- Justin Fuente's buyout is $7.5 million if fired after this season.
- Lindsey, Babers, and Harbaugh are finally off the hot seat.
- Blown lead keeps Matt Wells on the list.
Will Virginia Tech fire Justin Fuente now or wait until December to save money? Because after blowing a two-score lead in the final three minutes to Syracuse in Week 7, Fuente’s exit appears inevitable.
When Fuente arrived in Blacksburg after the 2015 season, the Hokies hadn’t finished below .500 since 1992. After a third straight loss, they need to win three of their final five games to avoid to a third sub-.500 finish in the last four seasons.
Fuente won at least eight games in three of his first four years but wasn’t hired – and extended in April 2017 – to win eight games, get plastered by a five-win Duke team, and lose a mid-level bowl game as they fell further into college football irrelevance. And he definitely wasn’t hired to go 5-6, as they did in 2020, and get blown out at home by Pittsburgh in year six.
“Saw and heard what I wanted to see, and it energized me,” Hokies’ athletics director White Babcock said in December while announcing Fuente’s return for 2021. “I believe in Justin. It’s not always the fashionable thing to keep somebody when everybody is yelling, but he’s our guy, and I believe he gives us the best chance to be successful.”
Babcock claimed the decision wasn’t financially motivated. Fuente’s 2017 extension called for a buyout of $10 million if fired after Dec. 16, 2020. The buyout decreases by approximately $2.5 million each Dec. 16 through 2023, which leads to his final contract year, Dec. 16, 2023, through Dec. 15, 2024.
In 10 years as an athletics director at Cincinnati (2011-14) and Virginia Tech (2014-present), Whit Babcock has hired two football coaches: Tommy Tuberville and Justin Fuente. A third whiff, while it’d be only his second at Virginia Tech – and, to be fair, he’s made other strong hires at both schools, including Buzz Williams – might warrant his own dismissal.
Whether it’s Babcock or someone else hiring Fuente’s replacement, they’ll have the resources to take a decent-sized swing.
If Boston College capitalizes on a favorable schedule en route to an eight-win season, Jeff Hafley could be the candidate at Virginia Tech and across college football. The lack of college experience is a minor concern, but if the 42-year-old former NFL assistant impresses as much in 2021 as he did in 2020, he’s a strong and realistic candidate for Virginia Tech. Billy Napier, Joe Moorhead, and Jamey Chadwell could also be in play.
Who else might be on the hot seat entering Week 8?
Seth Littrell – North Texas
Three years ago, Seth Littrell’s coaching stock was on fire. A 40-year-old former Oklahoma running back with 15 years of Power Five coaching experience and 18 wins in his last two seasons at North Texas, Littrell was a future Power Five head coach awaiting the right phone call.
Littrell even received the right phone call, or so he believed at the time, in December 2018 when Kansas State offered him the chance to replace Bill Snyder. What was widely regarded as a done deal fell apart at the last minute when Littrell withdrew from consideration.
Since that phone call, the Mean Green is 9-21, including two blowout losses at home and a total meltdown against Liberty, and Littrell should be on the hot seat. And a six-figure buyout could make a change easier.
The obvious – although potentially unattainable – candidate is Graham Harrell, the 36-year-old former Texas Tech quarterback whose three-year stint at North Texas’ quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator (2016-18) led to the same position at USC.
Manny Diaz – Miami (FL)
A Miami native and in-demand Power Five assistant, Manny Diaz was the obvious hire after Mark Richt abruptly retired in December 2018. Just three years into his first head-coaching opportunity, Diaz is struggling for ACC relevance, losing to middling programs, and the subject of non-stop job-security musings.
“The UM fan base has definitely turned on Manny Diaz, so have several former star players,” The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reported after the Hurricanes’ loss to Virginia in Week 5.” Sources tell me the UM leadership is expected to back Manny Diaz at least through this year. Unless they believe the team essentially quits on him and stops showing grit.”
Feldman, who noted Diaz’s buyout is north of $8 million (plus multi-year assistant buyouts), didn’t propose any potential replacements for a program that’s hired four different head coaches in the last 15 years. If they can’t get Mario Cristobal, perhaps Geoff Collins or Jeff Hafley would be on a short list.
Butch Davis – FIU
After a six-year layoff, Butch Davis returned to college football in 2017 and went 17-9 in his first two seasons as FIU head coach. Since then: 7-17. And that includes a six-win 2018.
The coveted stability is gone as Davis and the Panthers labor through another dismal season in a conference filled with beatable opponents. And with the 69-year-old’s five-year deal set to expire at the end of the season, his fourth career head-coaching stop might be ending.
If FIU makes a change without paying a single penny for a buyout, the candidate pool might be deeper than we typically see for a low-level job. If so, maybe Kendal Briles or Larry Fedora is atop the list. If not, Florida A&M’s Willie Simmons is an under-the-radar name to watch.
Doug Martin – New Mexico State
A highly respected veteran coach with nearly 40 years of experience, Doug Martin has plunged into futility after one of the most remarkable rebuilding jobs in recent history.
