College football coaches are dropping like flies (well, rich flies)

  In January of 1999, Rick Neuheisel was introduced as the new University of Washington football coach, at an eye-opening salary of $997,000 annually. Rounding up a few shoe-shines, Neuheisel was the fifth college-football coach making a mil a year.

  A decade later, in 2009, I can recall interviewing Nick Holt, Steve Sarkisian’s first defensive coordinator at the UW. Holt was being paid $600,000, at the time a fairly stunning number (it became a lot more stunning once we’d witnessed some of Holt’s defenses).

  Gee, today those standards seem almost quaint.

  In the latest where’s-this-train-heading trend, we’re seeing a mind-warping number of in-season coach firings, both of head guys and assistants. This week, when Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech got cashiered, it made it an even dozen head coaches put out to pasture by mid-November. Given that there are 130 FBS programs, it surely means that before the end of the month, 10 percent or more of the CEOs in the sport will have been shown the door.

  This is, by the length of a figurative deep ball from Patrick Mahomes, unprecedented in the sport. From 2017-2020, only five head men were bounced before November. Now it’s like the cost of doing business.

  Under the radar, but a trend as abrupt, is that the buck has been passed to assistant coaches. More than ever, the head coach begins his Monday press conference review-preview with something on the order of “We wish Jim Bob nothing but the best going forward,” another way of saying, “With him as DC, we couldn’t get off the field on third down if they let us use stun guns.”

  Earlier this month, Scott Frost of Nebraska canned four assistants in one grand swoop. At Florida, Dan Mullen jettisoned his defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, and another aide. Washington cashiered offensive coordinator John Donovan, much more briskly than Donovan’s offense moved. At Oregon State, Jonathan Smith let go his defensive coordinator, Tim Tibesar – in a season in which OSU will go to a bowl game for the first time in eight years.

  The avalanche of turnover reached ludicrous proportions last week, when Herm Edwards of Arizona State stood across the field from a third straight interim head coach. Of course, Edwards himself is in peril as his program is the target of an NCAA investigation.

  I suppose you could ascribe some of the administrative urgency in 2021 to the crush of the pandemic in 2020. What might have been forbearance during an unprecedented season a year ago has morphed into a firing frenzy. Meanwhile, the implementation of a December letters-of-intent signing date in 2017 has perhaps had the effect of firings that would have taken place later.

  Neuheisel, who has seemingly lived several lifetimes since that Washington intro, told KJR radio in Seattle the other day he lays much of the coaching upheaval to the turmoil in roster generation fed by the transfer portal. Calling it “wildly evolving,” he said he foresees a time shortly when college programs will mirror an “NFL model,” with a “general manager,“ somebody to handle the personalities on a daily basis. That could be the head coach, but that would then augur a greater role for somebody in devising game plans and strategy.

  The GM would logically have some role in shaping name-image-likeness direction. (Or maybe that goes to one of your video coordinators, or quality-control minions, or the six-figure jockey in charge of making coffee in the morning.)

  Look, football’s place at the top of the athletic-department food chain isn’t exactly breaking news. It’s just that the speed of this locomotive – salaries, atop the balls-to-the-wall rush for the best facilities, followed by trigger-mad administrators – has become breathtaking.

  In 2009, there were eight head coaches making $3 million a year. Today, 51. One of those was Jimmy Lake, whose pink slip after getting whacked at Washington was accompanied by more than nine million dollars’ buyout.

  Where’s it all headed? Two guesses: Toward a collegiate superconference, to perhaps 20 or 25 schools that really want to push all their chips in. Or a model in which the football apparatus is only loosely connected to the university, unencumbered by NCAA academic standards. Those could be one and the same.

  To me, that doesn’t sound good. But it’s getting a little late for pearl-clutching.