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It’s hard to hire a college football coach in 2019

Taking note of a rather clear trend.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, Nebraska firing Bo Pelini started a chain reaction that led to three sitting Power 5 head coaches taking other jobs. Nebraska hired Mike Riley away from Oregon State to replace Pelini; then, Oregon State somehow hired Wisconsin head coach to replace Riley; and, finally, Wisconsin filled its vacancy by hiring Pitt head coach (and former Wisconsin offensive coordinator) Paul Chryst.

That single offseason equaled the total number of Power 5-to-Power 5 head coaching moves in the five years since. All three of those occurred after the 2017 season, when Jimbo Fisher left Florida State for Texas A&M, Florida State hired Willie Taggart from Oregon to replace Jimbo; and separately, Florida hired Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State.

So far this offseason, six Power 5 programs have hired a new head coach, and none of the six have hired a sitting Power 5 head coach, and that’s a list that includes Florida State (again) and Washington — two programs that have won a national title within my memory. Florida State was rumored to be interested in James Franklin and Bob Stoops, but settled on Memphis head coach Mike Norvell. Ole Miss hired Lane Kiffin — who’s held Power 5 jobs before, but most recently was the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Washington promoted defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake — which, actually, has become a fairly typical move when a successful head coach leaves on his own terms.

Meanwhile, Ole Miss hired Lane Kiffin — who, of course, has previously been a Power 5 head coach, but most recently was the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Missouri hired Eliah Drinkwitz after one season at Appalachian State, and Arkansas hired Georgia’s offensive line coach. Rutgers hired Greg Schiano back. Boston College still has a vacancy, but it seems extremely unlikely that they’ll pluck a coach from another Power 5 program.

I, like a lot of Vanderbilt fans, was miffed that Malcolm Turner decided to retain Derek Mason — but in this environment, what coach was Vanderbilt going to hire to replace him? When the best that Arkansas can do is an offensive line coach, who exactly is Vanderbilt getting?

Now, Power 5 coaches not jumping off to other Power 5 jobs isn’t something that would directly affect Vanderbilt, but the indirect fallout does. In an environment where Florida State hires the kind of coach that realistically would have gone to a school like Arkansas or Missouri in the past, those schools then hire the kind of coaches that Vanderbilt would have hired in the past. And what does Vanderbilt’s realistic list look like? It probably looks something like the list of coaches who were nonstarters for Missouri.


But perhaps more interesting than the fact that it’s happening is the why. We don’t know why four of the last five offseasons have come and gone without a single Power 5 head coach taking a different Power 5 job, but I have a few theories.

When everybody’s already rich, finances are (mostly) off the table. Twenty or thirty years ago, somebody like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell would probably be seen as a more viable candidate for an Arkansas-type program. Iowa State, it must be noted, is and always has been a hard job. It’s one of two Power 5 programs in a state that doesn’t produce a ton of talent, and unlike Iowa — which, in the Big Ten, has a better shot at recruiting prospects in the Midwest — Iowa State has to go outside of its natural region to recruit. You can’t sell recruits from Chicago and Detroit on playing college games in Oklahoma and Texas.

The Iowa State job hasn’t really gotten any easier, but thirty years ago, Campbell probably would have left at the first opportunity. Why not now? The easy answer is that he’s already making plenty of money. Campbell’s contract, which runs through 2024, is worth a total of $22.5 million — and most of that, effectively, is guaranteed thanks to his buyout, a thing that didn’t really exist in 1989.

Back in the 1980s, the only way to get rich as a college football coach was to be a head coach for a long time, which either meant landing one of the top jobs in the sport and keeping it, or else jumping from job to job to extend your career. But now, thanks to more money in the sport and buyout clauses that mean a large portion of your contract is effectively guaranteed, simply signing your first contract as a Power 5 head coach can set you up for life. Signing an extension — which you’re bound to do if you have anything resembling success in your first couple of years — can set your kids up for life.

