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Coaching Carousel: Phillip Montgomery Out at Tulsa

The Golden Hurricane are showing ambition by looking for a new coach, but will it pay off?

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Temple Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Phillip Montgomery may have thought he did enough to save his job after winning on the road at Houston this past weekend to finish 5-7 this season. However, a mediocre non-conference showing and eighth place finish in the AAC proved to be too much to overcome. After eight seasons at the helm with a 43-53 (28-34) record, Tulsa fired Montgomery with two years remaining on his contract.

While Montgomery was rumored to be on the hot seat all season, the move is a bit surprising when given additional context about Montgomery’s relative success and Tulsa’s stubbornness to make coaching changes. It was just three seasons ago that the Golden Hurricane went 6-0 in conference play during the shortened COVID-19 year. Tulsa finished the season ranked despite eventually losing to Cincinnati in the AAC Conference Championship game on a field goal as time expired and Mississippi State in their bowl game. Last year, Tulsa went 7-6 and won the Myrtle Beach Bowl. Overall, Montgomery took Tulsa to four bowl games, more than any coach since Henry Frnka took the Golden Hurricane to five straight bowl games in the 1940s.

Furthermore, Montgomery is the most successful coach in school history at getting his players to the next level. Tulsa went nine years without a player being selected in the draft prior to Reggie Robinson and Trevis Gipson being selected in 2020. Then, after more than 40 years without a first round pick, Tulsa had back to back years with first round picks when Zaven Collins was selected 16th Overall in 2021 and Tyler Smith was selected 24th Overall in 2022.

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Tulsa fans may have also been expecting for Montgomery to return given that the athletic department has been historically unambitious and unwilling to pay for contract buyouts. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, fans were furious with the former AD Derrick Gragg when no coaching changes were made in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, or football programs despite all three teams finishing in the basement of the AAC in their respective sports with coaches who were given over five seasons to make an impact. The rationale for this was likely that the Golden Hurricane had limited financial resources comparative to their conference peers and could not afford to buyout the coaches from their contracts. Notably, Tulsa is the smallest FBS school with 2,600 undergraduate students.

However, neither the university president or athletic director who hired Montgomery remain on campus. The new university leadership team are likely trying to turn the page and win back their fan base. After Tulsa alumni Rick Dickson was officially hired as the new athletic director less than two years ago, Tulsa has made coach changes in all of the aforementioned programs now that Montgomery has been fired.

The Take

Tulsa fans should remember Montgomery fondly for his two bowl victories and 2020 Cinderella run at an AAC Conference Championship. However, not getting to bowl eligibility this season with Keylon Stokes and Davis Brin regardless of injury is not easily forgiven. The close losses to Ole Miss and Cincinnati were forgivable. However, being blown out by Navy and Memphis and missing the post season were not as easy of pills to swallow.

Ultimately, Tulsa knew what their peak was with Montgomery and added to their recent wave of ambition by firing him. To make this move worthwhile, AD Rick Dickson was likely given the green light to pay for the buyout and expects to see an increase in coaching pool spending as well. The time is now for Tulsa if they want to attempt to move into the upper echelon of the AAC with Cincinnati, UCF, and Houston departing. The only acceptable scenario for Tulsa not to be spending nearly two million annually on their next head coach is if they get an alumni to return to their program on a sweet heart deal. Otherwise, they should have just kept Montgomery and been satisfied with a bowl appearance every other year given he was one of the conferences’ lowest paid coaches.