College Football Coaches Who Removed Themselves from the Hot Seat in 2020

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2020

College Football Coaches Who Removed Themselves from the Hot Seat in 2020

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    Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Gauging the temperature for a coach's proverbial "hot seat" is not always easy. In some cases, the tide can shift with a major victory or defeat, and in others, that precarious position is directly affected by applying the eyeball test to the on-field product.

    Several college football coaches are doing a great job of removing themselves from the front of the unemployment line because of what their teams are doing in 2020.

    As the Kevin Sumlin situation on Saturday proved, anything can happen this time of year if a showing is bad enough. The Arizona Wildcats dropped a 70-7 embarrassment to rival Arizona State on Friday night, and Sumlin was canned Saturday.

    Others could follow.

    There are a couple of rival coaches from the Pac-12 who did make it because of how their teams are trending, though the finality of the story is unclear. There's still plenty of time for disappointment to rear its ugly head.

    For others, they have gone from their steamy spot into the catbird's seat for big-time raises and national acclaim.

    In all cases, the men on this list have found a way to remove themselves from the frying pan for the time being, and in most cases, their jobs appear comfortable into 2021.

Brent Brennan, San Jose State Spartans

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    It's remarkable that a year ago, Brent Brennan looked like a dead man walking out in San Jose.

    What a difference a quarterback makes.

    Brennan hit the jackpot when Nick Starkel transferred west after unsuccessful stints at Texas A&M and Arkansas, and he's been a revelation for the Mountain West Conference's biggest surprise team.

    His emergence, other offensive weapons and a much-improved defense has led to the program's first 6-0 start since 1939 and set up a marquee matchup with Nevada last Friday in Las Vegas, where the Spartans stormed back for a massive victory that put them in their first-ever Mountain West title game.

    Though Brennan's Spartans took a step forward a year ago with a 5-7 record with star quarterback Josh Love at the helm, they lost three of their final four games to leave a bitter taste with a losing record when it looked like they were going to produce a major turnaround.

    The end to 2019 kept Brennan from removing himself totally from scrutiny, but this year is a different story. He is not only safe but turning in one of the best seasons out west.

    "It's funny," Brennan told the Mercury News' Curtis Pashelka earlier this year. "Everyone loves you when you win, they hate you when you lose. That's the world we live in, but I do think that it's pretty cool to hear from people, and know that a lot of people are excited about our process."

    The turnaround is remarkable. Brennan inherited a program that went 4-8 and immediately turned it into a team that produced just three wins in his first two seasons. The turnaround started last year, though, and this season, it's obvious he is building a quality Group of Five program.

    Not only is Brennan's job safe, but a bigger program could come calling if he keeps this up. With Arizona open, that's a potential destination spot.

Manny Diaz, Miami Hurricanes

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    A year ago, Manny Diaz looked nothing like the coach who could bring The U back in Coral Gables.

    Scuffling all season because of quarterback deficiencies, the Hurricanes turned in a 6-7 record.

    Yeah, the turnover chain and all that defensive talent were cool, but they looked awful on offense, finishing 90th nationally in points per game and bottoming out in a 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl to end the year.

    It was fair to question Diaz and whether he would get the job done as putrid as the offense was. It only took one year for him to part with offensive coordinator Dan Enos, which was a major red flag.

    Much like Brennan, though, Diaz was the beneficiary of a difference-making quarterback who brought a lot of swagger with him, and Miami was right in the thick of the ACC race all year. That would be Houston transfer D'Eriq King, of course, who, along with first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, turned things around.

    The defense was stout for much of the year, too.

    Despite Saturday's embarrassing 62-26 loss to North Carolina that went against pretty much every performance the 'Canes have put on their resume this year, they still have built some positivity even if the season soured a little.

    Though the storyline didn't play out quite like Miami had hoped with Notre Dame and Clemson set to meet again for a rematch in the ACC Championship Game, for the Hurricanes to battle for a spot all year is a massive improvement.

    The way Diaz is recruiting, the way he loves and understands the program and has plenty of famous alumni surrounding the team proves he gets the culture. The 2020 season was a huge step in the right direction, and there's little doubt now Diaz is the right man to run the 'Canes.

    They are going to be a force Clemson has to deal with for years to come. 

Dana Dimel, UTEP Miners

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    You may not be too familiar with the University of Texas El Paso Miners' football team, and that's OK. It hasn't been much to follow for many years.

