Hot seat lives in ubiquity among college football punditry. For as prevalent as the term might be, however, the roadmap for a coach landing on one is a mystery.
Unpacking how some of the more recent occupiers of college football’s more noteworthy hot seats came to sit, there’s a unifying theme. Consider the head coaches from four of the last five national championship games:
• 2011: Les Miles, fired
• 2012: Brian Kelly, hot seat
• 2013: Gus Malzahn, hot seat
• 2014: Mark Helfrich, hot seat
Be forewarned, Dabo Swinney. It won’t be long before the bell tolls for thee, if recent developments are any indication.
Now, the hot seat is intangible, of course. As entertaining, and as helpful as it might be for athletic departments to build an actually hot seat where coaches sit during press conferences, the concept exists in the abstract.
It typically begins with the murmurings of media. All of the above names — Kelly, Malzahn, Helfrich — have been the targets of such talk this season, fair or not.
Les Miles’ firing from LSU on Sunday wasn’t necessarily a surprise in that the intentions of Tiger boosters were made abundantly clear 10 months prior. Miles entered the 2016 season on the hot seat, and losses to Wisconsin and Auburn dumped him into the fire.
The irony of Miles being let go following a loss to Auburn is if the debacle of a final play had gone LSU’s way, it may well have been War Eagle’s Gus Malzahn shown the door.
Lauded for his offensive genius, Auburn’s struggles on that side of the ball the last two seasons, coupled with an atrocious defense in a disappointing 2014, have made Malzahn the source of hot seat talk for a few months now.
Auburn suffers through a similar issue that’s generated some hot seat discussion around Oregon’s Mark Helfrich: quarterback development.
The Ducks have had fine quarterback play from Dakota Prukop this season, and Vernon Adams was arguably the best play-maker in the Pac-12 a season ago when healthy. That a program long identified by its quarterbacks has not had a homegrown talent ready to fill Marcus Mariota’s void is somewhat surprising.
Compounding Oregon’s quarterbacking issue, homegrown talent to proceed Mariota like Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas, were limited in their skill sets. Still, both shined in the Oregon offense. Adams’ health last season exposed, and Mariota’s in 2013 for a spell, exposed cracks in the seemingly invincible Oregon armor.
Quarterback play is secondary for Oregon, however, as surrendering 35 and 41 points in losses to Nebraska and Colorado underscores a much more difficult problem to fix: defense.
Oregon’s porous defense last season prompted a change in Eugene that, while not unprecedented, deviated from the program norm. UO’s kept its leadership as internal as possible, dating back to Rich Brooks’ hire decades ago. Bringing in Brady Hoke to replace longtime Duck assistant Don Pellum as defensive coordinator was meant to provide the kind of shake-up Mike Bellotti tabbing New Hampshire assistant Chip Kelly for offensive duties wrought.
It hasn’t thus far. And the failures of a new coordinator oftentimes function as the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly’s midseason firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder speaks to the heat applied on him amid a 1-3 start. Comparisons to Charlie Weis and Ty Willingham are already afoot.
— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) September 27, 2016
The staggering reality of Kelly being suggested for the hot seat now, less than a calendar year after the Fighting Irish came a Conrad Ukropina field goal away from making the College Football Playoff, is that cachet for avoiding hot seat is virtually unattainable.
Sporting News Bill Bender wrote a level-headed column defending Kelly. That his piece was even necessary speaks to the myopia born of fan and media’s obsession with championships.
College football may be on the precipice of a coaching bubble. There are more good teams than at any time in the sport’s history, owed to the collective quality of coaching. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that it can always be better.
And indeed, we should strive for constant improvement, no matter the industry. However, setting unrealistic expectations contributed to the housing bubble bursting in 2008, or the tech collapse of the early 2000s.