The usual suspects strike again

Tennessee, Auburn and Texas have averaged more money spent per year on football coaches' buyouts than almost every other school, so their latest coaching changes shouldn't be a surprise, in hindsight

Remember when there was “the expectation that ‘financial carnage’ will slow the job market this year” in college football? Or that “there might not be much of a CFB coaching carousel”?

Ah, simpler times.

Instead, the 2020 college football season featured a coaching carousel that began on Labor Day and the carousel was still spinning on Jan. 18, when Tennessee fired head coach Jeremy Pruitt for cause on Monday, following an internal investigation into potential recruiting violations that reportedly found evidence of multiple Level I and Level II violations, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

In between Southern Miss going through a coaching change before the end of Week 1 and Tennessee firing a coach in mid-January whose program, in October, shared the longest active winning streak in the Power 5 (the Vols then lost their next six games), there were also coaching changes at Arizona, Auburn, South Carolina, Texas and Vanderbilt, among other schools, as this season’s coaching cycle found equilibrium.

By the way, those quotes at the top are in no way intended to be shots at those outlets or reporters, because those beliefs were commonly held and widely accepted. The only problem was that they were generally sensible opinions about a market and a sport that is often anything but sensible.

While the annual college football coaching carousel may not always be sensible, it might be predictable.

Last January, in a story I wrote for AthleticDirectorU, I conducted an analysis of the public Power 5 schools that spent the most money on severance payments to former football and men’s basketball coaches over the previous 15 years, starting in the 2004-05 fiscal year and ending in 2019.

Based on the financial data that universities file to the NCAA each winter – the availability of which varied some from school to school – I determined that on an average annual basis, Tennessee, Auburn and Texas had spent the most money on football coaches’ buyouts among public Power 5 schools that had at least five years of data available.

Tennessee had averaged upwards of $2.8 million annually in football coaches’ severance payments over the seven most recent years of available financial data.

Auburn spent an average of $1.9 million on football coaches’ buyouts annually and Texas was at $1.7 million, with each school’s average being based on 11 years of data.

Not only has the latest coaching cycle – or really, the current coaching cycle, because at this point, who would confidently say that it’s over? – been nearly as busy as any other year, but it has also featured many of the usual suspects, who were once again responsible for the latest, expensive round of coaching changes.

From the 2009 fiscal year through 2019, Auburn reported spending $21.4 million in football severance payments. Then in December 2020, the university committed to paying now-former coach Gus Malzahn $21.45 million, half of which was due within 30 days. That total doesn’t include potential severance payments to the rest of the staff members who weren’t retained by new coach Bryan Harsin.

Texas spent $19.1 million on football severance payments from 2009 through 2019, only to see Athletic Director Chris Del Conte offer a public vote of confidence of coach Tom Herman in December – “With the close of the regular season, I want to reiterate that Tom Herman is our coach” – before Herman was fired 21 days later.

It will cost Texas a reported $15.4 million to send Herman packing, plus somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million in buyouts for the rest of his staff.

Over just seven years – from the 2013 fiscal year through 2019 – Tennessee had amassed a $20.2 million bill on football coaches’ buyouts. By firing Pruitt for cause, the university will avoid adding to that figure, but only after the school hired expert lawyers to conduct an internal investigation into potential rules violations, which was followed by the university self-imposing a hiring freeze for its vacant assistant coaching positions, and soon after that, Tennessee – despite the reported hiring freeze – hired former Auburn defensive coordinator and former Tennessee linebacker Kevin Steele to be a defensive assistant, while the university presumably waited for the investigation to produce the desired results. After Pruitt and two assistant coaches were fired for cause on Monday, Steele was named the school’s acting head coach, after less than a week on the job and after his announced role upon his hiring was simply that of a defensive assistant coach.

By the way, the internal investigation into the program was first reported during Tennessee’s season-ending, 34-13 loss to Texas A&M – its seventh and final double-digit loss to conclude a 3-7 season – and surely the timing of that leak was not a coincidence.

You could read the tea leaves two weeks ago as to how this story was going to end.

So no, Tennessee won’t have to pay Pruitt’s reported $12.6 million buyout, but only because it appeared to try its damndest to find significant enough evidence of rules violations to fire Pruitt for cause while simultaneously hoping that the violations that were discovered weren’t so serious that they would then cripple the program with NCAA sanctions. That high-wire act is arguably a move that’s only made by a university that ranked third among public Power 5 schools in money spent on football coaches’ buyouts from the 2013 fiscal year through 2019, behind only Florida ($21 million) and Nebraska ($20.27 million).

Tennessee may have traded the financial cost of Pruitt’s buyout for a different kind of cost, whether it’s one related to its reputation in the eyes of coaching candidates and recruits, or one that’s more structural or cultural within the university and its athletic department.

