Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt was trying to balance the needs of the program with the needs of its current players. When considering an in-season coaching change, they are not always one and the same.
Hocutt, as eight other ADs overseeing major college football programs have already done since September, decided to make a move with a big chunk of season still to play. Texas Tech fired Matt Wells on Oct. 25 and has already hired his replacement.
“I owe it to the players to make the very best decisions that relate to their student-athlete experience and their careers at Texas Tech,” Hocutt said. “And at the same time, I owe it to the university and our fan base and community to make the very best decisions for this football program, long-term, as well.”
The coaching carousel is spinning faster than ever in college football, propelled by the early signing period for recruits, increased freedom for transferring players and impatient school supporters who demand action when teams are struggling.
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Making a coaching change well before the end of the season has gone from a rare and stunning development — think Southern California firing Lane Kiffin after five games in 2013 or LSU sacking Les Miles four games into the 2016 season — to a fairly common occurrence.
This season is setting a new standard. Nine head coaches have been fired already, including eight before Nov. 1, which is the most in any season going back 10 years.
“When you arrive at a position where you believe a decision is inevitable, then it’s time to make that decision. It’s time to act,” Hocutt said.
Things really began to speed up in 2017, when the NCAA implemented an early signing period in college football about a week before Christmas. It immediately replaced the traditional signing period in February as the time most recruits ink national letters of intent.
Ideally, schools want to have a new head coach in place at least a week before the early signing period, which this year begins Dec. 15. With most teams ending their regular seasons Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 25-27), that means less than two weeks to get a search done if an AD waits.
“The Dec. 15 deadline changes everything,” TCU AD Jeremiah Donati said last week after the school parted ways with longtime coach Gary Patterson.
Getting a head start on a search has some benefits.
Daniel Parker, vice president and managing director of Parker Executive Search’s sports practice, said his firm will not start contacting candidates or their representatives for a job until it is officially open.
Working with Georgia Southern after it fired Chad Lunsford on Sept. 27, Parker was able to do a deeper dive into what the school was looking for. It also connected athletic director Jared Benko with more potential candidates than the firm probably could have if it only had about two weeks to complete the search.
“Talk to former players, talk to alums. We had a chance to spend time with the (university) president. We met with numerous student-athletes,” Parker said. “So we were able to do a lot of listening about what does the community want, what does the campus want and what do they not want in this next (coach)?”
Georgia Southern was the first school to fill its vacancy when it hired Clay Helton, the former USC coach who was also the first to be fired this season on Sept. 14.
Texas Tech hired Baylor assistant and longtime Texas high school coach Joey McGuire earlier this week. He made what appears to be an unprecedented move in modern college football, leaving Baylor immediately to begin off-the-field duties for the Red Raiders. Mostly recruiting.
“And not only a high school recruiting class, but you know, with the new transfer portal, it’s recruiting your current team.,” Hocutt said. “And knowing good and well that when you make a change at the point of the season as we did that there are going to be those that immediately start poaching your current roster.”
UConn became the third school to fill its vacancy Thursday, hiring former UCLA coach Jim Mora, who has been out of coaching since 2017.
After last weekend’s games, there was a spate of coordinators and assistant coaches fired at Washington, Oregon State, Florida and Nebraska.
“I think those moves are even more short-sighted than the head coaching firings,” said Kyle Bowlsby, founder of Bowlsby Sports Advisors. “What’s going to happen midseason? You’re not going to all of a sudden install a whole new offensive scheme or defensive scheme.”
For schools such as LSU and USC, getting a head start on a head coach search only helps so much. Those schools are likely to target coaches in successful programs who are unlikely to seriously engage with another suitor during the meat of the season.
“I think a lot of those conversations happen regardless of letting a coach go,” Bowlsby said. “I mean, there’s agent-AD, agent-search firm conversations happening all the time behind the scenes before a coach is even fired.”
So why act so early in the season? Because sometimes it’s the only way to satisfy a fan base that has grown angry or — worse — apathetic.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Bowlsby said of the in-season changes. “Like the portal and the early signing period aren’t going anywhere. As long as those two things exist and as long as we keep playing this game of ‘win now,’ it’s absolutely going to continue and get worse.”