December 19, 2007

When Is It OK To Go?: Some college coaching departures are different than others

In the past 12 months, the subjects of Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino have been the source of great outrage among fans of pro and college football. The disdain has practically universal for everyone outside of Alabama and Arkansas. But even cases such as Rich Rodriguez going from West Virginia to Michigan cause some consternation from fans of the jilted team and others. "He has a contract!" they scream, and wonder why no one bothers to hold them to those contracts.

Well, itís not quite so black and white. Letís pose the following question: How many coaches in Division 1-A college football (or college basketball, for that matter) currently have less than 2 years remaining on their contracts? Answer: very few. Why? Because if a school lets a coach go to the last year of his contract, it raises speculation that a coaching change is imminent, and it cripples recruiting. Schools have to keep coaches locked up for longer than they probably want to convey stability.

Second question: When Les Miles emphatically says, "Iím the coach at LSU," and people question whether he really means it or not, what exactly is he supposed to say in that situation? As the head coach of a group of young men who have talent but not necessarily the ability to filter out distractions, Miles has to do whatever he can to get that thought out of their minds so that they can focus on the game at hand. In Milesí case, he actually meant what he said, but other coaches have been held to the fire for going back on their word. But the truth is, at the time, they had little other choice.

And finally, is it fair to keep someone from wanting to move up in the world? Most people in the working world would go to another company if it meant a bump in pay and a better position. Why should college coaches be any different?

Of course, there have to be some standards. Why are the cases of Saban and Petrino so maddening while cases like Rodriguez are not so appalling? In an attempt to try to write down the "unwritten rules", letís try to establish the following three standards for when itís OK for a coach to move on:

1. Put in your time.

If a coach has been with a school for enough years to bring some success to a program, then decides it is time to move on, few people will have a problem with that. On the other hand, if a coach is keeping his eye out for a higher-paying job the minute he signs the contract with his current employer, that is a fine way to anger people. Guideline? At least let one of your recruiting classes graduate before leaving.

2. Donít screw the NFL.

The pro ranks are a totally different world than the college ranks. Pro players are better equipped for dealing with distractions than college players, so it isnít necessary to give lying rah-rah speeches that are going to be proven false later. Also, head coaches are often allowed to go to the last year or two of their contracts, because ďrecruitingĒ isnít based solely on the head coach: attracting free agents requires a quality organization from top to bottom, and even more importantly, salary-cap space and a willingness to use it. So if a pro team signs a coach to a long-term contract, they expect him to be there. The need to "convey stability" as mentioned above isnít nearly as important. Many college coaches who enter the pro ranks donít get that, much to the chagrin of owners such as Wayne Huizenga and Arthur Blank.

3. Move up in the world.

Most people will not get on a coach who "outgrows" his current program and moves on to bigger and better places. Leaving West Virginia for Michigan is a step up (sorry, Mountaineer fans). Similarly, few complained when Urban Meyer left Utah for Florida. If, on the other hand, Tommy Tuberville had left Auburn for Texas A&M, that would widely have been considered a lateral move and appear greedy, especially because he didnít appear to be in any danger of being canned at Auburn. An exception here is if it looks like youíre facing severe job pressure, in which case most of the fans arenít going to be that upset by the coach leaving, anyway. An example of this would be Tubby Smith leaving Kentucky for Minnesota.

If we establish these three standards as the "unwritten rules" for when itís OK for a college coach to move on, then Rodriguez played by the rules. He gave many good years to West Virginia, and moved on to a better program. Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino, on the other hand, have now had three jobs in less than two years, tried to play college games at a pro level, and ended up at a level no better than where they started, except much richer. Thatís much easier to dislike.

As always, your mileage may vary. But itís something to think about.

posted by TheQatarian to commentary at 03:03 PM - 0 comments

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