Hot Seat Status Check: Which coaches are safe and who needs to worry

On3 imageby:Andy Staples10/04/23

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Andy Staples Checks in on the Coaches Hot Seat Entering Ahead of Week 6 6

We see you on the message boards. We know when you’ve flipped the switch from “give it time” to “fire everybody.”

But pure emotion doesn’t always drive such decisions. Usually, a coach’s contract has quite a bit of say in whether he’s safe or coaching for his job.

Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher is the prime example. His massive, fully guaranteed contract kept him safe last year after a 5-7 season that would have gotten him fired under different circumstances. The Aggies entered this year with donors threatening to find the money for a $76 million buyout if 2022 repeated itself. But the good news in College Station is that 2022 doesn’t seem to be repeating itself.

If Texas A&M beats Alabama on Saturday, the Aggies would be in the driver’s seat in the SEC West. And even if Texas A&M loses, the way the Aggies have played so far suggests dramatic improvement over last season. They’ll be good enough that no one will be willing to consider that buyout.

That’s not the case everywhere else, so let’s do a status check on some of the coaches receiving the heaviest criticism.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Status: Entrenched until he decides it’s done, because the price goes up every year.

Gundy elevated Oklahoma State’s program to a level it hadn’t reached under any previous coach. He had the Cowboys playing so well for so long that it’s easy to forget that before Gundy took over, Oklahoma State wasn’t a perennial bowl team. There is an argument to be made that what Gundy has done at Oklahoma State is close to what Bill Snyder did at Kansas State in terms of degree of difficulty. And that’s why Gundy has such a secure contract.

But Gundy seems to be struggling with the new NIL/transfer portal world of college football. The Cowboys had a portal exodus of contributors after last season, and Oklahoma State’s NIL efforts haven’t kept pace with those of competing Big 12 programs. The Cowboys are currently 2-2 and heading into a stretch where they play Kansas State and Kansas, two teams that beat Oklahoma State by a combined 85-16 last season. Gundy can fix the issues if he’s willing to adapt, but that’s the key question. But no matter whether he chooses to adapt, he doesn’t have to go anywhere.
Gundy’s contract calls for a buyout of 75 percent of the remainder of the deal, and that amount can only go up each year because Gundy’s five-year contract also perpetually rolls over and tacks on a $125,000 raise each season. So firing Gundy after this season would cost about $25 million. Firing Gundy after next season would cost about $25.1 million. You get the drift. The king is in the castle he built, and he probably gets to decide if or when he abdicates the throne.

Neal Brown, West Virginia

Status: Winning so much that we can stick our hot seat where the sun don’t shine

The amount of Brown’s buyout (about $20 million at the time) kept him safe last season, but the assumption was that short of a dramatic record improvement, this would be Brown’s final season in Morgantown.

Hello, potential dramatic record improvement. After winning 24-21 at TCU on Saturday, the Mountaineers are 4-1. Their only loss is to currently undefeated Penn State. Their next four games are at Houston/Oklahoma State/at UCF/BYU. All of those are winnable, and West Virginia might be favored in all of them.

An eight-win season isn’t off the table. A nine-win season isn’t off the table. Brown has done this while juggling two quarterbacks because of injury, and he said Monday that West Virginia’s best football is ahead. He may be able to pull this off.

Brent Pry, Virginia Tech

Status: Finding some hope

Saturday’s win against Pittsburgh was huge for Virginia Tech’s embattled second-year coach. The Hokies needed some hope after consecutive losses to Rutgers and Marshall. To keep the momentum going, they’ll need a respectable showing at Florida State on Saturday — or the ennui may set in again.

No one at Virginia Tech wants to fire a coach after year two, but the Hokies have to continue to show a pulse or a change will have to be made because there simply is no excuse for Virginia Tech to be as bad as it has been of late. Pry’s buyout calls for him to be paid 70 percent of the remainder of his deal. That would be about $13.7 million if he was fired after this year. That might be a somewhat managable amount if the Hokies hadn’t given Justin Fuente a $9 million buyout after the 2021 season.

Dana Holgorsen, Houston

Status: Protected by a “[bleeping] impossible” buyout, but still serving at the whims of a billionaire

Holgorsen rarely minces words, and he certainly didn’t this offseason when he said this to The Athletic’s Sam Khan: “We won bowl games in back-to-back years. I have five years on my contract with a f—ing impossible buyout. … So there ain’t no f—ing hot seat in my mind. There just ain’t.”

