Jon Embree said he was led to believe he would get a third season as coach at Colorado. / Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports
Before 13 college football coaches were fired from major programs at the end of last season, their universities faced a unique set of considerations, from public relations fallout to financial impact to competing on the field.
But at a time when college football programs are under more financial pressure than ever to match their competitors, the ultimate deciding factor was simple - the schools couldn't afford not to make a move.
USA TODAY Sports obtained e-mails through records requests for top university and athletics administrators at public Football Bowl Subdivision schools that fired a coach this offseason. The review of correspondence provides a behind-the-scenes look at the internal and external pressure on athletics directors to make the right hire - and on coaches to win now. In some cases, administrators and alumni not only expressed their frustration but also offered money to buy out a coach or made other suggestions.
"So much of the AD is judged primarily on the hire of a football coach," says former Georgia coach and AD Vince Dooley, who retired in 2004. "It's not judged on a complete athletic program. It's not judged on how the program has done financially in other sports. It's almost solely connected to football."
At Colorado, Jon Embree had two years before the administration changed course. Firing a former standout tight end and one of a small number of African-American coaches presented a public relations challenge for Colorado, which navigated a 1-11 season with a series of communication strategies.
At Southern Mississippi, a historic downturn sent administrators searching for the money to buy out first-year coach Ellis Johnson.
At Kentucky, Joker Phillips' third season at his alma mater had made the Wildcats less competitive in the Southeastern Conference and had fans ready to hire almost anybody with a track record - good and bad.
And at California and Tennessee, losing records and looming debts meant the end of the line for Jeff Tedford and Derek Dooley, respectively.
"There's a culture today that calls for instant gratification and success on the field," former Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne says. "You compound that with some of the salaries that are being paid out there right now. It creates a culture that is much more demanding from the average fan."
On Oct. 25, the message coming out of Colorado's athletics department was clear: Despite a 1-6 record, Embree would not be fired. It would take more than two seasons to become competitive in the Pac-12.
That was the idea circulated as part of a detailed communications strategy put forth by the university and athletics department.
A month later, Embree was fired after going 4-21.
Seeking to control the damage, Colorado's newest communications strategy included reaching out to black alumni and fans and the Black Coaches & Administrators (BCA).
It was apt considering the BCA and legendary Colorado coach Bill McCartney said Embree's race played a role in his firing after his predecessor, Dan Hawkins, had a 19-39 record in five seasons.
"We wanted to make sure we maintained the reputation of trust, transparency and outreach," athletics director Mike Bohn told USA TODAY Sports. "I'm proud of the fact we have built our enterprise on collaboration and partnership."
Even as e-mails from fans and alumni remained split on the firing, a lack of confidence in the university leadership was a recurring theme.
In an e-mail to Bohn, chancellor Philip DiStefano and President Bruce Benson that was sent the day after Embree's firing, one fan wrote, "I would have hoped the three of you would have seen to it that we make a long-term commitment to growing a program with the Buff you supposedly hired to help do that - and you expected it to be done in two years? Shame on you."
Some of the names of fans and alumni quoted in the article were redacted by the universities, while others were not included by USA TODAY Sports.
As early as September, communications staffers from athletics, alumni and the university were meeting to discuss talking points for top officials. With the team at 1-3, coming off a win at Washington State, support remained for Embree.
"Building toward a conference championship in the Pac-12 is going to take time, and this is Coach Embree's second year on the job," said one talking point sent in an e-mail by Bronson Hilliard, Colorado's director of media relations, on Sept. 23.
By late October, the team had fallen to 1-6 with embarrassing losses to UCLA, Arizona State and Southern California. But the strategy was clearly stated: "Make clear our outcome from the outset: we're not firing our coach," an October e-mail instructed.
Detailed in the 10-page e-mail from October are plans to contact alumni, students, ticketholders and fans. It included football players reaching out on social media to spread the message, including more impromptu interactions such as players leading the fight song in the cafeteria.
Central to concerns among fans and administrators was damage to Colorado's brand.
"The CU brand is getting destroyed weekly," a fan wrote Nov. 20. "No, CU isn't USC. But it shouldn't be the worst program in America either. Which it is."
In the final week of the season, DiStefano noted, "Because of the poor performance of the football team, the athletics department has experienced a $2.6 million deficit from projected revenues."
After Embree's firing, administrators acknowledged that was part of their decision.
"It was important to understand the long-term impact on the program, not just the short term within the season," Bohn said.
Still, it was a decision that required outreach, including targeting, "The African American (sic) Community/Faculty and Staff of Color/BCA" in its list of key audiences.
Bohn said outreach was important, in part, because the BCA grades institutions on their search process. When Colorado hired Hawkins in 2006, it received a D from the BCA. It got an A in the search that resulted in Embree's hiring.
