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Couch: Coaching Carousel Will Always Spin Out Of Control So Long As Boosters Are In Charge

It was 2013 when I first met Mack Brown. He was in trouble as Texas’ football coach, though he’d won a national championship and gotten the program back into the nation’s elite. Suddenly, his recruiting slipped, and things seemed to pass him by.

His office was enormous and had a huge fish tank. On his desk was a stack of blank notecards. Whenever anyone wrote him, he would handwrite a quick note back on those cards. He said that if people took the time to write to him, they deserved the same. It was so personal, human.

He was fired a few months later. And it got ugly during the season, as Brown tried to hang on while Texas billionaire boosters openly tried to get Alabama’s Nick Saban to take the job. At the time, someone asked booster Red McCombs if Texas could really afford Saban. He said this: 

“All the money that is not up at the Vatican is at UT.’’

So it was shocking this past September, less than seven years later, that UT had to lay off 35 athletic department employees as part of $13 million in savings of the “financial impact of COVID-19 related cancellations,’’ as athletic director Chris Del Conte wrote.

Yes, tough times. But now, three days ago, Texas fired football coach Tom Herman. Texas will give Herman and his staff $24 million in buyouts to walk away.

That’s right, just four months after Texas’ athletic department laid off 35 employees, some with families, it had someone standing by with an open checkbook.

This is getting gross. The college football season is in for a great finish with Alabama-Ohio State in the championship game. But the sport, the universities and the boosters have lost their compass.

Auburn paid Gus Malzahn $21 million to stop coaching. South Carolina gave Will Muschamp a $15.5 million buyout. Arizona gave Kevin Sumlin $7.3 million to walk away. Illinois got a bargain, having to pay Lovie Smith merely $2 million to go.

These massive buyouts in our education system are disgusting, especially at a time when students are piling up life-altering debts and teachers are trying to find a way to stay safe on the front lines of the classroom. Athletes who play non-revenue sports at colleges across the country are seeing their teams eliminated. Staffs have been hit with massive layoffs. The economy is a mess, and it’s so hard to find a job.

We always knew that football is out of whack with our education system. And it seemed amazing when Muschamp was given $6 million to leave Florida a few years ago, or Rich Rodriguez $6 million to leave Arizona.

But times are different now. I realize that boosters usually pay for these buyouts. The point isn’t who foots the bill. It’s how unseemly it all is. Maybe these are just business decisions, getting a new leader who can win more and make more money. But it sure does not feel that way. 

It feels like a vanity move, like a football team is just a toy for rich people. If they cared about all things University of Texas athletics, then maybe they could have written a $13 million check to keep those in the UT family from losing their jobs in September.

When Brown was fired, Texas was not able to get Saban. Instead, it got Charlie Strong, who needed to rebuild. After three losing seasons, he was paid, I believe, $9 million to leave. In came Herman, who immediately had Texas winning again. Four years, four winning seasons, four bowl victories. On average, his teams went 8-4.

Not good enough. So the boosters, back to their playbook, were openly trying to get Urban Meyer to take the job while Herman desperately hung on. Meyer said no. UT said that Herman would be back next year. A few weeks later, he was fired. Steve Sarkisian, the former USC head coach and current Saban offensive coordinator, is the new coach. 

They replace coaches like toy batteries. So who’s the next coach to go? How many millions will that cost? Will the school still have to cut the track team, or swim team, crying that losses from COVID are just too deep?

I’ve seen Brown only once since that day in his office. It was a few years later at a college convention. Somehow, he remembered that my kids are musicians and my wife a community college English teacher. He asked about them.

It was so personal, human. He went back to North Carolina, where the Tar Heels went 8-4 this year, losing in the Orange Bowl. That would’ve gotten him fired at Texas, the Vatican of college sports. At North Carolina, he’s the guy who got the program back on the map.

