Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Precarious World of College Coaches and ADs

As I reflect on the new year I can’t help but think about the 25 college football coaches who changed jobs at the end of last year. About 20 were fired, and the rest moved to new jobs. The coaching slaughter at D1 athletics occurs annually. Sometimes it is richly deserved as with Bobby Petrino for his scurrilous lying and cheating at Arkansas. This year we learned elite college coaches now only have two years to turn around programs with Jon Embree at Colorado. Sometimes it ends a fine career as with Ted Tedford’s ten years at Cal. This predictable year-end carnage got me to thinking of how brutal college athletics leadership has become, and how insecure the tenure is for the senior elite college athletic leaders—coaches and athletic directors. I believe this  remarkable insecurity helps drive  the craziness of recruiting, cheating and salaries in elite college sports.

To get some perspective I thought over my almost eight years serving as a faculty athletic representative in the Pacific 10/12 conference. While my numbers may not be perfect based upon faulty memory, here is the carnage of the 10 original Pac 10 schools over that 8-year period:

Athletic Directors            21

Football Coaches            22

Basketball Coaches         24

30 leadership positions associated with revenue sports—67 personnel changes—200+ percent turnover.

The PAC 10/12 is a destination conference; most leave involuntarily. Only six left voluntarily, one to be a college vice president and one to be a conference commissioner, 2 to the NFL and 1 to the NBA. The rest left under duress. Athletic directors and head football and basketball coaches do not get fired or hired these days without the involvement of the college presidents.  This means all these firings involved the complicity of the President and often regents of the university.

NCAA President Mark Emmert dislikes the locution “business of college athletics,” so do I. Maybe the "enterprise of college athletics?" Not sure, but no words can hide the brittle brutal reality that coaches and athletic directors get fired if they do not win. Winning brings revenue and prestige and can temporarily satisfy insatiable boosters. As I learned, it does not matter how many students you graduate; it almost does not matter how many minor or line skirting violations you have, unless you bring horrible scandal to the university. The reality and incentives for coaches and athletic directors are clear—Win

Commentators scream and bemoan the cheating and legal shading and excessive rules of the NCAA. But this constellation is all connected. Coaches and athletic director must win. They know that and despite the rhetoric, little else matters. The frantic drive to win and win fast and continue winning, drives the obsession with recruiting. It drives the obsession with keeping student athletes happy once they arrive. It drives the fixation on high salaries to get the best coaching talent, but also the knowledge of the coach that they can be fired in an instant even for a winning season.  These drives are fed by possessive, obsessive and over-involved boosters who pay for the bloated salaries and new facilities as well as sponsor the skirting of the rules outside of the boundaries of the program. The inordinate power of the boosters also accounts for how little time coaches now have to build programs and how little leeway they have to have a bad season or two.  Even as astoundingly successful coach as Chip Kelly at Oregon finds himself on the outs with boosters because he does not kowtow to their whims.

This win or nothing environment and the reality that a coach or AD can go from hero to pariah in three months shapes the environment that molds coaches and athletic directors.

We all know how tightly strung modern college coaches are. These are not laid back guys; they are driven competitors and hate to lose as much as they love to win.  We see them go off like volcanoes on the sideline sometimes against their own players or assistants. At practices they can sometimes seem almost maniacal in their intensity and demands on 19 year olds. Most morph into unbelievable control freaks focusing upon micro-managing details, recruiting and games. We can watch the living archetype with Nick Saban at Alabama and see the costs of it with what happened with Urban Meyer when he had to take a sabbatical from the game to protect his health and sanity.

We need to remember that coaches are human beings, and most of them stay in college because they love working with student athletes and helping athletes grow as people as well as players. They enter coaching as driven, smart and passionate human beings. But the ultra competitive and hair trigger firing environment shapes them in ways most of them would not choose to grow. Professional sports goes through coaches at a relentless rate; the day after the end of the 2012 NFL season 7 head coaches and 5 general managers were fired. But NFL teams make no pretense to educate, care for and help young men grow. Sadly most college coaches really do care about helping their student athletes grow as humans as well as players, but they also know they are not rewarded for the quality of humanity they instill in their students.

We can bemoan a lot of this, and it has always been with us. Go back forty or fifty years and the same problems existed, the same obsessions and the same corruptions. There was less money and less TV exposure, but college sports, like most things in life, never had a time of innocence.

The point I want to make here is that to a considerable extent the behavior of coaches and athletic directors is shaped by the precarious demands of their jobs and the signals sent to them about winning as the absolute priority. Even worse all the coaches see that moral sluggards like Bobby Petrino gets hired by whomever it was that hired him. 

Despite the craziness most coaches still coach. In most college sports they receive decent pay and graduate students and love their job, their sports and their student athletes. Even at the crazed elite levels of the revenue sports you still can see this shine through in quiet moments or early time before practice or team meetings. But the players are not stupid, they are 19-22 years old, but they know their coaches are on the firing line and they feel their own responsibility when a coach gets fired.

I want to make clear that the problem here ultimately lies with the Presidents and the boosters whom they serve. Every coach who has been fired knows what it is like to be a hero one day and a nonperson the next, wiped out of the history and marketing of the university as thoroughly as Orwell would wipe someone out in 1984.

The good Presidents know they are complicit and feel trapped, riding a tiger of revenue and passion they cannot ultimately control. Most Presidents have far more important and deeper issues to attend to than college athletics, but it takes an inordinate amount of their time and accounts for most of the press their universities receive. Few like or enjoy this, yet they continue to clamor to join Division 1A athletics and football even knowing the costs and losses.

I believe this anger and fear over being trapped accounts for much of the energy driving the Presidents for modern reform. They may never get the TV money monster under control, but they know they have to try. The changes in high school requirements, progress towards degree, the penalties of APR and the new attempts to deny access of NCAA championships tied to graduation rates all create cumulative vectors to redirect some of the coaches’ energy towards education and graduation of students. It also motivates athletic directors to invest more money in academic and student support.

But here again, even as they struggle to inflect academics back into the equations and change the incentive structure for coaches, we know that some president somewhere will reliably hire a moral failure like Bobby Petrino to coach again or that John Caliperi with two vacated championships will be hired again.

At this time of pressure and absurdity, the coaches face pressures and firing windows that exist in no other industry. Yet they stay in. The vast majority live almost nomadic lives moving from team to team when staffs are fired or they have a chance to move up. But the vast majority still care about the student athletes. They still struggle to teach about life along with sport; about learning along with winning.

These leaders live in a toxic system sustained by world class educators. Some make huge salaries, most make good salaries with very unstable and nomadic lives.  They coach from passion and joy in their sport and loyalty to their students. The incentives of the elite level and their putative academic leaders often erode this, but they carry on. I salute them.

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