February is here which, in college basketball, means three primary things: bubble talk, Bracketology and a final push for coaches hoping to save their jobs.
The third one is the least fun, but it is reality in the high-paying, high-stakes world of big-time college athletics.
If you take a landscape scan of college hoops right now, you'll notice that 2018 doesn't necessarily set up as a dizzying year on the coaching carousel. Last year brought a lot of change to schools that had long waited for a new face to come in and switch things up. That has led to fewer spots up for turnover this year. Combine that with a couple of unexpectedly good campaigns cropping up elsewhere and this might wind up being a relatively stable changing of the guards come late March.
If not for NCAA and/or FBI investigations still threatening the jobs of a batch of men, it would absolutely be the quietest year of coaching turnover at the major-conference level in the past decade. In speaking with industry sources over the past few weeks, it's accepted as a lock that fewer than 20 jobs flip from the Major 7 conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC). The number might not even hit 15 -- but there are outside factors that could bring upheaval.
Here's a list of schools who could reasonably and rationally opt to make a change come March. The list also details what coaches can do in order to keep their jobs. In some instances, coaches are already on track to do so. This is the longest list rationally possible, which is another way of saying that many of these schools will wind up retaining their current coaches.
Coach: Kevin Ollie
Interesting ongoing situation in Storrs: The Huskies (11-12) have sharply fallen out of national relevance the past two seasons, but season-ending injuries have also played a part in that. Ollie -- in his sixth season and with a national title to his name -- is under contract through 2021 and signed for a base compensation of $17.9 million across the life of that deal. But that could be wiped away if informationturns up evidence that would void his contract. Locally, UConn fans have become fed up with the team's mediocrity in the American -- the Huskies were the crown jewel get for the American, yet have never finished better than third -- and doubts have permeated throughout the Nutmeg State as to whether the program can get back to top-25 status under Ollie. The timeline on the NCAA's investigation is unknown, as is the severity of potential violations. If no new information comes from the NCAA side in the next two months, Ollie will likely hold on to his job.
Interim coach: Michael Perry
The Pirates already have made a coaching change, as Jeff Lebo resigned at the end of November. Athletic director Jeff Compher no doubt has crafted a target list of realistic candidates whom he'll be eager to interview come March. ECU last made the NCAAs in 1993.
Coach: Tubby Smith
I don't expect a change the Bluff City, but the 14-10 Tigers just lost to East Carolina on Saturday, then fell by 20 against Wichita State on Tuesday night. ECU was ranked 315th at KenPom heading into that game. It marked a new low in Smith's tenure with the Tigers. If Memphis continues to crater, then a job change could be in order, but he is only in year two. I think it's more likely than not that Smith is back for 2018-19. It's hard to overstate just how frustrated the fan base is, though. Recruiting has sagged and positive morale has faded.
Coach: Jim Christian
Christian entered the season on the hot seat, but he's on pace to save his job. Christian, in year No. 4 at BC, has a 14-10 record. This will by far be his best season yet. And remember, he has that huge home win over Duke this season. Barring a total collapse, BC should retain Christian.
Interim coach: David Padgett
Obviously not a firing situation here; just a potential opening. And what a huge opening it would be. This is a domino-inducing job situation. Louisville's leadership infrastructure is going through wholesale changes, so it's extremely hard to gauge how good of a chance Padgett has at being promoted from interim coach to full-time. The Cardinals are 16-8; the forecast is murky. Conventional thought has been that Padgett would need to get a solid seed and make the second weekend of the NCAAs in order to lock up the gig. Right now, Louisville's slipping fast in the NCAA field. Bottom line, if Padgett's for sure going to be the guy, Louisville's going to need to wrangle a four-game winning streak between now and the ACC tournament in order to position itself at a second-weekend tourney run. Short of that, a new head coach would bring a lot of big names and then put speed under the carousel.
Coach: Kevin Stallings
The Panthers are terrible. At 8-16, and 0-11 in the ACC, Stallings' program is moving in the wrong direction. (Pitt was 16-17 last season in Stallings' first year.) Few would balk if Pitt AD Heather Lyke opted to pull the ripcord. It was former AD Scott Barnes who hired Stallings, so a change here is on the table, but I'll remind readers that power-conference schools bailing on a hire after only two years and without any type of scandal is uncommon. Stallings probably gets a third year.
