Yes, there are schools like Miami (OH) in Oxford, which is well-known in football lore as the “Cradle of Coaches”. They had a number of coaches who were the top dog for the RedHawks and then (either immediately or eventually) went on to become bigger names at bigger schools – from Ara Parseghian to Woody Hayes, from Paul Brown to Jim Tressel.
Sure, there are schools like Cincinnati, who more recently had three straight coaches jump to Power Five jobs where they soared to unprecedented coaching success.
There are even programs like Arkansas State, which has had the same head coach for four seasons but is still notorious for having run through three coaches in three seasons thanks to pilfering from the Power Five ranks (and Boise State).
These are all one type of situation, though – schools losing coaches to bigger schools and having to reactively find another. What I want to talk about is different; a program that deliberately hires head coaches eyeing bigger jobs, and creates contractual arrangements to give these coaches the opportunity to hone their skills with an eye on an eventual promotion to a Power Five school.
This setup is beneficial for the bigger schools because, depending on the extent of the contractual arrangement, it creates a scenario where they always know that if attrition at head coach happens to them for any reason, they have a ready-made replacement just raring to go, with all the groundwork laid for him to be great at his job on arrival.
The Forgotten 5 school benefits from taking an already existing problem (losing their best coaches to deeper-pocketed schools) and creating additional monetary positives from it.
One thing that often comes up in the business world is that it can be very challenging to possess talent over the lifetime of its development. Whether it’s football or finance, leaders are always trying to figure out how to correctly identify the right people, do what it takes to bring them in, and do what it takes to keep them.
They do this for maximum benefit. The more they succeed at each of those facets with their talent, the more of that talent’s peak performance is spent to the benefit of those leaders.
The really good ones are those who also realize as soon as possible that sometimes even their best efforts won’t keep the best talent from outgrowing their ability to keep them. These leaders then quickly pivot to maximizing the benefits of that partnership while it exists.
If I know fairly early on that you’re good enough at what you do – and my resources available to let you grow within the existing structure are limited enough – I can work on making sure that you and I both benefit as much as possible from that inevitable departure.
How does that apply to collegiate athletics? We all know how this story works. A coach has his sights set on whatever head coaching job he considers to be his dream job, whether it’s a big payday, a big name school, or another reason.
It’s wonderful to see someone like Chad Lunsford land their dream job as head football coach at Georgia Southern, but he’s the exception. For every one of him, there are a dozen guys like Tom Herman, Scott Frost or Willie Taggart who will leave in a New York minute for the job they consider their dream (which is rarely within the Group of Five). The arrangement I’m talking about goes a step further and prepares for that departure when they arrive.
So let me backtrack for a minute.
When I was researching the recent surge of Forgotten 5 coaches leaving for Power Five programs, Willie Taggart’s job-hopping history caught my attention. Think about this for a second: Oregon employed Taggart for one year, and will now spend the next four years paying South Florida $340,000 a year of Florida State’s money.
That’s not necessarily a literal statement, but let me flesh it out.
A year ago, Oregon hired Taggart away from USF, and had zero hesitation when it came to paying Taggart a $2.9 million dollar annual salary and paying the $1.7 million buyout that was contractually owed to the Bulls for his departure.
One year later, Florida State was so eager to have Taggart that they agreed to pay him $5 million annually, cover his $3 million buyout payment to Oregon, and take on the $1.36 million that was still owed to South Florida.
Granted, one of the reasons FSU has no issue with this is the fact that for both USF and Oregon, the contract not only stipulates a buyout, it also stipulates the ability to prorate the payments over the remaining life of the contract. If Taggart remains at FSU for four years, the Seminoles will have eventually paid a total of $4.36 million to the Bulls and Ducks, but will only have paid a little under $1.1 million per year.
To some extent, these programs with money burning holes in their pockets being willing to just snatch a coach up, buyout be damned, is due to that prorated nature of the payments. But we have here a great example of a school who is paying two buyouts totaling $1.1 million per year and still didn’t flinch at hiring the coach they wanted.
