that may be for Cyclones fans.
Rhoads reached bowl games in three of his four seasons yet only won the first trip, and each of those initial four years ended with six or more losses. The bottom fell out in 2013, when injuries and some bad luck started to mount and the Cyclones won just three games.
Talk began then of Rhoads being on the hot seat, but last April Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register scoffed at such a notion, writing that "barring something way more disastrous than 3-9—and we're talking something off-the-charts bad—Rhoads will be the Cyclones' coach in 2015."
Iowa State went 2-10, but that apparently wasn't bad enough to warrant his firing. Having a buyout clause that would pay Rhoads $750,000 per year left on his contract (which runs through 2021) probably had a major influence on that, but at some point that shrinking payout might seem worth it to change direction from a coach that's trending severely downward.
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Year at school: 11th
Overall record at school: 84-45
2014 record: 7-6
The Head Ball Coach has said he nearly walked away after this past season, when a preseason Top 10 ranking disappeared after the first game and a series of befuddling results led to Steve Spurrier's worst mark with South Carolina since 2009. That was when he was just about to turn the corner and lift the Gamecocks to elite level, resulting in 42 wins over the next four seasons.
At 69 years old and with 226 college wins, second-most among active FBS coaches, there's not much left that Spurrier needs to prove to us. Instead, he's wanting to show himself he still has what it takes to guide a top-tier program.
He landed a solid 19th-ranked recruiting class this winter, going heavy on defensive players that have a chance to immediately improve a unit that struggled mightily in 2014. But he also faces his biggest quarterback dilemma in years, not to mention seeing in-state rival Clemson continue to rise.
If Spurrier doesn't see immediate progress, he might reverse his earlier reversal about retirement and focus on golf full time.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Year at school: 17th
Overall record at school: 168-44
2014 record: 8-5
He's the winningest coach in Oklahoma history, and one that at several times in his career (including this offseason, likely) could have jumped to the NFL or offered his services to another program looking for a proven winner. Instead, Bob Stoops heads into 2015 as one of three FBS coaches who have been with their schools since the 20th century and an aura around him like the college game has left him behind.
It was only the fourth time in Stoops' tenure that he failed to reach 10 wins, but the tally of times his Sooners have been highly ranked to start the season and fell far short of contending for a national title is much higher.
Oklahoma was the only team in the preseason Top 5 that didn't make the first playoff semifinals, instead the year ended with a blowout loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl that has drastically softened expectations for the upcoming season. Even with Stoops cleaning house on his coaching staff in an effort to infuse new blood into the program and a top 15 recruiting class headed to Norman, not much is expected from this team in 2015.
At least not compared to most of Stoops' previous years. While that could enable him to bounce back somewhat under the radar, it also means that the lack of an uptick could signal the Sooners program is no longer among the nation's elite.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Year at school: 3rd
Overall record at school: 7-17
2014 record: 5-7
Mark Stoops would kill to be in his older brother Bob's shoes, because that would mean he's had success in the past and built up enough goodwill to withstand some rough times. Instead, Kentucky's coach is entering the same season of his tenure that his predecessor, Joker Phillips, ended up getting fired after.
The difference, though, is that Phillips's teams got worse over his run while Stoops went from 2-10 in that first season to a game short of bowl eligibility in 2014.
The Wildcats were 5-1 at the midway point last year, then fell apart. Six straight losses, capped by a late loss to rival Louisville, sapped all of the momentum Stoops' career had created in his first year-and-a-half, and then the struggles continued as what was looking to be another promising recruiting class started losing players left and right.
"Stoops and his staff had to scramble as signing day approached, after a staggering six players in the span of eight days backed out of verbal commitments to the Wildcats," wrote Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who noted that some late acquisitions still enabled Kentucky to finish with the nation's 39th-best class.
Kentucky's 2014 class ranked 22nd, though, and came after winning just two games the season before.
Throw in the fact that Kentucky is in the midst of a $110 million renovation of its football stadium, funded heavily off donations made as a result of Stoops' early progress, and this season is the epitome of make-or-break for him.
Willie Taggart, South Florida
Year at school: 3rd
Overall record at school: 6-18
2014 record: 4-8
In 2007, South Florida headed to Rutgers for a Thursday night game in October as the No. 2 team in the country. The Bulls lost that game, and the next two after that, and since then have been a program desperately longing for a way to get back to that brief visit to the top of the college football mountain.
Willie Taggart looked like the guy to lead that ascent when he was hired from Western Kentucky in 2013. He'd turned the fledgling FBS program into a winner in just three years, and at 36 had the makings of one of the best young coaches in the country.
The turnaround has taken a little longer in Tampa, where after going 2-10 in his first season replacing Skip Holtz the win total doubled, but the overall struggles on offense remained. That compared to what Holtz did at his new gig at Louisiana Tech, going from 4-8 to 9-5 and winning his division in Conference USA.
The American Athletic Conference is basically another version of C-USA, with seven of its members coming from that league since Taggart got to South Florida. Taggart is 5-11 in conference games, beating only one that finished with a winning record that season.
Kevin Wilson, Indiana
Year at school: 5th
Overall record at school: 14-34
2014 record: 4-8
The only thing that makes Indiana a power program in football is its inclusion in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers haven't won more than seven games since 1993 and most seasons end with more losses than victories.
That might be why Kevin Wilson has survived this long despite never topping the five-win mark, somehow squandering a 2,000-yard rusher in Tevin Coleman as the Hoosiers only went 4-8 last season. They did lay de facto claim to the SEC East title, however, if the transitive property comes into play and you take into account their shocking win at Missouri in September.
Wilson isn't expected to win 10 games annually or compete for a division title, but making bowl games shouldn't be too much to ask. With the ability to schedule extremely light in nonconference play, Indiana would only need to pick off two Big Ten games each year to get to six wins, yet Wilson has gone 8-8 out of league in his tenure.
The 2015 pre-conference slate could go either way, with Southern Illinois and Florida International looking like easy wins but a visit from pass-happy Western Kentucky and a trip to Wake Forest being the kind of games Indiana could (and should) win but likely will end up dropping.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.