For programs that aren’t among the elite, don’t do it
In 1979, Earle Bruce took over as head coach at Ohio State and finished his first year within one point of a national title. The program had begun to stagnate under the aging Hayes and Bruce was looked upon as the beacon of a bright future. Coaches didn’t get multi-year contracts worth millions of dollars back in those days. If they did though, Bruce would have been given a deal similar to what James Franklin just got from Penn State after one good season.
Bruce, alas, was not what Ohio State fans had hoped for. He ran a clean program, his guys played hard, and consistently displayed great fundamentals. However, he lost a lot of good Ohio players to Michigan. He was so in love with the I-formation that he set his defense to stop it, even when the rest of the world was beginning to run three and four wide sets. That resulted in some ungodly defensive performances, such as when he single-handedly made Dave Wilson famous by letting him throw for 621 yards against a secondary with four future NFL draft picks. After that brilliant first season, Bruce put up seven consecutive 9–3 seasons, which was perceived in Columbus about the same as it would be if Urban Meyer did it today. He finally slipped to 6–4–1 in 1987 and got the boot.
What’s the moral of the story? One good year is not enough to judge a coach. A year or so ago, James Franklin was already in the hot-seat after two 7–6 seasons at Penn State. This was due to transforming Christian Hackenberg from an elite recruit into a train wreck by letting pass rushers have a party in the backfield nearly every week. He would have been much more firmly on the hot seat if Penn State wasn’t still recovering from the Jerry Sandusky scandal that made them feel blessed if any coach would take that job. Now, after a Big Ten title, Franklin is the blessed one, having received a contract extension that will pay him nearly six million per year until 2022.
This may work out. Franklin may stay at Penn State as long as Joe Paterno did and win multiple national titles. He has put together some strong recruiting classes and created significant buzz around the program. But much of the same could have been said about Hugh Freeze when he signed his extension at Mississippi, before they found out what he was using his cell phone for. Nobody thought that Mark Helfrich, who signed a five-year deal with Oregon after getting the Ducks to the national title game in 2014, would be gone two years later. Indiana gave Kevin Wilson a six-year deal after 2015, then found out he made his players play hurt. Brian Kelly signed a six-year deal with Notre Dame, then went 4–8. Art Briles signed a ten-year deal with Baylor in 2013, then they found out he was covering up evidence of sexual assault by his players. Don’t even get me started on what Charlie Weis did to Kansas.
Every year, a couple of coaches get fired with millions of dollars left on a contract they recently signed. Not all of these schools had to pay out the entire contract when they fired their coaches. Some had buyout clauses, and some were fired for something more egregious than losing games. Even in those cases, the school often ends up in court — Freeze, for one, is still threatening to sue — defending whether the offense for which they fired the coach is sufficiently horrific to justify voiding the deal. Of all the huge deals that coaches sign, only a fraction end well.
Some schools have no choice. If you’re Vanderbilt and you get a guy who can take you to bowl games on a consistent basis, you lock him up as well as you can. But they did that with Franklin, and he left anyway. He will leave Penn State too if something better comes along. He has a $2 million buyout, but that’s small potatoes in today’s market. Penn State is securely in the second tier of programs, which means that all but a handful of schools would be a lateral move, so unless he moves to the NFL he will probably finish this contract. But what if Penn State is 6–6 this year? What if last year was totally caused by Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, and the next quarterback develops like Hackenberg? Franklin still gets paid. What if there’s another scandal? Franklin gets paid, unless it’s bad enough that they can fire him for cause.
You can’t blame the coaches. There is so much money in college football. Universities will do anything to get their piece of it, from installing waterfalls in their practice facilities to lavishing tens of millions of dollars on coaches with skimpy track records to overlooking criminal activities and other scandals. Once a school crosses that Rubicon, they need to keep making huge sums of money to pay for all that extravagance, and the only way to guarantee that revenue stream is to find a coach who can deliver. That gives coaches all the leverage in their negotiations with schools, but only a few are really good enough at their jobs to justify that leverage. The rest take a brief flurry of overachieving and turn it into millions of dollars, only to leave behind a lousy team or a morass of scandal before the contract even runs its course. Or they stick around just long enough to find another school dumb enough to give them an even bigger deal.