Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Watching Coaches Coming and Going

I watched Steve Sarkesian leave the University of Washington and Mack Brown resign from Texas and marveled at how many different ways the life of a college coach can be nasty brutish and often short. Late autumn so many college and professional football coaches lose their jobs that the media makes an industry of it. Whole  web sites are devoted to “hot seat” coaches. People can get Vegas odds on who will be fired and when. Most coaches are fired outright after one or several bad seasons. Many are fired after three season for not winning enough even with winning records. On December 30 the NFL fired five coaches, one after one year. Normally this would be absurd but it was a really bad decision and better to act fast.

Welcome to holiday time in the NFL. Sarkesian and Brown are outliers in this world of college coaching carnage, but their stories tell us a lot about the world of modern coaching.

Steve Sarkesian fled Washington for his hometown and the much higher profile job of football coach at USC. One of his best friends Lane Kiffin had been summarily fired from that job two months earlier. Despite swirling rumors, USC AD Pat Hayden had targeted Sarkesian early and bided his time. Sarkesian represents an outlier as one of the very few elite coaches who get hired from one good school to another; most move from coordinator at a good school to head or work their way up through mid majors to top schools. Sarkesian himself had jumped from offensive coordinator at USC to Washington.

He left under a cloud. He lied about being interviewed; no one really believed he would leave and he professed undying love for Washington until the day he left. But beneath it all he grown tired of being hectored about whether he would ever win more than seven games in a season, as he put it “I’m kind of sick of the question.” He chafed at the academic and recruiting limits of Washington. He took the USC job suddenly. He gathered the team he had recruited around him one last time and in ten short minutes said good-bye to “stone cold silence.” He walked away and was whisked to Los Angeles to be introduced as USC coach with his parents beaming in the front row.

To be honest a lot of us are not sure we are ready to leave until someone approaches us. A coach or professional might be flourishing but every job has its edges. The sudden interest, the satisfaction of being wooed and in Sarkesian's case the lure of going home can catch you off guard. People can sincerely believe they plan to say at their job and the process of being wooed can change their minds. I think we owe them the benefit of the doubt most times.

Washington players felt betrayed hurt and lost. Sarkesian had a magnetic personality. He had trained professional players and many had come to be with him; not be at UW. More than a few were angry. The seniors, however, understood. As one said, “It’s a business and he has to make a living.” Washington boosters were falling out of love with Sarkesian and had grown impatient and mean spirited about the three 7-5 seasons. They publically grumbled and wondered if he was merely a “good” not a “great” coach.

All boosters are the same, however, they love you till they hate you. They woo you, pay you and kiss you off without a thought. Boosters are always looking for someone new to fall in love with and save them from the depression that afflicts them when their teams lose. Sarkesian was finally seeing that.

I like and respect Steve Sarkesian. He rebuilt a ruined Washington program from the charred ruins of an 0-12 season. He did it with a fair degree of class and a pretty solid commitment to academics. He showed up in classrooms where student athletes were taking classes. He hounded students to perform in the classroom and worked closely with the academic support services. He recruited carefully and the vast majority of his recruits came in prepared or at least motivated to succeed in the classroom. He graduated his students. He was a great and tireless face for the program and helped lead the charge to rebuilt Husky Stadium for 240 million dollars and created a deep talent pool for the team.  We all “barked for Sark.”

His teams played with passion but not much discipline, much like his mentor’s Pete Carroll’s USC and Seahawk teams, leading the country in stupid penalties. He rolled the dice and some of us loved it and others hated it. He had a riverboat gambler in him that lost some games and won some games. But it all played out in 7-5 seasons. To many the team seem to have plateaued and could not solve its discipline issues. The boosters forget the games they won and should have lost and never forgive the games his gambles lost.

Sarkesian went home—I don’t blame him. He grew up a couple LA miles from USC. Attended at a baseball scholarship. Coached there nine years. His parents attended his press conference. The Washington folks feel betrayed and angry. A few, however, are relieved believing that Sarkesian was growing too enamored of himself and perhaps doomed to perpetual 7-5 records. The USC boosters laid out a lukewarm welcome for Sarkesian. He is stepping into a more brutal TV and booster scrutiny market. Lots of USC fans never liked his play calling under Carroll and wanted a pro coach.

Sark’s move reminds me of all those Catholic coaches who have an exception in their buyout contracts for Notre Dame. When Brian Kelly betrayed, sorry, left Cincinnati after four glorious and fun filled years right before a bowl game; he left for his dream job even though his players felt betrayed and hurt. Ditto for Sarkesian. Coaches are human, except for Bill Belichick, and many long to go home.

More than a few coaches wonder out load if they have a certain “shelf” life after which it all goes sour, even if they win perpetually. Even winning coaches face that end of the line feeling. Sarkesian represented the rare side of a coach moving on and up for money and fame.

Most modern coaches live short and brutal lives as head coaches. As one columnist put it in the SEC a coach is either “on the hot seat or receiving a contract extension.” 

The end of Mack Brown’s illustrious career at Texas reveals the other side in all its sordid craziness. Brown had rebuilt Texas into a national contender. He had brought a championship to Texas and gone to 15 bowl games The last four seasons had been a struggle with getting beyond the dreaded 8-win mark that bedeviled Sarkesian. Booster dissatisfaction boiled over.

Being Texas, the rich entitled boosters simply ignored the structure of governance and accountability. An ex-regent and full time booster, Tom Hicks, the same one who ran the Texas Rangers into the ground and gave Alex Rodriquez 25 million dollars per year for life, went rogue and decided Texas should get Nick Saban from Alabama. Saban was not noted for loyalty having abandoned Michigan State, Louisiana State and Miami at various times. But Hicks leaked to the press that Texas was approaching Saban.

It did not matter to Hicks and his allies on the board of regents that Brown had served with dignity and given the university years of high profile and successful service. It did not matter that Saban was pursuing his third national consecutive championship. It did not matter that he was out-running his President. This is Texas and the super rich do what they want.

Hicks and his allies made Brown’s position all but untenable. He outflanked Brown’s ally the UT President and played proxy for UT’s new athletic director. It took two months of unseemly public humiliation of Brown and distractions for Saban, but Hicks and his regent allies got rid of Brown who resigned quietly and became a special assistant to his long time ally the President.

When coaches leave, either fired, resigned or hired away, another effect occurs—the salary extension domino effect occurs. This is one of the major drivers of the continuing escalation of salaries. Every winning coach is a possible target for an open slot. Every move involves higher salaries for coaches and programs desperate to win and gain visibility. So when high profile jobs open, everyone is a possible target.

When Sarkesian left, two top contenders for UW, Gary Pinkel at Missouri and Jim Mora at UCLA got immediate raises and extensions. When Brown resigned, Saban signed an extension at Alabama; Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and Guz Malzahn at Auburn got raises and extensions. Jimbo Fisher at Florida State has a raise and extension sitting on his desk.

These factors illustrate and drive the sky-high salaries. All the teams need wins to get visibility and wins; all teams need good coaches determine the quality of programs. The money, the reputation, the drives lead to these autumn bacchanals of money and movement.

Coaches fall like autumn leaves; mini-industries exist following the falls and make it a game to follow in the media. In the NFL they even call it "black Monday" the day after the last game when everyone gets fired. Most coaches are fired and leave quietly. Sarkesian and Mack provide different views, more outliers, but still with the same results. Boosters, greed, unreal expectations, media demands and even the desire to go home all mix together into the tense, relentless, short lives of college football coaches.

Three nights after Sark left I was walking to a volleyball game and there on the new UW stadium were the words, “Welcome to the Peterson Era.”

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