College Coaches Have Right To Move … Just Not Before Bowl Season

Chip KellyAmong the “rewards” of success in the world of college football are the rumors that surround coaches who lead winning teams. If a coach is at a mid-level school (read: not SEC), he’s assumed to aspire towards moving up the college football food chain.

It’s a phenomenon that seems to have largely avoided the Pacific Northwest. If you can ignore the Chip-Kelly-to-[insert name of NFL team here] rumors, the coaching situation in this corner of the Pac-12 appears to be relatively stable. (I say that while recognizing that “stable” and “Mike Leach” are seldom used in the same sentence.) That’s hardly the case in other parts of the country.

We live in a world where Gene Chizik can lead Auburn to a national championship in 2010 and be fired for coaching a losing team two years later. In this “What have you done for me lately?” environment, you really can’t blame coaches for looking out for themselves. They’re disposable commodities … but is it unreasonable to expect them to wait until after the bowl season?

One of my pet peeves is college football’s annual coaching carousel. It’s the time of year between the end of the regular season and the first obscure bowl game. Coaches begin leaving schools whose seasons aren’t even finished in order to move up the ladder to a better/more prestigious/higher profile job. It’s as predictable as watching the swallows return to Capistrano. It’s also WAY more entertaining … unless you’re a student at or an alumnus of one of the schools being abandoned.

One domino falls and almost immediately sets others in motion as coaches chase opportunity, fame, and fortune.

What I don’t understand is why the musical chairs routine needs to play out prior to bowl season. How many teams will we see playing bowl games this year with interim coaches pacing the sideline? The process has played out so many times over the years that it’s ridiculously predictable. Call it “Todd Graham Syndrome”:

1.   Rumors emerge in the media about Coach A leaving University B to fill the head coaching vacancy at University C.

2.   Coach A initially denies the rumors swirling around him: “We have a bowl game to prepare for, and that’s where my focus is.”

3.   Three days later, Coach A is introduced as the new head coach at University C. During his introductory press conference, Coach A will gush that “This is the culmination of a life-long dream, and being the coach of University C is the best job in the land. I will make you proud and bring you boatloads of national championships.”

4.   The Athletic Director, furious at being betrayed by his feckless football coach, decrees that Coach A will not be allowed to coach University B.

5.   The Athletic Director appoints an interim coach to lead the Fighting Hairballs in the upcoming Vagisil Embarrassing Personal Hygiene Bowl.

6.   The interim coach may or may not have a realistic shot at having the “interim” removed from his title, but he’ll say all the right things and act as if he’s the man for the job. University B’s players will rally around the interim coach, acting as if Coach A is a non-entity and a traitor for jumping ship before their work is done.

7.   The Fighting Hairballs will play in the Vagisil Embarrassing Personal Hygiene Bowl Bowl, where they’ll either

a.   Play with a chip on their shoulder, or

b.   Play as if they’d rather be anywhere else but playing a third-tier bowl game in Cow Flop, Alberta in the middle of December.

8.   Fans of the Fighting Hairballs will lament the lack of loyalty shown by Coach A. In doing so, they’ll completely (and hypocritically) ignore the fact that if their team was 1-11, they’d be burning Coach A in effigy and demanding his head on a pike.

9.   Pundits will bemoan the pointlessness and unfairness of college football’s “silly season.” They’d wonder why coaches and universities couldn’t wait until after the end of bowl season to put the coaching carousel into motion.

And so it goes …

I’m not sure whom to hold responsible for not postponing the “silly season” until AFTER the bowl games are played. You can’t blame coaches, who know that no matter where they go, they’ll be celebrated as the Messiah when they’re introduced and vilified as incompetent if they don’t deliver wins and championships.

If Gene Chizik can be fired two years after winning a national championship, it’s tough to deny that loyalty is a one-way street. Win and you’re a golden god; lose and you’re a dog’s breakfast. It’s reminiscent of a line from an old Eagles song:

We’ll never forget you ‘til somebody new comes along

Coaches are but one link in the chain of exploitation that is big time college football. The FBS is as much about loyalty, education, and student-athletes as I am Slovakian royalty. We all know that it’s about one thing: money. The NCAA, BCS, and their member schools make bank off bowl season. It’s a system as venal and corrupt as it is exploitative. The indentured servants student-athletes, the ones who actually play the games, labor under rules that prevent them from being paid. Surely, the argument goes, a college education is payment enough?

Right … and how would you feel if your employer felt that being granted use of the employee cafeteria was payment enough?

The argument might hold water if the “student” part of “student-athlete” held any meaning. FBS players bring millions of dollars to their schools in ticket sales, television contracts, and merchandising. They receive none of this money, yet they’re expected to live in near-poverty as those around them line their pockets. It’s a system that’s hypocritical at best and corrupt at worst.

The FBS/BCS is a system in which winning coaches are treated (and remunerated) as kings, while their players are left to exist on table scraps. Yes, if a player is smart, he’ll take advantage of his scholarship to secure an education that will propel him to a successful future. Too often, winning programs recruit fabulously talented players who may or not be scholars. There’s little doubt about which part of “student-athlete” is primary.

Given the hypocrisy and corruption rife in the current system, I’m going to stage a personal (and undoubtedly symbolic and futile) protest. I’ll probably skip watching the BCS Championship Game in favor of Saturday’s Division III Championship between Mount Union and St. Thomas. [Full disclosure: St. Thomas is a mile down St. Paul’s Summit Avenue from my alma mater (Macalester College)…and they regularly destroyed us. I’ll confess to there being a very personal grudge in play.]

There are no scholarships, multi-billion dollar television contracts, or marketing tie-ins in Division III football. What you’ll see are college kids playing football for the love of the game. Few (probably none) of the players will ever see the inside of an NFL roster, but they’re the very definition of “student-athlete”.

Division III coaches have no post-season job carousel to distract them. They can actually teach their players about pride and loyalty while modeling the same behavior. Of course, no Division III coach is making SEC money.

This piece would be incomplete without recognizing and honoring the career of Division III legend John Gagliardi, a coach as loyal and unorthodox as he was successful. The head coach at St. John’s University (another school that regularly decimated my alma mater) in Collegeville, MN, Gagliardi led the Johnnies from 1953 through the conclusion of this season. His teams won four national titles (two NAIA and two NCAA Division III), and he compiled a 465-132-10 record during his tenure. (His total career record was 489-138-11.)

Gagliardi is revered for what Joe Paterno should have been remembered for: being a role model who turned boys into men. It almost goes without saying that college football won’t see his like again.

THAT’S is what college football should be about.

Jack Cluth is on Twitter. Follow him at @yuppieskum

About Arran Gimba