On Jan. 4, 2007, when Nick Saban gave his introductory press conference as Alabama’s head football coach, he professed — as coaches often do — his desire to make his new job his last one. “My next stop, you know where Lake Burton is?” he asked. “It’s in north Georgia, right on the North Carolina border, Rabun County. … That’s where I go in the summertime. That’s where I like it, and that’s my next stop.”
Fifteen years have passed, and almost every college football program is seeking the kind of stability that Saban has delivered to Alabama, which will play Georgia on Monday for the school’s seventh national championship in Saban’s 15 seasons. Since mid-September, the sport has experienced arguably its most seismic coaching turnover in recent memory. According to a tally from The Athletic, 28 Football Bowl Subdivision schools have made moves so far this season — up from 18, 24, 27 and 21 in the previous four years.1 Along the way, annual salaries neared the eight-figure mark, coaches moved on from storied programs, and a record number of schools made changes in the middle of the season.
From their first press conference until just before they leave for another job, coaches like to project stability. Schools demand it, locking up multi-year extensions to give the impression that those coaches will stick around. Players want it, too, seeing as coaching changes tend to set off recruiting defections and transfers. But in reality, the industry is lacking any sort of consistency.
When next season kicks off, at least 14 Power Five teams2 will debut new coaches, tying the high-water mark from the past decade. The 65 Power Five coaches as they stand now will enter next fall with an average of 4.2 years at their current schools, down from this season’s 4.6 years. That would be the first decrease since 2016, when Frank Beamer retired after 29 years at Virginia Tech.
So while schools advertise consistency with five-year contracts, and coaches tell recruits they’ll be in the program for an entire four-year career, a majority of them don’t deliver on those pacts. By next fall, no more than 26 of the 65 Power Five coaches will be in at least their fifth year at their respective schools. Just over half (33 of 65) will be entering at least their fourth season.
Based on this year’s churn, it also appears likely that a few of those coaches won’t make it through next season. A whopping nine FBS coaches3 lasted fewer than 10 games in 2021. That’s the highest total since 1967,4 excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020, when many seasons were shorter than 10 games in total. UConn started the ball rolling when Randy Edsall resigned on Sept. 6, just two games into the season.
The first sign that this fall’s coaching cycle would be a circus, though, came on Sept. 14, when USC fired Clay Helton after a 1-1 start and a 42-28 loss to Stanford. Helton’s demise had seemed imminent since a 5-7 finish in 2018, when the school issued the first of three statements confirming that Helton would return for another season.
“I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve,” then-athletic director Lynn Swann said. Swann resigned in September 2019, though his replacement, Mike Bohn, also retained Helton the following December. The coach stuck around one more time after the pandemic decimated the 2020 season, with a promise that “we’re on an upward trend right now.” He would coach only two more games at USC.
In the era of midseason coaching changes, USC is the national leader, with three since 2000.5 But the about-face is by no means unique to the Trojans. Florida announced an extension for Dan Mullen in June and fired him in November, agreeing to pay a $12 million buyout. LSU fired Ed Orgeron less than two seasons after he won a national championship and signed a six-year extension.
With their coaching turmoil in 2021, Florida, Washington and Miami joined Kansas as the schools that are on their seventh coach of this century. In contrast, some schools are portraits of stability: Six join Alabama with current coaches who have served at least 10 years: Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Stanford’s David Shaw and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham.
Until about a month ago, Brian Kelly and Notre Dame were also exceptions to the rule.6 In September, Kelly became the most successful coach at a school that has had a slew of successful coaches, and on Nov. 22, he expressed a desire to retire at Notre Dame, “unless that fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check.” Turns out it didn’t take quite that much: Kelly agreed to a $100 million contract at LSU. He was the first head coach to leave the Fighting Irish for another college job since 1907.
LSU and USC have rebooted their quests to go on a run like Alabama’s, and, the Crimson Tide’s opponent Monday already searched for — and arguably found — a Saban foil. Six years ago, Georgia fired Mark Richt, who went 145-51 over 15 seasons in Athens, to replace him with Kirby Smart, who was perhaps the coach closest to Saban. Smart worked for Saban in his first nine years at Alabama, including eight as the defensive coordinator, and is now 65-15 at Georgia with two trips to the national championship game. When Saban finally retires to Lake Burton, Smart will have a strong claim to Saban’s title as the country’s most dominant coach — though, as we’ve seen, he could also become the subject of another massive coaching change.