If we simply condense that to one payment to one school, that’s not very different for FSU other than where the checks go, and now a single program benefits mightily from the desires of a larger one.
We all know that a lot of coaches would like to use a Group of Five coaching position in order to boost themselves in their career, why shouldn’t the programs benefit the same way? Arkansas State went through Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin in three seasons as they all left for Ole Miss, Auburn and Boise State respectively; the Red Wolves also went 26-10 overall and 20-3 in Sun Belt play during that time, and accrued a cumulative $2.675 million in buyout payments for their troubles.
Obviously, Terry Mohajir would rather hire one coach every four years than four in four years, but it’s worth noting that the buyout for his coach tripled ($225,000 to $700,000) and then nearly tripled again ($700,000 to $1,750,000), and neither instance slowed down the team that wanted to hire that coach right away.
Why not take advantage of this?
One option is for schools to be candid about the coaches that they hire. They can tell them “look, we’re giving you a five-year contract because we really like you as a coach and want to have you coaching this program for at least five years. We are also understanding if you have aspirations greater than this program, but we’re going to make sure that not only do you benefit from working here, but that we benefit from your advancement.”
The school gets to reward the coach for a job well done by allowing him to leave for a dream job, reward the program he is going to by giving them a coach who has already become someone capable of high-level coaching, and reward themselves both with the success he produces during his time at their school and with a financial windfall thrown their way when he leaves.
They can include all manner of language in his contract that doesn’t just include your standard buyout escalator, but rather includes a list of programs that the coach would definitely consider departing for, and a set dollar buyout for that coach to accept said job, no matter what year of his contract that occurred in.
Instead of Willie Taggart having a buyout that starts at $1.75 million, decreases annually, and can be prorated over the remainder on the deal, Taggart’s contract includes a $1.5 million lump sum buyout, due as one single payment. That payment comes from whatever program hires him away no later than the end of the fiscal year he is hired in.
Since the dollar amounts are the same, you could have the contract include a “money” game – instead of Florida State owing South Florida a $1.5 million check straight up for Taggart’s services, they can ‘disguise’ it as a contractual agreement, upon Taggart’s hiring, that FSU will schedule USF either at Tallahassee within two years or in Tampa within four years (plus the game check).
That program list could also be a real winner for the Power Five schools, much like a partial no-trade clause in professional contracts. I would think that if a Washington State wanted to hire someone like Lane Kiffin, they would appreciate the opportunity to earn a certain degree of certainty. They can agree to a buyout that they find palatable in order to hire Kiffin away, and can also ensure that they will have a limited amount of competition at the point in time where Kiffin finally does go “next job” shopping.
Florida State and South Florida may not be the best specific examples of teams willing to make such a deal, but it’s still two schools getting things they already covet without giving up anything that they wouldn’t already.
For the Forgotten 5 program, their benefit increases greatly. They no longer have to fret about the when and where of a promising young coach getting snatched away from their program, because they have incentivized the process more in their favor.
They know that they are guaranteed to benefit from that coach’s desire to succeed while he is running their program, and now they also know they are guaranteed to benefit from both his desire for a higher profile job and the desire of a higher profile school wanting to hire a proven entity.
The gain is less for the Power 5 programs, at least in the sense that their benefit from the new arrangement wouldn’t be as great an increase as it would be for the less high profile programs, but gains are still there.
They’ve got numerous opportunities to contractually massage arrangements that allow them to more easily hire the up-and-coming coaches that they so richly desire, and their sacrifice is still the exact same contractual buyouts they are already paying (plus the occasional swapping of the buyout for a money game).
The only real loss is no longer being able to prorate the buyouts over multiple years, but I don’t think the list of Power 5 programs that are so cash-strapped that they would flinch at paying a $1.5 million lump sum instead of that same amount over five years is particularly long.
This is a novel concept so it’s not about to take the world by storm (not unlike always going for it on fourth down), but there’s an opportunity here for some Forgotten 5 schools to turn a loss into a win.