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It remains a relatively quiet year in the college football coaching carousel, but the plates beneath the industry’s surface are hinting at a significant shift. It’s just a matter of whether it arrives in weeks or months.
That shift could come soon, depending on what the brass at Michigan and Texas decide. Those are the two looming market drivers. There are also potential shifts that could still happen at schools like Auburn, Tennessee and potentially Virginia Tech. The grumbling increases as the hope dissipates at those places, but those three schools appear unlikely to open, setting the stage for a wild 2021.
“I think next year is going to be a bloodletting the likes we’ve never seen,” said an industry source. “Especially if Texas or Michigan don’t change coaches this year.”
The buyouts for every school but Michigan to fire just their head coach is more than $10 million, a daunting number in a normal economy and non-pandemic times. Texas would owe Tom Herman more than $15 million, Auburn would owe Gus Malzahn $21 million, Tennessee would owe Jeremy Pruitt nearly $12.9 million and Virginia Tech would owe Justin Fuente nearly $12.5 million. Those numbers don’t include staff, which would jump the number at Texas to more than $24 million.
During the COVID-19 era of empty stadiums, declining tuition revenue and university austerity, it’s going to give any school president or board of trustees significant pause. And adding another $5 million to hire a coach – not for his salary, just his buyout – is the kicker for most places. (That doesn’t include buyout taxes either.)
But both South Carolina eating a $13 million buyout for Will Muschamp and Vanderbilt paying a large sum to Derek Mason have made the potential of a spree of winter firings a bit more real. Those two are hardly powers with unlimited war chests, and their reward for their ambition in a pandemic is a lack of competition for top coaches.
Will either Michigan or Texas take advantage of the light field? Here’s the reality of the 2020 coaching carousel: Everything depends on Michigan and Texas. And here’s the reality of Michigan and Texas: Those decisions remain shrouded in ambiguity.
They are decisions that will be made, at least in part, through the prism of what 2021 could end up looking like. And the 2021 coaching carousel — with stadiums back full, rosters approaching whole and money again flowing into athletic departments — may be the busiest high-end market the sport has ever seen. “When you look ahead to 2021, it could be the most volatile year of coaching turnover that we’ve ever seen,” said an industry source.
Consider this nugget if Tom Herman and Jim Harbaugh hold their jobs this year at Texas and Michigan. There could be eight programs in 2021 that have openings that have won or played for national titles since 1997 – Michigan, Texas, USC, Nebraska, Auburn, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and, perhaps, LSU if they stay wedged in the lower half of the SEC West. The others that could potentially crowd the 2021 market: UCLA, Duke, Syracuse, Kansas, Pittsburgh, TCU, Illinois and Arizona.
The safe prediction is that either Michigan or Texas opens, but likely not both. The tenures of both Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Texas’ Tom Herman are tenuous, but in distinctly different ways.
Harbaugh is so strange and aloof that his own staff isn’t really sure what he’s thinking. There’s virtually no NFL market for Harbaugh, even with seven or eight jobs open. And there’s also not a raging desire to fire him. But there’s also not a lot of talent in the program or hope for the immediate future.
Michigan’s 2-4 performance this year is indicative of a steep decline from what we’ve become accustomed to from Harbaugh, which was just big-game failures. But moving on from Harbaugh, a legend at the school who has won 69% of his games, isn’t going to be a simple matter of AD Warde Manuel going and telling him to clean out his office.
If Harbaugh were to leave or be nudged out, it would likely be some kind of mutual parting. But there’s still a realistic chance that a staff shakeup and recruiting department overhaul could help officials sell another year, even if the on-field product doesn’t offer much in terms of hope. Administratively, there are thoughts about parting ways with Harbaugh but not a voracious institutional appetite. But could they worry about Texas scooping up Matt Campbell or Luke Fickell, who’d be Michigan’s expected top choices?
That’s the difference between Michigan and Texas. At Texas, the lust to hire Urban Meyer has become an open secret. And the administrative and athletic department ambivalence toward Tom Herman is evident in the lack of public support he’s received. Texas has given every indication they want to find a way to upgrade, but they need to find a clean path to a replacement.
For more than a decade, Texas lacked leadership and infrastructure and fell far behind its Big 12 peers. Texas’ practice facilities are worse than some high schools, as their practice bubble looks like the toxic waste dripped down from I-35 and turned into a cocoon. Texas relied on its brand so much that it became a misaligned mess with exponentially worse facilities than a majority of its Big 12 peers.
The facilities are finally changing with a long overdue $175 million dollar South End Zone project. Texas has always had the money but hasn’t figured out the right way to spend it. Now it appears willing to overspend for an elite coach. But can the Longhorns find one?
Texas AD Chris Del Conte’s play here appears to be shopping for Herman’s replacement and attempting to arrange something before having to make a public decision on Herman. This is a common tactic, but rarely do these shadow searches unfold under such scrutiny. The question will be if Texas strikes out — and Del Conte will aim Dabo-level high if Meyer passes as expected — how will everybody sputter forward and force smiles for Herman returning for a plank-walk season in 2021?
That leads us to the over-arching question here: Does some ambitious school get aggressive in the next few weeks in order to make a play on Campbell, Fickell or, down in the SEC, Liberty’s Hugh Freeze? Do they anticipate a crowded market and get ahead?
Or do schools wait and enter the fray in 2021, where the traffic will be congested on the carousel but the fiscal optics improve. We’ll find out in the upcoming weeks, as schools decide between immediate scrutiny or kicking the can down a crowded road.
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