College Football is a giant, beautiful mess. It is a multi-billion dollar industry contingent on the performance of unpaid college students who are largely not old enough to drink. These players are at their school for a brief moment in time, before they graduate, transfer, declare for the draft, or retire from the game, before they are then replaced by new players hand-picked by the coaches. These players will also not be there for very long. More likely than not, the coaches will also not be there for very long. The average coaching tenure for an FBS head coach is 3.8 years, meaning that the average college football player who is recruited by a coach and plays at his school for four years will have a different head coach by the time he graduates.
In this world, with perpetual roster and coaching staff turnover, a game that evolves faster than anybody realizes, and the generally fickle nature of year-to-year recruiting, it is no wonder that stability and consistency are not words that are commonly associated with college football. Consequently, when a coach arrives in town and achieves success over a few years, it is a good thing. In fact, it is a very good thing.
However, happy endings are rare in college football, and very often these coaches are victims of their own success. Deranged fans, attention-seeking journalists, champagne-soaked donors, and trigger-happy athletic directors begin to take this success for granted. They demand more. Are their new expectations realistic? It does not matter, they simply want MORE. This stage is reached in one of two ways. The first is that the coach has brought success to his program, but keeps hitting his head on the ceiling as he tries to bring even more success. The second is that a successful coach has one uncharacteristically rough season. Once at this stage, the athletic director has a decision to make. They can either stick by this coach who has done well at the program and has brought a level of consistency that simply does not happen in college football, or they can clean house and bring in a new coach who can hopefully take the program even higher than the current coach.
This hypothetically is a tough choice, but the history of college football teaches that the answer is actually very easy:
YOU DO NOT FIRE A COACH THAT IS WINNING CONSISTENTLY
Hiring a new football coach is the riskiest action a football program can take. As stated above, the average college football coach does not last four years, and part of that is more coaches fail than succeed. When you test the coaching carousel, it will most likely not end well for you. If your coach is terrible and your program is consistently underperforming realistic expectations, you take that chance. If your coach is doing well, you don’t. Consistent quality is never to be taken for granted in college football.
This story arc is all too common in college football: Trigger-happy athletic directors pull the plug on successful coaches, because they didn’t satisfy unrealistic expectations a few too many times, and bring in a new coach who is essentially the opposite of the old coach. Sometimes, it works out (see: Georgia firing Mark Richt and Clemson firing Tommy Bowden). Most of the time, it doesn’t. The context isn’t always the same, but the underlying result is.
Without further delay, here are 12 times that college football programs fired successful coaches, only for it to go horribly wrong.
*Note: This is in reverse chronological order.
2015: East Carolina Fired Ruffin McNeill and Replaced Him With Scottie Montgomery
It’s very easy to forget that during the mid-to-late 2000’s, East Carolina was about as solid as a Conference USA team could possibly be. After the disastrous John Thompson years, Skip Holtz took over in 2005 and immediately put the program on course, going 38-27 in five seasons, including a pair of Conference USA titles. Former Texas Tech Defensive Coordinator Ruffin McNeill came into the job in 2010 after Holtz left for South Florida. McNeill took a slight step back early, going 11-14 from 2010-11, but closed ECU’s run in Conference USA with an 18-8 record from 2012-13. The Pirates’ first season in the American was also a success, going 8-5 in 2014. However, ECU suffered a big loss on the offensive staff: Offensive Coordinator Lincoln Riley left to take the same position at Oklahoma (it worked out pretty well for him). Riley’s absence was felt, as the Pirates took a step back in an extremely strong 2015 season for the AAC, finishing 5-7. Two weeks after the season ended, McNeill was fired, with athletic director Jeff Compher citing his dissatisfaction with the trajectory of the program.
This move was panned when it was made. McNeill was very popular in Greenville, and he had the respect of the greater college football media as well. McNeill’s firing opened Compher up to a ton of criticism and triggered a bit of a (probably unnecessary) conversation on racial discrimination in college coaching. McNeill departed Greenville with a 42-34 record over 6 seasons, an average of 7 wins per season.
