Why do coaches continue taking these jobs and render media opinions irrelevant and incorrect?
Why take a job if you know that the odds are greater for being fired than for staying?
Why leave a stable program to put yourself and your family under enough pressure to shatter a diamond?
To understand, one must understand what drives coaches.
Dreaming the Impossible Dream…
It might be a bitter pill for some to swallow, but college football is an oligarchy – not a democracy. There is a pecking order in this sport. USC, OSU, Texas, Notre Dame, Oklahoma Michigan, Alabama, etc. have had and always will have an inherent advantage over Kentucky, Iowa State, Missouri, Purdue, South Carolina, West Virginia, etc. This is not intended as a backhanded slam at any university, it is just a fact of life.
For all the talk of parity in recent years, it might surprise folks to realize just how rare it is to win a title outside of the sport's ruling families. Examine the last 25 years, and this becomes even more obvious. With two major polls, there is a possibility of 50 teams being named national champions, but the following teams account for 39 of them:
- Notre Dame
- Notre Dame
What that means is that despite the scholarship reductions, more television coverage, better facilities at a number of universities, etc. – there is still a ruling class.
Even more telling is an examination of the title winners since 1940. First, take the initial list from above and add Texas (3), Minnesota (2), Army (2), and Michigan State (2). Then, consider that with the UPI and AP polls, there are two possible winners each year (vastly multiplying the possibilities for other teams to claim a national championship) for a total of 116 possible winners since the eve of WWII. Third, recognize that the number of teams playing D-IA football increases almost yearly. What are the final figures? Those 16 teams account for 96 of the 116 possible national champions named. That is a stunning figure. They claimed 83% of the national titles in the last 63 years while comprising less than 15% of the teams in D-IA football today.
However, while these numbers may come as a surprise to the average fan, coaches know the figures and the realities of the college football world. Coaches understand that certain programs have inherent advantages in the polls and media. Coaches comprehend that statistically their odds of winning a national title multiply exponentially if they can just climb the mountain to land a coaching job at one of these leviathans. If you go 10-1 at Syracuse, Iowa, Arkansas, etc. it is considered a great year and the team will get consideration for a top 10 slot in the polls. If you manage a 10-1 mark at USC, Notre Dame, Texas, or Ohio State then you are virtually guaranteed a top 5 ranking, and even strong consideration for awarding your program a berth in the national championship game.
In short, if you want a national title – then you go to a program that can get you one. Otherwise, you will be stuck on the outside looking in for the bulk (and maybe entirety) of your career…Therefore, since most collegiate coaches dream of winning a national title at a powerful program from the very moment they dedicate their lives in the pursuit of victories on the gridiron, it should come as no shock when they make a series of jumps from lesser schools to ones with greater resources. It is not about being a mercenary; this is about accomplishing a goal they set when they were just cutting their teeth in their profession. When TCU's head coach is contacted by Alabama – the real surprise would be if he did not leap at the opportunity. It only makes logical sense (no matter how the last coach exited) that if Ohio State were to pursue a coach at a place like Arizona State, the Buckeyes would land their man.
"I Have Never Been Anything But a Winner" - Paul "Bear" Bryant…
Coaches live to win. It is their addiction. Their allotment of their time indicates that they desire wins more than they want sleep, a social life, friends, and even a vacation. They are obsessed with the thrill of victory. Period. Experiencing the agony of defeat is as distasteful to them as eating bubble gum off of the bottom of a shoe. Put into the perspective of this article - the bigger the status of the program, the better their odds of winning. Ohio State, Alabama, USC, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, and Michigan have merely to make a phone call and the coach at Stanford is all ears.
Why are these programs so attractive? Why not just stay at somewhere like Mississippi or Washington State? Why not build a program like Barry Alvarez or Bill Snyder? Why not just go for stability and a possible shot at a title if everything falls the right way?