Basically, there’s now so much money in the sport that sitting Power 5 coaches won’t change jobs for purely financial reasons — and, the fact that there are fewer Power 5 head coaches than there are Power 5 head coaching jobs (in the sense that there are fewer than 32 quarterbacks capable of starting in the NFL at any given time) means that a school that has one is probably desperate to keep him, in addition to the perception hit that a school takes for losing its coach to another college job. When coaches leave, then, it’s largely for non-financial reasons. It’s probably not a coincidence that the three schools that have hired a coach away from another Power 5 school since 2014 have all been perceived as places where you can win a national championship. (It’s also relevant that two of those didn’t have to pay a previous coach’s buyout, but we’ll get to that factor in a minute.)

Getting fired isn’t the scarlet letter it used to be. Just within the SEC, three of the fourteen head coaches (Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, and Will Muschamp) had previously been fired from a college head coaching job. And a look around the country shows that this isn’t unusual: the Pac-12 also has three such coaches (Mike Leach, Mario Cristobal, and Kevin Sumlin); the Big 12 has Les Miles; the Big 10 has Mike Locksley; and the ACC has David Cutcliffe and Mack Brown (who wasn’t officially fired by Texas, but there was no circumstance in which he would have been its head coach in 2014 regardless of whether he wanted to continue.) And you’ll even notice that a couple of those were fired from jobs outside the Power 5.

It hasn’t been that long since getting fired meant that your career as a college head coach was effectively over — and if it wasn’t, you were going to a perceived lesser program (hi, Woody Widenhofer.) Twenty years ago, there is no way that somebody like Ed Orgeron would have gotten the LSU job.

But now, retread hires are becoming all the rage. An unspoken reason for this, perhaps, has to do with the transactional costs of a coaching change: if you’re paying a buyout to the coach you just fired and paying your new coach’s salary on top of that, it helps if you don’t also have to pay to buy your new coach out of his current contract. (It helps even more if you can underpay your new coach because he’s collecting a buyout from a previous employer, if you were wondering why Butch Jones’ name comes up in coaching searches.) Again, look back to two of the three Power 5-to-Power 5 moves in 2017. Florida State had an opening because Jimbo Fisher jumped to Texas A&M, thus meaning that FSU wasn’t paying a buyout; and Florida had managed to fire Jim McElwain with cause, getting him to agree to a substantially reduced buyout. Throw in the fact that both schools are seen, with good reason, as places where you can win a national championship, and you can see why they were able to buck the trend — but Florida State wasn’t able to when it did have to pay Willie Taggart’s buyout this offseason. (As for Texas A&M, well, they have more money than God.)

Already this offseason, two recently-fired coaches (Taggart and Steve Addazio) have been hired as head coaches at Group of 5 schools, and Chad Morris was hired as Auburn’s offensive coordinator — which might actually be a higher-paying gig. Because, after all, the money in the sport is trickling down to assistants, too. Getting fired and spending the rest of your career as a coordinator is not a bad deal in 2019, and certainly better than it was in 1989.

In this kind of environment, it makes a ton of sense to hang on to your job until either you’re fired or you can really improve your situation, rather than uprooting your family for a pay bump that’s relatively inconsequential and/or a marginally better program. Because if you’re already rich, why not stick with what you have?

This certainly isn’t intended as an argument for keeping Derek Mason. But, perhaps, this argument is a long-winded explanation for why it might have happened.

Vanderbilt was never going to go out and hire a sitting Power 5 head coach, and probably wouldn’t have even had a shot at somebody like Lane Kiffin. But somebody like Eliah Drinkwitz, realistically, was somebody Vanderbilt could have hired in 2014.

It’s entirely possible that Vanderbilt’s candidate list in 2019 would have looked a lot worse than Vanderbilt’s candidate list in 2014 — when Mason was chosen over (reportedly) Chad Morris, then the offensive coordinator at Clemson. In that sense, perhaps Vanderbilt, to borrow a phrase from the political world, decided to stick with the devil it knew.