Coach: Bruce Weber
This is the only job that even barely qualifies for so-called hot-seat status in the best conference in college basketball. Plus, Weber just signed a contract extension last August. His buyout is $2.5 million -- though it drops to $500,000 on April 30, 2019. Kansas State is 16-7 but still in need of a couple victories over NCAA Tournament teams in order to lock up its at-large status. Bottom line: If Weber gets the Wildcats to the NCAAs, it will be his fourth trip in six seasons there, and obviously he will not be fired. K-State fans are shooting their eyes elsewhere for Weber's replacement, but they're likely to wait at least another season. It's a stretch to even put him on this list to begin with, but in the spirit of looking for at least one candidate from each league, here we are.
Coach: Dave Leitao
The good news: Leitao has nine wins this season, which matches his win total from each of the previous two years. The bad news: DePaul is still a basement bum in the Big East, and there's little reason to think the Blue Demons can change that under Leitao's watch. This is his second tenure with DePaul (he previously coached there from 2002-05 when the school was in C-USA) and things aren't going much better. The Big East is only getting better, so with a new arena and really good coaches elsewhere in the conference, it's probably time to tap someone else to do what Leitao was tasked with. Adding to the pressure to bring in a new coach: Leitao lost out on , who opted to head to UCLA.
Coach: Chris Mullin
Well, Mullin just pulled off what I think will go down as the best win of his coaching career. As in: He's at the mountain peak now. The Johnnies, still winless in the Big East, nonetheless managed to shock Duke over the weekend and win 81-77. Good in the now, but the wide view on this program is not optimistic. Mullin is a school legend, yet he's 8-39 in Big East play and has not done much with a good amount of talent. From what I gather, unless Mullin decides he wants to step down, I think he'll have another year afforded to him because of what he means to that program and because St. John's roster should -- again, in theory -- be even better next season. Notice a pattern here? A lot of schools caught in a spot where firing a coach might feel like they're doing it a season too soon, yet waiting one more year -- even if that's the fair thing to do -- will probably only delay the inevitable.
Coach: Tom Izzo
This marks the first time in Izzo's career that he could be included on a list like this, and it's obviously got nothing to do with on-court performance. Let me be clear: Tom Izzo will not resign or be fired from his post unless truly incriminating information is revealed in the coming weeks or months. Izzo's job security has been brought up because of revealing details, and still-unanswered questions by Izzo, about how his program and athletic department handled accusations of sexual and physical assault against his players in the past. All of this. Some have called for Izzo to step down. He's stated he will not be doing so, and has repeatedly said he's always cooperated with every investigation into his program. If all that has been published winds up being all that gets attached to Izzo -- if no other information is released -- then it's highly unlikely any change is coming. That said, it would be wrong to not include him on a list such as this given the current climate and the queue of questions still hovering in the air, waiting to be answered by Izzo.
Coach: Pat Chambers
Maybe the most interesting call of any coach listed in this story. Chambers is in year No. 7 at a program that has very little success in men's basketball across its 122-year history. He's yet to make the NCAAs and sits at 16-9 this season. PSU is still in position to steal some wins and backdoor into the tournament, and if that happens, Chambers is sitting pretty, no question. If that doesn't happen? PSU's power brokers will have a tough decision. Chambers averaged 14.5 wins per season prior to this one. It seems likely Penn State will get to 19 wins, which would be a season-high under Chambers. Interesting call ahead, because I think PSU's roster will be a tick better next season.
Coach: Tim Miles
Miles is in a similar situation to Christian at Boston College. He was an obvious hot seat candidate heading into the season, but at this point he's won enough to just about be out of consideration for a list like this. However, if Nebraska were to absolutely crater, Miles' job could be in peril and so that's the only reason why he's listed. I don't see a big losing streak happening, though. The Cornhuskers are 18-8 and have a 9-4 mark in the Big Ten. It's the team's best season since 2013-14, when they made the NCAAs. NU has home games upcoming against Rutgers and Maryland. Two more victories there and there is no way the school could justify making a coaching change.
Coach: Bruce Pearl
Auburn's pacing for a No. 1 seed and is in the midst of potentially its most successful season in program history. Yet its coach might not be back? Yeah, this is a really weird college basketball season.
