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Be Careful What You Wish For: The True Costs of Fans’ Unrealistic Impatience

by on November 14, 2019 4:30 AM

By Veterans’ Day 2019 we’ve already seen the firings of head coaches at Arkansas, Rutgers and Florida State. The most rash of these firings were at Arkansas and at Florida State where head Coaches Chad Morris and Willie Taggart had yet to even complete their second seasons. 

In the case of FSU and Arkansas, theses coaches had one makeshift recruiting cycle and one full recruiting class. Without even having a junior in their program that they recruited out of high school they were expected to catch Clemson, Alabama or LSU when those schools had a huge head start.

But fans’ unrealistic expectations have sprung from two main factors. 

Social media has created a 24/7 trash-talking society where fans constantly react to what just happened. University presidents, administrators and big-money donors read and react to that stuff too. They’ve lost the long view.

The emphasis is on building a team, not a program. But in football, teams come and go but programs endure. A coach’s ability to establish a program is compromised if outside forces are reacting to every news cycle.

The transfer portal also creates NFL-style free agency expectations for fans. Valuable NFL free agents can turn a team around quickly. College fans now think the same thing can happen with transfers. Quarterback Jalen Hurts certainly helped Oklahoma but he was joining an established, playoff-caliber team. 

Football is not a quick-fix sport. Successful programs are built over the course of years as standards of performance and routines are established. It requires older players who are certainly stronger, faster and more experienced and understand the work ethic needed. Needed leadership from older players becomes instinctive over a time frame that is more than a season and a half.

The word instinctive is important here. The best football teams have athletes who “play fast” because they know without thinking what they’re doing, where they should be and how to execute. Expecting a coach to be able to create that in a year is unrealistic. 

And knee-jerk firings come with a huge price tag. Florida State is reportedly ponying up $20 million to buy out Willie Taggert and his coaching staff. At some point you have question whether athletic directors are at fault for approving those kinds of buyout clauses for someone they came to see as flawed so quickly.

And $20 million is just the start. Athletic directors target established coaches from other programs and hire a search firm to do so. Conservatively, a targeted coach probably has a $4-5 million buyout in his contract that the new school will pay to his old school. By the time you pay a search firm, a buyout, pay for private planes to shuttle everyone around in secrecy and other costs this move could run between $27 -30 million. And let’s not forget the disrupted lives of the team’s players, some of whom will probably enter the transfer portal to look for stability.

Once that happens, and with an early signing day that is just weeks away, the new coach has already lost out on building a strong and fully filled recruiting class of players that the program will need to compete. So if the expected time frame to win is under two years he is already WAY behind. 

More firings are looming. USC fans await Clay Helton’s supposedly imminent firing in a morbid deathwatch. But USC has played a tough schedule without its big-time starting quarterback and saw the back-up QB get hurt and miss time. Despite that, they’ll be favored to win out, finish 8-4 and second in the Pac 12 South, including a win over current No. 7 Utah. A stumble by the Utes would even put USC in the Pac 12 title game.

Players and their parents see what’s being written about Clay Helton. Despite the swirl of rumors, USC’s players fight hard every week. If they did not respect him would they still be one game out in their division?

This is a program that in the last four years won the Rose Bowl in 2016 and the Pac 12 title in 2017. They are not afraid to schedule big games out of conference (seven games against Alabama, Notre Dame and Texas). After stumbling in 2018, they are markedly improved this year even with serious injury issues at the most important position on the field.

But for impatient fans the answer is always fire the coach. That’s easy because fans don’t have to weigh the next step. Firing the coach is easy but who replaces him? That’s the tricky part. The aftermath is never easy. 

And at what cost? As fans clamor for that next coach the multi-million dollar price tag to fire and hire will get passed on somewhere (i.e. ticket prices). Think about players dealing with transition and uncertainty again. And ask yourself if you’ve really given enough time to that coach to truly build a program for the long term.


 



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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