Two Big College Coaching Changes

The college football coaching game of musical chairs is in full swing even though the conference champions have not yet been decided.  Normally, the early movement of coaches involve schools that have done poorly over the past couple of years who are hoping to get their new coach a bit of a head start in the recruiting business over the winter.  Normally, the big jobs do not get filled with top-shelf candidates so early in the game.  Not so this year…

Already, there are two blueblood programs that have “poached” head coaches from two other blueblood programs.  The first one I want to consider this morning is Lincoln Riley who will be leaving Oklahoma to take over the program at USC.  Anyone who follows college football recognizes that both schools have a rich history in the game; over the past five to ten years, Oklahoma has been the better program, but USC has had plenty of time in the college football spotlight over the years.

Lincoln Riley is 38 years old and has been the head coach at Oklahoma for the last 5 seasons; that is the entirety of his head coaching résumé. His time at Oklahoma has been very successful; the Sooners’ record in his time there has been 55-10.  Riley has had a highly successful start to his coaching career, and I think it is important to emphasize that this is the start of his career.  And even though Riley has said it was “no factor” in his decision, I suspect that the impending move of Oklahoma from the Big-12 to the SEC played at least a small part in his decision to “go west”.

As I said, USC is a big-time program that has been a bit threadbare the last few years.  In the same 5-year span that Riley was going 55-10 with the Sooners, USC’s record was 33-23.  Putting USC back in the “national discussion” would be a major part of a coach’s legacy.  Moreover, the PAC-12 as a whole has been in a downward phase in the last 5 years so taking one of the blueblood programs and elevating it would appear to be very possible given the opposition to be faced.

Comparing the opposition in the PAC-12 – South Division and North Division – to the competition in the SEC is like comparing the damage you can do to your hand with a butter knife to the damage you can do to your hand with a meat grinder.  I have not seen any definitive statement by the SEC regarding the new division structure once Texas and Oklahoma are added to the mix, but even with the rotating schedule of conference opponents from the “other division”, the SEC schedule has plenty of tough games facing any of its members.  That is simply not the case in the PAC-12.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying – or even hinting – that Lincoln Riley bailed on Oklahoma because he did not want to have to deal with SEC competition.  What I am saying is that as a young coach with at least 25 years left in his career, he took an opportunity to make a significant mark on the status of college football at a time when rapid improvement of a former giant of college football appears to be very feasible.  If in fact Riley saw this opportunity and jumped to take it, he should be lauded for his insight and not scorned for his aversion to the SEC.

The other major coaching move of the week came yesterday when LSU hired Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame.  I must say that I do not understand this move from either LSU’s perspective or from Brian Kelly’s perspective.  That is not to say this was a bad move; it merely means I do not see why it happened as it did.

Brian Kelly is 60 years old, and he has been a head coach in college football since 1991 at 4 schools counting Notre Dame.  Unlike Lincoln Riley, he is not looking ahead to another 25 years in the head coaching business.  Kelly has been highly successful at Notre Dame posting a 92-39 record there even after more than a dozen wins were vacated after the fact because a trainer provided “impermissible assistance” to some players in the 2013 and 2014 seasons.  There have been no rumors that administrators at Notre Dame or big-time boosters there wanted Kelly out; from my perspective, he probably could have stayed there for the rest of his career, and everyone would have been happy.

Reports say that Kelly got a 10-year contract worth $95M PLUS incentives that would make the total value potentially worth “nine figures”.  Maybe that is the reason he took the plunge; maybe he thinks that if he can put LSU back in the college football spotlight and keep it front and center there for the next 10 years, he can retire with “a legacy”.

From the LSU perspective, the big-money folks there had better hope that this is not purely a mercenary move.  They are already paying off a big contract extension they gave to Ed Orgeron and this contract has a long way to go before it makes any sense to think about “going in another direction”.

So, the questions now devolve to:

  • Who gets the Oklahoma job?
  • Who gets the Notre Dame job?

The Big-12 has a handful of young coaches who have had plenty of success at schools with less “prestige” than Oklahoma.  The Sooners could “poach” Dave Aranda (from Baylor) or Matt Campbell (from Iowa St.).  If the administrators there think they might want to hire someone with some experience in the SEC, the peripatetic Lane Kiffin might show up on their radar screens.  If the administrators want to look for a young head coach who is “part of the Sooner football family”, they could take a look at Josh Heupel (at Tennessee) who was a QB for the Sooners and an assistant coach there too.

And now, I have a bold idea for the Notre Dame job.  I think this scratches several itches at the same time:

  • Notre Dame’s next coach should be – – Urban Meyer.

Hear me out…  There are lots of reports out there saying that Meyer’s transition to the NFL has not gone smoothly at all.  There are reports of problems with players and with assistant coaches.  The owners cannot possibly be thrilled with the on-field product this season – – although they ought to be  used to disappointing on-field performances by now.  So, imagine the scenario where Meyer and owner Sahid Khan mutually agree to go their separate ways freeing up Meyer to return to college coaching AND to take a job that he has said was a “dream job” in the past.

If that one is too outlandish for you to swallow, let me offer up one other Notre Dame possible option that would demonstrate continuity in the football universe.  When Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly, he had been the very successful coach at Cincinnati.  Today, the very successful coach at Cincinnati is Luke Fickell; the Bearcats may just be the first team from outside the Power 5 conferences to make it to the CFP; even if they do not, they are certainly the “outsiders” that have come closest to that stature.  So, maybe Notre Dame’s next coach is another former coach at Cincinnati?

Finally, football coaches at just about any level are most highly motivated by enlightened self-interest; it is not necessarily a profession filled with highly principled people.  In that vein, let me close with this observation by Oscar Wilde:

“I like persons better than principles and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



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