College football's $75 million message: No coach is safe

All summer long, the drumbeat leading up to the 2018 college coaching carousel revolved around a simple question: “What’s the surprise job going to be?”

Few coaches lie in bed at night dreaming of roaming the sideline at Kansas, Illinois or East Carolina. And those aren’t the caliber of jobs that get the agents and search firm industry too giddy, either.

As we trudged through media days in July, this year’s college coaching hiring/firing season appeared to lack a distinct market driver.

“Something interesting needs to happen to make this a big year,” said an industry source. “When Kansas is the best job, it isn’t a big year.”

Last week, something interesting happened in Columbus. With Urban Meyer on paid administrative leave, Ohio State looms as a juggernaut market driver if the university decides to part ways with Meyer. (A decision is expected by Aug. 19 after an investigation is completed.)

Prior to the uncertainty at Ohio State, a quiet year was expected in the job market because last season unexpectedly yielded 21 changes. In this same space last summer, I incorrectly predicted that large buyouts would limit schools from firing their coaches. But a wild fall saw frugality and pragmatism crack-blocked with such abandon that it marked a new era in football hiring – massive buyouts should forever be considered only speed bumps. Consider the hiring cycle of 2017 hallmarked by a $75 million message – no coach is truly financially safe.

Traditionally well-heeled programs like Nebraska ($6.6 million), Texas A&M ($9.9 million lump sum), Florida ($7.5 million) and Tennessee ($8.25 million) paid big money to fire their coach. (Some of that money could end up mitigated: Mike Riley, for example, will serve as a consultant with Oregon State and earn a modest salary that will mitigate the $170,000 a month he’s still receiving from Nebraska.)

The real signal for change came at places like Arkansas ($11.9 million), Arizona ($6.2), Arizona State ($12 million) and UCLA ($12 million) paying piles of cash to have their coaches not work. Those numbers could fluctuate depending on mitigation, but schools potentially paying coaches nearly $75 million to no longer work signals a new era in college sports.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference media days at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/John Amis)

LSU

So what other universities could be paying coaches exorbitant amounts not to work this season? The consensus sleeper market driver is LSU thanks to their still-baffling hire of Ed Orgeron. A combination of a rigorous schedule, an uninspired offensive coordinator hire (Steve Ensminger) and Orgeron’s middling history as a head coach (31-33 overall) could nudge him toward the hot seat if the Tigers flop this season. Finding nine wins on this LSU schedule requires optimism and imagination that belies Orgeron’s past history as a head coach. That includes a home loss to Troy last season, which led opposing coaches to remark that the Tigers simply weren’t playing hard.

LSU opens with Miami on a neutral field and heads to Auburn in Week 3. If Orgeron starts 1-2 and the offense is impotent, there will be a drumbeat of unrest from the Bayou. If Les Miles got fired for failing to develop quarterbacks and running Neanderthal offenses, it will be interesting to see what the university decides if the offense reverts to caveman playbooks. Transfer quarterback Joe Burrow has sparkled so far, but LSU has suspended its top offensive lineman (guard Ed Ingram) and lacks a top-flight tailback in the mold of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. (Suspensions were prevalent in Orgeron’s first season.)

Ensminger hasn’t been a full-time college playcaller for a season since the late 1990s, which should scare the daylights out of the LSU fanbase. He’s had interim stints at LSU and Auburn with mixed results. His style on offense had been the same basic tenants LSU got tired of with Miles – power run, play action and less excitement than a ball of tin foil. (Orgeron claims LSU will run a spread, but Ensminger’s history suggest more of a sumo-style than any modern offense. One coach predicted the style will boil down to winning with ball control and field position.) Can a 59-year-old with no significant recent track record of successfully calling plays bail out LSU?

That’s the $8.5 million dollar question, as a wholesale failure would require paying Orgeron that much to go away. (And would likely end the ham-handed tenure of athletic director Joe Alleva, who hired Orgeron and then bid against himself to deliver a huge guarantee on his contract.)

