Agents say 'Double Standard' puts college coaches in a no-win situation

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By Russ Campbell and Patrick Strong
Special to CBSSports.com

Since 2005, 100 FBS head football coaches have been terminated "without cause," terminated "for convenience" or "resigned" with a negotiated buyout. Of those 100, nearly 95 percent had at least one year remaining on their contract and 51 percent had three or more years remaining.

From 2005-2010, four FBS head coaches were fired without cause after only two seasons. In 2011, three were fired just two years into five- or six-year contracts: Turner Gill (Kansas), Larry Porter (Memphis) and Rob Ianello (Akron). This year, Jon Embree (Colorado) was fired in only his second season, and on Tuesday, Southern Miss announced it was firing Ellis Johnson one year after it hired him.

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The issue is not the merits (football or otherwise) of a school's decision. Whether Gill or Porter or Ianello were given enough time, whether Texas A&M rushed its decision on Mike Sherman or whether Maryland jumped the gun on Ralph Friedgen has been debated ad nauseam. The issue is how differently the two sides (coaches and universities) are judged when changes occur: The Double Standard.

We have more than 20 years combined experience representing coaches. We've negotiated more than $160 million in coaching contracts since 2007. We've stood alongside coaches and their families through good times and bad, from hirings to firings and the corresponding publicity. We've experienced the Double Standard firsthand. It's real and can have a lasting impact on a coach's career and financial well-being.

When a coach decides to leave a program, he is often vilified. When a university decides to "make a change" they are often applauded. For fans and media, the distinction is nearly invisible. The conflicting treatment rolls off the tongue, laced with enthusiasm for a new hire, a new start. For a coach (and his wife, children, assistants and their wives, children, etc.), the Double Standard manifests, painfully, on many fronts.

A coach's character is routinely criticized when it comes to other job opportunities. His "loyalty" and "commitment" are publicly questioned after a mere tweet that he is a candidate elsewhere. If a coach is brave enough to interview and/or accept a new position, the criticism escalates. After leaving LSU and then the Miami Dolphins, one headline read, "Nick Saban will always remain faithfully unfaithful." When Lane Kiffin departed Knoxville for LA, one national writer called him "a traitor."

Different rhetoric flows when a school decides to hit the reset button. Words like "new direction," "need for change," and "business decision" color the conversation. Auburn's decision to fire Gene Chizik only two years removed from the school's first national championship since 1957 (and only two years into a contract extension), is a glaring example. Whether you agree or disagree with Auburn's decision, the conspicuous absence of the concepts of loyalty and commitment cannot be credibly debated.

When Nick Saban made his first trip to Baton Rouge as Alabama's head coach, LSU fans and many media members seized on his character. Taking a different approach, John DeShazier of the Times-Picayune observed that Saban's departure from LSU for the Miami Dolphins or Miami for Tuscaloosa was no "less ham-handedly" than his departure from Michigan State for LSU -- where the same fans praised his arrival.

Let's call it straight -- the relationship between a coach and a university is simply a business relationship between an employer and employee. This is his job and he rarely has the same emotional ties to the university as its die-hard fans. Over his career he has uprooted his entire family multiple times (whether by choice or otherwise), moving to new cities with new schools and new problems. True loyalty rarely has time to root. A coach's objective is to teach, develop and mold young men. His goal is to find the best platform for him and his family to earn a living doing his job.

Would it have been disloyal for coaches Gill, Porter or Ianello to jump ship after two years to take another job? If yes, then Kansas, Memphis, Akron and Colorado were equally disloyal.

Mike Shula took the helm at Alabama as a popular former player during a particularly turbulent time in Alabama's football history. Did Alabama show loyalty when it fired him one year removed from a 10-win season and with the ink still wet on a multiyear extension? No. Alabama believed there was a better coach out there and moved on it; it was a calculated business decision for which Alabama athletic director Mal Moore has been widely praised.

Universities have been climbing their own proverbial "corporate ladder" for decades via firings and hirings and, more recently, through conference realignment. In the past 24 months, at least 24 FBS schools (18 percent) have jumped conference ships; using phrases like "financial security," "greater visibility" and "stable financial resources" as justification.

Why should coaches be any different? They have chosen a profession and should have the right to make decisions they believe enhance their career without being reviled for doing so.

Saban was blasted when he told the media "I'm not going to be the coach at Alabama" only to become the coach at Alabama. Tommy Tuberville has never lived down the statement that "they'll have to carry me out of [Oxford] in a pine box," only to catch a Learjet to Auburn two days later.

