One of the byproducts of 2022’s heretofore unseen levels of in-season firings, both in volume and timing, is that interim head coaches have become a bigger subculture of college football than ever before.
Back when the majority of firings took place after the regular season, an interim coach was much more of a blue-moon occurrence, and almost certainly a momentary appointment. There are famous cases of interims flipping their titles into full-time gigs (Matt Luke at Ole Miss, Ed Orgeron at LSU), and one really, really famous example in Clemson, South Carolina, of having your superior, dynasty-building replacement already on staff. But now more than ever, more interims are afforded longer, fairer looks as real replacement candidates. Let’s take a look at the chances of this year’s current lineup of temporary head coaches:
The Badgers made a very non-Wisconsin move in clipping Paul Chryst mid-season and eating a substantial buyout (even after it was negotiated down). Since his dismissal, frustration has quietly leaked out over a less-than-modern recruiting apparatus, and the industry at large has gossiped about the school’s anxiety about falling behind in the next era of the Big Ten.
But a significant reason for Chryst’s early dismissal was to create a suitable audition window for Jim Leonhard. The 40-year-old former Badger linebacker, NFL vet, and defensive coordinator was given the interim title with substantial investment. Of all the interim situations in this or any recent season, Leonhard’s appointment has the most weight. Many inside Wisconsin are actively hoping they don’t have to go shopping and they already have their next head coach.
Since his appointment, Leonhard has guided the Badgers to a 2-1 record; the only loss (so far) coming in double overtime at Michigan State. Wisconsin has three winnable games up next – vs. Maryland, at Iowa, and at Nebraska – before closing the season with a rivalry game vs. a formerly red-hot Minnesota.
Based solely on the state of their opponents and the quality of Sconnie’s recent play, every one of these games is winnable for Leonhard. That fact alone has many believing he’s got the job almost sewn up, but he still has to do the work. If Wisconsin finishes 5-2 or better in the interim window it’s likely they already have their next head coach.
In the wake of one of the most disastrous on-field runs by a Power 5 program under Geoff Collins, everything was coming up in favor of interim head coach Brent Key – until last week’s loss to Virginia.
Key, a Georgia Tech alumnus endorsed by former head coach George O’Leary, shocked the ACC by winning back-to-back conference games against Pitt and Duke. Key’s two ACC wins in two games match Collins’ entire ACC win total in 2021.
The talk in coaching and agent circles is that had Key beat Virginia, Tech was ready to remove the interim tag. If that seems hasty considering that GT just hired a new athletic director in J Batt, it’s a sign that Tech is very, very anxious about looking for a head coach right now. There are serious infrastructure and financial concerns surrounding Tech, and top-tier candidates will ask questions about facilities, staff salary pools, and budgets that the school is not ready to answer yet.
Batt’s prowess lies in fundraising and Tech has miles to go to catch up. Many consider Key, an alumnus endorsed by former program players and coaches, a logical bridge coach whose disposition (he’s every bit of a non-nonsense offensive line coach) will serve as the polar opposite of Collins’. He’ll also come cheaper than almost any other candidate in the open market, so if he can build a winner at Tech, great, and if not, he can serve as a steward for the time being.
But with a tougher schedule looming, the UVA loss stings. It’s possible the administration could sell Key’s two-game streak in a vacuum, but the Yellow Jackets will close the year with a near-guaranteed blowout against Georgia, and a rough streak of Florida State, Virginia Tech, Miami, and North Carolina. The Hokies should be considered a swing game, but for whatever ails them, those other three rosters are inarguably more talented. If Key could pull off a pair of upsets in there he might have a chance.
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph is an alumnus of Nebraska (noticing a theme here yet?), and shuffled his staff after Scott Frost’s firing to show the Husker network he meant business, and that the current administration supported him fully as he tries to salvage the 2022 campaign.
The Huskers are a .500 team under Joseph, first losing to Oklahoma and then dropping a one-possession game vs. Purdue last week. In between are two competent wins against inferior teams (Rutgers and Indiana). Joseph still controls his destiny with a game against ranked Illinois this weekend, Michigan in November, and the meat of the Big Ten West still to come (Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota).
But the reality is that Joseph can only do so much with Frost’s hampered program, and Nebraska recognizes that reality. Accordingly, Joseph agreed to a restructured contract with a provision that if a new head coach is hired for 2023, Joseph’s original assistant contract would still be honored. That language leads almost everyone in the industry to assume that: 1. Barring a miracle run through November, Joseph won’t be the next head coach, and 2. That Joseph will be on the next Nebraska staff regardless of the hire, and not the head coach somewhere else like Colorado.
Bill Clark is the architect (and some might say savior) of the modern UAB football program, so when he stepped down before the season due to what he and the school framed as health problems, the timing was considered a tactical move to give former Clark assistant Bryant Vincent as much of a shot as possible to become the next Blazers head coach.
Publicly Vincent was thought to be a heavy favorite for the job, but UAB has been quietly operating a head coaching search throughout the season. Vincent’s fine-but-not-great performance has made that decision look smart. Currently, the Blazers are 4-3 and 2-2 in Conference USA play, and with a move to the American Athletic Conference on the horizon, school officials are looking for a bigger, bolder change as the quality of opponents is set to increase.
Aside from a paycheck game at LSU in November, UAB’s remaining schedule is winnable – if the Blazers can upset UTSA in Birmingham next weekend. Ultimately, the 2022 record is likely a non-factor, as the school is currently in the vetting process with outside candidates.
Colorado & Arizona State
Although the situations in Boulder and Tempe are almost night and day – Herm Edwards ran one of the most interesting but wildly dysfunctional programs in college football and Karl Dorrell just ran a quietly bad one – both Pac-12 programs’ interim situations are considered to be purely custodial.
At Colorado, former Notre Dame assistant and WKU head coach Mike Sanford Jr. is in charge, but with the Buffaloes in such dire straits, it’s impossible to expect Sanford or anyone else to change this program’s fate in the back half of one season. Also, Colorado is already interviewing outside candidates and wants to have a replacement for Dorrell as soon as possible.
Arizona State is a lot trickier: athletic director Ray Anderson just received a shocking vote of confidence from ASU leadership, despite hiring his former friend and client (Anderson was formerly an agent) Edwards to lead a messy, stupid era of Sun Devil football. Anderson isn’t fired, but questions persist about how involved he’ll be in the vetting and decision-making of Edwards’ replacement. ASU is considered a fixer-upper job with a high ceiling for the right candidate, but there’s a lot of buyer-beware fear in the market because of Anderson. Either way, they’re almost certain to move on from former Edwards staffer Shaun Aguano.
After firing Will Healy this past weekend, the 49ers named offensive line coach Pete Rossomando as interim. Consider this to be a standard custodial run, unless the 49ers, considered the worst program in the FBS, rip off a legit miracle run through November. There are a lot of questions in the coaching/agent world about this job, namely its high expectations and anemic finances, so if candidates start to balk I wouldn’t rule anything out.