Coaches leaving low and mid-major programs for bigger and “better” jobs is nothing new in college athletics. From Fielding Yost to John Wooden, to Mike Krzyzewski, to Nick Saban, history is filled with coaches climbing the proverbial ladder to lead programs that compete at the highest levels and offer the most resources.
What hasn’t been as common, however, is mid-major head coaches leaving to become power conference assistant coaches. Whether it came down to status, prestige, pay, control, or other factors in the past, it was rare to see head coaches willingly leave to become an assistant. In fact, it was more common for the best assistant coaches at big schools to take mid-major head coaching positions. Bo Schembechler left his assistant post at Ohio State to become the head coach at Miami (Ohio). Mack Brown left his offensive coordinator position at LSU to take the Appalachian State head job. John Calipari left as a Pittsburgh assistant for UMass, just to name a few.
Power conference schools have always had more money and more resources than low to mid-majors. There’s nothing surprising about that statement. Big Ten head coaches have always made more than MAC head coaches. SEC head coaches have always made more than Conference USA head coaches. What hasn’t always been the case is Big Ten or SEC assistant coaches with salaries that double or even triple those of MAC or Conference USA head coaches. However, in the current landscape of college athletics with lucrative media contracts, conference realignment, etc., the revenue gap is widening with each passing day. This has resulted in numerous head coaches at the Group of 5/non-power conference level to take a voluntary “demotion” in terms of rank.
There are numerous examples of Groups of 5/non-power conference head coaches leaving to become high-major assistants over the past decade. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it shows the growing trend of this reality in the current landscape. In football, some instances include Dan Enos, Pete Lembo, and Sean Lewis. In basketball, Rodney Terry, Billy Donlon, and Austin Claunch. In baseball, we most recently saw TJ Bruce last off-season. In looking ahead to the future, I don’t expect this trend to slow down anytime soon.
Furthermore, it was recently announced that Baker Dunleavy, the head coach at Quinnipiac University was leaving for Villanova to become the Wildcats “GM of Basketball.” In the role, he will oversee men's and women's NIL, transfer portal, fundraising, and athlete brand marketing. It’s especially worth noting because Dunleavy isn’t even taking an on-field/court role like the aforementioned coaches above have recently done. He’s working solely in the roster construction/NIL aspect of things. Could we see more sitting head coaches take these types of positions moving forward? I think it’s definitely possible.
In addition to the financial component, it’s also worth noting that it’s becoming rarer for coaches without power conference experience to land power conference head coaching positions. In the last football hiring cycle, more sitting P5 coordinators landed P5 head jobs than sitting G5 head coaches did. Athletic directors at big-time programs have shown more of a proclivity to seek out those with extensive experience at big-time programs, not those who dominate the lower levels. For example, if Sean Lewis has Colorado’s offense humming over the next couple of years, he will likely be in a better spot to land a big-time head coaching job than he would’ve if he won 10 games in the MAC (which is incredibly difficult to do at Kent State to boot).
In today’s landscape of college sports, this is something that coaches have to be looking at and considering in their career decisions. The opportunity to make more money and be in a more advantageous position to achieve their dreams of becoming national championship-level coaches might include a voluntary choice to step down in the ranks. Expect to see more of this in the “coaching carousel” moving forward.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5