Staying within the SEC East, the latest coaching carousel also saw South Carolina fire Will Muschamp, whose past buyout at Florida contributed to the $24.8 million that the University of Florida spent on football coaches’ buyouts from 2005 through 2019, which was the highest total among public Power 5 schools during that span, based on the data available. And Arizona fired Kevin Sumlin, whose buyout at his previous head coaching job was included in the $17 million that Texas A&M spent on football buyouts over those 15 years.

The only way that the 2020 college football coaching cycle could’ve been more on-brand for the 2000s was if one or more of Florida, Nebraska ($24.3 million in football buyouts from 2005 through 2019), Kansas ($23.7 million, with data unavailable for 2016) or Louisville ($18.4 million) had made a coaching change, and all four schools could be approaching their own vacancy at head coach in the relatively near future.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost has a 12-20 record (9-17 in the Big Ten) through three seasons. Kansas coach Les Miles is 3-18 through two seasons in Lawrence and his Jayhawks have lost 13 in a row, dating back to November 2019. Kansas went 0-9 in 2020 and the only other Power 5 schools that were winless last season – Arizona and Vanderbilt – both fired their head coaches.

Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield admitted to having a “conversation” with South Carolina after the school fired Muschamp and The Courier-Journal reported that Satterfield said, “I thought I owed an obligation just to listen because of where it’s at,” in regards to the university’s proximity to his parents’ home in North Carolina. That contact didn’t sit well with many Louisville fans, especially after the Cardinals jumped to No. 18 in the AP poll after a season-opening win over Western Kentucky, only to lose their next four games and finish the season with a 4-7 record.

Florida entered its regular season finale with an 8-1 record, an SEC East division title that had already been clinched and a No. 6 College Football Playoff ranking. The Gators then lost their final three games to finish 8-4 and there were conflicting reports about whether Florida coach Dan Mullen was a candidate for the New York Jets’s head coaching vacancy. That was how Mullen and Florida capped off a headline-filled 2020 season in which Mullen called for his university to let its fans “pack The Swamp” after he cited Texas A&M’s perceived homefield advantage in its win over Florida, after Mullen then tested positive for COVID-19 less than a week later, after he wore a Darth Vader costume to a postgame press conference roughly two weeks after that, and then after, most infamously, one of Florida’s players threw an LSU player’s shoe, which led to a critical penalty in LSU’s unlikely 37-34 upset in Gainesville.

All things considered, maybe it’s a minor miracle that Florida, Nebraska, Kansas and Louisville – four of the schools with the highest bar tabs at the Coaching Carousel Saloon – are expected to start next season with the same head coaches they had last season, whether you want to look at those individual tenures as ones where a school or its fan base is turning up the heat, or rather one where the sitting head coach might be inclined to try to escape it.

Arguably the greatest illusion in college football is that there’s parity, or that football programs can reasonably expect to permanently change their lot in life. Four schools – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma – are responsible for 20 of the 28 total College Football Playoff appearances. Together, they have claims to a combined 30 national championships prior to the playoff era and they’ve won six of the seven since the playoff’s inaugural season.

The three Power 5 programs that were winless in 2020 – Kansas, Vanderbilt and Arizona – rank seventh-to-last, eighth-to-last and 23rd-to-last, respectively, in terms of all-time winning percentage among the 64 current Power 5 programs. Kansas and Vanderbilt have almost always been among the worst Power 5 college football programs historically and that was especially true in 2020. Arizona has been better, sure, but its .529 all-time winning percentage ranks just behind Denver (a .530 winning percentage in 59 years competing at the highest level of college football) and Holy Cross (.530 in 83 years), among the 298 schools that have ever competed in major college football, according to Sports Reference.

For better or for worse in college football, what you have been is often what you are, which is generally what you will continue to be, and when athletic departments that are equipped with $100-plus million in annual revenue and that have previously reached the mountain top begin to feel their footing slide, they often make a change, no matter the cost.

Soon, the recurring costs of the climb – literal and metaphorical – may begin to define a program as much as the time it reached the summit in 2005, 1998 or that time in the 1950s or ‘60s.

And that’s why the schools that decided, amid a pandemic, to spend $15 million (Texas) or $21 million (Auburn) on a buyout for their head coach – or the school (Tennessee) that chose excavate its own backyard in hopes of only finding empty beer bottles, some cigarette butts and a couple of poker chips, but nothing more incriminating than that – are the same schools that were already responsible for some of the largest severance payments that the sport has ever seen.


Recap of the last newsletter

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“Why has the college basketball community seemingly moved on from asking questions about Keyontae Johnson’s health status, what caused it and what it might mean for college sports?

“Like the question itself about what led to Johnson currently being a coach on Florida’s bench rather than one of its players on the court, that’s a question that’s worth asking more often.”

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