The growing power of college football coaches

  So I’m going to the Washington-Oregon State football game Friday night with a few other guys.

  Looking forward to seeing the Husky quarterback, Michael Penix. And a host of UW receivers. And Oregon State’s Jack Colletto, the handiest football player in America.

  But wait a minute. Maybe I’m really going to see Dylan Morris, or whoever’s backing up Penix these days. Maybe the Huskies will have a couple of receivers on the field I’ve never heard of. Maybe Jack Colletto doesn’t play and gets replaced by Joe Dokes from Sheboygan.

  I bring this up in the wake of Utah’s victory at Washington State last Thursday night, in which the Utes surprised everybody by trotting out Bryson Barnes instead of the reigning All-Pac-12 quarterback, Cam Rising, who never saw the field, unless you count his time in a yellow vest from the sideline.

  With Rising and others banged up, Utah survived, and afterward, its coach, Kyle Whittingham, lauded their resilience. What he probably should have said was, “We ran the ball well, made some plays on defense, and we did a hell of a job concealing our injuries.”

  This stinks, as does a collegiate system that has somehow bent grossly to the side of football coaches, treating them as though they belong on a royal throne, to be addressed only on bended knee.

  Last week after the Utah saga, Portland columnist John Canzano interviewed the TV analyst for the game, Petros Papadakis, and he indicated that he and his Fox talent were completely blindsided by the Rising development. It’s routine that the coach tips the announcers to such contingencies in their late-week meeting, so the network doesn’t embarrass itself.

  The absence of that courtesy is a bad look for Utah and Whittingham. But I’d like to focus on a different victim – the fan.

  I’m paying $102 for that Washington-Oregon State ticket, for a good, but not great, seat. At that price, is it too much to ask that I have a pretty accurate idea who’s playing?

  College football badly needs a pro-style system of injury reporting. Instead, what we have is coaches mouthing cutesy phrases like, “He’s day-to-day; everybody’s day-to-day” and winking at their cleverness.

  Because they’ve been allowed to.

  A little perspective is in order. Back in the dark ages, when I first covered college football, there were usually no more than 3-4 reporters covering a team – often less – and the coach typically got to know them. Practices were open, and there might have been some ground rules about reporting injuries. But most coaches seemed to accept it as part of the territory, and seemed to understand that they weren’t in the business of guarding nuclear codes. (Washington’s Don James erupting over a practice thumb injury to quarterback Cary Conklin was a notable exception in the late ’80s.)

  Then came two negative developments in coach-reporter relations: Fan websites, and camera phones. Suddenly, there were more people covering a team, people the coach didn’t know, and there was the fear that they’d report some strategy from practice or take photographs.

  That led to closing practices — a lousy thing for people trying to understand the team, to gain insight into the players, to better relate to readers what made the program tick.

  For coaches, it was easier just to close practices. And when that happened, they’d try to out-obfuscate their opponents. You know, like they were Patton, leading the campaign in north Africa.

  Somehow, coaches have gained all the power, without apparent pushback. Auburn just fired Bryan Harsin and owes him $15 million, and the fact that’s relative peanuts is symptomatic of the problem.

  USA Today did an extensive piece three weeks ago on how coaching buyouts have skyrocketed. The two highest are the $86 million owed to Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker. Eighty-six mil, owed to both Fisher and Tucker if they were to be fired without cause – for wins and losses, in other words.

  For its money, A&M has gotten a middle-of-the-SEC coach who seems to be underachieving. Tucker? Well, he had a nice 11-2 season a year ago, and he may turn out to be a great coach. What we do know for sure is that back in 2020, he was preaching loyalty and the wonders of Colorado football as he was near the end of negotiations with Michigan State; that he just had to suspend four players for a post-game runway dustup with Michigan players; and that he’s 3-5.

  Todd Turner, the former Washington athletic director who now runs a search firm, told USA Today, “I’ve been in these negotiations myself as an AD, and I can tell you when you talk to the (coaches’) agents, they want everything fully guaranteed, and it just depends on whether you’ve got the discipline and the strength and the backing to say, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ That’s where we as an industry have not had courage.”

  (I think ADs have become deathly afraid of the turndown in making hires, or of the search being perceived as botched. So they cave.)

  If you’re a coach, you skate, because you can. Because somebody at Auburn decided it simply had to have Bryan Harsin, for some reason, even though his connection to the Southeast was minimal.

  And if you’re a fan, you take it, just like you take the announcements of night games with six-day TV windows, and the long drives home in the rain after 11 p.m. 

  As for handling injury news, you say HIPAA laws prevent it. Wrong. HIPAA has nothing to do with it. But if those concerns need addressing, then simply omit the injury and list the player’s status, as in “out” or “questionable” or “doubtful.” Seems to work pretty well for the NFL.

  Me, I’ve got Bruce Springsteen tickets for Climate Pledge Arena next February. I’m hoping Air Supply doesn’t show up instead.