"I put my faith in God, not man," Pearl told me when I broached his job security.
Here's the scoop: Two months ago, scuttlebutt was that Pearl would need something more than a minor miracle in order to hold on to his job and return for 2018-19. Remember when Pearl was reportedly not coopering with Auburn's inquiry after all the FBI news broke? That played into those rumors. What's transpired since has been remarkable. Auburn's 21-2, in command of the SEC and doing this despite not having Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley on the roster because of their connection to the FBI probe. Pearl's on the short list for National Coach of the Year candidates, and he's done the maximum you could expect of him in this situation.
But that FBI investigation, an incoming new athletic director (Allen Greene, formerly of Buffalo) and unanswered questions from school officials still linger in the background. Bottom line is, if Pearl is able to prove what he needs to prove to school officials, the rest has been taken care of. Purely from a performance perspective, what's happening this year at Auburn is the exact reason why the school took a chance on Pearl to begin with.
Coach: Mark Fox
The Bulldogs are 13-9 and would need a magical turnaround in order to make the Big Dance. Fox is in year nine with UGA and has two NCAA Tournament bids to his name -- both 10 seeds (2011, 2015). Fox has a strong reputation in terms of his character, but it's hard to see how Georgia opts to bring him back for a 10th year if this team is in the NIT or worse. It would come as a surprise to many in the business if Georgia stayed on. Fox isn't dead man walking yet, though. The SEC is ripe in the middle and the Bulldogs can still win their way to a good SEC tournament seed. Very big February ahead.
Coach: Andy Kennedy
A hard situation to read. Count me among the many who believe Kennedy's run at Ole Miss will almost certainly not be duplicated by his successor. The Rebels have averaged 21.3 wins per year over the past 11 seasons. Kennedy's only made the NCAA Tournament twice since he got there in 2006-07, though, and now with an 11-13 record it's likely to mark his worst season in Oxford. It could be time for a clean, healthy break. Kennedy will be fine; his coaching reputation is solid and he'll land on his feet. If Ole Miss opts for a change, it will have the unenviable task of bringing in someone who can average 20-plus wins a season and do it at a time when the SEC is trending more competitive than it's been in a decade.
Coach: Billy Kennedy
Speaking of the SEC's most competitive season in a long time, well I wonder if A&M's is the ultimate toss-up situation on this list. Kennedy's team was the trendy preseason pick to win the SEC, and now the Aggies have fallen victim to high expectations. At 15-8 and with a 4-6 league record, there's no telling which way A&M will go. If the Aggies make the NCAA Tournament, Kennedy's in the clear, no doubt. Short of that? He'll have completed his seventh season in College Station with one Big Dance bid in that time. Keep in mind that A&M's three best players -- Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg -- could all reasonably opt not to return and keep their names in the draft.
Coach: Sean Miller
Miller is in the same situation as Tom Izzo, but with very different details. Miller will keep his job if what we know now remains all we know. Nothing has gone public that would directly implicate Miller as it pertains to the FBI's case, but we really don't know how far along the federal government is with its investigation. Arizona's leadership has firmly stood behind Miller. The troubling thing for Miller is something he may never shake even if he stays on as Arizona's coach: He was a longtime coworker and friend with Book Richardson, dating back to his time at Xavier. Richardson is the Wildcats assistant charged by the FBI. Are we to believe that Richardson would have been cheating like he was alleged to have done and that Miller knew nothing of it? Very few people actually believe that.
Coach: Andy Enfield
Enfield's name must be included here just like Miller's was and just like Pearl's was. (First-year Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton also had an assistant arrested, but unlike the other three head coaches, he did not bring the assistant to the program.) Enfield's team is probably NCAA Tournament-bound, so the only reason for a change would be new information popping up on behalf of the FBI or NCAA. Currently, that's not seen as a likely scenario but he nevertheless it's only proper to list him here, regardless, given the uncertainty of the case.
Coach: Ernie Kent
Kent was a tough sell as a hire back in 2014, and now, almost four years later, Kent is staring down a 9-13 season. His cumulative record with WSU is 44-71. It's hard to win at Wazzu, but a change here might be necessary. Washington State knows now it can probably never get another Tony Bennett.