    They were hoping Dana Dimel could help resurrect the program, but entering 2020, he was just 2-22 through his first two seasons. There were very few redeeming qualities, too. Rarely were the Miners ever competitive with anybody.

    It was looking like Dimel couldn't return to his glory days of leading a quality Wyoming program from 1997-99 before getting hired by Houston and flaming out. Successful assistant coaching stints at Arizona and Kansas State in recent years led to another opportunity.

    Now, it's looking like he may prolong his stay in El Paso a little longer following a better start this season.

    Can wins against Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian and Louisiana Monroe sustain you for the entire year, though? The team started 3-1 but dropped games against Louisiana Tech, Charlotte and UTSA before last Friday's game against North Texas.

    They lost a 45-43 heartbreaker to the Mean Green to drop yet another game, but they continued to be competitive, so that likely buys Dimel another year.

    With all the cancellations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's hard to envision UTEP penalizing Dimel by firing him this year, especially after he's already won more games than his first two years combined. In the loss to the Roadrunners last month, the Miners were without three starters in their secondary.

    Still, Dimel's team presses on, and he looks like he has done enough to show an upward trajectory, even if the team is still struggling to compete with Conference USA opponents week in and week out. The Dimel regime is at least moving in the right direction.

Dave Doeren, North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Ethan Hyman/Associated Press

    Dave Doeren has enjoyed a fairly successful eight-year run at North Carolina State, piecing together at least seven wins from his second season in 2014 through '18.

    But the Wolfpack have never really broken through and looked like an ACC contender, and that left plenty of people grumbling after last year thudded to a 4-8 disaster. Another season like that could have seen Doeren on the unemployment line.

    Instead, N.C. State busted out and is now 8-3 heading into another bowl game. The program looked much improved on both sides of the ball, and quarterback Bailey Hockman was a major part of the turnaround.

    "It's been a crazy year, but to break a record that these guys are very proud of ... I thought it was outstanding," Doeren told the North State Journal's Brett Friedlander

    "Looking at where we came from a year ago, we had one ACC win. Now we have seven. That's quite a year when you talk about improvement. The beauty of it is that a lot of these guys are back. It's going to be a fun offseason."

    The future looks much brighter in Raleigh than it did a season ago, and Doeren could have the program ready to take another step forward. If he can turn 7-8 wins a year into 9 or 10, it will be fairly unprecedented for a team that has pretty much been middle-of-the-pack forever.

    With Mack Brown enjoying a renaissance in his second stint at rival North Carolina, it's good for the Wolfpack to have their own continuity if they can keep Doeren and he can continue to build his program into one a proud fanbase can be excited about.

    The 2020 season was a step in the right direction and ended any current talk that Doeren isn't the answer.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Pat Fitzgerald is a favorite son of Northwestern, and it always was going to take more than one bad season to toss him out as the head man of the Wildcats.

    But after four consecutive winning seasons, Northwestern tossed out a colossal clunker in 2019, finishing the season at 3-9 and looking awful on offense and especially at the quarterback position.

    Suddenly, things weren't so much of a lock for Fitzgerald's career at his alma mater. Though he'd been there since 2006, another poor season could have led to some difficult questions for the Wildcats. Thankfully for the program brass, they aren't going to have to worry about that.

    Northwestern's 2020 team is built around a rock-solid defense that takes on the persona of its coach. But after beating Illinois on Saturday, the Wildcats are now 6-1 and look like the odds-on favorite to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game.

    Much like several other teams on this list, at least a portion of the success can be attributed to a transfer quarterback. 

    In Northwestern's case, that would be Indiana graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey, who saw the writing on the wall in Bloomington with rising star Michael Penix Jr. set to seize that job. Ramsey remained in the conference and didn't travel too far away to find his new home.

    Though Ramsey hasn't been consistently great this year, he's been steady, and his veteran leadership presence has been a boon to a program that played so poorly at the position a year ago. His arrival has bridged the gap until the Wildcats can find their quarterback of the future.

    Fitzgerald is going to be around to make that decision, as well, unless he heads to the NFL. Was he ever really on shaky ground? It's doubtful it was that bad, but the turnaround has been impressive.

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M Aggies

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    When you're pulling down $7.5 million per season, you have to win football games, and you've got to win more than a few.

    When you're coaching in the rugged SEC West for a proud program with tons of big-money boosters who ponied up to pluck you away from Florida State and a situation that wasn't going as well as during the Seminoles' 2014 national championship season, it could lead to grumbles.

