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Head coaches leaving for assistant jobs is landscape change for college football

As strategic and adaptable as Nick Saban was while racking up one national title after another at Alabama, his attempt Tuesday to convince lawmakers how tough coaches have it right now was like trying to run the football against a nine-man front.

“It’s whoever wants to pay the most money, raise the most money, buy the most players is going to have the best opportunity to win,” he said during a round table on Capitol Hill hosted by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “I don’t think that’s the spirit of college athletics. I don’t think it’s ever been the spirit of what we want college athletics to be, so that’s my major concern; the combination of pay-for-play, free agency and how that impacts development.”

Even if Saban is right about some of the problems that the new world of college sports has brought, it’s hard to stomach a former football coach with a private jet waiting to fly them back to a $17.5 million oceanfront mansion talking about the corrupting influence of money.

A 72-year old man who no longer liked his $11 million-a-year job enough to keep doing it is the wrong messenger delivering the wrong message.

But there is a more compelling story going on in college sports right now about the need for some order and how financial inequities are pulling the game in a direction that a lot of people — not just highly paid coaches and administrators — have some legitimate concerns about.

  • Kane Wommack gave up a promising tenure at South Alabama to become Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
  • Maurice Linguist left Buffalo to become Alabama’s co-DC and cornerbacks coach.
  • Shawn Elliott walked away from Georgia State at the start of spring practice to become South Carolina’s tight ends coach and running game coordinator.
  • Jerry Kill stepped down at New Mexico State and immediately joined the Vanderbilt staff as chief consultant to head coach Clark Lea.

Taken individually, each circumstance can be rationalized through a series of unique personal and professional factors.

But on a macro level, this is an almost completely new trend in a business where FBS head coaching jobs — even at the smaller programs — were viewed either as the pinnacle of a career or a launching pad to the big-time. And what it says about college sports right now is far more nuanced and important than Saban pining for the good old days when players didn’t ask about money.

“I always said the only more exclusive club than being an FBS head coach was being in the U.S. Senate,” New Mexico State athletics director Mario Moccia told USA TODAY Sports. “What’s happening has really floored me. It’s a recalibration of thinking.”

At the end of New Mexico State’s season, Moccia wasn’t particularly surprised when Kill revealed that he was done after just two years. Kill has suffered from multiple health issues, including struggles with epilepsy that forced him to retire from Minnesota in 2015.

But the cruel irony of his success last season — New Mexico State went 10-5, beat Auburn and made the Conference USA championship game — only meant that the Aggies’ roster would be more susceptible to getting ransacked by programs with big name, image and likeness budgets.

At a time when he should have been celebrating a breakthrough season, Kill was fretting about fundraising and how New Mexico State was going to keep its team together — a legitimate concern given that 11 players ultimately transferred to power conference schools.

“He was worn down,” Moccia said. “It became a big pain in the (rear).”

The point here is not to deny players the opportunity to make money or transfer to a program on a bigger stage if that’s their goal. That’s how the NCAA operated for decades, and when people began to mount legal challenges to those rules, the house caved in as if its roof was made of tissue paper.

But the current free-for-all has created a different reality for programs like New Mexico State and others in the so-called Group of Five conferences.

For those schools, the resource gap is nothing new. And they understood if their coach had success, they’d probably get poached by biggers schools offering to double or triple their salary.

What administrators always banked on, though, was that a coach leaving for a more lucrative job only created a better candidate pool for the next search. It was a self-perpetuating incentive structure: Up-and-coming coaches saw the opportunity to win and get on the radar of the power conferences, it gave fans a reason to stay emotionally invested and it forced schools to invest as much as possible in football if they wanted to stay relevant.

Within leagues like the Sun Belt and Mid-American Conference, which have a long track record of developing the game’s top coaches, some administrators can sense the ground shifting. Would a 38-year-old Nick Saban take the Toledo job in 2024, or would he be worried about getting stuck there like current coach Jason Candle, who is 43-19 in the MAC but hasn’t landed the power conference gig?

Would a 36-year-old Urban Meyer have gone to Bowling Green if he had the chance today, or would he have stayed at Notre Dame rather than deal with the possibility that his roster would get decimated every year and ruin his chance of career advancement?

We’ll never know. But the pool of coaches who want to learn and grow at that level seems to be shrinking.

“The link between being able to be successful and people being able to tolerate the stress, the social media and the dynamics of alumni, donors and everything else you have to deal with, that has shrunk,” Troy athletics director Brent Jones said. “Then you remove transfer restrictions and add NIL on top of that, I think it has become untenable for some people to manage all those things.”