Now contrast the university public relations tactic known as the "vote of confidence." In May 2010, Miami's president announced a four-year contract extension for Randy Shannon. He was fired six months later. In November 2010, Maryland's athletic director promised fans that "Coach Friedgen will be our head coach next year." He was fired one month later. Sylvester Croom (Mississippi State) and Ed Orgeron (Ole Miss), among others, received similar public support only to be fired shortly thereafter. Yet it is hard to find media stories lambasting the university officials for pulling a 180.

Part of the problem is the process itself. Coaches rumored to be considered for other positions get pounded by the media. They can't escape. The questions keep coming, often even before he knows whether he's a candidate or before he's had time to assess whether he wants to be a candidate. Sometimes it's after the coach has been instructed by the potential employer that if his name leaks, he is no longer a candidate -- a no-win proposition.

Avoid the question and you are hiding something. Answer honestly and you are disloyal, disrupting your current season and being eliminated from consideration before fully considering the new opportunity. Ultimately, a coach wants it to stop, to shift focus to his current team and their upcoming opponent, so he says something. The media has what it wants, a commitment (or what is characterized as one) on the record. It is a similar dilemma for a university. In the midst of a down season, officials get bombarded with questions about a coach's job security. Say nothing and it ramps up the speculation. Or the university says what it has to say to keep the team and fans together: the (usually proven untrue) vote of confidence.

Perhaps certain criticisms of a coach's statements are fair. Some have gone too far. Or perhaps he meant what he said and later changed his mind. Either way, if a university can so swiftly reverse field on a vote of confidence shouldn't a coach's "I'm staying" be viewed in the moment and at least de-emphasized as a window to his character?

Coaches who choose to leave before the end of a season are often branded quitters, sometimes cowards. Universities that fire their coach before the end of the season are simply getting a head start on the process.

Idaho recently fired Robb Akey with four games left, and Arizona fired Mike Stoops with six games remaining in 2011 (although not college football, the Lakers recently fired coach Mike Brown just five games into an 82-game season). Compare that to Brian Kelly's departure from Cincinnati for Notre Dame with only a bowl game remaining or Bobby Petrino's departure from the Atlanta Falcons with three games left. While we are comparing, consider that only four years prior to Petrino leaving Atlanta, the very same Falcons owner fired former coach Dan Reeves with three games remaining (in a similar 3-10 season). His explanation was that the franchise wanted to be "honest and look forward." Not the same words he used in blasting Coach Petrino's decision.

A coach's contract dictates his relationship with the university. It is negotiated to anticipate both a coach leaving for another job and/or getting fired. The contract captures a clear understanding of what happens if (or when) they part ways. Some say the contracts are worthless -- no one respects the commitments. To the contrary, a good coaching contract provides a roadmap for both sides that covers all potential breakups and all financial obligations: who will pay what, when and where.

The Big East and the Big 12 reportedly received millions (reportedly ranging anywhere from $9 to $20 million per school) from West Virginia, Texas A&M, Missouri and Nebraska when they decided to leave those conferences for better opportunities. The vast majority of coaches pay hefty buyouts in order to leave for what they perceive to be better opportunities. In so doing, they satisfy their commitment associated with the separation.

What is the difference between West Virginia's departure from the Big East and Saban's departure from LSU or Kelly's departure from Cincinnati? None, the contracts worked as negotiated: one party exited for a better opportunity and paid a buyout. Yet they simply aren't viewed the same.

Need further proof? Consider recent events at Pitt. Todd Graham was scorched for abruptly leaving to take the Arizona State job. National sports headlines included jabs like, "Arizona State coach Todd Graham shows there's no loyalty in sports."

Pitt released a statement that questioned, in part, Graham's "professional conduct." Never mind that Arizona State ultimately paid Pitt the $1 million buyout required by Graham's contract. Less than four months later, Pitt announced that they were leaving the Big East, a move that according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "caught Big East officials off guard" since "the conference had no idea this was coming." Louisville's athletic director was quoted by the Post-Gazette as saying the Big East commissioner "was stunned." He added, "I think he at least deserved a phone call, he didn't need to hear about it from" a reporter.

How about this: Universities are increasingly utilizing search firms/consultants to identify, investigate and hire coaches. Since 2007, more than 65 percent of the searches we have been part of involved search firms/consultants. The rub is not their involvement (we typically prefer it), it's the very same university refusing to "deal" with a coach's agent.

Consider this: a school has interviewed a potential coach and decided he is the guy. It's time to talk contract. The coach says, "You need to talk to my agent." The university responds, "I deal directly with coaches, I don't deal with agents." This is not a hypothetical.

