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The one certainty in college football this year: 'Financial carnage' will save coaching jobs

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As college football has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry and head coaching salaries have rocketed into the orbit of $10 million per year, the sport’s annual job market has become its own sport.

A teeming industry has emerged the past two decades around the hiring of football coaches, with large-scale agencies developing divisions dedicated to college coaching. There’s rigorous competition among search firms competing to help out athletic departments. There are sub-industries tied to coaching movement dedicated to everything from social media consulting to the tax implications of contract buyouts.

The time of year casually referred to as “The Carousel” to those in the industry has become a rite of fall, and speculation, prognostication and analysis of that space has become as much a part of the sport’s chatter as polls, playoff debate and Heisman buzz.

When college football’s first power conference games kick off this week, there’s little certain about the 2020 season. No matter your coast (East or West), state (red or blue) and league (playing or not), one of the rare unifying assumptions of the 2020 football season is that the carousel will be ground to a virtual halt this season.

“I think the biggest single dynamic will be the financial carnage we’re about to go through,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Yahoo Sports. “I think that’ll have a major impact on people’s analysis.”

Of course, Swarbrick said that before the first job of the 2020 coaching season came open. That was Southern Miss on Monday, which parted ways with wholly unpopular and generally unsuccessful coach Jay Hopson. (Remember when Hopson tried to hire Art Briles and then criticized his president for not letting him? That’s never good for job security.)

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 27: USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton looks on before the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl football game between the USC Trojans and the Iowa Hawkeyes on December 27, 2019 at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Embattled USC head coach Clay Helton may be able to breathe easier this year as the coaching carousel is unlikely to kick into high-gear due to the economic effect of the coronavirus pandemic. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The financial fallout at universities around the country, combined with an expectation of limited revenues from ticket sales, has left departments issuing furloughs and bracing for massive revenue losses. That’s among conferences that are both playing and on the sideline this fall.

Layoffs at powerful schools like Texas and Michigan, combined with more than 100 sports being cut at colleges across the country, including 11 at Stanford, paint a bleak short-term picture for college athletics.

“I don’t see how an AD will be able to go to their president, no matter how much pressure is on the program, and justify the cost of some of these buyouts in the current climate,” said Drew Turner, vice president of Collegiate Sports Associates, an executive search and consulting firm that primarily works in college athletics.

In the past five years, an average of nearly 25 of the 130 FBS college football jobs have turned over each year. This year, a safe estimate will be somewhere around five.

The biggest impetus for job movement may end up being retirements, with a high-end coach walking away after a season that promises to be filled with uncertainty. There are more than a half-dozen coaches over the age of 65, ranging from Ohio’s Frank Solich (75) to Kansas’ Les Miles (66) to FIU’s Butch Davis (68). “The only way the carousel starts this year is if some major coaches call it quits,” an industry source said.

The massive buyouts inherent to both firing and hiring loom as both untoward and tone deaf during COVID times. In this space every year, we attempt to break down the schools that could be looking to make changes each year and all the variables that could impact those decisions. To dive deep on decisions that won’t end up being made doesn’t feel right.

In normal times, we’d have analyzed the coaching futures at South Carolina, Vanderbilt, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, Illinois and Arizona in the Power Five. We’d have dug in on Tulsa, UConn, UTEP and South Alabama in the Group of Five. But these aren’t normal times, so it would take a player revolt — the reason we have been spying on Oklahoma State — or something grandiose to create movement.

In pre-COVID times, there’s a chance we’d be speculating about Clay Helton’s future at USC, Chip Kelly’s at UCLA, Gus Malzahn’s at Auburn and Tom Herman’s at Texas. To fire the head coaches and their staffs, USC, Auburn and Texas would have to pay in excess of $20 million.

Simply put, that’s a non-starter in these budget-conscious days. (Chip Kelly wouldn’t be as expensive at UCLA, but the $9 million in his deal, plus staff, makes it just as unrealistic for a school still paying Jim Mora Jr.)

Imagine a university president or athletic director dealing with laying off countless employees and then attempting to justify paying $20 million to others to not work. Even if the buyouts are mitigated, the expected lack of turnover makes it unlikely the coaches or coordinators could land another job.

Also, judging coaches in these conditions will be fraught, as rosters will vary by the week because of contact tracing. “How do you really evaluate anyone in a year like this?” another industry source told Yahoo Sports.

And even if an administration wanted to pay a massive buyout and take a massive public-relations hit, they’d still have to keep paying. Most high-end coaches and coordinators have a buyout to lure them to campus, and there are tax implications that make those even more expensive.

Before we rule out everyone, it’s fair to remember what all investors know — a bear market is filled with opportunity for the bold. Southern Miss showed us that on Labor Day, and there's a good chance they can get a higher-end coach in a non-competitive market. (But money remains an issue, as Hopson made just $500,000, the lowest in Conference USA.) John Currie surprised the industry when he decided to fire Danny Manning, which ended up being a coup for Wake Forest as they were able run a search with no competition. They ended up with Steve Forbes, a hire that’s revitalized both recruiting and optimism, each of which were in short supply in Winston-Salem.

The prospect of a lack of competition in the football market could end up being attractive for a desperate school willing to endure a few days of bad optics. (Or be ready to show that all the buyout money was raised privately when it announces the move.)

One of the realities of the market correction in college athletics is that it may end up being felt more in the Olympic sports than the revenue-producing sports. There will certainly be a short-term spending pull-back in big-time football, but we’re a while from it being an elongated trend.

“I think the areas that are going to be cut are the financial areas that we can’t afford to cut,” Turner said. “Scholarship opportunities for future student-athletes, [Olympic] sports and mid-level management positions. That’s who is really going to feel this thing. It’s not going to be the exorbitant football facilities.”

And that’s why this fall, one of the few certainties is that the coaching carousel won’t be spinning as aggressively as it normally does. Don’t fret though. That same industry that lives in this space is already predicting unprecedented turnover after the 2021 season.

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