We want to believe the coaches our universities hire are committed to us. We use words like loyalty to position ourselves on the high ground to throw stones at those leaving town for another job. We’re hurt and cry that our lifelong values are offended.
But, come on, really. We’re as likely to throw that coach under the bus unless he delivers to us, too.
In early January, as many of us thought the college coaching cycle was winding down, we had our college football coaching storylines. Many long-tenured coaches left their universities. Bobby Bowden (34 years) had to choose between coming back as a head coach in name only or retiring. FSU fans and administration wanted more wins than Bowden has delivered lately. Mike Leach (10 years), Mark Mangino (8 years), and then Jim Leavitt (12 years) were all fired after well-publicized investigations of allegations leading to their dismissals. Al Groh (9 years), Tommy West (Memphis, 9 years) and Charlie Weatherbee (7 years) were also fired.
In 2010, black coaches made a historic stride forward. Two black coaches replaced Mangino and Groh. Six African-American coaches were hired this year, bringing the total number of African-American coaches to thirteen, a historic high.
The Weis era came to an end after five years at Notre Dame.
Then Pete Carroll suddenly left for the greener pastures of the NFL, rocking USC.
The Trojans took Tennessee’s coach, Lane Kiffen. The Vols ended up hiring Louisiana Tech’s up-and-coming head coach from Louisiana Tech. Notre Dame had taken Cincinnati’s head coach, who replaced their second coach in six years from a very successful Central Michigan football program.
We assume a pecking order in college football. Coaches recognize it and refer to their “dream jobs.”
Only those of us who have not been paying attention or have been insulated at the top of the pecking order are surprised at the coaching upheavals in 2010. Here’s an excerpt from an Athletic Director’s announcement in 2008: “—confirmed for me that he has accepted the head coaching position at ******. I’m disappointed for our [...] fans and student-athletes that he has chosen to leave our program after only two seasons. I understand that it is a dream job for him, but the timing and the way it played out has been hurtful and disappointing. Although this is a significant setback, we will get through the challenge because the ****** University Athletics program is far greater than one person.”
Substitute a coach’s name and any two universities for any recent high-profile departure and you have a pretty good description of any particular university’s response to most of these surprise resignations. In 2008, Gene Chizik’s AD issued the above response when he left for Auburn. Chizik had replaced Dan McCarney, who spent twelve years as the Cyclones’ head coach, resigning under fan pressure for more wins. Kiffin, Fulmer, Tennessee and USC are only another example of this recent pattern.
Loyalty, You’re Talking Loyalty?
In just the SEC, only two coaches (Richt and Johnson) have been their university’s head coach for more than five years. Ask Tommy Tuberville or Phil Fulmer about loyalty. Ed Orgeron was fired after three years at Ole Miss. Outside of Kiffin leaving Tennessee after one year and Auburn’s Chizik leaving Iowa State after two years, Nutt left Arkansas for Mississippi. Petrino replaced Nutt after one year at the Atlanta Falcons. Saban spent two years with the Dolphins, after leaving LSU in a similar manner as Carroll. We prize football success more than loyalty, don’t we? We’ll pay these carpetbaggers if they produce wins for us.
Overall, in the FBS after this season’s coaching changes, only 34 out of 119 head coaches (28%) have completed their fifth year or more at their current university football program. Only 24 coaches out of 119 (20%) have six years or more in their current positions. In other words, 85 FBS football programs (80%) have changed head coaches in a little over five years. Unless we have more coaching dominoes fall this year, 98 football head coaches have been hired (and fired) by FBS universities for their football programs in that time span. Many universities have had two hires in five years.
Old School — True Believers
Some coaches will not be carpetbaggers. David Cutcliff, Duke’s head coach for the last two years, turned down Tennessee’s offer, where he had spent nineteen years, in addition to seven years as head coach at Mississippi. “You follow your heart in big decisions. I have a lot of ties and a lot of people that I’m very close to, and a lot of respect for the University of Tennessee, but my heart is here. We’ve worked very hard these two years to change the culture, to change the team physically. You feel like the job’s not done, and in this era, it bothers me, what we do as coaches, moving here and there [...] this is mid-January. Nothing about that felt right to me as a person.”
