“You like the town and like the people and like the school,” Beamer said Tuesday from his Blacksburg, Va., home. “What more is there, really?”
For college football coaches in 2021, there is always more: more money, more variables, more pressure to win. Coaching always has been an itinerant profession, but in the past week the industry crossed a threshold that reflected college football’s changing climate. In dramatic and high-stakes fashion, the destination job became an artifact.
Major college football programs and the coaches who lead them once viewed the sport's relationships as familial, in which the successful coach would become a patriarch of not just the team but the school, a face as familiar as the colors and the fight song. Lots of forces can tear at the fabric of family, from bad fortune to infidelity, but perhaps none does so as quickly as money.
With the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences now generating more than $700 million in annual revenue, the geometric rise in the riches of success and costs of failure over the past decade has led colleges and football coaches to ditch loyalty for expedience, less interested in investing in legacy than in cashing in quick. Instead of searching for a long-standing partnership, each side is looking for a weekend Tinder match.
The forces culminated over the past several days and weeks in which the 2019 coach of the year was fired midseason and replaced by someone who left behind a viable chance to win a championship for one of the sport’s most pedigreed programs, where he had spent the past 12 seasons.
On Sunday, Lincoln Riley jettisoned Oklahoma for the fertile recruiting base and navigable conference competition of Southern California. The following day, Brian Kelly bolted from Notre Dame, which requires a realistic chain of events to become a College Football Playoff entrant this month, for a gigantic contract at LSU. That meant there have been 23 coaching changes in the top level of college football this year, up from 18 in 2020.
Their precise motivations differ, but the rattling decisions Riley and Kelly made were united by an overarching cause. An infusion of money into the sport, through both mammoth television contracts and wealthy donors, has distorted the terrain and amplified the imperative to win immediately and constantly. Even coaches at flagship programs may have a wandering eye, and even schools that recently won national championships may boot the coach who won it.
“People get to a certain point in their career, and they don’t want to be Bo [Schembechler] and Woody [Hayes] anymore,” Korn Ferry Vice Chairman and Head of Global Sports Practice Jed Hughes said, referring to the longtime Michigan and Ohio State coaching rivals of the 1970s. Alabama Coach “Nick Saban is a relic. The landscape has changed.”
The SEC recently signed a rights contract with ESPN that will begin in 2024 for $300 million per season, up from the $55 million CBS had been paying the conference to broadcast its marquee games. Motivated by the financial benefits of affiliation with the conference, Texas and Oklahoma, two behemoth programs, decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.
Feeling pressure to attract money from donors and not be left behind in the churn of conference realignment, schools have grown desperate for coaches capable of winning, quickly firing ones who don’t while offering escalating salaries to ones they hope can.
A spate of midseason firings this year created a frenzy. To keep other schools from poaching Mel Tucker after beginning his second season 8-0, Michigan State, backed by a handful of boosters, gave him a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. At the time, Tucker owned a 15-12 career record as a head coach. His deal reset a market in which schools continued to create openings with midseason firings, leading to a similar extension for James Franklin at Penn State.
“We’re in an unprecedented time because the TV money is so important, and the people’s egos who are connected to these schools are over the top because they want to win, and they want to win now,” Hughes said. “They don’t want to wait.”
Even coaches in lofty situations can fall rapidly. Ed Orgeron, a native Louisianan who speaks with a distinctive Cajun growl, won the national championship at LSU two seasons ago. The school reached a separation with him in mid-October, with the Tigers at 4-3. Athletic Director Scott Woodward said then that “at LSU, we expect to compete for SEC and national championships year in and year out.”
Over 22 years, Gary Patterson shepherded TCU from afterthought to national force, elevating the Horned Frogs into the stratosphere of Power Five teams when the Big 12 plucked it from lower-tier Conference USA. He fended overtures from bigger programs. The school built a statue of him outside Amon G. Carter Stadium. With his record 3-5 in late October, Patterson resigned before TCU could fire him. On Monday, TCU lowered his replacement, Sonny Dykes, onto the football field in a helicopter.
At the time of Patterson’s departure, one rival coach said: “I don’t know what to think of it, man. I was sick when I heard the news, to be completely honest. I know it’s a tough business. Our jobs are scrutinized, and we’re big boys, and we can live with big-boy decisions. But man, what he did at that place, to not even finish out the year?”
The coach who said that was Riley.
Destination jobs become impossible when what makes a destination can shift so suddenly. Oklahoma, Riley’s former employer, is set to move into the SEC to compete against a gaggle of programs with greater resources than even its own. He could have risked becoming the next Orgeron or Patterson. Or he could have found a place such as USC, where he could coach a program desperate to pay him exorbitantly and where he can assure himself an inherent advantage over conference rivals.
Beamer, whose son, Shane, once coached under Riley at Oklahoma, noted that Riley would not run from stiff competition and theorized that Southern California’s access to recruiting talent, particularly quarterbacks, drove Riley’s choice. Still, coaches are keenly aware of the landscape.
“The league changes certainly affect coaches,” Beamer said. “The schools that are leaving and the schools that are coming, that landscape has changed and probably figures into some decision-making by some people.”
The forces shaping the sport have consolidated the true powers. The College Football Playoff has redefined success in a sport in which boosters once were satisfied with beating the rival or winning a good bowl game. In the College Football Playoff’s seven-year history, four programs — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — have claimed 20 of 28 entries.
Notre Dame twice has reached the playoff, but those appearances only reinforced its not-quite-there status. The Fighting Irish lost, 30-3, to Clemson and 31-14 to Alabama. If Kelly made winning a national title his priority, LSU offered a clearer path: The past three coaches there have all won national titles.
“The one thing that drives a lot of it anymore is money has gotten up there really high,” Beamer said. “The salaries have really continued to go up. But I don’t think money is the issue that drives most college coaches. Opportunity and what they’re looking for is the biggest factor, particularly someone who’s been successful: He’s got opportunities to go to different schools over the years. I don’t think money is the number one reason.”
Just seven of 65 Power Five coaches have been at their school for at least 10 seasons. Of all the coaches who voluntarily switched jobs, spurred by their sport’s whirlwind changes, some may look back with regret. Not many years ago, a coaching friend visited Beamer to ask him what he thought about a job opportunity.
“I said, ‘Well, if you’re happy in your position you’re in, I’d think twice about leaving,’ ” Beamer said. “If you’re content, you look forward to getting up in the morning and going to work, I’d think twice about moving. Sure enough, he went on and moved. And then he came back in a couple months and said: ‘You were right. It wasn’t a fit for me.’ That’s the number one thing about a job. You like it, you’re happy, your family is happy, you look forward to getting to work in the morning — I’d think twice before I’d ever leave that job.”