    Jimbo Fisher needed to win at Texas A&M this year to quell any concerns. He had a young and talented defense that was entering the second season under famed defensive coordinator Mike Elko, several offensive playmakers and a senior star quarterback in Kellen Mond.

    The 9-4 and 8-5 campaigns from the previous years weren't quite going to cut it.

    Thankfully for Fisher and the Aggies, they've stormed out to a 7-1 start to the season, and if anybody stumbles in the race to the College Football Playoff, they stand to benefit. The only loss was a lopsided one to arguably the nation's top team in Alabama, and there are no other blemishes.

    The negative with that is the Aggies won't get to go to Atlanta to represent the SEC West. The good news is that may not wind up being a bad thing, as they could sit at home and still punch their ticket to college football's final four.

    Barring a stinker game down the stretch, the Aggies are going to wind up with a wildly successful season, and Fisher is being celebrated rather than slammed in College Station. The contract he signed is looking like money well-invested as the program is proving it's on the upswing.

    There won't be any quick triggers in Aggieland this year. If you're looking for drama, look westward toward Austin.

Clay Helton, USC Trojans

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    There was perhaps no hotter seat in college football entering the season than USC coach Clay Helton's.

    You can't be mired in mediocrity at one of the nation's most historic college football programs and sitting on a world of talent and bringing in awful recruiting classes like the Trojans did in 2020 and keep your job. Things looked bleak for Helton.

    Then the season started.

    With Kedon Slovis at the helm running coordinator Graham Harrell's offense, the Trojans have looked downright explosive and perhaps the cream of the Pac-12 again. The defense is bolstered by a fast, talented secondary, and they're making strides on that side of the ball under first-year coordinator Todd Orlando.

    Yes, there are some blemishes like the inability to run the ball and some holes in the defensive front seven, but it was a great start to the season.

    They continued their undefeated run by erasing an 18-point deficit to beat rival UCLA 43-38 on Saturday night and keep those good vibes moving through the program. There's a lot of positivity right now, and the sentiment this program is improving seems to be going national.

    Now, it's just a matter of whether Helton can turn enough of the fans and boosters toward his side. If there really was a quiet-but-powerful minority that secretly hoped for struggles in a "throw-away" 2020 season so the program could move away from Helton, they're disappointed.

    Helton has experienced his share of issues, but he has two terrific coordinators, a bevy of offensive talent and a team that looks like the best in the Pac-12 South, if not the entire conference. 

    There is still time for the season to sour, but Helton looks like he's doing enough to keep the reins of the program for at least another year. The Trojans are rebounding on the recruiting trail, too, so things are looking up in Troy.

Tom Herman, Texas Longhorns

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    This has been a wacky season for Texas and coach Tom Herman.

    In the first season after he fired both coordinators, the No. 21-ranked Longhorns are 6-3 and have experienced spurts of positivity interspersed with frustrating, close losses to rival Oklahoma, TCU and Iowa State.

    Just a couple of weeks ago, news leaked there was a major flirtation between the Longhorns and retired coach Urban Meyer, where Meyer wound up pulling his name out of consideration for a job that wasn't really open but probably would have been had he expressed interest.

    None of that mixture of news, rumors and the petty meddling that constantly surrounds the UT program can be good for recruiting or for a coach's positive vibes about his future. Perhaps that's why the university's athletic director, Chris Del Conte, came out Saturday and reiterated Herman's immediate future.

    "There's been a lot of speculation about the future of our football coach," Del Conte said in a statement, according to ESPN's Sam Khan Jr. "My policy is to wait until the end of the season before evaluating and commenting on our program and coaches. With the close of the regular season, I want to reiterate that Tom Herman is our coach."

    But for how long? This is about coaches who've coached themselves off the hot seat this year, and with Del Conte saying that, Herman is included. He is going to have to accomplish more next season for the Longhorns if he wants to keep his job beyond that, though.

    Herman signed a big contract and was once one of the industry's hottest young names after being Meyer's offensive coordinator at Ohio State and the success he had in his first head coaching job at Houston. He's got to find a way to recapture that in a hurry.

Chip Kelly, UCLA Bruins

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    When Chip Kelly signed a contract worth $3.5 million per year a couple of seasons ago, it got the talking heads whirring, wondering just what his tenure would hold.

    Would he pick up where he left off before bolting to the NFL when he had the Oregon Ducks turned into the Pac-12's most dominant team, a high-flying offense that played for a national championship and produced wins by the bucketload?

