Can anything be done to stop college football coaches from jumping ship?
By John Grupp and Scott Brown
Published: Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 11:00 p.m.
The 33-year-old head coach stood before a roomful of reporters in a major northeastern city and blatantly lied.
He said his school, coming off an undefeated season and a Sugar Bowl victory, had released him from his recently signed contract extension and cleared the way for him to return to his alma mater.
The departure and deception raised a furor, but nothing could be done. Another supposedly loyal college football coach had left behind his players for greener pastures.
That was 71 years ago.
It has been a long time since Frank Leahy bolted Boston College for Notre Dame in 1941 — and told “the biggest lie of his life,” according to one newspaper account — but questions of loyalty in college coaching are timeless.
When Bret Bielema left Big Ten champion Wisconsin for Arkansas last week, the ripples reached all the way to Pittsburgh, with concerns that Paul Chryst would return to his alma mater, Wisconsin, and send Pitt into its fourth coaching search in 24 months.
The worry, of course, was justified. From Lane Kiffin and Rich Rodriguez to Bobby Petrino and Todd Graham, big-time football coaches continue to leave young men they vowed to teach for higher-profile jobs and bigger paychecks.
Winning at all costs
Butch Jones left the University of Cincinnati on Friday to take over at Tennessee for a deal that reportedly will pay him $2.7 million to $3 million annually. But between contractual obligations to former coach Derek Dooley and his assistant coaches, plus the $1.4 million buyout to Cincinnati, the Volunteers could be on the hook for another $11 million in addition to Jones' salary.
At the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York City last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert said escalating coaching salaries are “not sustainable.”
“It's a free market, with huge pressure and a limited number of skilled people,” Emmert told Sports Business Daily. “It's something that we all have to live with. I was asked the other day, ‘When will coaches' salaries be capped?' and I said, ‘When athletic departments run out of money,' and I wasn't being facetious.”
At least 24 of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools — no lower than 20 percent — will have a coaching change for next season.
Industry experts say coaching departures are rampant because that's the schools' desire.
“They want to be able to steal each other's coaches,” said Rich Karcher, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law who in 2009 wrote a 93-page paper titled, “The Coaching Carousel in Big-Time Intercollegiate Athletics: Economic Implications and Legal Considerations.”
“The top schools that have the money,” he said, “want to be able to keep grabbing head coaches from the Arkansas States and Louisiana Techs of the world.”
Do unto others?
In pro sports or the business world, breach of contract and tampering are taken more seriously. The reason? Cost.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to fork over four high-round draft picks and $8 million to pry coach Jon Gruden away from the Raiders. Coaches Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells were involved in trades. So were former MLB manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Theo Epstein.
In college football, coaches' contracts might as well be written in pencil.
“They have taken the position that a coaching contract is like a prenuptial agreement,” said Dan Fitzgerald, a noted Connecticut-based sports attorney. “It spells out the terms of the breakup, nothing more.”
Exorbitant liquidated damages clauses — or buyouts — are mainly unenforceable because the award, by law, must be a true measure of the cost caused by the coach's departure. It is difficult to quantify.
“Urban Meyer leaving hurts Florida, but what's it cost?” Fitzgerald said. “It's hard to say. If it were a $20 million buyout, it probably wouldn't hold if they went to court.”
And precious few lawsuits ever enter a courtroom. No buyout amount has ever been overturned in court, Fitzgerald said, mainly due to unwillingness by the affected schools to sue. Northeastern brought suit against coach Donald Brown and conference rival Massachusetts in 2004 to prevent him from leaving. West Virginia sued coach Rich Rodriguez to recover a $4 million buyout after he left for Michigan in 2007.
“Universities are non-litigious when it comes to this,” Karcher said. “They view it as bad PR.”
Added Fitzgerald, “The custom for the marketplace is that the contracts are not enforced. They don't have strong enough buyout language. Another reason — and how do I say this? — is the school that sues their coach for leaving, where do you think they got their coach?”
Paying the piper
Paying seven-figure salaries and large buyouts to secure top-flight coaches makes fiscal sense in the multibillion dollar world of college football, Karcher said. Players are not compensated, so the money saved is spent instead on the best head coach who can land the top recruits.
“That's really the heart of the issue,” Karcher said. “You have an unpaid labor force. It's an economically rational decision. You pay the best coach who can recruit the best players. In college sports, the head coach is the key to getting players to come to their school. It's not the academic programs. It's the top recruiter.”
The NCAA is virtually powerless to stop coaches from jumping from job to job and maintains such matters are out of its jurisdiction.
“Employment decisions are school matters, and the NCAA does not get involved,” an NCAA official wrote in an email to the Tribune-Review.
The NCAA is allowed to restrict the movement of players because student-athletes are not paid. Unlike coaches, players are not university employees, making it almost impossible for them to act collectively and sue.
That disparity is one reason coaches have an inordinate amount of power when it comes to mobility.
“That leverage would drop if you paid the players or allowed athletes to move,” said Allen Sanderson, a sports economist who teaches at the University of Chicago.
Prohibiting coaches from leaving one job for another until after the season — including a bowl game — is not realistic. Bowl games stretch into early January, and that is a critical time for recruiting with national signing day the first Wednesday in February.
Pitt senior safety Andrew Taglianetti agrees players should pick a school based on academics and compatibility with the campus, not because of a certain coach. In reality, however, “There are some guys who go to school because they're comfortable with Coach X or a position coach,” he said.
Allowing players to transfer without penalty if their head coach takes another job would adversely affect those who stay at school.
Had players been allowed to transfer without penalty of sitting out a year after Graham left for Arizona State, the Panthers would have struggled to field a competitive team in 2012, Taglianetti said.
“We could have lost 15 to 20 guys,” he said, “and that really would have set back the program. I think the system has to be changed. I don't have the answers for what needs to be done.”
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