Cutcliff believes: “Finish the job you start. That’s one of the things my dad also said, ‘If you’re going to do something, do it right and finish the job.’ It wasn’t about what was at Tennessee or what was involved in another world. It was about what was at Duke. I wasn’t looking for a job. And when you like the job you’ve got, you evaluate that first.”
Cutcliff considered his recruits in making his decision: “Good gosh. How fair is that? We’ve got guys that have dropped any other recruiting from any other institution long ago. How fair is that? [...] I felt a little dirty thinking about it.” Kiffin and Orgeron may have added another NCAA violation onto a their history of violations in contacting prospective members of the Tennessee class during a dead period and offering them scholarships to USC—especially if any recruits follow them to USC. That one would fall on Southern Cal’s Compliance Officer’s plate.
Rick Stockstill recently turned down the East Carolina position for similar reasons. “I could not look in the eyes of these recruits and their families and tell them the things I believe in and what I want them to believe in and then leave Middle Tennessee with only two weeks left in the recruiting process. Also, I have so much respect and admiration for our current players that they were ultimately the reason I could not pursue this any further. We have invested a lot together during these four years which played a major role in this decision.”
A Recruit’s Perspective
Recruits and their families are left to navigate their way through these coaching changes and the values that are involved in their recruitment. They have varying reactions to changes in coaches with whom they have formed relationships. Sometimes, coaches believe that recruits come to a university because of them—sometimes they do. Four-star athlete Delvin Jones decommitted from Tennessee after the departure of Lane Kiffin, Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron. “All three of them have come to my school plenty of times. They were the main reason why I wanted to go to Tennessee.”
Glen Fulton, father of Tennessee commit Zach Fulton, said: “We bought into him (Kiffin) and I made the biggest mistake I ever made. I bought into the man instead of buying into the university. Always buy into the university instead buying into the man. The university is going to be there.”
Gary Willis, the father of Vols’ verbally-committed recruit Brandon Willis, countered Ed Orgeron’s offer of a scholarship to USC instead of Tennessee with this: “When Coach Orgeron made that offer, I told him, ‘I gave you my word, and Brandon gave you his word, and you gave us your word and then you leave. How do we know someone else won’t offer you $5 million, and you’ll be gone again (from USC)?’” Brandon has switched his commitment to North Carolina.
A couple of years ago, in a story well-known to many Irish fans, Omar Hunter, a highly sought after Defensive Tackle, had switched his verbal commitment from Notre Dame to Florida. Omar heard just prior to Signing Day: “I got a voice mail left to me last night by a coach that was recruiting me that coach Greg Mattison (who was recruiting Hunter for the Gators) was leaving Florida to go to Baltimore. They told my coach the same thing.”
Urban Meyer and Mattison assured Omar and his father that this was not going to happen. Hunter faxed in his signed Letter of Intent. The next day it was reported that Mattison was gone, though no official announcement had been made. Florida announced the hiring of his replacement. Mattison announced he had accepted the Ravens “second offer” as their Defensive Line coach afterwards. All this in less than four days!
Greg Mattison’s replacement was ex-Iowa State head coach, Dan McCarney! McCarney, who became defensive line coach for USF after leaving Iowa State, said at his announcement: “I’m thrilled about joining the Gator Nation. I have the utmost respect for Coach Meyer and the Florida football program. It is a dream come true for me and my wife and we are looking forward to the opportunity.”
Mattison has been promoted to the Ravens Defensive Coordinator. Urban Meyer has assured all his recruits he will be back this fall after a medical leave. McCarney coaches Hunter and the rest of the defensive line players.
Who Pays Fired Coaches?
In a zero sum game, we want our team to come out on top and are willing to push for it. It’s easy when you are not the final bill-payer.
Who’s making the money in the 98 head coaching college football hires over the past six seasons? Not the colleges—only 25 of the 119 FBS institutions reported an athletic department budget surplus during the 2007-08 academic year. Those 25 had a surplus of $3.87 million. The other 94 institutions had an average deficit of $9.87 million.
Attendance and fan support can determine a coach’s fate, and, ultimately drive up salaries.
