College Football Coaches Who Removed Themselves from the Hot Seat in 2019
Last December, we authored a list of 13 coaches who would start the 2019 season on the hot seat. Six of those coaches are gone.
Another few of them did enough to keep their jobs this season, but they still get scorched seats when they sit down. But who did enough to remove themselves from the hot seat?
Some of the guys on last year's list made this one. Others would have been in danger right now with bad seasons that never transpired. Still others got off to rough starts only to rally.
Firing coaches is part of college football, and unless your team is involved, everybody loves the "silly season" of coaching searches, wild internet rumors and ultimate hires. The coaches on this list survived those shenanigans for now and appear safe for another season.
In other words, somebody like USC's Clay Helton or San Jose State's Brent Brennan still has a job, but they haven't done enough to remove themselves from the hot seat.
Let's take a look at some who have and another one who has parlayed his rebound season perhaps into another job.
Troy Calhoun, Air Force
Entering the season, veteran Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was not feeling the pressure despite back-to-back 5-7 seasons. Throughout his 13-year career, he'd built enough goodwill to earn the benefit of the doubt.
But another poor season likely would have started the rumors swirling and turned up the temperature on Calhoun, especially among the highly competitive service academies.
The Falcons went 1-1 against the other service academies this year, losing to Navy but beating Army. Those were just two turns on a winding road of an extremely successful season. Air Force finished the regular season 10-2 and went 7-1 in the Mountain West Conference.
The only other loss this year was to Boise State, who won the conference title Saturday.
The Falcons also upset instate Power Five foe Colorado, stunning the Buffaloes in a 30-23 win on September 14.
After a couple of rocky seasons, the Falcons finished the year third in the league in scoring offense and scoring defense while again leading the league in rushing offense. Calhoun guided a very good football team this year, and it probably afforded him the luxury of remaining just outside Colorado Springs for as long as he wants.
Calhoun has become a staple with the program, and it looks like it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Starting the season 2-2 with an embarrassing loss to a Boston College team that ultimately fired its coach and a lopsided setback to a bad Duke football team ramped up questions about the future of Justin Fuente in Blacksburg.
The Hokies hired him to replace legendary coach Frank Beamer after a successful tenure at Memphis, and he started strongly with 10-4 and 9-4 marks the first two seasons. Last year, everything fell apart with a 6-7 record.
A struggling start for a proud program was not what Hokies fans wanted to see.
Though there will be some loud grumbles about a 39-30 regular-season-ending loss to rival Virginia to snap a 15-year winning streak, there won't be any questions surrounding Fuente for the next several months.
Following the loss to the Blue Devils, Tech reeled off six of seven wins with the only loss being a 21-20 setback to Notre Dame before the disappointing defeat at the end of the year. The Hokies finished 8-4 and, with a bowl win, it could be another successful year.
On one hand, bigger things are expected from the Hokies than what Fuente has produced so far, and with the ACC being on a major down cycle, they could be taking advantage but haven't. On the other, it's not easy churning out eight- or nine-win seasons.
Fuente is safe for now, but he needs another conference championship game appearance soon, or the heat will be back on.
Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic
Talk about a comeback.
It's debatable whether Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin's job security was really up in the air, but the 2018 season was a major disappointment as the Owls went from Group of Five darling to out of the postseason with a 5-7 record.
He needed to prove he was really the resurgent coaching star worthy of leading a major program again after a successful rehabilitation stint as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama.
The 2019 season did that as Florida Atlantic finished 10-3 with a blowout victory over UAB to win his second Conference USA championship in three years Saturday. After the game, Ole Miss announced Kiffin would be the Rebels' next head coach, hiring him away from Boca Raton.
The former head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Vols and USC Trojans used his big third season with the Owls to enter his name into discussions for vacancies at Florida State, Arkansas and Ole Miss. The Rebels pulled the trigger, giving Kiffin his second stint as a head coach in the SEC.
He's going back to a league with which he is familiar, and Kiffin now seemingly has the maturity to handle it, or, at least, he has kept his notorious mouth quiet other than the occasional jab or two on social media.
There's no question Kiffin is a brilliant offensive mind who has a high ceiling in Oxford, a place with loyal fans that has remained dormant for too long. Hugh Freeze's tenure had its high points, but it came crashing down under the black cloud of NCAA scrutiny.
Now that he's back at a Power Five program, Kiffin has to prove he can build a high-quality staff, walk the recruiting line and, most importantly, win in the rugged SEC West.
Kiffin's big year in Boca Raton earned him another shot at coaching stardom.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Has there ever been a coach with a more Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship with his program and fans than Auburn coach Gus Malzahn?
It seems every year, he either has led the Tigers to a shocking season and is one of the hottest names in the coaching carousel, or everybody on the Plains wishes they could fire him if only there were a way around his massive buyout.
This year, it seems, may be quiet on the Malzahn front for a change.
Two offseasons ago, there was the huge flirtation with the Arkansas Razorbacks, who ultimately settled for Chad Morris (whom they've fired already). Last year with high expectations and a seasoned quarterback in Jarrett Stidham, Auburn had a disappointing season.
With everybody talking about Alabama and LSU this year, Auburn had a sneaky-strong season, beginning with a win over Oregon and ending it with another upset of Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in a classic Iron Bowl. It's the Tigers' second win in three years against their hated rival.
True freshman quarterback Bo Nix looks like a future star, the running game consistently improved, and Kevin Steele's defense continues to be among the league's best every year.
With another mediocre season, you have to think the Auburn brass would have pulled the plug on the Malzahn regime. There's just too much pressure with Nick Saban's powerhouse program in the state.
