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- American football player and coach
- American college football player and coach
The shockwaves from Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly leaving established blueblood college football programs to rebuild struggling bluebloods at Southern Cal and LSU will be felt for quite some time.
It’s not simply about a monetary reset of the coaching marketplace, though 10-year contracts worth $100 million becoming commonplace for coaches without national titles is undoubtedly another threshold crossed with major implications for the rest of the sport. It also represents a new paradigm in the profession where coaches are willing to leave jobs that their peers and predecessors historically have not left willingly unless it was to retire or pursue the NFL.
So what has changed, and why is it happening? Here are four factors that explain how the current coaching carousel spun out of control in recent days.
Not all bluebloods are created equal
One of the biggest changes in how we view college football from the pre-BCS era until now with the College Football Playoff is the perception that fewer programs actually have a chance to win a national championship despite more equal access to the postseason system.
Think back to the 1980s and 1990s when polls and politics determined the No. 1 team. After the regular season, the champions of the major conferences would go to their often pre-determined and traditional bowl games where they may or may not have played other highly-ranked teams. Then everybody votes, and we never really knew whether the so-called national champion was actually the best team.
That system is how we ended up with 13-0 BYU being recognized as the national champion in 1984 after playing a 6-6 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl, or Colorado and Georgia Tech sharing the 1990 title. Such a ridiculous system eventually led to the Bowl Alliance and then the BCS, which aimed to match up the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the national championship. But by 2004, when unbeaten SEC champion Auburn was slotted No. 3 while USC and Oklahoma were chosen to play for the national title, the wheels started to slowly move toward the four-team playoff we currently have.
The consequence of determining the champion on the field, not via poll voters, is that teams can’t just slide through the season on favorable matchups. Making the four-team playoff is hard enough. But once there, you have to win two more games against other elite teams, which is a whole different deal than trying to win one bowl game.
That’s where Notre Dame and Oklahoma have hit their heads against a glass ceiling. Riley took the Sooners to the Playoff each of his first three years, and only once — when Baker Mayfield’s 2017 team lost to Georgia in a classic Rose Bowl — did they even have a chance of winning a semifinal. Kelly made the Playoff twice at Notre Dame, and it was not a pleasant experience: 30-3 against Clemson in 2018 and 31-14 against Alabama last year in a game that never looked or felt competitive.
Can you still win national titles at places like Notre Dame and Oklahoma in the Playoff era? Sure. But whether it’s the academic restrictions at Notre Dame or the less favorable geography at Oklahoma, it is undeniably more difficult to recruit enough elite players on both sides of the ball to win two Playoff games at those schools than at Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, LSU and a small handful of others where there’s more talent within a couple-hour drive of campus.
Both Notre Dame and Oklahoma are great jobs that have been ultra-stable winning machines over the past decade. But the way the system is set up now, both Riley and Kelly upgraded their chances of winning a national championship.
There’s less patience than ever
Despite the 10-year contracts being signed by the likes of Mel Tucker at Michigan State and James Franklin at Penn State, the reality of college football right now is that there’s almost no tolerance anymore to work through issues or bad seasons.
We saw that at LSU with Ed Orgeron being fired just two years after wining a national championship and at Florida this season when there was absolutely zero talk of Mullen being on the hot seat in September. Even TCU jettisoned the most important coach in school history when Gary Patterson had a couple mediocre years.
See salaries for college football coaches through the years
The moment a fan base or an administration senses that the trends are bad, about the only thing that can save a coach is a blockbuster recruiting class. But once a coach is perceived to be in trouble, recruits start to bail, too, accelerating the cycle toward an inevitable firing. In the past, coaches could bank on success they previously hadto get them through some tough times. It just doesn’t work that way anymore.
Kelly was actually held up in the industry as the rare example where a coach got the chance to reboot after a 4-8 season in 2016 when much of the fan base wanted him gone. Though the changes Kelly made after that season yielded a pretty spectacular 54-9 record, it gets harder and harder every year for administrators to show that kind of patience.