I think I’ll drop Brown a note to congratulate him. Maybe I’ll handwrite it.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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  1. It may be unseemly, but the reality is that college football is more than just a sport–it is a a major component of what ties Alumni to a university, as well as serving as a major point of pride for entire states. UT underperforming in football hurts the prestige of the overall institution and the psyche of an entire fanbase in a way that most other sports don’t (excluding basketball at Duke, UNC, Kansas, and UK). Stupidly wealthy donors are willing to open the checkbook to make coaching moves happen–it is their money.

    Athletic department budgets have grown basically off of the largesse of the football donors in many cases. It is sad to see so many let go for budget reasons during the downturn, but the harsh reality is that “non-revenue” sports don’t generate enough income on their own to justify the significant operating expense in most cases.

    • Agreed. Wealthy alumni want their team to win and will do anything to make that happen. Just look around the Big 12 and see the names of the stadiums (T. Boone Pickens and Mylan Puskar Stadium come to mind). Boosters want football and men’s basketball to thrive so they give massive amounts of money to help along the way. Non-revenue sport don’t move the needle like the two main sports do. That is just the way it is.

  2. All true. And from everything I have read and heard Brown is a very decent man. CFB can be an ugly business. At the end of the day Herman got fired because of 3-4 very high profile recruiting losses this year. If he had been able to keep those commits he’d likely still have a job. Strange business.

  3. Excellent column. I’m as free market as they come but these are supposed to be educational institutions. The adults in the room are supposed to be educating us and moving us towards a better society. Football wins are a zero-sum game. Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas, etc can’t all win the national championship in a given year.

    Having grown up in Texas, the #1 thing that bothers me is that Texas no longer plays Texas A&M any more. I don’t care what school you think deserves the blame – to me the blame belongs to GREED. Texas wanted it’s own tv network. A&M didn’t want to play second-fiddle to Texas.

  4. I’m actively rooting for our Marxist education systems to blow up from their usury, sexual liberation, and woke degrees. We need more kids to wake up to the fact that’s all colleges are now and probably have been for some time. Spend a lifetime’s worth of money to learn nothing more than how to abuse drugs, get STDs, and become a barista after college.

    The football teams were just basically the bread and circus portion of the bubble. I don’t care if rich boosters think their money can bring a shiny idol to their football team…what I do care about is that it is what is basically keeping afloat a lot of these places.

  5. Is it just me, or has the advent of the College Football Playoff system accelerated the coaching carousel? The time was when the mark of success in the college ranks was winning your conference and/or getting invited to one of the big four bowls. If you were an SEC coach and made it to the Sugar Bowl on a fairly regular basis you were ok. Same with the Rose Bowl for the PAC10 and the Orange Bowl for the old Big 8. You didn’t have to go every year, but if you got there fairly regularly you were ok. Even a big time secondary bowl would be seen as a success. There were a fair number of slots to go around for all the power teams back then. Also, back then the polls determined the National Champion, so you didn’t necessarily have to find your way into one of the big four bowls to win it.

    Now, all anyone cares about is getting into the final four in the playoffs. A much harder task. Anything else is a disappointment. You have to be in it, or look like you’re going to make it sometime soon, like Texas A&M. As one of those that was clamoring for a playoff just ten years ago I’m now beginning to wonder if it was such a hot idea after all. It seems to have been bad for the sport.

  6. You are correct Matthew… The history of College football is unique, in that it was the ONLY sport that did not have a crowned champion at the end of the season. The AP, UPI, Coaches polls all picked their winners every year. Well, that can’t be right, not in America (which is changing its face today)! We have to have a winner, a champion crowned on the field and not the polls!
    Well, this Chinese virus year gave college football exactly what they wanted, Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and the flavor of the year, Clemson. I have stated over and over again, every year I just wish Alabama and Ohio State would play the first game, winner is the National Champion… Then maybe we can enjoy the season without having to hear about the “playoffs” and every pungent pundit telling us why they believe who should be in/win ad noseeum…

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