Named foreman of a sewage plant in Las Cruces in 2012, Martin generated more financial support for the country’s most irrelevant program and led a seven-win season in 2017 (and their first bowl game in 57 years). Since then, New Mexico State has six wins, only half of which came against FBS teams.
Martin, after a new four-year deal in July 2018, is in the final year of his contract. If fired after the season, there’s no buyout beyond the prorated salary for the remaining weeks.
Despite better facilities and proof of concept four years ago, this remains an FCS-level program stuck in FBS mud. Still, the losses are piling up – including two in two games this season – and if a change is coming, seventh-year athletics director Mario Moccia might get creative in finding Martin’s replacement.
One under-the-radar name to watch: Dixie State head coach Paul Peterson. The former Boston College quarterback has spent the last 12 years in FCS and JUCO jobs, including 2017-18 at Snow College, in California and Utah. He led Dixie State – soon to be renamed Utah Tech – to eight wins in his first season (2018), almost beat the Aggies in March, and is entering his second year of a Division-I transition.
Matt Wells – Texas Tech
As Texas Tech led Kansas State, 21-7, in Week 7, I was prepared to remove Matt Wells from the hot seat for the first time this season. But he’s still here after a second-half collapse in Manhattan.
What was widely regarded as a strong hire by veteran athletics director Kirby Hocutt was a trainwreck the first two seasons. Several on-field blunders alone could’ve cost Matt Wells his job after a second straight four-win season, though Hocutt, after nearly two weeks of radio silence last year, said Wells would return in 2021.
Wells signed a six-year, $18.8-million deal upon his arrival from Utah State in December 2018. He’s due 70 percent of the remaining base salary and supplemental compensation if fired before the contract expires on Dec. 31, 2024. If, for example, and simplicity’s sake, Wells is fired on Jan. 1, 2022, he’d be owed 70 percent of his remaining three years’ salary, or approximately $6.93 million.
If the Red Raiders’ strong start doesn’t continue, that move would come just three years after paying a $4-million buyout to Kliff Kingsbury and $800,000 buyout to Utah State per Wells’ contract with the Aggies. Three poor years of Wells would ultimately cost Texas Tech more than $20 million if the Red Raiders’ comeback wins over Houston and West Virginia aren’t signs of things to come.
Sonny Dykes has been “pretty close” to following in his father’s footsteps as Red Raiders head coach, he told me two years ago. He grew up in West Texas, played baseball at Texas Tech, and spent seven years on Mike Leach’s staff. UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor could also be in play, as could Nevada’s Jay Norvell.
Rick Stockstill – Middle Tennessee
The epitome of mid-level Group of Five stability for more than a decade, Middle Tennessee is struggling for relevance, and Rick Stockstill might be on the hot seat for the first time in his career.
The 63-year-old former longtime Clemson assistant is beloved across college football and has 94 wins and 194 contract extensions over 15 years as head coach. He has a modest salary – $912,504 in total pay in 2020 – but an enormous buyout of nearly $5 million if fired after this season.
MTSU won’t give Stockstill $5 million to go away; either Stockstill is back in 2022 or the two sides find common ground.
If there’s a change, Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton might be a name to watch. A former small-school assistant who did incredible work with Wyoming’s defense in 2017-18, Hazelton is barreling toward a head-coaching job. One problem: He can probably do better than MTSU.
Scott Frost – Nebraska
If Nebraska didn’t lose to Illinois in Week 0, Scott Frost might be on stable ground after a blowout of Buffalo, strong showings against Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Michigan, and a blowout of Northwestern. But Nebraska lost to Illinois.
From the uninspired performances and lack of player development to the on- and off-the-field whining, there’s been no minimal the program is headed in the right direction. And while it’s not entirely Frost’s fault, as he deals with reported infighting and conflicting leadership within the athletics department, he’s still an underachieving head coach at a program with delusionally high expectations.
An extension, signed after the 2019 season, calls for a $5-million-per-year buyout from 2021-22 and a $2.5-million-per-year buyout for 2023-26, the final two years of the deal. For those scoring at home, that’s a $15-million check if fired after this season.
There isn’t a next-up name for Nebraska. Anyone from Billy Napier or Bill Clark to Dave Doeren or Jeff Hafley could be in play for a wide-open coaching search.
Tom Arth – Akron
Akron football is in a tough spot: First-time, first-year FBS athletics director overseeing a program with one win in two seasons under a first-time FBS head coach amidst an athletics’ financial crisis that wiped out three programs and forced widespread budget cuts.
The aggressive hire of a second-year FCS coach with zero FBS experience – and only two years, as Chattanooga head coach, of FCS experience after a successful Division-II run at John Carroll – isn’t working. And with only $1.5-million remaining on a five-year, $2.5-million, 70 percent of which is due in the event of termination without cause, it wouldn’t be a crushing blow to move on after 2021.
Tom Manning was reportedly in the mix before Arth was hired in late 2019 and could be a target again. At the time, the Ohio native and former Mount Union offensive lineman was tight ends coach for the Indianapolis Colts. He’s now entering his third season on the Iowa State staff, the last two as offensive coordinator.
