Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Austin Peay turnover top hat sold separately):
THIRD QUARTER: PANDEMIC JOB SECURITY
Behold, the spellbinding longevity of Clay Helton (21). The USC coach has the lowest winning percentage of any full-time coach of the Trojans since Paul Hackett was fired in 2000—and yet he perseveres, 62 games into a tenure that has no end in sight. Circumstances have conspired to make Helton the poster boy for newfound job security in the normally treacherous realm of college football coaching.
Helton went 5–7 in 2018 but wasn’t fired because his boss, Lynn Swann, had given him a lavish contract extension a few months earlier and might not have had any idea how to run a search for someone better. Helton went 8–5 in 2019 and kept his job because USC forced out Swann in September and didn’t replace him until November. By the time Mike Bohn came onboard and figured out how to unlock his office at Heritage Hall, rushing a coaching change didn’t seem prudent and would have been very expensive, with a buyout believed to be in the $20 million range, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Now it’s 2020, and Helton will make it through the fall undefeated. Also winless, of course. But he probably isn’t going to be fired before getting a shot at a presumptive winter or spring season, and even if that goes badly he might still retain his job. Because in the current market, when athletic departments are losing money hand over fist, who can afford to fire anyone with a fat buyout?
(The X-factor here, of course, is what happens if Urban Meyer clears his throat and declares that he’s ready to coach again.)
A Dash list of other coaches who are not exactly killing it in their current gig but may be too expensive to get rid of, and where they rank on the Helton Scale (5 being amazingly secure, 1 being under serious fire):
Will Muschamp (22), South Carolina.
Record at South Carolina: 26–25 in four seasons, 15–17 in the SEC.
Annual salary: $4.4 million.
Helton Scale: 2. South Carolina would be looking at a $13 million buyout to replace Muschamp, plus whatever it would take to pay the next guy (and, perhaps, pay to buy him out from somewhere else). Not a small sum in a time of hemorrhaging revenue. But the downward trajectory, from 9–4 to 7–6 to 4–8, is a problem. As usual, the games against Eastern Division peers like Tennessee (season opener), Missouri (Nov. 21) and Kentucky (Dec. 5) will go a long way toward deciding how this season plays out. The good news for Muschamp: he doesn’t have to take a beating from rival Clemson to close the season for once.
Derek Mason (23), Vanderbilt.
Record at Vandy: 27–47 in six seasons, 10–38 in the SEC.
Annual salary: $3.4 million.
Helton Scale: 1. James Franklin showed what is possible (albeit unlikely) at Vanderbilt, and Mason hasn’t come close to approximating that. He hasn’t recorded a winning record yet at the school, and last year was his worse season: 3–9, with a 24-point loss to a UNLV team that would fire its coach. It’s unclear what the buyout would be, since Vandy is a private school and doesn’t have to release all financial information. Mason has a new boss, first-year athletic director Candice Storey Lee, who is an alum and had been on staff since 2004. How aggressive will her management style be?
Mike Gundy (24), Oklahoma State.
Record at Oklahoma State: 129–64 in 15 seasons, 77–52 in the Big 12.
Annual salary: $4.25 million, after a reduction of $1 million earlier this summer.
Helton Scale: 2. Gundy has won more games with the Cowboys than the next two winningest coaches combined (Pat Jones has 62 wins, and Jim Lookabaugh 58). But his mouth and mindset have gotten him into trouble in 2020, resulting in an internal investigation and a reduction in both salary and his guarantee. That qualifies as being put on notice. The thing is, Gundy has the team to potentially win his way out of the hole he’s dug for himself. After going 15–11 the last two years, he needs a big season.
Tom Herman (25), Texas.
Record at Texas: 25–15 in three seasons, 17–11 in the Big 12.
Annual salary: $6.75 million.
Helton Scale: 3. Herman has improved the product demonstrably since the Charlie Strong Era, but last year’s 8–5 record and 5–4 league mark was a major disappointment. He’s been paid a top-10 salary for three years while delivering fringe top-25 results. With a four-year starting quarterback, new coordinators and an experienced defense, expectations are high (as usual) on the 40 Acres. Texas is never going to convincingly cry poverty, but the more you make off college football in ordinary years, the more you stand to lose this year. And Herman’s buyout wouldn’t be cheap if it came to Chris del Conte making a move.
Jimbo Fisher (26), Texas A&M.
Record at A&M: 17–9 in two seasons, 9–7 in the SEC.
Annual salary: $7.5 million.
Helton Scale: 4. A&M has become a More Money Than Sense program—it has agreed to consecutive contracts that were ridiculously tilted in favor of the coach. The previous one made firing Kevin Sumlin massively expensive, and then the school followed up by giving Fisher a fully guaranteed, 10-year, $75 million deal in which Fisher has to pay zero dollars and zero cents if he walks away. So it would take some serious fiscal irresponsibility and a serious flop (with a lot of talent) to push Fisher out. But he’s 1–6 in true road games thus far and failed to threaten the top dogs in the SEC West.
Gus Malzahn (27), Auburn.
Record at Auburn: 62–31 in seven seasons, 33–23 in the SEC.
Annual salary: $6.8 million.
Helton Scale: 3. Two things are constant for Malzahn at Auburn—he’s going to eat at Waffle House, and he’s going to be under pressure from a not-insignificant percentage of the fan base. He has two important things going for him: a big buyout, and two wins in the last three seasons over Nick Saban (and three overall). But the Tigers could take a step back in the cutthroat SEC West, and every step back at Auburn is viewed with alarm.
Philip Montgomery (28), Tulsa.
Record at Tulsa: 25–37 in five seasons, 14–26 in the AAC.
Annual salary: $1.7 million.
Helton Scale: 3. After going 10–3 his second season, Montgomery’s record over the last three is 9–27. Yuck. But Tulsa is not a place with a big athletic war chest, and the school currently has neither a full-time president nor a full-time athletic director (Derrick Gragg is leaving the latter post next month for a job with the NCAA).
Chip Kelly (29), UCLA.
Record at UCLA: 7–17 in two seasons, 7–11 in the Pac-12.
Annual salary: $3.5 million.
Helton Scale: 4. This splashy hire has not gone as planned. So much so, in fact, that the last UCLA coach with a worse record through two seasons was James J. Cline in 1923-24. (He went 2-10-3, and there was no third season for Cline.) Kelly will get a fall reprieve, and UCLA has never been a rapid hire-and-fire place. The buyout is $9 million—hardly chump change, but smaller than some of the ridiculous ones on this list. There is a new AD in town in Martin Jarmond. Hard to see Kelly getting anything less than four years, in the current budgetary climate.
Scott Frost (30), Nebraska.
Record at Nebraska: 9–15 in two seasons, 6–12 in the Big Ten.
Annual salary: $5 million.
Helton Scale: 5. This is another splashy hire that has failed to gain traction through two seasons. But Frost is a local boy and former Cornhusker hero who has the fan base eating out of the palm of is hand, especially now that he’s become one of the flag-waving dissidents of the Big Ten going after league management. Any potential Nebraska breakthrough is likely to have to wait until 2021, which also means there will be no breakdown this fall. Like Kelly, Frost seems like a lock to get four seasons before feeling real pressure.