Ole Miss may be securely ahead of Tulane, but its lead in the head coaching derby over nearly everyone else has evaporated with no results.
There is debate around college football over whether coaches should be fired mid-season. I've seen plenty of people, usually media members for some reason, argue vehemently against canning a coach early. Usually the complaints revolve around it being unfair to the players, not accomplishing anything, and things of that nature.
There certainly are pragmatic reasons for firing a coach before the end of the season. All of those rationales boil down to this: it gives the school a jump start on the process of hiring a new coach. Sometimes schools don't take full advantage of that head start—who was going to steal Bob Davie away from New Mexico?—but many times they do. The best example from this year is Arizona, which went out and hired Rich Rodriguez before most anyone else had a chance to get him.
Ole Miss made its move early by firing Houston Nutt a few weeks ago. However, the leadership structure at the athletics department is largely incomprehensible. AD Pete Boone is also on his way out, but no one knows exactly when. His deadline for leaving is sometime in 2012. Meanwhile, the new head coach will be chosen by a committee lead by Archie Manning. I don't question Manning's love for Ole Miss, but he has zero experience as an administrator. This setup is less than ideal for picking a new leader for the football program.
I didn't want to bash this strategy out of hand, instead wanting to see how it worked out. To date, all that has come of it is a cheeky quote from Peyton Manning regarding a handful of fans clamoring for him to be the next Rebel head coach. Oh, and a false report about Hugh Freeze from (surprise!) BleacherReport.com. Other than that we've just had coaches' names floated in the press on candidate lists, which these days happens before coaches even get fired.
It wasn't necessarily a problem until yesterday became Black Sunday for college coaches. It still technically isn't a huge problem, as Illinois is probably the only job among the new openings that Ole Miss will reasonably be competing for coaches with. It does highlight the need for urgency though, because next week could bring new pink slips at places like UCLA, Arizona State, UNC and Washington State. All of them are potential competitors with Ole Miss.
This fact leads to the question: why did Ole Miss fire Houston Nutt early? Its lead in the head coaching derby is gone with no new guy in place. Canning Nutt early risked losing the team entirely, and after three blowout losses including a 20-point margin to Louisiana Tech, it appears that is precisely what happened. Removing Nutt when it did added that misery to the season without a payoff like hiring a big name, out-of-work coach like Rodriguez or Mike Leach. If they wanted Leach, he'd be on board by now. Instead, it appears the committee is waiting until other schools' seasons end to talk to guys who are currently employed.
If an elite school fires its coach early, it sends a signal to every hot young coach to wait on taking a lesser job because he might get the big one. Ole Miss is not one of those schools. It instead sent a message that it is impatient, and oh by the way, the committee that will hire the next coach won't actually include the person who will be the next coach's boss long term.
The Ole Miss athletic department is in desperate need of strong leadership, but it doesn't look like it's going to have any soon. I wish the fans could hope for something better than blind luck netting them a better coach than the current process would suggest they're going to get, but that's what it's come down to in Oxford right now.