Compher was unhappy with 7 wins per season at a program located in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina moving to a new, tougher conference, and former Duke Offensive Coordinator Scottie Montgomery was his solution. Montgomery was a bit out of left field, being so young, but he was clearly a talented coach under a highly respected head coach at Duke in David Cutcliffe. Unfortunately, it became apparent very quickly that he was in over his head. Montgomery posted three consecutive three-win seasons and was fired with a 9-26 record in 2018, a firing that was preceded by the firing of Montgomery’s boss, Jeff Compher that spring. For his part, McNeill is now the associate head coach a defensive coordinator at Oklahoma under his old protege, Lincoln Riley.
2014: Nebraska Fired Bo Pelini and Replaced Him With Mike Riley
Bo Pelini was the man charged with cleaning up Bill Callahan’s mess in Lincoln and restoring a once-proud football program. Pelini delivered instantly, going 9-4 in 2008 before closing Nebraska’s Big 12 existence with a pair of 10-4 seasons, including the Big 12 title that wasn’t in 2009. Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, and Pelini fit right in, never winning less than 9 games in Nebraska’s first four seasons in the Big Ten. In fact, Pelini never won less than 9 games in his entire Nebraska tenure. The problem? He also never lost less than 4 games in a full season. Pelini’s consistency was maddening, posting four 9-4 seasons (he officially went 9-3 in 2014 because he was fired before the bowl game, which they lost) and three 10-4 seasons. Eventually, things got a bit stale. Pelini’s consistency was impressive, but the three conference title game losses (two close losses to Texas and Oklahoma, respectively, and a skull crushing at the hands of Wisconsin), coupled with a string of humiliating losses over 2013 and 2014, began to take its toll, and Shawn Eichorst, a dreadful AD by any measure, got antsy. In 2014, two days after Nebraska closed the regular season with a dramatic overtime win on the road against Iowa, Bo Pelini was fired.
It would be intellectually dishonest of me to talk about Bo Pelini’s Nebraska tenure without mentioning the issues with the man himself. There is no doubt that opinions of the former Huskers coach’s performance were heavily influenced by Pelini’s extreme unlikeability. It cannot be disputed, the man was (and still is) a raging psychopath who picked fights with fans, journalists and executives, and stuck his foot in his mouth a handful of memorable times, such as when he (justifiably) railed fans for leaving a game early (a game in which Nebraska was losing by a lot, then came back and won). These incidents, on top of the endless torrent of four-loss seasons, led Eichorst to determine that Pelini had not “won the games that really mattered”, and a coach who went 67-27 over seven seasons was sent on his way.
Eichorst, predictably, overreacted to Pelini’s angry demeanor and replaced him with Mike Riley. Riley did well over a decade at Oregon State, but his biggest qualification was that he wasn’t a jerk like Pelini, which I guess was enough for Eichorst. Riley was, without doubt, a big change. The good news is that Riley’s 2015 team did not go 9-4. The bad news? They went 6-7. Riley lost seven games in the regular season, only making the postseason by getting lucky with their APR score. Riley finally got on the horse in 2016, going, wait for it, 9-4. He then fell off the horse for good, going 4-8 in 2017. Shawn Eichorst was taken out behind the woodshed midseason, and new AD Bill Moos did away with Riley that December, with a 19-19 record over three seasons.
2012: FIU Fired Mario Cristobal and Replaced Him With Ron Turner
Florida International is still a young program, only playing their first season in 2002. Don Strock built the program in the first five seasons, then moved on after going 0-12 in 2006. Mario Cristobal, then a 36-year-old assistant coach at Miami, became FIU’s second ever head coach in 2007. Cristobal overtook a program with no tradition, no expectations, and no success, and off to work he went. The first three years were a struggle, then Cristobal hit pay dirt. FIU went 7-6 in 2010 and won the Sun Belt. Cristobal was named Sun Belt Coach Coach of the Year, and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton emerged as a force. The next year, FIU didn’t win the Sun Belt, but they improved their record to 8-5, and T.Y. Hilton set every single receiving record at the school. Then 2012 hit. FIU lost a lot on offense, notably Hilton and Offensive Coordinator Scott Satterfield. The Golden Panthers couldn’t really score on anybody, the talent deficiencies were obvious, and FIU went 3-9. One season removed from FIU’s first two winning seasons in school history, athletic director Pete Garcia decided that the program was going backwards and Cristobal was fired.
