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Quick Firings, Massive Buyouts, and Pressure- What's Up With All The Crazy Spending in CFB?

About a year ago, I wrote an article for our site about how the days of giving college football coaches around five years to turn a program around are over and that “recency bias” was controlling athletic departments across the country. While I still believe that to be true, I think the reasons we’ve seen so many quick firings over the past handful of years are far more complex than just recency bias and are worth exploring further.

Having a nationally relevant and successful football program has always been critical for the success of any athletic department competing in any of the Power 5 conferences. But as we sit here today, I would argue that it’s never been more important. The landscape of college athletics has changed more in the past two years than it did in the preceding twenty. NIL, conference realignment, CFP expansion, and the transfer portal have all surfaced since the beginning of 2021 and have all altered the sport in a major way. Conference media rights deals have skyrocketed to new highs and separation between the “haves” and the “have nots” is growing with every passing day. The key for many athletic departments to emerge out of all the chaos successfully is simple, but not easy. It’s to win football games.

With the pressure to have a nationally relevant program never being higher, who bears the burden of it more than anyone? The head football coach. In contrast to professional sports where fans can cast blame on the owner or GM for not giving the head coach a talented enough roster, college coaches are ultimately responsible for every aspect of their program from on-field results to talent acquisition to player conduct. Because of that, there’s no excuse for a college football coach to say “we just don’t have the guys” or “they are just more talented than us” in a postgame press conference after a loss, especially if it’s years into the coach’s tenure.

There are two major factors to why coaches must win and win fast in today’s landscape of college football: Fan support and recruiting.

Even before the pandemic hit in 2020, college football attendance numbers were declining. With the amount of nationally televised games increasing over the last several years, we’re far from the days when you had to buy a ticket to see your favorite team play. Yes, the tailgating, the bands, the traditions, and the pageantry all make attending a college football game a unique experience. However, going to a game on a Saturday in the fall is a big commitment. 4-hour long games, loads of traffic in small college towns, lack of in-stadium Wi-Fi, and increasing ticket prices (especially for big games) have kept fans in the comfort of their homes more and more in recent years.

Those are all issues that even the most successful programs deal with, so imagine what it’s like for a struggling program. For nearly every school in America that sponsors football, the most important events of the entire year are the six, seven, or eight home games the team plays. That’s when tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands at the highest levels) of a program’s fans, alumni, and boosters come back to not only watch the game but also relive their college years. There is no better time to earn ticket revenue and more importantly, receive significant donations from high-dollar donors.

Unsurprisingly, those ticket prices and donations are a lot more favorable for the school when the team is winning. Just look at Tennessee. After their upset win over Alabama in Knoxville where the fans stormed the field and tore down their goalposts, the school asked Vol Nation for help in replacing them. Within hours, the GoFundMe exceeded its goal, showing just how powerful winning can be for an athletic department. There’s no way that happens if Tennessee was winless in SEC play.

When a team is struggling, especially at a school with a strong football tradition, fans are not shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with the program. Whether it’s through booing at games or discourse on message boards, it’s not hard to find angry college football fans in 2022. However, anger is not what athletic departments should fear the most. Apathy is. If fans are angry, that means they care. If fans are apathetic, they’re not showing up to games. They’re not buying tickets or concessions at the stadiums. They’re not donating to the athletic department. More importantly, they’re not donating to collectives. The list goes on and on. You might be seeing all of these hefty buyouts schools are paying their fired head coaches and ask: how can they afford to pay someone that much not to work? Heck, Nebraska spent an extra $7.5 million to fire Scott Frost just two weeks before his buyout dropped in half. Why? It’s because they can’t afford for their passionate fan base to become apathetic. Any coach who’s created an apathetic fan base has no shot to keep his job in today’s era.

The other major factor playing into why we’re seeing so many coaches fired so quickly comes down to recruiting. It used to be commonplace for programs to give newly hired head coaches four or five years to build a program. If things didn’t go well in the first few years of their tenure, you’d hear the media and fans say, “give him time” or “just wait ‘till he gets his guys into the program.” But with the advent of the transfer portal, right or wrong, that excuse doesn’t fly anymore. A coach now possesses the ability to bring in experienced players that can contribute at a high level right away instead of relying on underclassmen who simply aren’t ready yet. A couple of coaches have amped the pressure up even higher. After what Mel Tucker, Lane Kiffin, Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly, Josh Heupel, and Sonny Dykes have done over the past couple of years, it’s hard for any coach to ask for more than a couple of years to show progress.

Moreover, in recruiting, the success (or lack thereof) a coach has on the field is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy in and of itself. If a coach struggles to win in the first couple of years on the job, talk about whether the coach is on the “hot seat” hinders his ability to convince recruits to commit to an uncertain situation. For example, look at Auburn’s 2023 recruiting class (Currently ranked outside of the consensus top 50). Recently fired head coach Bryan Harsin was on the hot seat following a disappointing 2021 and an offseason where Auburn nearly fired him after an “inquiry” into his handling of the program. For an SEC school with the history and tradition that Auburn to be last in the conference (yes, even behind Vanderbilt) is shocking and goes to show how difficult it is for an embattled coach to bring in talented players as well as hire quality assistant coaches seeking job security. Quite simply, when things go south on the field, the situation can easily snowball on a head coach.

Amid all of the quick-trigger firing decisions being made and the massive buyout figures being paid, some have asked “is all of this sustainable?” For the latter, it all comes down to the amount of leverage the coaches have. When negotiating a contract with a coaching candidate, if a school mandates they won’t provide adequate buyout protection, the coach can easily say “no thanks” and stay put where he’s at. After what we saw in last year’s cycle, the fully guaranteed long-term deal is becoming the norm for any above-average head coach on the open market. This trend could change if and when schools have to start paying the players directly, but until then, I don’t see a reversal anytime soon.

And in terms of coaches being fired after a couple of down years, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. When a program doesn’t have any positive momentum on the field or on the recruiting trail, it becomes nearly impossible for a coach to dig out of that hole. Whether or not it’s rational to fire a coach two years into his tenure is one thing, but as I’ve said before and will say again: the business of college sports is not always rational. People will point to how Frank Beamer struggled mightily in his first few years at Virginia Tech or even how Dabo Swinney’s Clemson tenure started off slow, but those days are in the past. When university presidents, athletic directors, and boosters are making the key decision in today’s age, they aren’t asking whether they can afford to fire their head coach. They’re asking if they can afford not to.

Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5

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