Again, there’s nuance and context to all of this. Linguist was 14-23 as the head coach at Buffalo and likely would have been on the hot seat next year. Getting a spot on new Alabama coach Kalen DeBoer’s staff was a career lifeline.

For Elliott, who had taken Georgia State to five bowl games in seven years, there were personal considerations in returning to South Carolina where he’d previously been an assistant. Even while coaching in Atlanta, his family remained three hours away in Columbia. But it’s also true that his $750,000 salary at South Carolina to be the tight ends coach is nearly identical to the $811,000 he made as Georgia State’s head coach.

And Wommack, who previously made $810,000, not only got a huge raise to be Alabama’s coordinator (reportedly in the $2 million range) but is almost assuredly in better position to eventually become an SEC head coach than he was no matter how many games he won at South Alabama. And he was well on his way to building one of the best programs in the Sun Belt.

“It’s a watershed moment because here’s a guy winning 10, 11 games and saying, ‘You know what I’m out,’” said Northern Illinois athletics director Sean Frazier. “The reality is every coach wants to see an upward trajectory in their career, so if they’re in a situation where they win their conference and don’t get courted they may feel like they’re stuck.

“That’s probably the most powerful indictment about the Group of Five right now. If you’re a coordinator at Alabama or Florida or LSU it’s probably a better gig for you to be able to get that next big-time job. It’s an interesting debate. I’m coming to grips with it.”

As with every other major issue facing college athletics right now, the smaller conferences are mostly just along for the ride. Whatever system forms around paying athletes in a more organized way than what’s going on now, they’ll have to adapt if they want to remain under the same umbrella as the SEC and Big Ten.

But for people like Saban, the frustrations of NIL and the transfer portal are inconvenient. For schools at the lower levels, it’s an existential test of their value in the ecosystem.

Shortly after Kill’s departure from New Mexico State, as Moccia was reorganizing the program around new head coach Tony Sanchez, they promoted 33-year-old Ghaali Muhammad-Lankford to offensive coordinator. Moccia thought calling plays would put Muhammad-Lankford a huge step closer toward becoming a head coach himself.

Three weeks later, he followed Kill to Vanderbilt as the running backs coach for more money but a lesser title at a program that is 9-27 under Lea. Moccia was floored.

“I’m not here to tell somebody not to take another $150,000 a year, but people used to make decisions more based on their career than the payday,” he said. “But it could be, ‘Hey I’m going to the SEC and that’s the big leagues and you guys are in the minors.’ But I’d argue, hey, Jim Harbaugh came from San Diego. All these coaches came from somewhere.”

None of this is going to go back to the way it was. If anything, all the changes on the horizon — College Football Playoff expansion, athlete employment, etc. — will stack the deck even higher in favor of the rich, powerful schools.

But the idea of Group of Five programs as a proving ground to learn, make mistakes outside the spotlight and establish a coaching identity had real value. It wasn’t just a fun part of the sport to see a Western Michigan go on a magical run to the Cotton Bowl in 2016, it gave P.J. Fleck a platform to build his brand and let potential power conference employers like Minnesota see what kind of program he wanted to run.

If Fleck got the Western Michigan job now, that 13-0 season may have never happened because a third of the team might have left two years earlier when they first began to have some success.

That’s probably not a healthy development for anyone.

“I think everybody looks at industry trends and says ‘OK, does this make me more hireable?’” said Jared Benko, who was second in command to the Mississippi State athletic director before taking the top job at Georgia Southern in 2020. “And there’s no right or wrong answer. I look at it as a continuum. When you think about our careers, I have a growth mindset. I know I could have stayed at Mississippi State, but I’ve grown exponentially over the last four years. When the buck stops with you, it’s different.”

It’s natural to look at what happened this offseason, though, and wonder if the challenges are becoming too great to overcome — and, by extension, to wonder if the SEC and Big Ten’s ability to offer coaches better money and fewer headaches will eventually crush conferences like the MAC and Sun Belt that have always offered entertaining, high-quality football.

If Congress is going to intervene somehow on behalf of college sports, that should be the focus — not whether a coach making $11 million a year is disheartened by players asking for more money.

“We’re in a weird dynamic where colleges have to figure out what the future is going to look like, but we have to get our arms around this,” Jones said. “It’s unsustainable the way it is now, and people are going to eventually say ‘This is crazy. It makes zero sense so let me go make as much money as I can with better quality of life.’”

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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