Like the firing of McNeill, Cristobal’s firing was also panned by the media. He had a 27-47 record in six seasons, but that was the best FIU had ever been, and he was a young coach with a bright future. Garcia decided none of that was desirable, so he brought in an old hand, Ron Turner. Turner was an odd fit. The retread ex-Illinois coach (he had one magical conference title in 2001, but he went 35-57 overall in Champaign) was everything that Cristobal wasn’t. He was old, unheralded, failed in the past, and had never been anywhere near Miami in his entire career. Turner went 10-26 in his first three years, then was fired after an 0-4 start in 2016. Meanwhile, after a long road as an assistant at various big schools, Cristobal is now the head coach at Oregon.
2010: Maryland Fired Ralph Friedgen and Replaced Him With Randy Edsall
Ralph Friedgen made one hell of an entrance in College Park. Maryland had not made a bowl game since 1990, and Friedgen proceeded to win the ACC in his first season in 2001, and decade of quiet Decembers turned into an Orange Bowl birth. The train kept rolling for another two seasons, and Friedgen went 31-8 in his first three seasons. A rough pair of seasons followed, as Friedgen went 5-6 in both 2004 and 2005, but life was good again soon enough, with the Terps goin 23-16 from 2006 to 2008. Then the bottom dropped out for a season, and Maryland went 2-10 in 2009. Friedgen’s job security was immediately jeopardized, and it had to be announced that he would return in 2010. Friedgen, needing a big bounce back to save his job, got it. After a horrible 2009, Friedgen made the right call in keeping both of his coordinators, who would both become big names in college football soon enough, and they rewarded his faith in them. The defense took a massive leap in 2010 under second-year DC Don Brown and the offense equaled that leap under third-year OC James Franklin, and the result was a staggering seven game swing, a 9-4 record and a Military Bowl Victory. Friedgen’s job was secure, except that it wasn’t. AD Kevin Anderson stated publicly that Friedgen would be back, but then James Franklin left for Vanderbilt, and took a chunk of Friedgen’s staff with him, hinting that affairs weren’t as they seemed. Three days later, Anderson announced that Friedgen had been fired.
The story goes that Friedgen burned his Maryland diploma in anger following his firing, which would be justified were it to be true. Maryland was a deadbeat program before he showed up, and he went 75-50. One could argue the job he did was every bit as impressive, if not more impressive, than the job Greg Schiano did at Rutgers. 2009 was dreadful, and he was put in a position to save his job. He bounced all the way back, posting his best season in College Park since 2003, and evidently Maryland forgot how bad they were before he showed up. Kevin Anderson’s replacement was well-qualified but objectively very similar to Friedgen. Randy Edsall had just won the Big East at UConn in 2010, but his time in College Park was a massive reality check for the Maryland faithful. Edsall ended up going 22-34 before getting fired halfway through his fifth season, and his replacement, D.J. Durkin, went 10-15 before getting fired because his staff literally killed a kid. Maryland has not finished better than 7-6 since Friedgen, and they’re still paying for cutting him loose.
2009: Texas Tech Fired Mike Leach and Replaced Him With Tommy Tuberville
Mike Leach is a national treasure. He has also had a greater impact on the modern college game than literally any other coach in this generation. The godfather of the air raid offense also turned Texas Tech from a Big 12 doormat into the most consistent threat to the royalty of the Big 12 during the early 2000’s. During The Pirate’s tenure at Texas Tech (2000-09), the Red Raiders won 84 games, more than any Big 12 team in that time span aside from Texas and Oklahoma. This makes Leach’s firing ahead of the 2009 Alamo Bowl all the more awkward.