At Louisville, Athletic Director Tom Jurich had seen Petrino look around for jobs for four years before abruptly departing. Prior to his hiring, Kragthorpe assured his AD, “I don’t want to be a guy that moves around, I want to be a guy that stays in one place.” Jurich said, “Steve, I’ve heard all these things before, that you want to be here forever. But he said ‘Tom, you’ve never heard it from me.’” Kragthorpe, the “hot name” in 2007, was fired this year by Jurich due to declining attendance and wins. Average attendance at Louisville home games has dropped 9,000 fans from the 2006 season.
In 2009, Jurich says, “I want to get a great leader of men and somebody that will take us to the heights we want to be at. I watched as the whole season progressed and I feel like we needed a change in culture, a change in scenery.” Steve Kragthorpe was paid for his three seasons at Louisville and the two years left on his contract. Texas A&M, where Kragthorpe spent four years previously, has hired him as their wide receiver coach.
Charlie Strong from Florida has been hired as the Cardinal’s new head coach to jumpstart the football program. Jurich admits that paying off Kragthorpe’s remaining contract years will “strap” the athletic department programs.
Rising coaches salaries and paying off contracts at public institutions means you, the taxpayer, actually do foot the bill—whether you follow those state teams or not.
Show Me the Money
The Jerry McGuire in this story is an agent named Jimmy Sexton, who represents most college football coaches in the South. Sexton benefitted when one of his clients, Lane Kiffin, left paying a buyout of $800,000 against his one year salary of $2 million at Tennessee and signed a new deal with USC. Sexton is also rumored to be the agent for new UT coach, Derek Dooley. Isn’t that like paying your real estate broker twice—once for selling your home and again for obtaining your new home?
The less loyalty universities and coaches have, the more money Sexton makes. Sexton takes a 3-5% of a coach’s contract every time. He enhances his reputation and bank account with each contract. Sexton’s client list includes many of the coaches who changed jobs in the last few years—Saban, both Kiffins, Fulmer, Cutcliff, Kevin Steele (now at Tennessee), Will Muschamp, Tuberville, Chizik, Butch Davis, Jimbo Fisher, Spurrier, Mike MacIntyre (new San Diego State coach), Doug Marrone (Syracuse), Larry Porter (Memphis), Weatherbie, and West.
If you can get a piece of 98 college coaching hirings (and firings) in six coaching hiring cycles, you are making a significant income. When 94 of those 119 institutions have average annual deficits of almost $10 million, that’s making money in a down market.
The Down Market
Except for the select universities like Tennessee, Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, etc. the down market is a university’s football program. With such largesse being syphoned away from normal university activities, college presidents ask who is more loyal to the university and represents university values—a full professor or the new football coach whose longevity may be five years at best? When assistant coaches make three times as much as full professors at institutions like Texas, Alabama, LSU and stay for a few years, the universities take notice.
The NCAA made recommendations to its universities on ways to cut costs last fall. Last week at their annual meeting one economist suggested going to Congress for an exemption from antitrust laws to limit coaching salaries. Other suggestions included cutting the number of football scholarships, cutting overnight stays prior to a game, and cutting back on the seasons in other sports.
Since 2007, head coaches compensation packages have broken the $4 million ceiling with twice as many head coaches today making $2 million and $3 million as two years ago. Over 100 FBS head coaches now make more than $1 million.
Meanwhile, attendance is falling for the bottom of the FBS teams, most of whom have replaced their coaches. At the top, game attendance cannot go higher. With rising costs, including coaching contracts, increasing ticket prices or tuition is the only way to break even.
Still, turnover creates opportunity, leading to more hires of up and coming assistant coaches and a faster way of hiring qualified African-American coaches. Imagine if all those head coaches were kept until the end of their contracts.
Turnover vs. Retention
Regardless, one way of keeping carpetbaggers like Kiffin and Chizik for longer than 1 or 2 years would be to restructure contracts with tapering buyout clauses to a three year minimum. If the head coach left after one year—$3 million buyout, after two years—$2 million, after three years—$1 million. In general, colleges would be limiting some coaching salary escalation with more retention.
Lane would have then paid Tennessee more than his salary to leave for his “dream job.”
On the other hand, Kevin Sumlin, Houston’s black head coach with two years there, would not be interviewing for positions at Kansas, Texas Tech, Cincinnati or East Carolina.
Either way, loyalty in such a fiscal environment can be ephemeral, relative and totally at odds with university values.
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