As college football fans, we are obsessed with head coaches. The rosters of our favorite teams are constantly undergoing significant turnover, so the guy on the headset is the one constant that remains. Brian Phillips wrote a great column yesterday at Grantland about this phenomenon with respect to college basketball. Here is his first-person recounting of his defense of the sport to his NBA-loving friends:
"It's a different experience," I would say. "The arenas are tiny, and the best players don't stick around very long. The coaches are the only faces that repeat from year to year, and you see them a lot. And in the era of fantasy sports and Football Manager, we're all thinking like coaches anyway; we just don't realize it. So why not have one sport that celebrates team building and, like, prudent squad management? Why not make Tom Izzo yelling his throat raw on the sideline your marquee highlight?"
With the exception of the tiny arenas -- a factor that is replaced by the facts that football players both have helmets covering their faces and are often cogs in a machine, running the plays that are sent in from the sidelines -- this statement applies just as well to college football. Phillips then explains that coaches are more familiar to adults than to the players are because their job duties remind us of what most of us do to pay the mortgage:
And the experience of the coach is simply much more accessible to almost every grown-up fan than the experience of any high-level player. And not just because so many fans go on to coach their kid's T-ball team or whatever; think of it as a lifestyle question. The coach doesn't have to be able to score from an overhead kick or throw a football 80 yards; he has to run meetings, make plans, juggle lists, and justify himself, same as anybody. He does paperwork. Maybe hops on the treadmill when he can. He's still connected to the magic of sports, but with him it takes the form of inspired halftime speeches and brilliant late-game stratagems - basically work e-mail lifted to a spiritual plane. More than anything, he has to watch a ton of games: obsess about what's not working, get mad at players who screw up, praise players who do well. When something good happens, he runs around and celebrates. When something bad happens, he flails his arms like an idiot. Sound like anyone you know?
So it would stand to reason that in an economic environment where insecurity about being laid off is at an all-time high, where even previously stable white-collar professions are seeing significant contraction that leaves thousands of recently-minted graduates unable to service their debt, we are interested in coaches being on hot seats. We all worry about getting the ax at work and know friends and family members who have had to deal with the same, so we get to displace that stress by fixating on highly compensated college football coaches facing the same stress.
Aside from the fact that hot seat discussions have a particular resonance to workers in the modern American economy, there is a trio of reasons why we are going to see more hot seat discussions and firings in the coming years. The first reason is common to all of college football; the last two are unique to the SEC.
1. The athletic department bubble
With very few exceptions, major athletic programs obtain the vast majority of their funding from football revenue, most significantly ticket revenue and the donations that fans are forced to pay for the privilege of buying those tickets. When the football program doesn't perform on the field, then the entire business is threatened because the coaching salaries and facility improvements that make up the expense side of a superpower athletic department budget don't go away, even as the revenue shrinks.
Look at Tennessee's precarious financial condition if you need evidence that even the most loyal fan bases will turn their backs on a bad product, thus leaving athletic directors trying to find solution for a tide of red ink. Even if Derek Dooley had been showing glimmers of progress, Dave Hart still would have been likely to fire his head coach because his department simply cannot afford to permit the current trend of declining interest in Vol football to continue.
The implication from Tennessee's predicament is obvious: head coaches are going to get a shorter leash because their employers literally cannot afford to be patient. In the old days when a season ticket for four conference games and a pair of interesting non-conference games would cost about $250, fans would be a little more forgiving. Now, a season ticket buys four conference games -- often against one or more new league opponents with whom the home team has no history -- and non-conference match-ups against tomato can opponents, only it costs roughly twice as much. Ticket prices (and the donations required to buy those tickets) have shot up despite the fact that Stubhub and 60' flat screens have given potential season ticket buyers other options.
The price is higher, demand is softening, and athletic departments are addicted to ticket revenue. Does this sound like a stable situation for a head coach at a major program?
2. SEC recruiting dominance
In case you've been shacked up with a hunter-gatherer tribe for the past month, the SEC dominated recruiting in 2012-13. For instance, Kentucky finished 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC. According to Rivals, it would have finished sixth in the ACC, fifth in the Pac-12, fourth in the Big XIII, fourth in the Big Ten, and first in the Big East.
Just about every team in the SEC is going to be able to put blue-chip talent on the field in coming seasons, although there are obviously differences in degree in terms of the amount of talent. How exactly is the SEC West going to play out with Alabama at dynasty level, LSU not far behind, Texas A&M deploying a Heisman-winning quarterback in a clever scheme with a top recruiting class coming to town, Ole Miss ascending on a wave of optimism and five-star talent, and Auburn pairing Gus Malzahn's offense with Rodney Garner's recruiting chops? Someone has to finish fifth, and that assumes no waves from Mississippi State and Arkansas.
College football fans often make the mistake of drawing a distinction between recruiting and coaching, the latter of which generally means coming up with a game plan and then making tactical decisions at the end of a close game. The former is a head coach's most important function, but because it occurs out of sight in dozens of prospects' living rooms and through thousands of phone calls and texts, fans don't see it and have a hard time evaluating it. Fans have an easy time judging whether a coach screwed up by punting on fourth and four from the opponent's 37. Likewise, they can tell when the opponent jumps out to a 17-3 lead that their team's preparations during the week were misguided, although the explanation is often that the opponent just has better players.
So what happens when a team has several top 25 recruiting classes, but achieves only middling results on the field? The fans decide that the head guy cannot coach (or at least they reach that decision after the most unpopular coordinator is replaced and the results don't change). Already angry that they are paying through the nose for tickets, a program's backers end up demanding a head coaching change because the guy in charge is wasting talent and the results on the field aren't what were hoped for on Signing Day.
If you think that most fans can respond to 7-5 season with equanimity, concluding that, "it's true that we have a lot of four-star players, but so do the opponents on our schedule," then you have more faith in humanity's rational thought than I do.
3. Nick Saban
Until he decamps for the NFL or otherwise finds something more interesting than collecting crystal footballs, Nick Saban is going to suck most of the oxygen that would otherwise fill the lungs of the coaches in the rest of the SEC.
How would LSU fans feel about Les Miles if he didn't have the general misfortune of coaching in the same division as the modern-day Bear Bryant and the specific misfortune of beating Saban in Tuscaloosa in an epic No. 1 versus No. 2 game and then having to repeat the trick two months later? Would the name Mark Richt and the term hot seat ever be used in the same sentence if Saban hadn't been in the way of the Dawgs winning Richt's third SEC title and his first national title this year? Would Derek Dooley's time in Knoxville have turned out different if the Vols weren't beaten senseless by their arch rival with Neyland Stadium one-quarter crimson?
With some exceptions (read: Gene Chizik), conference and national titles provide job security for the coaches who win them. If the guy in Tuscaloosa is stealing all the cheese, then everyone else's job security is just a dream. Short of the coaches in the league hatching a plan at the league meetings to kidnap Saban or the fans in the league suddenly developing an acceptance of their programs playing second fiddle, SEC head coaches are going to have to deal with hotter seats in coming years.
Like polar bears, these coaches are facing a threat from climate change.