Tom Osborne was hurting in December 2003. The former Nebraska head coach just watched his beloved Huskers fire his hand-picked successor Frank Solich despite a 58-19 record in six seasons.
A reincarnation of Tom Osborne could've replaced the Hall of Famer in 1998 and it still would've been inadequate. No one was replacing Tom Osborne; they were just borrowing his title.
Solich, a former Huskers' player and longtime Osborne assistant, took over for the Hall of Famer in 1998. He went 42-9 in his first four seasons (25-7 in the Big 12), won one Big 12 championship, finished in the AP top 10 three times and had two years with at least 11 wins.
Then came a 7-7 mark in 2002 — the Huskers' first time failing to top .500 in 40 years — and "Fire Solich" chants began immediately. They rebounded with nine wins in 2003 but it wasn't enough; new athletics director Steve Pederson fired Solich immediately after the regular season.
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"Steve's the AD, and it's his program," a distraught Osborne said on Dec. 9, 2003. "I've been hurting a little bit the last week because of personal sorrow."
Solich's replacement, Bill Callahan — who had never been a college head coach — went 27-22 in four years and missed the postseason twice. The Huskers still haven't won 11 games in a season or captured a conference championship since Solich's dismissal.
Here are four other college football coaches who were also fired too early.
Phillip Fulmer – Tennessee
Phillip Fulmer is chairman of the Shouldn't Have Been Fired Club.
Tennessee wasn't a bad program when Fulmer, a longtime Vols' assistant, took over in the middle of 1992. But they had just two SEC titles since 1969 and two 10-win seasons since 1972. Entering 2008, he was 147-45 (.766) with two SEC titles — four more division titles — and one national championship, their first since 1951. (The Vols claim the 1967 Litkenhous national championship but USC was the AP champion.)
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Athletics director Mike Hamilton fired Fulmer on Nov. 2, 2008, one day after a 27-6 loss to South Carolina, but allowed him to resign after the season. Tennessee is on their third head coach since then, hasn't won a conference or division title and has topped seven wins just twice, something Fulmer did in all but two of his 16 full seasons.
Glen Mason – Minnesota
Glen Mason was building stability at one of the most unstable programs in America. Then he blew a 38-7 lead against Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl and was fired.
The epitome of a quick-trigger dismissal, Mason was canned despite four-straight seasons with at least seven wins and just three years after winning 10 games. Both achievements hadn't been done in nearly a century.
Mason was replaced with Tim Brewster, who believed the best remedy was lighting a match to the program.
Mark Mangino – Kansas
The case for Mangino's dismissal after allegations of player mistreatment is strong. His behavior both on the sideline and off the field warranted questions at best. At worst, they warranted the firing he got.
However, could the situation have been resolved with discipline and an intervention of sorts? If so, Kansas might have won more than 14 games in the last seven years.
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Despite poor facilities, zero highly touted recruits and little recent history of success, Mangino built the Jayhawks into Orange Bowl champions who went 20-6 between 2007-08. After winning the first five games of 2009, they dropped their final seven and Mangino couldn't escape the allegation-driven calls for dismissal.
Eight years later, David Beaty might finally have Kansas headed in the right direction but the Turner Gill and Charlie Weis debacles will sting forever.
David Cutcliffe – Ole Miss
David Cutcliffe was one of the most sought-after coaches in the nation when he took the Ole Miss job in 1998. The longtime Tennessee assistant went a respectable 39-22 in his first five seasons (1999-2003) before he ran into a four-win wall in 2004.
That's when Rebels' athletics director Pete Boone told Cutcliffe to make changes to his staff. Cutcliffe refused and was fired. He was dismissed one year after going 10-3, winning the SEC Western title and delivering a Cotton Bowl victory.
"He preferred the status quo, keeping things how they are," Boone said. "I didn't hear a plan to make that better."
Boone's "plan to make that better" didn't work. Cutcliffe's replacement, Ed Orgeron, went 10-25 and was fired after three seasons.