The firing of a coordinator in the middle of a college football season doesn’t happen often.
As creatures of habit, head coaches are loathe to upend the apple cart and reshuffle staff assignments on the fly. Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman has been in the profession for nearly four decades and, before this fall, can’t recall a time he’d been on a staff involving such a dramatic change.
His hand was essentially forced when it came to firing Dan Enos, however. “Constipated” is probably the best word to describe how the Razorback offense often looked under the Hogs’ former play-caller and, after six straight losses in mostly winnable games, everybody had had enough. Somebody had to go. Enos made the most sense.
“What I wanted to do was make sure we brought life back into the program, brought enthusiasm back into the program,” Pittman said on Monday. “Accountability. And I’m not saying we didn’t have any of that before because it makes me sound like I’m blaming a guy, and I’m not. I already spoke about Dan and my respect for him.”
Pittman, of course, it’s the only one optimistic about what the coordinator change will do for his 2-6 team’s fortunes.
Quarterback KJ Jefferson has looked sluggish and off for parts of the last few games, and all that game to a head with a miserable passing performance in the recent home loss to Mississippi State at home. Even with a defense that is balling out to a degree rarely seen from the Hogs in the 21st century, Arkansas has little hope of beating SEC teams outside of Vanderbilt unless their quarterback plays like the all-conference caliber standout he’s supposed to be.
If his ESPN Arkansas 99.5 interview during the bye week is to be believed, the real KJ Jefferson – at least when it comes to attitude and showing passion – is back now that Kenny Guiton has taken over the OC position as interim. “I’m just excited for him, looking forward to it,” Jefferson said, adding that Guiton has emphasized enthusiasm and accountability to the offensive players alongside the streamlined, simplified playbook they are installing.
Now, the question becomes whether all this renewed passion and fresh starting will translate to results on the field, starting with Arkansas vs Florida on Saturday. Broadcaster Chuck Barrett, the radio voice of the Razorbacks, believes it will.
“There’s going to be some life injected, I’m pretty certain of that,” he said last week on ESPN Arkansas’ Halftime show. “We’ve seen often there generally is a spike” in response to coordinator changes.
“Now, it may not last very long, I don’t know. But I’d be very surprised if there’s not a spike from an offensive standpoint when they play Florida.”
So, what does the data say when it comes to how teams respond to coordinator changes?
Let’s look at instances of such mid-season upheavals and see whether the offense (or defense) under a new mid-season offensive (or defensive) coordinator improved or not.
We’ll start with recent history’s worst-case scenarios and move on to the best:
Worst Case Historical Precedents?
Whereas Arkansas fired its coordinator in the middle of a huge slump of a season, in 2018 Oklahoma fired its defensive coordinator (Mike Stoops) in the middle of a very successful season. In fact, the Sooners had been undefeated up until the sixth game, which Oklahoma lost to archival Texas 45-48.
Under Stoops, Oklahoma football had been allowing 421 yards a game and 3.5 touchdowns. Under the new defensive coordinator, Ruffin McNeill, the Sooners gave up 484 yards a game and 5 touchdowns a game although there had been better defensive play in the first two games under McNeill. No matter, though. The Sooners still won every game the rest of the year until running into a buzzsaw named “Alabama” in the College Football Playoffs.
Interestingly, that was the second time Ruffin McNeill (who originally served as a Miami Dolphins intern under former Razorback Jimmy Johnson) had taken over mid-season as defensive coordinator. The first instance came in 2007, when he took over after only four games at Texas Tech. That time the defense definitely improved (see chart below), even though Texas Tech would lose three of its remaining nine games.
On the offensive side, the worst case precedent appears at first blush to be an ongoing one at Indiana. Five games into this season, with a 2-3 record, the Hoosiers’ Tom Allen fired his offensive coordinator Walt Bell and replaced him with Rod Carey.
Three games into that change, the team has gone winless and the offense has dropped from 334 to 287 yards per game and an average of 0.2 fewer touchdowns per outing. However, context matters. In this case, Indiana has played two of its last three games at No. 2 Michigan and at No. 9 Penn State.
Arkansas gets the benefit of an easier stretch of games coming out of its change. Of its four remaining opponents, only Missouri (No. 14) is ranked in the AP poll.
Best Case Scenario for Arkansas Football Change?
When it comes to looking for a best-case scenario for an offensive coordinator breathing new life into a program, Arkansas football fans should look no farther than Boise State, the same program where Houston Nutt found big success as a head coach before coming to Fayetteville.
In 2022, four games into the season, the Broncos’ OC Tim Plough was let go after the team whimpered to a 10-27 loss at UTEP. Under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Broncos’ output spiked by about 145 yards and 1.55 touchdowns per game. After a 2-2 start, Boise State lost just two more games the rest of the year.
That change, however, entailed a much more experienced coordinator (Koetter is more than 25 years older than Plough) taking over for a younger one.
Arkansas’ situation sees a much younger coach taking over an experienced hand, as Guiton is 32 years old with no collegiate play-calling experience while Enos is 55 years old. That’s a 23-year difference.
Here, Arkansas football fans would want to look at a likely best-case scenario from 1988, when Johnny Majors’ Tennessee Vols struggled to an uncharacteristic 0-5 start as its defense under old-timer Ken Donahue got repeatedly gashed. That fifth game saw Washington State hang 52 points on the Vols, in Neyland Stadium no less.
Whether it was Majors, who had been the Arkansas offensive coordinator of Frank Broyles’ powerhouse teams of the mid 1960s, closing the door on the well-respected Donahue or not, Donahue did step down after that game. Enter Doug Mathews, coincidentally also 23 years younger than the coordinator he was replacing.
While the Vols lost the next game at No. 20 Alabama by eight points, it was clear they had turned a corner. Under Mathews, Tennessee football surrendered about 178 fewer yards and an amazing 2.6 fewer touchdowns per game than it had under Donahue.
Tennessee didn’t lose again after Alabama.
Below is a look at the effects of all the coordinator changes we tracked:
Defensive Coordinator Changes Mid Season
Note that “# of games” refers to how many games into the season the coordinator was fired or stepped down. The rows highlighted yellow reflect what happened under the replacement coordinator.
Offensive Coordinator Changes Mid Season
As you can see, the results are mixed. Context, it should be re-emphasized, matters too. How good were the opponents immediately following the coordinator change? That has a lot to do with whether a short-term spike occured or not.
Looking at Arkansas vs Florida
In Arkansas’ case, Florida is an average SEC team that doesn’t immediately strike fear into foes’ hearts, but they do have two big advantages:
- The Gators are playing in Gainesville, where Arkansas has ever won. No doubt, they want to atone for getting wiped out by No. 1 Georgia last week.
- Florida needs to win one more game to be bowl eligible and this is by far their best chance to do that. After this, it’s at No. 13 LSU, at No. 14 Missouri and hosting No. 4 Florida State.
Of course, Arkansas also has the incentive of needing to win out in order to make a bowl game. Regardless, given the circumstances and what history shows, Guiton’s promotion could end up being a good thing. Given the circumstances, however, that may not fully manifest in the first game.
- Jace Dunegan completed the statistical research for this article.