Can you alma mater afford to fire its head football coach if he fails to win a national title? Can it afford not to?
Pity poor Gene Chizik, who won perhaps the most meaningless and suspicion-arousing national title in the history of college football1 only to wind up getting kicked out of a crashing plane with nothing but a taxpayer-subsidized $10m golden parachute and his wife’s undying loyalty to save him. Jon Embree of Colorado and Frank Spaziani of Boston College were also shown the door, although neither move was surprising or particularly expensive for the schools involved. As far as mid-major moves go, North Carolina State’s decision to can Tom O’Brien and Purdue’s dumping of Danny Hope make far less sense.
What is the expected ceiling for such programs? NCSU once squeezed double-digit wins out of star QB Phillip Rivers during the Chuck Amato era; Purdue got to the Rose Bowl behind the arm of Drew Brees and the coaching acumen of Joe Tiller. That would seem to be as good as it gets for these programs, which can successfully fill three-quarters of their stadiums on a good week and have a handful of decent rivalry games to excite their alums and undergrads. O’Brien, in particular, had distinguished himself as a quality college coach, someone who was capable of keeping his players out of the newspapers and on pace to graduate in
four seven years. Both of these men managed to win six or so games a year, including an occasional upset, and O’Brien boasted an admirable 5-1 record against UNC, NCSU’s only meaningful in-state opponent. However, much like Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who somehow succeeded in wringing 8-10 wins and 3-5 NFL draft picks per season out of a once-mighty program in a city that no longer cared about it, these men didn’t win national championships.
To which one can only write: LOL WTF LAWLZ ROFLCOPTERSAUSUS REX??? In what is undoubtedly the least fair amateur or professional sport in America2, the notion that a team like Pitt, NCSU, or Purdue could win anything absent some Cam Newton-acquiring, NCAA rules-flouting shenanigans is ludicrous. College football, which requires the maintenance of professional-sized operating budgets in spite of the fact that the players are neither appropriately compensated nor allowed to major in the sports they’re playing3, is a meritocracy in the same way that the English Premier League and the Forbes 500 Greatest Humans are: if you don’t have it ($$$), you can’t get it (titles).
At the moment, fellow Texas state employee and former UNC Tar Heel Mack Brown earns 100x my salary. The only government worker anywhere near Mack’s pay grade is men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes, who pulls down a cool $2.5m a year in exchange for the sporadic success he achieved during the heyday of Kevin Durant, T.J. Ford, and Royal Ivey. Brown’s buyout is a bit more reasonable than Chizik’s was; he’s due only $2.75m if canned after 01/01/2013, as he most likely will be. Perhaps Brown, like Barnes, just hasn’t won enough at a place that expects to win every single season.4 The fans and rich boosters deserve more than one national title for their $7.5m; they deserve an endless chain of wins, one after another, subsidized by the seemingly endless wealth of an athletic program that can even afford to pay Augie Garrido $950,000 to coach the men’s baseball team in front of the 1,000-2,000
spectators Baseball America subscribers who care about such things.
The mounting head injuries and resulting litigation will eventually bring about the demise of football, but it will do little to change the bizarre financial structure of college sports. The attention will shift to basketball—understandably so, since it’s far more enjoyable to watch—and the cycle of firings and buyouts will continue. Kent State and Memphis and Miami (FL) and Grand Valley State and Lamar University and Texas-Pan American and Arizona State are all equally compelling title contenders, and each should settle for nothing but the best.5 Not in terms of faculty output or student quality, of course, because there’s nothing ESPN SportsCenter highlight-worthy about some geek pencilling in a bunch of correct answers on a Scantron form or Dr. Zimickiewicz droning on about the discovery of a flame-retardant polymer that also boasts considerable laxative properties and tastes like lemon pepper beef jerky. Hail to the victors, bro!
- Only this one compares. Isn’t it crazy to think that Colorado and Georgia Tech once shared a national title, much less graced the AP Top 25? That’s what a series of bad coaching hires (Paul Johnson, Jon Embree, Chan Gailey, Gary Barnett, et al.) and grotesque sex scandals (poor Katie Hnida!) will do to a program. Chizik’s Malzahn-and-Newton-fueled run to an already-forgotten title was unlikely to be repeated, so why keep a man who couldn’t even equal Dan McCarney’s level of success at Iowa State around? Better to prepare for a few years of Bobby Petrino in the here and now, before some other success-starved program sets aside its better judgment in the interest of making a run at a top-10 finish.
BingGoogle a list of athletic department operating budgets and you’ll see what I mean. Pitt, for example, spends something on the order of 50m less on sports than The Ohio State University does. Football teams in the PAC-12 earn more from their conference’s amazing TV deal than a place such as UAB or Akron (or perhaps, to exaggerate the point a bit, the entire MAC put together) spends on all of its sports teams.
- That kind of arrangement has worked out just fine for the Klitschkos and all of the other Eastern Bloc behemoths who earned advanced degrees in fields like “Physical Science” or “Physical Education.” My father, who played football at WVU, majored in Phys Ed; why don’t most of these would-be sportsmen? Doesn’t it make perfect sense—more sense than an empty degree in “communications” or enrollment in a difficult course that would necessitate laughable attempts at plagiarism like this ? Former NFL player Michael Oriard has an even better proposal, but I suppose it’s best to keep things as they are rather than risk disturbing the calm. The system’s worked out splendidly for everyone involved, after all.
- For various reasons, Auburn shouldn’t be counted in the same league as such elite sports-focused universities. 1957 split national title aside, it’s a second-rate program, with fewer resources to draw upon that similarly-situated schools like Texas A&M or UCLA. 8-4 is a reasonable expectation; 2010 redux is assuredly not.
- Given how laughably poor most football game-calling is from a probabilistic standpoint, wouldn’t it make sense for Texas to jettison high-paid assistants Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz and just hire the “expert”/”championship”/”all-Madden”-level AI from NCAA 2013 to handle decisions regarding two-point conversions, fourth-down attempts, and the like? The savings could then be funneled into an SMU-style slush fund and used to procure the services of more talented players.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Penny & Farthing.