Monday, January 18, 2010
Coaching Roulette Gets Stranger
Carroll's sudden career change drove USC to scroll madly through a list of potential coaches, including Mike Riley, another NFL refugee who had found incredible success in college ranks at Oregon State University. The school ended by plucking Lane Kiffin, exUSC assistant, ex-Oakland Raider coach, ex-Tennessee coach (and that's only in four years!!) as their new coach. 34 year old Kiffen left Tenessee after one year and in a heart beat, abandoning a "top ten job" for "the best job in America." (Has he talked to Nick Saban, Mack Brown or Urban Meyer, sorry he and Meyer aren't speaking after he falsely accused Meyer of cheating). Kiffin's departure lead Tennessee into a whirlwind search where bodies flew around like in a twister and Derek Dooley football coach and AD at Louisiana Tech ended up finding himself falling out of the sky and landing in Tennessee where he introduced the idea of building a program on "integrity" not a concept his predecessor worried about.
This whole process gets speeded up since national letter of intent day is three weeks away, and athletes who committed to one coach have not signed a letter and are now swarmed by locusts from other schools. In typical fashion, Kiffin's head recruiter innocently answered questions of Tennessee recruits about how to come to USC! So what should be a thoughtful process involving athletic directors and Presidents occurs in days to forestall defections by prized recruits-so much for Presidential control and academic concern in coaching searches.
Two points strike me in this unfolding scenario. The first, I've talked about before, some coaches are much better suited to teach college kids than coach pros. Rick Pitino is another example to add to those I cited. College coaches not only teach, but they motivate; Carroll's unique competitive advantage has been his capacity to captivate, relate to and motivate 18-22 year old males. They flock to the program for its success, its glamor but also its unique brand of serious focus and fun accomplishment. The problem with motivators is that they grow very thin after a couple of years.
Motivating coaches elicit and demand intense emotional and cognitive commitment and a willingness to focus and sacrifice for the team and program. In college it works because they kids are young and only stay for four years--the intensity, team loyalty and emotional demands imposed by a coach resonate and stay alive as every year twenty-five percent of the team arrives new and enamored of the spell. But pros grow leery of too much "motivation." They must act on their cold self-interest given how short and dangerous their careers are. They invest in careers not teams and not coaches who can be fired in a micro-second or who will cut them even faster.
Carroll's style, like Pitino's, is uniquely suited to college; Nick Saban who motivates in a a more fierce but just as intense manner also asks and gains deep emotional and disciplined commitments; but could not expect the same of the pros he coached in Miami. I'm pretty sure this will not end well for Carroll and wish he saw more clearly the "fit" he once revelled between him and USC and college coaching. On the other hand, all coaches intensely compete. Being a competitor defines them; this focused fury and desire to win; to be the best; to extract from others their best; defines elite coaching. Carroll said I thought "I would be here forever," but "I can't pass up a competitive challenge." Behind his ageless California gold boy mystique lay an intense competitor he loved challenges, enjoyed winning (unlike many coaches) and absolutely abhorred losing. But he also looked for new challenges; maybe the moment had come; maybe the challenge beckoned and the pro failures still rankled him. Maybe 9 years of winning and one year of stumbling meant college had lost its magic. I'm not sure.
Second, Kiffin reveals a more sordid reality of coaching life. Much like Brian Kelly who left Cincinnati on the eve of their most important bowl game for the Notre Dame job; he illustrates the raw ambition and untempered self-interest that can infect all coaching (heck it infects most major American corporations and CEOs). However, the whole enterprise of college athletics depends upon the claim that through athletics, Universities both create a unique form of human excellence, but in doing so help young men and women grow as people, not just athletes. Everything depends upon the coaches. Kiffin's actions teach another lesson, but maybe it is more real, but not one I think colleges want to teach--money and ambition trump loyalty and commitment.
The very men who preach sacrifice, team loyalty, mutual trust abandon the kids (and they are kids) on a moments notice to run to the next best job. So much for the moral power of coaches and college athletics.
(pictures courtesy of LATimes)