Walt Bell – UMass
Walt Bell’s departure from Florida State after the 2018 season was as much of an indictment on the mess in Tallahassee as the actual on-field mess for Willie Taggart’s program. Bell was willing to leave a high-end Power Five coordinator job for one of the worst jobs in college football.
Unfortunately for Bell, he evaded one sinking ship for an already sunk ship with little hope for resurrection. His lone win in 16 games over two years came against winless Akron in 2019. And even with two FCS opponents, UConn, and New Mexico State, on a light 2021 schedule, another winless or one-win season is possible.
If fired after this contract year – Dec. 3, 2020, through Dec. 2, 2021 – Bell would be owed approximately $1.1 million, an amount equal to 100 percent of his fourth-year salary and 75 percent of his fifth-year salary.
Former UMass assistant Bob Shoop was mentioned before Bell’s hire. Then in his second year as Mississippi State defensive coordinator, Shoop “would be interested” in the job, Mass Live reported. While Shoop’s coaching stock has cratered in recent years, he’s still a highly respected and experienced coach who knows the region well.
Clay Helton – USC (Fired)
Since at least 2018, one of the great mysteries in college football has been Clay Helton’s buyout. As a private institution, USC is not required to disclose the financial terms of any contract, including Helton’s initial deal signed in late 2015, and extension, signed in February 2018, but tax records and reporting from several outlets have suggested the number was around $20 million if fired after last season.
Helton survived the offseason but was fired two days after an ugly loss to Stanford. He finished 36-13 in conference games over four full seasons, one nine-game run as Steve Sarkisian’s replacement, and one six-game COVID-shortened season. He had three division titles, one Pac-12 title, and signed the nation’s sixth-ranked recruiting class this year.
Helton’s job security, however, appeared to hinge less on a not-awful résumé and more on an eight-figure buyout, apathetic fan base, irate donors, and new leadership. And with him gone, if USC whiffs on Matt Campbell, Luke Fickell, and other high-profile names, they could land on Billy Napier.
Napier rejected Auburn’s offer last year – and other Power Five offers and interview requests the last two coaching cycles, including Arkansas, Ole Miss, and South Carolina– because, as reported by 247Sports’ Brandon Marcello, he’s looking for a program that will allow him to fully implement a “complex” and “robust” plan.
Napier reportedly covets an SEC job, but maybe he’d go west.
Chad Lunsford – Georgia Southern (Fired)
Just three years after leading one of the best one-year turnarounds in college football history, Chad Lunsford was fired.
Lunsford, a Georgia native who first arrived at Georgia Southern in 2003 during the program’s FCS days, was a holdover in 2016 when Ty Summers replaced Willie Fritz and inherited the program a year later when Summers was fired after a 0-6 start. It only took a 1-3 start for Lunsford to lose his job.
Fired one day after the Eagles dropped a third straight game – an eight-point loss to Louisiana – Lunsford is out after just 49 games, 28 of which were wins.
Randy Edsall – UConn (Fired)
The best part of Randy Edsall’s return to UConn was his amusing contract.
He returned to UConn in December 2016 but didn’t sign a contract until late 2019, instead working under a memorandum of understanding amidst legal disputes over his son’s employment on his staff. And both the memorandum and contract have been relentlessly mocked by the masses as UConn pays Edsall for halftime leads, turnovers, and points per possession.
In four years in his second stint as head coach, Edsall has six wins. He has one FBS win (UMass) since 2017 and, after a 21-month layoff, has opened 2021 with pathetic showings against Fresno State and Holy Cross.
Athletics director David Benedict repeatedly supported his head coach and requested patience with a long-term rebuild. Still, without a buyout and no signs of on-field competence, a change was possible at any moment. And that came one day after UConn’s loss to Holy Cross; Edsall resigned after the Holy Cross loss.
Replacement: Literally anyone with experience at a moribund program.
Ed Orgeron – LSU (Fired)
Ed Orgeron was never going to assemble another team that remotely resembled the 2019 team. And although no one saw his tenure ending just 17 games after completing a 15-0 season and delivering a national championship, his eventual departure was inevitable.
Even with a $17-million buyout, LSU has plenty of money and influence to hire a big-time coach, as Bruce Feldman first reported prior to Week 7. Feldman noted, as have several other insiders in recent days, the Tigers plan to target Mel Tucker. If they whiff on the former Georgia assistant, pick one of the dozen other high-level candidates mentioned by Feldman and others.
Nick Rolovich – Washington State (Fired)
Widely lauded as a strong hire and perfect fit at the isolated, culturally unique program that his buddy Mike Leach built from a landfill into a consistent Pac-12 North contender, Nick Rolovich was a disaster in Pullman and might’ve been on the hot seat entering the season after a string of off-the-field missteps.
Those missteps continued as he refused the COVID-19 vaccine and was fired after Week 7. And now the Cougars are in their second head-coaching search in the last two years after three in the previous 30 years.
As noted in a breakdown of potential Washington State candidates, Graham Harrell, Jeff Grimes, and several FCS coaches could be in the mix for a difficult job, including Troy Taylor and K.C. Keeler.
Also: Check out the updated NFL hot seat.