"We recognized that's something that's important to us," Bohn said.
Embree, now an assistant with the Cleveland Browns, declined to comment to USA TODAY Sports through a team spokesman. During his final news conference at Colorado, Embree said he had been led to believe he'd be back for a third season.
Asked if someone else could come in and rebuild the program, Embree said, "How long does he have?"
For as short as Embree's tenure was, Ellis Johnson got even less time at Southern Mississippi after going 0-12 in his first season.
Faced with growing fan unrest, interim president Aubrey Lucas and Southern Miss' administration confronted a dilemma: find a considerable sum to fire Johnson or potentially lose more money if he couldn't turn the program around.
In response to a fan's request to terminate the first-year coach and his staff, Lucas wrote, "To do as you recommended, I will need to raise $3million. Can you help? This is not intended to be a 'smarty' reply, but a sincere request for assistance."
The fan offered $1,000 and vowed to reach out to his family for help. Many other fans wrote saying they were willing to give from $100 to $1,000. But in the week leading up to Johnson's firing, Southern Miss sold a home game vs. Nebraska for more than $2.1 million, according to letters between the schools' ADs obtained by Deadspin.
A longtime assistant, Johnson took over in 2012 after Larry Fedora parlayed a 12-2 record into a job at North Carolina. But Southern Miss followed the best season in school history with its worst, ending a run of 18 consecutive winning seasons.
Richard Johnston, president of the USM Athletic Foundation, wrote to say that he was part of the mistake as a member of the search committee that chose Johnson.
"I thought we made a good hire, even though he was our second choice," Johnston wrote. "We need to cut our losses and salvage our supporters by showing them we acknowledged making a mistake and will, with their help, begin to rebuild this historical successful program."
He pledged $50,000 to help with the buyout.
One fan summed up Southern Miss' situation - as well as that of the other schools that fired coaches - better than others.
"Whatever the cost now, it will be so much more if he's allowed to coach another season," he wrote.
After three seasons at Kentucky, Joker Phillips had worn out any goodwill the fan base had for a former player. A 0-8 record in the SEC and 2-10 mark overall prompted lagging attendance and unrest.
AD Mitch Barnhart received many e-mails with suggested successors, including Jim Tressel, David Cutcliffe, Gus Malzahn, Kirby Smart and Tony Dungy. No name appeared more than Bobby Petrino, who was fired at Arkansas last year after it was revealed he hired a woman with whom he was having an affair.
"Kentucky has the chance to show this most important Christian attitude, and give that second chance to Bobby Petrino," one fan wrote in late October. "I believe with all my heart, it would be the greatest thing to ever happen to Kentucky football."
Among the chorus of fans asking for Barnhart to replace Phillips was John Brown Jr. The former Kentucky governor wrote Edward Britt Brockman, chairman of the board of trustees, to suggest another candidate - Butch Davis. The former North Carolina coach was fired after a major infractions case in 2011.
"He's a find, and I think if UK moved before the season is over we have a great opportunity to get him before (Arkansas) and other teams engage," Brown wrote Nov. 2.
Brown also forwarded references for Davis he received from Tammy Davis, the coach's wife. In an e-mail to Brown, Tammy Davis wrote, "Here is a list of references that has not been updated to include the head of the NCAA, Mark Emmert. I will get his information and forward it to you."
Brown rescinded his support for Davis, according to a (Louisville) Courier-Journal article, once he learned about Davis' problems at North Carolina. In e-mails obtained by that newspaper, Brown told Barnhart he understood why he wasn't comfortable given a major infractions case that led to Davis' firing.
Kentucky hired then-Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops in November.
CAL AND TENNESSEE
Administrators at Cal heard the message through Jeff Tedford's 11th season at the school - the renovated stadium is beautiful, but the team's play is not.
Concerns about filling Memorial Stadium, which had a $321 million renovation that was unveiled for the season opener, won out. Even before the Bears lost their final five games to finish 3-9, fans worried about attendance starting with a loss to Nevada at home to open the season.
A 2010 report - commissioned by chancellor Robert Birgeneau - found the athletics department operated at a deficit of $7 million to $14million from the 2004 to 2009 fiscal years.
"I am concerned (as I know you must be) that the appeal of witnessing games in this fantastic new venue will be blunted by the team's questionable prospects, affecting your ability to sell tickets and achieve the revenue goals," a fan wrote Sept. 3.
Financial concerns were part of the worry at Tennessee, where the Vols went 5-7 in Derek Dooley's third season. Overwhelmingly, e-mails to chancellor Jimmy Cheek supported his firing.
"The stadium needs to be full, and Tennessee had a very large debt service," said Derek Dooley's father, Vince. "It's a sign of the times. It's the money involved, and there's not a lot of margin for error."
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