Why college football's big programs are raiding the American Athletic Conference for coaches

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Pending an unforeseen development, the college football coaching carousel has come to a quick and quiet halt in the Power Five conferences.

When Oregon hired Willie Taggart Wednesday, it filled the last of just six vacancies among the 64 most desirable jobs in the sport. That’s a very low turnover rate.

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More interestingly, the people who filled those few jobs may be part of a growing trend. None of them came from another Power Five school.

All six hires were either raids of Group of Five schools or promotions from within. The poor American Athletic Conference was especially hard hit: Texas grabbed Tom Herman from Houston; Baylor took Matt Rhule away from Temple; Oregon got Taggart from South Florida. Purdue hired Jeff Brohm from Western Kentucky. LSU promoted interim coach Ed Orgeron and Indiana promoted defensive coordinator Tom Allen.

That makes two straight years when no currently employed head coach at a Power Five school left for another Power Five school. Mark Richt went from Georgia to Miami last year, but only after being fired in Athens. And that’s it.

What does it mean? Maybe nothing. Could just be a coincidence and a minor anomaly. There doesn’t tend to be rampant movement between top jobs anyway; more often schools are looking for rising stars from the lower level.

But it is unusual to have one such year, and more unusual to have two in a row. After the 2014 season, Mike Riley went from Oregon State to Nebraska, which led Gary Andersen from Wisconsin to Oregon State, which led Paul Chryst from Pittsburgh to Wisconsin.

South Florida went 10-2 under Willie Taggart this season. (Getty)
South Florida went 10-2 under Willie Taggart this season. (Getty)

After the 2013 season, Charlie Strong left ACC-bound Louisville for Texas – which prompted the hiring of former Louisville and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, following a brief stay in Motorcyle Purgatory at Western Kentucky. James Franklin moved from Vanderbilt to Penn State. And the year before that, Bret Bielema bolted Wisconsin for Arkansas.

And it’s not like the Power Five programs that had openings weren’t at least considering hiring from within the club. Texas has had its eye on Herman for a year, but even longer had entertained the fantasy of luring Nick Saban away from Alabama. LSU’s first choice to replace Les Miles was Jimbo Fisher of Florida State. Baylor did its due diligence on Larry Fedora of North Carolina. Oregon reportedly gauged the interest of Florida’s Jim McElwain, Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre and others from the Power Five level.

Yet today, Saban is at Alabama. Fisher is at Florida State. Fedora is at North Carolina. McElwain is at Florida. MacIntyre is at Colorado. None of them rolled the dice on a new gig. All of them are rich, and currently popular with their respective fan bases. None of them messed with happy.

(Next year could be another matter, with coaches at Notre Dame, UCLA, Tennessee, Texas A&M and other attractive locales all starting 2017 firmly on the hot seat.)

It could be that current coaches who are able to hit the Power Five Powerball aren’t readily willing to risk relocation.

With compensation being what it is today – USA Today’s annual college football salary database listed 58 FBS coaches making at least $2 million a year – they may be more satisfied as a group where they are. The work is hard, but the lifestyle is good. I mean, Mike Leach’s $2.95 million a year goes a long way in Pullman, Wash.

Then there is this: If you are talented enough and fortunate enough to land one of these Power Five jobs, you’ve probably got a steep buyout that can keep you protected for a few years. The biggest reason why Kevin Sumlin is still at Texas A&M and Kliff Kingsbury is still at Texas Tech might simply be the prohibitive cost of firing them.

So the fertile hunting ground for Power Five athletic directors became the American, an underrated league that had developed quite a coaching fraternity. In addition to Herman, Rhule and Taggart, Virginia Tech made the best hire of 2015 when it swiped Justin Fuente from Memphis.

Texas hired Tom Herman away from Houston. (AP)
Texas hired Tom Herman away from Houston. (AP)

Next up might be Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, who just completed his eighth season of at least eight wins in nine years on the job. Or Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery, who has revived that program in just two seasons. Or Central Florida’s Scott Frost, who took over an 0-12 team and has gone 6-6 in his first year as a head coach.

This raiding is reminiscent of the brain drain that ravaged the old Big East several years ago. Louisville lost Petrino and Rutgers lost Greg Schiano to the NFL; Rich Rodriguez bolted West Virginia for Michigan; and Cincinnati saw Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones all upgrade between 2006-12.

That’s the hard part about being in a league that doesn’t have easy access to the national championship and massive media rights. You can’t hold on to their star coaches.

And once those coaches experience the perks of Power Five members, they seem increasingly satisfied to stay in the job they have. Not many man are willing to mess with happy.

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