We know this much: If Arizona State and Arkansas can fork over that much cash to fire a coach, so can LSU.

Louisville

The other job to watch is Louisville. Bobby Petrino is 8-8 in his last 16 games, including losses to Wake Forest and Boston College. This is also the third different defensive coordinator the past three seasons, and new hire Brian VanGorder doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. (He was last seen giving up 33.5 points per game at Notre Dame before being fired four games into the 2016 season. Notre Dame’s defense got exponentially better – 8.5 points per game – after he left.)

There’s a bigger cultural issue on Petrino’s staff that dims Petrino’s long-term prospects at Louisville and has his peers around college football chuckling at his brazenness. Petrino has three family members among the nine on-field coaches on his staff – son Nick Petrino (QB coach), son-in-law L.D. Scott (defensive line) and recently promoted son-in-law Ryan Beard (linebackers). That’s $650,000 being paid to family ties. (The reported salaries are Nick Petrino at $200,000, Scott at $300,000 and Beard at $150,000.)

Nepotism is not a topic Bobby Petrino wanted to dive into at ACC media days when asked about the anomaly of having three family members on his staff. He twice said that he’d addressed the family hires publicly and refused to do so again. It’s clear from this article in the Louisville Courier Journal why he was so awkward about it.

Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino answers a question during a news conference at the NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference college football media day in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, July 19, 2018. (AP)

In short, having three relatives with little significant experience elsewhere invites outside criticism and certainly should be something Petrino should be ready to defend. Nick Petrino has no coaching experience outside his dad’s staffs, Beard came after seasons at Northern Michigan (2015) and Western Kentucky (2016), and Scott has no experience outside Petrino staffs.

This is all magnified at Louisville, where there’s an emphasis of a culture change at a place where departed athletic director Tom Jurich and former basketball coach Rick Pitino both hired relatives in key roles. And it will become a big florescent issue if Louisville starts losing games and giving up crooked numbers on defense, never a traditional specialty of Petrino teams. Part of Petrino’s staffing issues, especially on defense, is that he has one of the worst reputations in the country as a coach to work for. But he’s also appeared lazy in his staff hiring, picking up Peter Sirmon in 2017 after he was fired at Mississippi State for finishing No. 110 in total defense and No. 93 in scoring defense. Couldn’t Louisville do better? Sirmon flopped, VanGorder is in and the questions loom.

If, say, Alabama hangs 60 on Louisville to start the season or the Cardinals struggle at quarterback post-Lamar Jackson, the family ties will invite questions. Louisville slipped from No. 31 in scoring defense (23.8) to No. 70 (27.4) last year. A continuation of that trend could lead to some holistic questions of Petrino’s staffing hires.

New blood is the theme at Louisville, with feel-good vibes from new athletic director Vince Tyra hiring former Xavier coach Chris Mack on the basketball side. If this Louisville football season slips sideways, the school is widely expected to target favorite son Jeff Brohm. It would be a unanimous hit with the fan base and another vibrant new face for an athletic department looking to turn the page. (Brohm would cost $3.3 million for his Purdue buyout after Dec. 5 and also $600,000 from his Western Kentucky buyout until Dec. 31.)

Could Louisville swing it? The school would have to pay nearly $6 million to fire Petrino, depending on the date of dismissal. That’s in the wake of a $7 million parting gift to Tom Jurich, with a looming $40 million legal tussle with Rick Pitino.

Worth noting that Tyra and Brohm have ties from Trinity High School, where both graduated. Could nepotism be replaced by parochialism and a favorite son brought home?

This move may be a year away, but it would be one of the least surprising in all college football. At Louisville, Petrino’s fate isn’t on the frontburner. But it could get there if the defense stalls out again.

For Pete Thamel’s breakdown of the rest of the college coaching carousel, click here.

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