USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down how the College Football Playoff will be different this year.
As the Football Bowl Subdivision begins playing Thursday night in all its weirdness and resilience, the college football world we are used to is going to look very different. In many places across the six conferences trying to play this fall, there will be no fans, no bands and no tailgates. It’s going to be strange.
But perhaps the strangest omission from the 2020 season will be the utter lack of anxiety and innuendo about the job status of various coaches whose teams lose more than their fans think they should. In a normal year, the coaching carousel is its own cottage industry, weaving together the interests of search firms, agents, news media and boosters. This year, there will be virtual silence on this front.
When you ask people whose job is to track potential head coach openings how many changes they expect to see following the 2020 season, the typical answers range between one and five, most of which would be attributed to retirements or the NFL plucking a college coach. But firing a coach in the thick of COVID-19? Unlikely at best, logistically impossible at worst.
If nothing else, COVID-19 has temporarily brought some common sense to a business that has spent the past couple decades turning fiscal irresponsibility and emotional immaturity into an art form.
Last year alone, Florida State committed just over $18 million to fire Willie Taggart after a mere 21 games. Rutgers, a school that was already swimming in buyouts, added another $8.47 million to get rid of Chris Ash. Arkansas had to shell out $10 million to fire Chad Morris, just a couple years after an $11.9 million buyout agreement with Bret Bielema – which Arkansas stopped paying, leading to an ongoing legal dispute.
And if this season had gone off without being disrupted by a global pandemic, we’d be speculating now about who’s next to start living the buyout life. Will Muschamp at South Carolina? Clay Helton at Southern Cal? Tom Herman at Texas? Up until now, there’s always been some fan base so fed up with their coach that the money is no object.
But just look around at how dramatically the landscape has changed. Bracing for the heavy financial hit of playing a season with limited attendance or no fans at all, athletics departments of all sizes have cut sports, cut pay and furloughed workers. Layoffs are expected at dozens of schools. Even Texas, an athletic department that generated nearly $224 million in revenue during the 2018-19 fiscal year, announced Tuesday that it was laying off 35 staffers and leaving 35 more vacant jobs unfilled on top of other cuts and salary reductions.
In that kind of financial environment, do you really think schools are going pay football coaches not to coach?
“Which university is going to lay off, furlough and ask for pay cuts and then turn around and admit they have a bunch of cash to pay a fired coach and his assistants and then hire a new coach?” said a one person who works in the coaching movement world and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
There are only a few schools where you could even imagine firing a coach even being within the realm of possibility this year, and none of them are big-time jobs. More likely is that any movement would be created by a few older coaches who ride off into the sunset after a very hard year.
And that’s going to require a significant mindset change in a sport where fans and big-money boosters typically start grumbling about their coaches at the first sign of trouble, particularly if they had already been tagged as underachievers. Or maybe the mindset won’t change and the same people who campaign online that they need to make a change will continue to do that.
The difference this year is their anger has no chance of scaring the people making those decisions.
More than ever, administrators understand that coaches deserve a pass for anything that happens this season. They’ve spent the past six months on Zoom calls, navigating countless unexpected issues from the pandemic. Schedules have changed. Rosters have evolved due to opt-outs. Recruiting has been a mess. Most anticipate games will either be forfeited or lost because of key players or position groups that test positive for COVID-19 and have to be quarantined. Winning and losing is secondary; the goal is simply to get through it.
But will fans be as forgiving? That remains to be seen. No sport is more emotionally-driven in its decision-making than college football, and if somehow the SEC, ACC and Big 12 pull off a season that feels semi-normal, the temperature is naturally going to rise.
At some point, though, reality has to set in. And under these circumstances, firing a coach – even a bad one – would not only be an optics disaster but a financial fiasco.
Eventually, the coaching carousel will return to normal. But for now, there’s no such thing as a hot seat.
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