Coaches Need Better Exit Strategies

In this day and age of the Kiffin's, Petrino's and Saban's of the world, I put together a five-step process to help college coaches understand how to leave a football program on good terms. There are plenty of examples of coaches who have figured this out on their own and still have Facebook friends in more than one city, but so many get it wrong and as a result they burn bridges forever.

Step One: Accomplish Something First


Beat your archrival for the first time in a few years; Win a bowl game; Turn a bottom dweller into a winning program; or ideally all of the above. Sorry, Mr. Kiffin, taking a Tennessee team that was 5-7 in 2008 to 7-6 with an out of conference schedule that includes Ohio, Western Kentucky, and Memphis does not count as a turnaround. And losing to Florida by only 10 points does not count. And getting blown out in a bowl game, well, that's bad too. And claiming that you have turned that program which is evidenced by the incoming recruiting class does not work either because some of those kids will go elsewhere now. If you are incapable of leaving on a high note, don't pull a Bobby Petrino and just quit early. His departure in the middle of the season is Exhibit A. At least finish what you started…or I guess I should say, at least finish your first season. Even turncoats Dennis Erickson (at Idaho) and Todd Graham (at Rice) managed to do that.


Step Two: Find a Trusted Source


Before reports from reputable media outlets start to surface that College X is interested in your services, get the beat writer who covers your current team on the phone and let him/her know what is going on. This is of course assuming that your athletic director already knows that there is a possibility that you may be moving on. It also assumes that your athletic director has given you permission to talk to another team: see Exhibit B. Chances are that is the case because schools aren't supposed to call you directly – I think that is called tampering. If you have a good relationship with the beat writer, then it is possible that you might be able to start spinning your potential departure in a positive way. If ESPN gets the story before your local paper, that's usually not a good thing. I give you LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke's recent piece on Pete Carroll as Exhibit C.


Step Three: Be Honest


I know it sounds simple but even brilliant coaches like Nick Saban manage to screw this up. I give the Saban from Miami to Alabama saga as Exhibit D. In a game that rewards deception on the field, playing that game off the field is rarely a good idea. Lying will almost always come back to bite you. Sure Mr. Saban seems to be doing alright, but I seriously doubt that NFL owners will forget what he did and what he said in South Florida. Sure, Saban may never want to go back to the NFL, but if he gets the Carroll itch, I'd immediately be skeptical about hiring him. Time heals a lot of wounds, but lying is a tougher pill to swallow. I'm sure Cincinnati players can relate – Exhibit E. Instead of saying where you are not going, just say, "I am happy to be the coach of Team A; however, if someone calls because they are interested in me, I'll listen. Who wouldn't?"


Step Four: Tell Your Team First


If you decide to take another job, make sure your next employer and your trusted beat writer agrees to keep their mouths shut until you tell your current team. They may not be happy about your decision, but they will respect you a heck of a lot more if they find out from you and not Chris Mortensen. The timing of this could be a little tricky because you will want to have a signed contract in hand before you tell your school that you are leaving, so it's important to have a plan in place, unlike Mr. Kelly. For example, if you know that you are going to sign the contract at 5 p.m., make sure you schedule a team meeting at 5:01 p.m. Sure word will get out that there is a meeting, which will lead to wild speculation, but as long as those players hear the news from you first, your exit will be smoother. Once the team knows, the floodgates will open. Everybody will want to talk to your old players to get their reactions. And if you follow these steps, you should like what they say about your departure. If you don't, please see what could happen: Exhibit F.


Step Five: Praise Your Old School


Finally, at the press conference to announce your hiring at School X, before you say how happy you are to be there, remember the folks you just left. If you can't wiggle it into your first sentence, be sure it is somewhere in your opening statement. After all, that school hired you first and if wasn't for their wise decision, you wouldn't be where you are standing now. You may want to throw your former fans a bone as well. If nothing else it will tell your new fans that you care about them.


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