In Riley’s case, Oklahoma’s impending move to the SEC added an element of uncertainty about his future. Could he sustain the Sooners at the same top-10 level in a new, more competitive league? Perhaps, but history suggests changing conferences can be a bumpy process and he almost certainly wasn’t going to continue winning 82% of his games like he did in the Big 12.
At USC, which hasn’t been a factor at all in the Playoff era, Riley will be held to a different standard that will be easier to meet given the competition in the Pac 12.
Athletic directors are being judged on one thing
Most of what athletics directors spend their time on isn’t particularly glamorous or public-facing. Whether it’s kissing up to donors, approving budgets for the tennis or cross-country teams, meeting with contractors over facility plans or dealing with an athlete that gets in trouble, it’s a multi-faceted job that often has nothing to do with football.
And yet, hiring football coaches is really the only thing that determines whether they’re perceived as a success or failure.
Aside from some type of scandal, the quickest way to the unemployment line for an athletics director is to get a football coaching search wrong. An AD can perhaps survive one misfire, but they better get it right the next time or else they can probably start packing their bags, too.
What happened at Miami this year is a good example. Blake James was responsible for hiring both Mark Richt and Manny Diaz, so he was out on Nov. 16 in anticipation of another coaching change. (Miami has not announced any decision on Diaz yet, largely because the school has not yet filled the athletics director slot.) If Billy Napier doesn't win big at Florida, it's unlikely Scott Stricklin will get a third chance at a football hire. Same goes for Jen Cohen at Washington after Jimmy Lake was such a disaster that he only lasted 13 games.
When the stakes are that high, the natural reaction is to use every resource possible to swing for the fences.
The history of college football is filled with decisions that looked risky at the time but brilliant in retrospect, like Clemson handing Dabo Swinney the job permanently or Oklahoma hiring Bob Stoops at age 39 with no head coaching experience.
But the easier path is getting a sure thing.
Everyone knew when USC hired Mike Bohn as the athletics director in 2019, his No. 1 responsibility was eventually replacing Clay Helton. With a successful pursuit of Riley, Bohn hasn't just breathed new life into USC football, he's extended his own career.
Money is everywhere
Despite the doom-and-gloom of the early COVID-19 pandemic days, when athletics departments were bracing for long-term damage to their financial models and donors drying up, schools are now falling all over themselves to hand out irresponsible sums of money with no end in sight.
Once Texas A&M gave Jimbo Fisher a new 10-year, $95 million contract before this season, that became the new baseline for schools that wanted to take their coaches out of the job market. You can certainly imagine Kelly — whose total compensation at Notre Dame was not public — looking at the contract extensions being handed out to less successful coaches like Franklin and Tucker and thinking he should be paid the same or more. This, of course, will set the market even higher for those who’ve won national titles such as Saban and Swinney. Can we even fathom what Kirby Smart’s extension is going to look like if Georgia wins the national championship this year?
Though schools have been crying poor forever and claiming that the system would collapse if they had to pay college athletes, the reality is that there’s plenty of money. It just all goes to the coaches, and if athletics directors need to pass the hat around to cover any budget shortfall, most of their big boosters have gotten even richer with the S&P 500 more than doubling in value over the past five years. And for boosters who are pumping millions of dollars into their favorite team’s coaching salaries, they can essentially use those donations as tax deductions.
Meanwhile, power conference schools will only see their revenues go up, up, up in the future as the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams and conferences renegotiate their television contracts. If schools need to pay a big buyout right now to get rid of a coach they don’t want, they know the shortfall will come back to them in future years.
With restraint obviously out the window, the only real way to stop or slow down skyrocketing salaries would be Congressional action along the lines of a total athletics spending cap or perhaps a limit on the percentage of a total spending that can be devoted to coaches. Of course, getting Congress to agree and vote on anything these days is difficult. But if the NCAA wants some type of antitrust exemption written into law to, you could see Congress wanting some type of oversight on how those contracts are handed out.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Why Brian Kelly, other coaches are cashing in now