Warming Up The Chairs

Tension mounts for embattled coaches

Oct. 18, 2007

College Football Preview: Week 8

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> B.J.: Don't Hate, Appreciate, The Bulls   |  Amsinger: Weekly Picks  |  Sorenson: 10 Questions
> Braff: Kansas Full of Cupcakes  |  Hart: A Deserving New No. 1  |  Trev: The Doctor Is In  |  USF For Real
> Caparell: USC In Unfamiliar Territory  |  Blackburn: On The Firing Line  |  Crystal Ball: Predictions

By Carter Blackburn

Special to CSTV.com



Carter Blackburn covers various sports for CSTV and writes frequently for CSTV.com.
E-mail here!

It's Damocles time in college football. 


Like the Greek tale of the sword dangling over the head of the powerful, coaches from Lincoln, Neb. to Fayetteville, Ark. to Syracuse, N.Y. could be a loss away from snapping the thread of their high-priced, high-profile and high-pressure jobs.


And while even the casual college football fan seems to revel in the drama of who will stay, who will go and who will be left out in the cold, mid-October to the end of the hiring season in mid-January is one of the tenser times for the men who walk the sidelines around the country.




"It's going to be an interesting dance the next few weeks," said Grant Teaff, head of the American Football Coaches Association and former Baylor head coach. "There seems to be more people on the dance floor this year."


And to paraphrase another Texas football coach, Darrel Royal, there aren't many schools likely to dance with the ones who brung `em.


Nebraska's Bill Callahan is firmly on the hot seat, with his supportive athletic director Bill Peterson ejected this week from Lincoln. Texas A&M head coach Dennis Franchione could receive his pink slip by high-priced e-mail any day now. Syracuse's Greg Robinson, Arkansas's Houston Nutt, SMU's Phil Bennett, Baylor's Guy Morriss, Colorado State's Sonny Lubick and Duke's Ted Roof are among the list whose seats are getting a little warm. 


Losses and perceived underperformance raise grumbles in the stands and posts on the Internet among the paying customers. But changing head coaches has become an involved and sometimes pricey process.


"This is the time of year, where for a myriad of reasons, usually involving lack of winning, where people lose jobs," Teaff said. "It's a very complicated issue in terms of the institution deciding to make a change, the head coach and his contract, which is usually long term, and the assistant coaches, whose contracts are unfortunately usually not long term."


At Texas A&M, Dennis Franchione is under contract through 2012 with a salary of around $2 million per year. That means on paper, Texas A&M would have to pay Fran approximately $10 million to relieve him of his head coaching duties. While the specifics of that deal are not known, the admitted NCAA and athletic department violations from Fran's private e-mail chain could hurt his case in working for a buyout, should the day come. 


One month ago, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan signed an extension through 2012 as well, for the reported sum of $1.75 million per year plus incentives. Following home games that featured a close call with Ball State and blowout losses to USC and Oklahoma State, Cornhusker fans are ready to demand that money back, pitchforks in hand. 


Lawyers, agents, athletic department staff, boosters and even government officials are now shuffling their way onto the dance floor to determine how to pay off what is deemed an ineffective coach and gear up to hire a new one, probably at a higher price.


"We've created an interesting game and we all play at it," says Dave Maggard, University of Houston Athletics Director, and former A.D. at Cal and Miami. "The biggest question is, `Do [the coaches] give any of the money back if they don't win the games?' Of course not."


Getting rid of your football coach begins the equally complicated process of finding a replacement. At the risk of oversimplifying, in the `phone age', an A.D. and possibly a search committee would get some recommendations, bring a few candidates to campus to visit with the university president and a few others, and then make a job offer.  


In the 21st century, everyone but the KGB and Gordon Gecko is involved in the secretive luring and negotiation of top-level coaches. Take the state of Alabama as an example.


Remember in 2003 when the Auburn University President, William Walker, resigned under pressure from Alabama governor Bob Riley because he arranged a `clandestine' meeting with then-Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino? The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Petrino's interest in replacing Tommy Tuberville as Auburn head coach. Only Tuberville hadn't been dismissed as Auburn head coach and still hasn't been five years later.


At roughly the same time, then-Alabama coach Dennis Franchione flew on a private plane to Texas and accepted his first $10 million contract from Texas A&M without speaking to the Alabama players he had convinced to stick out NCAA probation in Tuscaloosa. That job was left to the assistant coaches.


And then there's Nick Saban's statement a year ago, "I am not going to be the Alabama coach," weeks before leaving the Miami Dolphins to accept a reported $30 million offer to be the Alabama coach.


Without citing these or any other examples, Maggard expresses a sentiment that is growing in college football: "A lot of coaches are in it for the wrong reasons. If you're coaching for the money, you're in it for the wrong reasons."


A word of caution, then, for fans and alumni eager to catapult the ball coach out of the village: In a sport with an oblong ball contested by 18 to 23-year-olds, the momentum for the head coach can change in a hurry. 


A season ago, Kentucky's Rich Brooks, Tennessee's Phil Fulmer and Missouri's Gary Pinkel were among the names on the coaching endangered list. All three have their teams in the Top 20 a year later. After Michigan's disastrous 0-and-2 start that included the home loss to Appalachian State, Lloyd Carr was all but run out of Ann Arbor on a rail. One month later, the Wolverines are 3-0 in the Big Ten, tied atop the conference with top-ranked Ohio State. 


If you remember the tale of Damocles, he walked away unscathed by the sword over his head. No details were available on the terms of his buyout.