Deciding whether to fire a college football coach often comes down to balancing wins and losses with dollars and cents.
Five coaches were fired Sunday, including Gene Chizik at Auburn just two years after he led the Tigers to a national championship. The five schools are on the hook for about $14 million in buyouts to their former employees. Auburn owes Chizik $7.5 million.
That’s a lot of money to pay someone to not work for you, but it can be even more costly to keep a coach who is not only losing but draining a program in other ways.
“What we all look for is: Is there a plan in place? Is the plan showing signs of progress? Is there energy around the program?” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said Monday.
“If there is no energy, no sign of hope, we’re not gaining traction in recruiting or in people investing in our program, and we’re not winning, you’ve got to make a change.”
The 39-year-old Bjork is in his first season at Ole Miss after quickly working his way up the ladder in intercollegiate athletics. Before he was hired by Mississippi in March, he was the AD at Western Kentucky. He didn’t hire Rebels coach Hugh Freeze, but he’s definitely not in the market for a replacement after a promising 6-6 first season in Oxford.
Making the decision to change coaches in any sport is as much about the future as the present. Colorado fired Jon Embree on Sunday after only two seasons, a rarity even in today’s win-now atmosphere. The Buffaloes were one of the worst teams in the country, going 1-11 with an inexperienced roster and a first-time head coach.
At a news conference Monday, Colorado AD Mike Bohn said he was most concerned about the “trajectory” of the program.
“The importance of the third year, and if you don’t have the momentum ... you begin to think we did not make the decisions quick enough,” Bohn said.
Bohn said lagging ticket sales and waning interest from fans was a factor.
It always is. As much as athletic directors can’t be expected to make decisions that satisfy the whims of fickle fans, the folks who buy tickets definitely have a say.
“You operate off a zero-base budget,” Bjork said. “Let’s say looking at past trends you budget $14 million in football ticket sales and halfway through the season you are projecting $11 or $12 million. That’s a problem.”
Especially after a university spends a few hundred million to renovate its stadium — as California just did.
The school invested $321 million on renovations and the newly remodeled Memorial Stadium opened this season. Jeff Tedford could not have picked a worse season to have the worst record of a mostly successful 11-year tenure as Bears coach. He went 3-9 and AD Sandy Barbour faced this choice: Fire a coach the school still owes $6.9 million or face the prospect of brand new luxury boxes being left vacant.
Barbour decided the short-term loss would be outweighed by the long-term gain of a new coach revitalizing the fan base. Cal is one of 12 FBS schools with a head coaching vacancy, including four in the Southeastern Conference.
Ole Miss made a similar decision after last season when it fired Houston Nutt, who had three years left on his deal and a $6 million buyout.
“Right now that’s holding us back in terms of our full commitment to football because that’s looming out there,” Bjork said.
The Catch-22 is no coach is going to take a contract without a significant buyout these days because schools are so quick to cut guys loose in search of the next big thing. And once a coach does have some success, schools feel obligated to quickly give long extensions because, well, what recruit is going to commit to play for a coach with two years left on his contract?
“That’s always a tough balance,” Bjork said. “If you’re not investing are you committed? If you’re over invested and you negotiate a big buyout are you making a mistake you’ll have to pay for later?”