So where is the Double Standard? The coach got to the interview, in part, because the university's "consultant" made contact with the coach or his agent (sometimes before the sitting coach is fired). The consultant works on behalf of the university, in part, to get the coach and the athletic director together; a role similarly played by agents for coaches. So, it is OK for the university to use an agent, but not the coach?

As a young coach in 2003, Bobby Petrino, unrepresented at the time, made the mistake of talking to Auburn representatives when Auburn had a sitting head coach. The media and fan scrutiny of what became known as "Jetgate" was, and remains to this day, relentless for Petrino. The public did not like what they perceived to be a "secret meeting."

In April 2012, Washington State's athletic director gave a candid interview to the Seattle Times as part of an article titled: "Art of hiring college football coaches: secrets, money and pressure." In the article, Bill Moos spoke openly about a Nov. 15, 2011 trip he took to Key West, Fla., likening the experience to an episode of the spy series "Mission Impossible."

According to the Times: "[o]nly a tight circle of confidants -- 'less than you can count on one hand' -- knew he was on a plane to Key West, Fla., Nov. 15 to sound out free agent Mike Leach as a potential new football coach at Washington State."

The Cougar football team still had two games remaining and their current head coach, Paul Wulff, was oblivious to the clandestine events already in motion.

Moos was using a private credit card to further the veil of secrecy. He didn't enlist a so-called "head hunter" search firm, opting instead for a trusted friend from Eugene, Ore., to act as third party. Until he came face-to-face with Leach in a Marriott hotel on the island, it was all done through intermediaries. Moos fired Paul Wulff on Nov. 28, his coaching prize already in hand due to his "secret meeting," naming Leach the head coach two days later.

While Moos did it on his own, other schools create their veil of secrecy through consultants/search firms. When a university does it, it's an entertaining story lauded as an "art" or a lauded "stealth option." When a coach does it, it's an outrage with a very sticky catchy name. Admittedly, Auburn officials also caught flack for Jetgate. But employing simple word association today, Petrino instantly rolls off the tongue.

A less public example arises when universities use the aforementioned "no agent" policy to tip the balance in negotiations. An offer sheet is developed by an athletic director, in consultation with in-house/outside counsel, consultant/search firm, and the university financial officer, president, board of trustees and/or key boosters. The athletic director has significant experience running a multimillion dollar athletic department and negotiating high-dollar contracts. The end result is a formidable team: a highly skilled administrator with a support group designed to supplement any weaknesses and make sure all bases are covered.

The coach has experience -- but in a totally different field and a totally different depth. Oftentimes he has never negotiated a contract and has no concept of the numerous contractual pitfalls (the "outs" that every university wants in a contract). Bear in mind that this is all happening extremely fast, sometimes in a span of less than 24 chaotic hours. The coach retains a trusted agent for their experience, market knowledge and negotiating ability. Like the university, he is supplementing his weaknesses and making sure his bases are covered. Only to be told, "We don't deal with agents."

This is not to insinuate that universities have bad intentions. But the bottom line is that sometimes things get misinterpreted, misconstrued or left out when there is no agent protecting the coach. Universities have every right to utilize the services of internal advisors and third-party representatives. The coach should have that same right and the relationship should be respected. Too often, it's not.

Perhaps the Double Standard exists because of the emotions of college football. Yearly, fans spend thousands of dollars supporting their teams while at the same time cutting back on other non-essentials. Emotions and money have a tendency to make reasonable people unreasonable.

Perhaps it's also easier to vilify an individual (the coaches) than it is an institution (a university). Some say it is fueled by the coach's need to follow through with the kids he recruited. Yet these are the same kids who seek to jump to "the league" as soon as possible. Maybe it is simply the herd mentality -- fans feeling right because others agree.

Whatever the case might be, the annual coaching carousel -- and its attending chaos -- has been viewed through the prism of the Double Standard for years. We are not naïve enough to think this article will change that. That is not the goal. The goal is simply to highlight its existence and, perhaps, get folks to at least appreciate a coach's perspective as the dominos begin to fall this year.

Russ Campbell and Patrick Strong (Balch Sports) are sports attorneys specializing in assisting coaches (football, baseball and basketball) with job placement, marketing and contract negotiation at both the collegiate and professional level. In football, Russ and Patrick represent more than 25 coaches, including head coaches Larry Fedora (North Carolina), Sonny Dykes (Lousiana Tech), Mark Hudspeth (Louisiana-Lafayette), Garrick McGee (UAB), and former Auburn coach Gene Chizik.

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