Currently, major college football generates a ton of excitement leading up to the start of the season only to be completely deflated come season’s end when everyone “re-realizes” that it’s just a business. A major reason for that is the lack of regulations with respect to coaching movement.
For whatever reason, college football places all its eggs in the basket of one person: the head coach. They do so by giving exorbitant salaries and complete program control. In turn, these institutions hold their head coaches to a “national-championship-or-bust” standard. Under this standard, coaches are required to generate immediate success. Therefore, institutions are “all-in” on these coaching hires and provide incredible resources for the head coach to: formulate their staff; implement their recruiting plan; hit the recruiting trail; sign a competitive class; fill their immediate needs through the transfer portal; coordinate their schemes, and much much more.
And then, everyone blames the head coach when they decide to abruptly leave in the middle of a season for a “better” opportunity. Well, the system allows it. If this result is troubling, then it truly is time to consider implementing coaching movement regulations in major college football.
Domino Effect of Major College Football Coaching Decisions
2021 In Season Removals
A few major programs made the decision to cut ties with their head coaches this season. Tracking these decisions will help illustrate the domino effect that occurs, ultimately leading to a major impact on the landscape of college football.
USC – Clay Helton – Coach Helton became the Head Coach of the USC Trojans for the final two games of the 2015 season. Since then, Coach Helton has compiled a 46 – 24 record, including a 2-3 bowl game record.
Nonetheless, on September 13, 2021 Coach Helton was relieved of his duties. His buyout was reportedly around $12 million. His removal opened a seat for one of the elite coaching positions in the country.
LSU – Ed Orgeron – On October 17, 2021 LSU and Ed Orgeron agreed to part ways at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Coach Orgeron had led the Tigers since the 2016 season, including leading them to a National Championship in 2019.
LSU terminated Orgeron’s contract “without cause” and will pay a buyout total of $16.95 million across 18 installments. These installments begin this December (2021) and will end in December of 2025. Similar to the removal of Coach Helton, Coach Oregeron’s absence opens another elite coaching opportunity.
University of Florida – Dan Mullen – Coach Mullen began his tenure at the University of Florida on November 26, 2017 after he signed a six-year $36.6 million dollar contract.
Almost five years later, on November 21, of this season (2021), Coach Dan Mullen was fired from his head coaching position. According to the terms of their contract, the University of Florida will pay Coach Mullen his full $12 million buyout. Coach Mulled will be paid $6 million within 30 days of being fired, with the remaining $6 million broken down into yearly $1 million payments.
Again, the in-season removal of Coach Mullen led to another elite head coaching opening at a Power Five institution.
Filling the “Elite” Coaching Opportunities
Lincoln Riley and the University of Oklahoma
Currently (11/30/2021), the Oklahoma Sooners are ranked 14th in the College Football Playoff Rankings. However, on November 28 their head coach, Lincoln Riley, decided to abandon ship and fill the head coaching vacancy at USC.
This surprise move followed a 6-year heading coaching stint at the University of Oklahoma where Coach Riley compiled a 55-10 overall record, including a 37-7 Big-12 Conference record.
Because of his sustained success, and three playoff appearances, Coach Riley had received a new six-year contract in July of 2020 worth about $45.2 million. This contract also extended Coach Riley’s tenure through the 2025 season.
Furthermore, because Coach Riley is heading to Los Angeles before his contract expires, either he or USC will have to pay a buyout to officially get him out of his deal with Oklahoma.
The details of Coach Riley’s contract with USC vary and ultimately do not need to be disclosed because the are a private institution. Nonetheless, the rumors point to somewhere above $100 million total.
Now, Oklahoma’s head coach opening is the newest elite opportunity at a Power Five institution. In addition, this means that Oklahoma will finish their season without their head coach.
Brian Kelly and Notre Dame
Shortly after Coach Riley left Oklahoma to fill the USC vacancy, Coach Kelly jumped ship and was officially named the next head coach at LSU on November 30, 2021. The deal is reportedly a 10-year $95 million deal that pays Coach Kelly $9.5 million per season.
This follows a 12 year tenure leading the Fighting Irish where Coach Kelly compiled a 113-40 record. Coach Kelly leaves Notre Dame as the winningest coach in its storied history. Coach Kelly was contracted through the 2024 season with Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is a private institution and does not have to disclose the specifics of Coach Kelly’s remaining contract. What can be gathered, however, is that Coach Kelly was contracted through the 2024 season and earns between $2 million and $3 million annually at Notre Dame.
Coach Kelly’s departure now means that the Notre Dame fighting Irish will finish their season with a new Head Coach. Specifically, Marcus Freeman who was subsequently hired three days after Coach Kelly’s decision to leave.
Billy Napier and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Coach Billy Napier had been the head coach at the University of Louisiana Lafayette since the 2018 season. During that time, Coach Napier led the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 39-12 record, including a 2-1 bowl game record.
This season, Coach Napier led the program to an 11-1 record and has them ranked 24th in the most recent college football playoff rankings.
However, on November 28, 2021, Coach Napier was officially named the next head coach at the University of Florida, replacing Coach Dan Mullen.
