Coaching’s always been an unusual job, and coaches have always been hired and fired for varying reasons, some of which are not always apparent to the naked eye. But the more things stay the same, the more they change. Firing coaches, and replacing them, seems to require a more complex algorithm than ever before, especially at the college level.
Take the Ohio State vacancy. Normally that job would have gone, at the proper moment, to a hand-picked successor. There would have been a ceremonial handing over of a Jim Tressel sweater vest, and all would have been well in Columbus.
Instead, you have an NCAA investigation, an interim coach, an unhappy Buckeye nation, and finally — ta-da! — Urban Meyer, who left the University of Florida because he was unwell, wanted to spend time with his family, or whatever, but suddenly wants to move to Ohio.
An even more difficult example, of course, is the Penn State job. The school can’t even begin to talk about filling that position, of course, because it literally has no leadership. And when it does finally get around to hiring a football coach, those interviews will include discussions that candidates probably have never had in their lives. (And that is as it should be.)
A college football coach’s job used to come with what seemed like automatic tenure. Most got five years to prove themselves (and they signed long-term, guaranteed contracts as a result because hey, what could go wrong?) Those days — at least the five years part — seem to be over. The guaranteed contracts, however, remain.
When John Feinstein called for Maryland to oust Randy Edsall after one season, there was a hue and cry — but not as much as you might have expected. The football program was wretched this season, the Edsall Way seems not to be working, and without football revenue, Maryland will be in dire trouble. Ask the student athletes whose sports are being eliminated. (That’s not on Edsall, of course.) Schools have to balance whether it’s fiscally more responsible to pay off a coach’s (huge) contract or allow him to stay and risk the continued loss of revenue. That’s the new algorithm that is still being perfected.
My alma mater’s football program eerily mirrors Maryland. Kansas decided to fire Turner Gill after two seasons. Like Edsall, he was brought in to replace a popular coach who’d brought great success to the program. Like Edsall, he was a strict disciplinarian. Like Edsall, his team couldn’t win. In fact, his team seemed to regress in two seasons. Now Gill gets $6 million for failing — and few in Kansas are screaming about it. That’s how poorly the team played.
Talk about mirror images: Mike Leach is the name most mentioned as a possible replacement for Gill, just as he was mentioned as a replacement for Ralph Friedgen. The reason? It’s not necessarily wins and losses. Thanks in part to conference realignment, it’s marketability in negotiating television contracts, which translates to revenue. Leach’s teams put on quite an air show. The Big 12 can sell even a losing team that passes for 500 yards when it comes time to negotiate a TV contract.
So now not only do schools have to be in areas with a lot of televisions tuned to their games, but the schools also must provide good programming for those televisions — not just wins, but exciting wins. Or exciting losses. (Never mind that the four major networks can’t provide good programming despite having an entire country at their disposal.)
Schools have long had to look for coaches who appealed to alumni, looked good on the sideline and gave a good sound bite. Graduating players and keeping NCAA investigators at bay was a bonus.
Now the list of requirements is longer. There will be background checks done by professionals who’ll dig deep. The new coach must hire assistants with equally spotless records. He must graduate enough players to avoid NCAA sanctions. He must keep his players out of tattoo parlors they can’t afford, make sure they pay for their own cars, watch those alums he has just charmed into making donations to ensure they aren’t making the wrong kind of donations behind his back — and he’s got to draw up a breathtaking offense that will help his conference negotiate a television contract.
Why would anyone want these jobs? Oh, right, the millions you get, whether you succeed or fail. You’d think, since college football has realigned itself with no one lifting a finger to stop it, that it could turn its attention to these guaranteed contracts, which are, after all, costing schools millions. Well, as they say on many campuses across the nation around this time, maybe next year.