A Firing Offense

In today’s high-pressure world of college football coaching, it seems no job is safe unless your team is in contention for the playoffs or a conference championship.

As coaching salaries have escalated into the stratosphere, more and more school presidents and athletic directors have escalated their expectations accordingly. Nowadays, at many Power 5 Conference schools, a 7-5 record is akin to failure. A second-place finish in your division is unacceptable.

Coaches are routinely fired with three or four years remaining on their contracts. A $12 million buyout is no obstacle when “the program” is not meeting expectations. Even schools that profess the importance of academics and claim to keep athletics “in perspective” are rushing to judgment.

How did we get to this point?

Over the last 10 years, an explosion in television rights fees and, in some cases, corporate sponsorship payments has fueled an arms race in football facilities and coaching salaries. Pay for college football coaches has reached levels unimaginable just a decade ago. This year, according to the USA Today survey, 78 head coaches made over $1 million and 39 made at least $3 million. Alabama coach Nick Saban’s compensation this year is $11.3 million.

I’m sorry, but unless you’re also curing cancer, no one should be paid that much for coaching football.

With so much invested—and so much on the line in terms of TV exposure, recruiting, sponsorships, attendance, and donor support—school officials have become very demanding, and very impatient with their coaches.

This year the coaching carousel has been particularly active. Tennessee’s Butch Jones, Florida’s Jim McElwain and UCLA’s Jim Mora were all fired before the season ended. Then Arkansas’s Bret Bielema, Nebraska’s Mike Riley, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Arizona State’s Todd Graham were fired minutes or hours after their final games.

All of these men had several years left on their contracts. Bielema is reportedly owed $5.9 million, Riley $6.6, Sumlin $10.4 and Graham $12.3. Of the earlier group, Jones is apparently owed $8.3 and Mora $12.2.

That’s a lot of money to pay someone to go away.

Two of the dismissed coaches—Mike Riley and Todd Graham—are friends of mine. Riley is one of the finest men I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. He is known throughout the sports world as an excellent coach and an even better person. However, his demise was expected and almost inevitable after his first season at Nebraska, when the Cornhuskers lost four games in the final seconds on an almost unbelievable string of Hail Mary’s, deflected passes, and just plain bad luck. He was also undone by some very poor quarterback play.

Riley’s overall record of 19-19 for three years is a long way from what the folks in Lincoln expect. After all, this is the school that fired Frank Solich after he went 58-19 over six years, was ranked No. 2 in the nation in 1999, played in the national championship game in 2001, and finished his final season at 9-3.

Graham’s firing, while also unsurprising, is much harder to defend. The program was a total mess when Todd took over in 2012. In the four years before his arrival, ASU went 21-28. Off the field, there had been a string of academic and conduct issues. On the field, the Sun Devils led the civilized world in personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

In six years in Tempe, Graham posted a 46-31 record, had two 10-win seasons, and improved his team’s GPA to a previously-unimaginable 3.0. The Devils also went from one of the most penalized teams in the country to one of the least, ranking seventh nationally in fewest penalties per game this year. They finished 7-5 overall and 6-3 in the Pac-12 with wins over Washington, Oregon, Utah, and last week, Arizona.

All this was not good enough for athletic director Ray Anderson, who apparently is looking seriously at Sumlin, fired after six years at Texas A&M with a record similar to Graham’s (51-26), only one 10-win season, and fewer academic and disciplinary accomplishments.

Go figure.

Bruins hire Kelly: UCLA moved quickly to hire Chip Kelly to replace Mora, signing him to a five-year deal worth $23.3 million. The former Oregon coach, who was later fired by both the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers before becoming a studio analyst for ESPN this year, apparently was also pursued by Florida before taking the job in Westwood.

Kelly thrived at Oregon, posting a 46-7 record in four years and leading the Ducks to the BCS Championship game, two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl. He will have everything he needs to succeed at UCLA—geography (a built-in recruiting base in Los Angeles), resources (a new $56 million practice/training facility), a strong tradition, and a commitment from the University.

The question is, after climbing to the top of the mountain, coaching in the NFL, and signing contracts worth $100 million over the past half-dozen years, is Kelly still hungry enough? He also comes in with the stain of a “show cause” penalty from the NCAA for “failure to monitor” some questionable recruiting practices at Oregon.

I’m definitely in the minority, but I think the Bruins should’ve gone in another direction and hired a young, up-and-coming coach who still has something to prove, isn’t damaged goods, and has a smaller bank account.

Tedford Turnaround: One name that should be on the list for major coaching vacancies is former Cal coach Jeff Tedford. In his first year coaching at his alma mater, Fresno State, Tedford took a team that was 1-11 last year and went 9-3, winning the Mountain West Conference’s West Division.

Cal Rising: Justin Wilcox did a terrific job in his first year at Cal. Wilcox inherited a program in turmoil and immediately brought it back to respectability. The Bears finished 5-7, one win from bowl eligibility, including a one-point loss to Arizona and three-point losses to Stanford and UCLA. With most of his key players back, plus receiver Demetris Robertson and running back Tre Watson returning from injury, the future is bright for Wilcox and company.

Stanford to Pac-12 Championship: Stanford played its most complete game of the season, beating No. 9 Notre Dame 38-20 and winning the Pac-12 North Division thanks to Washington’s 41-14 win over Washington State. Quarterback K.J. Costello had a breakout game against the Irish, throwing for four touchdowns. The Stanford defense forced two key turnovers, both leading to scores, and running back Bryce Love had another stellar, courageous effort on a bum ankle.

The Cardinal will meet South Division champ USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game this Friday at Levi’s Stadium. The teams met earlier in the season, with the Trojans winning 42-24. Stanford’s starting quarterback that day was Keller Chryst.

Things could be different this time with Costello in the lineup.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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