The real problem with firing your coach in September
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Between COVID, running a business, and fatherhood, my sense of time has been completely obliterated. But I'm pretty sure it's only late September right now. The leaves on the trees are still green, and it's still in the mid 80s here in Chicago. The college football regular season is only 25% over, and half the country hasn't even played a conference game. Fall hasn't started yet.
Yet at the FBS level, we have not one, but two FBS head coach openings. Nebraska canned Scott Frost last week, (and their defensive coordinator a week later) and on Sunday afternoon, Arizona State ended their flirtation with their New Leadership Model or whatever branded excuse they used for hiring Herm Edwards...by firing Herm Edwards.
On the surface, one can make a credible argument for making the decision to fire both coaches. After three weeks, Nebraska had lost close games to Northwestern and Georgia Southern, and was just 16-31 under Frost. Arizona State, facing NCAA investigations over recruiting and COVID protocol violations, and a mass migration of staff and roster talent away from Tempe, just lost to Eastern Michigan...a program famous for historically not even being the best football team in Eastern Michigan.
Sure, both Nebraska and Arizona State are only 1-2. They could both technically still make a bowl game, and there's plenty of meaningful football left to be played. But it's difficult to argue either program is headed in a positive direction.
Before we get to the part of the news cycle where we all text agents and consultants and start tweeting potential names to be considered, I want to posit a different question.
It's not like the problems at Nebraska and Arizona State materialized yesterday.
So why are they firing coaches now?
The situations at Nebraska and Arizona State aren't completely similar, but they both do speak to some questions about institutional decision-making. Stick with me here for a second.
Heading into this season, Nebraska was 15-29 under Frost, including a terrible 3-9 record last year, Nebraska's worst since 1957 (and just how long ago was 1957? Do you know who won the SWC that year? RICE. Also, the SWC existed). Nebraska's 2022 recruiting class finished 10th in the Big Ten, worse than Maryland and Rutgers. It would have been entirely justifiable for a program with the expectations and resources of a Nebraska to fire the guy at the end of last year.
But the school decided not to do that. Part of that decision was perhaps because all nine of Nebraska's 2022 losses were by a single score, and statistics suggested some of that bad luck should change. Frost was also a beloved alum, and assuredly the school's administration and fans would have wanted him to succeed. Like, when they hired this dude, the Governor of the state declared it was Scott Frost Day, a proclamation that remains funnier every week.
But also...the school wanted to save money. Frost's buyout dropped after October of this year. If the school restructured his contract in favor of a more incentive-focused deal, they could do right by the beloved native son and save money.
Instead, by firing Frost in Week 3, Nebraska got the worst of all worlds. They wasted seven million dollars that could have been used elsewhere had they just waited a few weeks, and burned most of the year in roster development and recruiting. They are unquestionably more behind now than they would have been had they simply decided to move on last offseason.
I'm not going to make the bad-faith argument here that Nebraska should have used that seven million on books or teacher salaries or something educationally focused. That money almost assuredly came from boosters who wouldn't have been willing to donate it to, say, the agriculture department. But if they were willing to give the athletic department seven million, surely there would have been better ways for that money to be used that would more directly impact Nebraska athletes.
Arizona State also knew they were in trouble well before last week
Herm Edwards had a much more defensible win-loss record, but you didn't need to be Wikipedia Brown to figure out Sun Devils football was going in the wrong direction. As ESPN lays out here:
Edwards finishes his tenure at Arizona State (1-2) at 26-20 with one bowl win in five years. His time there will be remembered much more for the antics and issues off the field, as the NCAA investigation led to five full-time coaches leaving the staff, including both coordinators. The roster soon atrophied, as the program's best quarterback, running back, defensive lineman, linebacker and two best wide receivers transferred out in the last year.
The entire football world knew after that level of roster and staff atrophy, the program was toast. In 2022, Arizona State signed the 103rd ranked recruiting class. That was worse than Ball State. Or Kent State. Or Florida International. Hell, the Campbell CAMELS signed a better recruiting class than Arizona State. That's an FCS program.
But Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson is buddies with Edwards. He used to be his agent, and school leadership publicly stood behind Edwards even amidst NCAA smoke. Now, the program lurches into a lost year.
Firing a guy before October means you probably should have fired him earlier. And if they misread the program so badly just a few months before, why should they be trusted to get it right this time?
Look, hiring football coaches is hard. Guys that look like slam dunks on paper, like Scott Frost, or Tom Herman at Texas, or Manny Diaz at Miami, fail all the time. Even if a school uses the best possible process during a hiring cycle, they might end up with a bad result. Somebody has to lose every football game, after all.
But if your process led you to say "we should keep this guy", and only three weeks worth of data is enough to change your mind, I think it's reasonable to call into question just how sound that previous process was. Did an AD misread the program because of a personal relationship with the coach? Did a group of outside parties, like boosters, either prevent a decision from being the previous year, or force the issue this year? Did attendance tank so dramatically that finances require an immediate change?
There are limits to how public and transparent schools can be, at least in the moment, when they discuss what went wrong and what changed...but they should be pushed hard to do so as much as possible, in my humble opinion.
After all, if the process to hire the next coach remains virtually the same...with the same AD, the same search committee, the same boosters, the same culture...you're leaving a massively important hire completely in the hands of luck. That's bad policy.
If you're going to commit to giving a coach another year to save some money...fine! Then let the guy coach out that year and actually save the money. If you want to make a quick decision to give a new regime time to evaluate the roster and recruit a full cycle, great! Then fire the coach at the end of the season and give the new staff as much time as possible together.
If you're going to pivot and completely change strategies before October, you need a really good reason...especially if you're going to ask donors to cut some big checks and ask them to trust you to get it right this time.
I don't think it's a big surprise that many of the same schools tend to find themselves paying heavy buyouts on a regular basis. There are some cultural issues that extend beyond the football building, and if those don't change...well...it's awfully hard to build the right kind of change in that building.
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