I am certain that there are those who will disagree, but in my opinion, the head coach of a college football team has a much harder row to hoe than does a guy coaching in the NFL. NFL teams acquire players through the draft, free agency and trades. Every NFL team has a bevy of professionals to assist its GM and coach with player and personnel decisions. Assembling an NFL roster is a series of bottom-line business decisions.
On the other hand, a CFB HC and his assistants have to be Don Juan-like seducers of high school athletes. If he doesn’t convince a good number of star football players to spend the next three, four or five years with him, he will soon be an unemployed HC. He not only has to sell his school’s football program but also its academics. Oftentimes, he will be coaching in a state that produces no more than a handful of big time college prospects every season, so his reach has to be regional and nationwide.
And unlike love, where all is fair, recruiting high school boys has to be conducted under the watchful eye of the NCAA and its myriad and oft confusing and antiquated recruiting rule book. As Boise State learned the hard way, you never provide a futon for a recruit to sleep on. And of course, you can give a kid a bagel but most certainly not with cream cheese! Girls on campus can show the boys around, but no hanky-panky, please!
There is not a direct corollary between CFB recruiting and CFB championships, but it is darn close. In recent seasons, the only school to break out of the paradigm of playing for a championship without being in the upper stratosphere of recruiting is Oregon. Nick Saban wins titles on signing day(s) as much as on the field. (Why wouldn’t a kid who worshiped Marcus Mariota go to Alabama?)
Although there are circus freaks among their number, NFL football players are grown men whose living and quality of life is defined by their on-field performance. If you are not performing at a high level or your social behavior or conduct as a team member is suspect, you will soon be out the door.
On the other hand, a CFB HC has to be a baby sitter. Are the players going to class and making the grade? Are the players focusing on football or on problems with their girlfriend? Are the players drinking too much or using drugs other than alcohol? A player may be dismissed from a school due to improper conduct — not for failing to perform on the field. Yes, you can kick a kid off of the team for lack of effort and being a bad teammate, but in today’s world his scholarship is not going away. It will continue to count against the relatively small number of players who can be granted a scholarship. It also means one fewer guy available for practice.
There are 32 HC jobs in the NFL. There are 130 such jobs available for teams (supposedly) eligible to make the Playoff Final 4, and more money may be available for assistant coaches at top tier schools than your school is willing or able to pay. (Jim Leavitt ‘transferring’ from Colorado to Oregon is a perfect example). In the NFL, the pay scale of assistant coaches is not radically different. So, you elevate an obscure offensive coordinator from, say, the University of New Hampshire, and after he does an excellent job for you, thereby vindicating this out-of-the-blue hire, he is off to greener pastures.
With apologies to Saint Nick Saban, being a grumpy curmudgeon, (such as the Patriots head coach) is not going to cut it. A CFB HC has to be a booster glad-hander, fund raiser and often the point person for his school’s public relations. In today’s world of enlightened (?) social media, the public’s perception can change in a tweeting hive mind second. See, the recent brouhaha involving Urban Meyer.
Finally, you go 8-8 in the NFL and you have an even chance to be in the Playoff mix. Go 6-6 in CFB and, at best, you are playing North, South, East or Western State in the Fans Disguised As Empty Seats Bowl, brought to you by Not Long For This World, Inc.
Be mediocre long enough so that the proceeds generated by the football program suffer, and see you later. Money has to be made on the football field to adequately fund other sports. College basketball is the only other sport that regularly brings in the bacon.
With the above in mind, let’s consider a few coaching, “What if’s?”
What if … Nick Saban stays true to his ‘word’ (don’t you just hate it when coaches lie to reporters) and continues to coach in the NFL, where he cannot corral the best talent, has to go on the road for half the games and routinely competes against teams of equal talent? Does Nick own a single Super Bowl ring?
What if … Mark Mangino, the winner of many Coach of the Year awards in 2007, when Kansas (Kansas!) went 12-1, including a victory over VA Tech in the Orange Bowl, was still hanging out with Dorothy and Toto? Mark was fired for being a meany; for hurting his wittle players’ self esteem. How has Kansas looked since? Ask the Jayhawk who is still writing the checks to Coach Decided Schematic Advantage, Charlie Weis.
What if … Mack Brown is still the HC on The Forty Acres? Would the Longhorns be hooked at .500 since Vince Young took down Troy? Would people other than parents of players and the players close friends tune into The Longhorn Network?
What if … Texas Tech doesn’t overcome a 38-7 third quarter deficit and defeat Minnesota in OT in the Insight Bowl with the immediate post-game dumping of Glen Mason by an AD with no foresight? Mason cannot turn the clock back to The Gophers glory days of the early 1960s, but he does continue to turn out excellent running backs and, while not at the top, Minny is in the top tier of B1G teams? (Who knows, maybe Coach Fleck will find a row boat time machine?) Of course, Glen may be better off with his announcing gig on the B1G Network. People actually watch this Network.
What if … Jim Tressel isn’t fired for the outrageous horror of Tattoo Gate, and Urban Meyer is still with The World Wide Leader and not being lynched by the PC mob?
What if … Joe Pa quits twenty years earlier? Are the horrendous actions of Sandusky still a big news story?
