Job security for college football coordinators isn't what it used to be

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Considering that replacing assistant coaches mid-season is not a common occurrence in college football, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is thankful to have someone on staff who has been through it before.

Ruffin McNeill’s experience of successfully taking over the Texas Tech defensive coordinator duties in 2007 is among reasons he will in his first game as Oklahoma’s interim defensive coordinator when the Sooners play TCU Saturday.

Already on staff as an assistant head coach, McNeill is replacing Mike Stoops, who was fired by Riley one day after Oklahoma’s 48-45 loss to Texas on Oct. 6. The Sooners were off last week.

“I thought we needed somebody to unite the group, and it was tough to look past Ruffin’s experience,” Riley said. “He’s done so much in his career. There’s very little in college football he hasn’t done.”

In 2007, the Texas Tech defensive improved down the stretch under McNeill’s command, leading to an upset over No. 3 Oklahoma and a bowl win over No. 20 Virginia.

Two years later, McNeill was named Texas Tech’s interim head coach before the Alamo Bowl and led the team to a win against Michigan State. He was hired as head coach of East Carolina the following month. One of his first moves was to bring in Riley, who coached with him at Texas Tech, as his offensive coordinator. 

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 Oklahoma is one of the three college teams to switch coordinators during this season. 

“Trend is probably a strong word, but I think we are going to see it more frequently now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferenz said.

Kansas football offensive coordinator Doug Meacham  was let go Oct. 8, the day after Oklahoma fired Stoops.

On Sept. 23, Wake Forest fired defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel after the Demon Deacons gave up 97 points in a two-game span.

“I would hope that it doesn’t become a trend, as a coach in this profession,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said.

Kansas coach Dave Beatty said Meacham was fired “because none of us were satisfied with the progress we are making on the offensive side of the ball.”

The move came less than two years after Beatty lured Meacham from TCU in what at the time appeared to be a coup for the Jayhawks. Beatty said coordination of the offense will now be a team effort, and he will make the final decision on play-calling.

Riley explained the decision to change coordinators as his feeling that “we needed a new voice.”

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said the decision to replace Sawvel “was not a spur-of-the-moment” decision. Clawson opted to divvy up Sawyel’s responsibilities and then added another full-time coach.

In the past, mid-season replacement of assistants didn’t occur often. But increasing pressure to win and greater emphasis on coordinators have changed things. Now, the prevailing sentiment among head coaches is that there are times when the move is necessary, even if it is never easy.

“It’s not optimal — I know that,” Ferentz said. “It’s the last thing any coach would want to do.”

Coaches tend to believe that if another coach makes an in-season switch of assistants they have good reasons.

“You don’t do it on a whim,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “There’s got to be something in place, and (a midseason move) can improve your situation during the season. If it’s about changing the outlook of the program, you might as well wait until the end of the year.”

The reluctance of making a switch during the season has always been the potential for disruption. As a general rule, athletes like routines and don’t appreciate changes.

“The first thing I think about every day is our players,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “If I had to make a staff change because of production on the field, (I would) think ‘How is that going to impact our players’ lives … because in my way of looking at it, this would be a pretty dramatic move.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban understands the player side of these decisions because he had to install Steve Sarkasian as his offensive coordinator for the national title game in 2016 after Lane Kiffin accepted a job at Florida Atlantic.

“It would be a little difficult,” Saban said. “It depends on what the issue is. If it’s leadership, maybe someone on the staff can do better leading the players. … A possible change in scheme (could) have a tremendous impact on the players you’re trying to coach. It’s a difficult circumstance for the players. I’m not second-guessing anyone, I just know it’s a difficult situation for the players.”

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst compares the situation to losing a player to injury: “Someone has to step in and step up.”

Ferentz recalls being an assistant coach for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 1995 when they lost their defensive coordinator to illness. Head coach Bill Belichick assumed the defensive coordinator duties.

“Bill Belichick is probably the only guy who could pull that off,” Ferentz said. “Still, I thought it was hard on the team a little bit because we lost some of his contributions as a head coach.”

Ferentz, 62, remembers the days when coaching staffs stayed together more than they do today.

“The world has changed a great deal in 30-plus years,” Ferentz said. “(Being fired is) an occupational hazard now.”

Contributing: Scott Gleeson

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