Restlessness is driving college football’s coaching carousel

Restlessness is driving college football’s coaching carousel

In the last 26 months, coaches have walked away from Alabama, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Oregon, Washington and now Michigan.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 26, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 26, 2024, 6:00am CST

A spirit of restlessness swirled around college football coaches two years ago.

Lincoln Riley left OU for Southern Cal. Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for Louisiana State. Mario Cristobal left Oregon for Miami.

Rarely did a coach leave a top-shelf job for another, or in Miami’s case, a step down. Then it happened three times in seven days.

All had their reasons. Riley’s relationship with OU administration had started to fracture, and his talent was becoming progressively thinner. Kelly sought the recruiting advantages of the Southeastern Conference. Cristobal wanted to go home.

All took major risks. Riley was cherished in Norman and had a lot more runway than he has found in Los Angeles. Kelly gave up security for a place that fires even ultra-successful coaches. Cristobal gave up a rising-power job for a declining-fast job that hasn’t been nationally relevant for most of the last 20 years.

Those decisions were not made in a vacuum.

And neither was this wild month of January 2024.

On Jan. 8, Michigan beat Washington for the national championship. Two days later, Nick Saban retired at Alabama, which had lost to Michigan in the national semifinals. Two days after that, Bama hired away Washington coach Kalen DeBoer.

And now Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is the Los Angeles Chargers’ Jim Harbaugh.

Three of the four national semifinal coaches have moved on, because those decisions weren’t made in a vacuum, either.

College football has changed, as everyone knows. The rampant transfer portal. Paying players through name, image, likeness. Massive conference realignment. An expanded playoff, three times bigger than it was last season and six times bigger than it was a mere dozen years ago.

The sport is changing, and it’s changing fast. Few places are immune from the upheaval. If UCLA is in the Big Ten, and the Big 12 stretches from Phoenix to Orlando, and both the Sooners and Cowboys will have seventh-year quarterbacks on their roster, with four and three college stops, respectively, is it any wonder that the coaching carousel has soared off its base, too?

NIL has zoomed to the top of coaches’ headache list.

“When you see some of the restlessness, when you see some of the changes, sometimes it’s not that they don’t love the university or the fan base or their players, it’s because they recognize already that maybe they have an internal problem with a booster that they need to get away from,” said Oklahoman Todd Berry, who retires this week as executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.

“Or maybe it’s one of those things where they have a booster organization that’s not being helpful to ‘em to try to recruit players. So I think there’s an awful lot of other things that right now are motivating our coaches to do things that maybe they wouldn’t have done four or five years ago.”

Harbaugh becomes the fifth coach to win a national championship, then leave the program before the next season.

Nebraska’s Tom Osborne (1997) retired. Miami’s Howard Schnellenberger (1983) jumped to the United States Football League. Pittsburgh’s Johnny Majors (1976) took the job at his alma mater, Tennessee. And Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman (1941) reported for military duty during World War II.

Those were different times. Different socially. Different financially. 1997 doesn’t seem that long ago, but Osborne was making less than $400,000 a year at Nebraska, where his Cornhuskers went 60-2 his final four seasons. Texas A&M is paying a $76 million buyout to Jimbo Fisher after firing him in November.

The restlessness among the tradition-rich and money-rich programs also flows to rank-and-file programs. Among the Big 12’s 16 head coaches for 2024, the median tenures belong to Central Florida’s Gus Malzahn and Kansas’ Lance Leopold. Each has been on the job three years.

That mirrors the SEC; only two current SEC coaches go back to before 2020: Kentucky’s Mark Stoops (2013) and Georgia’s Kirby Smart (2016).

Bob Stoops got out ahead of the current chaos, retiring in the summer of 2017. He seems as content as ever and understands when a Saban has had enough.

“I wasn’t tired or worn out when I left,” Stoops said on a Sellout Crowd show we did together. “Nick’s got a ton of energy. I’ve been around him a ton. It’s just all that goes into it in today’s world, especially now in college football.”