Closer to Home …
What if … The BCS at its inception is a four-team instead of two-team invitational, and USC is not routinely snubbed? The NCAA doesn’t go ballistic over one guy being paid not to play for SC — being paid not to play for the Trojans his senior year? Pete Carroll stays in South Central, SC does not dip as badly as it has, the Pac 12 Network is distributed on all cable carriers nationwide, and Left Coast games are played in the sunshine?
What if … Don James is not run out of Seattle by the NCAA because a QB named Billy Jo was, unknown to Don, paid. (Shouldn’t a guy named Billy Jo be balling in the SEC? Sonny Sixkiller – now there’s a name for a Left Coast QB!)
What if … Perhaps the worst college AD of all time, Pat Haden, ignores the fact that no one at LA Country Club can understand what in the hell his coach is saying, keeps Ed Orgeron and doesn’t hire (Cutty) Sark? If we did not have preseason polls and the eye test, LSU, with the two best wins this year so far, would be a clear No. 1. (At least until the Tide rolls into, and likely over, The Bayou.)
Very Close to Home …
What if … After The Corvallis Convicts beat The Catholics, Dennis Erickson decides that The Peacock is the best bar in the USA and stays with The Beavers?
Search “Mike Bellotti,” and one of the results that pops up is, “Mike Bellotti Pension.” OK, I can kind of understand why a person who is receiving $559,000 in pension benefits, in addition to double dipping for one year as Oregon’s AD and then for a few years as The Left Coast Guy on ESPN, would retire at a young age. As discussed above, being a CFB HC is not a bowl of cherries.
But to quit at 57? With him and his family members in seemingly perfect health? And after building on what Coach Rich Brooks had started with a close to 68% winning percentage as Oregon’s HC (116-55)? And with the largess of Uncle Phil at hand? I really didn’t get it then and I still don’t. As a matter of fact, I believe Mike, at a youthful 67, could still be on the Ducks sideline today. Even though he departed at a relatively young age, look at the man’s coaching tree: Chip Kelly; Dirk Koetter; Chris Petersen; Robin Pflugard; Mark Helfrich and, no spring chicken himself, Jeff Tedford.
I have no doubt that, without the great off-the-radar hires of Chip Kelly as OC and the most underrated Nick Aliotti as DC, the Ducks would not have played Auburn in the BCS champ game and Ohio State in the Playoff champ game. Mike bought into The Chipper’s O system in full. Coach Aliotti, except for one post-game blow up at Mike Leach, had the perfect scheme and temperament to coach a D that, when paired with a hurry up offense, was going to spend a lot of minutes on the field. As Nick oft stated, you can surrender a lot of yards; just do not surrender a lot of points. And, assuming that Chip would have been romanced elsewhere, what if Mark Helfrich was a more than adequate replacement at OC? Make no mistake, Mark may not have had the chops to be a HC (anymore than I have the chops to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company), but Mark was an excellent O coordinator.
So, what happens if Mike stays?
I am close to certain that the Ducks fortunes would not have dipped, as has been the case post-Chipper and, obviously, Oregon would not have experienced the recent HC merry-go-round.
I see absolutely no reason why the Ducks would not have played Auburn for the BCS title in 2011. Under any rational system, in 2001, Mike would already have had Oregon in a BCS title game versus The U. (Maybe it’s a good thing that Oregon was Ducked out of playing this particular Miami team and beat up on Ralphie instead?) And, while the Ducks gave Auburn and Cam all they could handle, would Mike have stepped in and ordered Chip to call more pass plays instead of butting heads against the immovable Auburn D line? I, for one, think Kelly called a terrible game against the Tigers. Stubbornly calling run plays that were not working instead of calling pass plays that were working. He played right into Auburn’s strength, why?
In 2015, who would you rather have had on the sideline versus the Buckeyes? Mark Helfrich or Mike Bellotti? That was an excellent Buckeyes team, and I am not saying Oregon (especially with the NCAA benching Darren Carrington for smoking pot but not Joey Bosa) under coach Bellotti pulls off the win.
But I most certainly believe that Ducks would have been better prepared for the Buckeyes under Mike’s seasoned tutelage than it was under an inexperienced head coach. (In fairness and in hindsight, Oregon did not look half bad under Mark versus (Infamous) Jameis in the Rose Bowl.)
What say you? Is coaching college kids more difficult than coaching pros? Am I right in questioning the coaching decisions that I did? I’m certain that there are more and better examples than I cited.
And if Mike had not resigned, would the Ducks be a consistent player for the Pac-12 championship? Would they have not been blown out at home by the likes of Wazoo? Would they have a BCS Trophy on display or have won the first Playoff?
One thing I do know for certain: I wish Coach Mario Cristobal and crew nothing but the best.
Top Photo from Video
Jon Joseph grew up in Boston, Massachusetts but has been blessed to have lived long enough in the west to have exorcised all east coast bias. He played football in college and has passionately followed the game for seven decades. A retired corporate attorney Jon has lectured across the country and published numerous articles on banking and gaming law. Now a resident of Aiken South Carolina, Jon follows college football across the nation with a focus on the Conference of Champions and the Ducks.
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