The story of Leach’s firing is long and complex, so here’s the short version:
Adam James, the son of retired NFL running back Craig James and player at Texas Tech, sustained a concussion. When Leach was informed during an outdoor practice, he instructed that James be taken inside and out of the sunlight. Somehow, James ended up in the equipment room for a while. Shortly thereafter, a story broke alleging that Leach had ordered that James be locked in a closet. Leach was ordered by Texas Tech to apologize to Adam James. He refused, and was suspended for the Alamo Bowl. Leach did not take this quietly, and sought an injunction in court to allow him to coach the bowl game. Tech never let it go to court, and they fired him before the hearing took place.
There is a lot to digest here. Firstly, it should be said that while Leach, in my opinion, got a raw deal, you can’t dare your school to fire you the way he did and expect it to end well. Leach’s behavior essentially screams “GET ME OUT OF HERE”. But on the other side, this is a cautionary tale about sports parents. According to Leach, as well as many connected with the team, Craig James regularly sent angry letters to the coaching staff and confronted them demanding that his son, who assistants and teammates described as lazy and entitled, receive more playing time. Unlike most overbearing sports parents, however, Craig James had power and notoriety. This acrimony over Adam James’ playing time, coupled with conflict behind the scenes regarding negotiations over Leach’s contract, led to the incident getting as big as it did, and it ultimately cost Leach his job.
The Red Raiders replaced Leach with a veteran in Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville did well at Auburn, but Lubbock is a whole different world. Tuberville never really adjusted to his new surroundings, and he left for Cincinnati after going 20-17 over three seasons. Put another way, in Leach’s decade in Lubbock, Texas Tech went 84-43. The nine years since with Tommy Tuberville and Kliff Kingsbury? 55-57. Where is The Pirate now? Not doing much, just resurrecting Washington State from the graveyard of college football to a consistent winner in the Pac-12. I hope Craig James is proud.
2008: Boston College Fired Jeff Jagodzinski and Replaced Him With Frank Spaziani
The end of Jeff Jagodzinski is an example of an athletic department that didn’t understand the realities of college football. Jagodzinski was a revelation in his first season in Boston. Boston College went 11-3 in 2007, winning the ACC Atlantic and beating Michigan State in the Champs Sports Bowl off the back of star quarterback Matt Ryan. Jagodzinski didn’t equal that in 2008 following Ryan’s graduation, but he still won the ACC Atlantic for the second consecutive time en route to a 9-5 season, a fine season by any measure. Then the New York Jets called. The Jets wanted to interview Jagodzinski to be their next head coach, but athletic director Gene DeFilippo was not a fan of this development (maybe he’s a Patriots fan, who knows?). DeFilippo warned Jagodzinski not to interview with the Jets, a soft order that Jagodzinski did not follow. He interviewed for the Jets, and was fired the next day. To add insult to injury, Jagodzinski wasn’t even hired by the Jets, with Rex Ryan getting the job.
Jagodzinski quickly faded into irrelevance after going 20-8 in two seasons in Chestnut Hill, a victim of an athletic director that didn’t understand that interviewing for other jobs, particularly NFL jobs, is not a cardinal sin. In the lesser of his two seasons, Boston College won nine games. The Eagles have not won more than eight games in a season since. Jagodzinski’s Defensive Coordinator, Frank Spaziani, was promoted to the top job, but after a pair of bowl berths in his first two seasons, he went 6-18 over 2011 and 2012, and was fired promptly. Steve Addazio has restored stability to Chestnut Hill, but the highs of the Jagodzinski era remain out of reach.
2008: Tennessee Fired Phillip Fulmer and Replaced Him With Lane Kiffin
Phil Fulmer’s run in Knoxville was a good time for all involved. The successor to Johnny Majors went 152-52 over 17 seasons, winning six division titles, two SEC titles, and the 1998 national championship. Fulmer wasn’t able to resurrect the juggernaut he created between 1995 and 1998 (45-5 in those years), but he still had a strong last decade of his tenure, winning or sharing the SEC East four times in seven seasons. 2007 was a great year for Fulmer, leading the Volunteers to a 10-4 season and an SEC title game berth behind senior quarterback Erik Ainge. Unfortunately, just as with a handful of other coaches here, success leads to attrition. Ainge graduated, and Offensive Coordinator David Cutcliffe left to become the head coach at Duke. Despite a veteran offensive line and a talented running back in Arian Foster, Tennessee slipped down the SEC, finishing 2008 with a massively disappointing 5-7. Athletic Director Mike Hamilton panicked, firing Fulmer with three games left to play in the season. Out of respect for his accomplishments, Fulmer was able to finish out the season, ending on a two game win streak and beating Kentucky in his final game on Rocky Top.