The demands on coaches are legit. Truth is, coaches finally are earning those exorbitant paychecks they’ve been getting all these years. Roster maintenance is a 24/7/365 job. Coaches attend as many NIL meetings as recruiting meetings.

“For the longest time, you could take two, three weeks off in the summer,” Stoops said. “Once, there was a dead period in recruiting where you couldn’t go out and recruit or contact players.

“Today’s world — and I’m not saying this is why he (Saban) did it, but this is me looking at it that I could see why — with all the year-long process of what it takes for recruiting. You know, recruiting your own team, recruiting new players, what transfers do you pick up, who’s going to get what money as we divvy up all the NIL money? All of that together.”

That has created the restlessness.  In the last 26 months, coaches have left, of their own volition, some of the most prized jobs in the sport. Alabama. Oklahoma. Michigan. Oregon. Notre Dame. Washington. Only one of them via retirement.

Those are not jobs you leave. Those are jobs to which you aspire.

And in this transfer-portal age, coaching departures rattle even a mighty fortress like Alabama.

“I’ve said this for two years,” Mike Gundy said the other day. “Athletic directors have the most difficult job as anybody now, or president, involved in making coaching changes. If your coach leaves, and you try to get another one, it’s not now the adjustment of the coach and the staff.

“If your coach leaves, you’re going to get bashed in the portal.”

Good news on the coaching front. The chaos that ensues with coaching changes might cause some schools to be less quick to fire a guy since a head-coaching change automatically creates a 30-day transfer portal window for players at that school.

“Now, you have to make a business decision,” Gundy said. “‘Can we recover in the portal?’ At an Alabama, I’m going to say yes. But when you talk about schools that are 12th in the country, 14th country, the 40th or 45th school, if something like that happens to them, now it’s not just a coaching change, it’s the 30-day window in the portal. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Now Saban has joined Stoops in retirement. Urban Meyer hasn’t jumped back into college football since being fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars 25 months ago.

Stoops suggested that the coaches are making enough money now that they can be more easily tempted to retire. “If you’re making $8, 9, 10 million a year, you only need to go so many years to be able to retire,” Stoops said. “So, I think that also will help some guys, ‘You know what? I’m going to go enjoy my life a little bit now. I’ve done my deal.’ I think today’s world, the demands as well as the money they’re making will allow them to step out, you know, at younger ages.”

However, history tells us the opposite, that with the salary explosion for both coaches and athletes, they are more likely to avoid retirement, because of the money, rather than seek it.

Most coaches keep coaching because they love it and because it’s all they know and, yes, because of the money. If something’s not going right, they are more likely to look for a greener gridiron.

And the same kind of pressure exists on schools. Universities for a few decades have been less patient with coaches who don’t produce.

It’s an age-old problem with a new-age twist. Schools forever have lost coaches they want to keep and fired coaches because they want to start anew. But now, coaching changes come with serious ramifications, and coaches seem more likely to bolt.

Berry blames the lack of NCAA enforcement on tampering rules and recruiting rules.

“I think if we look back through collegiate athletics, this has happened several times, to where we basically let the boosters and agents, in this case, but boosters in particular become in charge of athletics,” Berry said. “And I think what our coaches are seeing right now, quite honestly, the university president doesn’t matter as much now. The athletic director doesn’t matter as much now.

“What matters is that group of boosters, because they’re the ones that are basically going to buy these players through these collectives.”

Of course, coaches have had a major hand in creating the chaos they so abhor. Coaches have been chasing big-money contracts, usually leaving teams before the season even ends, so it’s hard to blame athletes for doing the same thing.

Heck, it’s not even clear that the players have become more nomadic than have coaches, since the latter are leaving the Oklahomas and Oregons, the Notre Dames and Michigans, as a spirit of restlessness pervades the sport.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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