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Circumventing the Insane Coaching Carousel

Photo CC: Lubbock A-J

Late in every college football season, the coaching carousel inevitably begins spinning around like a tornado and leaves a path of destruction. Program A takes Program B’s Coach Program B takes Program C’s, etc. This typically plays out with the big programs happily plucking the coaches of the smaller programs, offering zero apologies for it with some variant of “it’s just business” and the smaller programs scrambling to pick up the pieces. The 2021 edition of the coaching carousel appears to be one for the ages, though. With multiple “power programs” needing or wanting a new head coach, even the bluest of bloods like Oklahoma and Notre Dame just found themselves jilted in ways they never expected nor are accustomed to. It’s a free-for-all out there, and all bets are off.

Every fanbase with a good coach tries to convince themselves that their school is the dream job permanent home for their coach. However, permanence is rarely found in college football in any respect. The public perception of a program is determined almost entirely through the lens of what transpires on twelve Saturdays per year. Wins mean that everything is perfect and wonderful, and losses mean that all hell is breaking loose behind the scenes and that the coach has lost the team. Things are never this simple. Coaches are people with personal lives that can pull them in different directions. Boosters, media, assistants, players, administrators, and any number of things can make their lives hell even when things are going well on the surface. There’s always this outrage when a coach leaves as to why they would ever do such a thing, yet few are privy to the actual reasons why.

Good old-fashioned greed is often the biggest motivator. Increasingly bloated coaching salaries are transforming the game into a competition of who has the biggest war chest (or who is willing to bankrupt themselves chasing what they want). Money talks. Every major college football coach is doing well financially, but it’s human nature to always want more. It’s likely not even the difference in money itself (that most coaches surely don’t need) that has the appeal; it’s what an even more staggering salary represents. Egos are hungry beasts, and money is a favored dish. It’s a tangible metric of value through which a coach can feel like the best and the brightest, even if that isn’t the case. Maybe they lucked into having a star player or found themselves in the right place at the right time, or maybe they are actually “worth it” and can succeed anywhere. Still, copy/pasting another program’s success is far from a sure thing, but that sure doesn’t stop anyone from trying.

If this reads so far as a defense of coaches’ rights to bail at any moment without facing criticism, keep reading. Texas Tech fans, in particular, need no introduction to coaches leaving in the middle of a recruiting dinner or skulking away to a hated rival in the middle of the night, and neither stunt is particularly defensible, then or now. There is a right and wrong way to change jobs, but few coaches these days seem to care about doing it the right way. It’s worth noting that it’s difficult to keep interview/hiring processes under wraps in the modern era of flight-tracking and an intrepid reporter or even random fan being able to instantly post that a coach is somewhere they aren’t supposed to be, but at a certain point, coaches with a wandering eye often choose to outright lie to everyone during the process or at least engage in lies of omission.

Lincoln Riley’s departure did manage to be a surprise, as it featured a comical lie of omission with the now-infamous “I will not be the next head coach of LSU” line. We now know this to be a true statement, but it failed to mention that tiny detail where he was leaving for USC instead. The incredible part to consider is that this statement still would have been technically accurate even if he had left for LSU since the Tigers will have an interim coach for the bowl game. This is the level of deception the craftiest of coaches will utilize, while others like the revered Nick Saban flat-out lied about taking the Alabama job days before doing so. With Riley, the schools that will be remaining in the Big XII have taken full, warranted schadenfreude in the parallels between OU’s move to the SEC and OU’s current whining about feeling betrayed.

This hilarious sour grapes Tweet about California tax rates from an Oklahoma politician almost stumbled upon a point, and that is that Lincoln Riley is headed to a wildly different place. It’s difficult to imagine taxation being a factor in his surely lucrative impending USC tenure, but the culture and fit very well maybe. Perhaps Lincoln intends to spend his time at the beach and mail it in as a coach, but otherwise, he may find himself sorely disappointed in his surroundings. The fanbase is virtually nonexistent, as it possesses both what it views as better things to do and an NYC pro-sports-esque entitled attitude of preferring to criticize a team from afar rather than support them. Forgive the generalizations, but Californians also aren’t exactly known for toughness, grit, and most qualities that make for great football players. Toss in the rapidly fading relevance of a conference featuring time slots that will have his team fighting an uphill battle to impress voters who are sleeping while they’re playing, and this grass might not be greener. Still, the coup is amusing to everyone outside of Norman, and USC sure seems to think they’ve altered the very fabric of space and time in a hilarious bit of arrogance.

