In a span of a few hours Thursday night, Tracy Claeys and Butch Jones went from having their job status scrutinized in harsh light to holding the wolves at bay.
Claeys’ Gophers rallied to defeat an Oregon State team that went winless in the Pac-12 last season; Jones’ Tennessee Vols averted disaster in a lackluster overtime win against Appalachian State.
A different result and those two coaches would’ve faced the social media firing squad.
That’s the nature of coaching college football, where only a select few enjoy the relative comfort of security. The majority sit on proverbial seats that hover somewhere between lukewarm and roasting.
Coaching turnover in recent years underscores the immense pressure on coaches to win. The carousel spun out 28 new coaches at the FBS level this season, which feels like a sea change, except, amazingly, it’s not.
According to the website FootballScoop.com, which tracks coaching news, there have been 94 coaching changes since the end of the 2012 season. That includes 31 new coaches in 2013.
Unless you’re name is Nick Saban, job security appears paper thin.
A confluence of factors has reduced schools’ willingness to exercise patience. Coaching salaries have skyrocketed to a degree that people expect a return on that investment. TV networks bring more exposure and enable athletic departments to stay afloat financially. And social media has become a game-changer in that it provides every fan a platform to voice an opinion and can foster a pitchfork climate that sways school officials.
Every season begins with a list of coaches presumably on the hot seat. Some survive, many don’t.
LSU coach Les Miles owns a home on the hot seat and is visiting again. Charlie Strong might not get a fourth season at Texas if his team doesn’t make a big leap this season. Gus Malzahn took Auburn to the national championship game in 2013. Now he’s reportedly on shaky turf after two pedestrian seasons.
Locally, Claeys’ contract situation lends itself to natural speculation. The university gave him a three-year contract with a $250,000 annual buyout. In a world of exorbitant buyouts, his is peanuts.
Essentially, the U gave Claeys a “prove-it” contract because the school wanted to let new athletic director Mark Coyle make his own evaluation.
Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel gave his take on Claeys’ situation this week in a piece about coaches on the hot seat. Thamel wrote in part:
“Look for new athletic director Mark Coyle to execute the same game plan he did in his last year at Syracuse. He’ll keep an extremely low profile, quietly observe the football program and then make a change at the end of the year. It’s hard to envision [Claeys] as a long-term answer, but he’ll have a chance to prove himself with a soft 2016 schedule. The bottom line here, however, is that the entire industry expects this job to open and it would be stunning if it didn’t. New athletic directors aren’t brought in to keep the status quo, and Claeys’ contact affirms the perception he’s a placeholder.”
Thamel is one of the best-sourced and most respected national college football writers, but I won’t be surprised if Claeys remains in place.
The guess here is that an eight-win season — entirely plausible regardless of how sloppy the Gophers looked in the opener — would result in Coyle ripping up Claeys’ contract and giving him a new deal.
Anything less than that will create an interesting dilemma for Coyle.
One thing’s for sure, Claeys doesn’t coach like a man on the hot seat. He takes gambles and goes against conventional strategy. He genuinely seems indifferent to how he is perceived or what people say about his decision-making.
That’s an admirable quality not always found in coaches.
His decision to go for a two-point conversion when leading by seven points late in Thursday’s win seemed unnecessarily risky, but that decision fit Claeys’ aggressive nature.
He rolled the dice by moving a reliable kicker to punter this season, but that decision looked smart in the opener. Ryan Santoso pinned four punts inside the 20, and new kicker Emmit Carpenter made a 45-yard field goal.
If those moves backfire at some point, Claeys seems willing to take the heat. His contract suggests he has little security, but he’s going to do things his way and live with the results.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org