But Malzahn called his own plays this year and had more success doing so than not, and he proved once again, he has the winning formula against the Crimson Tide. They aren't building any statues of Malzahn anytime soon in the Loveliest City on the Plains, but they're definitely happy with him right now.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
A once-proud program that has gone through far too many coaching changes over the past decade looked like it may be facing yet another one after a shocking early-season start.
Tennessee fell to Georgia State (possibly the program's worst loss ever) and BYU at Neyland Stadium to start the year 0-2. With a gauntlet facing the Vols, it looked like coach Jeremy Pruitt may be on his way to leading UT to its first nine-loss season in program history.
Along the way, though, the Vols got on track, buying into Pruitt's way of doing things. They rallied for five consecutive victories to close the season in a stretch that saw them win six of seven and wind up 7-5.
Now, they are heading to a bowl game for the first time since 2016. All of a sudden, it looks like Pruitt may be the answer, after all.
On one hand, the Vols are disappointed they aren't 9-3, but the rough start may have been what ultimately galvanized the program. Whatever the case, Pruitt went from athletic director Phillip Fulmer having to issue a statement in support to leading one of the SEC's hottest programs.
The Vols arguably have been the league's worst team the past couple of seasons as Butch Jones got ousted and Pruitt came in. But they took a necessary step forward by surpassing South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt this year.
Defensively, things have clicked, and the future is bright. With Jarrett Guarantano at the helm of the offense, they've found their way on that side of the ball, too.
Pruitt needs to keep the program heading in the right direction, but there are few questions about the program's current position.
Kalani Sitake, BYU
Kalani Sitake is a players' coach who is loved by many of the BYU Cougars. He's also a passionate, energetic leader whose sideline antics speak for themselves on his intensity.
But the Cougars are a proud program that plays a rigorous schedule every year, and there's no toleration in their rich history for many subpar seasons. So Sitake's status was up in the air entering 2019.
After a 7-5 season that included a win over Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, USC at home and Boise State at home, he received a contract extension through the 2023 season, according to the Salt Lake Tribune's Norma Gonzalez.
Disappointing losses to South Florida and Toledo prove the program isn't where it wants to be, but Sitake will have the opportunity to lead the Cougars there.
Right now, it's hard to gauge what to expect out of the BYU coach. He started his tenure 9-4 but followed it up with a 4-9 record. After going 7-6 a season ago, the Cougars are on track to finish in that vicinity again this year.
They need to make strides, but they battled quarterback injuries all year, and Sitake did a good job preventing the team from unraveling. With quarterback Zach Wilson back for another couple of seasons, the first order of business for the coach needs to be to better surround him with playmakers.
The Cougars need an improved rushing attack to achieve offensive balance, but things are looking up on defense. Sitake will have a chance to rectify the issues on both sides of the ball thanks to the extension.
This is looking like his team for now.
Jonathan Smith, Oregon State
It's not every season a coach saves himself with a losing record, but Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith proved throughout this year's 5-7 campaign he's the right guy to lead his alma mater.
The former Beavers quarterback inherited a woebegone program that dwelt firmly in the cellar of the Pac-12, and while they suffered a disappointing finish to the regular season and won't go bowling, this year was a major step in the right direction in Corvallis.
With quarterback Jake Luton, Smith built a probable NFL signal-caller prospect who had a sterling senior season, and offensive weapons abounded. The defense still has major issues, so that's what Smith needs to tackle next.
Still, the Beavers were a late fourth-quarter collapse against Washington State in the regular season's penultimate game away from going bowling. They couldn't upend Oregon in the Civil War to end the season, so they'll be watching bowls yet again.
Luton is leaving, so the Beavers have to find somebody else to orchestrate the offense, but there are a lot of positives for Smith's tenure. After going 1-11 and 2-10 the previous two years, five wins in Smith's second year at the helm was refreshing.
This program is nowhere near contending for conference titles yet, but Smith and his coaching staff did a lot of work to help build the foundation of getting back to a winning record this year.
Can they take another step next season? It's going to be tough without Luton, but there are some pieces in place for Smith to get them bowl-eligible.
Lovie Smith, Illinois
Entering the season, Illinois' Lovie Smith had gone from a former Super Bowl coach of the Chicago Bears and a "splash" hire to needing a strong showing to save his job with the Illinois Fighting Illini.
He enjoyed a superb middle stretch of the season to solidify the program and take a major step toward respectability in the rugged Big Ten.
The biggest win of the year came when Illinois upset Wisconsin on October 19, and the Illini followed that up with Purdue, Rutgers and Michigan State. They finished the season 6-6, and Smith likely will have at least another opportunity in 2020 to prove he can keep the job.
There were still plenty of disappointing moments this year for Smith, though. So his spot is the most tenuous on this list. A couple of early-season losses to Nebraska and especially Eastern Michigan were not pretty, though the Minnesota setback aged well.
Then with some late-season momentum after beating the Spartans, Smith's team lost (understandably) to Iowa but closed the year with an ugly, lopsided 29-10 loss to a bad Northwestern team.
"I have to do a better job than that," Smith said on the radio, according to 247Sports' Jeremy Werner. "We're a better team than that."
With Smith not planning any staff changes (via SI.com's Matthew Stevens) it looks like the Illinois coach believes in what he has and is going to ride or die in trying to rebuild the program into one that can compete in the Big Ten.
This year, he proved he can win some games, but there still needs to be a lot more consistency, or he'll find himself right back on the hot seat next year.