Before the 2021 season, Coach Napier signed an extension to coach the University of Louisiana for five more seasons at $2 million per year. This contract included a $3 million buyout which the University of Florida will have to pay.
The System Is Broken
Without any coaching regulations, what are coaches supposed to do when approached with a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity?
Regulations are implemented to produce anticipated results. Currently, there are three general troubling results produced from the lack of coaching movement regulations in major college football.
First, when a coach abruptly leaves a program, players, assistant coaches, and support staff are left looking around wondering “what’s next?”. At this time, everyone begins to look out for themselves. Players look to the transfer portal as a safe-haven so as not to be “stuck” at an institution. Assistant coaches jump ship, if offered, with the departing coach, while others immediately pick up their phones to search for their next move.
Essentially, the program that cost so much money and resources to build begins to slowly fall apart. All of this happens because of one person’s decision to leave. For institutions that use major college athletics as a vehicle for their educational mission, do they really believe in this unstable reality?
Second, the season is still going for every team listed above, with the exception of USC. Moreover, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and University of Louisiana are currently ranked in the college football playoff’s top-25 rankings.
Even more concerning is that Notre Dame is ranked 6th. Realistically, the Fighting Irish are a conference championship weekend away from leapfrogging their way into the top four. A top four ranking would mean that Notre Dame would compete in the NCAA Division I College Football Playoffs. If they did earn a top four ranking, they would be pursuing a national championship without their so-called “head coach”.
In fact, when Oklahoma, University of Louisiana, University of Florida, and LSU get selected to compete in a postseason bowl game, each of these teams will be led by someone other than the “leader” they built their season behind.
Is this the diluted finale of a season that the decision makers of college football really aspire to produce?
Third, institutions are spending millions of dollars to attract new head coaches, to pay their prior contract buyouts, and for circumstances like Florida, USC, and LSU, paying the prior head coach the remainder of his contract. This is the cost of doing business, but are there better ways?
It’s Time for the “Decision Makers” to Step Up
The “decision makers” of institutions are the board of trustees and the president. These individuals are tasked with answering: “What role does athletics play as a part of our educational mission”?
For major college football programs, athletics are the driving force behind developing and generating brand equity. The success of their program has a direct correlation to the success of the institution as a whole. Therefore, it would likely be safe to assume that these decision makers would be inclined to maintain some sort of stability within their coaching structure.
How does this get done?
New NCAA Constitution
On November 8, 2021 the NCAA released a 19-page draft for their proposed New NCAA Constitution. Under the New Constitution, the NCAA gives more power and control to its member institutions (I, II, and III), and their respective conferences. Thus, the decision makers of these institutions, and subsequently, the conferences, are in the driver’s seat to establish some form of coaching regulations.
Conferences are made up of like-institutions and are thus better situated to implement legislation to regulate a coaching structure as compared to the NCAA. More specifically, conferences generally encompass either private or public institutions with similar size, mission, and resources. By contrast, the NCAA consists of public and private institutions and conferences of widely varying mission, size, resources and opportunities.
More importantly, the New NCAA Constitution provides divisions, and their conferences, the autonomy to reorganize and restructure themselves. Furthermore, the New NCAA Constitution reaffirms that institutional control rests in the hands of institution presidents or chancellors.
Therefore, if the decision makers of major college football want a change from the big-business results currently produced, then now is the time for change, and it starts with formulating coaching regulations within their conferences.
Potential Coaching Regulations
If major college football would like to generate some form of parity amongst their programs, below are a few thoughts on potential coaching regulations that could produce a more stable environment. These regulation ideas are just suggestions and designed to invite conversation.
- Prohibited Tampering Periods: Regulation that restricts both schools and coaches from communicating about potential head coaching opportunities during the regular season and post-season (for teams that qualify).
- Allocated Periods for Re-Negotiations / Negotiations: A period during the offseason (primarily during a recruiting “dead period”) where both the head coach and the current institution can bring together evaluations of the current status of the program. In addition, this period can act as an opportunity to negotiate with other programs for better opportunities.
- Caps on Program Costs: Potentially a percentage cap of money invested in a program. This calculation could be based on various performance, marketing, and educational measurables. Conference-wide program caps would work as a way to help generate parody amongst the teams.
- College Football General Managers: Essentially developing a structure for an individual, similar to an Assistant Athletic Director, who works in conjunction with the head coach. More specifically, a general manager can be an off-field role tasked with overseeing the athletic and academic development of scholarship and non-scholarship players; oversee name, image, and likeness activity; serving as a liaison to athletics, etc. This position would act as a way to spread out the incredible reliance a program has on one person while subsequently being a position to offer institutional stability.
Ultimately, the decision makers in college football need to ask themselves: what is the goal of our product? Nothing is perfect. But right now, college football is incredibly diluted and it is due largely in part to the major business moves that are made by head coaches. Until any regulations are implemented that address this issue, we will continue to be excited for the start of the college football season, only to then be deflated, once again, when we re-realize it’s only about money.
President of the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society. Before law school, I coached college football at the University of Rochester for five seasons. I am excited to take these experiences, along with a legal education to make an impact on the ever-evolving landscape of college athletics. Thanks for reading our posts!