    Or would his teams resemble the disjointed NFL teams he plodded out there during a forgettable pro career that left nothing but disappointed fans and disgruntled players in its wake?

    For the first two seasons in Westwood, it looked like it would be the latter. 

    The Bruins stumbled to a 3-9 first season under Kelly and improved that by just one win a season ago. The defense was a revolving door allowing opponents to score at will, and Kelly's regime looked like just a different breed of disappointment than the Jim Mora Jr. era.

    But things just look different this year. Wins over California and Arizona were nice kick-starters, but the victory over Arizona State two weekends ago was a big win where the Bruins had to handle some adversity and looked good doing it.

    They are on the cusp of doing big things, and it's obvious how much they've improved. They dropped a heartbreaker to USC in which they led the majority of the game, and while that was tough to stomach, the program growth is evident.

    Most importantly, there appears to be development on both sides of the ball. Dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a playmaker who makes things happen with his arm or feet, and he has playmakers around him.

    The recruiting still needs to pick up a bit, but with a better year on the field, it might. This is just what UCLA fans hoped to see.

    Is this Oregon circa 2010-12? Far from it. But UCLA is getting better.

Philip Montgomery, Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    We've been here before with Philip Montgomery.

    In 2016, the Tulsa head coach led his Golden Hurricane to a 10-3 record and an offensive outburst that had everybody excited in the AAC. The program looked like it was heading in the right direction in the coach's second season.

    But 2-10, 3-9 and 4-8 followed, and the Art Briles disciple found himself in some extremely hot water.

    The biggest difference in '16 and now is the Golden Hurricane have turned their fates around on the defensive side of the ball with coordinator Joseph Gillespie transforming that side of the ball.

    Suddenly, Tulsa is 6-1, and with this past weekend's game against Cincinnati canceled, they will play the Bearcats in the conference title game Saturday.

    Their climb to the upper part of the AAC is remarkable considering the team has endured five canceled games and three postponements because of COVID-19. Wins over Tulane, SMU, East Carolina and UCF have all been by eight points or fewer. The only loss came in the season opener to Oklahoma State.

    Now, despite playing just seven games, Montgomery has his team poised to play for a conference title, even if it is against a Cincinnati team that will be heavily favored and have a lot more talent. They can't complain.

    "At the first of the year if we said, 'We're going to get an opportunity to play for a championship, but we're going to have to go to Cincinnati to do that,' they would have said, 'Let's roll,'" Montgomery told the Tulsa World's Kelly Hines. "I think we've got to look at it that way. I think our guys will be motivated. ... They're locked in and focused about bringing a championship back home."

    If they do, it would be a remarkable feat, but everything about Montgomery's rebound season has been pretty unbelievable. He's now secure for the foreseeable future.

Mike Neu, Ball State Cardinals

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    At the start of the MAC season, no coach was on thinner ice than Ball State's Mike Neu.

    In four seasons in Muncie, Neu had yet to produce a winning season, but 2020 has seen a dramatic improvement for the Cardinals. They capped it with an incredible 30-27 win over Western Michigan on Saturday to earn a spot in the MAC Championship Game.

    Like Brennan, Montgomery and Fitzgerald, it's not only been a step forward, it's been a complete 180-degree turnaround in the program's direction.

    This was simply a make-or-break year for Neu, who returned senior quarterback Drew Plitt, star running back Caleb Huntley and a shutdown defense that led the MAC with 15 interceptions a season ago. All of those things have come together this season, and that's a big reason why they are 5-1.

    A season-opening loss to Miami (Ohio) stung, but they followed it up with wins over Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois and then big ones over Toledo and Central Michigan.

    Neu is probably going to lead his team to his first-ever bowl game as a head coach this year barring a monumental collapse. That's a major turnaround for a coach who had produced a 15-33 record and an 8-24 slate in the MAC before this season.

    Despite having a bunch of talent on both sides of the ball, the Cardinals haven't been able to put it together under Neu, but that has changed this year. Ball State is a tough place to win, and Neu has finally proved to the rest of the wild and wacky MAC he can do it this year.

    It's going to be enough to save his job, and with the eligibility options opening things up for Plitt, Huntley and Co. to return next year, this could be a nice two-year run for Neu.

    He will have to sustain it over a longer run than that, but a nice 2020 season has put his job on firm footing, and the Cardinals look like a program on the rise.