The amount of said “impossible” buyout? It would be about $14.8 million after this season. That is a ton of money for a program moving from the American Athletic Conference to the Big 12. But Houston’s athletic department is essentially bankrolled by restaurateur/hotelier Tilman Fertitta. After Houston hired Major Applewhite in 2016, Fertitta said this to Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle: “You can look forward to Major being here for many years. But he better win nine, 10, 11 games a year too from our standpoint. We did get rid of a coach that won eight games three years ago. Don’t ever forget that. We expect to win at the University of Houston.”

Fertitta, who also owns the Houston Rockets, changes the dynamics of Houston’s financial capabilities. And his attitude toward the Cougars winning hasn’t changed. Houston is currently 2-3. West Virginia visits on Oct. 12, and the Cougars will have their best chance at their first Big 12 win for a while.

Billy Napier, Florida

Status: Safe, thanks to his contract

Florida fans can get as mad as they want about Napier’s 9-9 record at the school and the way Kentucky ran all over the Gators on Saturday, but as long as Napier doesn’t do anything that would allow Florida to fire him for cause, the structure of his contract should give him more time to try to recruit his way out of his current situation.

Unlike former coach Dan Mullen’s deal, which contained a flat-rate buyout that actually incentivized Florida to fire Mullen sooner, Napier’s contract protects the coach with two different mechanisms. First is the amount, which is equal to 85 percent of the remaining value of the contract. After this season, that would be about $32 million. The second piece is the timing of the payments. Most buyouts allow for the school to pay in equal parts in regular installments. This one requires 50 percent of the buyout within 30 days of termination. In other words, Florida would need $16 million in cash on hand to even start the process, and that doesn’t include buying out fired assistant coaches and paying to buy the next coach out of his current deal. That entire process could require $25 million in upfront money. Florida isn’t known for being fiscally impulsive, so it’s difficult to imagine the Gators paying anywhere near this to make yet another coaching change.

What does seem possible if things don’t improve is an offseason staff overhaul that involves Napier giving up playcalling and hiring an offensive coordinator to take over that role. Expect Napier to also be under significant pressure to hire an on-field special teams coordinator rather than leaving that job to an analyst.

Zach Arnett, Mississippi State

Status: Incredibly perilous for a first-year coach

Most of the newer coaches in the Big Ten or SEC have little to worry about because they have laughably humungous buyouts (see the Billy Napier section above), but Arnett is in a very different situation. His promotion to head coach came after the sudden and tragic passing of Mike Leach, and while Mississippi State leaders wanted to provide some continuity for the program, it’s clear they didn’t want to be locked into their new coach. The Bulldogs are currently 2-3. They should beat Western Michigan on Saturday, but after that comes a stretch of at Arkansas, at Auburn, Kentucky at home, and at Texas A&M. By the end of that, we might know whether Mississippi State leaders have a decision to make.

Arnett got a four-year deal that pays $3 million a year. His buyout calls for him to get 50 percent of the remaining amount on the contract. That means Mississippi State would owe Arnett $4.5 million over three years if it fired him after this season. But unlike Napier’s deal, Arnett’s also includes a duty to mitigate. In other words, the salary for Arnett’s next job would be subtracted from the buyout figure. Arnett has proven himself to be a very capable defensive coordinator, and it’s quite possible he could land a job either elsewhere in the SEC or somewhere in the Big Ten that would pay as much or more than the $1.5 million a year Mississippi State would owe him. So the Bulldogs might be able to make a change for relative pennies — a rare occasion in today’s coaching contract environment.

Tom Allen, Indiana

Status: Changing offensive coordinators

If this were next year, this decision would be made. That’s when Allen’s buyout drops from 100 percent of the amount remaining on his deal to 50 percent of the amount remaining on his deal. Firing Allen after this season would cost about $20.8 million. Firing Allen after Dec. 1, 2024 would cost less than $8 million.

But at the moment, that’s an awful lot of money to pay to have compete with Northwestern and Michigan State, which also need to hire new head coaches at the end of this season.
It’s gotten so bad at Indiana that fans are essentially telling Allen that he could get fired during his radio show.

But that number still feels huge. After Saturday’s loss at Maryland, Allen fired offensive coordinator Walt Bell and replaced him with former Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey. Indiana’s administration is probably praying that move improves the Hoosiers, because paying that buyout would be painful.