For the latest batch of high school seniors ready to sign their letters of intent in mere weeks, the writing is on the wall: There’s a distinct possibility the head coach who relentlessly courted them during this exhausting recruiting process will not be their coach three or four years from now.
Because of this, recruits should approach this decision—the best football contract they will be offered for the foreseeable future—with a realistic understanding of the current unstable landscape. More specifically, they should assume change will eventually come and adjust their decision-making process accordingly.
That’s not meant to be ominous. It’s also not meant to undermine the relationships formed throughout this process. It’s simply acknowledging the percentages.
Since November of 2012—basically two full runs of the silly-season cycle—49 of 124 FBS teams have endured head coaching changes. We’re not talking 2005 or even 2008; we’re talking 2012—just a shade over a year ago.
Go back one more year, and the number of schools that have had a change at head coach skyrockets to 70. The assistant coaching carousel—a growing annual exercise of musical chairs—has also become unstable as salaries across the board enter a new stratosphere.
The "why" is pretty obvious: Athletic directors have grown impatient with mediocrity. The result is a much shorter leash and a much quicker hook. They’re also willing to pay the next great head coach a Brink's truck full of cash to lure him to their campus. And yes, this strategy often works.
These changes relate back to a program’s needs to bolster the yearly infusion of talent. Bring in a head coach or assistant who can recruit and watch the momentum churn. In doing so, however, the players who were sold a bag of goods from their now former coach are put in a situation they couldn’t have foreseen when they signed on.
Recently hired Penn State head coach James Franklin is currently experiencing both ends of this transition. He’s contacting Vanderbilt verbal commits—players he built relationships with over the past years—and hoping they’ll follow him to his new digs.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. He’s doing what any other coach would do with the clock ticking on the recruiting cycle, trying to earn his robust salary out the gate.
Should we feel good about it? Not really. But there’s an understanding of sorts that comes with the competitive territory in this sport. You’ve been trained not to like things but accept them at the same time.
Appearing on the The Dan Patrick Show, Franklin explained the delicacy of the situation while also touching on his thoughts on committing to a coach and not a school. Via Jeff Lockridge of USA Today:
I don't know what the (unwritten) rules are there. I know that I've been sitting in living rooms with families and kids, and selling them on a dream and selling them on a vision and our relationship. And I think a lot of people say kids should commit to a school, not a coach. But the reality is they do. Families and kids, they want to make sure their son is going to be taken care of and it's about the relationship aspect.
So my responsibility is to do everything in my power to make sure that I put a team together that can help Penn State be successful. The people that I've been recruiting for the last two years that I know inside and out, and know the type of men they are and type of families they come from, that's going to happen. And my job now is to do everything I possibly can to help Penn State be successful.
Although he really isn’t obligated to justify why he’s pursuing recruits at a different school, Franklin is 100 percent correct in his reasoning. And while it would be convenient to say that relationships shouldn’t matter in recruiting, saying otherwise would be a lie.
Throughout the recruiting process, coaches become familiar with the players and their families and show a genuine interest in their personal lives.
This is not manufactured interest or bogus personal attention, either. It’s their job, but they also care a great deal about the young people they work with. It’s the nature of the sport, and coaches—from the very top and down the line—have been trained to care somewhat naturally.
Franklin is right to cite the personal piece of this process. But absent from his very sound reasoning he's using at Penn State is any mention of the players at Vanderbilt he recruited and will now leave behind.
This isn’t a knock against Franklin or the 69 others who recruited tirelessly for one program only to be elsewhere shortly after. For many of them, it wasn’t their choice to leave. It's simply the harsh and familiar reality of the business. It’s also a danger in committing to a program solely for one person.
Incoming recruits can adjust accordingly, following a coach to his new location if they please or sticking with the school regardless of the change. But the freshmen, sophomores and juniors who committed to the coaches who are no longer there don’t have that same luxury. They can transfer, certainly, but doing so will come at a price.
These are the individuals who have been impacted most in recent years, and they provide a lesson to those who will soon follow the same path.
It’s a difficult situation, one without much warning or a definitive approach. High schoolers will continue to commit to coaches with whom they relate. Others will sign on to be a part of an offensive or defensive scheme that suits their skill set. Others will see national championship possibilities, depth chart openings and football happenings and use this opportunity to pick a program as a business decision.
For many, that’s exactly what this is.
There are a plethora of reasons to commit to a school, none of which should be dismissed. Committing to a program strictly for a head coach, however, is no longer a sound “business” decision—not in the current, unpredictable landscape and the ever-changing coaching merry-go-round.
Perhaps there’s a balance to be had, or maybe acceptance is the more appropriate term. The answer isn’t to simply ignore the meaningful relationships that can be molded over this time, blocking out all the genuine pitch a head coach is trying to make, but rather to add levels of complexity to the evaluation process and acknowledge the percentages.