For starters, if coaches wanted stability, then they could have stayed at the high school or in the lower divisions of college football. There is less pressure, lower expectations, and a greater probability that they can stick around a long, long time. Again (and this point cannot be overemphasized here), they want to WIN. They want to win every game, and they want to win by a whole lot of points. Losing is not why they play the game and certainly not why they just spent 80+ hours preparing during the week leading up to the contest and sleep on cots in their offices.
Second, building a program from the bottom up takes a tremendous commitment on the part of both the coaches and alumni. Every recruit is a struggle, each coach you keep for longer than a couple of years is a victory, every dollar spent in improving facilities is like winning the lottery… Then, on top of all the hard work, if one party or the other loses the vision being instilled it can all go to waste. The net result is that the coach may have spent a decade of their lives and the most fruitful portion of their career working to create a dynasty only to be summarily canned when some fat cat donor or new athletic director decides that they are not winning quickly enough. The coach never reached his goal but merely succeeded in raising expectations that are used to hang him (see Welsh at Virginia for an excellent example).
Third (and most important), the top echelon programs have a commitment to winning. It is not just luck or some quirky twist of fate that these programs have numerous national titles. It is even that they have had one or two good coaches in most cases. These programs have their storied history because they have always demanded that they win. They have that legacy because they think second place is for losers, and they do not intend to ever be known as losers. As such, the university is willing to bend its financial and personnel might behind the needs of the athletic department. They are prepared to make the same level of commitment as the coach in trying to accomplish the same goal. The coach at a place like this knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he needs something to win, he will have it on his desk with a bow on top yesterday. If the alumni think that it will help their team - and it is legal, they will literally line up just to donate money and thank the coach for the opportunity to help. The coach does not have to beg for improvements (at least he should not have to) because the school believes that his mission is worthwhile and a valuable part of their campus. Instead, he can use his $200,000,000+ stadium, his $20,000,000 practice facility, his trophy room that is bursting at the seams, the team's weekly television appearances, the success of former players in the NFL and local businesses, etc. to sell prospective recruits and their parents. Administrators will not merely pay lip service to helping he and his assistants and players but will bust their collective rump to accommodate their desires because those administrators' job security may actually rest with having a winning football program. In short, he will be given every opportunity to succeed, and that is all a coach could ever want or expect.
Every Male Worth His Salt Has an Ego…
Understand that coaches – like most every male of the human species – have egos. Not only that, their sport and the cult-like following it engenders breeds even larger egos. Based on these facts, why in the world would the typical coach not be attracted to taking over a top program? Why not go to a place where when you bark a command, people fall all over themselves trying to do what you asked? Why not go somewhere when you win, they name buildings and streets after you? Why would you not go to a place where if you claim enough championships, fathers tell their sons and grandsons about you for generations? What reason is there to deny yourself a job where statues are cast in your honor, and books are written about even the smallest details in your life clear down to the time you beat up the grade school bully for trying to take your lunch money?
Examples of this phenomenon are all too easy to find.
Knute Rockne died in a plane crash in the spring of 1931, and yet nearly every serious college football fan knows who he is. Think about that for a moment. Rockne was dead and buried before over 88% of the population in this nation was even born, but more people know who he was than the names of the current Prime Minister of Canada. Bear died in 1983 and Woody in 1987, but there are residents of Alabama and Ohio who are still apparently unaware because they still speak of them in the present tense… Bud Wilkinson, Bob Devaney, Fielding Yost, Dana Bible, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Paul Brown, and a host of others will exist in the cultural memory of the nation long after senators, governors, and sometimes even United States presidents have been forgotten.
Moving beyond the attractiveness of fame, what about the propensity of coaches (driven in part by the ego) to believe that where others failed, they will succeed? So what if the last coach at Texas did not win? Who cares if Auburn and Bowden ended their relationship in a messy manner? It is no big deal to most coaches that Earle Bruce and John Cooper both found their heads on the chopping block.