Brian Kelly’s ND departure to LSU might be even worse. Kelly, while a proven coach, seems like an atrocious fit in Baton Rouge. It’s all the more jarring because Ed Orgeron was peak Cajun. One can’t help but wonder if the entire goal was to find his diametric opposite because if so, mission accomplished. It’s tough to believe that anyone in the state of Louisiana would have cared about Orgeron’s teams’ off-field issues (or reportedly his philandering) if they weren’t sitting at 6-6 and last place in the SEC West. It’s even tougher to believe that Kelly is the next LSU coach for any reason other than a giant pile of money. Recall that Riley’s OU season had a QB controversy, obvious media tensions, and missed the conference title game for the first time in what seems like forever, whereas Kelly seemingly had a good thing going with ND positioned for possibly a playoff berth and shot at a national title. That’s a tough one to swallow for fans of the Irish, but as mentioned earlier, perhaps more was going on that we don’t know about. I don’t think it would be a comfort to South Bend either way nor should it be.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, Ragin’ Cajuns coach Billy Napier is now Florida Gators coach Billy Napier. Here’s the aforementioned big program preying on small program hire that college football is used to. This seems like a hire with some real promise as a solid cultural fit and a proven winner. The situation here was inherently a bit less messy than some others because even the ULL community can’t much fault him for taking the opportunity, but it also bears mentioning that Napier and ULL appear to be leaving on good terms. Napier will still be coaching the Ragin’ Cajuns in the conference championship game, and all indications are that he will get thank yous and farewells afterward. Contrasted with a campus littered with “traitor” flags from a fanbase spouting endless hypocrisies, this situation is downright heartwarming.

Speaking of heartwarming, Matt Campbell has been mentioned for every major opening and appears to be staying put at Iowa St. It’s borderline impossible to dislike Campbell and his Cyclones. Even in a year that didn’t live up to the hopes of anyone at ISU, there is little to no “hot seat” stuff, few if any ungrateful fans, and he genuinely seems to love his players and they love him back. As it stands, his ISU program is one of precious few rays of hope in a game that too often feels like an ice-cold business that’s, uh, definitely not a business where the big-name programs have every advantage and buy the best coaches and players because they can. Keep doing you, Campbell and ISU. Respect. Of course, he’ll probably leave for Notre Dame or OU now just to crush all the good feels.

Sonny Dykes’ entrance into TCU was quite the spectacle. This is the sort of thing that seems like a cool idea at the time and will instantly be used as a mockery if things don’t work out or if/when he leaves for another job. There are very real Kevin Sumlin swagcopter vibes here, and that isn’t a compliment. That said, Dykes is easily the best choice for TCU for several reasons. The writing seemed on the wall when Sonny didn’t sign a reportedly offered midseason raise/extension from SMU, seemingly holding out for an offer from Tech or TCU (or both). It’s hard not to feel for SMU a bit. Not cutting the Big XII expansion is a huge deal and likely played a considerable role in Dykes leaving. SMU arguably isn’t a much different or worse job than TCU if you take conference affiliation out of the mix, but now SMU is on the outside looking in as the remaining best teams from its league join the upper echelon of football, and now it just lost its coach. This isn’t quite the death penalty all over again, but it is undeniably a huge blow for a program that was on the upswing.

The more-relevant-to-current-TTU Sonny Cumbie is heading to Louisiana Tech for a head coaching opportunity he deserves. While Tech and Joey McGuire had planned on retaining Cumbie as offensive coordinator, it’s time for him to get a head gig. There’s a decent argument to be made that he was a better head coach than Matt Wells in his half of the year as interim HC, and he will be missed in Lubbock by all. The situation may work out for the best for all parties involved. Cumbie gets a chance that Tech wasn’t quite ready to offer just yet, and Joey McGuire gets more of a fresh start with a candidate of his choosing (with several great options from the Tech offensive tree alone). Sonny will leave Lubbock with the respect of all, having played a key transitional role for the team while doing a solid job leading the offense. The biggest concern for TTU now is if multiple players choose to follow him. Regardless, the Red Raiders are grateful to have had Cumbie here, and perhaps he makes his way back to Lubbock someday.

Lastly, Kirby Hocutt looks like an absolute visionary right now. Whether it’s sheer luck or having a good pulse on the college football world through his connections (or both), making the midseason move to ax Matt Wells and get a head start on the next chapter looks more brilliant by the day. Tech would have otherwise been stuck in a current situation of having just fired Wells for going 5-7 and missing the postseason, or if a win had been found somewhere, likely needing to wait until after the bowl game to make a decision. Either scenario would have been nightmarish as the list of realistic candidates would have dwindled significantly to where TTU could have easily suffered amidst multiple big openings fighting over who was left. Instead, Tech swiftly got its guy in McGuire and everything has been trending up since. Coach McGuire has already hit the recruiting trail hard with success, and he seems poised to capitalize on the OU coaching change and UT’s fading hype. Hocutt figured out that the best ride on the carousel is a short one before everyone comes scrambling to find their horse.

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