Nebraska At the 'Top of the List' for Georgia Defensive Back
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: A Brief and Incomplete History of the Hot Seat

May 19, 2017

Another day passes in the offseason, and as one set of coach rankings falls from the collective consciousness, another emerges to take it place. Enjoy them all you like. There are plenty to go around.

Sometimes these are branded as “hot seat” rankings, which made me curious about the term hot seat. How long have we been using the term to refer to football coaches?

First off, the term itself seems to have evolved from gangster slang for the electric chair (first used in 1890). Think about that the next time you dive into a set of hot-seat rankings. Based on my very preliminary and nowhere near exhaustive research on, “hot seat” seemed to make the jump to college football in the late 1940s, but in a slightly different context.

A coach didn’t put himself on the hot seat by failing to win enough games. It was much more likely that a coach took a “hot seat job,” a job where expectations were so out of wack that the pressure was immediate.

When John Barnhill left Tennessee to take the Arkansas job in May of 1946 he was instantly on the hot seat.

John Barnhill starts on the hot seat

Woody Hayes, too, when he moved from Miami (Ohio) to Ohio State in 1951 and got a one-year contract to do it. (One newspaper, not the one below, referred to the Ohio State job in 1951 as a “coach-killer.”)

Woody Hayes Hire

Despite starting on the “hot seat,” Hayes was really, super, double on the hot seat after losing to Indiana in 1951, proof that it was never a good idea to lose to the Hoosiers on the gridiron. (Indiana wouldn’t beat the Buckeyes again until 1987.)

Woody Hayes, Hot Seat

At some point we got a little less plain-spoken. I don’t think I saw anyone write that Mike Riley assumed the hot seat at Nebraska when he was hired. Today, we talk around it using words like “expectations” and “perception.” We’ll even preach patience with coaching changes. If Hayes really went immediately to the hot seat in 1951, now he’d probably get at least two years from the fans and pundits to “change the culture” and “get his recruits.”

But is the pressure to win at a place at Ohio State really different than it was in 1951? I doubt it. We just talk about it differently.

Anyway, Athlon ranked Mike Riley ninth among current Big Ten coaches and Matt Brown of Sports on Earth listed Riley as the coach under the most pressure in the conference. Brown, however, seems to have a pretty astute understanding of where things stand in Lincoln.

Riley is entering only his third season. He is not on the hot seat. Nevertheless, in a conference mostly made up of either proven coaches with job security or relatively new hires — thus putting no one truly on the hot seat — Riley is under the most pressure. After all, he’s 15-11 in two seasons at Nebraska, which fired Bo Pelini after eight seasons in which he had a .713 winning percentage. The Cornhuskers are in the weaker Big Ten division in the West, but they haven’t played in the conference title game since representing the Legends Division in 2012 before the Big Ten was reshuffled. Riley’s first season in 2015 was filled with bad luck; last year, the Huskers started 7-0 but lost four of their final six games, including a 59-point loss to Ohio State and a 30-point loss to Iowa. Nebraska has not won a conference championship since the Big 12 in 1999. There will perpetually be intense pressure on whomever the coach is to snap that streak.

That seems fair enough.

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