In physics, centrifugal force is the force that acts on an object while that object goes around a curve or circular path. As the speed around that curve increases, more centrifugal force is applied to the object and it is pushed out away from the axis faster. In human terms, you feel the effects of centrifugal force when your car turns and inertia pushes you away from the center of the turn or when you feel yourself being pushed outward as the speed increases on a carousel ride.
The feeling of being pushed off a carousel is also an apt metaphor for what’s happened so far in the college football coaching ranks. These days, as the coaching carousel spins ever faster, more coaches are being fired and shucked off the ride much sooner than ever before.
Nebraska fired head coach Scott Frost on Sept. 11th after an 0-3 start and a 16-31 overall record. While that move required the university to pay Frost a $15 million buyout, had the school waited until Oct. 1st, the buyout price would have been only $7.5 million. A week later, Arizona State fired Herm Edwards after a 1-2 start and an overall record of 26-20 with three bowl appearances. Edwards’s buyout could be worth $9 million.
Finally, just last Sunday, Wisconsin booted Paul Chryst after a 2-3 start to the season. Chryst’s dismissal was even more shocking, considering he led the Badgers to a 67-26 record in seven seasons and to the Rose Bowl in 2019. His buyout cost, which could have totaled almost $20 million remaining on his contract, was negotiated down to $11 million. Even more shocking was Chryst’s termination marked the first time in 33 years that Wisconsin had fired a head football coach.
As these early season coaching dismissals show, with the college football coaching carousel spinning faster, coaches are being tossed aside earlier than ever, regardless of the costs involved. But why is that carousel spinning faster? Consider these elements:
Until recently, athletic directors would have kept coaches around longer to avoid the steep buyout payments that Frost, Edwards, and Chryst received. However, thanks to athletics-related fundraising and astronomical television contracts for both NCAA football and basketball, college athletic departments are flush with cash. Much of that cash has gone to coaches in the form of exponentially higher salaries (see Lincoln Riley at USC and Brian Kelly at LSU) and to improved facilities. But with those higher salaries come higher expectations. If a coach isn’t winning, schools and donors are now more willing to spend the money earlier to buy out a coach and move on.
As the pay scale for head coaches has risen, many football programs turn to assistant coaches for a quick, easy, and affordable transition. For many college football programs, firing a head coach early in the season provides a chance to hand the reins over to a younger, up-and-coming assistant coach while also keeping that coaching talent in-house and away from a bidding war with other schools’ offers.
If that coach shows he has what it takes on the sideline and on the recruiting trail, a school can lock up that coach to a contract at a lower cost than they’d pay an established coach. If it doesn’t work out, then the school can at least tread water for the remainder of the season while identifying other coaching candidates to hire immediately following the season.
Playing The Portal
The NCAA’s transfer portal now offers many college football programs the opportunity to rebuild on the fly. Therefore, firing a coach early in the season no longer means a program has to start from scratch with a new coach or wait for recruits to develop. Handing the reins to an assistant provides continuity and allows that coach to apply their skill as recruiters to incoming freshmen and potential transfers via the portal. In other words, if an athletic director doesn’t like the current trajectory of his school’s football program, firing the head coach earlier gives his successor more time to enhance the team via the transfer portal.
In pro football, most coaches know they’re hired to eventually be fired. That’s just the business of the sport. However, as college football has become big business too, wins and losses matter far more than GPAs and graduation rates. And as the coaching carousel spins faster, it seems college coaches are being hired and fired faster than ever before.