Monday, January 18, 2010

Coaching Roulette Gets Stranger

College coaching roulette just got a lot more interesting and a lot sadder. Pete Carroll of USC, who should know better, suddenly ejected from a crashing USC and soft-landed as Coach and VP of the Seattle Seahawks. The landing was cushioned by a 3 million dollar salary increase and considerable discretion over player personnel--the team wants a "collaborative" relationship between Carroll and its as of yet unknown General Manager, yeah. Unfortunately the agreement did not entail the elimination of a pro-football draft in favor of allowing coaches to "recruit" college seniors to their teams.

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)

1 comment:

  1. It’s hard to say for sure, but as I stated on the Other Side Sports forum, it appears that Carroll is leaving because of the upcoming violations the NCAA will levy against USC. The NCAA was able to speak to Reggie Bush this past summer. It looks like they finally got the evidence they wanted to punish USC. Combine that with USC’s basketball violations and the punishment may be more severe than usual. Granted, we are in the wet noodle era of NCAA punishment so the “harsh” punishment won’t be all that harsh, but it looks like Pete wasn’t willing to find out. Like John Calipari, he saw a way to leave his mess behind him. In the case of Calipari, there was a bigger, better paying college job awaiting him. For Carroll, the only upgrade option was the NFL.

    The media has been very hard on Lane Kiffin and coaches in general, but it’s hard to blame them for jumping ship the way they do. The universities have little loyalty to athletic personnel because of the fickleness of the fans. Tennessee ran off a championship winning coach, Phil Fulmer, because the fans got tired of losing a few games a year in the SEC. They were happy to have someone like Kiffin who put his personal reputation on the line by being brash and controversial, but how did that turn out?

    To put it concisely, the coaches have no reason to be loyal to their institutions because the institutions are not loyal to them. Yes, that is a shame for the players who come to a school specifically for a coach, but they should be familiar with the nature of highly competitive college sports. If anything, the players get a bit of a lucky break. The coaches get most of the blame for losing and recruiting mistakes. Also, as some point out, players know how to game the system by playing schools off of each other. They aren’t fully loyal either. That said, once they commit to a school, it is difficult for them to leave. Some may have scholarships revoked during a coaching change. That’s just more reason to choose a school with stability, even if they aren’t as high profile, than a school run by emotionally driven fans and boosters.

    Finally, there is a bit of organized crime scene in big-time college athletics. It may not be the mafia per se, but there are rouge boosters and agents that hang around programs. This is true even at clean programs that try to keep the trouble away. I don’t think Carroll will have to worry about that in the NFL even if he brought it upon himself at USC. We’ll have to see how he can compete in the NFC West. The Seahawks themselves don’t appear to be very loyal.