Fulmer drastically underperformed expectations in 2008, but this was a panic move without question. There was absolutely no forethought in the decision to fire Fulmer, and Tennessee’s performance since reflects that. Failed Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin was brought in to restore Tennessee’s former glory. He stayed for one season before bolting for USC. Derek Dooley was next, and he failed to the tune of going 15-21 in three seasons before getting axed. Butch Jones was next, and while he looked like he had the program up and running again for a bit, his failure to keep his head on during games led to another collapse, and he was gone after five seasons. Now it’s Jeremy Pruitt’s turn to try and right the ship. After the Greg Schiano disaster, Fulmer himself is now the athletic director at Tennessee, and now his handpicked guy is in the job. Can Pruitt resurrect the Vols? Nobody knows for sure, but his boss certainly knows a thing or two about what Tennessee is supposed to be.
2006: Minnesota Fired Glen Mason and Replaced Him With Tim Brewster
Bill Connelly is a genius. The legendary college football writer coined the term ‘Glen Mason Territory’ to describe situations where coaches raise the bar at their program but then consistently fail to raise the bar even further. It cannot be denied that Connelly’s writing has had an immeasurable influence on how I view college football coaches, as well as much of the writing in this piece. He was also extremely accurate in his portrayal of Glen Mason’s tenure at Minnesota.
An Ohio State assistant in the early 1980’s, Mason spent nine seasons at Kansas and actually won some games before returning to the midwest in 1997. Longtime Big Ten whipping boy Minnesota desperately needed a coach to return them to competence, and Mason delivered. The Gophers won eight games in 1999, Mason’s third season, but his early years largely established a high floor in Minneapolis. They were rarely all that great, but they weren’t the doormat they used to be. Then Mason hit second gear in 2002, going 8-5, then following that up with an outstanding 2003, going 10-3 and finishing ranked in the Top 20. Then, the natives began to get restless. Mason led the Gophers to consecutive 7-5 seasons in 2004 and 2005, before going 6-6 in 2006, reaching a fifth straight bowl game, and their seventh overall under Mason, a run of success that had not been seen in Minneapolis for quite a while. Unfortunately, the panic was due to come. The 2006 Insight Bowl was one of the most riveting bowl games of the season. Glen Mason’s Gophers led Mike Leach’s Texas Tech 35-7 at halftime. The Pirate and his team clawed all the way back in the second half, before winning 44-41 in overtime. A meltdown ensued back home, and Mason was fired two days later.
In ten years in Minneapolis, Glen Mason went 64-57, which is not outstanding, but considering where Minnesota was before he got there, it was quite an accomplishment. Sick of Mason’s consistent modest success, Minnesota’s solution was Tim Brewster, an NFL assistant. Mason won 6.4 games per season over his tenure, Brewster averaged 3.75 wins per season. At 15-30, Brewster was fired seven games into his fourth season in Minneapolis, and Mason’s tenure looked all the more impressive, and even more now that Minnesota has had four full time head coaches in the 13 seasons since Mason was fired.
2006: Miami Fired Larry Coker and Replaced Him With Randy Shannon
Make no mistake, there were plausible arguments for firing Larry Coker. Miami’s regression under Coker was linear, winning the 2001 National Title in his first season and finishing 7-6 in his last season, and the bench-clearing brawl with FIU was embarrassing, particularly at a school that has spent decades trying to shed a bad reputation regarding this kind of behavior. But this is an example how how easy it is for catastrophic failure for one coach become the normal for his successor.