Such "trivial" matters do not intimidate these men because failure is not an option for them. They have never failed in the past and never expect to fail in the future. Vince Lombardi is said to have informed his first Green Bay Packers squad (which had finished as the worst team in the NFL at 1-10-1 in 1958) that he had never been a loser, and they were not about to make him one. He was serious. In 1959, he took his team to a 7-5 mark and a season later had them in the championship game. The idea that these high profile coaches will not win is not merely foreign to them; it is otherworldly! Even those coaches who have been fired still seem to believe at the core of their being that not only were they wrongly ousted, but that with a few more breaks here and there they could have won enough to still be at their former programs. These coaches did not climb to the top of their professions by listening to critics, fear-mongers, and naysayers. They climbed to the top by winning, and they believe that their methods will work most anywhere. For them, taking a job at Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, USC, or anywhere else is not viewed negatively simply because the last coach was fired. Rather, they believe on some levels that they will succeed where the previous coach failed.
Is this rational?
Maybe. Maybe not. However, we are talking motivation – not logic. Coaches are motivated by the inward belief (rational or not) that they can and will win. If they doubted that fact, then they would go into another profession. Since this is the case, reporters should probably quit wasting their ink on dire warnings; coaches not only ignore such messages, they scoff at them.
Quick question, how in the world do coaches get their jobs?
Have you ever thought about it?
Collegiate coaching is not like booming technology fields, health care employment, factories, government jobs, etc. This is not a growth industry. New universities do not suddenly pop up, move into the community, and put out want ads in the Circleville Herald for a coaching staff. This is not a field where more workers are hired based upon projected shortages of manpower in a growing economy. This is not even a job market that stays healthy because of a limited number of slots in their graduate schools; there are more men who desire to be college coaches than you can shake a stick at.
In the end, there are only a few ways positions on coaching staffs open. First, the former coach took another job. This could mean a promotion/demotion at the same school or one clear across the country, or it could mean that he is tired of the coaching rigors and has opted to enter an entirely different field of employment. Second, a coach retired. Most of the time the coach who is leaving is sent off with much love and fanfare, and someone is brought in to replace them. Third, a coach has died. Though this is very rare both Rockne and Bo Rein come to mind as examples. After an appropriate period of mourning, the school looks for someone to replace them. Fourth, the previous coach (along with his entire staff if he was a head coach) was either forced to resign or was unceremoniously canned. This can happen for a number of reasons such as for not winning enough games, running an outlaw program, a university/NCAA scandal, not graduating enough players, etc., but the result is the same. A new coaching staff is brought in to replace the departing employees in short order.
Since the most frequent reason a coaching job opens seems to be that of the last coach getting fired, the odds are astronomically high that at some point in nearly every head coach's career, they have taken a job where the previous staff was axed or "resigned." In fact, it would be a safe wager to bet that most of the time, coaches who have successfully climbed the proverbial ladder have accepted more than one job where the last man to hold their position was fired.
Therefore, they have heard detractors predicting that the "new man" would meet the same fate. Then they proceeded to open up an entire barrel of eggs and smear it on the faces of those who doubted them. Not only did they win in their new job, they won a lot. They won so much that it drew attention to what they were doing at Vermont State Technical U. This in turn resulted in a promotion to a higher peg on the coaching ladder and a new place where they once again proved the critics wrong. Over and over this process has repeated itself in their lives until it becomes a pattern as reliable as the ocean tides. In some respects, these men have made a living out of succeeding where they were supposed to fail. Indeed, others had likely already failed before them. Yet the new coach went into the same school, with the same facilities, and often used the previous coach's players to soar where they had bombed.
As a direct result of their past experiences, most head coaches believe that no matter what the situation, no matter how bad it is portrayed as being – they can and will win. No amount of friendly (and even unfriendly) advice not to take a job will sway them from this core belief. Put another way? If threatening phone calls to Woody Hayes' house by powerful alumni and people chopping down trees in John Cooper's front yard do not scare them away or drive them out of town, how in the world do journalists expect their articles to make a dent in these men's psyches?
Tomorrow: The conclusion of "Tempest in a Teapot"
E-mail Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org