College football’s annual post-season coaching-job shuffle has gone nuclear. Openings at so many program giants seems unprecedented, topped by Brian Kelly, the most successful coach in the storied history of Notre Dame, telling the Fighting Irish to drop dead. He took LSU’s offer of 10 years and $95 million.
The episode followed Lincoln Riley telling Oklahoma to drop dead, decamping for USC and $110 million, plus a mansion and a private jet for his family.
If you’re looking for someone to be embarrassed about all this lucre going to guys doing unimportant things, you obviously have just arrived to town unceremoniously on the turnip truck.
Here in backwater Seattle, we are much more modest in our degree of crazy.
The University of Washington, already on the hook to one fired coach for up to $10 million, agreed to pay his successor $16.5 million over five years. Together, their salaries barely cover what Riley must pay in Los Angeles for pool boys, parking valets, stable-minders, courtesans and jugglers that are standard fixtures in Trojans football.
We must look nearly indigent to the rest of college football, thinking that our local NFL farm club expects to compete for conference and national titles by paying entry-level wages.
But that is the state of play in the lawless frontier of big-time college sports. Throughout, the entertainment lollapalooza is free to poach coaches from one another, paying majestic compensation to those perceived to be winners, and trapdooring those who dare have a mediocre season.
Morally outraged? No. As long as the schools are using funds from media-rights fees, private donors and tickets, and stay away from tax money, they are free to be as silly as their hearts desire.
The one part of the spectacle that draws my objection is fronting the enterprise with the word “special.”
Tuesday, UW introduced new coach Kalen DeBoer to local media, accompanied by loud music from a pep band, cheerleaders, snacks and mimosas. Much as was done for his predecessor, the recently fired Jimmy Lake.
Athletics director Jen Cohen termed the event, the decision and the man as “special.” The same was said by her predecessors about Jim Lambright, Rick Neuheisel, Tyrone Willingham, Keith Gilbertson, Steve Sarkisian, Chris Petersen and Lake.
She’s been there for the recent three. I’ve been there each time, as well as for the previous four. And I can safely say the same adjective was used to describe the event, and the men. None were special.
And while a promotion is always special for participants, the fact is that swapping out the football coach at a big-time university these days not special. It’s the same as hiring the new foreman at the factory. After the perfunctory introduction and handshakes (or fist bumps), it’s back to work.
The word usage struck me because DeBoer rolled it out often when describing the whirlwind of the past few days, when he was approached for the promotion from Fresno State of the Mountain West Conference to Washington of the Pac-12 Conference.
He accepted Cohen’s offer, then Monday called a team meeting to give the news directly to his suddenly former players.
“I think our guys last year felt like this is special,” he said of the camaraderie in the program, where he was 3-3 in the covid year of 2020 before a 9-3 mark this season that will earn a bowl bid. “We were building something special. That’s what want to do here.
“When I use the word love, it’s it’s not something I use (readily). Mostly those guys and that program, over the course of the last two years, and what people have been through together with covid, then turning around those hard times into great times, like we had this year . . . that bond is super special.”
Obviously it wasn’t special enough to keep him from Montlake. Clearly no one begrudges DeBoer a bigger, better job. But suggesting that big-time athletic programs, particularly the era of covid, NIL and the transfer portal, are more than transactional relationships is misguided at best and hypocritical at worst after a coach bolts.
Now that NIL provides third-party cash to players, the relationship with coach and school becomes professional, including the players’ opportunity to transfer to another job once without penalty. With every opportunity for a player or coach to move, the poaching program will claim itself to be special. But since every program will claim it, how special can any one be?
The misuse of descriptive language is front and center now because DeBoer and his contemporaries not only must recruit a player once, the best ones must be re-recruited keep themfrom straying into the transfer portal.
“Before (the portal), you built your program from the ground up,” he said. “Now, the culture you have is so important because you have to recruit your own guys, and they have to have that love for your program, and just never even think twice about somewhere else being better for them.
“Guys within your program are the greatest recruiters. It’s what they say on Twitter, as far as supporting each other. More people want to be a part of it, whether it’s current players, recruits, prospects, or your fan base. When they see that they see the excitement growing, being a part of it is what everyone wants.”
DeBoer understands the new system, and its requirement to keep tending to players’ needs. Some attrition is inevitable, because the top three desires for college players are 1) playing time 2) playing time and 3) playing time. They all think they are going to the NFL.
So some players will move strictly for that reason, and best of luck to them. At least that is an honest approach to the transactional aspect of a scholarship. Suggesting that Washington is special, or DeBoer’s atmosphere is special, is highly unlikely to be true.
What is most likely to be distinctively special for any program is the amount of money available via NIL sources to the premier players. The coach who recruits hard and smart to that cold truth is likely to preserve and enhance his job and program.
In that way, he may well be special.