Coker went 35-3 in his first three years, complete with one national title and three Big East titles. Unfortunately, Coker became a victim of improved competition. Miami went 9-3 in each of their first two seasons in the ACC, which is perfectly fine, but not the 12-1 that fans of The U were used to. Indeed life in the ACC was a bit more difficult than expected, and the step up in competition proved to be Coker’s undoing. The 2006 season was an abject mess for the Canes, going 6-6 in a regular season marred by the aforementioned brawl again FIU. It was believed that Coker had saved his job by upsetting Boston College in the last game of the regular season, but ultimately, he was fired the day after.
Coker was allowed to coach in the bowl game that season, and he ended his time in Coral Gables with a victory in the MPC Computers Bowl, cementing a 60-15 career record at The U. The reins were handed to Coker’s Defensive Coordinator, Randy Shannon, to rescue Miami from their Coker’s alleged mediocrity. Coker was fired for winning seven games one time. Shannon’s four year average before getting fired in 2010? Seven wins per season. Good Lord.
Randy Shannon might actually be the best successor discussed here, and he does deserve a ton of credit for his work off the field. Miami’s APR skyrocketed under his watch, and he was the only important person in Miami who was aware that Nevin Shapiro was a problem and refused to have anything to do with him, but it isn’t easy to save face as a program when you chop a coach who won a national title and had a winning percentage of 0.800 because everyone failed to properly adjust their expectations when they moved to the ACC, then have two straight coaches (Shannon and Al Golden) post averages on par with Coker’s lowest data point.
2004: Syracuse Fired Paul Pasqualoni and Replaced Him With Greg Robinson
Syracuse was a program in good shape under Dick MacPherson. Under his successor, Paul Pasqualoni, the Orange were even better. Pasqualoni won 10 games in each of his first two seasons, including a Fiesta Bowl berth in 1992. Pasqualoni then managed to win three consecutive Big East titles from 1996 to 1998, a run fueled by star quarterback Donovan McNabb. A 10-3 season in 2001 stood out among a few lean years before 2004, which would qualify as another lean year (they went 6-6), were it not for the fact that Syracuse shared the Big East title, Pasqualoni’s fourth in fourteen years. Unfortunately for him, new athletic director Daryl Gross wanted to make an impact, and that impact was firing Pasqualoni.
And so Pasqualoni departed upstate New York with a 107-59-1, and having won the Big East four times. Pasqualoni represents another iteration of a very important lesson: if you’re going to fire a coach with long term success, even if you have some lean years, you’d better have an idea of what you’re getting into. Syracuse did not know this, and they replaced Pasqualoni with one of the worst coaching hires ever.
Greg Robinson is more known throughout the midwest as the Defensive Coordinator who got Rich Rodriguez fired at Michigan, but before that, he was an abject failure at Syracuse. After Pasqualoni’s 6-6 (conference title-winning) 2004 season was deemed not to be good enough, Greg Robinson comes in and goes, wait for it, 1-10. Robinson was chopped a few years later with a record of 10-37.
2004: Ole Miss Fired David Cutcliffe and Replaced Him With Ed Orgeron
David Cutcliffe has already been mentioned twice in this piece, which speaks to the level of respect and influence he commands in the college football world. Cutcliffe became known to the greater football world as the Quarterbacks Coach at Tennessee, where he groomed a pair of quarterbacks who went in the top 3 of the NFL Draft (Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning). On the heels of Tennessee’s undefeated season in 1998, Cutcliffe was hired by Ole Miss to succeed Tommy Tuberville, who had just left for Auburn. Cutcliffe took the reins immediately, winning the 1998 Independence Bowl, then embarked on four solid seasons in Oxford, where solid seasons can be hard to come by. Cutcliffe’s Rebels peaked in 2003, going 10-3 and sharing the SEC West title, powered by another Cutcliffe product who eventually went in the first round of the NFL Draft, Eli Manning. Sadly and unsurprisingly, Manning’s graduation stung, and Ole Miss slumped to 4-7 in 2004, Cutcliffe’s first losing season in Oxford. At this point, athletic director Pete Boone decided to insert himself into the situation. Boone ordered Cutcliffe to fire some assistants and present a plan for improving the program. Cutcliffe, refusing to be intimidated by a non-football person telling him how to do his job, refused to fire his assistants, and was then taken out back himself.
