Thoughts of the Day: April 13, 2020


Nothing makes athletic directors squirm quite like firing a football coach, unless you’re at Duke, of course, where what the football coach pales in comparison to what they fork out annually for Coach K. Firing a coach means two things: (1) you were wrong about the guy to begin with because you’re the guy who convinced the boosters he was going to win and he didn’t; and (2) you have to smooth things over with those same boosters you convinced to write big checks to hire the guy to come up with wads of cash to pay for the buyouts (assistants get some buyout money too), which then leads to begging for more money to bring in some new guy who, about 90% of the time, will make more money than the last guy. Complicated? You betcha!

Relief from all these stomach-churning decisions and consequences that normally have athletic directors going through a jar of Tums a day in November will come this year in the form of the corona virus. Athletic departments all over the country are already being squeezed by the shutdown of their schools and the slowdown of the economy. And because of those issues, you can almost bet the farm football will be played this fall although it’s probably going to be a 10-game schedule. Fewer games means more lost revenue.

At the heart of the matter is money so something will have to give at most schools not named Texas and Texas A&M (only God and the Longhorns have more money than the Aggies). In Austin and College Station, good economy or bad economy the rich folks – and there are tons of them – will write big checks because in the state of Texas only the Baptists have more influence than whoever is the football coach and it’s a close call at that. For everyone else, there will be a money squeeze. The checks coming in from the Big Ten and SEC Networks, for example, are going to be skinnier because of the shutdown in the spring. Imagine what it’s like in the Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 where the annual checks from TV and bowls can’t begin to compare with their big brothers in the Big Ten and SEC.

The easiest place to save a boatload of cash will be holding onto the football coach for a year or at least until people return to the stadiums and the revenue streams from the networks and television are back to normal. Here’s a good example. When UCLA fired Jim Mora Jr. with a game left in the 2017 season, the cost of doing business was a $12 million buyout. Enter Chip Kelly with a five-year deal worth $23.3 million. Kelly has had two straight losers and unless someone sprinkles some magic woofie dust (I stole that from Lou Holtz) on the UCLA program, bad will go to worse in the fall. If Kelly is fired any time in the first four years (this will be year three) for any reason other than serious NCAA violations, a check for $9 million will have to be written to send him on his merry way. Remember also that UCLA had to stroke a check for more than $4 million to pay off Steve Alford, perhaps the 20th next John Wooden, then spent a boatload to hire Mick Cronin from Cincinnati, who, of course, got more money than the school was paying Alford.

UCLA is by no means broke, but it is in the Pac-12, which paid $31.3 million to each school as part of its revenue-sharing plan. Compare that to the Big Ten which divvied up $759 million to its 14 member schools or the $660 million distributed by the SEC. This tells us that firing Kelly is not an option. UCLA can’t afford it and neither can most of the schools in the Power Five conferences.

It’s even worse in the Group of Five. A typical Group of Five School operates on an athletic budget that is less than the Big Ten or SEC distribute from network, television and bowl money. South Florida’s entire athletic budget for the 2017-18 year was a little more than $45 million, a year in which every SEC school got a $43.7 million check from the conference. Every Big Ten team got a check for a trifle more than $50 million.

The obvious place to save bucks will be by holding on to the football coach and his staff even if the AD knows we may discover Elvis faked his death and moved to Michigan before the present head coach turns the program around. Because of a rather hefty endowment, Vanderbilt really shouldn’t worry about such trivial matters as buyouts for football coaches, but the school tries to operate on a shoestring budget compared to the rest of the SEC. That’s obvious if you’ve ever been to a football game at Vanderbilt Stadium. There are high school stadiums in Texas that are nicer.

Derek Mason is one of the nicest guys in the world and one crackerjack of a defensive coordinator but he’s 27-47 as the head coach and without spring football and an offseason to teach four new quarterbacks the offense or to figure out how to replace Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb, all three of whom will be paid to play football in the fall, Vanderbilt is doomed to another four-win season. The chardonnay and brie for tailgate set at Vandy even realizes that Mason isn’t going to get it done, but they’re not exactly rushing to the interim AD – they may not have a full-timer until the fall – to write big checks for buyout money and to hire a new coach.

Figure Mason’s magic number is going to be three. Three wins and Mason probably keeps his job with the excuse that the cancellation of spring football and offseason programs put him at an even bigger disadvantage than usual. Vanderbilt could dip into the endowment money to fire Mason, upgrade its facilities and hire someone who could actually win (James Franklin did it before Mason; David Cutcliffe at Duke, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern and David Shaw at Stanford all do it with academics that are every bit as demanding at Vandy), but history tells us that won’t happen.

Every time it appears Gus Malzahn’s head is on the chopping block at Auburn, he does something totally silly like beat Alabama and Nick Saban. As much as the alums would love to pink slip Gus, they won’t ever do it in a year in which he beats Nick Saban, which is why he’s coaching in 2020. When you see the number of quality defenders lost to the NFL and the need to replace five starting offensive linemen, this would normally be one of those years that Malzahn would be sweating bullets. Well, as many bullets as you can sweat when you know that if they fire you, you and your fam will have to squeeze by on $27 million buyout money.

Even as fanatical and sometimes down right stupid as the Auburn alums can be when it comes to their football coaches, the combination of an economy that is on hold, a likely shortened schedule, reduced revenues from the SEC and a $27 million buyout means Gus doesn’t have to put a for sale sign in his front yard until at least December of 2021.

One of the great myths is that Will Muschamp’s seat is hotter than a pepper sprout (thanks Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra for that line) at South Carolina. First off, AD Roy Tanner likes him and so do the alumni. Second, the buyout is a $15.58 million unless Will runs afoul of the NCAA, which isn’t going to happen. Some folks say that the reason he’s never won big is because he recruits like a Boy Scout. Third, Tanner has the built-in logic of Muschamp didn’t get to install a brand new offense in the spring under new coordinator Mike Bobo, whose offenses at Georgia when he was Mark Richt’s OC were always very productive. Muschamp isn’t in trouble and the corona virus ensures he won’t be whenever this season is played. 2021? Then he can sweat.

We will see similar logic applied all over the country when the 2020 season comes to a screeching halt. Corona virus economics are going to keep more than just the aforementioned coaches on the job for another year. It’s a whole lot easier to deal with another year with the same old same old from the same old coach than it is to pay millions in buyout money when revenues are taking a hit all over the place.

One last thought. If the college football season is reduced to something like 10 games, in addition to lost revenue for home games there will be millions lost in revenues from CBS, ABC, ESPN, Fox and NBC for television broadcasts. Iowa State has already announced its coaches and athletic staff will be getting reduced paychecks due to the lost revenue. That might be commonplace throughout college sports in the coming months, but you aren’t going to hear too many coaches moan and groan. Do you really think Nick Saban would miss 10% of the $8 million or so that Alabama pays him? Or that Dan Mullen would have Megan hold bake and garage sales to compensate for a 10% cut from the $6.1 million he’s scheduled to make? Coaches coach. Even if their salaries were cut in half they wouldn’t storm out of the building and march down to their local New York Life recruiter to see if there are any openings for a potential certified life underwriter. The coaches would still coach because that’s what they (a) do well and (b) can make the most money doing.

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