Thursday, December 8, 2011

Late Autumn: Leaves and Coaches Fall

That time of year again. The leaves are falling and so are NCAA Division 1 coaches—24 and counting. This will exceed last year’s Division 1 windfall.

Along with the firing comes the hiring and the birth of new hope, the higher outlandish salaries and the retreads and often the hiring again of deeply flawed or wounded saviors for programs.

The world of athletic directors and college coaches remains very small and incestuous. Everyone knows each other, has worked or will work for each other. They all keep tabs, and most athletic directors keep a short A List of possible replacements if their coach implodes.

The lists often overlap, but the pool covers five areas:

1)          Established high achieving coaches who are moveable from a comparable school.
2)         An upcoming coach who has proven his worth at an FCS or lower tier conference and is ready to move up like Urban Meyer earning his moves from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida.
3)         A hot coach like Brian Kelly at Cincinnati last year or this year’s Kevin Sumlin at Houston.
4)         A senior coordinator either at atop flight college program or a professional program like Charlie Weiss before he went to Notre Dame or now to Kansas.
5)         Someone on the sidelines for a variety of reasons, perhaps fired or disgraced like Mike Leach at Texas Tech, massive violations and probation like Rich Rodriquez at Michigan or someone who has voluntarily taken time off like Urban Meyer

The most recent hirings and firings reveal nothing good for college sports.

First, these new hires and their salaries confirm all the cynics that all the new revenue in college sports will be spent on coaches and facilities, not on student athletes. Bill Moos, the aggressive Athletic Director of Washington State University, could be speaking for any athletic director in the country after he spent 2.5 million for Mike Leach to coach his Cougars, “the revenue stream created by the new television contract and equal revenue sharing among conference members has enabled Washington State to invest in facilities, salaries and infrastructure.” Of course Leach’s salary is only the tip of what will be a 4+ million dollar iceberg with all his staff.

Did you see any mention of student support services or academic support services or health or counseling for student athletes there? Neither did anyone else. This is the new norm and the money will not find its way to student athlete welfare issues unless Presidents and Provosts force the issue. (Seattle Times, December 8, 2011  C4)

Second, two years and out! This year confirms one of the worst movements in college coaching: giving less and less time to turn around a program. Realistically it takes five years to turn around a college football program. Normally coaches inherit depleted talent and low morale. It gets worse because many recruits see the firing coming and shy away from the school. Despite this, boosters and fans have high expectations for quick turn around amped up by the high salaries.

A new coach usually takes the job in late December, by then most of the top recruits have committed. He has to run around just to hold on to the committed who are often not really fitted for his system. A new coach only gets a true class of his own student athletes in his second year. Most of them redshirt, so a coach does not field a team made up largely of their own players fitted for their system until year three, and only in year four do the recruits blossom into upper class leaders.

This year two coaches, Turner Gill at Kansas and Larry Porter at Memphis, were fired at the end of two years! Unless serious personnel issues are involved as in the sacking of troubled Mike Locksley at New Mexico.

This two-year trend sets an awful precedent. Two years proves nothing and magnifies the already absurd pressures to win fast and quick. The two-year threat just pushes more decent coaches to borderline practices or cheating or to look the other way when they discover rule violations by their players.
Third, the deeply flawed return. The rehiring of coaches such as Mike Leach at Washington State or Rich Rodriquez at Arizona reflects that small world of athletic directors. It also reveals the real bottom line--WINS.

I remember talking to an athletic director I highly regard and asked him why he had just hired a scandal-plagued coach. The AD cited a number—the total WINS the coach had amassed along with his scandals.

Rich Rodriquez wins, but he wins badly. He does not graduate his students; he downgrades academics and discourages his athletes from being students. He mismanages his coaches, ignores his compliance folks and blames his problems upon everyone but himself. He won at West Virginia without any oversight but at Michigan he failed at the most central duty of a coach, taking responsibility for oneself and one’s team. The athletic Director at Arizona is a smart and fine administrator, so I am really surprised to see Rodriquez back, unless we consider WINS.

The hiring of Mike Leach at Washington State makes its own sense. College coaching can breed some real weird guys whose great skill lies in winning games; Leach ranks right up there. He graduates his kids, but it is not clear he cares about them. He coaches a fun and interesting game but his “unique and quirky” style could not survive in the glare of endless publicity in a big city. Pullman makes sense for him as a second chance, but if the allegations of how he treated his concussed player are anywhere near true; he should not be coaching. WINS are the only reason he is. Someone better be watching WSU’s back.

The most interesting and challenging return is Urban Meyer going to Ohio State one year after retiring from Florida for reasons of mental, spiritual and physical health. He brings one of the quickest and most interesting minds back to the game. I honestly think he needs another year away and would have stayed in the booth if any school but Ohio State or Notre Dame had not come calling.

Meyer is relentless, demanding and a ruthless perfectionist who can demean and drive his coaches batty, but who always respected his players, even if he often let them get out of control off field. But he lost it the last two years. Too much intensity, too much perfectionism and an utter inability to remember why he was coaching, to develop kids, not just   WIN.  But he saw what he was becoming and knew enough to leave.

I think it is too early, but OSU got a great coach. They will need to watch him in a very different way. I also admire Meyer for his public honesty about the bouts of depression and perfectionism and the cost to his life and family that he permitted us all to see. The life of the modern American coach is brutal and ruthless, and his life reminded us of that.

Fourth, it has been a hard year for black coaches with three losing jobs already, and two of them after only two years. The NCAA and conferences claim to push schools to look seriously at minority coaches, but unless they impose an NFL Rooney rule, we will continue to see immense lag in minority hiring.

Not all the leaves have fallen and the new buds are not yet with us. But this year like last highlights how colleges lose their credibility and integrity in the game of coaches and the game of wins.

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