Cutcliffe departed Oxford with a 44-29 record. He went back to Knoxville for a few years under Phil Fulmer before becoming the head coach at Duke in 2008, where he has made them relevant in the ACC for the first time...well, ever. As for Ole Miss, they replaced the quarterback guru with Ed Orgeron, whose greatest strength was Cutcliffe’s greatest weakness: recruiting. Far from the endearing, passionate live wire that he is now known for being nowadays, Ed Orgeron was an abject disaster at Ole Miss, pushing his players beyond reason, alienating fans, covering up injuries, having to be restrained from trying to murder a young Steven Godfrey, and in general being a Red Bull-fueled madman. Orgeron was a rolling train wreck in Oxford, and Ole Miss put a stop to it after three years and a 10-25 record. To his credit, Orgeron has turned his life around substantially since then, but Ole Miss undoubtedly dumped a good coach for a guy who was nowhere near ready.
2003: Nebraska Fired Frank Solich and Replaced Him With Bill Callahan
We’ve reached the nadir, folks. While Daniel (WCBN’s favorite Husker fan) reaches for the nearest bottle of pálinka, let me sing you a song of the queen mother of all unfair and regrettable college football firings.
Frank Solich was a Nebraska institution. The Cleveland product was a part of Bob Devaney’s first recruiting class at Nebraska in 1962. After finishing his playing career, Solich went to coach high school football in Omaha for two seasons before spending a decade as a high school coach in Lincoln. In 1979, Tom Osbourne hired him to coach the freshman team, thus beginning Solich’s 19 year-long stint working for the legendary Husker coach. Following Osbourne’s retirement in 1997, the outgoing legend hand-picked Frank Solich to succeed him. The transition was nearly seamless. After going 9-4 in 1998, Solich won the Big 12 in 1999 with a 12-1 record. Two more division titles followed in 2000 and 2001, and Solich sat with a 42-9 record a mere four years in, and the Big Red Machine rolled along. A slight roadblock followed. Nebraska was hit hard by the loss of Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch to the NFL, and a disappointing 7-7 season followed in 2002. Solich relinquished play calling duties to Barney Cotton, and stormed back in 2003. The Huskers went 9-3, missing out on an opportunity to play for the Big 12 title due to an unfortunate loss to the killing machine that was 1990’s to early-2000’s Bill Snyder. Then, in what has become a recurring theme, Nebraska hired a new athletic director, Steve Pederson, who was suddenly seized with what can only be described as sudden-onset severe megalomania. Pederson gave in to his idiotic urges, and Frank Solich was terminated, and the Nebraska of Devaney and Osbourne was terminated with him.
Bob Devaney won 53 games in his first six seasons in Lincoln, and Tom Osbourne won 55. Solich went 58-19 in six seasons. Realistically, there was no way Solich was going to eclipse his predecessors. That bar was way too high and Solich did admittedly have problems against good teams on the road (big surprise, beating good teams on the road is hard). But Nebraska had their plan, and they stick to it, and it went well, as Solich’s production was not dissimilar to Osbourne’s in the 1980’s (before he went from great coach to unstoppable force), until Pederson’s impulsiveness destroyed it. Who was going to vindicate Pederson’s decision to break the Huskers of old? Bill Callahan. Yes, that Bill Callahan. The Bill Callahan who might have thrown the Super Bowl to help out his buddy, Jon Gruden. Callahan was a failure in every way, and he was fired in 2007 after going 27-22 over four years.
Solich’s firing still remains unjustifiable to this day. At least Larry Coker and Paul Pasualoni had a protracted length of time in which they were regressing. Solich was Ralph Friedgen before Ralph Friedgen, except he did better at a better program, in that he had his program in lovely shape, took a reset after losing an important piece, rebounded, then got axed. It remains, to this day, as the worst college football firing of the 21st century. For his part, Solich became the head coach at Ohio University in 2005, and has set the MAC program on a run of consistency never before seen in a perpetually unstable conference. Husker fans can only watch and think about what should have been.